The revolution sweeping across the Middle East started in Beirut shortly after the February 14, 2005, assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others. The ensuing Cedar Revolution, launched by Lebanese pro-democracy supporters, targeted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime and demanded an end to Syria’s 30 year occupation of Lebanon. The Lebanese revolution succeeded in ousting Assad’s military and intelligence officials from Lebanon and driving them back into Syria by the end of April 2005. It was an incredible moment celebrated by pro-democracy supporters throughout Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt and ignited the reform efforts we see in Syria today. The United States, too, celebrated the expulsion of Assad’s militiamen because of the message it sent not only to Syria but Iran.
Syria’s defeat in 2005 was a moment of opportunity for the U.S. and our allies that has since been squandered. The U.S. government’s efforts to build on the Cedar Revolutions’ successes faded over the years and altogether stopped with the election of President Barack Obama. Today, Syria and Hezbollah are in control of Lebanon again with Iran calling the shots.
But the Syrian uprisings of the last week give Obama another rare opportunity to push for greater democracy in Syria and send a powerful message to Iran that it could be next. He should seize the moment quickly.
In 2009, after a year of ignoring the signs of Syrian and Iranian growing influence, President Obama naively ordered the return of the U.S. Ambassador to Syria after a six-year hiatus – a punishment for bad behavior. Obama’s diplomatic gift and peace offering gave the brutal regime — controlled by Hezbollah, Damascus and Tehran — the instant credibility it desired.
Nothing has been gained by Obama’s concession to Assad and much has been lost. As moderate regimes throughout the Arab world begin to fall, the most repressive Arab governments are reaping the benefits of weaker neighbors and moving to take more ground. The Obama Administration meanwhile struggles to understand who our friends and enemies are. It was more aggressive with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak than with the much more repressive Bashar al-Assad. The inconsistent Obama strategy has been called “selective” by the U.S. media and hypocritical and foolish by the Arab street.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seem to not be able to do diplomacy and chew gum. The Administration has struggled to find a coherent policy and failed to articulate its goals. When Yemen and Bahrain launched bloody attacks on peaceful protesters, the U.S. botched an opportunity to stand firm on our values against an ally’s repressive actions. Instead, Clinton defaulted to the tried and true talking point about our interests and how helpful those governments have historically been to our military and the support they have given to our anti-terrorism efforts.
But why not push our friends toward reform and our enemies toward regime change? White House and State Department officials should be able to have adult conversations with our allies that include multi-faceted approaches to the policies we disagree with. Certainly U.S. allies that receive vast amounts of US taxpayer dollars are able to accept our aid but stand strongly against some of our policies (Pakistan comes to mind).
For Obama, chastising brutal regimes has proven to be much harder than calling out House Republicans. Syrian President Assad, for instance, has consistently supported Hezbollah and Hamas at Iran’s asking with little consequence from Obama and Clinton. If we want to pressure Iran to give up its illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons then we better find enough resolve to support the overthrow of Iran’s closest ally, Syria.
Over the last month, hundreds of protesters have turned into thousands and then tens of thousands of voices throughout Syria calling for more freedoms and an end to Assad’s reign. What started in Dara’a as a student protest has morphed into tens of thousands in Damascus demanding democratic reforms. A simple look at Twitter shows incredible enthusiasm from Arab youth and democracy supporters for ending Assad’s government.
While much as been written by the U.S. media that the intelligence community didn’t connect the dots in the lead up to Sept. 11, very little has been said of the State Department’s failure to recognize the intensity of Arab reform efforts. Clinton missed the changes afoot in Syria even after opening up a new Embassy in Damascus last year, and she has chosen to stay behind the region’s news by stating the obvious and usually waiting to speak for two or three days after most everyone knows what has developed. Clinton’s me-too message of greater political participation for women in the Arab world seems like stale and recycled talking points from former First Lady Laura Bush’s and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts. And there have been longer readouts for journalists on the president’s NCAA tournament picks than for his meetings on Libya or Syria.
The U.S. mainstream media’s protection of Clinton’s slow response peaked with Anna Wintour’s Vogue Magazine profile of Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma, last month. While Syrian democracy reformers organized, an embarrassingly naïve and apologetic piece about the Syrian first lady by writer Joan Juliet Buck was released weeks before the Assads’ government started killing protesters. To be sure, Vogue would have never produced such a ridiculous piece if its’ it-girl Hillary Clinton, instead of calling Assad a “reformer,” had been speaking out more forcefully against a regime that has supported the killing of Americans. Buck’s piece has since been used by Arab bloggers to show the arrogance of the Syrian regime and the cluelessness of the U.S. media.
Obama now has a rare historical chance to make progress on U.S. interests and values by speaking clearly and forcefully against a brutal regime that has worked against American policy in Iraq, Iran, Israel and Lebanon. If the president squanders that opportunity, it would be fair to conclude that the Obama Administration is strategically uninterested in changing Syrian and Iranian behavior.
Now is not the time to back off supporting the Arab street and its march towards greater democracy and free markets. Syria could be next; and the protesters need to know that President Obama stands with them in toppling their leader. This isn’t a call for use of U.S. military force but it is a call to de-mask Damascus and speak out for U.S. interests at the same time.