It’s hard to argue with President Obama’s call for Bashar al-Assad, the bloodthirsty Syrian dictator, to step down. But it’s also hard to discern any logic or consistency in the administration’s handling of the ongoing tumult in the Arab world.

It is obvious that Assad, like Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, has no intention of surrendering power voluntarily. It is also clear that Assad’s savagery is a match for Gadhafi’s. Both used armored columns to put down peaceful protests. Both ordered assassinations and arrests. Both used naval vessels to shell cities that had become hotbeds of unrest.

So do we give Assad the Gadhafi treatment? Does Obama follow up his statement with a barrage of cruise missiles? Do we involve ourselves in yet another Middle Eastern war?

I don’t see how. U.S. military forces are stretched painfully thin, with large-scale deployments still bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon’s enormous budget is under new scrutiny, with increasing numbers of Republicans joining Democrats in demanding deep cuts. And polls consistently show that as we near the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, with Osama bin Laden dead, the American public is weary of war.

The call for Assad to go, then, appears more symbolic than substantive. You can’t call it pure theater, since it does put additional pressure on the regime and lays the groundwork for further sanctions. But if everyone knows that Assad won’t leave — and that we won’t make him — the demand from the White House sounds like an extremely tardy statement of the obvious.

What we need is something the president has refused to provide: an Obama Doctrine governing the use of force to defend civilians against their own despotic governments, or at least spelling out how the United States views its role in the still-unfolding Arab Spring.

When the United States joined with NATO allies in launching the Libya intervention, Obama said he was not operating under some general rule about when to use force. At the time, my view was that we needed some guidelines. That opinion hasn’t changed.

What I worry about, obviously, is mission creep. In coordination with the White House, the leaders of France, Germany, Britain and the European Union also issued statements Thursday calling on Assad to step down. Earlier this week, the government of Turkey — which has gone out of its way to remain on relatively good terms with Assad — expressed its exasperation at the Syrian leader’s bloody crackdown and gave him what sounded like an ultimatum.

Why now? The unspeakable violence against Syrian civilians has been going on for months. It’s hard to believe that the conscience of the developed world has just awakened. It’s easier to surmise — but just as difficult to accept, from the moral standpoint — that U.S. and European leaders assumed Assad would survive no matter what outside pressure was applied, meaning that someday they would again have to regard him as a legitimate head of state.

What next? If the assumption that Assad will hang on has changed, how do the Obama administration and its allies see events unfolding? The new sanctions will apply a painful financial squeeze. Perhaps the declaration that Assad must go will embolden Syrians who despise the regime but believe it is unlikely to be overthrown. If these fence-sitters join the protests because of our encouragement, are we obliged to give them protection and support?

Where else? Except in Yemen, other autocratic Arab regimes have managed to tamp down democratic uprisings — for now. But what about Bahrain, where the Sunni royal family used deadly force to crush legitimate protests by the Shiite majority? For that matter, what about Saudi Arabia and Jordan, where friendly monarchs govern without any of the inconveniences of democracy? Our approach seems to be that we seek to oust dictators only when their rule is seriously threatened.

It’s predictable that Republican presidential candidates will blast Obama for his handling of the Syria crisis and the whole Arab Spring. These attacks will be cynical and unfair, because none of the GOP hopefuls has come up with a viable alternative approach — with the exception of Ron Paul, who believes we have no business meddling in other nations’ affairs, even Syria’s.

But what happens if Assad decides his best move is to end the protests as quickly and brutally as possible? What if he kills not hundreds but many thousands? How do we respond?

Like I said, we really need a plan.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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