Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

June 14, 2000

Who Could Deplore Peace Prospects?

I had called Leon Hadar, the libertarian Cato Institute's resident expert on the Middle East, to get some comments on the death of Syrian dictator-for-life Hafez-al-Assad, and he gave me plenty of information. But he kept pushing the conversation in a more interesting direction – namely, who is it these days who simply can't stand the idea that some part of the world might be on the brink of peace?

All right, it's a bit soon to be suggesting such a likelihood in the Middle East, an area that has inspired countless jokes and stories about the self-defeating preference for war and hostility even when it seems utterly crazy (to outsiders) not to settle down and live in relative peace for a while. But there is little question that Hafez al Assad was one of the more persistent barriers to anything resembling a formal peace settlement in the region (though he managed an implicit non-aggression understanding with Israel rather well).

And now he is dead. It is unlikely that whoever follows him in power – whether his son, his brother or somebody else – will be quite so intransigent.

Hafez al Assad, who died Saturday, had been preparing the way for his son to replace him for several years, and with increasing intensity over the past several months, as his own illness and likely death loomed larger in his mind. Bashar Assad was appointed commander in chief of the Army on Sunday, and the Syrian parliament the same day rushed through a measure changing the constitution so the minimum age is for president is now 34 (Bashar's age) rather than 40. This suggests that the father was successful at clearing away most potential opposition.

Certain aspects of the succession in Syria virtually cry out for comment. Most of the diplomats, representatives of international organizations and many of the journalists have been all but rooting for this corrupt dynastic promenade to succeed for the sake of "stability." Hafez was the chief stumbling block to even a phony agreement between Israel and the Arabs, a sponsor of state terrorism and officially labeled as a sponsor of terrorism at various times by the State Department. He held onto power ruthlessly, artfully playing factions off against one another within Syria but not hesitating to murder opponents or potential opponents when that seemed the way. He held back the progress of Syria for a generation. Yet he preserved "stability," so now that he is dead he is viewed as a statesman of great vision and wisdom, and everybody hopes his son, whose path to power has been paved with corpses, will slide into the seat safely.

Then there's the leader-worship implicit and explicit in much of the coverage. Perhaps there were Syrians so taken with the Great Leader that they were genuinely sad to see him shuffle off this mortal coil. But the guy ran a police state in which it was prudent, whatever one's private feelings might have been, to pretend to be devoted to the leader. Yet almost none of the coverage in the first few days even came close to acknowledging this, treating all the symbols of grief and mourning as the genuine outpouring of a heartbroken people deprived of a beloved and benevolent leader. Give me a break.

Whether the son will be able to hold onto power or even whether he will want to do so for very long is another question. The future of Syria's relationships with Israel and with Lebanon and other key countries in the Middle East is also unknown. Little is likely to change in the near future, but a succession struggle is still possible and policies could change substantially over time.

Six years ago Bashar Assad was completing a residency in ophthalmology in Britain, assuming his older brother Bassel would carry on the family political tradition. But Bassel was killed in a car accident and Bashar was rushed home to Damascus to begin a crash course in the realities of power in Syria and the Middle East.

Those realities included a raid last September on a compound controlled by Hafez Assad's estranged brother and former vice president Rifaat Assad, who had attempted a coup when Hafez Assad was ill in 1983, during which several hundred Rifaat supporters were reportedly killed. (Rifaat has since questioned Bashar's "right" to the post in public and might yet make trouble for the new chosen one.) It also included purges of high Syrian officials, including a former prime minister and a former chief of military intelligence who had expressed doubts about Bashar's accession to power.

As recently as March, however, Bashar Assad told the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat that his ambition was "to serve my country and not to become a president." Syria needed change and "new blood," said Bashar. Educated in the West, he is said to be fascinated by technology, to have his own Web page, and to believe that Syria needs to reduce corruption and open its economy, especially to foreign investment. He was recently instrumental in pushing for economic reforms that included liberalizing the rules against holding foreign currency and reducing the power of economic security courts.

This is not as revolutionary as it might seem, Cato's Leon Hadar reminded me. Although Syria has been relatively closed during the Hafez Assad years, its political, economic and intellectual elites have been Westernized for a long time; ties with France are especially close. "Over time, because of its geographical location, old ties to Europe and a positive attitude toward commercial activities, with peace and deregulation Syria could become a prosperous, influential commercial center," Mr. Hadar said.

But all that could take a while. In the shorter run, Bashar Assad might well have less practical ability than his father might have had to reach an accommodation with Israel – not so much because of inherent difficulties negotiating with Israel (though that could be complex) but because of the possibility that opposition within Syria could threaten him before he has fully consolidated his power.

