By now it’s clear to most observers that Syria’s ruling Assad family are violent, congenitally anti-democratic stooges of Iran who deserve severe international sanctions. Pres. George W. Bush was at the vanguard of this realization, and was consequently committed to diplomatic isolation of the regime — specifically as punishment for their support of Hezbollah and Hamas and their meddling in Lebanon, but more broadly, as a former Middle East policy adviser to W. puts it, for their history of anti-democratic violence. In other words, Bush worried that something like the current situation in Syria — Bashar al-Assad’s months-long, thousands-killed crackdown on democratic protests — was coming, and wanted to make sure that the United States’ hostility to such a regime was clearly and strongly expressed.
He did his best. But despite Bush’s objections, expressed in no uncertain terms, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania visited Syria throughout W.’s presidency and beyond, continuing after his switch to the Democratic party in 2009, and even on through July 2010, when he was on his way out after being defeated in the Democratic primary.
A brief history: Specter spent three decades in the U.S. Senate and was noted as a proponent of the use of economic sanctions against illiberal regimes, particularly those lacking religious freedom. He even singled out Syria in several such sanctions. Specter was aggressive enough in these pursuits that he got blowback from the free-trade promoters of the 1990s.
But he simultaneously stood out for making controversial and sometimes expressly forbidden visits to Syria, totaling at least 30 throughout his Senate career, according to some accounts. He met with Hafez al-Assad — dictator-president of Syria from 1971 through 2000 and father of the current incumbent, Bashar — for the first time in 1988: six years after the infamous Hama massacre of 10,000 to 20,000 Syrian civilians. The two parties to this meeting had different goals. Assad was seeking new allies as Syria’s relationship with the Soviet Union, on which he had long relied, was beginning to crumble. And Specter was initially interested in Israel, as he later explained:
I have tried to find a rapport with Assad as part of activating him in the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process. He was very negative about the peace process when I first raised the subject with him in 1988. I had a long meeting with him then, lasting more than four and a half hours. Since then, his attitude has changed tremendously, in terms of his willingness to hold discussions with the Israelis.
While never friendly with the United States government, Hafez al-Assad, as American Diplomacy reported at the time, “retained a strong curiosity about the United States. He cultivated an unusual range of contacts, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Senator Arlen Specter.” Though Specter’s trips raised eyebrows, challenges, and criticism through the 1990s, neither the George H. W. Bush nor the Clinton administration actively discouraged such visits.
When power transferred from Clinton to George W. Bush, on the one hand, and from Hafez to Bashar al-Assad on the other, Specter maintained close contact with the Syrian regime. This didn’t stem from a total naïveté about the Assads — Senator Specter was not a thorough apologist for the regime. In his own words (from an opinion piece after a trip early in the George W. Bush presidency):
The situation was . . . bleak when I traveled on to Beirut and Damascus. Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, had continued to attack Israeli border settlements from Southern Lebanon, leading Israel to bomb Syrian radar. Beirut, once touted as the Paris of the Middle East, has not recovered from Lebanon’s civil war because of factional quarrels and Syria’s continuing dominance of the country.
In Damascus, Syria’s foreign minister Farouk Shara agreed with Sharon that Israeli-Syrian peace talks on the Golan Heights would be pointless at this time. Before President Hafez al-Assad’s death, the parties had come very close to a settlement but were now back to square one.
Notwithstanding the bleak prospects, the Bush administration, aided by Congress, must push the parties back to the bargaining table. There is no doubt that the countries involved listen to Uncle Sam.
The three paragraphs taken together show a worldview that proponents would call “nuanced,” and opponents would call “contradictory,” but that everybody can agree contains internal tension. Syria, Specter acknowledges, has undeniably been very bad, but he thinks it can be cajoled by the U.S. into the peace process — Assad could change. So Specter became a proponent of engagement, against the supposedly cowboyish behavior of his president. (Specter’s extended interview in the Mideast Quarterly is instructive here, because it presents Specter’s misgivings regarding the Syrian regime’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism and his doubts about its seriousness and trustworthiness — combined with a very high commitment to continued efforts at persuasion and engagement.)
Specter’s relationship became particularly noteworthy late in the decade. After Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and his entourage were assassinated in 2005 — in an attack that was orchestrated by Hezbollah and in which Syria was implicated — President Bush recalled Amb. Margaret Scobey and tried to tighten Syria’s isolation. But in open defiance of the White House and the State Department, Specter and three Democratic friends — Sens. John Kerry, Chris Dodd, and Bill Nelson — began a series of high-profile visits with Bashar al-Assad in late 2006, bringing to a close a sustained period of total isolation from American high officialdom.
The administration was furious — and its fury was actively publicized. White House press secretary Tony Snow told the media, “We don’t think that members of Congress ought to be going there.” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack laid out the administration’s reasoning: “The Syrian government knows fully well what it needs to do, and certainly the United States is not going to pay the price for mere engagement with Syria in trading on the freedom of the people of Lebanon or looking the other way on the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri.” The senators’ pursuit of, as critics put it, a private foreign policy was a humiliating snub to President Bush. But Specter’s decades-long commitment to engagement was gaining traction among critics of the president (and not least those who were seeking to succeed him), and the press did not make a scandal of the visits.
President Bush had learned a different lesson about engagement from his own dealings with Syria. In 2008, he reflected back on his eight years in office and said that his “patience had run out” with Bashar al-Assad; he once again sent a deliberate “message to the Syrians . . . that you will continue to be isolated, you will continue to be viewed as a nation that is thwarting the will of the Lebanese people.” He determined that the appropriate posture toward Bashar al-Assad was adversarial dissociation.
In 2009 Bush was replaced by a proponent of engagement, and Arlen Specter formally switched to the Democratic party. Diplomatic relations with Syria were soon quietly restored: President Obama appointed Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria during a congressional recess (and still has not withdrawn him). Specter made one of his last visits to Syria in July 2010 with fellow Pennsylvania Democratic senator Bob Casey, in an effort to renew stalled peace talks with Israel. While there he voiced his support for Ambassador Ford’s appointment: “It would be very helpful to the U.S. position to have an ambassador,” he said.
In March 2011, Bashar al-Assad began orchestrating what is arguably the most brutal crackdown of the “Arab Spring” — at least 1,000 Syrian civilians have been killed, military tanks have been sent into Daraa, and diplomats have privately described the regime as “completely out of control.” Arlen Specter, who has joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, cannot be reached for comment, despite his expert familiarity with the parties to these momentous events.
— Matthew Shaffer is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.