You will recall that the Obama administration finger-wagged at Bashar al-Assad in August, when the president personally promised that seeing “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around” would trigger a U.S. response. In subsequent statements, he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed that if Assad used chemical weapons we would act. Well, Assad did and we — no surprise — did nothing.

John Kerry and Bashar al-Assad Sen. John Kerry and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2010 (SANA via AP)

Josh Rogin reports:

United States diplomats in Turkey conducted a previously undisclosed, intensive investigation into claims that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, and made what an Obama administration official who reviewed the cable called a “compelling case” that Assad’s military forces had used a deadly form of poison gas.

The cable, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, and sent to State Department headquarters in Washington last week, outlined the results of the consulate’s investigation into reports from inside Syria that chemical weapons had been used in the city of Homs on Dec. 23. . . .

An Obama administration official who reviewed the document, which was classified at the “secret” level, detailed its contents to The Cable. “We can’t definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23,” the official said.

This is all of a piece, of course, with President Obama’s “leading from behind.” All positions get erased if they require us to do something. As Rogin notes, in Syria our red lines “have softened over time” and now independent “analysts worry that the administration’s red line may have shifted again.”

Let’s be frank here: There are no red lines for this president when it comes to projecting U.S. military force. And if he won’t act when Syria is at issue, no realistic observer thinks he would act against Iran.

The worst tendencies in the president’s foreign policy (confusion, rhetoric that clashes with our action, failure to stand up to despots, refusal to stand with oppressed people) are likely to calcify if he gets his new crop of Cabinet nominees confirmed. In the first term at least Clinton was there to round up Susan Rice and Samantha Power and challenge the president’s knee-jerk impulse, present arguments and convince him that U.S. intervention was needed in Libya. With Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Chuck Hagel in place, there will be no pushback, no countervailing arguments for use of American power, for these men are particularly adept at coming up with excuses for Iranian and Syrian despots and for refusing to authorize force even when we are already engaged in conflict (as was the case with the Iraq surge).

A human rights activist deadpanned, “Hagel doesn’t have much of a public track record on human rights.” He continued, “The Pentagon can play an important supporting role in promoting democracy and human rights, but frankly the lead needs to come from the President and his first term was sorely lacking in this area.” And of course Hagel isn’t going to be the one — nor will Kerry — to, as the phrase goes, speak truth to power. (Kerry, you will recall, worked to suspend democracy aid programs to Cuba.) The president will get a steady diet of non-intervention and non-support for democracy fighters.

The problem with selecting clone-like, less respected figures for high Cabinet positions is that there is no one to rattle the group-think and raise issues with the president, let alone prompt him to take action, as Clinton did with Libya. When Republicans are in the White House, liberals accuse them of being “close-minded, suffering “tunnel vision” or lacking “curiosity,” but when Democrats rule the roost, yes-men are all the rage. With Kerry and Hagel, Obama is likely to hear exactly what he wants to hear, rather than sound, independent judgment and, when needed, a dose of bad news. If you think things are unraveling now, just wait until the second-string team shows up.