"The ideal, for peace partisans, might have been for Hafez Assad to make an agreement with Israel so his son could defend it as his father's legacy," Mr. Hadar said. "That didn't happen, and it will probably take Bashar a while to feel confident enough to move dramatically. I wouldn't rule out a dramatic move toward Israel as he consolidates power, but I don't expect it."

I also talked with Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. He said that from an American Muslim's perspective, he hopes the U.S. government takes advantage of the change "to take a more evenhanded role in Syrian-Israeli relationships. This could be a new beginning for US relations with the Middle East."

One might hope the US government would display patience and resist the urge to micromanage from Washington. The accession of Bashar Assad could well make genuine peace in the Middle East more likely in time. But if he is interested, it will take time for him to consolidate matters in Syria first unless he thinks a dramatic move in the direction of peace with Israel would be the best way to consolidate power. Furthermore, the political situation in Israel seems a bit unsettled just now as well.

But we've got president can't-keep-it-zipped looking for a legacy. Speaking of leader-worship, a number of US papers and analysts managed to see things mostly from the perspective of the Imperial Leader in Washington, fretting that delay will make peace in the Middle East – or enough of a facsimile to gull those who want to be gulled, as Jimmy Carter lived off the legacy of Camp David for years as the Middle East continued to be no more peaceful than before – tougher to bring off in a mere seven months. Poor President Bubba might have to look elsewhere. Sob.

The most fascinating thing Leon Hadar wanted to discuss, however, was the phenomenon that people in several parts of the world may just be willing to take preliminary baby steps toward reducing hostilities (I won't be so Pollyannaish to speak of actual peace yet). But those most reluctant to consider peace indeed, to call the prospect a disaster rather than an opportunity are the keepers of the imperial flame at neoconservative outposts like the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard.

The most obvious recent example comes from Charles Krauthammer at the Weekly Standard. A couple of weeks ago (May 29 issue) he wrote a lengthy review of a new book called "The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul" by Yoram Hazony, who works at a neoconservative think tank in Israel. From the safe environs of the imperial capital or its suburbs, Krauthammer deplored the recent tendency of Israelis to wimp out on war: "For the last twenty years, Israel has been in retreat. One can make reasonable strategic arguments for some or all of the specifics. But the fact of retreat is undeniable." What's the matter with those people who actually have to pay the price for war and hostility that they don't want to do it forever as their friends in Washington want them to?

Krauthammer became virtually apoplectic in the next issue when the topic was the Israeli pullout from Southern Lebanon. I talked to a friend in the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles at the time, and he could barely contain his glee, chortling that it had taken everybody by surprise, that it was accomplished with efficiency and dispatch, that it had put additional pressure on the putative government of Lebanon to show it wasn't a complete satrapy of Syria, and had put additional pressure on Syria as well. The pullout was going to happen anyway, but the Israelis managed to get a bit of tactical and perhaps bargaining advantage out of it. Slick, eh?

Not according to Krauthammer. From his perspective, "All that was missing from the scene were the helicopters lifting people off the embassy roof. Otherwise, Israel's panicked evacuation from Lebanon last week looked eerily like America's last hours in Vietnam." Doing what it had promised to do, but doing it a bit earlier than anybody had expected, was viewed by Krauthammer as an abject defeat.

Note the difference between an actual Israeli and an Israeli well-wisher and warhawk. From the heart of the Imperial Capital, the well-wisher deplores anything that looks like an end to conflict and war. The people who actually live there and actually have to pay the price want no part of the bloated rhetoric. They're concerned about security and have little faith in the Arabs, to be sure. But they leave it to those thousands of miles away ton fret over "a grave geostrategic setback"

We have already seen similar misgivings as the leaders of South Korea and North Korea get together and talk about reconciliation. If the situation moves beyond preliminaries and toward an actual agreement that might involve sending American troops, we will hear even more caterwauling. If Bashar Assad actually makes some overtures in the direction of Israel and that begins the process of even a preliminary comprehensive agreement with the promise of unleashing some of the vast productive potential of those who live in the Middle East, expect more handwringing.

One of the more enduring cliches of the post-cold-war era is that the world is simply full of people hampered by centuries-long ethnic and nationalistic hatreds and conflicts ready to spring into full-throated slaughter if the keepers of the New World Order relax their Big Brotherly vigilance for even a moment. In fact, most of those conflicts are artificially stirred by ambitious politicians. And if any of them do show signs of cooling down, it is the New World Order types who regret the development most actively. Without conflict, what justification would there be for them to be ever vigilant and ever ready to send Americans abroad?

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