- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 21, 2011

Republican White House hopefuls are attacking President Obama’s response to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s bloody, five-month crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, saying the commander in chief wasted valuable time in mulling the situation.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the president took “far too long to speak out forcefully against Assad,” and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said Mr. Obama should have called for the resignation weeks ago “when his regime started slaughtering and oppressing his own Syrian people.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, said the president’s call last week for Mr. Assad to step down was long overdue and that every diplomatic option should be employed to push out Mr. Assad.

Mr. Obama has demanded Mr. Assad’s resignation because of his ongoing crackdown on dissenters, which some human rights groups claim has led to 2,000 deaths.

“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” Mr. Obama said Thursday. “He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

The announcement coincided with sanctions that freeze all Syrian government assets within the United States and bar U.S. firms from dealing in any way in Syrian oil. It also coordinated with statements from leaders of Britain, France, Germany and the European Union, who also said it was time for Mr. Assad to go.

That didn’t satisfy a number of the Republicans seeking the party’s nomination for president, who suggested that Mr. Obama looked weak.

“This is yet one more instance of President Obama leading from behind on foreign policy,” Mrs. Bachmann said, arguing that the president should expel the Syrian ambassador and pull the U.S. ambassador to Syria. “Better late than never is no way to conduct United States foreign policy.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania expressed shock that it took “Obama this long to realize that Syria is a threat to not just the region, but to its own people.”

Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, suggested that the criticism smelled of political opportunism.

“I’m skeptical that U.S. rhetorical pressure would have been instrumental in his demise had the president employed it five months earlier,” said Mr. Preble.

He said it’s interesting that several of these candidates supported the war effort in Iraq, but have not called on the government there to put more pressure on Syria.

Though the election has been billed as a referendum on jobs and the economy, the political spotlight has shifted periodically to foreign policy. In large part, that’s partly because of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who argues that elected officials in Washington could save taxpayers trillions of dollars and do a better job of protecting the nation’s borders if they stopped trying to police the world, brought the troops home and eliminated all foreign assistance.

Some GOP candidates have moved in Mr. Paul’s direction by saying it’s time to rethink the role the nation plays in the Middle East, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several also agree that Mr. Obama should have requested authorization from Congress before getting the U.S. military involved in the U.N.-led mission in Libya.

But the response from GOP contenders to the way Mr. Obama handled Mr. Assad’s crackdown on dissenters serves as a reminder that when push come to shove on foreign policy, Mr. Paul’s train of thought doesn’t mesh with a large swath of the party.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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