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Obama’s Nuanced Foreign Policy Comes Undone over Syria

The Assad regime in Syria has killed over 1,000 people in the last two months. Entire cities have been “shelled into submission.” Arrests are creeping toward 10,000. Journalists who have been imprisoned report savage and continuous beatings.

The regime has targeted teenagers, beaten and arrested dozens of Syrian and even American students, and at least 25 children have been tortured and murdered. Al-Jazeera journalist Dorothy Parvaz was held in a cell for three days with a weeping and hysterical teenage girl who had been plucked off the streets and held in isolation for over 10 days. Imprisoned women are subjected to random abuse by men without names, ranks, or uniforms. It’s lawless rule by thugs inside and outside the prisons.

And it’s not as if the Obama administration hasn’t gone all-in on its “Assad is a reformer let’s peel him away from Iran” engagement boondoggle. In April the State Department rushed to assure Damascus the U.S. wasn’t undermining the Syrian government. In May Secretary Clinton still insisted that the U.S. government was looking for reforms out of Syria. President Obama’s Winds of Change speech later that month held out the possibility that Assad could “lead the transition” in Syria, causing Democratic progressive Will Marshall no end of consternation.

All of this was done against the backdrop of our rushed kinetic approach to Libya, a country which was also led by a man the foreign policy and human rights establishment had declared to be a reformer. Until it turned out he wasn’t. Where some might have glimpsed inconsistency, of course, Obama apologists gazed upon super-keen sophistication. The Los Angeles Times, showing no deference to the decent obligation of partisans to avoid self-caricature, even headlined one article as “Obama’s nuanced foreign policy evident in Libya vs. Syria.”

Now Obama administration officials, having gone out of their way to coddle Assad but slowly losing their patience, can’t understand why the international community won’t suddenly go hardline on Syria. Secretary Clinton is frustrated that “the international community is not as united as we are seeking to make it.” Russia and China in particular have been less than forthcoming in their willingness to pressure Damascus. A lot of that has to do with those nations following their objective interests, something that the Obama White House naively thought it could sweep away with the force of The One’s eloquence, and something that belongs in a separate post about smug and wide-eyed “reset” fantasies.

For the purposes of mobilizing international action against Syria, though, the mixed messages make the White House sound incoherent and incompetent. For two years the Obama administration invented one pseudo-sophisticated pretext for engagement after another. Outreach began even before the November 4 election—something that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough—when then-candidate Obama dispatched surrogates to Damascus in the context of so-called “track two” negotiations. Now the administration wants everyone to forget all their previous tangled “analysis,” but to accept their new anti-Assad declarations as writ. Rhetorically that seems like a less than straightforward task.



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