Missed Engagement

In Congress, vitriol and partisan attacks are dominating the debate over the next U.S. ambassador to Syria.


Almost five years to the day after George W. Bush’s administration withdrew America’s ambassador to Syria in response to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, President Barack Obama this February announced the appointment of Robert Ford as his envoy to Damascus. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for Ford, a respected former deputy chief of mission in Iraq, in March. On Friday, Senate Republicans blocked a motion to confirm Ford by unanimous consent.

The nomination of Robert Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005 has prompted a typically partisan, myopic, and sterile Washington debate about whether this step by Barack Obama’s administration represents "appeasement" of Syria. The charge is offensive and absurd, but as was typical of the previous administration’s outlook, it ignores entirely what’s really important to the United States in favor of ideological purity.

This overheated rhetoric is in desperate need of a reality check: A U.S. ambassador is not a policy. A U.S. ambassador is not kryptonite. At best, a U.S. ambassador is a diplomatic representative of the president empowered to speak for the United States to the highest levels of a foreign government. And, apart from running the U.S. Embassy or mission, there’s not much more to it.

The job can be done well or poorly, but the idea that the appointment of a U.S. ambassador is either a panacea or a form of appeasement is, at best, silly.

In the end, what matters is not whether or not a U.S. diplomat lives in Damascus. What matters is what the ambassador will have to say and whether that message is part of a well-considered and effective foreign policy. What matters is whether or not Syria stops recklessly arming Hezbollah, meddling in Lebanese politics, hosting Hamas in its capital, allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq, seeking weapons of mass destruction, and working to destabilize the Middle East.

For four years George Bush’s administration tried to achieve these aims without a U.S. ambassador in Syria. And what happened during that period? U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which prohibited arms sales or transfers to Hezbollah, was violated on a massive scale. A campaign of assassinations targeted anti-Syrian Lebanese journalists and parliamentarians from Lebanon’s anti-Syrian March 14 alliance, whittling down their majority. Hezbollah waged a short but successful street war against the Lebanese government to maintain its independent telecommunications network and, implicitly, its status as a state within the state.

Saudi Arabia and France, sensing the failure of U.S. policy, ceased supporting isolation and began to court Damascus. Syria’s al-Kibar reactor was allegedly bombed by Israel, but Syria then promptly denied the International Atomic Energy Agency sufficient access to the site, preventing an effective investigation of Syrian nuclear activities, a step that appears to be clearly contrary to its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The list of policy failures goes on. But were any of them due to the lack of a U.S. ambassador in Syria? Of course not. The Bush administration’s failure to respond effectively in each of these cases was the result of its inability to acquire sufficient incentives or disincentives to induce or compel Damascus to change its behavior.

Had there been a U.S. ambassador in Damascus, the outcome in each of these cases likely would have been the same. The real problem was that the Bush administration was overstretched — politically, economically and militarily. Its rhetoric far outstripped its actual reach. Sadly, the reverses Damascus and its allies suffered from the Cedar Revolution, the popular 2005 uprising that forced Syrian troops from Lebanon, have now mostly been undone.

The supporters of the Bush administration — who ought to have slunk off in shamed silence for having watched fecklessly as U.S. interests suffered reverse after reverse — are now crying that Obama’s new policy amounts to appeasement, in a strained attempt to prevent the return of a U.S. ambassador to Syria. They remain oblivious to the main lesson learned from the previous administration: What counts in the world — and especially in the Middle East — is power, hard and soft, and the will and capacity to use it. And during the years from 2005 to 2009, all of Bush’s bluster notwithstanding, our foes took our measure, and found the United States lacking.

Apart from the sleazy indecency of comparing the merely squalid, reckless, and obnoxious Syrian regime with the unique horror and evil of Nazi Germany, the cheap demagoguery of the word "appeasement" fails to capture the Obama administration’s policy in the region. Where, one might ask, is the long list of U.S. concessions to Syria? How have we sold out our allies? Where is the retreat in the face of challenge? A few airplane parts? A few inconclusive meetings?

The Obama administration’s foreign-policy recalibration is the consequence of having inherited a total collapse of U.S. credibility in the region. Sending an ambassador back to Syria will not solve our problems. It will allow us to gather better information about Syrian thinking and deliver messages to the Syrians more effectively. What matters is what we do with that information, what messages we choose to send, and what means we contemplate to back those messages up.

Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) represents the 5th Congressional District of New York in the U.S. House of Representatives. He sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.