Barack Obama's supporters are already sketching out a new narrative on Syria: Rather than "bumblefucking" (Jon Stewart's apt phrase) the U.S. into—and possibly out of war—you need to understand that the president has simply been playing a brilliant "cat and mouse game" with the hapless Bashar al-Assad. There's something supremely comforting to this line of thinking, because it takes Obama's persistent failings and contradictions on foreign policy and turns them instead into evidence of brilliance. As Andrew B. Pexton writes,
This was not an Obama stumble. All indicators are that [chemical weapons in Syria are] something he cares about and is ready to act on that belief. Just as he did in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the intense drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. Don't count this president out yet. He's far from done.
Don't you see, this line of thinking goes, we need to trust in what we al know to be true in our heart of hearts: That Obama really is the sum of all aspirational superlatives the American people projected on him.
Except for the fact that even the latest developments don't explain very much at all. So, does Obama still believe that he has unilateral authority to commit the U.S. military to war even when there is clearly no imminent or actual threat to the American people? If he doesn't, can he plainly admit that? And if he doesn't, why did he wait so long before either attacking Syria without authorization or going to Congress for authorization? By all indications (meaning press accounts citing sources close both to Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry), both the red line comments from August 2012 and Kerry's recent off-the-cuff remarks were in fact ad-libbed (in the latter case, that helps explain why the State Department started walking it back immediately).
And more to the point: What is the U.S.'s position now on Syria? Or, more precisely, the president's? Assad must be punished, says the president, for transgressing international norms to which the very bodies designed to enforce them seem blase. Is the U.S. going to start taking sides more forcefully in the Syrian civil war and if so, isn't that going to stoke all the sorts of problems that critics worry about (boots on the ground, blowback, cooling relations with Russia and stoking issues with Iran)?
By all accounts, improv is one of the toughest forms of acting and comedy. It rarely works for either the performers or the audience. That's even more true when it comes to foreign policy. It may be a good thing that Obama's once-pressing urge to go ahead with a super-targeted, unbelievably small—yet hyper-effective and non-pin-prick action!—has been stayed for at least a couple of weeks. But only the most diehard Obama fan can pretend it's a feature and not a bug of his foreign policy.