The more Bashar Assad butchers Syrian dissidents, the more the world community expresses outrage — while it does little to stop the bloodletting. Why?
Ironies on top of ironies
1. The politics of intervention. Republicans might seem the most likely to push for an American bombing campaign against Bashar Assad. Some conservatives, in fact, are doing so. But most are silent — and for understandable reasons. Between 2005 and 2009, most liberals made the case that American intervention against an Arab dictator in the Middle East was intrinsically unwise. This liberal chorus included the likes of Hillary Clinton, who as senator had voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein. Barack Obama in 2007 started his presidential bid to the left of Senator Clinton, outlining a plan for near-immediate withdrawal from Iraq, while continuing his concerted attack on almost all the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols.
Republicans were relieved that Obama, once president, suddenly dropped almost all the demagogic criticism that had fueled his successful campaign and embraced the Bush-Cheney policies against terrorists. But they were not relieved enough to overlook the hypocrisy — and the prior damage done by Obama and others, whose rhetoric was revealed as more partisan than reflective of any principled positions against Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventive detention, and troops in Iraq.
All the old left-wing anti-war charges — e.g., that neocons were getting us into a proxy war on Israel’s behalf, or that oil was always a catalyst for any U.S. action in the Middle East — might now equally apply to Syria — a regime that has killed far fewer than the million butchered by Saddam Hussein. In other words, many of those pondering preemptive action against Syria seem to be doing so on the basis that Nobel Peace Laureate Obama, and not George Bush, would be carrying it out. If Bush were calling for tough action against Bashar Assad, we would hear accusations of everything from Halliburton conspiracies to Wag the Dog politics.
2. Bad, worse, or the worst? Other than Iran, Syria has been America’s most vehement enemy over the last decade. It sent jihadists into Iraq to kill Americans, and harbored al-Qaeda terrorists on its own soil. It tried to obtain a nuclear weapon until Israel bombed its nascent enrichment facilities. It was a partner with Hezbollah and Iran in destroying Lebanon and murdering former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Nonetheless, in January 2009 the Obama administration loudly announced a Syrian reset policy, as if the previous estrangement were due more to George Bush than to Bashar Assad. Indeed, during the 2008 campaign, informal Obama advisers traveled to Syria to talk of a new relationship, and the Assad regime was openly banking on an Obama victory. John Kerry frequented Damascus and assured us that his talks with Bashar Assad would lead to an Obama–Assad breakthrough (e.g., “Our latest conversation gave me a much greater sense that Assad is willing to do the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States”).
Soon after Obama’s inauguration, he appointed a new ambassador to Syria, the first since President Bush withdrew our ambassador in 2005. Secretary of State Clinton dubbed Assad a “reformer.” Mrs. Assad suddenly morphed into a chic Westernized first lady, a Middle Eastern Jackie Kennedy. Obama’s special envoy George Mitchell was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Damascus in a decade. Bashar Assad warmed to the Obama outreach (“We have the impression that this administration will be different, and we have seen the signals”). Assad expressed his thanks for Obama’s initial pressure on Israel and invited the U.S. to his Damascus “summit” on the Middle East, where there might be grand talk of a new American thaw with Iran, daylight between the United States and Israel, and closer ties to Damascus.
So we are confused: Is Assad’s current murdering out of character, or true to the odious nature that had won him ostracism from the Bush administration? Which is he — a demonized victim of Bush paranoia, a sincere reformer, or a sudden mass murderer? Until this confused administration gets its own narrative straight, most of us will have to keep silent and watch.