Saber Rattling Against Syria

According to The New York Times, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted that the suicide killers of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, were unknown and said: “We’re not laying blame. It needs to be investigated.” But the U.S. government began blaming Syria even before an investigation had been completed.

Because the Bush administration suspects Syrian involvement in the murder, it has recalled the U.S. ambassador to Syria and demanded that the Syrians withdraw their troops from Lebanon. Yet even Ariel Sharon, the hawkish prime minister of Syria’s archenemy Israel, said that he did not know who was behind the killing. Some Lebanese believe that al Qaeda could have slain Hariri because he is close to the government of Saudi Arabia, which Osama bin Laden despises.

Who killed the former Lebanese prime minister is important, and Syria may very well have played a role to retaliate for Hariri’s opposition to a Syrian military presence in Lebanon. But the Bush administration’s reaction to the murder is more significant.

Despite some Syrian help in curbing the flow of anti-U.S. guerrillas and funding for them from Syria into Iraq, the United States has decided to treat the autocratic regime in Damascus as harshly as it has treated other “rogue” states, such as Iran and Iraq. The U.S. government’s zeal to blame Syria for Hariri’s murder parallels its recent saber rattling against Iran. Most likely, the administration recently leaked word of U.S. drone flights and special forces missions into Iranian territory to intimidate the Iranian theocratic government. Unfortunately, the administration has forgotten the post-9/11 Iranian help it received to fight al Qaeda.

It is hypocritical for the administration to punish Syria for assassinating a former Lebanese prime minister (assuming the Syrians did it) when the U.S. led its own campaign to kill leaders of the Iraqi regime, including Saddam Hussein and his two sons. It is also duplicitous for the Bush administration to point the finger at Syria for having 14,000 troops in Lebanon, when the United States originally approved that troop presence and when it has 150,000 of its own troops occupying Iraq.

If odious regimes such as Syria are never rewarded for anything positive, they have no incentive to behave better. This does not mean holding them in a tight embrace or condoning their abysmal human rights practices. It does mean treating them with a wary pragmatism and not assuming all they do is evil.

The Bush administration should follow its own lead and imitate its successful policy with Libya. The administration provided a powerful incentive for Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s despotic strongman who also has been suspected of trying to kill a foreign leader, to give up his nuclear weapons program. It offered Qaddafi an end to international economic isolation in exchange for better behavior.

In contrast, Syria’s and Iran’s efforts at some cooperation with U.S. policies have been shot down in their infancy. In the case of Iran, the regime quit cooperating with the United States when it realized that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was more or less permanent. Furthermore, President Bush has actually declared that he would not ease relations even if the Iranians gave up their nuclear program. Why should those regimes improve their behavior if they feel that they can do nothing right and the goal posts keep moving back when they take a step, however tentative, in a positive direction? As unbelievable as it may seem, considering the Iraqi debacle, the military threats by the Bush administration against Iran and Syria closely resemble the pre-invasion threats the administration made against Iraq.

A little more sugar and a little less vinegar toward “rogue states” might give these countries an incentive for better behavior.