When Egypt’s population began widespread demonstrations against the Hosni Mubarak regime, it took Barack Obama eight days to demand the resignation of our nominal ally in Cairo.  When Moammar Qaddafi began a campaign of military attacks on his own people to suppress a revolt, it took us just a few weeks to launch an undeclared war on Tripoli.  Eleven months after Syria began massacring unarmed civilians demonstrating against the Bashar Assad regime, the US will finally close its embassy in Damascus:

The State Department on Monday pulled out its remaining staff from the U.S. embassy in Syria, following reports last week that the closing was likely unless President Bashar al-Assad promised further protection for American diplomats.

“Ambassador Ford has left Damascus but he remains the United States Ambassador to Syria and its people,” a State Department spokeswoman said in a statement. “As the President’s representative, he will continue his work and engagement with the Syrian people as head of our Syria team in Washington. Together with other senior U.S. officials, Ambassador Ford will maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition and continue our efforts to support the peaceful political transition which the Syrian people have so bravely sought.”

We had actually pulled Ford out of Syria last year in a long-overdue move.  The Arab League had already condemned Assad by that point, and Saudi Arabia had pulled its envoy to Damascus months earlier.  Incredibly, the US then sent Ford back to Syria in December, maintaining diplomatic relations with a government that was actively opening fire on its own people, the very set of circumstances that Barack Obama claimed as justification for the intervention in Libya.

Give Ford full marks for courage for returning and staying as long as he did, but he never should have been sent back in the first place.  Instead of taking a principled stand and pulling our diplomatic recognition of Assad, as the Saudis managed to do, we are now leaving because of (very real) safety issues.  That hardly sends a strong and principled message to the rest of the world, as our useless engagement of the supposed “reformer” Assad didn’t as well.

Perhaps we can chalk this up to “better late than never,” and it’s good that we were able to evacuate our embassy without a loss of life.  But this was an opportunity missed on many levels, and a demonstration of a lack of real diplomatic direction in the White House.