Across The Red Line

Evidence of a brutal chemical attack in Syria poses a defining test to the U.S.'s reputation and to Barack Obama's foreign policy vision

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TIME Photo-illustration. Obama: Photograph by Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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Obama's defenders say he has done the best with a poisoned inheritance--from anti-Americanism abroad to tight budgets and rising isolationism at home. And his White House predecessors have often heard cries from overseas that the U.S.'s will to power was faltering. But it's also true that the public is tired of paying in blood and treasure to solve faraway problems that often look unsolvable. "At the end of the day, the U.S. cannot impose its will on every problem in the world," says Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

The blunt instrument of military power may be especially useless when it comes to untangling the Arab Spring's social upheavals. "Frankly, the U.S. is not good at resolving another country's political implosion," says Mieke Eoyang, a national-security analyst at Third Way, a Washington think tank. "It may be that the U.S. just doesn't have the tools."

Syria would certainly require high-precision equipment. The country of 22 million, bordered by the Mediterranean to the west and Iraq to the east, has been a dictatorship since 1949. It has also been a constant thorn in the U.S.'s side, aligning with Iran's ruling mullahs and sponsoring the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Assad left his border open to Islamist fighters crossing into Iraq to kill American soldiers. Even so, Assad said in 2009 he "would like to have a dialogue" with the U.S., and American diplomats including Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, paid several visits to Damascus before the uprising began there. But Assad could never quite be coaxed into real cooperation.

The Assad family comes from Syria's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Their rule over a country that is roughly three-quarters Sunni has always required repression of a degree reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But in March 2011, Syrian society fractured and Assad's rule was openly challenged in the streets for the first time by what would become a Sunni-dominated rebellion.

Syria matters a lot to its neighbors. The civil war has already produced nearly 2 million refugees, an exodus that threatens to destabilize Jordan and Turkey, and has heightened Shi'ite-Sunni tensions in Lebanon and Iraq, inflaming a sectarian conflict that could stretch from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. For months, Assad's allies in Iran and Lebanon have been sending fighters to support his regime. That's one reason the stakes in Syria are so high: it has become a proxy war, fueled by cash and arms, between Iran and its Sunni rivals like Saudi Arabia. There is the obvious moral imperative with regard to a conflict in which more than 100,000 people have been killed. And there is the matter of Israel's security when a chemical-armed state is collapsing.

Obama doesn't deny any of this. "We've got serious interests there," he told PBS's Charlie Rose in June. "And not only humanitarian interests. We can't have the situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan, which in turn borders Israel. And we have a legitimate need to be engaged and to be involved." What he disputes is that he can shape the outcome in Syria through military intervention, either with direct action or by arming rebels who may have radical Islamist ties.

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