WHAT ABOUT SYRIA?

Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- One historic purpose of presidential speeches has been to buy time to give presidents' policies a chance to work out. That's what President Obama did last Monday night with a well-crafted and appropriately tough (or belligerent) speech defending his policies in Libya.

The man gives a great speech.

"The president spoke to the nation and made a strong case for why America needed to intervene in this fight -- and why that did not always mean it should intervene in others," said The New York Times in its lead editorial.

"Mr. Obama," said the Times, "said that the United States had a moral responsibility to stop 'violence on a horrific scale,' as well as a unique international mandate and a broad coalition to act with. He said that failure to intervene could also have threatened the peaceful transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, as thousands of Libyan refugees poured across their borders, while other dictators would conclude that 'violence is the best strategy to cling to power.'"

The Los Angeles Times editorialized: "Before President Obama's address to the nation about Libya, three questions about U.S. involvement there loomed large: Why, among all the places with vulnerable civilian populations, did the U.S. and its allies choose to intervene in Libya? Was the mission designed to prevent civilian suffering or to topple Moammar Gadhafi? How (and how quickly) would the U.S. extricate itself from this engagement?"

And, continued that editorial: "In his speech Monday, Obama addressed those thorny questions and many others with cogency and clarity, though not all of the answers were persuasive."

The question these editorials were asking was: "Why is Libya unique, as opposed to other countries, for example Bahrain and Syria?"

Obama's answer was fine as far as it went: A dictator was demonstrating that he would use massive military force against his own people. And what kind of people are we (and other Western countries) if we sit back and watch that happen on television and cellphones, as we did pre-cellphone in Rwanda in 1988?

I think he did the right thing, but am deeply worried about where it will lead.

This is no ordinary time. Presidents must react again and again to events unseen and threats unknown. The density of events these days is a different kind of tsunami than the earthquake-driven wall of water that demolished part of Japan. Mike Allen, whose morning blog is pretty much required reading in Washington, put it this way last Saturday:

"We've had a decade's worth of news in less than two months: It was Feb. 11 -- seven weeks ago -- that Mubarak fled the Arab spring, a rolling reordering of Middle East power that could wind up affecting global security as profoundly as 9/11. It was March 11 -- 15 days ago -- that we woke to the news of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which will have ripple effects on the fragile global economy for months to come. And, oh, we're in three hot conflicts at once, for the first time since World War II."

Ignoring the hypocritical fool Republicans who complained that Obama was a timid wuss letting Libyans be massacred and now say he is going too far, too fast, Obama and the rest of us have barely a clue as to how the Libyan adventure will end. If the united-front air-strike strategy works, Obama is a hero. If Gadhafi retains power with crazed brute strength, Obama will have to take the blame at home.

And that is not the worst scenario. The greatest danger for us is in Syria. Libya is a small country on a sea with a horizon now dotted with coalition aircraft carriers. Syria has more than 22 million people, five times more than Libya. So the final unanswered question is what do we do if Bashar Assad is threatened by the Arab freedom wave and begins slaughtering more of his own people. If we (and probably Israel) go to war there, all bets are off -- including what Iran will do -- in the sandy quagmire that is the Middle East.

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