Across the Bay

Sunday, October 30, 2005

It's the Flynt-stones

Readers know well by now that I think Flynt Leverett is one of the most overrated people running around Washington. The guy never ceases to amaze me, and he succeeded yet again today in a typically useless piece in the WP. It's all the more surprising considering that his boss, and once fellow traveler, has given up on Bashar. But when your entire career has been tied to your book and thesis on Bashar you would need to defend it to the bitter end.

In reading Leverett, one cannot escape the feeling of morbid fascination with thuggish behavior, the kind that exists with observers of the Italian mafia. The way he presents Hafez's "struggle" is a possible example. It becomes quite perverse when Leverett intimates that we haven't yet given Bashar enough time to do the same (how inconsiderate of us): "in the Middle East, a national leader in office for five years is just beginning to be taken seriously because he hasn't been shot." Yes, let's give him time to massacre 20,000 people like his father did, you know, just to make his bones (no pun intended). Don't brush this off as an exaggerated joke. Remember how my friend Josh Landis at one point made the irresponsible and foolish argument that the US should back Bashar as he takes care of the Sunnis in Syria who supposedly would be opposed to Bashar cooperating on Iraq?

Flynt essentially repeats the standard formula du jour: "[m]aybe, just maybe" Bashar will give up Maher and Asef and "be the only man left standing at the end of the day." And that's about it. Then, we move to the "real" field of expertise, where Flynt will once again take this opportunity to recite his policy advice that he's been peddling. The brief history offered before reaching that is also important, as that remains the golden age for Leverett, the Paradise Lost that he wishes he could recapture. The age of "process." "The Clinton era," when the Syrians were treated like the strongest regional power. It's inextricable from his thesis. Of course, then there is the inevitable reference to Syrian "cooperation" on intelligence, followed by the ritual stoning of Neoconservatives, and, naturally, there has to be a reference to "carrots" and "sticks" somewhere in the midst of the blather.

One of the funniest things to note when reading Bashar groupies is how they handle Syria's role in the Iraqi insurgency. You have the Imad Mustapha line (published by Josh), about how Syria has done all it can, but somehow, it can still "do more" if the US accepts Syria's offer of undefined secret intelligence cooperation (but apparently, one that Flynt would jump on) in return for public US acknowledgment of Syrian good behavior, and ceasing of pressure. Flynt here characterizes Syria's position as "unwillingness, absent a broader strategic understanding with Washington, to stem the flow of people and supplies into Iraq." Yes, "strategic understanding." In other words, the US leaves Iraq immediately, and Syria expands its influence into Iraq. Josh Landis himself wrote that the Syrian regime sees the U.S. presence in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq, as the most serious threat to its vital interests in the region, even more serious than the threat of radical Sunni Islamists. So no amount of "cooperation" will matter. Despite what the Syrians say, it's diametrically opposed to their interests. Furthermore, I'll remind you of what Bashar told Amanpour in the interview on CNN. He made sure to distinguish between insurgents who kill Iraqi civilians, and those who kill US troops. That should give you an idea. The only "deal" the Syrians have in mind, to quote a friend of mine, is one where the U.S. agrees to withdraw, and a "partnership" in which the Syrians see it out the door -- in Lebanon as well as Iraq. Syria pays no price, makes no public shift in policy, and only offers a dubious, unclear, and secret, intelligence "cooperation." Flynt sees that as a good deal. I think, and I believe the administration thinks so as well, it is a typical Syrian manoeuver.

Flynt then expresses more compassion for Bashar, as he was "climbing a slow learning curve." And the cutest part: "He has been forced by changing circumstances to adapt the foreign policy script he inherited from his father -- with some dismal results." Yes... because you see, before that, he was using a different, vibrant, revolutionary foreign policy, that drastically departed from that of his father!! And you see, he was "forced" to move away from his "reformist" impulses (I, mean, come on, just look at the woman he married for a "confirmation of his reformist impulses"), and got pulled back into the ways of his father. Godfather III sucked, so, spare me the Michael Corleone lines. I guess he was "forced" to blow up Hariri as well. I mean it's all part of a slow learning curve.

