The Obama Legitimacy Doctrine

In Istanbul on Friday, Hillary Clinton was asked about her statement that Syria’s Assad has “lost legitimacy.” She responded that he “lost his legitimacy in the eyes of his people because of the brutality of their crackdown, including today.” It was the doctrine President Obama first developed in a February phone call to German Chancellor Merkel about Libya’s Qaddafi :

The President stated that when a leader’s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now.

Qaddafi, a dictator, lost “legitimacy” by using mass violence against his people. Assad, another dictator, lost “legitimacy” because of the brutality of his crackdown. Egypt’s Mubarak, a third one, was informed by Obama that he had to go — “now” — a few months after Obama had welcomed him to the White House as a “key partner.” In each case, the issue was not the dictatorship itself; it was the dictator’s sudden loss of “legitimacy.”

Last week, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren provided a brief history of the family-owned Syrian regime :

[Assad’s] father came to power through a very bloody coup, and he has repressed any attempt to democratize, including 30 years ago when his father killed as many as 20,000 people in one city, in Hama, in a single afternoon, who were protesting for democracy. It’s hard to say that a regime like that ever had legitimacy, and from where.

The Obama Legitimacy Doctrine (OLD) addresses how legitimacy ends, but not how it starts. Under OLD, all leaders are legitimate – eligible for a reset, an outstretched hand, a recess ambassador, or whatever – until they “lose” their legitimacy, although it is not clear how they got it in the first place.

There must be a coherent foreign policy in there somewhere.