The Arab Spring was an epic fail; democracy, openness and good governance did not sweep the middle east or north Africa. One of the worst results was in Syria, where the protest movement became a civil war that was eventually won by the bad guys. The Assad regime, which had been merely oppressive, rose to the occasion and blossomed into something truly barbaric, even by local standards.

It was 2012. We had been at war in Afghanistan for ten years, in Iraq for nine, with no end in sight in either. President Barack Obama’s first term had been four years of each; he had seen from the outside and from the inside what it looks like when we intervene militarily in that neighborhood, and he took a pass on Syria. Sure, we could have knocked the regime over on the battlefield; then what?  It wasn’t that we had been there before; we were there, and it was an intractable mess twice over.

Although the cause was compelling and just, I was with him. We would have been fighting in or occupying three middle-eastern nations at once; at that point we could have hung our shingle out: Invasions R Us. If that’s what it actually means to be “the indispensable nation,” it was time to dispense with that role.

While clearly and publicly declining to intervene, Obama averred rather grandly that there was no need: the opposition would inevitably unseat the despot anyway. Guess again! Having got the all-clear from us– which in this context meant from the world– Putin intervened decisively in favor of Assad, who will probably hand the family business (Syria) off to one of his offspring when he passes away years hence, just as his daddy passed it to him.

I still don’t wish we had involved ourselves in Syria’s civil war, but there is a lesson that seems not to have been learned. All of that openness and clarity about what we’re definitely not going to do can be a gift to somebody who is ready to start bombing villages and towns for some perceived geopolitical advantage.

Biden and NATO have played the Ukraine situation as Obama played Syria (without the nonsense about how the good guys will inevitably triumph) by making it clear as can be that we won’t actually fight on Ukraine’s side, because we don’t want a war with Russia.

Unlike the countries with which we have fought wars of choice– Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq, we even invaded Panama at one point– Russia has the military capacity to kill us all, so this is a very sensible approach. Also, by some accounts, Putin is getting a little strange lately. This is worrisome, to say the least. The best news I’ve heard is that he has children and grandchildren. No doubt he also has the world’s ritziest bomb shelter, but hopefully he wants his descendants to have a viable world to live in.

Even so, Putin holds all the cards now. It bothers us a lot to see cities and towns in a European ally being reduced to rubble; it will bother us more as siege warfare sets in and Ukrainians starve, freeze, die of thirst or wounds by the tens of thousands. It doesn’t bother Putin a bit; therefore, the worse it gets, the better for him.

He knows we won’t intervene in the only way that could stop him– militarily– so the only way we can get him to stop is by giving him some or all of whatever he demands. If we aren’t willing to watch the slaughter accelerate into the hundreds of thousands or further, we have to reward him for mass murder. If we’re going to stand on principle and refuse to reward him for mass murder, we’re going to have to watch the slaughter accelerate.

The dynamic now is that Putin keeps expanding the ambit of what he claims he would (or does) consider an act of war, and we keep expanding the ambit of what we definitely won’t do in a military way. It’s very much as if we’re just plain scared. Perhaps we should be, but I don’t think that leading with that is a good strategy here.

Meanwhile, we hear our president talk about how some oligarch’s super-yacht was seized, as if that’s how we’re going to confront Putin. That’s the level of action we’re not too frightened to take.

Supposedly, we would make war on Russia if Putin attacked a NATO country. But would we? At this rate, I’m really not sure about that. I kind of doubt that Putin is sure about it either. That’s the problem.

Eric Kuhn lives in Middletown.