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Leading from Behind

3:29 PM, Jun 10, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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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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