The extent of history-altering decisions often isn’t evident until after the fact. Who could have guessed, for instance, that George H.W. Bush's decision to oppose Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 would lead the United States into a global war with al-Qaida and a second, even costlier conflict in Iraq? On rare occasions, though, the importance of a decision is apparent even before it is made with finality—the big picture clearly lurking behind the closer, more immediate one.
Deciding whether to attack Syria's Assad regime for the large-scale use of chemical weapons against civilians is just such a choice, one imbued with symbolism that exceeds its immediate impact and puts its long-term importance in clear view. There may be no epiphanies on this road to Damascus, but there are vital indicators of America's future, signaling whether the nation seeks strategic retrenchment or to sustain its global leadership as long as possible.
Syria is a "wicked" problem with no good options. The Obama administration feels compelled to punish the Assad regime for what are widely seen as unconscionable actions. Today, when every cell phone is a video camera with global access, the depth of Bashar al-Assad's wickedness is shockingly obvious to everyone except Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. But Washington does not want its punishment of Assad to help extremists affiliated with al-Qaida control all or part of Syria, and thus the Obama administration is walking a very thin line.