“There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on “Face the Nation,” March 27, 2011
“I referenced opinions of others. That was not speaking either for myself or for the administration.”
--Clinton, two days later
Hillary Clinton is known for making provocative statements, but few have generated such a firestorm as her comment last week that the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, may be a reformer. She made her remarks after “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer noted that Assad’s late father had killed 25,000 people during an uprising against his regime. Clinton responded by noting that the son was now in power and he was a “different leader.”
Lawmakers and columnists quickly condemned her remarks. So two days later Clinton tried to deflect the criticism by telling reporters she was only referencing “the opinions” of lawmakers who had met with Assad and that she was not speaking for the administration. But then she added: “We’re also going to continue to urge that the promise of reform, which has been made over and over again and which you reported on just a few months ago – I’m a reformer, I’m going to reform, and I’ve talked to members of Congress and others about that, that we hear from the highest levels of leadership in Syria – will actually be turned into reality.”
Officially, the State Department has taken a dim view of Assad’s pledges, describing him as “authoritarian” in the most recent human rights report. “The government systematically repressed citizens' abilities to change their government,” the report said. “In a climate of impunity, there were instances of arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life.”
There’s no question that Assad had promised reform to reporters, most recently in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But have “many of the members of Congress of both parties” who have met with Assad actually come away from those meetings believing that Assad was a reformer?
Relations between the United States and Syria hit a low point in 2005 after the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated and the Bush administration withdrew the U.S. ambassador. But President Obama has sought to repair relations, believing a peace deal between Israel and Syria would help stabilize the region. Over congressional opposition, he returned the ambassador to Damascus.
In a meantime, a number of congressional delegations have made trips to Damascus to meet with Assad. Most famously, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with Assad in 2007 over the objections of President Bush, though Republicans such as Rep. Darrell Issa of California also traveled there, believing it was important to maintain a dialogue. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made repeated visits to Damascus to meet at length with Assad.
We will take it as a given that a number of Democrats believed Assad could be a reformer. On March 16, for instance, Kerry said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”
But what about Republicans? Clinton claimed that “many of the members of both parties” who had gone to Syria “in recent months” had decided Assad was a reformer. The State Department, however, refused to provide any names.
So, using news articles, the Internet and other sources, we tried to identify every Republican lawmaker who had gone to Syria on an official trip since Pelosi’s visit in 2007. We came up with a list of 13 names, some of whom are now retired and some of whom have made repeated visits. We then checked every public statement or news release the lawmakers made about their trips or meetings with Assad.
We could not find anything close to sentiments indicating Assad was a reformer. Issa, for instance, urged a need for dialogue but said that “we should hold no illusions about the regime of Bashar al-Assad.” Issa added, “Our discussions were tense and focused on Syria’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, interference in Lebanon, the movement of foreign fighters to Iraq and the repression of the Syrian people.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that “public comments by members shouldn’t necessarily be the only source of your fact check.”
Two cables that have been released by Wikileaks provide insight into the tenor of the meetings between lawmakers and Assad. During a March, 2009 meeting that included Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), the lawmakers pressed him on human rights. Assad replied, “We are a country in process of reform. We aren’t perfect. You are talking about 12 people out of 20 million. It’s a process. We are moving forward, not fast, but methodically.”
Another meeting, in January 2010, included Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). At one point, Bayh is recorded as saying: “Many things in Syria had changed for the better since his 2002 visit. Now, there were positive indicators that bilateral relations might be on the upswing as well.” But otherwise, there was little discussion of reforms.
The most recent congressional delegation involving Republican lawmakers took place in February and included Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who led it, as well as Enzi, Wicker, Cornyn, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). News reports indicate that Assad put on a sell job, saying, “Arab leaders should tune in to their people’s needs.”
But did any of these lawmakers come away from the meeting believing Assad was a reformer? Shelby, through a spokesman, said he never believed or said that (and also did not brief Clinton after the trip). “He has known both the father and son, and believes they are brutal dictators with horrible reputations,” said spokesman Jonathan Graffeo. Other senators on the trip also denied that, though not all immediately responded.
Interestingly, even Kerry seems to have lost patience with Assad, blasting him in a statement on Thursday, just four days after Clinton suggested Assad was a reformer.
Throughout the Middle East uprisings, Clinton has had trouble calibrating her comments to the mood of the moment, such as when she pronounced the Mubarak regime to be “stable’ and “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Days later, Mubarak was gone.
We grant that we have no way of really knowing what lawmakers may have said privately to Clinton. But there is only a small universe of GOP senators and members of Congress who have recently traveled to Syria — 13 or so — and the word “many” would suggest at least half of those traveling.
The State Department’s refusal to identify these lawmakers is also suspicious, especially after Clinton backtracked and sought to pin the blame for the sentiments she expressed on others. So we are left with a public record that suggests Clinton was exaggerating or inventing the chorus of support on the GOP side.
In fact, Clinton’s remarks gave a highly misleading impression — that there was general consensus by experts on Syria in both parties that Assad was a reformer, even though Clinton’s own State Department reports label him otherwise.