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May 24, 2007

Correction: Bashar al-Assad is not "A Nice Guy"
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Things in Syria aren't looking too good: "One-by-one, non-violent Syrian advocates for change are falling victim to what observers call a blatant government campaign to decimate the country's long-embattled reform movement" (Via the POMED Wire).

A lot of my liberal friends were very excited when Nancy Pelosi took her April trip to Syria. The obvious problems with the visit aside, I suppose I agree, albeit somewhat reluctantly, that Pelosi should at least be commended for shaking things up, thumbing her nose at the Bushies, giving diplomacy a chance, and giving Arabs a reason to dislike us less. However, Democrats should not fall under the illusion that Bashar al-Assad is a friend, a would-be friend, or even a "nice guy" as a friend of mine once called him.

As adorable as Assad might appear to be to the untrained eye when discussing his IPod preferences, or his lovely wife, we cannot and should not avoid the simple fact that Syria is a brutal dictatorship. And we should be weary of indulging dictators, even when they profess admiration for Will Smith movies. Of course, the Republicans are the worst at this, despite their protestations to the contrary. The list autocratic countries the Bush administration has coddled or is in the process of coddling is as long as ever, and includes Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, so on and so forth. Yes, and the Bush administration can claim responsbility for adding Libya to that long and illustrious list.


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However, Democrats should not fall under the illusion that Bashar al-Assad is a friend, a would-be friend, or even a "nice guy" as a friend of mine once called him.

This post would be stronger if you cited an important Democrat -- beside your friend -- who believed this. I'm sure I'm to the left of you, and yet I don't know anyone who thinks Iran or Syria are led by "nice men." Perhaps you should choose your friends more carefully.

In the meantime, I'd appreciate it if you didn't reinforce Republican talking points until you have more evidence to support this damning charge. (Is there anyone in Congress who has "fallen under this illusion"?) Pelosi and Lantos went to Syria to try to avoid another war, not because they thought Assad has a good Q rating.

It might be a good idea to develop a working definition of the word "coddle" as it applies to American relations with other states.

Apparently the Bush administration, according to one source, has or is now in the process of coddling every Arab government except Yemen's and (I think) Syria's. I guess we'd have to include the former Baathist government of Iraq on the non-coddled list as well. That thing with the statue in al Firdos square had to have been the last straw as far as that goes.

Now, I'm pretty sure about Syria and the reasons its government shouldn't be considered one being coddled. My question is, what about Yemen? Sure, it has harbored terrorists -- what Arab country hasn't? -- but otherwise it has no more or less unpleasant a government than most in that part of the world. Are we not doing something specific with respect to Yemen (as opposed to, say, Algeria) and thereby taking that country's regime off the list of Arab governments America is coddling?

Sudan is a special case, as we know. Its government is absolutely Arab. A large proportion of its population is not, though, a situation Sudan has been working hard to rectify by reducing the ratio of non-Arabs to Arabs. The United States has not been sympathetic to this policy. On the other hand American diplomacy was helpful in arranging a settlement of one civil war that had not gone all that well for the Khartoum regime. So is Sudan on the list of coddled Arab states, or not?

Once we get outside the Arab world, we find a large number of countries, some having notably distasteful governments, with which the United States maintains cordial relations. The Bush administration must be coddling some of them, right? OK, so...which ones? Are there countries we should be coddling? And -- to return to my first question -- is there a set of substantive actions, symbolic gestures, or statements that allow us ordinary citizens to tell when a foreign government is being coddled? How may those of us simple people, unsophisticated in the complex world of international affairs, distinguish this set from that set of actions, gestures and statements that signifies normal relations between governments not intent on overthrowing one another?


"Allow us ordinary citizens to tell when a foreign government is being coddled"

Maybe the best measure for laypeople to identify when a government is being coddled by the U.S. is to identify how much oil said country sells to the U.S., or to what degree American multinational corporations have invested in that country. It appears that the greater the amount of either, US support for that country is highly proportionate.

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