Obama has the choice of acting, and being another W, or selecting the immobility of President Carter. It's a lose-lose conundrum.
He painted himself into a corner and any way he moves will leave his footprints in the paint. No one else to blame - not W, not the Tea Party, not Bo the Portuguese water dog.
It's complicated, but it breaks down simply. The first choice is between Do Something or Do Nothing.
Do Nothing is easier. It means he sits tight, but that means his previous threats against Syria and its murderous, needle-necked ophthalmologist were hollow. So what, you ask? Syria is the footstool of Iran and Obama has warned the ayatollahs the U.S. won't allow them to develop nukes. If he does nothing about an actual genocidal war crime in Syria, who believes he would do anything when Iran rattles nuclear sabers it does not actually have?
Do Nothing would harm our credibility, already tattered as the British Parliament Thursday ruled out joining in military action, followed by NATO yesterday. Obama would rather eat dust than go in alone, but he may have to, something neither Presidents Bush were forced to do. With luck, France may join us (for a change). More irony.
Do Something is more fraught with danger. Obama said in a PBS interview Thursday he has "not made up my mind," but no action is action. It is Do Nothing. Yesterday, Obama said he has a "wide range of options." That is true.
If he decides to Do Something, there are two options - Do A Little Damage or Do A Lot of Damage.
Do A Little Damage seems to be in his mind: striking only military targets, not blowing up Assad's palaces, not seeking regime change. But at the start of the Syrian slaughter two years ago, Obama said, "Assad must go." Now, no - he must stay? Obama ignored Theodore Roosevelt's philosophy of walking softly while carrying a big stick. Because he talked too much, he now may have to use the big stick.
If he Does A Little Damage, what lesson does Assad learn? A pin prick doesn't teach the same lesson as a good kick in the teeth.
So we turn to Do A Lot of Damage. (A quick aside: We don't really want Assad gone right now because in the post-action confusion, the "rebels" might win and most of them are Islamist. That would be a terrible outcome. So we want a punished Assad still powerful enough to kill rebels.)
Do A Lot of Damage means attacking infrastructure, bridges, power plants, government buildings, palaces. Civilian casualties will be unavoidable. (Watch Al Jazeera America jump on that story.)
Either A Lot or A Little will fuel Islamist hatred of the U.S. (as opposed to the love they feel for us now). The Russians, who have moved some ships into the Mediterranean to match our ships, will steam in circles but there is zero chance President Putin would actually attack the U.S.
Deep down, I am an interventionist. Four years after he left office, President Clinton apologized for not using U.S. power to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. If he believes that, he should be urging Obama to bomb, as Clinton did to stop the slaughter in Kosovo. (That intercession rescued Muslims, but doesn't alter Islamists' screeching about the U.S.' "war on Islam." They are not bound to reality and truth.)
I've had arguments with a friend over decades, with him decrying the U.S. being the "world's policeman." Attack only those who attack us, he and others say. I understand why that form of isolationism is attractive. Syrian gas is no immediate threat to the U.S.
I know the world is a tough neighborhood, the U.N. is a nonexistent military force and the world needs a cop. Who better than the guy with the biggest guns? Don't the powerful - America and the West - have a moral obligation to protect the weak?
If you agree, then we must Do Something. If you don't agree, then we Do Nothing. Neither is a palatable choice. This is where leadership replaces rhetoric.
My reluctant vote is to Do Something - and A Lot. Create rubble and then make the rubble bounce. But ground troops? Never.
I don't like it, but Obama's fecklessness has painted me into the corner where he stands.
On Twitter: @StuBykofsky