Smart power: White House surprised that Syrian crisis has gotten this serious

I don’t get it. U.S. intelligence has never let us down before.

For the first three weeks of the protests in Syria, which first broke out on March 15, the Obama administration debated internally how to react to while generally proceeding cautiously in public. Occupied with the Libya war and skeptical that Syria would reach the current level of unrest, the administration’s policy was to issue carefully worded statements condemning the violence while encouraging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to pursue reform and reconciliation.

Two weeks ago, however, the mood inside the administration changed in response to Assad’s brutal crackdown and the realization that he was not listening to pro-reform voices from inside or outside Syria

Multiple administration officials told The Cable that [last month] the administration had simply concluded, incorrectly, that the Syrian crisis would never grow this serious. That judgment informed their go-slow approach in responding to the protests…

“A lot of people were wrong. The general assessment [inside the administration] was that this wouldn’t happen, that Assad was too good at nipping these movements in the bud and also that he was not afraid to be brutal,” one administration official said. “All of these things combined made this more of a surprise and made it much harder to deal with.”

In other words, they thought Hafez Assad’s son could be reasoned with because he’s a “reformer” or whatever, but they also thought he’d utterly crush the protesters if they got a bit too aggressive for his liking — which makes them wrong on not one but two counts. I can cut them a break on the latter since the Arab Spring is, after all, unprecedented and neither Ben Ali nor Mubarak used comprehensive force against demonstrators to prove that it would or wouldn’t work, but precisely what sort of “reform” did they expect to see Assad undertake here? Syria and its Iranian/Lebanese orbit are very dangerous places, even by Middle Eastern standards; if Assad had relaxed his grip and given the Sunni majority a bigger role in government, it might have spooked Iran and/or Hezbollah and even increased the risk of a Syrian civil war. (In fact, that’s already a significant risk, especially now that some Syrian troops are breaking away from the regime by refusing to fire on protesters.) Ironically, the Syrian government has — superficially — imposed more “reforms” over the past month to try to placate protesters than either the Tunisian or Egyptian dictatorships did. The emergency law was lifted, for example, right before Syrian troops started gunning people down in the name of managing an emergency. What more did the White House expect from Assad, knowing a la Rafiq Hariri what happens to political leaders who get on the wrong side of Syria’s Shiite allies abroad?

Even now, with hundreds upon hundreds of people murdered and no sign of regime violence abating, U.S. diplomats won’t call for Assad to go — a testament to how worried western nations are about a power vacuum in Damascus. Meanwhile, at the UN, the Security Council spent a whole bunch of time today deciding on nothing and the Human Rights Council is on the cusp of admitting Syria as a brand new member despite daily atrocities committed against citizens in the name of ending the protests. That, and not the Birther saga, is truly the most surreal story of the day. In fact, since the White House is unsure what to do by way of meaningful action against Assad, let me gently suggest boycotting the repulsive HRC if Syria is sworn in Friday. It won’t stop the killing, but it’s useful symbolism and even Obama’s political opponents on the right will pat him on the back for it. How about it?