Across the Bay

Sunday, March 02, 2008

One Wright Makes a Wrong

I'd like you to take a look at this pathetic report by Robin Wright in the WaPo yesterday about the US naval deployment off the coast of Lebanon.

First problem, laziness and factual error: "The proposal led to serious debate within the administration, which held back its plan from key European and Arab allies, the officials said."

It's unclear what Wright is talking about here, as this graph comes after she said that the administration coordinated with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, France declared yesterday that the US move had been coordinated with it in advance. Does this reporter even read her own copy? Furthermore, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe intimated in his press briefing yesterday that the move was coordinated with European and regional allies.

Second, the use of an "expert" who merely regurgitates Syrian and Hezbollah one-liners: "'U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Lebanon did not, does not and will never work. If there is one way how not to help your allies, this is it,' said Bilal Y. Saab of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center."

Mmm, yes, deep. And as it so happens, he sounds like he's reading from Syrian and Hezbollah talking points. It's a regurgitation of an official Hezbollah statement (which used those exact words: "gunboat diplomacy") and it's what Syrian FM Walid Moallem said as well. That, or he just reached for the first cliché he could remember, which is probably the case. More bizarrely yet, two paragraphs earlier, Wright quotes a Hezbollah MP saying essentially the exact same thing.

Third, baseless editorializing and dishonest use of expert quotes: "Some Middle East experts and both European and Arab allies doubt that the U.S.-Saudi effort will have serious impact on Damascus. 'The Syrian regime is playing for time, and reasons that a new administration will be forced to jettison the current policy of isolation,' said Emile el-Hokayem of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a defense think tank."

Who and where, pray tell, are these "Middle East experts and both European and Arab allies" who "doubt" that the effort will have any impact? Not a single source is quoted to that effect -- except of course in Wright's imagination.

The only person who is quoted, ostensibly to corroborate this ridiculous conclusion, is Emile Hokayem. But Hokayem's quote is dishonestly framed. He says no such thing. He merely explains what he thinks the Syrian regime is calculating: to wait out the Bush administration until an Obama or Clinton presidency "reengages" them, and that somehow, that would translate into renewed hegemony over Lebanon, or so the delusional Syrian thinking goes.

Instead, Wright makes it seem as though this is Hokayem's expert judgment on the issue of pressure, which it isn't, and contextualizes it as a corroboration of her ridiculous and baseless, unsubstantiated assertion that experts, European and Arab allies have doubts about the US move.

Actually, UN officials are on the record more than a month ago hoping for precisely such a move by the US. Here's what anonymous UN officials were quoted as saying in a Haaretz report I posted in early January:

The main problem, as the UN officials see it, is that not enough pressure is being placed on Assad. "He will only move if he senses a threat to the stability of his regime," they said. "If the Americans were, for example, to send ships close to Lebanon's beaches, that would send a clear message to Assad, but they're not doing that."

What seems to be at work is the kind of journalism that falls in the gap between reality and what the press imagines – or hopes – is reality. That the Bush White House coordinated with its international and regional partners just doesn't fit the narrative of an ideological White House eager to trash historical alliances running roughshod over multilateralist principles (for a critique of this, see my latest op-ed). So, it's no surprise to see glaring factual omissions and Wright's inability to correctly report US policy toward Lebanon and Syria – never mind analyze it.

But there's something else going on here too. It is as though Wright, like much of the US press corps and many in the policy community (again, see my post on the egregious Carnegie report), has internalized the nearly hypnotic mantra of the totalitarian message delivered by the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbollah – all pressure on us is futile. We are winning. We will win. We have won. Capitulate now before it's too late and you really get hurt.

It's hardly any surprise that the same regime Pinocchio who masquerades as a US university professor and openly threatens the US and warns it to abandon all hope, is a source for Wright's work on Syria. Here she quotes him as she put forward the same message in her report about the Rami Makhlouf designation and explained it away by saying that he didn't have assets in the US. Like it matters – we are talking about the US banking system here. How many financial institutions around the world are eager to deal with a regime fixture if it is going to cost them with the US banking system?

For a breath of fresh air, this editorial in NOW Lebanon the other day presents a different picture, analyzing the latest US moves, including the designation of the Syrian jihadist network of Abu Ghadiyah:

[T]he fact is that once a businessman becomes a pariah in American eyes, international financial institutions are far less willing to deal with him, and Makhlouf knows this.
...
By going after Makhlouf, Washington was touching at the financial heart of the Syrian regime. The designation of Abu Ghadiyah and his acolytes, in turn, was an effort to warn the Syrians that keeping open the Al-Qaeda tap in Iraq would cost Damascus more in the coming months. Given that Syria’s intelligence services are closely involved in the movement of militants in and out of Iraq, and given that President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Chawkat, is indubitably the most powerful of the intelligence chiefs in the country, the US Treasury’s decisions could be interpreted as specific strikes against two of the principal pillars propping up Syria’s ruling family: money and the intelligence apparatus.

The Abu Ghadiyah designation, following the revelation that Mughniyeh was being patronized by Bashar's inner-most circle, only puts the spotlight on how Syria is a state sponsor of al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as of Mughniyeh, one of the terrorists most wanted by the US, and confirming that Syria is Terror Central (Sunni, Shi'a, Islamist, secular, makes no difference) and an enemy state.

And that's the context that we should understand Nicholas Burns' statement: "We have been disturbed to see the union between Syria and Iran in support of some of the most vicious terrorist groups in the Middle East."

While this may be difficult for some members of the press to understand, given their professional commitment to "objectivity," the US has interests in the region, which are not in line with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah's project for the Middle East, including Lebanon. And so, far from stopping the pressure, Burns said the US is going to keep it up: "We have every reason to believe that continued pressure on the Syrian government, in the type that was announced by the US Treasury Department, is the right way to go for our country."

Addendum: In stark contrast to Nicolas Burns, marvel at this pitiful pontification by Richard Murphy:

Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Syria, told Al Jazeera that the move was a sign that the US did not know what to do about Lebanon.

"It is gunboat diplomacy. I think it would be more useful for the US to find a way to engage with the conflicting parties in Lebanon.

"We have no dialogue with Syria and this is a moment for dialogue."

You'd think that someone who presided over the collapse of US policy in Lebanon as assistant secretary of state from 1983 to 1989 would refrain from lecturing the rest of us about what we should be doing now.

Murphy's term also witnessed Saddam's gassing of the Kurds. None other than Samantha Power, in her book A Problem from Hell, wrote about Murphy (pp. 209-10 in the Perennial paperback edition) at the time.

She described how as head of Near East in late 1988, Murphy remained unconvinced of Iraqi chemical attacks against the Kurds, even though there were intercepts of the Iraqis admitting to use of those weapons, and plenty of evidence of Kurds having been gassed. In contrast, Intelligence and Research at State was arguing that the evidence was overwhelming.

Murphy argued later: "I think that we did what we are supposed to do with intelligence. We challenged it. We said, 'Where did you get it?'; 'Who were your sources?'"

Given this proud and shining record of impeccable advice, I think the sound and wise thing to do is to completely ignore pretty much anything Murphy says. Come to think of it, that's precisely the case, thankfully.