President Obama shamefully missed a hinge moment in history when he failed to champion the Iranian Green Movement in June 2009. It was both a moral and a geopolitical failing of enormous proportions. And he now seems to be repeating his most egregious foreign policy error.
CHRIS WALLACE: . . .More than 300 protesters have reportedly been killed so far. President Obama issued a tough statement this week, but so far he hasn’t recalled the U.S. ambassador, he hasn’t pushed for international sanctions.
BRIT HUME: Yes. I mean, what you see here is this groping toward finding some policy.
The overthrow of Assad, the Assad government, the Assad Mafia, would be a very welcome thing in Syria. Syria has been found guilty of all kinds of trouble throughout that region for a very long time. And it seems to me if there is one place you look at and say, well, strategically, where could, you know, we have a real chance of doing something serious, that would be the place. And yet, we haven’t done anything serious. . . .
WALLACE: . . . Let me ask you about that, Mara. Why do you think the Obama administration has been so reluctant to confront Assad? I mean, back a few weeks ago, you had Hillary Clinton talking about him as a potential reformer. Are they that afraid that what’s going to follow him is going to be even worse?
MARA LIASSON: And that would be pro-Iranian.
WALLACE: Well, it is already.
LIASSON: Pro-Iranian now. It might be even more.
But I think that there has been for a very long time in the State Department and the White House a hope which has now been dashed that Syria was the key to Middle East peace, that Assad would really be a reformer, that somehow he could be flipped. That, obviously, all disappeared when he decided to turn on his own people. . . .
WALLACE: OK. I want to turn to one last hotspot, Bill, and that is Yemen, where President Saleh, who’s been in control in basically a dictatorship for the past 32 years, has agreed to step down, he says, although in 30 days, in power sharing. There are a lot of codicils to his agreement. But assuming he does carry through and step down after 32 years in power, and he has been something of a U.S. ally, what does that mean for our interests?
BILL KRISTOL: I think it could be good for our interests. It’s a complicated place, Yemen. We’re going to have to be involved there.
WALLACE: A big al-Qaeda presence there.
KRISTOL: But again, I mean, Saleh is going to go. Assad is going to go, in my view. He has lost fundamental legitimacy. The reign of fear has been broken. Qaddafi is going to go.
Either we are going to be involved in [helping to shape] the outcome, or we’re going to stand back and say, as Mara just correctly, I think, characterized the administration, gee, it’s awfully difficult, it’s awfully complicated. What you said Vice President Biden said, the Europeans can do a little more, that’s pathetic.
Do we care about how the Middle East shapes up or not? Do we really want to say we hope the French and British might do a little more, or we hope things will turn out well? Meanwhile, people are getting slaughtered in Syria.
I mean, it really is bad for us to be so terrified — on Libya, someone said, “It’s mission creep in Libya.” Victory is — “mission creep” is another word for victory in the case of Libya. And in the case of Syria, being passive while people are getting slaughtered by the Assad regime, which is a hostile regime, in bed with the Iranians, in bed with Hezbollah and Hamas, I think it’s really a sad day for the U.S. . . .
In sum, there is a growing sense that, as blogger Rachel Abrams put it, the administration’s “refusal to distinguish between oppressor and oppressed — ‘we . . . call on all sides to cease and desist from the use of violence’ — shames us in the world and endangers us.”
The Wall Street Journal now reports that even the Obama crew is reconsidering its disastrous engagement policy. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, its move away from engagement is timid and entirely insufficient:
The Obama administration is drafting an executive order empowering the president to freeze the assets of these senior Syrian officials and ban them from any business dealings in the U.S., according to officials briefed on the deliberations.
Unilateral sanctions by Washington on Syrian officials wouldn’t have much direct impact on Mr. Assad’s inner circle, as most regime members have few holdings in the U.S. But countries in Europe, where the Assads are believed to have more substantial assets, will be pressured to follow Washington’s lead, the officials involved in the discussions said. . . .
If Mr. Obama imposes new sanctions on Syria, it will mark a break from his initial efforts of seeking rapprochement with Mr. Assad. Over the past two years, the U.S. has eased some of the financial penalties imposed on Damascus by the George W. Bush administration. And in January, Mr. Obama returned a U.S. ambassador to Syria for the first time in nearly six years.
This is progress, some will argue, but it’s pathetically mismatched to the human rights atrocities being perpetrated by Assad and to the potential benefit that the U.S., the region and the West might obtain from Assad’s fall. After years of fruitless efforts to separate Syria from Iran, one can only imagine the impact on the region if Assad were toppled. Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon would lose a patron and supply route, the mullahs in Iran would suffer a blow to their regional aspirations, and freedom and democracy in the Muslim world would get a tremendous boost. Aside from regime change in Iran, I am hard-pressed to think of a more positive development than regime change in Syria.
Yes, some Israelis and Americans fret that Assad is “safer” than the unknown. This has been the perpetual cry of those wary of the Arab Spring and fulfillment of the aspirations of those living under the boot of Middle East despots. That’s not to say that a post-Assad Syria would be nirvana. (Fouad Ajami writes, “[T]here is the ultimate threat that this upheaval would become a sectarian war between the Alawites and the Sunni majority. Syria is riven by sectarian differences — there are substantial Druze and Kurdish and Christian communities — and in the playbook of the regime those communities would be enlisted to keep the vast Sunni majority at bay. This is the true meaning of the refrain by Bashar and his loyalists that Syria is not Egypt or Tunisia — that it would be shades of Libya and worse.”) But, if we have learned anything over the last six months, it is that tin-pot dictators, one way or another, are heading for exile if not extinction in the Middle East, and we’d do well to get on the right side of history, perhaps even, gosh, positively affecting the course of events.
So pin-prick sanctions aren’t going to cut it. Our official policy should be regime change in Syria, and our actions (e.g., recall of our ambassador, a full-court press to isolate Assad’s government diplomatically and economically, fulsome support for anti-regime protestors) should be geared to that goal. Or will Obama, as he did in June 2009, fumble another opportunity to promote positive change in the Middle East?