With 1,700 peaceful protesters now dead in the streets of Syria, the Obama administration is ramping up its rhetoric. Now they are getting really tough. They won’t stand for this kind of violence, these murders, this repression. Assad is, you see, “running out of time.” Our secretary of state was emphatic: “It is absolutely clear that the Syrian government is running out of time. There isn’t any question about that.” Then she got even tougher: “It doesn’t appear that there is a coherent and consistent message coming from Syria,” she told reporters after meeting with the president of Lithuania in Vilnius.
Did she denounce the murders? This is what she said: “I am disheartened by the recent reports of continued violence on the borders and in Aleppo, where demonstrators have been beaten, attacked with knives by government-organized groups and security forces.” And she added “We regret the loss of life, and we regret the violence.”
These are not action verbs: She did not condemn, denounce, attack, rebuke, demand. She regretted. She was disheartened — as if the bloody Assad regime cares about hurting her feelings.
Anyway the secretary is dead wrong: There is a very “coherent and consistent message coming from Syria.” It is that the regime will kill anyone in its way or challenging its power, including unarmed demonstrators of all ages. The lack of a “coherent and consistent message” is, sad to say, in Washington.
The secretary’s remarks, made on July 1, are a creepy introduction to the July Fourth weekend with its celebration of American freedom and American resolve. They reflect an administration simply unable to break with Assad, unwilling to pull its ambassador no matter how ridiculous his stay in Damascus becomes, still dreaming of an Assad-led transition that might allow Obama to take up “engagement.” The State Department is urging Syrian dissidents who are seeing their friends and colleagues shot down by Assad’s snipers to “dialogue” with his regime. Not only the moral but the strategic gains for the United States from his downfall — Iran’s loss of its only Arab ally, its Mediterranean port, its border with Israel via Hezbollah; Hamas’s loss of its headquarters in Damascus; the end of an enemy regime that has the blood of thousands of Americans on its hands in Iraq — appear invisible to this White House.
The courage of the Syrian protesters is remarkable, for they face prison, torture, or death every time they lift a banner. One can only hope that they do not judge America’s commitment to freedom by the weak and unprincipled stance being taken by the Obama administration. July Fourth would be a good day for the White House to issue a statement calling, in the name of freedom, for Assad’s departure. It is not too late to rescue our policy from today’s combination of stupidity and immorality, but — to quote the secretary of state — they are “running out of time.”
— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national-security adviser handling the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.