09/10/2013 04:43 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Syria and Obama

Obama's Blunder

I doubt that presidential scholars will ever forget the Obama miscalculation on Syria.

He does not have public support. He will not have support from the House of Representatives. He has few demonstrable international allies, if any. This is, indeed, a very war-weary nation that has lost thousands, suffered tens of thousands of injured, and absorbed a generation of psychological trauma. My friends and I grasp the harm of those wounds.

Going it alone will mean really, really going it alone. No NATO. Israel preparing its "iron dome" shield. Who will be at our side? Doubtless, Qatar with its vast military and superb hotels.

The American public would, by a huge majority, prefer almost anything other than U.S. military action. Although not specifically an option in this week's public polling, the Russian offer -- putting chemical weapons in Syria under international supervision -- seems to be one potential among an array of bad choices. Beats the hell out of destroyers, submarines and B-2s launching cruise missile strikes, the collateral damage of which might kill many civilians, invoke Hezbollah strikes on Israel and electronic countermeasures from Iran and elsewhere.

Obama and some of his inner circle have badly miscalculated. Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel have been soldiers on behalf of the administration -- they know about being soldiers -- but there is no powder in their muskets. Yes, there were hundreds of people killed, no doubt by Syrian government munitions. The images are indeed, horrid. Alas, 100,000 died before any American or NATO or international military steps were seriously proposed. If there were to be intervention to mitigate slaughter, ought we have waited for the use of sarin gas?

The political calculus of the Obama presidency -- governing not campaigning -- has uniformly been poor if not self-destructive. This is a foreign policy crisis that President Obama could have foreseen but did not. Those of us who wanted him to win and supported him in otherwise "red" states such as Virginia have been aghast at his lead-footed approach to governing, and his teleprompted communication with America.

Now Syria. If the president truly, truly thought there was a moral imperative to intervention, that view should have been invoked two years ago. Chemical weapons are horrendous, but so too was the bombardment of Aleppo and Homs. An American military strike with "limited goals" would now be a tardy, foolhardy venture... and I speak as one who voted for, supported, and worked on behalf of not only the President but other Democratic candidates.

There are alternatives. Perhaps listening to the British parliament. Or, the Russian proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons under a form of international control.

Further, the beneficiaries of cruise missile attacks would not be the victims but most likely the extremists who are increasingly present among the opposition to Assad.

The policy errors are compounding. "Red line," bad idea to telegraph your punch. Waiting two years to do anything, bad idea. Listening to, or relying upon John McCain no matter how good his on-line poker game might be, bad idea. Depending on advisers whose interests might be either in other parts of the world or interventionist, bad idea.

We will not resolve or set right Syria, any more than we did Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya -- or dare I say Vietnam. We can, however, help to defend our few friends and even fewer steadfast democracies. Let us pick our fights rarely, not because we do not care for the children of Syria but rather because we cannot defend every child in every country from heinous evil... lest we defend first every child in America. And we might need that to be our first priority.

Daniel Nelson leads an international consulting firm in Northern Virginia.