from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Secretary Clinton Speaks About Syria

August 12, 2011

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Secretary of State Clinton continues to baffle with her explanations of U.S. policy toward Syria.

Consider this exchange with anchor Scott Pelley on last night’s CBS Evening News:

Pelley: The Obama administration has described Bashar al Assad as illegitimate and I wonder if it’s time for him to go?

Clinton: Well, that’s gonna be up to the Syrian people, but I can tell you that President Obama and I have been working very hard to marshal international opinion. So we are building what I think is a much more persuasive case that the international community, not just the United States wants to see peaceful change in Syria.

Pelley: You’re talking about U.S. leadership. Why doesn’t the U.S. lead and take that one half step further and say that Assad’s time is done. He has to go.

Clinton: Well, I think we’ve been very clear in what we have said about his loss of legitamacy. But what we really need to do to put the pressure on Assad is to sanction the oil and gas industry. And we want to see Europe take more steps in that direction. And we wanna see China take steps with us. We wanna see India, because India and China have large energy investments inside of Syria. We want to see Russia cease selling arms to the Assad regime.

Pelley: Assad, right at this moment, seems to be attacking his cities in a most vigorous way to put an end to it before the pressure you’ve described ousts him from power.

Clinton: Well, but I think the pressure requires an organized opposition. And there isn’t one Scott. So part of what we’ve been encouraging and trying to facilitate is for the opposition to become unified.

Pelley: You’re not going to say he has to go?

Clinton: We are, I think, building the chorus of international condemnation. And, rather than, you know, us saying it and nobody else following, we think it’s important to lead and have others follow as well.

Clinton’s reasoning is more of the patented Obama “leading from behind.” We want to build a chorus, and we do that through….silence. No doubt it is important to have others follow the United States, but why does the Secretary believe that if we provide actual leadership we make it more likely that we’ll see “nobody else following?” Is this not a remarkable indictment of President Obama’s relations with other world leaders, and of where he stands in their eyes?

The secretary also repeats her terrible line about Assad’s “loss of legitimacy.” Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency of Syria from his father. He was never chosen to be president of Syria in a free election—or in fact any election, for in Syria the “elections” are referenda on the Ba’ath Party’s choice. You vote yes or no, in the old Soviet style. What legitimacy did he have as Syria’s dictator, in Secretary Clinton’s eyes? Can her staff not get her to drop the “loss of legitimacy” trope?

And as to waiting for an "organized opposition," what standard is being applied? It would be great to see a Havel or Walesa emerge, but to expect that in the middle of the regime’s military assaults is a bit much. If such a person emerged in Syria he would be killed. If he emerged abroad, we’d soon hear of "splits between the internal opposition and exiles."

Assad’s regime is evil and murderous. The killing continues each day—including today. The demise of the Assad clique will be a great gain not only for Syrians but for the United States. When asked why it won’t call for Assad to leave the Administration piles excuses and explanations on top of each other, but with each passing day they are less convincing. Very soon, the White House will no doubt say that Assad must go. But by then the Administration will have compromised American leadership—again.

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