In an interview with Britain's Sky News over the weekend, US President Barack Obama was asked whether he is planning to accept Syrian President Bashar Assad's invitation to visit Damascus. The very fact that an American presidential visit to the Syrian capital is on the international agenda demonstrates how radically US foreign policy has shifted.
Four years ago, president George W. Bush withdrew the US ambassador from Damascus following the regime's suspected role in engineering the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Last month Obama announced that he is returning the US ambassador to Damascus.
Obama's response to the Sky News query was instructive. "There are aspects of Syrian behavior that trouble us and we think there is a way that Syria can be much more constructive on a whole host of these issues," he began cautiously.
Then came the zinger: "But as you know, I'm a believer in engagement and my hope is that we can continue to see progress on that front."
By so describing Syria, Obama acknowledged that it hasn't changed. The Syria he seeks to engage is the same Syria that Bush decided to isolate. But facts cannot compete with "hope." Obama is a "believer." He has "hope."
In his move to engage Syria, Obama is enthusiastically joined by France and the rest of Europe as well as by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the past several months, Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and dozens of others have beaten a path to Assad's door. With French President Nicolas Sarkozy leading the charge, all are agreed that Assad is a man they can do business with.
But are they right? In the absence of any change in Damascus's behavior, is there reason to believe that it can be coddled into abandoning its strategic alliance with Iran? Can it be sweet-talked into ending its support for the insurgency in Iraq, or arming Hizbullah and sponsoring Hamas? Can Syria be appeased into ending its nuclear and other nonconventional proliferation activities? Can it be "engaged" into ending its campaign against the pro-Western democrats in Lebanon?
To assess the reasonableness of engagement, it is first necessary to analyze the West's most significant achievements regarding Syria in recent years and consider their origins. Then, too, it is important to consider how these achievements are weathering the US's new commitment to engage Damascus as a strategic partner, and what their current status bodes for the future of the region.
THE WEST has had two significant achievements regarding Syria in recent years. The first came in April 2005 with the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. The second was Israel's September 6, 2007 attack on Syria's al-Kibar nuclear installation.
Three events precipitated Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. First there was the Cedar Revolution in which more than a million Lebanese took to the streets beginning on March 14, 2005 to demand that Syria withdraw in the wake of the Hariri assassination. Like the recent revolutionary ferment in Iran, this outpouring of opposition to Syria showed the West the massive dimensions of Lebanese yearning for independence. The Bush and Chirac governments responded with complementary willingness to confront Damascus.
The rare show of Franco-American unity as French president Jacques Chirac joined forces with the Bush administration to punish Assad for murdering Hariri was the second cause of Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. On March 25, 2005 the US and France pushed through UN Security Council Resolution 1695 mandating the establishment of a UN commission to investigate Hariri's assassination. The specter of this commission and the investigation that ensued served as a sword of Damocles pressing ever closer to Assad's throat.
Finally, Syria was convinced to withdraw due to the US's regional deterrent power. In March 2005 the US's military credibility in the region was at a high point. In January eight million Iraqis had gone to the polls to vote in the first free and open elections in that country's history.
The US's message of resolve against Syria was unequivocal. Appearing with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir at the White House on March 16, 2005, Bush said, "United States policy is to work with friends and allies to insist that Syria completely leave Lebanon, Syria take all her troops out of Lebanon, Syria take her intelligence services out of Lebanon."
There was no wiggle room for Syria four years ago. There was no appeasement. Assad had one option. He could withdraw his forces and let the Lebanese be free, or he could risk losing his regime. He left Lebanon.
UNFORTUNATELY, TODAY this singular achievement is being frittered away. With the evaporation of Western will to confront it, Syria is moving swiftly to reassert its control over Lebanon. The West has allowed the Hariri tribunal to fade away. And today it is effectively supporting Assad as he seeks to determine the character of the next Lebanese government.
In his speech to the Muslim world last month in Cairo, Obama indicated that the US no longer objected to Hizbullah or Hamas as political forces when he said, "America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them."
