Was Paul Ryan correct that the Obama administration called Bashar Assad ‘a reformer’?

Paul Ryan:  “We should not have called Bashar Assad a reformer when he was turning his Russian-provided guns on his own people.”



During his debate with Vice President Biden, Republican candidate for vice president Paul Ryan claimed the Obama administration referred to Syrian leader Bashar Assad as a reformer.  Though PolitiFact rated the claim “Mostly False,” we’ll find that Ryan had a good foundation for saying it.


The Facts

“We should not have called Bashar Assad a reformer,” Ryan said, “when he was turning his Russian-provided guns on his own people. We should always stand up for peace, for democracy, for individual rights.”

What Secretary of State Clinton said:


BOB SCHIEFFER: But I mean– how can that be worse than what has happened in Syria over the years, where Bashar Assad’s father killed twenty-five thousand people at– at a lick. I mean, they opened fire with live ammunition on these civilians.


BOB SCHIEFFER: Why is that different from Libya?


BOB SCHIEFFER (overlapping): This is a friend of Iran, an enemy of Israel?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, if there were a coalition of the international community, if there were the passage of a Security Council resolution, if there were a call by the Arab League, if there was a condemnation that was universal but that is not going to happen because I don’t think that it’s yet clear what will occur, what will unfold? There is a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer. What’s been happening there the last few weeks is– is deeply concerning. But there’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities, then police actions, which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.


Clinton later claimed that she was not expressing the sense of the administration that Assad is a reformer but rather reporting the opinion of others.


Analyzing the Rhetoric

What was the Obama administration’s  view of the Assad regime?  An earlier exchange in the television segment supplies helpful context:


BOB SCHIEFFER: Tens of thousands of people have turned out protesting in Syria, which has been under the iron grip of the–the Assad for so many years now. One of the most repressive regimes in the world, I suppose. And when the demonstrators turned out, the regime opened fire and killed a number of civilians. Can we expect the United States to enter that conflict in the way we have entered the conflict in Libya?

HILLARY CLINTON (Secretary of State): No. Each of these situations is unique, Bob. Certainly, we deplore the violence in Syria. We call, as we have on all of these governments during this period of the Arab awakening, as some have called it, to be responding to their people’s needs, not to engage in violence, permit peaceful protest and begin a process of economic and political reform. The situation in Libya, which engendered so much concern from around the international community had a leader who used military force against the protestors from one end of his country to the other, who publicly said things like, we’ll show no mercy. We’ll go house to house. And the international community moved with great speed in part because there’s a history here. This is someone who has behaved in a way that caused grave concern in the past forty-plus years in the Arab world, the African world, Europe and the United States.

BOB SCHIEFFER: But I mean– how can that be worse than what has happened in Syria over the years, where Bashar Assad’s father killed twenty-five thousand people at– at a lick. I mean, they opened fire with live ammunition on these civilians.


Secretary Clinton clearly expresses the idea that the administration looks for Assad to take on the role of a reformer, in contrast to Libya’s Col. Muammar Qaddafi.  The contrast in expectations accounts in part for the difference in response to the situation in Syria compared to that in Libya.  Clinton also mentions the lack of response from either the United Nations or the Arab League, but after that says no such response will occur because of the view that Assad might embrace reform.

So the administration’s response to the situation in Syria was predicated on the view that Assad might serve as a reformer.  If the administration did not share that view then its failure to oppose Assad on the same level it opposed Gaddafi looks like a case of following the lead of other nations.  And doesn’t that support Ryan’s point about staying true to American values in international relations?

Of note, the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, gave Clinton three “Pinocchios” for the explanation PolitiFact accepts at face value.



So, Clinton didn’t exactly say that she, or the administration, was labeling Assad a reformer. Rather, she was referring to what other people — namely “lawmakers” –“believe.”


Kessler applies a more appropriate level of skepticism to Clinton’s explanation.

Given any charity of interpretation toward his claim, Ryan has a good case for what he says.  The case for Clinton, in contrast, rests on parsed words and contextual blinders.  Certainly there’s reason to think the Obama administration doubted Assad would wear the mantle of reform he had stitched with his tongue.  But the doubt was counterbalanced by a hope in Assad’s willingness to reform that ultimately resulted in a much softer U.S. response to the atrocities in Syria than to those in Libya.



Jacobson, Louis.  “Paul Ryan says Obama administration called Bashar al-Assad ‘a reformer.'” PolitiFact,12 October 2012.  Web.  14 Oct. 2012.

Transcript And Audio:  Vice Presidential Debate.”  National Public Radio, 11 Oct. 2012.  Web.  14 Oct. 2012.

Politico staff, “Vice presidential debate questions, transcript, Oct. 11, 2012 (full text, video).”  Politico, 11 Oct. 2012.  Web.  14 Oct. 2012.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., Vice Presidential Candidate, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Participate in a Candidates Debate, Danville, Kentucky.”  Commission on Presidential Debates, 11 Oct. 2012.  Web.  14 Oct. 2012.

CBS’s “Face the Nation” interview with Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton on Libya.”  Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), 27 March 2011.  Web.  14 Oct. 2012.

al-Khalidi, Suleiman.  “Thousands chant ‘Freedom” despite Assad reform offer.”  Reuters.  24 March 2011.  Web.  14 Oct. 2012.

Kessler, Glenn.  “Hillary Clinton’s uncredible statement on Syria.” “The Fact Checker” blog at the Washington Post, 4 April 2011.  Web.  14 Oct. 2012

Clinton, Hillary Rodham.  “Remarks After the International Conference on the Libyan Crisis.”  U.S. Department of State, 29 March 2011.  Web.  14 Oct. 2012.

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