As Alana noted, this morning Hillary Clinton said of Bashar al-Assad, “There is a different leader in Syria now, many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” The generous interpretation is that the secretary of state is grasping for pretexts to explain why Libya but not Syria. Elsewhere she insisted that the U.S. would not act to remove Assad unless it had the backing of an international coalition, a Security Council resolution, a call by the Arab League, and “a condemnation that was universal” – a set of circumstances that has never coalesced in the history of the world, and won’t this time. Russia and China won’t stomach another attack on an arms client, the Arab League isn’t going to countenance a U.S.-led war on a fourth Muslim state, and a universal condemnation wasn’t even achieved before the attack on Libya. So Clinton’s raising the bar pretty high.
That’s domestically useful, since the Obama administration needs to move away from the perception that the president may get the U.S. entangled in any further military operations. Liberals are getting awfully nervous about our newest round of Middle East adventurism, and the relatively small coalition with which the president went to war isn’t reassuring them. The left spent eight years insisting you’d have to be an idiot or a neocon to rush into war unilaterally, and Obama went to war in a week with a crumbling coalition smaller than the Iraq MNF, so there is some tension. Clinton’s recitation of the multilateralist catechism — coalitions, UN backing, Arab imprimatur — is partly meant to assuage leftist fears.
It’s also useful internationally, because the U.S. isn’t going to go to war to unseat Assad. Might as well not raise expectations.
But if she’s already set impossible conditions for intervention, why take the next step and describe Assad as a reformer? It can’t be to draw a distinction between him and Qaddafi, since Qaddafi was hailed as a reformer until he went back to killing people, which is what’s happening with Assad. It can’t be because Assad is sparing Americans during the crackdown and we don’t want to needlessly antagonize him, since the Syrian regime is detaining Americans.
It can’t be because State actually thinks that’s true, can it? Because between killing scores of civilians, murdering and arresting children, and generally refusing to loosen his grip on power, it doesn’t seem true.
Maybe she was actually talking about a “different leader,” after all — one who isn’t Assad, and who actually is a reformer.