The president’s performance on Syria is so dreadful that the excuse he comes up with for inaction on chemical weapons use, leaked via the White House-friendly New York Times, is that the “red line” comment was off-the-cuff and therefore an error. (“Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities. . .”) In other words, a few WMDs are okay, but don’t go around killing lots and lots of people.

Sen. John McCain -Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Consider for a moment if this account is accurate and the president’s red-line comment was an error. Does this mean that the use of WMDs is not a red line for the White House? Certainly that will be Tehran’s interpretation. And then consider whether the president in all his trips to the United Nations and pleading with the Russians for more than two years were efforts to try to get consensus or, instead, were a smokescreen for doing nothing. It sure sounds like the president has no intention of doing anything meaningful unless we reach mass deaths and widespread use of WMDs. ( Is that one city? Two?)

There are several other problematic aspects to the president’s pusillanimous conduct.

First, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pointed out on Sunday that “the red lines were a green light to Bashar Assad to do anything short of that. Chemical weapons are terrible, but isn’t it pretty terrible when you launch Scud missiles against your own people, where you massacre over 70,000 peep, drive a million into refugee camps? Those seemed to have been acceptable to this administration, and it’s deplorable.” This is especially true when the president keeps issuing useless declarations (“Assad must go!”) and has taken so little action. The adjectives pile up (horrendous, horrifying, deplorable, etc.) but so do the bodies. This is of a piece with his behavior during the Green Revolution. No humanitarian calamity or geopolitical opportunity is sufficient to stir this president. Leading from behind is a farce; he’s trying to hide from the world.

Second, former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams picks up on something equally troubling: ” It is noteworthy in the Times story that the administration officials were dealing with words, with lines, with messages — never it seems with tougher decisions about actions. This is, of course, a huge mistake, as just about everyone now acknowledges, though how it comes to be made in year five of an administration is more mysterious.” This is because that is all that is left — political sycophants, pollsters and hacks. When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared in his confirmation hearing that he wasn’t going to be making policy, he was actually telling the truth. Unfortunately, no one else is either. What are left are words — by the boatload.

Third, listen to the voice of the “realists” as conveyed by the Times:

The advisers reviewed an array of pre-emptive military options and quickly discounted them as impractical. The evidence was not strong enough to warrant a pre-emptive strike, they concluded, and military officers said the best they could do with airstrikes or commando operations would be to limit the use of chemical weapons already deployed.

Mr. Obama’s advisers also raised legal issues. “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution?” another official said, referring to United Nations authorization. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”

For starters, there is much we could have done and can do still, as we’ve seen from the Israelis. “Impractical” must mean “inconvenient” in the president’s lingo because airstrikes and/or a no-fly zone are doable. McCain explained on Sunday, “The fact is, we are capable of taking out their air on the ground with cruise missiles, cratering their runways, where all of these supplies, by the way, from Iran and Russia are coming in by air, and we could obviously also, with the use of Patriot missiles, defend a certain circumscribed area.” He then cracked that “to allege somehow that the United States of America can’t do that  means we’ve wasted a hell of a lot of taxpayer dollars.”

Moreover, there are international prohibitions about chemical weapons. There is a humanitarian crisis destabilizing allies such as Jordan. And 75,000 or so people are dead. This is of no consequence to the intellects that run the administration? (Apparently every human rights speech the president has given has been a lie, since each assumed both a moral and strategic interest in preventing genocide.)

A foreign policy guru points out the difference between Presidents Obama and Bill Clinton. Clinton might not have grasped the gathering storm of Islamic fundamentalism that would culminate in the Sept. 11 attack, but  “he understood  the need to shape the world and, when necessary, use force.” Apparently, in the Obama White House, foreign policy is indistinguishable from civil defense — we get top-notch first responders and wait to get hit (again). (Or we rely on Israel and France.)

And finally, for a president who loves, loves, loves “international law” and insists on deferring to multilateral bodies, his utter disregard for multiple U.N. resolutions on Syria, international prohibitions on chemical weapons and flagrant war crimes is startling.  How does he think all of those international norms are to be upheld if the United States simply looks the other way? This is not multilateral foreign policy; it is inertness.

One searches in vain for an adult in the administration to at least spot the issues for the political handlers. Given the administration’s moral nihilism and gross incompetency, Israel and its neighbors have much to fear. An old Middle East hand e-mails me, “The Gulf Arabs watch all of this with attention — who acts, who only talks, who protects its interests.”

As for Republicans, when considering their foreign policy direction, they should take a good look at Obama and do the opposite. When we speak loudly and carry a small stick, the world goes haywire, and we and our allies (who then are encouraged to act unilaterally) are much more vulnerable, more frequently from foes who imagine (correctly) that no peril comes from aggression and slaughter.