On October 20th, Detlev Mehlis presented his report to the United Nations. The long-time German prosecutor laid out the case that high-level Syrian officials conspired in the assassination of Lebanese opposition leader and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Named in the report were the brother and brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad, apparently named in a draft of the report, was not directly implicated.
Assassinations of political leaders are not new to the history of the Middle East, much less to the history of Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs. But the world is changing. Over the past thirty years, nations from Latin America to East Asia have migrated from authoritarianism to forms of popular democracy. The exception has been the Middle East, where Arab regimes installed to lead states whose borders were written principally by the British and the French in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate cling to power.
Even as the language of democracy has crept in to the political lexicon of Jordan, Egypt and the Emirates, the Assad Bathist regime in Syria has held firm. The Assad regime—a charter member of the axis-of-still-pretty-evil—has embarked on a media campaign to soften its image in the west. Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma were featured in James Bennet's New York Times Magazine cover article, The Enigma of Damascus. Not since the Soviet Union successful spun the west on Yuri Andropov’s love of Johnnie Walker and Benny Goodman has a dictator used the western press with such élan. Though, as the Judy Miller story suggests, the New York Times may have become an easy mark. Mr. Bennet inscribes:
President Assad wore a black suit and a charcoal shirt without a tie; Mrs. Assad, a sea-foam green sweater over a sheer top and a white skirt. Her long, honeycolored hair was uncovered. Together they made a kind of visual rhyme with the building: tall, slender and young, they seemed the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion, the elegant doctor turned-president out on the town with his dazzling British-born Syrian wife, the former J.P. Morgan banker whom Syrians call their Princess Diana.
Wow. Could this really be the same Assad whose Bathist regime has a track record of murdering opponents and destroying and burying the entire city of Hama to break the back of an opposition group? Could this really be the same man who threatened with credibility to destroy Lebanon if the Parliament there did not change the constitution to assure that President Emile Lahoud remained in power?
This will be a defining moment for the United Nations. Syria has violated the law and the essence of the United Nations charter. This will as well be a defining moment for modernity and the community of Arab nations. Assad is a minority Alawite. His regime has assassinated a Sunni leader of another nation, while supporting its long-time ally, a Maronite Christian. But more to the point, the Syrian action led to demands that Syria leave Lebanon. And while Syria has claimed compliance, old habits die hard, as Assad’s words to Hariri suggest: "Lahoud is me… If you and [French President Jacques] Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.” So much for subtlety. So much for the essence of Western-Arab fusion.
But there will be no talk of actions against Assad for his crimes. And that is one great legacy of the war in Iraq, and the failure of the ambitions of the Neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The Neocons’ goal was to discard the amoral expediency of Realpolitik that has dominated American foreign policy for decades and to build in its place a foreign policy based upon principles of liberty, democracy and the imperative of confronting oppressive regimes.
Iraq was to be their test case. Regime change in Iraq was intended to be the great moment of American redemption. For the decades that Realpolitik dominated our foreign policy, as America supported authoritarian regimes that oppressed their own people but who created regional stability and supported American interests. The Neoconservatives sought to change all of that. In the post-holocaust world, to get rid of the regime was a moral imperative. He is a committer of genocide, and he was likely to do it again. He was a starter of serial regional wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people. He was a source of instability and suffering.
Imagine the confusion in the Arab mind. For the better part of a century the western powers worked their Realpolitik magic in the Middle East. From the wreckage of the Ottoman Caliphate, the French and British cobbled together nations of disparate tribes and clans, and Kings, Shahs and other strongmen were installed to lead them. As the new millennium dawned, the language and motivations of Washington—now the center of the new unipolar political world—appeared to be changing. Realpolitik was dying and the young Bush administration seemed to be in thrall of high-brow Neocon aspirations that suggested a new day might be dawning for an Arab world that had lagged behind the democratic wave that has swept East Asia, South America and much of Africa.
But it was not to be. As Paul Wolfowitz suggested in Vanity Fair magazine, the administration set aside the principled arguments for regime change that focused on Saddam’s support for terrorism in the region, on his criminal treatment of the Iraqi people and on his instigation of a number of wars with his neighbors in the region, and instead relied on the WMD argument. In their impatience to get boots on the ground, they fell prey to the Rumsfeld-Cheney arguments that the United States must act with “a little unilateralism” and eschew the views of France and Germany that in their view were compromised by commercial interests and moral weakness.
The failure to make the moral argument was theirs. The problem—as Wolfowitz concedes in Vanity Fair—was that the real issues were not discussed, the fulsomeness and moral reach of the Neocon agenda was not debated, and the indigenous mechanisms for change that would become essential were not developed. Instead, the administration fell prey to the Washington disease of selling policy through the path of least resistance—with half-truths and dissembling if necessary—and in so doing lost the mandate sought by some in the Neocon movement that it is time for America to change her stance in the world.
And the consequences of that failure will play out in Syria. We will not discuss the predations of Bashir Assad with any seriousness of purpose. Instead we will applaud his casual strength of purpose and infer an alignment with our values. And that Asma, she does look lovely in green.