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The ‘Reformer’ Tyrant

by Victor Davis Hanson

Our Syria policy has been incoherent

The United States recently dropped its support for the “Annan plan” — due to the fact that there is no more Annan plan, special U.N. Syrian envoy Kofi Annan recently having resigned. As most understood the plan, the Obama administration was supposed to be pressing for international sanctions and organizing a common front against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as Annan forced Assad to negotiate away his power with various rebel groups.

Annan’s Westernized Third World credentials also supposedly made him uniquely suited for soothing Russia and China’s fears over the loss of their friend Assad. Annan’s shuttling between the Syrian government and the rebels would usher in a peaceful transition to consensual government. Such a grand bargain would then be overseen by the United Nations and result in a pluralistic Syrian society, albeit with some sort of face-saving retirement for the deposed tyrant.

In other words, Annan’s pipe dream was doomed from the start. The United States is now left with the task of asking Assad to step down while stealthily sending arms to the insurgents to ensure his compliance — hoping thereby to gain some influence when and if they take power. But Assad is in no mood to compromise, given the fate of other deposed authoritarians such as Moammar Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Saddam Hussein.

After more than a year of violence, Assad’s regime wagers that the West in general is tired of the Middle East and will not interfere in Syria the way it intervened in Libya — and that Barack Obama in particular is more worried about the November elections than about the escalating violence. Further, the regime knows that China and Russia will not abstain from Security Council votes on Syria as they did from votes on Libya.

The rebels understandably want the usual American help — no-fly and safe zones, heavy armaments, money, and supplies — but they want itwithout any liberal strings attached. It is likely that the terrorists and Islamists among them believe they can, in time, do to their naïve, more moderate rival insurgents what they did to Assad. Summed up, the rebel front’s implicit position is that Syria may or may not end up with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, but that is the insurgents’ own business, and either way the new regime will be better for the West than Assad was.

It is true that few regimes have done more to harm U.S. interests or oppress their own people than has the Assad dynasty, which has ruled Syria since 1970. Bashar al-Assad, who assumed power on the death of his father Hafez in 2000, turned Syria into an unambiguous client of Iran, a sponsor of Hezbollah, and a supporter of terrorism. He also sought to destabilize Lebanon, destroy the American effort in Iraq, and encourage terrorists to strike Israel.

So the Syrian uprising, which began on March 15, 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring that swept North Africa, should have been a godsend to the West and to the United States in particular. Unlike Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Assad has been a clear enemy of the United States. His fall would belie the common belief that only pro-American Arab dictators suffer popular uprisings. Even if we worry that the stability of pro-American authoritarians may deteriorate into chaos and anti-Western Islamic theocracy, how could anything be worse than Assad’s Syria? Why, then, are we not actively and publicly working to topple the government in the manner we did with similarly odious authoritarians such as Hussein and Qaddafi?

Public opinion explains much of the reluctance. With over 80,000 Americans still in Afghanistan, with nearly 8,000 Americans having died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the country $9 trillion more in debt than when we took out Saddam Hussein, there is no support for sending ground troops into Syria — the only sure method of removing Assad and replacing him with a pro-Western, democratic government. In fact, the public has no more desire to intervene in the Middle East, whatever the strategy or rationale. One could argue that the removal and trial of Saddam Hussein, who was replaced by a constitutional government, was the catalyst for the Arab Spring. Yet few, especially in the Obama administration, seem eager to make that argument. One of the most bizarre aspects of the current administration’s Middle East policy has been its eagerness to intervene in Libya and contemplate some sort of assistance to the anti-Assad forces in Syria, while ostracizing the Maliki government in Iraq and offering no support for the million-plus protesters who swarmed the streets of Iran in the spring of 2009.

The election-year American politics of Syrian intervention are certainly muddled. Many liberals are calling for overt help for the Syrian resistance, despite the general indifference they have shown Iranian protesters. Supporters of the Iraq War are baffled that the administration and its supporters, who demagogued everything from Iraq to Guantanamo, now ponder using preemptive force to remove a Middle East strongman. Bipartisan calls to do more in Syria evoke an eerie déjà vu of a similar consensus in October 2002, when both houses of Congress voted to authorize the use of force to remove the Hussein regime — a consensus that crumbled when casualties mounted in late 2003 and the 2004 presidential primaries heated up.

