Foreign policy is often difficult, as the crisis in Syria all too regularly shows. But the Obama administration has made a difficult situation much worse by articulating a series of objectives (“Bashar al-Assad must go”; “Chemical weapons use crosses a red line”) and policies (“we will arm the opposition”) and then failing to follow them through. Requiring authority from Congress at the eleventh hour introduced further undesirable uncertainty. Improvisation and policy making on the fly can be disastrous.
Adding to the difficulty is the reality that US interests are greater than Washington’s influence; the options that exist are few and in every case come with drawbacks. Nevertheless, the US does have real interests, some intrinsic to the situation and some of its own making. What is more, not acting is as much of a policy choice with consequences no less significant. Which is to say declaring Syria to be “too hard” and throwing up one’s hands in exasperation is not a strategy. Similarly unhelpful at this point are claims that if only the world had acted earlier there would be better choices now; that may be the case, but it is irrelevant.