Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Syria U-Turn Sends Troubling Message of American Weakness

Now that Act I of the Syrian poison gas drama is over, and America has, as in a slapstick comedy, managed to stumble, skid, slip, slide, and finally somersault into a co-director’s chair for an Act II that no one dreamed of when the curtain first rose, Israelis can take stock of what has happened from their point of view. It has its pluses and minuses.

The pluses are potentially great. If Syria is actually disarmed of its huge stockpile of poison gas without concealment or significant leakage to Hezbollah or Islamist rebels, a major menace to Israel will have been removed. It will be a great relief to Israelis to let their gas masks gather dust in the attic without having to worry about standing in line for new ones.

Moreover, if Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in pulling Barack Obama out of the mud he tumbled into, has decided for the first time to play a truly constructive role in the Middle East, it will have more opportunities to do so. Not that the Russians have acted disinterestedly.

Saving the Bashar al-Assad regime by getting it to junk weapons of mass destruction it doesn’t need while vastly improving Russia’s international image is a good deal for them ⎯ part of the beauty of which is that America, having called for Assad’s head for the past two years, is now committed to his survival, without which the Kerry-Lavrov agreement can’t be implemented. Perhaps the Russian villain will so enjoy playing the good guy to the world’s applause that it will repeat its performance in an Act III featuring Iran.

And on the subject of “ifs” and Iran: If President Obama and his administration learn the right lesson from recent events, which is that a military superpower like America really can scare countries like Syria and Iran into better behavior by getting them to believe they will be attacked, there is indeed hope that the Iranian nuclear program can still be stopped. To do that, however, it is not enough for America to threaten. It has to be prepared to carry out its threats.

Which brings us to the minuses. The confusion, vacillation, mixed signals, sidestepping, and about-facing of the Obama administration on Syria have been, to an Israeli audience, truly shocking. This was not the behavior of a country ready to do what it promised it would; it was that of a country doing all it could to avoid that. Israelis watched and asked: This is the ally we depend on? This is who urges us time and again to make concessions because it can always be trusted to keep its commitments? Judging by the evidence of the past month, America can’t be trusted to keep a lunch date.

And it’s not just Barack Obama, who in his own fumbling way really did intend to fire off a few tomahawks if only he could get everyone to agree to it. It’s the American public he couldn’t get to agree. Not since the 1930s has the United States public been in such an isolationist mood. The Middle East is in flames? Let it burn. Syrians are being gassed by their own government? Let them choke. An Iran run by apocalypse-minded Muslim clerics is about to make an atom bomb? Not our problem. We’re tired of riding to the rescue. Let’s bring the boys home from Afghanistan, stay out of more trouble, and stop being the world’s policeman.

Seen from Israel, this strikes one as short-sighted and self-pitying. More Americans were killed during single months in World War II than in ten years of Iraq and Afghanistan ⎯ and those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether or not it was for a justifiable cause, belonged to a volunteer force. As opposed to World War II, no one forced them to join the military. Their deaths are sad, but refusing to send volunteer soldiers to dangerous places because they might get hurt makes as much sense as refusing to send firemen to a fire.

One can understand not wanting to be the world’s policeman. It costs money to maintain a police force and no one really likes the cops. But like it or not, America has been the world’s policeman since the end of World War II, and the world, America included, is better off for it. Who exactly will police the world in America’s place? The United Nations? The European Union? Russia or China?

Or do Americans want to live in a world that has no policemen at all? Would they want to live in a city like that? Of course not.

The world, of which they happen to be part, needs them as much as ever. It’s in their interest not to resign from it.

Hillel Halkin is an author and translator who has written widely on Israeli politics and culture and was the Forward’s Israel correspondent from 1993 to 1996.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.