Nowhere do these rules apply more than in Syria, where a widely misunderstood civil war has killed nearly 100,000 people and driven 1.6 million refugees abroad. As I wrote last month, the Obama administration started lying on this one as early as April 2012, when the CIA secretly began helping the Qataris and Saudis supply Sunni rebels in Syria with Libyan and other arms.
Far from helping victims, Obama was continuing former vice president Dick Cheney's strategic alliance with the generally anti-democratic Sunni-led nations in their regional competition with Shia Iran and their effort to control their own Shia populations.
The alliance also has a fascinating economic side, which spills over into everything else. One of the world's largest producers of natural gas, the Qataris, have been talking for years about building a pipeline from the Gulf through Syria to Turkey and the European Union. This would compete directly with Russia's pipelines, which helps explain at least some of what's at stake here. "Pipelinestan," as the delightful Pepe Escobar calls it, is not the whole story, as some have tried to make it. But a major pipeline that would completely change Russia's relationship with Europe is not chopped liver either, least of all to Moscow, Washington, and the NATO allies.
The other key participants are the Israelis, who seem of mixed minds. Over many years, they have learned to enjoy the stability that Bashar-al-Assad and his Shia Alawites have brought to Israel's northern border with Syria. But Tel Aviv has now staged two airstrikes near Damascus and is growing increasingly concerned that Lebanon's Shia militia are becoming too militarily effective in Syria. If Assad lost power, or Hezbollah got too strong, or the nuclear-armed Israelis needed Saudi Arabia to free up airspace to help them bomb Iran, they could well move even closer toward a de-facto alliance with the Sunni bloc.
As the headlines over the past few days attest, the alliance is once again on the move in a very confusing way. Having painted himself into a corner over the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, Obama has agreed publicly for the first time to arm the Sunni rebels in Syria. But the rebels are losing their war to Assad, Hezbollah, and Iranian military units. So, the allies are again moving anti-tank and other arms from Libya to the rebels. As yet, no direct evidence points to the CIA, but Bill Keller, the former managing editor of The New York Times, happily gives Obama credit for making the weapons flow "with a wink and nod from the U.S."
"These things don't happen without America's permission," explains one of his Syrian sources, a logistics coordinator for a rebel unit.
Coming to the Syrian war, Keller had expected "a reaction of rolled eyes, too-little-too-late and thanks for nothing." Instead, what he found was "a surprising surge of optimism, a sense that something has changed -- specifically that America is inching toward a more serious engagement."
As he did for Judith Miller's War in Iraq, in which he played a major role as her boss, Keller again favors military intervention, presenting it as a great-power necessity and humanitarian imperative. I fully expect that he will have to apologize again. But, Keller is absolutely right on one point. Whether or not the new whiff of faith he and the Sunni rebels now feel for America is justified, he thinks the president should tell us.
After all, who is Obama trying to fool more than the large majority of Americans who, unlike Keller, have repeatedly said that they do not want another war? What exactly is the new policy?
In line with his general lack of what Stephen Colbert calls truthiness, Obama is not telling. He is instead having it both ways. He has agreed publicly to provide only light arms to the rebels while standing up against Secretary of State John Kerry's vociferous demands to bomb Syrian airfields. He has let the CIA do the heavy lifting in the shadows. And he has identified himself with the Pentagon's caution about yet another war and the impossibility of giving serious arms only to supposedly "moderate" rebels.
"I have been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power," said Pentagon chief of staff General Martin Dempsey. "It is not clear to me that it would produce the outcome [that most of us desire]."
There is nothing hard to grasp about any of that. Most Americans do not want to go to war and they do not want either the radical Shia or the radical Sunnis to win. But, fully in character, Professor Obama won't sell that understanding to his fellow citizens just in case he decides to change his mind.
How in hell do you run a democracy that way? But whoever said that American foreign policy is run democratically? At least not yet.
*A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold."