There is no bigger contrast in foreign policy these days than the magnitude of the catastrophe in Syria and the U.S. response.

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

Hoover scholar Fouad Ajami writes: “There was a time when Hillary Clinton, on her way to Istanbul for yet another conference on Syria, stopped off in South Africa, and could be seen cutting a rug on the dance floor with her hosts. Aleppo was then being subjected to a brutal assault, an ancient and proud and practical city being reduced to rubble. The indifference, and the lack of decorum displayed by America’s chief diplomat were a shock to the refugees.”

But it is the president who is nonchalant about the greatest atrocities since the Bosnian war, when another Democratic president stepped over the heads of the United Nations representatives and launched a successful air war bringing the gruesome violence and flood of refugees to a halt. Ajami remarks:

A doctrine of American passivity has taken hold on the watch of President Obama. George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were no reckless warriors. They had accepted the burden of American power and responsibility. (Indeed, Clinton, in his memoirs, had come to recognize the abdication of his policy over the horrors of Rwanda.) In the Obama era, there shall be no such expressions of remorse. There is only the vanity of the standard-bearer of American power. Obama needn’t do virtuous things; he himself is virtuous. In an inversion of the Nixonian formula, if the president doesn’t do it, it can’t be morally pressing, or strategically justified. We are in an era where the president’s sense of certitude — and the president’s oratory — acquit our policies. Wait for the presidential memoirs: they will reiterate how our “progressive” leader spared us the entanglement in the ordeal of distant places and people.

Obama’s cringe-worthy behavior was on full display this week. He finds the Syria mass murder of civilians by chemical weapons to be “troublesome.” So far he hasn’t been sufficiently troubled by the 100,000 dead to do anything of consequence.

Now he plays lawyer, the man whose contempt for Congress is so great that no executive action is too aggressive or unlawful for him to ponder. But on the international stage he pleads  — and distorts — legalisms. He asserts “international law” prevents the United States from acting except under the umbrella of the United Nations (this is John Kerry’s “global test” on steroids): “When we take action, there are rules of international law, and if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence being presented, then there are questions in terms of whether the international law supports it.”

Clear evidence was presented months ago, in fact the United States confirmed the use of chemical weapons. The legal standard he propounds (“clear evidence”) is invented out of whole cloth and at any rate has been met. (Someone in his administration who understands human rights, maybe U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, should pull him aside and tell him to stop babbling this nonsense.)

The president might chat with former president Clinton about the United States’ ability to act in its own national self-interest when strategic and humanitarian concerns demand it. (Israeli leaders are no doubt observing the sort of nonsense the president would invoke to prevent action against Iran.)

Even worse, the president defends his own paralysis as morally superior to those of his critics: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.” The “stuff” would include 100,000 dead, millions of refugees flooding into the region, and emboldening of Russia, Hezbollah and Iran. The bloodbath has been pouring for over two years without U.S. intervention, so whatever we do certainly won’t be “immediate.”

Reports suggest the United States is formulating options for military action against the Syrian regime, despite Gen. Martin Dempsey’s absurd warnings that a force akin to the Normandy invasion would be required. We suspect that if action is taken it will be well short of measures needed to end the conflict and avoid sustained protection of civilians by imposition of no-fly zone.

Obama has never fully understood or wanted to understand the centrality of the United States to the preservation of international stability and to the prevention of mass horrors. His entire scheme of “leading from behind” and deferring to international bodies is designed to refute the idea that the United States must lead, sometimes on its own, in order to prevent great evil. The gassing and mass slaughter of civilians in Syria is a gruesome and definitive repudiation of his mindset. It is of small consolation to the relatives of the dead, the injured and the refugees that the president’s failure to prevent the horrors of the last two years will be a stain on his reputation and a historical low-point in U.S. foreign policy.