The bloody slaughter of civilians in Syria was playing in cable-news snippets on television sets throughout the White House West Wing and State Department on Tuesday, as the man who expects to become China's new leader this year met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and was feted at a State Department luncheon.
The horrific videos of Syrian troops bombarding and shelling the city of Homs -- sneaked out of Syria for the whole world to see -- were a fitting reality check for a quite complex U.S. visit by China's Vice President Xi Jinping. After all, at the United Nations, Xi's China had just joined Russia in becoming a partway enabler of what was happening in Syria.
China and Russia last week had jointly vetoed a Security Council resolution aimed at ending the strife in Syria -- and facilitating an end to the regime of Syria's unlikely despot, Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton labeled that veto a "travesty." Days later, she, Biden and Xi were all clinking glasses in a ritual of diplomatic toasting.
In Homs, Assad's fellow citizens have for weeks lived not unlike those ducks in carnival shooting galleries. They, too, are sitting ducks who seemingly exist only to be shot at, in what has become the bloodiest uprising of the revolutions known as the Arab Spring.
The United States, Europe and the Arab League have pressed to end Assad's regime. The U.S. and Europe have clamped strong sanctions on Syria, and the league has proposed sending in an international peacekeeping force. But Russia, which has armed Syria's troops, and China steadfastly refused to go along. Russia and China do not want the West interfering in what they call Syria's internal matters. They do not want a repeat of what transpired in Libya. And, most of all, they do not want anyone in the world to think there is justification for some future interference in internal matters in their own countries.
Obama and Biden both said publicly they clearly detailed for Xi the U.S. position on what the United Nations must do to promote peace and regime change in Syria. But China's diplomats have sent conflicting public signals to the Arab League and the West about what they are really prepared to do.
Before and after its U.N. veto, China said it supports what the Arab League is seeking to accomplish. After all, China didn't veto the U.N. resolution that authorized international peacekeeping efforts in Libya. But when asked specifically, China's foreign ministry spokesperson would not say whether China supports the Arab League's call for an international peacekeeping force.
So it was that Vladimir Putin -- Russia's prime minister and string-puller-in-chief, who awaits what he expects will be his return to the presidency -- explained his country's position on Syria the other day that "one cannot act like an elephant in a china shop" -- his characterization for U.N. intervention. Putin cautioned that the world should "not interfere under any circumstances."
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, went to Damascus and met with Assad as the siege of Homs was under way. Afterward, Lavrov said Assad needed time to establish a "dialogue." Assad's dialogue, apparently, is being inconvenienced by the fact that the troops are killing the people.
To understand just how unplanned, unforeseen and downright topsy-turvy global politics has become, consider how much things have not just changed -- but spun out of control -- in Syria.
As recently as 1992, Assad seemed to have his future well charted. He was a soft-spoken student from Damascus who had arrived in London and enrolled in a teaching hospital. He chose to study ophthalmology.
Why? "Because it's very precise, it's almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood," Assad told an interviewer who was writing a fawning 2011 article about his wife, Asma, for Vogue magazine.
Today, this man who didn't much care for blood is now forever stained by the blood of 5,400 of his citizens -- the U.N. estimate of Syrians killed since March.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at email@example.com.