After last month's Lebanese elections in which Hizbullah lost to Sa'ad Hariri's March 14 movement, the administration went a step further. Rather than capitalize on Hizbullah's defeat by strengthening the victorious pro-democracy forces, the White House signaled that it preferred the formation of a unity government with Hizbullah. In a post-election statement, the White House urged the March 14 bloc to "maintain your power through consent."
Whereas the US has merely hinted its support for the inclusion of Hizbullah in the next Lebanese government, Europe has embraced the Iranian proxy terror group explicitly. France, Britain and the EU have all met with Hizbullah members since the elections and have enthusiastically thrown their support behind the Iranian proxy's participation in a "unity" government. Saudi Arabia has similarly come out in support of such a government.
The American and European embrace of Hizbullah is now enabling Syria to reassert its control over the Lebanon under the guise of the new era of engagement. Through its sponsorship of Hizbullah, Syria has become the primary power broker in Lebanon, even as it is heralded by the likes of Kouchner and Solana for its supposed noninterference in Lebanese politics.
Bowing to US, European and Saudi pressure to give Hizbullah in coalition negotiations what it failed to win at the ballot box, Hariri announced shortly after the election that he supports the establishment of a unity government. In so doing, he was forced to accept that the fate of his government now rests in Assad's hands.
With each passing day, it is increasingly clear that Syria means to extract a high price from Hariri in exchange for Hizbullah's sought-after participation in his government. Recognizing the trap, Hariri's supporters are calling for him to form a narrow coalition without Hizbullah and its sister parties. But it is hard to imagine that either the US or Europe would accept such an outcome.
Were Hariri to form a narrow coalition without Hizbullah, he would expose the lie of Syrian goodwill and noninterference in Lebanese affairs. And were he to expose Syria's bad faith, he would demonstrate the folly and danger of the US-led carnival of engagement. Since this outcome is unacceptable to both Obama and Sarkozy, who have staked their reputations on appeasing Assad where Bush and Chirac isolated him, Hariri will likely have no choice but to surrender his nation's hard earned independence to the same Syrian regime that killed his father four years ago.
WITH THE WEST now actively assisting Syria in reasserting its hegemony over Lebanon, the one achievement that remains in place is Israel's successful removal of the threat of Syria's nuclear program two years ago. But here too, the powerful legacy of that strike is being frittered away in this new era of engagement.
Israel's destruction of Syria's al-Kibar nuclear installation demonstrated three things. First, it revealed that Syria was massively engaged in illicit nuclear proliferation. Second, it showed that the option of striking illicit nuclear programs militarily is a viable option. And third, it exposed the strategic linkages between the Syrian, Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs.
Two years on, due to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency's institutional hostility toward Israel and the US's unwillingness to confront Syria, Damascus has paid no international price for its rogue nuclear program. Indeed, the main target of the IAEA's investigations of the al-Kibar facility has been Israel. The message sent by UN and US unwillingness to contend with obvious proof of Syria's criminal behavior is obvious: Would-be proliferators have nothing to fear from the international community.
The absence of a reconstituted Syrian nuclear program after two years shows clearing that military strikes can be a very effective tool in preventing rogue states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Yet rather than internalize this lesson and embrace the deterrent force it provides the West in dealing with Iran and North Korea, the Obama administration has squandered it. By slavishly devoting itself to negotiating with Teheran and Pyongyang, it has removed the West's most effective tool for blocking nuclear proliferation.
Israel's strike exposed an inconvenient reality to the West. It showed that the Syrian, Iranian and North Korean programs are part and parcel of the same program. It is impossible to deal with any one of them in isolation. For two years, the US and its allies have ignored this truth, preferring to pretend that these programs are wholly independent entities rather than acknowledge that - evil or not - a trilateral axis of proliferation among Pyongyang, Teheran and Damascus is a going concern.
As Pyongyang's recent nuclear and ballistic tests and Iran's recent missile tests all show, the West's refusal to countenance reality has not made it go away or become less dangerous. To the contrary, the West's preference for belief in hope and change has made things more dangerous.
By ignoring the achievements of the Bush administration's policy of isolating and confronting Syria and denying the significance of its unchanged behavior, Obama and his followers are courting disaster. The consequences of their squandering hard-won gains for regional security, freedom and stability will not be long in coming.