Playing politics with Assad

As the saying goes, that was then and this is now.

As a bloc on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Vice President Joseph R. Biden all opposed the George W. Bush administration’s playing tough with Mr. Assad.

None grew closer to Mr. Assad and promoted him in Washington more than Mr. Kerry.

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Mr. Kerry, as a senator from Massachusetts, told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in March 2011. He predicted that Mr. Assad would change for the better…

Mr. Biden, then the committee’s chairman, scolded her and reminded her of her duties.

“I do not agree with your statement, Madame Secretary, that negotiations with Iran and Syria would be extortion, nor did most of the witnesses we heard in this committee during the last month,” Mr. Biden said. “The proper term, I believe and they believe, is diplomacy, which is not about paying a price but finding a way to protect our interests without engaging in military conflict. It is, I might add, the fundamental responsibility of the Department of State, to engage in such diplomacy, as you well know.”

When it was his turn, committee member Mr. Hagel asked three times why Ms. Rice would not engage in direct talks with Mr. Assad.

“Have you included in those conversations, whether second- or third-party conversations, Iran and Syria?” Mr. Hagel said. “Because I don’t know how we could come up with any kind of a plan or focus, working with the United Nations or anyone else, if Iran and Syria are not included in that.”

One of Mr. Obama’s major foreign policy positions as a senator was unconditional direct talks with the leaders of Iran over its quest for nuclear weapons.

He also favored talks with Mr. Assad. Once in office, Mr. Kerry became his main emissary to Damascus, engaging in talks there in 2009, a month after Mr. Obama took office, and 2010, marking his third and fourth visits as a senator…

That month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, another alumnus of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told “Face the Nation” on CBS that lawmakers who had visited Mr. Assad considered him a “reformer.” The U.S., she said, did not need to contemplate military action against Syria.

“There’s a different leader in Syria now,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

In summary:

Conservatives wonder whether Mr. Assad, seeing that those who had scolded the Bush team for not talking to him are now in power, calculated he could put down the unrest in his country without U.S. interference.

“Absolutely,” said Michael Rubin, a Middle East researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. “Syria is just one symptom of a greater problem.”