The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a rump confirmation for Robert Ford on August 2, attended amazingly enough by only one senator. (The rest had gone home after the debt ceiling vote.) But even if the entire committee membership had been present, the issue of whether to confirm Ford could not in my view have been settled that day.
As I see it, there are two possible arguments for confirming Ford and one for refusing or delaying a vote.
First, Ford himself is a highly skilled foreign service officer. If we are going to have an ambassador in Damascus, there are no strong arguments against his having that post and many in his favor.
Second, if Ford can serve as a sort of envoy to the Syrian people and to the growing opposition to the Assad mafia that rules, he can do a great deal of good in Syria. We saw the possibilities when he visited Hama and citizens greeted him with flowers. But Ford’s utility in this role can be defeated by the Syrian government, for it can prevent him from leaving Damascus and can throw such a heavy blanket of threats and secret policemen around him that no one outside the regime and the diplomatic community would risk seeing him. If meeting with him means immediate imprisonment, he will have few visitors. These issues—his ability to travel and to see Syrians opposed to the regime—are fact questions. The members of the Foreign Relations Committee should get the answers, in classified form if necessary, before voting on the nomination.
Third, and arguing against confirmation, is the symbolic nature of the act. Because the Obama Administration has been so painfully slow in reacting to the mass killings in Syria, many in the Middle East believe we remain uncertain about whether we want Assad to go. The Administration’s rhetoric has toughened in recent weeks, but it has not crossed the line and called for Assad to go. In this context, confirming Ford can be seen as sending an envoy to Assad instead of breaking with him. That problem can be solved if the White House finally does break fully with the regime and call for its end.
So the bottom line for me is that the committee should not act hastily. With the Senate in recess, this matter should wait until September—by which time Assad will be on the present pace to have killed hundreds more peaceful protesters and maybe, just maybe, the Obama Administration will have made the statement it should have made months ago. Then the committee should seek information about Ford’s actions in Damascus, past and current, and his possibilities for stepping them up.
I hope that by September there will be good grounds for confirmation: the White House will have called upon Assad to go, and Ford will have shown (again, through classified information if need be) what good things he can do in Damascus. But if by then the Administration is still dithering, and if it is clear that Ford’s ability to do his job in Damascus is greatly limited, the argument against confirmation will be stronger. Under those circumstances it would be better to defer the nomination in the hope that he can, a few months later, be confirmed as our first ambassador to a free Syria.