The president is now recycling his Libyan policy in Syria — after months of murder and mayhem, finally calling on Bashar Assad to step down. But, once again, it is not wise to request something if you have no intention or ability to make sure it happens. Secretary Clinton has used the Syrian mess to elucidate the new “leading from behind,” “no more Iraqs” diplomacy first articulated in Libya: By waiting our allies out, we force them to go on record first opposing the regime, and then we come in late as a partner rather than the lead player — saving our own resources as we afford prestige and influence to our friends.
But other nations have, in fact, cut off all relations with Syria in a way we have not, and are in front of the U.S. to the extent that, as in the case of Egypt and Tunisia, should Assad collapse, we will once again be irrelevant. Our Syrian policy has been reminiscent of the long silence accorded the Iranian regime in 2009 as it went after a million protesters in the streets of Tehran, the on again/off again bombing of Qaddafi (until early 2011, our ex-monster undergoing Western rehab), and the sudden abandonment of Mubarak and ben Ali on the apparent pretext that they were worse than other kleptocratic tyrants in the region and we should not miss the pile-on as they stumbled. Clearly, U.S. policy from the beginning should have been focused on supporting popular unrest against the two worst, most anti-American, and most dangerous regimes in the region: Iran and Syria — precisely those we were initially most eager to coddle.
So it raises the question of why we suddenly restored diplomatic relations with Syria in the first place, considering its alliances with Hezbollah and Iran, and the damage it had done our interests in Lebanon and Iraq, and against Israel. Fair or not, the impression is growing in the Middle East that far from pursuing a new leading-from-behind multilateralism, the U.S. is simply weak and uncertain and looking for clever phraseologies to suggest that its embarrassing confusion is by intent. “Leading from behind” is really opportunistic piling-on when we think a regime is weakening, gussied up with utopian rhetoric about multilateralism and smart power. That may be neat once or twice, but after a bit it is seen for what it is — sloppy and lazy ex post facto posturing.
In sum, there has been no consistency in our policy toward Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iran, or Syria, calibrated on the relative toxicity and anti-Americanism of these regimes. The half-year survival of the weak and tiny Libyan regime against NATO’s three most prominent members is shaming the alliance, and it reminds would-be antagonists that European is not just insolvent but militarily irrelevant as well. Distancing ourselves from Israel only invited the endangered dictatorships to renew sponsoring terrorist attacks in order to restore their Islamic fides, and in the apparent belief that the U.S. doesn’t care all that much. There is the sense that Obama calls on a strongman to step down only when (a) it is increasingly likely that he might not survive; (b) others have beat him to it, and (c) in johnny-come-lately fashion, it is time to join the crowd. The much-ballyhooed 2009 policy of outreach to Iran and Syria is now in shambles, and it is amplified when we add in the failures in upgrading with Cuba, Russia, and Venezuela — reminding us that the bad guys in the world both predated and transcended George Bush, something the Obama administration still hasn’t grasped.