Leading from behind yet again, the Obama administration conceded what its allies had already determined, namely that Syria has used chemical weapons. In language designed to minimize the significance of crossing the “red line” and of the “game changer” that President Obama had deemed chemical weapons use would be, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that chemical weapons had in all likelihood been used “on a small scale.” That’s the diplomatic equivalent of “a little pregnant”; you either are or you aren’t.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (Jim Watson/Associated Press) Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (Jim Watson/Associated Press)

Now the question is whether the president will be true to his word that such use is a game changer. No policy was announced, but briefings with members of Congress are scheduled for tomorrow. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was pointed in a written statement: “The United States has vital national interests in Syria becoming a peaceful country with a stable, representative government.  After two years of brutal conflict, it’s past time for the President to have a robust conversation with the Congress and the American people about how best to bring Assad’s tyranny to an end.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) also put out a statement:

Today’s announcement comes after similar assessments from the French and British governments. The Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people is abhorrent, but comes as no surprise given its demonstrated brutality. Use of chemical weapons can never be accepted. This new information only solidifies my belief in the urgency of seeing the Syrian opposition succeed. Tomorrow, I will be briefed on the Syria situation by Secretary Kerry. At that briefing, I will ask the Secretary to explain the Administration’s new plans in Syria.

The conservative Foreign Policy Initiative was critical of the president’s policy but failed to suggest any course of action:

This development presents us with an important choice – the United States must take action now both to prevent further use of such weapons and to hasten the end of Assad’s rule. The alternative is to make it clear, by inaction, that the ‘red line’ was not intended to be enforced. This will encourage further use of chemical weapons by Assad and perhaps in the future by others.

Other nations, such as Iran and North Korea, will be watching the American reaction closely. If the U.S. government itself declares that a red line has been crossed in the use of such weapons but then takes no action, this may give Iran, in particular, confidence that it can move forward in developing a nuclear weapon without fear of any action by the United States. . . . This is a critical moment for the Obama administration. We urge the President and his advisers to take the necessary action to save countless innocent lives, deter further dangerous actions by Assad and others, and restore confidence in American global leadership.

Well, yes, but what should the administration do? A half-hearted gesture (e.g., increasing humanitarian aid to the rebels) is not commensurate with the atrocity or with the president’s warning. If the president wants to change the calculus, just as chemical weapons changed the Syrian war, he will need to change U.S. policy. That may entail providing lethal aid to non-jihadist elements in the opposition, setting up a no-fly zone to protect civilians, and upping diplomatic and economic sanctions against Syria.

The president’s foreign policy has to date consisted of wishful thinking (a world without nukes!); pummeling our friends (Israel); trying to engage dictators in China, Iran, Syria and elsewhere; and deferring to international bodies. These factors, plus a determination not to engage our enemies and instead avoid and withdraw from conflict without settling the underlying security situation (in Iraq, Afghanistan), have undercut our credibility. The president has a chance to recover lost ground, or he can make diplomatic noise, change the amount (but not type) of our aid and take no other steps to bring an end to the bloodbath. If so, he’ll be signaling to Tehran and Pyongyang that an Obama ultimatum means nothing.