And yet those officials have seen no alternative but to sideline their doubts and plunge headlong into what some suspected was a deadly cul-de-sac. Thus we have seen a vigorous diplomatic campaign aimed at persuading the Russia of Vladimir Putin to bring its actions into conformity with its words: to work with Washington to make a genuine, operational distinction between al-Qaeda operatives and patriotic, nationalist Syrian rebels. A fool’s errand? Certainly. Moscow, Tehran, and their client want the patriots, the nationalists, and the civilians supporting them gone first: They are the real obstacles to Assad ruling in perpetuity. But for American officials genuinely appalled by a humanitarian abomination and its catastrophic political consequences, what choice did they have? What choice did President Obama give them?
Several years ago I encountered on the streets of Washington a White House official for whom he had tremendous respect. He asked the official about the prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian peace campaign about to be launched by Secretary of State John Kerry. The answer was revealing: “How would I know? I work in the White House. This is Kerry’s deal.”
Now it seems we see another “Kerry deal:” a relentless attempt to play diplomatic judo with Russian words by trying to translate Moscow's demands for jointness into a mutual targeting veto and the grounding of the Assad air force. Kerry gets the big picture: With defenseless civilians on the bullseye there is no prospect for diplomatic progress in Syria; and the Assad regime and Russia make the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) look hesitant by comparison when it comes to mass homicide in Syria. So Kerry tried—and apparently failed—to shame the Russians into operationalizing their own words. And as bombs falling on Aleppo laid waste to months of tireless diplomacy, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff administered the coup de grace by sharing with a Senate committee his strong reservations about military collaboration with Russia on any level.
General Dunford’s objections were well-reasoned and persuasive. But where was American policy in all of this? Do all of the key players—White House, State, and Pentagon—have their own “deal?” Who is in charge?
President Barack Obama can draw comfort in his passivity from a bottomless reservoir of public indifference toward the rape of Aleppo now taking place. It is not that Americans endorse mass murder in faraway places. But in light of a catastrophic misadventure in Iraq and endless war in Afghanistan few Americans would disagree with the proposition that this is a terrible problem for someone else to solve.
The American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, won the Pulitzer Prize for a priceless volume about 20th century mass murder and how American presidents either measured up to the challenge or skulked away. For it is only presidential leadership that can convert mass indifference to pointed resolve. It is the lack of such leadership in this administration that gives birth to diplomatic long shots that benefit neither from useful leverage nor a unified executive-branch position. The administration even went out of its way to sink preemptively a piece of sanctions legislation aimed at mitigating civilian slaughter in Syria, one that certainly would have gotten the attention of Kerry’s Russian counterpart. And one can only imagine what the secretary of state must have been thinking when the testimony of the chairman of the joint chiefs was brought to his attention.