When the United States says "jump," Syria says....

So the big Middle East news this AM is that the Obama administration has explicitly called for Syrian leader Bashir Assad to leave power.  The White House blog has the full text of Obama's statement.  On Assad:

The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people.  We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way.  He has not led.  For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.

The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement. What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people along with others in the international community.

As to what the administraion is going to do to, well, you can check out the executive order, or you can believe me when I say that it amounts to a tightening of economic sanctions. 

Now, conservatives have been calling for this move for quite some time, while Middle East analysts like FP's Marc Lynch, have been far more pessimistic.  Two months ago, Lynch argued

[T]here's "Expellus Assadum":  the magic words by which Obama might declare that Asad must go and somehow make it so. While there's every reason for the U.S. to ratchet up its rhetorical criticism of an increasingly violent and brutal regime, tougher rhetoric isn't going to change the game.  The entire course of the Arab upheavals this year demonstrates the limits of American influence and control over events or other regional actors.  It most certainly proves that firm Presidential rhetoric is not enough to tip either the internal or the international diplomatic balance.  

Libya should be enough to demonstrate this hard reality.  I'm actually optimistic about Libya -- the diplomatic and military trends all clearly favor the rebels, the NTC has come together into an impressive government-in-waiting, and international consensus has remained reasonably strong. But even if Libya ends well, the reality is that it has taken months under nearly the best possible conditions.  It isn't just that the President used his magic words.  The Libya operation had widespread regional and international support, UN authorization, direct military involvement in a favorable environment for airpower, and an organized and effective opposition on the ground with a viable political leadership. And it has ground on for months. 

The idea that invoking "Expellus Assadum" would quickly lead to an endgame in Syria just doesn't make sense. Demanding that Obama say "Assad must go" seems less about Assad and more about either moral posturing or about creating a rhetorical lever for pressuring Washington -- not Damascus -- to do more to deliver on that new commitment. By putting the President's -- and America's -- credibility on the line, however, it might force unwanted escalation into more concrete actions in order to deliver on the demand. So tougher and sharper rhetoric, with constant condemnations of violence, is not just appropriate but essential... but escalating to "Assad must go" at this point is not. 

I've already revealed my sober assessment of this kind of policy step on Twitter.  That said, I'm a bit more sanguine about this kind of call than Lynch.  This strikes me as your classic gut-level foreign policy pronouncement, which, as I argued last month, accomplishes nothing of substance but, "just the acknowledgment of frustration can be politically useful, a venting of pressure that might otherwise lead to hopelessly misguided or absurdly risky policy options."   

I suspect Marc is still haunted by the ways in which this sort of rhetoric about Saddam Hussein in the 1990s laid the political groundwork for Operation Iraqi Freedom.   But it's not the 1990's anymore.  The United States has three active military operations in the Middle East.  There is no public clamor or enthusiasm for yet another military engagement, nor do I see any genuine policy appetite for such a move.  Sanctions are already in place.  Covert action might be taking place, but that policy option can never be publicly acknowledged.  As the New York Times story notes, in calling for Assad to leave the United States is now moving towards the consensus in the region. 

When the rest of the policy quiver has been exhausted, sure, why not call for Assad to leave?  As a general rule, all else equal, I see no reason why the U.S. government should not express its actual preferences rather than hide behind diplomatese.  Or, as Douglas Adams would put it, this rhetorical move counts as "harmless." 

What do you think?   


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