It has been the unflinching position of conservatives that it was a mistake to send the president’s nominated ambassador back to Damascus. Robert Ford came to symbolize President Obama’s shameful and pathetic policy of engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Obama has inched away from that policy too slowly and with his usual unwillingness to lead. In recent weeks, nevertheless, Ford has come to play a more constructive role in supporting dissidents. In an interview today with the Daily Caller, he speaks in bold terms about the protesters’ courage and the “evil” of the regime.
As that has unfolded, some conservatives have changed their minds on Ford’s confirmation. Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and co-head of the Foreign Policy Initiative e-mails me: “I think Ford has been terrific, and also very brave, in traveling to meet the opposition, defying Assad, and making clear that the U.S. stands with the people of Syria and against their dictator.” As for conservative opposition to his nomination, Kagan says, “I understand why people had doubts about keeping an ambassador in Syria, but circumstances have changed. At this stage, it is important that Ford remain in Damascus, and the Senate should confirm him as soon as possible.”
In its formal statement, FPI puts it this way:
Although the Obama administration’s response to the outbreak of violence in Syria has been sluggish, it has now publicly condemned the Assad regime’s violent and lethal suppression of protestors on multiple occasions. It has also imposed U.S. sanctions on specific Syrian government officials and entities for human rights abuses. After much hesitation, President Obama went further and demanded that Assad to step down on August 18, 2011. Most recently, Obama stood before the U.N. General Assembly on September 21, 2011, and urged the Security Council to immediately sanction the Syrian regime for human rights abuses. . . .
Senators Joe Lieberman (ID-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and others have spoken out to draw greater public awareness to the plight of the Syrian people. Moreover, prior to the August recess, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Syrian Sanctions Act of 2011 (S. 1472), a bill that would impose far-reaching sanctions to isolate Syria’s energy sector from global commerce. . . .
Even a seemingly non-controversial Senate resolution on Syria (S.Res. 180) has run into opposition. Introduced by Senator Lieberman in May 2011 and now co-sponsored by 25 lawmakers, the non-binding resolution lays out the indisputable facts of the Assad regime’s atrocities. The Lieberman resolution had gained the support of the Senate’s Democratic and Republican leaders, and seemed on track to pass this month. But Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), placed a procedural “hold” on Lieberman’s non-binding resolution. It is shameful that Paul would take such action to block a straightforward resolution that expresses Senate’s sense of solidarity with the Syrian people against Bashar al-Assad’s despotic regime.
As for Ford, FPI says: “He has repeatedly put himself in harm’s way by visiting protests and funerals of murdered protesters, and vociferously condemning the Assad regime. While the Obama administration’s initial efforts to engage Damascus via Ford’s appointment were ill-considered, if he continues his recent actions, then his presence in Damascus helps make clear that America is firmly on the side of the Syrian people in their struggle for freedom.”
I admit to having mixed emotions on this one. On one hand, the very act of sending a credentialed ambassador to a country bestows legitimacy on the government to which he is being sent. However, Ford’s work is now productive. If confirmation is now warranted, it nevertheless would be helpful to extract from the administration a clear road map for how the United States intends to proceed (any covert matters should, of course, be explained in private to the appropriate congressional leaders). What title Ford holds is far less important than what steps we can take to usher in a post-Assad era.