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The New Consensus: Confirm Robert Ford!

Neoconservatives about-face on U.S. envoy to Syria

Marc Tracy
September 26, 2011
Robert Ford on the ground in June.(Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)
Robert Ford on the ground in June.(Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, has proved a tricky ideological litmus test, for no people more so than neoconservatives. On the one hand, Ford, a career diplomat, is basically a hero at this point: he visited the besieged city of Hama, briefly leading President Assad to withdraw his troops; he has stayed even as angry mobs threatened to storm the embassy in Damascus; and he has several times provided crucial rhetorical support in favor of the courageous dissenters with bravery and aplomb—“how ironic,” he wrote at one point on the embassy’s Facebook page, “that the Syrian Government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere.” On the other hand, Ford, the first U.S. envoy to Damascus since the Bush administration withdrew the prior one in 2005 following the Syrian-backed assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is a prime example of the Obama administration’s stance of engaging with odious regimes, notably Assad’s and Iran’s, and the neoconservatives hate this, which had generally led them to oppose Ford. For an exemplary weighing of the pros and cons, check out Lee Smith’s column from April. For another, see my own post from last month, in which I noted that Syria had cracked down hard on Hama—a direct rebuke to the United States, one that should not be rewarded by, perhaps, continuing to have a diplomatic presence in the country. (And neither Lee nor I are neocons.) The question has an added sense of urgency because Ford’s was a recess appointment, which will expire at the end of the year unless the Senate confirms him.

Well a funny thing happened starting late last week: all of a sudden (you know, almost as if it were coordinated), many neoconservatives began to clamor for Ford’s confirmation. “The Obama Administration has called upon Assad to go and Ambassador Ford has shown his determination to reach out to the Syrian people,” argued Elliott Abrams. In recent interviews he has expressed what I think is exactly the right attitude toward the regime, the people of Syria, and his own role there. The regime clearly sees him as an enemy and the demonstrators as an ally.” Max Boot accused Senate Republicans of “dragging their feet” and proclaimed, “As long as he can stay in Damascus, he will support the demands of the protesters. The Senate should give him the opportunity to continue his valuable work.” The Foreign Policy Initiative, one of the several hundred groups Bill Kristol helped found, changed tack, and now supports his confirmation. “Ford has been doing a terrific job, and at some personal risk, of making clear to the people of Syria that the U.S. stands with them and against Assad,” said Robert Kagan, citing changed circumstances.

It’s probably helped that Ford has lately given a few interviews in which he has been his usual awesome self. “I’m sorta amazed that they’re not fucking crazy,” he told the conservative Daily Caller in praise of the protesters. He told the Washington Times that he was worried about what would happen to Christians after the Assad regime falls. Clearly there is some conservative outreach being done—perhaps a strategy on the part of the Obama administration to get him confirmed. But part of taking the position that Ford ought to be confirmed after having previously thought otherwise—and this includes myself!—means acknowledging that we were wrong: that the administration’s policy of engagement, while it may not always have felt like the most righteous thing in the world, was actually an effective means of advancing our strategic and moral interests. I am pleased to do this, and I hope my fellow turncoats will join me.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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