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05.16.11

Syria: Obama Needs to Speak Up

Diplomatic restraint has its place. But as Michael Tomasky argues, we’ve long since passed it with Syria. The time for denunciation has arrived.

In a hectic week filled with foreign policy—King Abdullah of Jordan arrives on Tuesday, Barack Obama gives his highly anticipated speech on the Middle East on Thursday, and the president meets with Bibi Netanyahu on Friday—the most intriguing question concerns a single word: Syria. The astonishing fact is that in the weeks since Bashar al-Assad’s regime began shooting (nearly 900 so far) and imprisoning (roughly 10,000) demonstrators, the word has never passed Obama’s lips. The time is long past due for the president to say something—and to say it with meaning and force.

To be sure, there was a written statement, issued by the White House on April 22, and the language was pretty direct (“We call on President Assad to change course now, and heed the calls of his own people”). But that was just a piece of paper. It’s not remotely the same thing as the actual president standing up in public and speaking actual words of criticism.

What difference would it make? Granted, not the difference of toppling the regime. It’s quite true, as some observers have noted, that we are in no position to do anything dramatic about Syria. We’re engaged on three fronts now, and I have no great sense that Americans are itching for the opening up of a fourth. More importantly even than that, the mere idea of war with Syria—of anything that could remotely precipitate war—is madness. War with Syria could very well mean war with Iran.

But it doesn’t follow from this that Obama should remain silent. The president of the United States is supposed to describe the world as it should be. That’s one of the jobs of the No. 1 honcho in the No. 1 country. He has to denounce repression and violence by a regime against its own people. Small-d democrats in the Levant need to hear that the United States supports their aspirations and sympathizes with their predicament. Whether such words will change anything in a practical sense is beside the point. If they give democrats and protesters encouragement, that is, for now, good enough.

In his Thursday speech, Obama will probably offer up a few Big Themes rather than policy specifics. But Big Themes are only Big if they go beyond the usual boilerplate.

And someday, history will come along to judge whether the president put the United States on the right side of events. When this reckoning is made, history will take note of the unfortunate remark by Hillary Clinton on May 6—two weeks after the written White House statement—according to which the Assad regime was still capable of reform. I guess this is an example using the carrot instead of the stick. But it’s hard to imagine what reform steps Clinton had in mind, as the only truly meaningful reform—ending the emergency power decree—would likely precipitate the regime’s demise. An exceedingly unlikely step.

There are things Obama can say Thursday to add some muscle to his thus-far passive posture. Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes that the administration could take steps such as leading an international effort to target Syrian oil exports. Syria is not a huge oil producer, and production is down from its peak in the mid-1990s, but oil-export revenues still fund a sizeable chunk of the regime’s activities—17 percent in 2007, according to the IMF. The regime would feel it if the international community applied that kind of pressure.

Then there are the assets of the regime’s higher-ups held in American and European banks. The Obama administration has so far frozen the assets of three Syrian officials, including the brother and a cousin of Assad. The European Union, by contrast, has taken this step with regard to 13 officials, Tabler says. Obama could expand his list—most strikingly, to include Assad himself. After all, these lists of sanctioned officials are meant to impose discomfort on members of the regime who share some blame for the bloodshed. “It’s nonsensical to think that Assad is not responsible for the crackdown,” says Tabler.

That would turn some heads, all right. It’s not likely to happen, at least on Thursday, when Obama will probably offer up a few Big Themes rather than a lot of policy specifics. But Big Themes are only Big if they go beyond the usual boilerplate. “The administration just isn’t convinced that the Assad regime is going to go away,” says Hussein Ibish, senior research fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine, and so the president will probably stick to said boilerplate. It’s an admittedly difficult balancing act that Obama confronts, and we’ve had enough cowboy bluster in recent years to last us a while. The Syria situation doesn’t call for that, but it certainly calls for more than hoping, 10,000 arrests later, that this regime is capable of reform.

Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.