I am not sure that the U.S. should be sending an ambassador back to Syria, which continues to play the old game of saying it wants better relations with the West while simultaneously meddling in Lebanese affairs, trying to acquire nuclear arms, stockpiling chemical weapons, repressing all internal opposition, working with Iran to arm Hezbollah and Hamas, facilitating Sunni terrorist operations in Iraq, and generally harming the overall prospects of peace and stability in the Middle East. Damascus is likely to see the appointment of a top American diplomat as a reward for its disruptive behavior — especially when, as Michael Young notes, the U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which could have put serious pressure on Syria to reform, is going nowhere fast. The Bush administration withdrew our ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest the Hariri assassination, which was undoubtedly engineered from Syria. No one in Syria has been held accountable, and yet here comes our ambassador calling.
That said, if we are going to send an ambassador to Damascus, it is hard to think of a better choice than Robert Ford. He is currently deputy chief of mission in Iraq, and it was in that capacity that I met with him on my visit to Baghdad last fall. I came away extremely impressed by this career diplomat, who speaks fluent Arabic and has previously served as the U.S. ambassador in Algeria. I realize that State Department Arabists have a checkered reputation — see Robert Kaplan’s fine book on that subject, which makes it clear that too often the Arabists have adopted a “see-no-evil attitude” toward the Arabs while displaying unremitting hostility to the Israelis. Bob Ford isn’t like that at all. I found him to be a singularly shrewd, insightful, and clear-eyed analyst of Iraqi politics. In fact, I left his office wondering why he wasn’t appointed ambassador in place of Chris Hill, who has no background in the Middle East.
Ford will be the best possible American representative in Damascus. I just hope he will not be forced to front for an Obama-esque policy of appeasement. It is possible that after the failure of engagement in Iran, the administration will now redouble its efforts to reach some kind of accommodation with Syria that will enhance rather than diminish the troublemaking capacity of the Alawite clique at the center of Syrian politics.