So now we know. Under questioning from the Senate's uber-hawk, Arizona Senator John McCain on Feb. 7, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testified that last year he and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey advised President Barack Obama to arm and train those rebels in Syria that the U.S. wants to see in charge once the current regime is toppled. Obama overruled them.
President Obama's Secretary of State and Central Intelligence Agency chief gave him the same advice -- and for the same reasons that Bloomberg View has been supporting this kind of highly targeted U.S. involvement. Obama ignored Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, too.
What's striking is that McCain's question on Syria was just an aside in a lengthy hearing that focused almost entirely on the exhausted and highly political topic of who knew (and said) what when, concerning the Sep. 11 attack on the U.S. temporary mission and annex in Benghazi. Obama's decision to ignore the proposals of his security team on what to do in Syria is far more indicative of a major policy failure in the White House. I don't often agree with McCain, who rarely sees a war he doesn't want the U.S. to join, but his Syria question was on the money.
We know from experience in Afghanistan and Iraq that the U.S. military cannot easily solve problems in the Middle East, and that an impressive U.S. intervention won't necessarily serve U.S. interests. But on Syria Obama has shifted to the opposite extreme of refusing to use any security tool, even the covert supply of arms and grooming of friendly forces, to ensure that Syria's implosion doesn't damage the interests of the U.S. and its allies in the region, such as Jordan and Turkey.
Putting U.S. special forces on the ground with mainstream rebels in Syria, and giving them the weaponry and training to take a lead in the fighting, would help shorten the conflict, provide the U.S. with eyes and intelligence, and ensure that Syrians don't see Al Qaeda radicals as the only people who came to help in their time of need.
Obama has argued that arming the opposition risks making the bloodshed worse and that putting arms in the hands of rebels risks seeing them turned against the U.S. That reluctance was fully justified two years ago, but became moot once the uprising turned to a full-fledged civil war in which Qatar and Saudi Arabia were pumping money (and therefore weapons) into the hands of their favored Islamist rebels. Syria will be won by the people who have money, weapons and disciplined fighters.
In Mali, too, the administration's initial response to French intervention last month was hesitant in helping out with requests for refueling and airlift. The White House is now effusive in praising the French for taking on the task of blocking Al Qaeda franchises from taking over a country in Africa. This is a goal that clearly serves U.S. interests. But the first reflex was indicative.
A lot of the criticism of Obama as weak on foreign policy is cheap, but he needs to find the pragmatic ground between the hubristic policies of George W. Bush, who seemed to believe the U.S. military could reshape the Middle East any way it wanted, and passivity on limited security interventions that make sense (I'm excluding drones here, a virtually risk-free but problematic tool that Obama has used liberally).
Maybe this will change once U.S. troops are home from Afghanistan, but by then it may be too late for Syria and its neighbors. The U.S. may yet pay a price for Obama's decision not to make sure it has armed friends on the ground when President Bashar al-Assad falls.
(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)