The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary has her own Syria problem

Monday may have been devastating for the administration’s effort to rally public opinion regarding Syria, but it also underscored the seriousness of Hillary Clinton’s problems.

On a superficial level, her speech in favor of military action will, just as her Iraq vote did, annoy the left and encourage others to challenge her in 2016, should she run. More fundamentally, though, it summoned up memories of a fleet of missteps and misjudgments by Clinton and her appointees while she ran the State Department. These led to the dilemma we now face.

Tim Miller of the Republican America Rising PAC is storing away damning information on Hillary like a squirrel preparing to feast during a long winter. He argues, “As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton showed terrible judgment in dealing with Syria, showering a ruthless dictator with diplomatic attention, without regard for Bashar al-Assad’s actions and intentions.” It is hard to quibble with his conclusion that “Clinton led a foreign policy effort which placed a new ambassador in Syria, loosened U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime and gave Syria a seat at the table during Mideast peace talks, all while Assad worked tirelessly to undermine U.S. interests in the region and then began brutalizing his own people.”

A brief recounting of her record: In the spring of 2009, Clinton launched an effort to woo Assad despite evidence that he was abetting Hezbollah and brutally repressing his people. At her behest, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and his wife called on Assad. She sent a military delegation and envoy George Mitchell to visit and thereafter decided that a new ambassador should be appointed and sent back to Syria (President George W. Bush had pulled our ambassador out.).

Soon trinkets were dangled before Assad. We lifted sanctions. Mitchell hinted that a presidential visit was in the offing and suggested a new embassy might be built. The next year, a fleet of technology executives visited. Clinton’s State Department pushed the notion that Assad could be a key figure in a peace deal with Israel. In her now-infamous appearance on “Face the Nation” in March 2011, she defended her outreach to Assad:

There is 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. What’s been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning. But there’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities than police actions, which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.

All the while commentators bitterly criticized her policy, warning that Assad was a brutal dictator who could not be separated from Iran and would not play a constructive role in the Middle East.

From 2009 to 2011, there was no evidence that Clinton’s efforts were bearing fruit. To the contrary, Assad literally embraced Iran’s president in public. He blocked IAEA inspectors and provided Scud missiles to Hezbollah in violation of the U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 Lebanon war. Syria continued to act as a passageway for terrorists filtering into Iraq. We did nothing effective to address these issues.

When Assad began cracking down on his people, months passed before the U.S. called for his departure. Thereafter, aside from failed efforts to persuade Russia not to veto U.N. action, we stood idly by. Jihadis poured into Syria.

Clinton can argue that, near the end of her tenure, she became a more forceful advocate for action against Assad. But that was too little too late. Long before, she had laid the foundation, built on nothing but self-delusion, for a wildly naïve policy that allowed Syria’s dictator to work his will on his people without fear of U.S. action.

All of this was only one aspect of her equally misguided “reset” policy with Russia. While we praised Vladimir Putin’s presidential election (secured in a rigged contest), he was backing Assad and supplying the killing machine that has slaughtered more than 100,000 Syrians.

Yesterday, she endorsed the Russia gambit to defuse U.S. action, saying it would be a breakthrough if Bashar al-Assad gave up his weapons. It seems neither time nor experience has opened her eyes to the nature of these regimes. (Or perhaps she is desperately, obviously searching for a way to get herself and her former boss off the hook, knowing full well that any deal mediated by Putin will be a charade. Once again, it’s the Clintons first, the welfare of the country second.)

Among the wrong foreign policy judgments of this administration, none had as many calamitous consequences as Clinton’s deeply flawed Syria policy and foolish Russian reset. Kerry may not have helped matters in the past couple of days with poor salesmanship, but to be fair he was left to clean up the mess he inherited from Hillary in Foggy Bottom, Tehran, Damascus and elsewhere. Now America, as well as Israel and our other allies in the region, will suffer the cost of her incompetence.