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Leading From Way Behind

At the State Department press conference Friday, spokesman Mark Toner repeatedly dodged questions about the U.S. position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He said it is “not something that we need to decide,” because it is “really something that’s being driven by the Syrian people.” It is the same excuse for silence he gave six weeks ago.

These days, we do not hear about the Obama Doctrine (“when a leader’s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people … [he] needs to leave now”), or about R2P, or the Arab Spring. The administration cannot even articulate an acceptable outcome in Syria:

MR. TONER: Again, it doesn’t matter what’s an acceptable outcome to us. It matters whether it’s an acceptable outcome to the Syrian people.

QUESTION: Give us the answer. … Do you support the demands of protesters in Syria?

MR. TONER: Do we support the demands of protesters? We support, as we’ve said all along, their right to protest peacefully and to express their demands, and that’s something that we’ve seen time and time again the Syrian Government refuse to honor that and to continue to carry out a vicious crackdown on peaceful protestors. …

QUESTION: Does the United States – the Administration or the United States is supporting the protesters in Syria?

MR. TONER: Again, we support their peaceful – their right to peacefully demonstrate, to make their demands against the Syrian Government and to, frankly, have the Syrian Government listen to their demands. … it’s not for us to say what those demands should or should not be.

QUESTION: … I think [the] overwhelming chant in these demonstrations is calling on Assad to be gone. Do you support that? …

MR. TONER: Again, [blah, blah, blah for 112 words] … again, this is something – so I just would say that the Syrian Government, Assad, have continued to make themselves less and less part of any future equation in Syria. They’re doing a good job of making themselves a pariah state and of losing their capacity to lead any real change or reform …

QUESTION: … why didn’t you ask President Assad to leave, as you did with Leader Qaddafi?

MR. TONER: … This is something that’s in the hands of the Syrian people. They’re the ones driving this process. It’s not for us to say that this transition should look like A, B, or C. It’s something for the Syrian people to decide how this looks going forward.

With respect to Egypt, Obama announced Mubarak must go “now” — and sent a personal envoy to reinforce the message. With respect to Libya, Obama announced Qaddafi “needs to go” — and joined a coalition currently trying to hasten the process by assassinating him.

With respect to Syria, Obama reprises the leadership role he displayed in the 2009 Iranian demonstrations. The administration reportedly regrets its hesitation then. But what explains its stance in 2011? An experienced observer concludes what we are witnessing is much more, and much worse, than mere hesitation.



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