JOHN KERRY finally got a clue on Syria last week. Is it too much to hope that the Obama administration might follow suit?
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad
For years, the senior senator from Massachusetts has been an advocate of appeasement with Syria. He has insisted that Washington and Damascus have "shared interests" that justify warmer ties, and has championed diplomatic and financial incentives to coax the regime of Bashar al-Assad away from its partnership with Iran and its support for terrorism. Kerry has repeatedly traveled to Damascus to woo Assad, and was confidently predicting not long ago that "Syria will move, Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West."
But last week, with Syrian tanks shelling residential neighborhoods and the death toll in the government's savage crackdown on popular protests nearing a thousand, Kerry woke up to reality at last. He conceded that the Syrian dictator "is obviously not a reformer now" and that continued engagement with the bloody regime in Damascus is pointless. Given the carnage in Syria, it should never have taken Kerry so long to abandon his delusional belief that the House of Assad is anything but a tyrannical gang of thugs. But at least he abandoned it. That's more progress than the White House has made.
"The defining characteristic of the Obama administration's response to revolution in the Arab world has been its slowness," the Washington Post editorialized last month. Nowhere has this diffidence been more pronounced -- or less defensible -- than in connection with Syria.
Under the 40-year rule of the Assads, Syria has been distinguished only for its sociopathic foreign policy and its unremitting hostility to the United States. During the Cold War, it was a reliable supporter of the Soviet Union; today it is a close ally of the brutal theocracy in Iran. It undermines and destabilizes Lebanon, which it regards as a part of "Greater Syria." It is an implacable enemy of Israel. It actively supports Hamas and Hezbollah, the Middle East's deadliest terror organizations. It violates nuclear non-proliferation agreements, and with North Korea's help constructed a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor. And during the US war in Iraq, it dispatched thousands of jihadists to kill American troops.
If ever a government deserved America's contempt and condemnation, the Syrian government does. If ever a popular uprising deserved American encouragement, the Syrian uprising does. Yet the Obama administration, which (eventually) pressed Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to resign and (belatedly) condemned Moammar Qaddafi's onslaught against protesters in Libya, remains indecisive and incoherent on the ferocious Assad crackdown in Syria.
Instead of seizing a historic opportunity to stand with Syria's people, the White House makes excuses for Syria's rulers. Assad and his clique "have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an Italian interviewer on May 6. "People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria." Does Clinton expect anyone to believe that? Can she possibly believe it herself?
So far the United States has responded to the killings and mass arrests by freezing the assets of a few Syrian officials -- not including Bashar al-Assad. "This sharpens the choice for Syrian leaders who are involved in the decisions," an administration official told reporters. "Assad could be next."
But Assad knows he has little reason to worry. The Obama administration has not recalled its ambassador from Damascus, or expelled the Syrian ambassador from Washington. The president has yet to denounce the atrocities in Syria with anything like the forceful outrage of his statements on Libya. No wonder Assad's spokeswoman brushes aside the administration's views on Syria as "not too bad," and shrugs off the milquetoast sanctions as nothing to worry about.
For week, throngs of Syrian protesters have been chanting, "Al-sha'ab yoreed isqat al nizam" -- "The people want to overthrow the regime." They are publicly proclaiming the illegitimacy of their cruel government, and risking their lives each time they do so. They are not asking for outside military intervention. But surely they are entitled to the vigorous, vocal support of the president of the United States. He is called the leader of the free world for a reason. Does he understand what that that reason is? If so, this is the hour to show it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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