Meet Washington's Foreign-Policy Fools

U.S. officials must fight the American impulse to Do Something and learn when to shut up.

The Obama administration wants Yemen to replace its dictator but supports the dictator who rules next-door Saudi Arabia. And Washington no longer thinks Syria needs to keep its dictator—though the administration’s isn’t exactly saying he should go. Do U.S. officials really believe that anyone pays the slightest attention to their ever-changing opinions about who should rule where?

One of the least appealing aspects of U.S. foreign policy is the belief that everyone, everywhere should listen to Washington on everything. In the view of American officials, no foreign nation should be denied Washington’s counsel. No foreign economic system is too prosperous or political system too complex for American officials to judge. No foreign controversy is too complicated for the U.S. government to solve.

Washington’s policy pirouettes during the Arab Spring have been breathtaking. As protests rose in Egypt, vice president Joe Biden cited Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s value as an ally. 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. Popular demonstrations reached a roaring crescendo because most people had tired of dictatorship, not because Washington reluctantly warmed to democracy. Rather, the administration looked pathetic, desperately trying to get ahead of the latest crowd.

The administration continues to play much the same game in Yemen. When protests first sprouted in Yemen, the White House was backing president Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was a standard issue Third-World thug, but he won favor in Washington for being willing to battle jihadists, including the local al-Qaeda organization.

As opposition expanded, blood flowed in the streets and Saleh’s hold on power loosened, the Obama administration had a change of heart. Earlier this month Washington sent foreign-policy aide John Brennan to meet with Saleh in Saudi Arabia, where he is receiving medical treatment. Brennan announced: “The United States believes that a transition in Yemen should begin immediately so that the Yemeni people can realize their aspirations.”

Brennan’s message to Saleh? Resign. However, the Yemeni leader paid Brennan no mind. Brennan continued on to Yemen, where he attempted to arrange a “swift transition” by convincing vice president Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi to seize power—but only in the name of democracy, of course. Hadi said no.

Saleh’s question for Washington obviously is not, “what have you done for me?” but “what have you done for me lately?” The fact that the U.S. government lavished aid on his regime in the past doesn’t matter. His first, and these days only, objective is to hold onto power.

A similar soap opera is occurring in America’s relations with Syria. As protests began against the long-lived Assad family dictatorship, secretary of state Hillary Clinton called Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a “reformer.” She apparently lives in a time warp. When Assad succeeded his father a decade ago, some observers hoped that the English-trained ophthalmologist would, in fact, modernize and liberalize. But those dreams proved stillborn. The best one can say about Assad is that so far he has killed fewer people than did his father. Nevertheless, as the Syrian people rose in revolt the Obama administration was cautious, encouraging the Assad dictatorship to respond with dialogue instead of force. Washington refused to even suggest that Assad step down.

One 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.”

Duh. Brutal dictator who continued the ruthless rule of his father refuses to reform even now. This surprised the Obama administration?

One is tempted to suggest that American foreign policy is being directed by fools.

Although it took several months, President Obama and Secretary Clinton finally recognized that President Assad isn’t a very nice guy. So now they want President Assad to quit. Maybe.

President Obama explained: “Increasingly you’re seeing President Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people. Similarly, said Secretary Clinton: “From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy.” She added that “President Assad is not indispensable, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”

Does that mean he should go? Or does he have one last chance before he should go?

Actually, he’s apparently just moved onto the administration’s naughty list for Christmas. After proclaiming Assad’s “lost legitimacy,” Secretary Clinton backed up and said she still hoped that he would adopt political reforms. An unnamed State Department official told the Washington Post: “Whether we take it farther will depend on events on the ground.” After all, “We need to think through carefully what we say.”

Alas, President Assad hasn’t seemed to notice, no matter how hard the administration has thought before it said. He is still president, his brother still controls the security forces, and his minions still run the government. President Assad appears to believe that his legitimacy depends on his military’s willingness to shoot rather than on what Washington thinks.

At least Secretary Clinton was firm when she opined: “We have said that Syria can’t go back to the way it was before.” But what if the Assad regime retains control? Is Secretary Clinton prepared to do anything in response? If not, she has issued the emptiest of threats.