On February 15, 1991, at a campaign stop in Ohio, President George H.W. Bush called for “the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” Saddam was a dangerous tyrant and would have to go. But, Bush’s re-election campaign was hot and heavy at the time and focused on the economy, not foreign policy. Bush’s national security advisers—some of whom now praise President Obama and castigate Mitt Romney’s team—did not want to entangle the United States in a prolonged conflict, and so the United States stood aside as Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards—many just days after their release from U.S. custody—mowed down Iraqi Shi’ites.
Fast forward a decade. The Syrian people rise up. At first, Secretary of State Clinton maintains the fiction that Bashar al-Assad is a reformer. If that’s what career diplomats were telling her, it should put an end to the nonsense that having an embassy in the country improves intelligence about it. But then again, diplomats said the same thing about Saddam Hussein. As a young Iraq desk officer, for example, Frank Ricciardone—today serving as U.S. ambassador to Turkey—pushed relentlessly for U.S. rapprochement with Saddam Hussein.
Clinton, however, changed tack as Assad’s massacres accelerated. “We think Assad must go,” she told ABC News two months ago in the wake of the Istanbul “Friends of the Syrian People Conference.” Just over a week ago, she said, “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end.” There is nothing more dangerous than promoting Assad’s ouster and then standing by when the Syrian people rise up and get massacred.
We still pay for the legacy of the elder Bush’s error. The Iraqi Shi’ites, who celebrated their liberation from Saddam and who just three years earlier had been fighting Iran, had little choice but to seek Iran’s protective embrace. Saddam put down the revolt and, during the subsequent 12 years, organized some Shi’ites into the Badr Corps and other radically anti-American militias.
By encouraging—however belatedly—a revolt in Syria and then stepping aside, the Obama administration is following the elder Bush’s playbook to the letter. While many in the Iraqi opposition fell under Iran’s sway, the longer the Obama administration waits in Syria, the more entrenched al-Qaeda ideologues become. And, if history repeats itself, then by allowing such a huge gap to develop between his administration’s rhetoric and the reality of its policy, President Obama is encouraging the most cynical anti-American conspiracy theories to become public perception, and risking Syria becoming a source of instability for years to come.