Bashar Assad is in serious trouble.
Since January 26, the Syrian strongman has faced an unprecedented campaign of civil resistance to his 11-year grip on power. For the first time, tens of thousands of Syrians have stubbornly taken to the streets, boldly yearning to be free. Inspired by the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, they have braved tanks and sniper fire, arrest and torture as they attempt to throw off the chains of the Assad family's tyranny.
It is a historic moment, and a stirring one at that.
No less important, it presents a unique opportunity to do away with a regime that for too long has been a center of cruelty and instability on the Mideast scene.
But how has Washington responded to all this? The Obama administration has dropped the ball, hemming and hawing, with a policy that borders on the incoherent.
As recently as May 19, in his policy address at the State Department, President Barack Obama declared, "President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition [to democracy], or get out of the way."
To suggest that a man whose troops have been gunning down his own people in the streets is still a viable candidate to become Syria's George Washington is morally obscene.
Over 1,000 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained for the crime of wanting to choose their own leaders. Only the most irrationally naïve could think Assad is the man of the hour who will lead his people to freedom. This was underlined by the chilling story of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, a 13- year-old who was arrested by Assad's goons in the Syrian province of Deraa on April 29.
A month later, his disfigured young body was returned to his family. It was riddled with bullet holes and covered with bruises and cigarette burns.
His neck was broken, his kneecaps smashed, and even his genitals had been cut off.
An extremely graphic video of Hamza's bloated corpse in a plastic sheet was posted to YouTube, leading to the disappearance of his father last week. Hamza's death has become a rallying cry for Syrian demonstrators, who have begun to chant his name and hold up his picture at protests.
Asked about the boy's murder at a press conference on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated Obama's belief that Assad would choose to transform himself into a democrat.
"I can only hope," she said, "that this child did not die in vain, but that the Syrian government will end the brutality and begin a transition to real democracy."
But Clinton did not stop there. Adding insult to inanity, she bemoaned the fact that Assad, "has not called an end to the violence against his own people, and he has not engaged seriously in any kind of reform efforts."
Really? And you are only noticing this now, Madame Secretary? Just three weeks ago, Clinton was still insisting that reform was possible in Damascus, telling an Italian journalist that "they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda."
And in early March, she shamefully referred to Assad as a "reformer," even as his secret policemen were busy reloading.
Sure, Washington imposed sanctions on a handful of Syrian officials, and expressed dismay over the violence. But that hardly constitutes a policy.
Contrast this with America's approach to Libya, where the US Air Force is carrying out 25 percent of NATO's air sorties in an attempt to send Col. Muammar Gaddafi packing. The Libyan leader's compound has even been bombed in what is viewed as a thinly veiled attempt to send him into early "retirement" in the next world.
All this raises a pointed question: How is Assad any different from Gaddafi? Aside from their choice of hairdo, there is little to distinguish one from the other. Both are waging war on their own people, defying international norms, and brazenly committing crimes against humanity just to cling to power.
Nonetheless, one is facing indictment by the International Criminal Court, while the other is still deemed to be a potential reformer. What gives? This sharp dichotomy in America's approach to bad guys is not merely intellectually inconsistent, it is muddled thinking.
It betrays an administration that neither understands nor appreciates the extent to which it undercuts its own standing when it can't formulate an intelligible policy on how to deal with evil.
I applaud the United States for seeking Gaddafi's ouster, and I wish it would do the same to Assad, but no such move appears to be in the offing.
Sadly only one conclusion can be drawn from all this: In the mind of Clinton, not all dictators are created equal. Some, it seems, are more tolerable than others.