President Obama made a similar error when he decided to engage Iran in early 2009. Although Iran continued to spread terrorism and violence across the Middle East, Obama reached out in friendship to President Ahmadinejad. This only emboldened the Iranian dictator. And when Ahmadinejad stole the 2009 presidential election, President Obama initially refused to support the Iranian opposition and call for Ahmadinejad to resign.
Would calling on Ahmadinejad to step down have made a practical difference? Maybe not. But maybe it would have, by encouraging dissidents and protestors in Iran — just as it might encourage the dissidents and protestors in Syria today. And no matter what, it would have sent a clear message that the U.S. would firmly oppose any nation that suppressed and murdered its own people.
President Obama later did voice his support for the Iranian dissidents, apparently recognizing that symbolism and rhetoric do matter. But by then it was too late. The Iranian opposition had been crushed and Ahmadinejad had solidified his grip on power.
Today, the United States is repeating that mistake. But countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are not. They realize that perceptions and rhetoric matter, and they know that acts of symbolism might pressure President Assad to step down or embolden his opponents. Critics might argue that the Arab states have just taken this position to maintain support for their own regimes. That might be true. But what matters is what they are doing, not why they are doing it.
It’s also true that Saudi Arabia hasn’t called for Assad to step down. But the Saudis implied it, and they stopped just short of saying so. For a country like Saudi Arabia to make that kind of statement is just as significant as it would be for the United States to call on President Assad to step down.
The United States is rightly concerned about what would happen if Assad left. But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arab states also share this concern, and it hasn’t stopped them from doing what is right. The U.S. also wants to keep a diplomatic presence on the ground in Syria to monitor the situation. But this can be done without keeping an ambassador there, or by using information from other governments and aid groups.
The United States must follow Saudi Arabia’s lead, or risk losing its legitimacy on human rights.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.