The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

Assad’s Favorite Senator, Hitting Romney on Foreign Policy


Oh, John Kerry, don’t ever change. And by that I mean, please don’t become our next secretary of state.

Tonight, John Kerry will report for duty as his party’s designated attack dog on Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy views. Over on the home page, I note Kerry’s traditional flip-flopping, including a belated denunication of his 2004 convention line, “We shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America.”

It takes me back to the Kerry Spot days . . .

But Kerry is a spectacularly wrongheaded choice as Romney’s chief foreign-policy critic, as the Massachusetts senator has spent a good chunk of his time since 2004 making repeated, passionate efforts to build a bridge to Syrian dictator Bashir Assad . . . the same Assad who is now ruthlessly crushing an uprising with thousands of civilian casualties. It’s hard to overstate how dedicated Kerry was to achieving a breakthrough with the dictator:

On March 15, 2011, the first sparks of a national uprising against Assad’s regime ignited; within days there were large-scale protests in several cities, and police responded with live ammunition in some cases. About 70 Syrian civilians were killed in the initial weeks.

At the end of that month, Secretary Clinton uttered one of the administration’s most regrettable lines about the Syrian dictator in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation: “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.”

While Kerry’s staff denies that he ever referred to Assad as a “reformer,” there is little doubt that Clinton had Kerry in mind when she made that remark. The Wall Street Journal reported at the time:

A key supporter of Mr. Assad in Washington has been Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The former presidential candidate has held nearly a half-dozen meetings with Mr. Assad in recent years, according to his staff. The two men have sought to map out the terms of a renewed Syrian-Israel peace track.

Even this month, as protests starting gripping Syria, Mr. Kerry said he thought Syria’s president was an agent for change.

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Mr. Kerry said during a March speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think it’s incumbent on us to try to move that relationship forward in the same way.”

The Obama administration and some Western governments, however, have voiced increasing skepticism about Mr. Kerry’s outreach to Mr. Assad. Last month, the State Department and French government intervened to block a scheduled meeting between the two men in Damascus, said officials briefed on the matter. They were concerned the trip would signal Western weakness just weeks after the collapse of Lebanon’s government.

In the Carnegie speech, Kerry said, “My judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

As recently as February 2010, Kerry was telling Middle Eastern leaders that he believed Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria.

Of course, as the uprising against the regime has continued, Syria has indeed moved and changed, in an exponentially more ruthless and dangerous direction. The ongoing conflict has killed about 24,000 Syrians, according to opposition forces, and displaced about 1.5 million refugees.

For what it’s worth, as the evidence and bodies piled up, Kerry came around to the well-established view that Assad is a thug that no U.S. administration should be trying to court. At a hearing last month, Kerry declared, “The international community — with American leadership and support — must continue to help the opposition both in ending Assad’s reign of terror and in preparing for what comes next after he is gone.”

Now he tells us.

Tags: John Kerry


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