The United States has not had an ambassador in Damascus, Syria, since 2005, when the Bush Administration withdrew our lead diplomat to protest the Assad government’s involvement in assassinating Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. The downgrading of diplomatic relations reinforced the Bush Administration’s broader approach that we would not reward governments with blood on their hands.
The Obama Administration acted over the objections of Republicans in the Senate and appointed an ambassador during the Congressional recess, an understandable sore point. But the Ambassador in question has demonstrated both great personal courage and a great commitment to holding the Syrian government accountable for its murderous actions.
Ambassador Robert Ford, now in Syria, is bearing witness to the crimes of the Syrian government. He is traveling to cities where protests are occurring, pulling media coverage that reveals for lies the claims of the Syrian government. He is attending funerals of murdered Syrian anti-government activists, making clear to the Syrian people and people everywhere which side the American government is on in this struggle for power. He has been physically assaulted and threatened with murder; instead of cowering, he has posted those those threats on the Embassy’s Facebook page, so people can see how the government and its supporters seek to intimidate.
Repressive governments prosper when they can control information. Withdrawing American diplomats from repressive countries actually helps those governments. It permits them to more effectively control information when we are not contesting that space. It allows them to describe our actions instead of us making the case ourselves. It prevents us being actively involved in the domestic politics and public debates of those countries. It does nothing to support the brave people risking their lives to challenge a repressive government.
The Bush Administration was wrong. American diplomatic presence in a country isn’t a reward, it’s a means of influencing both governments and their publics, of conveying American values, of drawing media attention by our presence and our choices. It can just as easily penalize a government as reward it. Diplomatic relations among countries with whom we have good relations actually require presence much less than do countries where we believe governments are oppressive to their people.
Robert Ford has done our country and the beleaguered revolutionaries in Syria a great service in bearing witness to their struggle. Those Syrians trying to overthrow an evil government should take heart that the United States of America is standing with them. He is representing our country well, and at great personal risk. The Senate should confirm him.
(photo credit: Wikipedia)