Pro-regime thugs in Syria harassed and set upon the U.S. ambassador just over a week ago. The event was not publicly reported in Washington until Tuesday, when a journalist discovered a propaganda video exploiting the attack.
The episode reveals an American diplomat with more fortitude and canny than his boss in the White House.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford has distinguished himself by symbolically standing with the brutalized people of Syria as they seek freedom from the dictator Assad. Ford has done so through a radical and seldom-used diplomatic technique in the annals of the U.S. Foreign Service: showing up and talking to ordinary people.
Ford’s July visit to the city of Hama, where two generations of Assads have filled the streets with the blood of dissenters, won him the ire of the regime.
His welcome there was perhaps the most heartfelt and significant for a U.S. ambassador since Mark Palmer joined anti-communist protestors in the streets in Hungary as they brought down that regime in 1989.
Ford has since calmly defied regime orders to stay put.
On August 23, Ford was observing a peaceful sit-in by Syrian lawyers opposed to Assad and waiting to see if regime supporters would attack them. Thugs swarmed him and tried to envelope him a in banner with a pro-regime slogan. He was ushered away by U.S. Diplomatic Security personnel who performed admirably.
The event is outrageous because it amounts to a regime-condoned attack on the U.S. president’s envoy to Damascus. Syria is a police state and U.S. officials, especially the top one, are closely monitored by Assad’s men. It is difficult to believe that an attack on the U.S. ambassador would occur without at least a nod from them.
Even more suspect, the attack was filmed and rapidly worked into a pro-Assad propaganda piece. It was released through media controlled by a regime crony. Assad maintains total control over Syria’s press. So one can conclude this was a regime performance through and through.
Dissidents and pro-freedom protestors often say how support from the outside world—and especially the USA—is helpful to their causes. Just knowing someone cares of their plight, and would notice if they disappeared, can be a shot in the arm. A rarity in the Foreign Service, Ambassador Ford should be commended for sticking with the Syrian people and having guts.
The same cannot be said of his boss man in the White House. President Obama was on Martha’s Vineyard vacationing the day his envoy was attacked. The president did not utter a word of protest in public, nor has he since the incident. It does not appear his administration has taken even the minimal but useful step of summoning the Syrian ambassador for an explanation.
When the story first came to light yesterday in Washington, an unnamed State Department official finally described it as “a weak, banal, laughable attempt by the Syrian thugs to have the international community focus on anything but the real story…”
That assessment would be perfectly apt, except the episode was neither “weak,” “banal,” nor “laughable.”
Furthermore, the paean to the fabled “international community” strikes at the heart of the Obama problem.
From the beginning of his presidency, President Obama has refused to see as his job advancing U.S. interests abroad—a goal generally held by his forty-three predecessors. Were this the case, defining the objective would be simple enough: helping the good guys or the lesser of two evils—depending on whether one is an optimist or pessimist on the Arab Spring—in their quest to topple foes like the terrorist-sponsoring Assad regime.
But instead, Mr. Obama’s priority remains on not being seen advancing U.S. interests. Hence his apology tours through the Middle East regretting supposed American sins dating from the 1950s, and having a florid, humanitarian-only rationale for war in Libya (that commanders luckily wiggled around). It also permeates his administration’s statements implying the United States is but one among harmonious equals in an “international community” that all wants the same thing.
This delusion is a comfort to those who instinctively dislike American power and coalitions of the willing that group governments by values instead of alphabetical order, but it does nothing to help those fighting for freedom in Syria and elsewhere. The power of outsiders to help them is not infinite. But free and confident nations expressing support can be a welcome help—as Ambassador Ford has demonstrated in Syria.
You can call it smart power. Or call it political warfare. Or call it nuance. Or even call it diplomacy. But whatever you call it, President Obama doesn’t know it when he sees it—and evidently appreciates it not.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).