With Syrian troops poised to take revenge for the clash that reportedly left 120 military and security personnel dead last week in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, the Obama administration still can’t figure out where it stands on Bashar al-Assad.

"Whether Assad still has the legitimacy to govern in his own country,” Robert Gates told a Brussels audience yesterday, “is a question everybody has to consider."

This is a little better than Secretary Clinton’s statement a few weeks ago, when she said that Assad’s legitimacy had “nearly run out.” Still, instead of consulting an imaginary legitimacy meter in figuring out its Syria policy, the administration might have instead consulted with allies, many of whom think Assad is already finished.

Assad, said Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak, has “lost his legitimacy.” “If he stops the use of force,” Barak continued, “he will be seen as weak and will be brought down; if he continues, the killing will increase and cracks will start to appear, including within the army.”

Even Syria’s erstwhile allies are appalled at what the regime in Damascus has done to its own people. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, the “actions [of the Syrian government] are inhumane.” Erdogan says Turkey will not support Syria at the U.N.

But it’s hardly surprising the Russians will veto any resolution at the Security Council. Moscow doesn’t want the U.N. to slap an arms embargo on one of its favorite customers. The Russians will even oppose any action against Damascus at the International Atomic Energy Agency, where Washington has asked the 35-member board to find Syria in non-compliance. Perversely, the Russians argue that Syria should not be referred to the U.N. Security Council for its secret nuclear facility, since it was already destroyed in an Israeli air attack in 2007. “The UN Security Council,” read the official Russian statement, “is responsible for holding international peace and security and the site at Deir az-Zour no longer exists and therefore poses no threat to international peace and security.”

Trying to get the Russians on board is a fool’s errand, a function of the White House’s strategic vision of leading from behind. Our allies and regional partners—including France, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—have already staked out a clear position on Syria, and it’s time for the White House to do the same.

Admittedly, this is not going to be easy for an administration that had invested so much in engagement with Damascus. Last week, a Wall Street Journal article, detailing the many failures of the administration’s Syria policy, explained why Assad has been so important to the White House. “For more than two years,” Jay Solomon wrote, “Mr. Obama's foreign-policy team has tried to woo Mr. Assad away from America's regional nemesis, Iran, and persuade him to resume peace talks with America's regional friend, Israel.”

But for Obama, engaging Damascus was always about more than just particular policies. It was emblematic of a worldview that showed just how different he was from his predecessor. When George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. ambassador from Damascus, it was wrong—even if the cessation of full diplomatic relations was done to put the Syrians on notice after their alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Syria helped kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and backed Hezbollah and Hamas. But none of that, not even the fact that Damascus sought to build a nuclear weapons’ program in secret, could convince Obama that there were limits to talking with enemies.

After all, it wasn’t a reward simply to talk to your enemies, Obama insisted on the campaign trail. But of course a president who does not act like he believes in American exceptionalism, and undervalues American power—moral as well as political and military—is incapable of appreciating the prestige that other nations gain by having relations with Washington. U.S. adversaries believe that sitting at the same table as the Americans is to be rewarded by them.

And so Obama sent an ambassador to Damascus because the administration said it wanted to send tough messages to Assad. It is perhaps time for the White House to reconsider the pretext for returning our ambassador, since it is not clear what kind of “tough” message a foreign service officer is able to deliver to a regime that tortured and mutilated a 13-year-old boy. In any case, the White House is not sending tough messages, but confused ones.

What does the administration mean by describing Assad’s rule in terms of “legitimacy”? If the White House means political legitimacy, then this suggests something different in the U.S. than it does in Syria. No one elected Assad president-for-life to replace his father, who was the prior president-for-life. The Syrian regime’s power does not come from any agreement between the ruler and the ruled, and so the fact that Assad is killing his own people is not what jeopardizes his political legitimacy. In the harsh terms of the region, Assad’s legitimacy to rule depends only on his ability to hold on to power, which may require him to kill many, many more people.

But maybe the administration doesn’t mean political legitimacy; maybe when describing Assad they are talking about his moral legitimacy, in which case, it needn’t have taken so much death for the White House to see the Syrian dictator for who he is, or so many allies to point the way. Assad is the same now as he was two years ago, when Obama promised to reach out to him. If this is what the administration means by legitimacy—moral legitimacy—then it is no wonder it is so confused in its reckoning of the Syrian president as he slaughters his own people, like his father did before him.

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