President Obama and his foreign policy team appear genuinely surprised that their conciliatory approach to the world’s dictators has been so unsuccessful. The latest case in point is Syria. At Commentary’s Contentions, Noah Pollak explains:
Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star, has a fine column parsing the latest developments on Syria, Lebanon, and the Obama administration. He confirms the interpretation I made recently on this blog, that the administration is puzzled at the failure of its opening gambits and unsure of what to do next:
The problem is that Washington is of several minds over what to do about Syria…because there is no broad accord, and because the president has not provided clear guidance on resolving Mideastern problems, there is confusion in Washington. And where there is confusion there is policy bedlam, with everyone trying to fill the vacuum. That explains why the Syrians feel they can relax for now, and why the Iranians see no reason yet to fear an American riposte.
Young’s worry is confirmed by this remarkable report from Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin:
As for why Syria seems to be playing such an unhelpful role, “that’s the million-dollar question,” the [Obama administration] official said….”We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem,” the official said. “Until then it’s all damage control.”
This is quite simply amazing. The Assads, father and now son, have run the same foreign policy for decades. It is a very simple model, and one that gets discussed in detail on a regular basis: They are the arsonists who sell water to the fire department. The administration official should start his odyssey of discovery by reading Bret Stephens’s 2009 Commentary essay, “The Syrian Temptation — and Why Obama Must Resist It.”
Bashar is a promoter of a remarkable array of death and destruction in the Middle East: killing American soldiers in Iraq, murdering Lebanon’s pro-democracy community into submission, killing Israelis, arming Hezbollah, hosting Hamas, and so on. This is intended not only to make Syria into a bigger player than it would otherwise be, but allows Bashar to maintain his illegitimate police state of a regime by constantly invoking foreign threats. And it ensures that the United States and other western powers will continuously drag themselves to Syria to beg for cooperation. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Nancy Pelosi famously declared on her visit in 2007, unintentionally confirming to Assad the wisdom of the mayhem he sponsors. This is like saying that the road to the brothel is a road to virginity.
I’m not sure whether Obama’s problem is that he values ideological certitude above empirical reality, or that he is too ignorant of history to know what empirical reality is. Either way, his foreign policies have been ineffective at best.
Meanwhile, at The Corner, Michael Rubin recounts the State Department’s effort to justify sending an ambassador to Damascus:
Increasingly, it seems the State Department is grasping at straws as it tries to explain why it needs to send ambassador to Damascus. … The latest is that the Syrian ambassador to Washington isn’t passing accurate messages back to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, something the Washington Post hints at.
It’s absolute nonsense — as other Arab diplomats based in Washington will acknowledge — that the Syrian ambassador isn’t relaying messages. Ambassadors for authoritarian dictatorships relay information frequently and accurately. When the authoritarian dictators do not respect the seriousness of the administration nor do they believe that the White House will take any serious coercive action, they sometimes choose not to listen. …
We have an embassy in Damascus, and we can pass messages anytime we so choose. If the State Department seriously believes the Syrian ambassador in Washington doesn’t report things back to Damascus (too busy, as he is, taking trips to Oklahoma and California), then Secretary Clinton can make clear to Damascus through other means that it’s time Syria sent responsible diplomats. But the fact is that Bashar al-Assad wants an American ambassador because it would symbolize his rehabilitation. The only question that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama should answer is whether they think that rehabilitation is warranted at this point in time.
One more question for Obama and his aides to puzzle over.