When Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) takes the stage tonight to deliver the Democratic National Convention’s keynote foreign policy address, viewers will be listening to a man who has been over the past decade the highest-ranking apologist in American politics for Syria’s Assad regime. They will also be watching the likely next secretary of state if President Obama wins a second term.
Today the death toll in Syria stands at more than 26,000—the bloody result of a nearly two-year assault by Bashar al-Assad on Syrian civilians demanding freedom. Yesterday alone, the UK-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights documented more than 200 killings.
So notorious is Kerry’s enthusiasm for the Syrian dictator that a recent Washington Post news story referred to the Massachusetts senator as a "prominent admirer" of Assad.
Yet for all his admiration—his numerous trips to Damascus, his many public words of praise for Assad, his insistence over many years that the butcher of Damascus is a man of peace who seeks rapprochement with Israel and the United States—Assad has never repaid Kerry’s generosity with reforms.
Kerry thwarted efforts during the Bush administration to diplomatically isolate Syria after the administration’s own efforts to engage the regime ended in failure in 2003. Kerry served as the Obama administration’s envoy to Assad, leading a delegation to Syria just days after Obama’s inauguration. There he listened to Bashar Assad lecture him that Washington must "move away from a policy based on dictating decisions."
Kerry agreed, condemning the previous U.S. president while on the soil of a dictator who had spent the previous years assisting in the killing of American troops in Iraq. "Unlike the Bush administration that believed you could simply tell people what to do and walk away and wait for them to do it, we believe you have to engage in a discussion," Kerry said.
A year later Kerry was reiterating his praise for Assad’s tyranny. "Syria is an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region," Kerry said about the prominent state sponsor of terrorism and host of jihadist groups. "All of us have to work together in order to seize real opportunities."
Those opportunities having not been seized—Syria’s arming of Hezbollah continued unabated, compelling the U.S. to keep its sanctions in place—Kerry returned a month later, his third visit in little over a year, to try prodding the regime into action with praise one more time.
"Syria can play a critical role in bringing peace and stability if it makes the strategic decision to do so," he offered.
In March 2011, the Obama administration and France "blocked [a Kerry] visit out of concern that it would signal ‘Western weakness.’" Nonetheless determined to signal Western weakness, Kerry told a think tank audience that month, "Well, I personally believe that—I mean, this is my belief, okay? But President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had."
Kerry is often faulted for his dour personality, but one area on which he has remained a sunny optimist is the intentions of the Assad regime. Despite his many failed attempts to transform Assad from tyrant to peacemaker, or at least to help make his life as a tyrant easier, the ashen Massachusetts senator remains convinced that better days are just around the corner.
As he said last year, "my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it."
Kerry has always been confident that Israeli concessions, namely handing over strategically vital territory to Assad, would prompt peace. As disclosed by WikiLeaks, he has told Middle East leaders that Israel should surrender the Golan Heights to Assad and hand over East Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
Even liberal Israelis have found Kerry’s approach to Assad dangerous. Yossi Klein Halevy, a Jerusalem-based contributor to the New Republic, recently recounted a meeting he had with Kerry:
Last year, I was part of a group of Israelis who met in Jerusalem with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Mr. Kerry had just come from Damascus with excellent news: Bashar al-Assad was ready for peace with Israel. When one of the participants mentioned that demonstrations had begun to challenge Mr. Assad’s legitimacy, Mr. Kerry’s response was: All the more reason to negotiate while he’s still in power. In other words: Israel had the golden opportunity to give up the strategic Golan Heights to a dictator who might be deposed by a popular revolution, which might or might not recognize whatever peace agreement he signed.
As the body count in Syria closes in on 30,000, people around the world will likely be watching Senator Kerry’s speech tonight, and wondering which other dictators he might try to appease as Obama’s secretary of state.