Politics & Policy

Assad’s Useful Idiots

American policymakers tried to negotiated with the Assad regime for too long.

How to depose Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in a clean fashion has become a pressing question for the international community. How strange that, not so long ago, the question for them was how to convince Assad to join forces with the West. Along the way, many American policymakers worked strenuously to bring him into the fold, as they heaped praise befitting a statesman on the brutal tyrant.

In a recent column, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens recounted some of the paeans to Assad: In a March 2011 interview, Hillary Clinton implied that Assad was a “reformer.” In 2007, Nancy Pelosi, over strong objections from the State Department, visited Syria, and said, “The road to Damascus is a road to peace.” Senator John Kerry predicted that “Syria will change as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States.”

The record of American policymakers’ failures to talk the Assad regime out of its iniquity is long indeed.

After a three-hour meeting with Assad during her 2007 trip, Pelosi told the world that Syria was ready to negotiate with Israel. That was technically true, but the precondition Syria set was that Israel would have to agree to return the strategically important Golan Heights, the mountainous region from which Syria had launched attacks on Israel before the Six-Day War of 1967.

Syria, of course, was and remains a sponsor of Hezbollah, which had initiated a war with Israel the year before Pelosi’s meeting with Assad. Pelosi, who had visited Israel before her trip to Syria, surprised Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert when she told Assad that Olmert was willing to begin peace talks with him. This could be interpreted, charitably, as miscommunication between the Californian congresswoman and the Israeli prime minister. More likely, it was a matter of her being overzealous.

Pelosi’s reason for ignoring the Bush administration’s objections and going to Syria is worth recalling. “The meeting [between Pelosi and Assad] was an attempt to push the Bush administration to open a direct dialogue with Syria,” according to an AP report at the time. She was joined in that effort by Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem. “These people in the United States who are opposing dialogue, I tell them one thing,” he said. “Dialogue is . . . the only method to close the gap existing between two countries.”

Still foreign minister, Moallem has emerged as the chief apologist for Assad, having defended the regime’s crackdown in which thousands of civilians have been killed since the beginning of the year. He has warned those who might be inclined to intervene, asserting that the government would “take tough measures against any country that recognizes [the rebels’] illegitimate council,” the Syrian National Council.

Representative Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), who accompanied Pelosi on her trip, doubled down on the significance of the Pelosi-Assad meeting: “This is only the beginning of our constructive dialogue with Syria, and we hope to build on this visit.”

John Kerry has been a frequent traveler to Syria, meeting with Assad five times from 2009 to 2011. Like Pelosi and Lantos, the former presidential candidate sought to promote peace talks between Syria and Israel. A WikiLeaks document revealed that Kerry told the emir of Qatar in November 2010 that Assad is a man who “wants to change” and that Israel should cede the Golan Heights to the Syrians “at some point.”

After a “long and comprehensive” meeting with Assad in April of that year, Kerry described it as “a very positive discussion.” A month later, Kerry was back in Syria. His spokesman, insisting that “Syria can play a critical role in bringing peace and stability if it makes the strategic decision to do so,” asserted that Kerry had “emerged as one of the primary American interlocutors with the Syrian government.” Despite the senator’s interlocutions, Assad, it appears, has made the wrong “strategic decision.”

In 2009, George Mitchell, then the Obama administration’s special envoy to the Middle East, visited Syria to convince Assad to support Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. “Syria has an integral role to play in reaching comprehensive peace,” he said, affirming that he and Assad sought “to build on this effort to establish a relationship built on mutual respect and mutual interest.”

As secretary of state under the Clinton administration, Warren Christopher visited Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, over 20 times in an effort to forge peace in the Middle East. On one visit in April 1996, the elder Assad kept Christopher waiting all day before meeting with him. The administration chalked up the delay to Assad’s busy schedule and his desire to closely examine the latest American peace proposal.

Hafez Assad, like his son, was no boy scout. He was responsible for ordering the 1982 Huma massacre, in which Syrian forces killed 20,000 citizens. “Assad goes beyond the point of no return,” read the headline in the Guardian. Not for certain American policymakers, apparently.

Democrats are not the only such policymakers to have met with Bashar Assad; Colin Powell, for example, visited Assad in Syria in 2003 to discuss the Iraq War. That meeting, however, was before the Bush administration cut ties with Syria for its role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, who had resigned from office to protest Syrian intervention in Lebanon.

In an effort to open negotiations between the U.S. and Syria, Representative Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) met with Assad one day after Pelosi’s time with him. Issa told reporters afterward that President Bush’s refusal to speak with Syrian leaders was the wrong policy. “That’s an important message to realize,” he said. “We have tensions, but we have two functioning embassies.”

Assad’s murderousness is now a banner headline, but his past crimes, and those of his father, were never truly hidden. On the contrary, anyone with a clear moral compass would have recognized them for who they are: dictators heading an evil regime intent on spreading terrorism across the globe. It reflects poorly on the political judgment of certain politicians that they thought the Assads could be changed or honestly negotiated with.

— Noah Glyn is an editorial intern at National Review.


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