For over a year the Syrian people have risked their lives to throw off the tyrant Bashar al-Assad. For months the administration insisted he was capable of “reform.” Then it moved at a glacial pace to put together rhetorical and empty statements from the “international community.” Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was shocked when Russia and China vetoed more robust action.

As this was going on, in Congress and from conservative think tanks came the call to actually DO something. Aid the rebels. Provide logistical assistance. Brand Assad a war criminal.

It has taken 14 months since the start of Syria’s frosty spring and thousands of lives for the Obama administration to begin serious consideration of measures that may accelerate Assad’s ouster. Josh Rogin reports: “The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time, marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.” Rogin explains: “The administration is planning to greatly expand its interactions with the external Syrian opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, as well as with internal opposition bodies to include Syrian NGOs, the Local Coordinating Councils, and the Revolutionary Councils that are increasingly becoming the de facto representation of the Syrian opposition. The Free Syrian Army works with these councils, but the administration is not ready to engage the armed rebels directly out of concern that they are still somewhat unaccountable and may have contacts with extremist elements.”

One foreign policy critic of Obama cracked, “The administration follows [Sen. John] McCain’s policy a month after he proposes it. So I guess the air strikes will come in April.”

This is a familiar pattern for Obama. We’ve seen it with Iran, Libya and now Syria. We try engagement. We do nothing. The crisis becomes acute and only then do we act. In the meantime, the perception is that we are a timid friend of democracy activists and an unreliable player on the international stage. Of course, by the time we act the problem has deepened.

If Obama is going to act why does he procrastinate? One theory is that Obama cares little about foreign policy and is entirely focused on his reelection. Unless a crisis is dire, he can’t be expected to bestir himself. Another is that Obama is so locked into his not-Bush foreign policy perspective that he digs in his heels whenever presented with the chance to aid protesters against a dictatorial regime.

Whatever the reason, Obama’s lack of decisive action comes with a price that includes the loss of U.S. influence and thousands of lives. In this case, his timidity certainly must be observed by Syria’s patrons in Iran.