Jackson Diehl asks, “Why is the West so sluggish on Syria?” He writes of President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on demonstrators:
Four days after the first mass shooting, Hillary Clinton called Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “a reformer.” The first, weak U.S. sanctions came on April 29 — 45 days after that first call for freedom. On Friday, as troops turned heavy machine guns and artillery on protesters, Europe finally followed suit. A White House statement threatened further measures, but said they would depend on the regime’s actions — as if it had not yet done enough.
Perhaps most significantly, President Obama has yet to say about Assad what he said about Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — that he must go. . . .
My guess is that U.S. policy in Syria has been hamstrung by some of the same factors that have slowed U.S. responsiveness all through the Arab uprisings. There is, first of all, a reluctance to set aside conventional notions about Arab politics, and disbelief in the possibility of revolutionary change. There is anxiety about what might follow the collapse of dictatorship. And there is unwillingness to get in front of regional allies who are themselves invested in the status quo.
My own guess is that, for all those reasons Jackson lists (plus the ongoing delusion that Assad could help with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), the administrations wants him to stay. That’s Elliott Abrams’s suspicion as well, commenting on a May 6 interview (which is excerpted in part below):
QUESTION: At this point, this is a country where they have killed most people in the street.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I don’t have that comparison, but what I do know is that they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda. Nobody believed Qadhafi would do that. People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria. So we’re going to continue joining with all of our allies to keep pressing very hard on that.
This is astonishing. By last week Assad had killed roughly 1,000 peaceful demonstrators, though the numbers are hard to verify because he has also kicked journalists out of Syria and closed down many internet and telephone connections. The “reformer” is using his army to murder Syrians seeking freedom and human rights. If this “reformer” line is the interpretation she is getting in cables from the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, that’s yet another reason he should be recalled. If he is taking a tougher line, one has to wonder why she isn’t listening and where she is getting this absurd view.
Assuming Clinton is not a complete dullard, Abrams muses that maybe Obama’s human rights critics are correct when they assert “the United States wants Assad to remain in power.”
This isn’t a shocking inference in the least. Both the United States and Israel have developed an almost inexplicable comfort with the rule of Assad (first the father, now the son). Assad isn’t going to start a war over the Golan, officials of both countries will point out. That’s it — that’s the sum total of helpful things he and his father have done. (Consider how little this is, by the way. Not launching a suicidal war against Israel earns him bushels of brownie points.)
On the other side of the ledger, in the past few decades Syria has been in the nuclear proliferation racket, has armed Hezbollah and facilitated its takeover of Lebanon, has racked up one of the world’s most atrocious human rights records and has continued to abet terrorism in the region. But somehow both the United States and Israel are convinced that the alternative would be worse or that a bloody civil war would break out, creating even more regional instability.
It is the same argument that led the administration and Israel to cling to Hosni Mubarak, even after it was apparent that his aura of “stability” was a mirage. It’s the same lack of realism that led the Obama administration to believe there was a viable “peace process” that could use Assad’s assistance. (Now that the “peace process” is deader than vaudeville, can we eliminate that excuse for tolerating Assad?)
But why hasn’t, as Abrams urges, the Obama administration come clean on its preference for Assad? Perhaps because, even for this crew, the appearance of the world’s greatest democracy standing shoulder to shoulder with the butcher of Damascus is too much to stomach. So that leaves the current policy — Clinton mouthing platitudes and the United States not lifting a finger to aid the anti-Assad protesters.
Yes, it really is June 2009 all over again.