The Obama administration’s “lead from behind” foreign policy is having the same impact in Syria this year as in Libya last year: It is providing an opening for France to usurp the traditional American role as the leading outside power in the Middle East. While the bodies pile up in Syria, President Obama limits his support to the Syrian opposition to the rhetorical realm–backed up by the dispatch of a couple dozen computers.

Meanwhile French President Francois Hollande calls for the Syrian opposition to form a government as soon as possible and vows to recognize it as soon as it is created. He also speaks of creating buffer zones in Syrian territory and enforcing at least a partial no-fly zone–something that the Free Syrian Army has now called for. All of this is desperately needed to stop Bashar Assad’s ruthless killing machine, which is being aided by a substantial contingent of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Yet, just as in Libya, the Europeans are unable to act effectively without Washington’s help. They lack aerial refuelers, smart munitions, drones, and other advanced intelligence and surveillance assets that are needed to take down Syria’s air defenses and to enforce a no-fly zone at scant risk to the aircraft involved. Thus as long as the U.S. refuses to act, they will be hard-pressed to do so.

Clearly the Europeans want to act to end the terrible Syrian civil war. Turkey also appears to be willing to do more–it is said to be on the verge of asking the UN Security Council to set up a safe zone for refugees inside Syria. But they are all waiting for President Obama to make a decision–something that is unlikely to happen before our presidential election. As the Washington Post points out in an editorial today, Obama has said that that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” Yet Obama is willing to do nothing substantive to protect this supposed core interest.

The continuing massacres are the price that Syrians (and Lebanese, who are increasingly being drawn into the fray) pay for an abdication of American leadership–the same price paid by Bosnians in the early 1990s before Bill Clinton finally decided to get involved.

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