I was not one of those conservatives who was vocal in opposing the appointment of Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria. I could see the case for not sending another ambassador to signal our displeasure with the Syrian regime. But I had also met Ford in Baghdad and had been deeply impressed. He was an Arabist in the best sense of the word: someone who spoke Arabic and understood the Arab world without ever losing sight of the fact his job was to represent American interests in the Middle East, not Arab interests in Washington. He was a highly effective diplomat in Iraq, and I figured he could be equally effective in Syria.
As this Washington Post profile makes clear, he has not disappointed. By journeying along with the French ambassador to Hama–the city where so much of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad is centered–Ford has positioned the U.S. on the side of the demonstrators and against the odious regime. The regime struck back by sending a mob to assault the U.S. and French embassies, but this only provoked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to issue a statement she should have made earlier: namely that Assad has lost the legitimacy to rule and the U.S. has no stake in his continuation in power.
That is certainly progress, and it was brought about by Ford’s willingness to stick his neck out. The challenge now for the Obama administration is to back up Clinton’s words. In May, the president gave a speech pledging to put the U.S. on the side of the people in the Middle East and against their dictators. He has done precious little along those lines, aside from our half-hearted and inadequate support for the Franco-British war effort in Libya.
In Syria, we have a prime opportunity to alter the strategic balance of the region against Iran and in favor of us. All we have to do is help the Syrians overthrow their hated dictator. The Obama administration has missed the opportunity so far. Perhaps now, with a prompt from Ford, we will see the opportunity and do more to provide money, computers, communications devices–whatever the anti-government forces need to hasten Assad’s departure.