Arab politics concerning Syria are even more muddled. Oil-rich Sunni authoritarians from the Gulf are sending money and arms, hoping to topple an ally of Iran. Apparently they believe that outcome would be worth the risk of spreading the Arab Spring to Kuwait, Qatar, the smaller Gulf sheikhdoms, and Saudi Arabia itself. And if we think that the Lebanese — long  the victims of Assad’s terrorism — are uniformly rooting for the Syrian insurgents, we should think again. Many worry that the fall of the murderous Assad would end any shred of tolerance for Alawites, Christians, and Shiites, of which Lebanon has large populations. That is not an idle fear, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing hostility toward the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt. Syria’s Alawite minority, which dominates the Assad government and has largely been an oppressor of majorities, may soon find itself a persecuted minority — much the way that Germans in Eastern Europe in 1945 went from being protected pro-Nazi bullies to being a victimized minority as the Red Army swept in to settle scores in atrocious fashion. And looming over the violence in Syria is a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, yet there remains some uncertainty as to whether the restless Arab Street fears Iran more than it enjoys the prospect of the irritation that an Iranian bomb would cause Europe, the United States, and Israel.

The NATO removal of Moammar Qaddafi is sometimes cited as a model for deposing Assad. But Libya is sui generis and offers no blueprint for much of anything. In the lead-up to the intervention, authorization from Congress was bypassed in favor of U.N. approval for the first time since the Korean War. Yet Security Council resolutions called only for no-fly zones and humanitarian aid, not an around-the-clock NATO bombing campaign. In other words, Congress was ignored and the U.N. was snookered, and they are unlikely to approve a similar use of air power in Syria. And whereas Libya was less than an hour’s flight from NATO bases in Sicily, Syria is far from Europe, in a more volatile region of the world, better armed, and over four times as populous.

In some sense, Qaddafi was a monster in rehab. His offspring jet-setted to and from the West, buying respectability on the cheap among American and British academics and journalists (who nonetheless damned the regime when it became clear it was likely to end). It took the Arab Spring to ensure that British war cemeteries in Libya — sacrosanct since World War II — would be desecrated by Islamist gangs in the manner of Bamiyan and Timbuktu. Post-war Libya cannot be worse than the first 30 years of the Qaddafi regime — but it also might not be any better than the last four.

The West’s hopes for the Arab Spring — that constitutional reformers would ensure human rights, free elections, and a transparent society — are for now suspended. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was met with chants of “Monica! Monica!” as she arrived in Egypt — a state that has received an aggregate of $65 billion in American aid since 1979. Newly elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, may have two children who were born in California and are U.S. citizens, but he convinced few Westerners of his commitment to tolerance and moderation when, almost immediately after his election, he called for the U.S. to grant clemency to the “blind sheikh,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina federal prison for his prominent role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

What future will follow the removal of tyrants in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen is unknown even to the revolutionary players themselves. At worst, the secular dissidents will fade from post-revolutionary election cycles as hardcore Islamists are voted in and purge the opposition — “one man, one vote, one time.”Islamists could thendo to Egypt or Libya what the Khomeinists did to Iran, or what the Hamas theocrats have done to Gaza. At best, we might see something like Erdogan’s Turkey, where a “moderate” Islamist purges opponents and jails critics while holding elections that are more or less open and transparent — and which he is unlikely ever to lose. Even if the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq are corrupt and probably only with difficulty will give up power, they nonetheless reflect the American effort to birth constitutional government — a stewardship impossible with the Arab Spring democracies.The presence of American troops, aid, and constant attention can result in a constitutional government that may serve as the model for others — but it comes at such a price, in American blood and treasure, serial violence, and knee-jerk opposition from the Middle East street, that it probably will not be repeated in the near future.

Israel seems ambivalent about the removal of its archenemy, the Assad regime. As an authoritarian, Hafez al-Assad could enforce the agreements he signed, and he did not succeed in any meaningful way in subverting the understood protocols that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War. When he seemed to try — e.g., in the air war of 1982 and the attempt to build a nuclear facility — Israel easily swatted him down. A Syria governed in the fashion of Sudan or Somalia might be worse. Syria could well turn into a sort of Star Wars cantina for assorted international terrorists, its weak government denying any culpability as it sought immunity from Israeli retaliation against terrorists operating on its soil.

There are other contours in revolutionary Syria that should cause reflection. Like Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad was long considered by many Westerners to be an authentic anti-imperialist who, if he did not have legitimate grievances against the United States, was at least unfairly demonized as a terrorist abettor by the Manichean George W. Bush. The Assads were the subject of a splashy Vogue profile — a 3,200-word valentine entitled “Rose in the Desert” — that portrayed the dictator’s family as evolving Westernized liberals with exquisite taste. The author, Joan Juliet Buck, fawned over Bashar’s wife, Asma: “glamorous, young, and very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.” Buck apparently had never heard of Hama, where in 1982 Bashar’s father butchered up to 20,000 people. Her subsequent mea culpa (“Mrs. Assad Duped Me”) seems predicated not on the fact that Assad is a monster, but on the probability that he is a loser going the uncool way of Hussein and Qaddafi.

