from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Syria: Clinton Fails Again

May 9, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks on March 22, 2011.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks on March 22, 2011. (Jim Young/Courtesy Reuters)

On March 27, Secretary of State Clinton made what seemed an astonishing gaffe by calling the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad a “reformer” in an interview on Face The Nation. That statement was widely attacked so two days later she appeared to withdraw it, claiming “I referenced opinions of others. That was not speaking either for myself or for the Administration.”

But that apology turns out to have been meaningless, for now she has done it again. In an interview on May 6, she was asked about events in the region. Here is part of the exchange:

SECRETARY CLINTON: There are deep concerns about what is going on inside Syria, and we are pushing hard for the Government of Syria to live up to its own stated commitment to reforms. So I think it’s – it is fair to say --

QUESTION: But the Syria case is particularly poignant, the (inaudible).

SECRETARY CLINTON: It is poignant.

QUESTION: At this point, this is a country where they have killed most people in the street.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I don’t have that comparison, but what I do know is that they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda. Nobody believed Qadhafi would do that. People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria. So we’re going to continue joining with all of our allies to keep pressing very hard on that.

This is astonishing. By last week Assad had killed roughly one thousand peaceful demonstators, though the numbers are hard to verify because he has also kicked journalists out of Syria and closed down many internet and telephone connections. The “reformer” is using his army to murder Syrians seeking freedom and human rights. If this “reformer” line is the interpretation she is getting in cables from the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, that’s yet another reason he should be recalled. If he is taking a tougher line, one has to wonder why she isn’t listening and where she is getting this absurd view.

When I speak to Lebanese and Syrian human rights activists and journalists, they tell me they and their colleagues believe the United States wants Assad to remain in power. For weeks I had been protesting that this was wrong, a misimpression, a misunderstanding. Now I am not so sure, not after Clinton repeated this nonsense about Assad and reform.

The Obama Administration has a moral obligation now to state its position--America’s position--clearly.  With another weekend of murders in Syria, with more use of the Syrian Army to kill unarmed protesters, Secretary Clinton should be calling for his departure rather than continuing her foolish and embarrassing statements about reform in Syria. Enough is enough.

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