We’ve heard all the rote lines from the White House. Bashar al-Assad is a “reformer” became “Assad must go!” Then we migrated to “Assad is done. Only a matter of time.” Then we heard that use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer.” Then: “We’ll look into it.”

Forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Rami Bleible/Reuters) Forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Rami Bleible/Reuters)

In fact, Assad was never a reformer, President Obama never intended to do much to oust him, the red line was an empty threat (no one knows what has happened to that investigation), although France, Israel and even the lowly United Nations have concluded chemical weapons have been used. Oh, and while we were dawdling Russia, Hezbollah and Iran have been madly arming Assad.

If you assumed that everything the administration has been saying about Syria is untrue (a good practice, whatever the topic), then it should come as no surprise that Assad now has the upper hand. The New York Times headline says it all: “Rebels’ Losses in Syria Complicate Options for U.S. Aid.” Sure when you do nothing while the other side gets help, aid options get complicated. Or, “Assad wins, United States.has blown it.”

The Times notes that a peace conference doesn’t work all that well when you are losing (badly) on the battlefield:

At the center of the Obama administration’s strategy are its hopes for a peace conference it has been trying for several weeks to convene in Geneva with Russian support. The American goal has been to bring together representatives of the Syrian opposition and the Assad government to negotiate a transitional government that would take control if Mr. Assad gave up power.

But [Syrian opposition Gen. Salim] Idris said in an interview on Friday that the rebels’ position had been so weakened that they would have little leverage at a Geneva meeting and thus would not attend the conference unless they received additional arms and ammunition.

Did Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry really expect it would be any different? And wouldn’t you know, there are officials who now argue that “arming the rebels may no longer be sufficient to reverse the Assad government’s gains unless the United States takes additional steps like carrying out airstrikes against Syrian forces. A no-fly zone, however, would involve the Obama administration in the sort of open-ended military operation it has sought to avoid.” These guys take the prize in self-fulfilling prophesies.

We have to wonder whether this is the Obama doctrine beyond Syria. Cut defense spending, delay entry into conflicts until the battle is lost and then declare it’s impossible to do anything. That indeed could be the mindset on Iran: Talk big (“Unacceptable!”), delay (mainly by engaging in fruitless negotiations), scorn “loose talk” about the military option and then explain that, really, we can’t do anything without launching a parade of horribles (as if a nuclear-armed Iran isn’t the greatest of these).

In Asia we cut our Navy, have empty summits with Xi Jinping, squeeze Taiwan (by limiting arms sales, diplomatic isolation, etc.) and lo and behold China is supreme in the region. Really, what could possibly be done?

This is what hawks mean when they say “Decline is a choice.” Our international decline is not preordained. It comes about when we decide to gut our military capabilities, be unreliable to our allies, fail to follow up words with action, stall and then convince ourselves that what our previous goals were not realistic (e.g. destroying the Taliban, preventing Iran from going nuclear) and what was previously unacceptable is perfectly fine. The American people elected and reelected a president who believes U.S. action creates more problems than it solves, that others (the U.N., the E.U.) can act instead and that our foes (Iran, Russia, China) can be appeased.

We now are seeing what ensues — more conflict, more repression, more aggression from our foes and more WMD proliferation.