05/02/2012 01:20 EDT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:12 EDT

America, Syria Desperately Needs Your Muscle

The reluctance of the United States to be involved even peripherally in an almost open-ended series of concurrent Middle Eastern conflicts is understandable. But Syria is aflame. Its regime has been a notorious terrorist exporter for decades, and is the chief conduit for Iran into the Arab world, the principal supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas.

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The United States' official toleration of Iran's march to nuclear capability -- though the latest sanctions have clearly inflicted some inconvenience -- has been so disappointing and clumsy, it has tended to leave the more shameful, if less dangerous, fiasco of policy toward Syria relatively under-exposed. The United States had an excellent ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, who visited the enflamed city of Homs, and met the rebel leaders, but was he withdrawn after threats to his safety from government thugs.

Hillary Clinton famously called Syrian President Bashar Assad "a reformer," when these disturbances began over a year ago; not a reassuring comment for those who fear that Mrs. Clinton may yet have any impact on domestic American affairs. And the administration took an unconscionable time before joining the chorus of those claiming to find the departure of Assad a moral imperative.

The reluctance of the United States to be involved even peripherally in an almost open-ended series of concurrent Middle Eastern conflicts is understandable. But Syria is aflame. Its regime has been a notorious terrorist exporter for decades, is the chief conduit for Iran into the Arab world, the principal supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas, and central to every disruption of Lebanon and Israel since, at the latest, the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.

Turkey, the Arab League, and the principal European powers, are all on board to assist in easing Assad and his Alawite terror out; only Iraq is missing, concerned that the self-assertion of the Sunni majority within Syria would spill into Iraq, and challenge the present Shiite domination of that country. Assad has made a complete mockery of the efforts of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to arrange a ceasefire. Getting rid of Assad would have the added benefit of slapping down Putin's Russia, certainly the best way of resetting that button, since conciliation has only aggravated Russian provocations and mischief. No one is asking for American ground forces, or anything more than the U.S. did to get rid of Gadaffi in Libya, where the French and British took the lead.

It is as mistaken for the United States to be stunned into inaction for fear of being mired in Syria as it was in Iraq, as it would be to fall back into the George W. Bush trap of nation-building in infertile places. Following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the theory took hold that since democracies do not attack other countries, the answer to terrorism was to promote the democratic election of Middle Eastern and other governments. Unfortunately, the chief beneficiaries of the implementation of this policy were the terrorist parties Hezbollah (Lebanon); Hamas (Gaza); the Muslim Brotherhood and Salfah (Egypt); and groups close to Al Qaeda in Yemen.

It is no legitimate concern of America's who governs in these countries. As long, of course, as they do not export terror against the United States, its allies, or engage in genocidal activity as did the regimes in Rwanda during the Clinton era, and Sudan during the Bush era. There is no reason to go from quick-draw hip-shooting as occurred in Iraq to bumbling reticence as in Libya and Syria. The point to uphold is that countries that provoke, and outrage against international law -- including Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iran -- should be dealt with harshly, and without much concern to what succeeds the offending regime in each country. The same reasoning applies to failed states like Afghanistan, but the elements to punish are the terrorist squatters, not the ineffectual putative government.

If the incoming governments continue to perpetrate crimes like Gaddafi's blowing up of the American airliner over Scotland, or Saddam Hussein's violation of the Gulf War ceasefire, and 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, they should be disposed of too at the first convenient opportunity. Eventually, despite all the posturing about the joys of martyrdom, and the love of self-preservation, this will lead to reformed behaviour. This was the lesson of Israel's assassination of the Hamas leadership after each suicide bomb in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: the bombings stopped.

The excuses offered for inaction by the U.S. administration are humiliatingly feeble. It would be "premature" says the chairman of the joint chiefs, General Dempsey, to intervene, as the massacres go on in Syria. Everyone awaits a lead from the one country capable of leading, despite the posturing of the Europeans and the Turks. There are worries about the nature of the Syrian opposition, as if there were any chance they would be worse than the incumbent has been, and there is the seriously pusillanimous canard that assisting the resistance would "militarize" the conflict. This is the same reasoning that inspired the Europeans to assert porous sanctions on the former Yugoslavia so the Serbs could conduct ethnic cleansing, and massacre or expel all the Muslims in Bosnia. Only Senator Bob Dole's interventions prevented it from happening. When a country has murdered 10,000 of its citizens with reasonably sophisticated weapons in the last year, the disturbance is already "militarized."

There are also some suggestions that we can safely leave it to Turkey, as the leading local power, but Turkey isn't doing anything, and it has had plenty of opportunity. It is sufficiently alarmed that refugees pouring across its borders want to stop the massacres, but it won't move. The Syrian army was less than terrifying to begin with, but after more than a year of firing live ammunition on its own people, and having, by desertions, long been the chief source of manpower for the insurgents, it could not stand for two days if it thought it was going to face a coalition of neighbours joined and led by the U.S. and Europe.

All the United States has to do is put some muscle behind its just condemnation of outlaw regimes when it is easy and advantageous to do so. No one asked the U.S. to try to remake Iraq and Afghanistan, but many have asked it to help force Iraq to honour its ceasefire commitments after the Gulf War and to follow U.N. Security Council directives; and to deter Iran from becoming a nuclear power; and to follow through on its promises of deterring terrorism-exporting regimes.

It has oscillated between plunging headlong into open-ended commitments against some objectionable governments, and ineffectually appeasing others. Great Powers cannot do this indefinitely and be taken seriously, and it is no antidote for the president responsible for the latest outburst of amateurism to scold the Congress churlishly that his critics "don't know what they're talking about." It is unfortunate and embarrassing, and even tragic.