By Barry Rubin
Here is President Barack Obama’s latest, July 31, statement on Syria which is intended to show anger and toughness:
“I am appalled by the Syrian government’s use of violence and brutality against its own people.The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime. Once again, President Assad has shown that he is completely incapable and unwilling to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people. His use of torture, corruption and terror puts him on the wrong side of history and his people. Through his own actions, Bashar al-Assad is ensuring that he and his regime will be left in the past, and that the courageous Syrian people who have demonstrated in the streets will determine its future. Syria will be a better place when a democratic transition goes forward. In the days ahead, the United States will continue to increase our pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government and stand with the Syrian people.”
One of the techniques of politics is to change your mind when you’ve clearly been shown to be wrong without admitting you are changing your mind. If, after all, the regime is one using “violence and brutality against its own people,” “once again, using “torture, corruption and terror,” what else is new? In other words, for his entire term Obama has been treating Assad as a really good guy who truly wants to reform and be moderate. Such people as Senator John Kerry, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the dreadful apologist Senator Arlen Spector, lauded Assad repeatedly.
So they were wrong, correct?
Second, the Obama Administration has taken a ridiculously long time to come to this conclusion, after it couldn’t be more obvious. Even during the last two weeks it has been sending mixed signals, with a previous “tough” statement then being undermined with more pablum about Assad really wanting to reform. The regime reportedly killed 140 people on the day this statement was made, though I have no idea whether this number is accurate.
Even in this statement there is a petulent undertone that it’s all his fault and annoyance that he’s made the Obama Administration look bad. As for being on “the wrong side of history,” I hate that phrase since it implies history has only one side and one direction. It also reflects the naive and dangerous Obama belief that, after spending a long time ridiculing democratization as a stupid idea of his predecessor he has now embraced political upheaval in the region as infallibly good.
While I suppose this statement can’t hurt, I hardly think the “courageous Syrian people” are going to conclude now that the United States is on their side and be grateful. Indeed, a Lebanese correspondent sympathetic to the Syrian uprising concluded the day before the statement that the administration wouldn’t do anything serious. That conclusion is unlikely to change among people in the region.
In the past, liberals have repeatedly–and often rightly–said that U.S. support for dictatorships makes America unpopular. Well, what has the Obama Administration done on Syria but precisely that kind of policy?
And what about all the mass media that was wrong about Syria, publishing op-ed after op-ed and article after article about Assad being a reformer, about the United States weaning him away from Iran, while refusing to publish articles or remarks on the other side? How about their looking the other way while the Syrian regime was directly involved in waging a war to kill Americans in Iraq?
Have they learned anything or will they continue to use the same pundits who were ridiculously incorrect on that (and so many other things) point? Why weren’t they motivated by U.S. strategic interests rather than–relevant as that is–waiting for the regime to massacre its own people before changing their mind? It’s nice that humanitarian considerations figure in U.S. policy but how about strategic considerations, too?
Moreover, what will be U.S. policy on Syria? Presumably, to put on more sanctions, watch, and wait. But how about striking at Syrian regime interests by backing Israel and the Lebanese opposition, really opposing the restored Syrian hegemony over Lebanon?
In short, welcome as this new stance is it is also a grudging, forced, and minimal change that doesn’t really show the Obama Administration has learned anything from its failed experiments of engaging with Iran and Syria.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and Middle East editor and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org. His articles published originally in places other than PajamasMedia can be found at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com