Will US Officials Ever Shut Up?

August 24, 2011 • Commentary
This appeared in The Korea Times on August 24, 2011.

The Obama administration wants Syrian dictator Bashar al‐​Assad to go — finally. Washington thinks Yemen should replace its dictator. But the U.S. supports the dictator who rules next door Saudi Arabia.

Do U.S. officials really believe anyone pays the slightest attention to their ever‐​changing opinions about who should rule where?

The Obama administration’s political pirouettes during the Arab Spring have been breath‐​taking. As protests rose in Egypt, Washington supported Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. As the regime tottered the administration endorsed a phased transition. As Mubarak’s end neared U.S. officials endorsed his ouster.

None of these pious pronouncements had the slightest effect in Cairo.

Yet the administration played much the same game in Yemen. When protests first sprouted, the U.S. government backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh. As opposition expanded and Saleh’s hold on power loosened, foreign policy aide John Brennan announced: “The United States believes that a transition in Yemen should begin immediately.”

Brennan met with Saleh to urge him to resign. The latter paid Brennan no mind.

A similar soap opera is occurring in America’s relations with Syria. When demonstrations began against the Assad family dictatorship, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Syrian President Bashar al‐​Assad a “reformer.” Yet earlier hopes for liberalization after Assad succeeded his father proved stillborn.

Nevertheless, as the revolt spread the Obama administration simply encouraged the Assad dictatorship to respond with dialogue instead of force. Washington refused to suggest that Assad step down. An anonymous American official told the Washington Post that Secretary Clinton “thought at first that if we gave him some space, he would do the right thing. Instead, we see him using increasing brutality against his own people.”

Uh, this surprised the Obama administration? One is tempted to suggest that American foreign policy is being directed by fools. President Obama and Secretary Clinton finally recognized that President Assad was behaving badly. So they announced that that Assad had lost his “legitimacy.”

But then, Secretary Clinton backed up and said she still hoped that he would adopt political reforms. An unnamed State Department official told the Washington Post: “We need to think through carefully what we say.”

Alas, President Assad also thought carefully and killed more protestors. So now, after months of repression and bloodshed, President Obama declared: “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

But the next day Assad was still in power. Apparently President Assad cares more about his military’s willingness to shoot than what Washington thinks.

Presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney declared: “The most important thing that we can do right now is ensure that our actions back up our words.” However, Washington’s options remain quite limited.

Additional sanctions aren’t likely to achieve regime change. And America doesn’t need another unnecessary war in another Muslim nation.

Nor would overthrowing the Syrian dictatorship be a simple act. It’s one thing to blow up an authoritarian system. It’s quite another matter to build a genuinely liberal, democratic society.

Fear of rising Islamic extremism in Syria may be overblown, but ethnic and religious minorities have reason to worry about their future in a “democratic” Syria. The experience in both Egypt and Iraq gives much cause for concern.

Instead of constantly filling the atmosphere with more hot air — or worse, attempting to back the hot air with force — U.S. officials should shut up. Washington’s principle objective should be to stay out of foreign conflicts.

The U.S. government should reaffirm its general commitment to democracy and human rights. But American officials should drop their pretense of being able to micromanage events. Even so‐​called foreign aid has an awful record.

Keeping any action quiet and limited also would limit evident hypocrisy. There are perfectly understandable realpolitik reasons for Washington to prefer Saudi tyranny to Iranian tyranny, but if U.S. officials are preaching democracy around the globe, it’s not easy to explain why Washington doesn’t care if the Saudi (and now Bahraini) people suffer under U.S.-backed oppression. A more modest — and quiet — approach would allow American officials to adapt to practical reality without so obviously compromising fundamental principles.

In the end, U.S. officials must fight the very American desire to do something. Social engineering is hard enough in the U.S. Transcending differences in culture, tradition, history, religion, ethnicity, politics and more makes the international task even more daunting. Moreover, foreign peoples will always be skeptical of outsiders who show up seeking to direct events.

When the next crisis erupts somewhere around the globe, the president might more fruitfully respond by doing nothing. This truly would be a revolution in Washington. But it would be a far better strategy than what passes for foreign policy in the Obama administration.

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