I’m with the Wall Street Journal editorial page (and numerous conspiracy theorists throughout the Middle East): I’m starting to suspect that President Obama secretly wants Bashar Assad to hold onto power. How else to explain Obama’s continuing unwillingness to do much of anything to help the rebel forces even as they are being pushed back–possibly to the brink of defeat–by an offensive massively assisted by Iran and Hezbollah?
Assad long ago crossed with impunity Obama’s “red line” of using chemical weapons; Obama’s threats about what he would do if such weapons were employed now seem like more of a laugh line than a red line. Now Assad appears to be close to subduing the rebellion in a significant part of the country. And what does Obama do? He is convening a meeting in Geneva where Assad and the Iranians will get a seat alongside the Syrian opposition. The odds of Assad voluntarily removing himself from power through such an arrangement–which is what Obama has repeatedly called for–are about as the great as the odds of him converting to Judaism. It is hard to see what purpose such a meeting serves except to provide yet another excuse for American inaction.
Is Obama just being ultra-cautious–or does he actually think that an Assad victory is in our ultimate interest? It’s not such a far-fetched argument, since some Realpolitikers have convinced themselves that the rebels are so infiltrated by Islamist extremists that a continuation of Assad’s secular rule is a better bet. This is not a calculation I would make–I would be more alarmed about allowing the Khameini-Assad-Nasrallah axis to consolidate power, which would increase the threat to Israel, dispel any hopes of freeing Lebanon from Hezbollah’s grip, and cause moderate states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia to view the U.S. as an unreliable ally and Iran as the “strong horse” in the Middle East. But it is precisely the kind of calculation that a cold-blooded and aloof president who has often in the past expressed his admiration for the “realist” foreign policy of George H.W. Bush may make.
Bush, recall, was the president who gave the infamous Chicken Kiev speech urging the Soviet Union to stay together in 1991 just at the moment when it was dissolving. The dissolution of the Evil Empire turned out to be in America’s interest–imagine how much more of a threat Putin would pose today if he controlled not only Russia but Ukraine (site of the Chicken Kiev speech), Central Asia, and other parts of the erstwhile Russian Empire. But the USSR’s breakup induced deep concern among stability-above-all realists–as did the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. In a similar vein, Obama today appears petrified at change in Syria even though the existing regime is about as anti-American as it can possibly be.
At the very least if Obama really has decided that all of his previous rhetoric about toppling Assad no longer applies, he deserves to level with the American public about his change of heart instead of hiding behind the fiction that we support the anti-Assad forces in Syria.