Also, I couldn't help but laugh reading this part:

His overly aggressive handling of the Lebanon "file," documented in the U.N. report, alienated French President Jacques Chirac and set the stage for the passage of Security Council Resolution 1559 in 2004, which mandated the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

If memory serves me right, and it does, Flynt at the time was against Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon! He thought, of course, that Bashar should be allowed to hang around Lebanon, and Lebanon could then be used to get supposed Syrian cooperation in Iraq! Who was the genius who hired this man?! Of course, you didn't hear Bashar complaining! In fact, he gave Flynt exclusive access at the blockbuster event known as the Baath Party Conference, which was truly one groundbreaking moment in Syrian history!

Then after all the yacking, comes the dramatic climax. Unfortunately, it's nothing original (nothing Flynt says ever is):

Yet it remains unclear what outcome France, Britain and the United States are ultimately seeking. If the international community imposes sanctions on Syria, the regime may be able to hunker down like Saddam did in the 1990s, an unsatisfactory outcome for the West as well as for the Syrian people. If, on the other hand, the regime implodes, that could pose even greater dangers. Ethnic and sectarian violence could feed into and off of instability in Iraq while an anti-American, heavily Islamist leadership could fill the political vacuum in Damascus. Even if Bashar did order Hariri's killing, do we want to treat him like a Milosevic-type criminal figure? Or do we want to offer him a way out as an inducement for Syria's strategic realignment, much as we made a deal with Libya's Moammar Gaddafi, whose regime killed not 22 people, but 270 people (mostly Americans) in the bombing of Pan Am 103?

I mean, it goes without saying. If you cut a deal with a man who killed 270 people, you surely could give my boy a break. After all, he only killed 22, "[e]ven if Bashar did order Hariri's killing"! But, seriously, what do you expect from a man who judged Bashar's "reformist impulses" by the woman he married! I thank the entire pantheon of gods, every day, that Flynt is as far away from government as I am.

Needless to say, the comparison with Qaddafi is utterly useless. How does Syria's position parallel Libya's, geopolitically? How high up the US list was Libya when Qaddafi made his offer!?

Anyway, it's the same old "do we want to offer him a way out as an inducement for Syria's strategic realignment"? First of all, that assumes that he will be able to give up Maher and Asef, which is doubtful. Secondly, he has already signaled his unwillingness for a public reversal of the 30-year old foreign policy (you know, the one he was "forced" to adopt), and as Andrew Tabler noted, it's unclear if he even can. Moreover, it shouldn't be discounted that he may be an ideological hardliner anyway.

Bashar's offer so far has been the covert intelligence cooperation on Islamists. Period. It's nothing new, and it won't fly. Landis has said that the real change of behavior that's being asked of him -- the complete reversal of Syrian foreign policy -- is tantamount to regime change as far as Bashar is concerned. Furthermore, there is a "false sense of confidence" in Assad's last remaining card (boosted by Flynt), that after him, will come chaos. That's more than enough reason for Flynt to propose giving his boy a chance. Why? There's really no other reason anymore! That's it! That, and the "slow learning curve!" Leverett doesn't even feel the need to explain further. He can't, anyway, and that's what his boss understood. But then again, he didn't tie his reputation to Bashar's ship (which is why, unable to muster enough honesty to admit his misreading, Flynt needs to lash out against "Neocon theology"). Which leads us to the moral of this little tale:

It may be tempting to see Bashar as a Macbeth-like figure, driven to paralysis by his victim's ghost and doomed. But policymakers are not just passive members of the audience in this drama. On the real world's stage, they share responsibility for what happens next, regardless of Bashar's fate.

Yes, deep... If only you were the policymaker Flynt. Bashar would've been a happy man.

Update: Over at Beirut to the Beltway, Kais writes on Syria's plan of attack. It's bad news.