By James Traub
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 29/04/2011
Last month, as Syrian security forces were shooting demonstrators in the streets, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a modest defense of President Bashar al-Assad, noting that "many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer." Clinton would probably like to have that one back -- first, because she was shanghaing innocent legislators into defending a controversial White House policy, and second, because she was putting "Assad" and "reformer" in the same sentence.
But Clinton was hardly alone in ascribing the best of intentions to the Syrian dictator. Earlier this week, British Foreign Minister William Hague took note of several speeches in which Assad made vague and windy promises, and declared, "It is not too late for him to say he really is going to do those reforms." Not too late? Do we need any further clarity about Assad's designs?
Why do people continue to believe that Bashar Assad is somehow different from other Arab autocrats, or for that matter from his father Hafez? There seem to be several reasons. First, Bashar feels like the most plausible of Western interlocutors. Like Gamal Mubarak or Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, he is a Westernized and well-educated offspring of a thuggish leader. Unlike them, he took over his country on his father's death -- in 2000 -- and showed the gumption and acumen to survive in a ruthless environment. His wife is beautiful and speaks perfect English. Bashar, who is very well aware of the effect he produces, was wont to drive his Western visitors around Damascus, dilating on his hopes for Syria's future and warning darkly of Islamic plots. "Bashar and his wife are very seductive," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "You meet with them, and you're just amazed." Bashar will promise to let Lebanon stand on its own two feet, or to stop supplying Hamas with weapons. "And then," Tabler says, "it never happens."
Second, Assad really could make such a difference if he were the figure people wish him to be -- and he always seems to come so close to delivering. In 2008, Assad engaged in very serious negotiations with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights; both Israel and Turkey, which brokered the talks, said that they were on the verge of a breakthrough when Israel launched the war on Gaza, making further talks impossible. Sen. John Kerry, who has acted as a White House interlocutor with the Syrians, has made repeated trips to Damascus hoping to restart the talks, and has gone to great lengths to defend Assad because he believed that Syria held the key, or a key, to Middle East peace. Now he has made himself look rather foolish with his talk of how "generous" Assad has been in making minor concessions such as permitting the purchase of land for a U.S. Embassy in Damascus.
It is a mark of how central Syria is to the West's geopolitical calculations that everyone had their own perfectly good reason to believe in Assad's pragmatism. In the fall of 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent his top foreign policy advisors on a secret mission to Damascus. France had broken its ties with the country in 2004, when Syria was implicated in the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Sarkozy and his aides hoped that ending Syria's isolation would persuade Assad to loosen his stranglehold over Lebanon. In fact, Sarkozy got nothing for his troubles save deep resentment from Lebanon's leaders, and announced soon thereafter that he was breaking off the talks.
The big breakthrough never happened -- yet everyone kept hoping, and trying. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a former French diplomat with long experience in Syria, says, "It's like a quadrille. Everyone has been changing partners 10 times -- France, U.S., U.K., Turkey. And at the end everybody is slipping back to the wall." France slipped away, and then Barack Obama's administration stepped up. For the White House, Syria offered a test case for its signature policy of engagement. The George W. Bush administration had refused to deal with Syria, even in the midst of the country's promising talks with Israel. And Syria had tightened its alliance with Iran, and continued shipping weapons across the Lebanese border to Hezbollah. So why not try talking? The White House nominated an ambassador to Syria in early 2010, sent mid-level officials to test Assad's willingness to move away from Iran and Hezbollah, and gave its blessing to Kerry's own diplomacy.
Over the course of two years, Obama got just about what Sarkozy got -- nothing. Yes, Syria smoothed its relations with Iraq and opened an embassy in Beirut. But Assad continued to supply Hezbollah with ballistic missiles and continued to meddle in Lebanese politics, allowing Hezbollah to topple that country's elected government, whose chief allies were the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis thought they had a deal with Damascus to keep the so-called March 14 coalition in power in Lebanon -- and then they, too, slipped back against the wall.
Assad seems to have finally run out of dance partners; both Kerry and the White House have sharply denounced the regime in recent days. But there is a new reason to believe in Assad: The consequences of his fall could be calamitous. Filiu says that "Bashar could be a safeguard, a talisman, to exorcise the ghost of sectarian strife" -- Iraq-style bloodletting -- "which is something every Syrian is thinking about 24 hours a day." Filiu still believes that Bashar has the "capacity" to reform, but he concedes that there are no signs that he has "the will" to do so.
You can't help feeling that Western policy toward the Syrian regime has been guided by a kind of geopolitical wish-fulfillment, in which hard-headed "engagement" masked a dubious faith in Assad's capacity and will. Or maybe it's fairer to say that the upside of engagement was so great and the downside so small that everyone kept plugging away long after they should have given up. As Andrew Tabler says, "Policy involves a tremendous amount of reverse engineering" -- figure out a policy, and then line up the facts to fit in.
But there's a broader point here about engagement itself. One of the themes that emerges from Ryan Lizza's rather murky account of Obama's foreign policy in the New Yorker is the dawning recognition of the inadequacy of engagement as a controlling metaphor for foreign relations. The Obama White House spent its first few years in office trying to soothe the dudgeon raised around the globe by the Bush administration's bellicosity and high-handedness. The administration's theory was that it could make real gains by dealing with other countries on the basis of "mutual respect and mutual interest," to use a favorite Obama formulation. The "reset" with Russia, for all its limits, has vindicated this theory. Engaging Khartoum may have helped ensure the peaceful referendum on Southern Sudan this past January.
But there are also plenty of recalcitrant regimes that will pocket the respect without changing their behavior. Iran is the most obvious example; China may be another. And the Arab Spring has offered a stiff lesson in the limits of engagement. Private admonishments had no effect on Arab tyrants, and the administration has learned -- again and again -- that it must choose between siding with regimes and siding with citizens. And in fact there is a real cost to "engaging" with tyrants: Whether you intend to or not, you send a message of acceptance to the regime and of indifference to the plight of the citizen. That price is sometimes worth paying, or at least unavoidable (think: Saudi Arabia). But often it's not. In this case, the Bush administration may have been right.
James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda. "Terms of Engagement," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly.