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Posted: June 17, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Cohen: For Obama, the wages of doing nothing

Whose fault is the current debacle in Iraq? It could be Nouri al-Maliki’s since he is the country’s strongman and has alienated the minority Sunnis. It could be George W. Bush’s because he started the whole thing off with possibly the stupidest war in history, the Children’s Crusade exempted on account of youth. The one person who is not at fault, we are told over and over again, is the current president of the United States. Like Millard Fillmore, he has kept us out of war.

President Obama is hardly the ogre of right-wing invective, and Obamacare will turn out to have been a truly major reform of our creaky health care system. But the subject of this column is foreign policy, the area where a president’s power is substantially unchecked. He can, as Obama showed by swapping Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders, just ignore the law. The GOP emitted a pro-forma wail and then returned to contemplating the meaning of Eric Cantor’s defeat. No one much cared.

Other than avoiding war, it’s hard to know what Obama wants. I know what he says, but actions always speak louder than words. For instance, he wanted Bashar al-Assad to cease using chemical weapons. His language was strong, nearly warlike. “Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening: Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.”

What happened next? Virtually nothing.

All those poisoned kids were soon forgotten and so, too, were all those people killed in the war, perhaps as many as 200,000. Those of us who advocated more forceful action were denigrated as war lovers who wanted to send in the infantry. (Better boots on the ground than head in the clouds — but I prefer neither.) Airstrikes and such might not have worked, but doing nothing never does.

This is a serious, depressing discussion. Countless lives have been lost. A civil war that might have been stopped in its tracks was allowed to fester. The Syrian dictatorship survived and the war has spilled into Iraq. It has the potential to engage the whole Middle East — Jordan, for sure, and then that tiny nation west of the Jordan River: Israel. The madmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria don’t only kill Muslims; they would gladly drop a bomb on Tel Aviv.

The U.S. may now find itself on the side of Iran — a majority Shiite nation much like Iraq. What could be more preposterous? What could be more ironic? Worse, we could find ourselves engaged in a religious war — Sunni vs. Shiite. What will our Sunni friends — the Saudis, for instance — think of that? Or maybe we should just wash our hands of the whole thing and turn over a hunk of the Middle East with its oil to a terrorist organization — one that boasts of committing massacres. Oh, what dreams it must have in the desert night.

William Goldman, the screenwriter, is one of my favorite philosophers. “Nobody knows anything,” he once wrote. I thought of him when the politically indestructible Cantor got trounced. What happened? Theories galore, but the salient fact is that nobody saw it coming.

It was the same with the stock market crash of 2008. Everyone had charts and graphs and smiling eminences on CNBC, but — somehow, I mean somehow — almost everyone got it wrong. And what about ISIS? How come the administration did not know what was coming? If it did, it sure kept the information close to the vest.

To balance the Goldman Rule — call it a hedge — I invoke one of my own creation: the Rule of the Worse. You thought Cantor was bad? Look who’s coming after. You thought you can’t get more evil than al-Qaeda? Look at who’s pillaging Iraq, a terrorist group that even al-Qaeda can’t stomach.

The wise president applies both rules. We know so little, but the one thing we do know is that things can get worse. They did in the Middle East, where Obama settled for a victory jog around the political infield after getting Assad to give up most of his chemical weapons. He now must deal with a region that is so much worse than anyone imagined. Where does the fault lie? Where it always has — where the buck stops.

Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at cohenr@washpost.com.

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