Only now? Only after thousands of men, women and children have been murdered, tens of thousands wounded, and countless homes destroyed by artillery shells has the Obama team finally shed its illusions about the Syrian regime?
A mere 11 months ago, when peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Dara and other cities were met with bullets, Secretary Clinton referred to Assad as a "reformer." She was not alone. Last year, Germany's then Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited Assad and declared him indispensable for a "constructive solution" to the Middle East's problems. A leading German think tank, which advises the foreign ministry, called Assad a "modernizer."
Rare is the sceptered thug who does not attract fawning admiration from some in the free and democratic West. Fidel Castro was the darling of the smart set in the 1960s, and Che Guevara, one of his "wet work" assistants, adorns T-shirts worldwide to this day. Sean Penn is a shill for Hugo Chavez, and Robert Scheer had admiring things to say about Kim Il-Sung.
The more repressive and vicious the regime, the more some in the West will strain to find benign intentions in their leaders. One after another of the old Soviet general-secretaries was hailed, when he first ascended the greasy pole of Kremlin politics, as a "moderate." Yuri Andropov, we were assured, loved American jazz, good Scotch and "cynical political jokes with an anti-regime cast." We were advised that he went out of his way to meet with dissidents. Perhaps he was drunk on Chivas Regal when he shot down civilian airliner KAL 007.
Similarly, when Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad (the butcher of Hama) died and was replaced by his son Bashar, The New York Times offered a highly sympathetic portrait of the "shy, young doctor." The Times noted that expectations of the younger Assad were high because, in the words of a member of the Syrian parliament, "he's young and open and wants to give more liberty and democracy."
Well, it may be churlish to begrudge people their optimism. But Assad has wielded absolute power in Syria for 12 years, and not a single reform has materialized. In fact, it's quite the contrary. Even before the current bloodbath began, Syria was responsible for arming and protecting Hezbollah, assassinating Lebanese premier Rafik al-Hariri, cooperating closely with Iran and North Korea, and sending terrorists into Iraq to kill Americans.
None of that prevented Hollywood's glamour couple, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, from visiting with the Assads to discuss their "refugee work." Just-released photos captured rock star and "human rights" campaigner Sting and his wife enjoying a good laugh with the Assads in 2008. Vogue magazine, apparently immune to shame, ran a fawning profile of the dictator's wife, "a rose in the desert." "Asma al-Assad," Vogue told its readers, "is glamorous, young and very chic -- the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies." Along with fetching views of Asma, Vogue featured shots of Bashar playing on the floor with his children.
When images of bleeding and dead children -- shot by Assad's troops -- began to cascade out of Syria, Vogue quietly removed the piece from its website.
Then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Assad in 2007 (against the wishes of the Bush administration) and came away satisfied with his cooperation. "We were very pleased with the assurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process." In this, she was echoing a sentiment often expressed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, who argued that the key to peace in the Middle East was to "flip Syria."
But no visitor was more enthusiastic about Bashar al-Assad than President Obama's informal envoy, Sen. John Kerry, who made six visits to Damascus between 2009 and 2011. In 2010, he said, "Syria is an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region." Even after the tanks rolled into cities and began blasting away civilian demonstrators, Kerry stuck to his self-delusion: "(M)y judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it . . ."
The "shy doctor" became a cold killer. Those who, without a particle of evidence, persuaded themselves that he was ever anything else were "useful idiots."