REMEMBER BASHAR ASSAD “THE REFORMER?” BRET STEPHENS
A reader of last week’s column on Hillary Clinton chided me for failing to mention her remark, made as the revolt in Syria was gaining strength last year, that Bashar Assad was “a reformer.” The reader makes a fair point, one that helps explain why the administration has been so feckless about confronting the Syrian dictator.
But the real scandal of Mrs. Clinton’s remark lies in its broader context.
Here’s Mrs. Clinton’s fuller quote, from March 27, 2011, answering CBS’s Bob Schieffer on why the U.S. was prepared to intervene against Moammar Gadhafi but not against Assad: “There’s a different leader in Syria now,” she explained. “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he is a reformer.”
That caused some raising of eyebrows. So a few days later Mrs. Clinton clarified: “I referenced the opinions of others. That was not speaking either for myself or for the administration.”
How could Mrs. Clinton justify administration policy by citing opinions she supposedly refused to endorse? Because she’s a genius, obviously. The more relevant point is that she was mouthing the conventional liberal wisdom of the day, which paid more heed to a dictator than to those he repressed. Maybe it’s time Assad’s apologists apologize to the people of Syria.
Take Joshua Landis, the University of Oklahoma professor who writes the influential Syria Comment blog. In September 2005, Mr. Landis chided the Bush administration for its failure to more closely engage Assad.
“Assad’s regime is certainly no paragon of democracy,” Mr. Landis wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “but even its most hard-bitten enemies [within Syria] do not want to see it collapse.” Mr. Landis went on to praise Assad for freeing political prisoners,”tolerat[ing] a much greater level of criticism than his father did,” and enforcing a degree of religious toleration that “had made Syria one of the safest countries in the region.”
Views like these were well in keeping with most media portrayals of Assad. A lengthy and mostly flattering New York Times profile from 2005 portrays Assad and his wife Asma as a progressive duo struggling to drag their unwieldy country into the 21st century—while trying to deal with an inept Bush administration too stupid to engage him or give him latitude for reform.
Also in 2005, a ferocious battle erupted in the U.S. Senate over the confirmation of John Bolton as ambassador to the U.N. A key point of contention: his congressional testimony from late 2003 claiming Damascus had “one of the most advanced Arab state chemical weapons capabilities,” and that it might have a covert interest in developing a nuclear bomb. The CIA reportedly went berserk over what it considered Mr. Bolton’s undue alarmism, which would later help sink his nomination in the Senate.
What came next was a chorus of congressional sycophancy. In 2007, Nancy Pelosi enthused that “the road to Damascus is a road to peace.” On March 16, 2011—the day after the first mass demonstration against the regime—John Kerry said Assad was a man of his word who had been “very generous with me.” He added that under Assad “Syria will move; Syria will change as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States.” This is the man who might be our next secretary of state.
Maybe it’s unfair to score Messrs. Landis, Kerry and the others for not anticipating how Assad would behave in the face of a revolt. Then again, Mr. Landis’s 2005 op-ed was published just a few months after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s spectacular murder in Beirut. Syria’s secret nuclear program was exposed by an Israeli bombing in 2007, yet that didn’t deter the rush toward engagement that began under Condoleezza Rice. Sen. Kerry was well aware of the military aid Syria was illegally providing Hezbollah, which also seemed to do nothing to dent his enthusiasm for Assad.
Nor was there a shortage of commentators warning of the perils of courting Assad. So why the headlong rush to do so? Maybe because it fit into a wider ideology of engagement that encompassed not only Assad but also Ahmadinejad and Putin. A simpler answer, and probably a truer one, is that it was the opposite of what the neocons wanted to do.
Now we know what the George Costanza-esque “do the opposite” approach to Syria has yielded: A secretary of state inclined to give Assad a pass when the Syrian revolt began; an administration that took months to call for the dictator’s ouster; a U.S. that has helped Assad buy time by insisting that only the U.N.—where he is defended by Russia and China—could sanction any kind of action. It’s true that the administration has gradually changed its tune. But did 10,000-plus Syrians have to die in order to bury the myth that Assad’s apologists had constructed for him?
On Monday, a Syrian government spokesman all but admitted that the regime had stocks of chemical weapons. So John Bolton was right. Maybe when this administration stops thinking of its critics as the enemy, it won’t be caught mute and flat-footed when our real enemies show their colors.
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