The powerlessness surrounding the Syria situation brought the West its biggest defeat since the political crisis of the Suez Canal in 1956, when British and French troops had to retreat after a failed attempt to remove Egyptian leader Nasser from office. The U.S. took over the role of "organising power", but President Obama has squandered the U.S. position with his policy of "leading from behind ". America resigned as a world power. The ever-wavering Obama is stuck with poor options in home-made dilemmas.
In 2008 Obama, presidential candidate at the time, spoke in Berlin to the "citizens of the world". As the intended successor George Bush he wanted to make America popular again. America avoided power politics and became a glorified spectator. Obama has been overtaken by events. In the Middle East he created a void that was filled by others. His only consolation is that Europe has been piling up mistakes equally. The crises in Egypt and Syria are paragons of a humiliating flop.
Shortly after taking office Obama tried to talk to "moderate Muslims" in Egypt. After the departure of President Mubarak, America demanded elections that subsequently brought to power not moderate Muslims but the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, praised the new president Morsi in the "transition to democracy". However Morsi was working on a transition to theocracy: he decreed proxies, locked up journalists and came up with a radical Islamic constitution. Millions of Egyptians saw an Islamic state looming and demonstrated. Obama saw nothing. Morsi was eventually stopped by the Egyptian army.
Then Obama punished the Egyptian army. The EU came up with sanctions and the High Representative for Foreign Policy, Catherine Ashton, visited Morsi in jail. However Morsi was the biggest threat to three strategic interests: the pro-Western anchoring of Egypt, an open Suez Canal and the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The Egyptian army prevented an "Iran on the Nile". Obama had alienated three crucial allies in the region: Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Syrian drama is even greater. For two years Obama hardly spoke about the civil war. He was working on his re-election; Syria did not fit the bill. In the meantime, not only was the number of casualties rising to 100,000, but his options were also evaporating, such as the establishment of humanitarian zones and a grounding of the Syrian air force. Then he drew a line: no use of chemical weapons. Fourteen times that happened anyway. Obama did nothing. The fifteenth time chemicals were used to deadly effect on a large scale. Now Obama had to do something. But meanwhile the Syrian opposition was a jumble of rival groups, while President Assad received support from Russia and Iran.
Obama then sought legitimacy for a military operation with the United Nations, along with the traditional ally, the British. But the British dropped out. For the first time since Prime Minister Lord North in 1782 a British Prime Minister could not get a military intervention by Parliament. The spectre of Iraq hung over Westminster. A mandate under international law for a war against Assad is not going to be there; Russia and China have a veto. Inspectors from the UN undoubtedly come to the conclusion that chemical weapons have been used, but will not clearly point fingers.
Now Obama is looking for support from Congress. Again delays. Obama will in the end have to do what he always resisted: unilateral bombing. But actually he has already lost the battle even before a single cruise missile is fired. In the eyes of Assad, Iran and Russia, Obama symbolizes the weak West. Who knows, soon after a decision in Congress Obama may even decide to consult a clairvoyant.
The sad thing is that an undeniable war crime goes unpunished. The two most autocratic regimes in the world, Russia and China, do not care. The 'West' claims - at least in theory - to protect the basic values of the international order. They cannot allow themselves to be held hostage by a veto from Russia and China. The West must show leadership with a political alliance, sufficient resources and a solid political order to act when necessary. That requires American leadership. But Obama is becoming a laughing stock and most European countries are hiding behind a mandate under international law that they know will never come.
On the world stage the most brutal leaders get away. What prevents Iran from having a nuclear weapon? Nothing. That's the price of a West that abolishes itself.