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Friday, December 31, 2010

Clueless Obama makes 'remarkably foolish' appointment

In an earlier post, I explained that the problem with President Obama's recess appointment of Robert Ford as US Ambassador to Syria is not Ford, but the very fact that any ambassador to the Assad regime is being appointed.

The Beirut Star's Michael Young agrees with me. He calls the appointment 'remarkably foolish' and the White House 'clueless' for making it. Here's why.
Against congressional opposition, the administration offered a lukewarm defense of Ford’s appointment, with officials stating that it would allow Washington to get its message to Damascus more clearly. Nonsense. There are plenty of ways to transmit messages to Syria without legitimizing the fact that in the five years since the previous ambassador was withdrawn, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Assad regime has not budged on issues the US considers important—whether Lebanon, inter-Palestinian affairs, Iraq, Syrian cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah, and negotiations with Israel.

But worse, if Cousseran is right, namely that the US must not overreach by asking Syria to cut its ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, that only begs the question: What is the Obama administration entitled to ask of Syria? No explicit answer whatsoever has come out of the White House and State Department. And with uncertainty filling the thick Potomac air, what is Washington’s broader Syria strategy anyway? If Ford is a mailbox, what specific ideas will he be relaying?

There really are none. Obama has a wish list. He still hopes for a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli negotiations, and wants someone in Damascus to ease the process. But the president has done things in reverse. He should have sent Ford to Syria in exchange for a solid concession from Assad—perhaps Syrian acceptance of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, which Damascus has refused to sanction; or maybe Syrian consent to the return of direct negotiations with Israel; or at least participation in a high-profile event that would help inject life into the Syrian-Israeli talks. The problem is that neither Syria nor Israel is keen to engage in bilateral moves, because the Syrian-Israeli track is moribund. Alive or dead, it made no sense for Obama to throw away a card he should have made Syria pay for.

It is not as if the US is unaware of Syrian intentions. Last week, an American official issued a pointed warning to Syria and Saudi Arabia that they should not reach any accord over Lebanon that might undermine the tribunal formed to indentify and punish Rafik Hariri’s killers. Syria has fought tooth and nail to obstruct the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which Washington supports, and recently intensified those efforts. And yet at the same moment, Obama sends Ford to Damascus, as if to say that whatever the Assad regime does, even taking measures that America opposes, it will be rewarded.

Obama would answer that he had a small window of opportunity in which to put Ford on a flight to Syria, before Congress reconvened, so he took his shot. A laudable rationale for an important decision: Let time pressures, and sneakiness, guide your foreign policy. Here’s a wager: Ford will cool his heels in Damascus without achieving much, because Assad got what he wanted, and is now in a position to stall Washington interminably. He won’t have to forfeit anything, because Obama has not a clue about what he really expects from Syria.
I guess Young missed the part about the 'fierce moral urgency' of appointing Ford so that the US can 'engage' with Syria.
Because he was appointed while the Senate is in recess, Robert Ford will not need Senate confirmation. But he can serve only until the end of the next session of Congress, which will likely be in December 2011.

“Ambassador Ford is a highly accomplished diplomat with many years of experience in the Middle East,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

“His appointment represents President Obama’s commitment to use engagement to advance U.S. interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people.”
And of course the Syrians are thrilled.
A Syrian diplomatic source, in response to the appointment, told Ahram Online that Damascus was glad to hear that America will send an ambassador to Syria.

“Such a move will reinforce Washington’s credibility in the region and open the door for serious cooperation between the two countries on regional and local issues,” he added.
What could go wrong? Read the whole thing. Read this one too.

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