Hillary Clinton’s latest comments on Syria are not only a travesty, but a tragedy. The travesty is self-evident. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has killed more than 1,400 of its own citizens, detained more than 10,000 and displaced tens of thousands; it has laid brutal siege to its own cities, depriving them of water and electricity for days on end; it has hideously tortured 13-year-old boys – and all the secretary of state can find to say is Assad is “running out of time” to start “a serious political process”? What further brutality does the Syrian regime have to commit for Barack Obama’s government to acknowledge it can’t be reformed, it can only be replaced?
The tragedy is that this pusillanimity actually reduces the likelihood of Assad’s regime being replaced with something better. Last month, Haaretz’s Arab affairs analyst reported the Syrian opposition’s main goal was to get the West, and especially Washington, to come out clearly against Assad, because it believed a U.S. demand for Assad’s departure would encourage Syrian army officers to switch sides. And without the army’s support, Assad couldn’t survive.
Whether opposition activists are right in this assessment of Washington’s influence is unclear. But since they know the Syrian regime better than any Westerner does, it can hardly be dismissed out of hand.
Nor are Syrian activists alone in thinking the U.S. president can make a difference via his bully pulpit: During the mass demonstrations by Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, demonstrators reportedly chanted, “Obama: either with the murderers or with us.” Then too, those on the front lines clearly thought his public support would help them. Again, nobody knows if they were right. But we do know Obama refused; he never openly backed the demonstrators. And we also know the revolution subsequently failed.
In contrast, Obama did explicitly demand Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation quite early into Egypt’s revolution. And that revolution succeeded; Mubarak was ousted (though whether Egypt will now be a better place remains an open question).
What makes this behavior so bizarre is that Mubarak, for all his faults, was an American ally, whereas Syria’s government, like Iran’s, is an implacable American enemy. Damascus is Tehran’s most loyal ally; it gave free passage to terrorists entering Iraq to fight American troops, and by lavishly arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, it enabled Hezbollah to overthrow Saad Hariri’s U.S.-backed government. Thus, by demanding Mubarak’s ouster, Obama risked alienating an ally if the revolution failed. But siding with the Syrian or Iranian opposition would risk nothing. Both countries’ existing governments work tirelessly to thwart U.S. interests anyway, so things could hardly get worse.
Often, America must choose between its interests and its values. But in Syria, the two are perfectly aligned. Obama is opting to be on the wrong side of both.