Opinion writer

A man evacuates a child from a building following a reported “barrel bomb” attack by Syrian government forces on Aleppo in May. (Karam al-Masri/AFP via Getty Images)

There is nothing like the spectacle of thousands of refugees pouring into Europe to awaken American politicians and media to the Syrian civil war that has killed more than 200,000 and created millions of refugees, who flooded into Syria’s neighbors before they came to Europe.

As many have pointed out, President Obama bears primary responsibility for refusing to match deeds with his declaration that Bashar al-Assad “must go.” Had Obama acted more than four years ago as critics and his own national security team urged, in all likelihood thousands would still be alive, millions of refugees would not have fled Syria, jihadists would not have found a base of operations (from whence they swarmed into Iraq, resulting in more deaths and refugees) and Russian troops would not know be established in Syria, a sign of how much influence disagreeable powers have and how little we do.

Now, it’s not often that a president gets a second bite at the apple — the perfect opportunity to self-correct a horrible decision. Obama, however, got his when Assad used chemical weapons on multiple occasions. The president could have built a multi-national force, bombed Assad’s military assets and tipped the balance of power away from the Syrian leader. But Obama in 2013 managed to flub that as well, and in the meantime convinced the Iranians and the Russians he was feckless. (One wonders if Vladimir Putin would have invaded Ukraine had Obama exercised muscle in Syria rather than looking for Russian help to bail him out of a conflict he never had any intention of taking on.)

This might be the sole foreign policy issue on which Hillary Clinton has a claim to have been right, once upon a time. Fellow Cabinet members attest that she tried to convince the president to take action early in the Syrian conflict. Many of us would argue that a disagreement of this magnitude should have prompted her to resign. Moreover, she did have another crack at it when Assad stepped over the red line. Instead she applauded the president’s collapse.

Now a number of GOP presidential candidates, including Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and even the usually hawkish Marco Rubio (Fla.) are not covered in glory on this one. All of them opposed military action on the red line, although Rubio can accurately claim to have been in favor of much more robust action to help anti-Assad forces early on. They will have to explain their actions and votes and tell us what they believe was the result of inaction in Syria. Let’s recall that at the time the far right was dead set against U.S. action, making its current concern about the humanitarian and geopolitical tragedy a bit hard to stomach. There were a few brave souls, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who can claim to have been consistently on the right side of the issue.

Syria was a key testing ground for “leading from behind” and for libertarian reticence to involve the United States in actions abroad. The results are clear. Instead of limited action (e.g. helping rebels, setting up a no fly zone and safe area for civilians) years ago, we now have a full-blown war against the Islamic State, an ongoing bloodbath and a refugee crisis in both the Middle East and Europe. We severely damaged our credibility and lost a great deal of moral authority by shirking our obligations. All the candidates should have to answer for themselves from 2011 onward. This is one of the issues which one cannot delegate to aides. Opinion and facts are conflicting and the president in these instances — and to some extent, Congress — must make these calls, revealing their depth of knowledge and judgment.

No one can accuse a moderator of asking a “gotcha” question if he or she asks a candidate: What did you say at the time about Syria, and why? What’s the lesson of Syria? What’s the result of American inactivity? Candidates who have no adequate answer — or no answer at all — are not ready for the presidency. Making America great entails more than bluster and a hat. One does not make America great by racist slurs against immigrants, misogynistic insults or even rah-rah speeches. One makes America great, in part, by understanding in detail the landscape of a dangerous world and the importance of the U.S. role in providing peace and stability. Most important, it necessitates a rebuilt military and robust action, with allies if possible, and, if not, by relying on the world’s finest atrocities prevention board, the U.S. military.