Adjustments must be made as Assad transmogrifies from an understandable voice of Arab nationalism who fights neoconservative nation-building into a creepy international pariah. Barack Obama, remember, advocated the resumption of diplomatic relations with Syria — which had been ended by Bush in 2005 over Syria’s overt efforts to promote terrorism — amid Democratic calls in 2008 to reopen direct relations with both Syria and Iran. For most of the last decade, Middle East dictators’ anti-Americanism and opposition to the war in Iraq shielded them from liberal criticism.

We may forget that despite John Kerry’s current calls one day for NATO bombing of Syrian military installations and the next for the establishment of a Western-enforced “safe zone” for Syrian insurgents, the senior senator from Massachusetts visited Syria frequently in the past few years. Indeed, he once voiced real confidence in the regime: “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.” But in fact, as in the case of the about-face concerning Qaddafi, most liberal calls for U.S.-backed efforts to remove Assad follow earlier assurances that he was worth courting in a way that the obstinate George W. Bush could not appreciate. Speaking about Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared: “There’s 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.” Perhaps Hillary Clinton was referencing then–House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in March 2007, at the height of Syria’s efforts to send terrorists into Iraq to kill Americans, said of Assad, “We were very pleased with the assurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process. He’s ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel.” John McCain had it right when he concluded that the Clinton-Kerry-Pelosi assessment was “one of the great delusionary views in recent foreign-policy history.”

Where, then, does this incoherence leave us? Conservatives should not oppose U.S. efforts to topple Assad simply because of the abject hypocrisy of the liberals who found him worth reaching out to when Bush was president but wish for his downfall now. Their inconsistency does not change the fact that Assad’s departure would be in America’s interest.

But this fact raises two questions: At what cost, and what follows? Since ground and air power are largely ruled out, we are talking mostly about continuing or increasing covert military assistance to rebels. The theory, apparently, is that we could somehow selectively arm rebel factions in a way that avoids arming the many al-Qaedists and other Islamic terrorists who are involved with those factions.And if the United States failed to keep its arms out of terrorists’ hands, then we might at least win some influence through our help. Yet our experience of supplying the Taliban and the Libyan rebels suggests that we would either have no leverage with Syrian Islamist dissidents or incur their hostility.

What is sorely lacking is a Middle East policy that deemphasizes particular countries and personalities and instead applies a consistent general standard. The criterion should be that the United States supports those who advocate constitutional democracyand opposes those who do not, and we should honestly accept that this standard sometimes has costly consequences. The Obama administration, in contrast, was silent when nearly a million Iranian reformers hit the streets in the spring of 2009. It belatedly treated Hosni Mubarak as the Carter administration had the Shah of Iran in 1979, and thereby suffered the same fate: that of alienating friends and looking weak to enemies and neutrals. In Libya, the administration’s stated policy of “leading from behind” was a euphemism for coming late and opportunistically into the conflict and outsourcing the more publicized bombing to Britain and France. And in Syria, the administration is above all adaptable — after resetting with Syria, it now calls for Assad’s removal to the degree the rebels seem to be winning in a given month, and it supports negotiations when the insurgency stalls.

Why the incoherence? Because the Obama administration cannot quite square the various circles of its own making. It refuses to open up oil-rich federal lands for petroleum and natural-gas exploration, but then wonders why corrupt and illiberal Gulf sheikhdoms possess the power to veto American foreign policy. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate champions human rights in the abstract, but does not acknowledge that such idealism usually hinges on American exceptionalism and a willingness to incur costs — lest he be tarred with the interventionist slur that not so long ago he readily leveled at others.

The administration — through hare-brained schemes such as attempting to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court or euphemisms such as relegating Major Nidal Hasan’s mass murder to the category of workplace violence — has assured us that Islamism is an invention of the paranoid right wing and that the Muslim Brotherhood is evolving into a secular political force. And yet, according to some reports, the administration privately remains worried that al-Qaedists and their ilk are infiltrating the very dissident groups of the Arab Spring that it hopes to help and influence.

Until the United States develops fully its own natural-gas and oil reserves, becomes honest about the dangers of radical Islam, and articulates an across-the-board policy that promotes constitutional government in place of authoritarianism, its policies regarding anti-authoritarian uprisings will seem not just opportunistic, but ineptly so.

Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.

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