Perhaps the most telling political moment of the Syrian refugee crisis arrived last week, during a verbal bout between Senator Bob Corker, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State. Their exchange occurred just as the latest “cease-fire” agreement, intended to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged city of Aleppo, had collapsed. Russian and Syrian aircraft, in fact, had just targeted and destroyed an aid convoy into Aleppo, killing many civilians and aid workers. What would be the response of the United States?

Corker’s relentless demand for an explanation of White House policy opened up a window into the soul of the Obama administration. It would take a Dante, however, to describe its contorted and degraded condition: “Mercy and Justice deny them even a name,” he wrote in The Inferno. “Let us not speak of them: look, and pass on.”

When history renders its awful verdict of Barack Obama’s responsibility for the human catastrophe of Syria, the Corker-Blinken confrontation will be part of the brief.

US and Russian Delegations Discuss Syria September 2016
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his delegation sit across from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and their counterparts on September 9, 2016, at the Hotel President Wilson in Geneva, Switzerland, at the outset of a bilateral meeting focused on Syria. State Department Photo, via Flickr.

The Senate committee hearing addressed the claim, first uttered by Secretary of State John Kerry, that if negotiations with Russia over a Syrian cease-fire failed, the United States was prepared to execute “plan B” to help resolve the standoff with President Bashar al-Assad. Kerry made the claim in February, on the eve of an earlier cease-fire plan that quickly disintegrated. As Kerry warned at the time: “Assad himself is going to have to make some real decisions about the formation of a transitional government process that is real…there are certainly plan B options being considered.”

Corker: “I have never seen signs of a plan B…Assad doesn’t believe there’s a plan B and Iran doesn’t believe there’s a plan B. So how can the Secretary of State have any chance of success in ending the murder, torture, and bombing of innocent people? How does the Secretary of State have any chance of success when the White House is unwilling at any level to have a back-up plan if diplomacy fails?”

As the Senate committee was meeting, Russian and Syrian aircraft were renewing their attacks on Aleppo, using bunker-busting bombs, cluster bombs, barrel bombs, and thermobaric bombs, which disperse a cloud of explosive particles before setting off devastating blasts. The failure of the latest ceasefire means that over 275,000 civilians, including at least 100,000 children, are trapped in Aleppo with no reliable sources of food, water, or medicine. Yet one of America’s top diplomats responds as though he were an accountant discussing an audit.

Blinken: “All of these issues, including Syria, are being worked through a very deliberative process involving all of the agencies relevant to the issue…And we have tried to work through these things deliberately and to make the best possible assessment of the best way to advance our interests and evaluate both the benefits and risks of any course of action, and that is what we have done in this case. Any policy that emerges is the product of these deliberations. The Secretary of State is very much fully a part of it. In the case of Syria, I think it’s useful for a second to step back and ask yourself this question: how do civil wars end? We know from experience—”

Corker cuts him off.

Corker: “I don’t want a history lesson. I would just like to understand what plan B is. The mysterious plan B that has been referred to since February. The mysterious plan B that was supposed to be leveraged to get Russia to quit killing innocent people, to get Assad to quit killing innocent people. Just explain to us the elements of plan B.”

Now the accountant-diplomat begins to sound like a first-year law student with a tenuous grasp of English grammar.

Deputy Secretary Department of State Antony Blinken Syria No Plan B
Screenshot of Deputy Secretary Department of State Antony Blinken giving answering Senator Bob Corker’s question about a Plan B for Syria. Via CSPAN.

Blinken: “In the first instance, plan B is the consequence of the failure as a result of Russia’s actions of plan A, in that what is likely to happen now is if the agreement cannot be followed through on and Russia reneges totally on its commitments, which it appears to have done, is this is going, of course, to be bad for everyone, but it’s going to be bad first and foremost—”

Corker cuts him off again.

Corker: “I understand that. What is plan B? Give me the elements of plan B.”

Now, in a supreme act of obfuscation, the law student and the accountant become one.

Blinken: “Again, the consequences I think to Russia as well as to the regime will begin to be felt as a result of plan A not being implemented because of Russia’s actions. Second, as I indicated, the president has asked all of the agencies to put forward options, some familiar, some new, that we are very actively reviewing. When we are able to work through these in the days ahead, we will have an opportunity to come back and talk about them in detail. But we are in the process of doing that.”

Corker: “Ok, so let me just say what we already know: There is no plan B.”

Senator Corker attempted to explain to a senior Obama administration official that diplomacy without the projection of American power could never succeed. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade this official that Russia is not suffering unhappy consequences from the failure of diplomacy in Syria—quite the opposite. “The consequence that you are laying out,” Corker said, “is that Russia will fully determine the future of Syria.”

Thanks to an intellectually confused and morally debased U.S. foreign policy—relying on meaningless multilateralism, phony threats of military action, and fictitious plan Bs—the future of Syria is as dark as anything in Dante’s imagination.

Nevertheless, like many of the desperate souls in Dante’s epic work, the White House and its chief advisors have chosen the path of cowardice and self-delusion. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Blinken insisted that “Russia is going to bear significant consequences” for its support of the Assad regime. John Kerry, while brokering a truce that everyone knew would fail, claimed with a straight face: “There are no illusions. Eyes are open.”

Perhaps the moral blindness of Barack Obama and his senior diplomats—cynical, arrogant, and remorseless—has finally run its course. In Aleppo, at least, the scale of human suffering summons the clarifying light of conscience. After Aleppo, the president and his surrogates may be forced out of the shadows of a deranged diplomacy: “Let us not speak of them: look, and pass on.”

Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence. He is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.