So the president finally swallowed hard and pronounced the three words: “Assad must go.”
Well, not exactly. That would have been too simple. Here’s what he actually emitted:
“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people,” Obama said. “We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
E.B. White is thrashing in his grave at the overuse of the passive voice, but we get the point. The Administration, following in the footsteps of its predecessors (as far back as I can remember), had convinced itself that Assad was somehow a pal of ours, and, in the face of the Syrian Spring and Summer, would of course “reform.” After months of slaughter, as jaws dropped all over what used to be called The Western World at the spectacle of an American leader who danced all around one of the clearest moral and strategic imperatives EVER, we finally get this.
But not to worry; he’s not really going to get involved in a serious way: “The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria,” Obama said.
It’s like Libya 4.0: First he clucks his tongue. Then he laments the killing, calling on the killers to act reasonably. Then he pronounces himself “appalled.” All of this creates one of those policy vacuums that nature so famously abhors, and various countries (the Saudis, for example) withdraw their diplomats to show their disgust. Meanwhile, Hillary whispers to journalists that they shouldn’t worry, that of course the United States is going to say “Assad Must Go,” but it will mean ever so much more if other countries join in.
In the end, other countries — the Brits, the French, the Germans and “the European Union” (which I thought already included the previously mentioned trinity, so there may be a missing few words — “the other members” — between “the” and “European,” but it’s probably a typo) didn’t so much join in as pile on. Their announcements followed ours. Is it significant? Could be. Maybe, in the end, our allies wanted America to take the lead (which would suggest an end to the Obama Doctrine of Leading with the Behind). Or maybe they were unwilling to join in the sort of sanctions we favored.
Since Hillary unfortunately called the mass murderer of Damascus a “reformer” it was left to her to parse the presidential message. As so often happens, however, the “explanation” raises lots of questions. Maybe there are some journalists around Washington, D.C., and maybe one of them will ask some of the most important matters.
The obvious question is “now that you’ve come out against Assad, how are you going to win?” This might be asked with a reference to a previous announcement that “Qadaffi must go.” And, by the way, recent reports suggest that he may indeed have to go, or be killed. Suppose that happy thought comes true; would it become the template for Syria? And beyond Syria?
Does the president intend to organize or support a NATO military action against Assad? Remember he only said that “the United States cannot and will not impose” the “Assad must go” policy; he didn’t say he wouldn’t join a broader effort to impose it.
Hillary said it would take “words and actions to produce results.” Check. And Obama has instituted “unprecedented sanctions,” including a freeze on Syrian government assets under U.S. jurisdiction, a ban on American citizens from having dealings with the Assad regime, and on all Syrian petroleum and petroleum products.