Sen. John McCain took to the Senate floor on Feb. 12 to shine a bright light on the plight of the Syrian people and its consequences. He had with him a sample of unforgettable images, 55,000 photographs in all, of the brutalities inflicted on 11,000 detainees of Bashar Assad's regime. Reflections of the Balkan horrors of the 1990s—evidence of torture, starvation, systematic rape and slaughter.
"We must not look away," Mr. McCain said. Failure to "acknowledge through our sense of revulsion that what is happening in Syria today," he said, would be "a stain on the collective conscience of moral peoples everywhere."
It will be said of President Barack Obama when he leaves office that he kept the U.S. out of the Syrian ordeal. But at what price? Even the architects of his Syria policy now acknowledge its utter failure. With more than 130,000 dead and millions displaced, it is too late for dissimulation and doublespeak.
Much was made of the deal struck in September with Russian cooperation to remove Assad's chemical weapons. But at a Feb. 11 news conference with French President François Hollande, Mr. Obama said the "state of Syria itself is crumbling. That is bad for Syria. It is bad for the region. It is bad for global national security." He also said that Russia, along with Iran, was obstructing U.N. Security Council action to aid Syria's starving civilians.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, at a Feb. 4 House Intelligence Committee hearing, connected the dots for Syria observers, saying that Assad had grown stronger over the past year "by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons."
After crossing Mr. Obama's "red line" last summer by slaughtering civilians with chemical weapons, Assad has become a partner in a disarmament effort whose pace he alone dictates. All the assumptions of a policy of indifference and abdication stand exposed.
The jihadists have fulfilled our worst fears: More than 20,000 of them, from lands as far away as Russia's North Caucasus, have made their way to Syria. They come bearing the message that the world powers took no interest in the fate of a tormented population, and the feckless diplomacy of the past three years lent credence to their worldview. For these holy warriors, the war is not so much about Syria as it is about the acquisition of a territorial base for their operations.
And still, in the face of the massacres and the barrel bombs and the denial of food to besieged cities, the policy of indifference holds. Grant Mr. Obama his due: The bet he made that he could ride out the outrage has been vindicated. It was 30 months ago that he called on Bashar Assad to step aside, and two years ago that a senior State Department official compared his regime to a "dead man walking." No such luck: The Syrian despot held his ground. He was on his turf, he outplayed the U.S. and its "lead from behind" tactics, the outrage that could have devastated his regime never materializing. Evil is attentive, and forever alert.
If Washington and its allies wanted some small evidence of success, Assad was willing to oblige. He would dispatch to United Nations "peace talks" in Geneva an assortment of goons and regime operatives who delighted in mocking the proceedings. If necessity required a modicum of cooperation on a U.N. effort to bring aid to the besieged city of Homs, he was willing to play the game. After agreeing to a temporary cease-fire earlier this month to permit the delivery of food and medicine and the evacuation of the wounded and starving, he continued attacks on the rebels and rounded up hundreds of the U.N. evacuees.
More brutality was promised. "We are all waiting for the blue ones to leave," said a regime operative, referring to the blue-helmeted U.N. personnel. Ratko Mladic, herding thousands to their death in Srebrenica, a generation ago, under the gaze of United Nations peacekeepers, was more circumspect.
In reckoning with the evils of the Syrian regime, American power was either naïve or willfully indifferent. The House of Assad and its ruling cabal have behind it nearly five decades of violence and subterfuge. After five years, they have taken the measure of Mr. Obama: For a fleeting moment, they feared that American power could decapitate their regime. Once spared, they grew emboldened, openly defying the will of the U.S. and U.N.
In the Geneva talks that ended on Saturday, the Assad regime said any "peace" or "power-sharing" agreement would not include the dictator standing down. The fence-sitters in Syria's neighborhood could be forgiven the conclusion that Bashar Assad's reign will outlast the presidency of Barack Obama. That would be a stain indeed.
Mr. Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, is the author, most recently, of "The Syrian Rebellion" ( Hoover Press, 2012).