In his final appearance before the U.N. General Assembly a few days ago, President Obama didn’t have much to say about the civil war between Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his enemies.
“There’s no ultimate military victory to be won,” he said, and so the United States would “pursue the hard work of diplomacy that aims to stop the violence, and deliver aid to those in need, and support those who pursue a political settlement.”
Then he moved on to other matters.
Given that Syria is his greatest humanitarian and strategic failure, where even as he spoke his latest diplomatic initiative was about to collapse, the brevity wasn’t surprising.
But, Obama being Obama, you can be sure he had given the issue a lot more thought than his few words would indicate. And if he’d been thinking aloud, here’s what you might have heard:
“Of course Kerry’s latest peace deal will collapse. Vladimir Putin is winning, why should he stick to a deal? And even if Putin wants to play nice, why would Assad go along? He’s winning, too — if he wants to destroy the last human beings in Aleppo, who’s going to stop him?
“So is it unfair to keep letting John head out on these doomed missions? Year after year, he promises to get a deal and swears we’ll move to Plan B if the Syrians or Russians renege. Time after time, they double-cross him, and he goes back for more. There is no Plan B, because I won’t approve a Plan B.
“But John gets praised for his tirelessness. And we all look like we’re trying. If I can just pull it off one more time, the whole mess will be Hillary’s. Or, God forbid, the other guy’s.
“The truth is, no one should want Assad gone, as odious as he is. I can’t say that aloud, of course, since I got roped into pronouncing him finished years ago. Yes, he’s a mass murderer and a torturer. He’s even showing me up by using chemical weapons again after Vladimir and I supposedly solved that problem. The chlorine loophole.
“But what’s the alternative? The ‘moderate’ opposition? Don’t make me laugh. Maybe I shouldn’t have mocked them as ‘farmers or teachers or pharmacists,’ but honestly — al-Qaeda or ISIS would waltz into Damascus if Assad went down.
“Oh, I know what Hillary would say. If I had listened to her back in 2011 and 2012 — and to Petraeus, and Panetta, and the rest of them — the ‘moderate force’ would be stronger now. We should have trained them and carved out safe spaces for them and given them a chance against Assad. John tried the same argument on me when he started. He thought he could give it a new spin and sucker me in where Hillary had failed.
“Well, I know what the I-told-you-so crowd is saying. I wouldn’t go for it, because I worried that if we sent troops terrorism would spread, the country would fall apart, you’d get millions of refugees and even Russia might get involved. So we didn’t get involved, and, yes: Terrorism spread, the country fell apart, you got millions of refugees, and Russia got involved. And, yes, all of Europe is unstable because of Syria.
“But you know what? It could have been worse. You could have had all these bad things happen — hundreds of thousands killed, half the country driven from their homes — and U.S. troops in the middle of it all. That’s the Bush way. I protected us from that.
“So now it’s Putin’s problem. Is that so bad? Maybe it hasn’t turned into a quagmire for him yet, like I said it would, but wait. Syria isn’t finished with him yet.
“And what will the next president do? There’s a reason you’re not hearing ideas from either of them. No-fly zones? A little late for that, with Russian air-defense systems blanketing the country. Safe zones? Who’s going to keep them safe? Bad enough that I’m having to do an LBJ in Iraq, sending troops back in 500 at a time.
“It looks bad, I get that. I hate the whole mess. I’d rather talk about climate change or Burma or even Ukraine, for God’s sake. And, yes, a generation from now some president may travel to whatever’s left of Aleppo and express remorse, like I’ve done in Laos and Hiroshima and everywhere else.
“That’s fine. Comes with the territory. I just hope they understand this much: It always looks easier in hindsight. There was no obvious right answer. Sometimes civil wars just have to burn themselves out.
“Now, where’s John? I just need him to buy me four more months. Four more months, and it’s somebody else’s problem from hell.”