COMMENTARY Hoodwinked in Washington and
Damascus By Maggie Mitchell Salem
The wail-and-moan communications strategy of Syrian President Bashar Assad
exploits the gray area in the Detlev Mehlis report into the assassination of
the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri - the absence of a "smoking gun"
and the presence of an unedited version (which fingered Assad's brother and
brother-in-law) - to prove that an insidious political (aka American) campaign
is under way to undermine the Syrian regime.
If after scrutinizing all 87 pages of the report you still believe Syria played
no role in Hariri's assassination, well then, perhaps you shouldn't read any
Clearly, you've been conned. Or is it that you dislike and distrust President
George W Bush's cabal more than you do Bashar's?
Now that, I must confess, is a tough call.
But one thing I do know: Bush did not orchestrate the murder of Hariri.
Mehlis is asking questions in Damascus instead of Washington not because he is
a puppet of the Bush administration, but because a trail of evidence points in
that direction. It's really that simple.
Even in a reasonably imperfect world, though justice takes a long time in
coming, it often does arrive. Yes, even in Washington.
On Friday, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald charged I Lewis "Scooter"
Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, with five felony counts of
perjury, obstructing justice and making false statements. The investigation
into Bush's own right-hand-man, Karl Rove, is ongoing, though no indictments
were handed down last week.
In the end, neither man is likely to be charged with the crime that Fitzgerald
set out to uncover: did someone knowingly leak the name of a Central
Intelligence Agency operative? The agent in question, Valerie Plame, is the
wife of the Bush administration's pre-Iraq war nemesis, former US ambassador
and outspoken critic, Joe Wilson.
In the US, undermining critics isn't a felony; deliberately outing a covert
operative certainly is.
Just days before the indictments were handed down, Libby admitted that Cheney –
not reporters, as he had indicated under oath – had told him about Plame. The
Sunday morning Washington talk shows included a good deal of speculation about
whether Cheney knew of Libby's vendetta to undermine Wilson.
The same sort of speculation exists vis-a-vis Assad. Was he fully aware of his
brother and brother-in-law's operations? As he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour
shortly before Mehlis delivered his report, "You cannot be a dictator and not
be in control."
As for the White House shenanigans, Libby's scheme was quite straightforward.
Gossip with reporters and hint that Wilson only got to go (unpaid) to Niger and
uncover a fraud because of his wife's influence.
Not one of the vice president's men bothered to stop and consider that if Plame
could gin up a mission for her husband, she might have a bit of "wasta"
herself. Or did the CIA boss, George Tenet, neglect to mention her covert
status when he briefed Cheney?
Ah, but why delay over niggling details. There's a war to be justified. Critics
to be muted. Weapons of mass destruction to be found. Democracy to be
instilled. Terrorism to be fomented.
I mean fought.
Now, much like the Damascus cabal, the one in Washington spins a serious crime
into an annoying technicality. According to loyal Bush supporter and veteran
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, "An indictment of any kind is not a guilty
verdict, and I do think we have in this country the right to go to court and
have due process and be innocent until proven guilty."
Certainly, Bashar will use just that strategy when he appeals to UN Security
Council members, particularly China and Russia, to forgo sanctions until Mehlis
concludes his final report. The beauty of such a maneuver is that it's likely
Narrowly averting the abyss, Damascus offers minimal (if any) additional
information, evidence and witnesses. Then, on December 15, when Mehlis' term
expires, Syria's figleaf of innocence is preserved. The US, France and Britain
may fume, but that alone will not win international sanctions.
For Bashar, such an outcome guarantees that his kin rule another day.
Crime, what crime?
On Sunday's Meet the Press, William Safire, darling of the
neo-conservatives, offered a magic lesson for those looking to banish a legal
quagmire. "This whole thing started as an investigation of the violation of a
law. And the law that was violated was you must not deliberately out an agent
who is undercover. And what the special counsel found is that law was not
Both Bush's supporters and Bashar's posse seem intent on kicking up enough dust
to distract their critics.
Strategists note that Bush is likely to engage in more photo ops on issues
ranging from relief efforts relating to hurricanes Katrina and Wilma to the
mortally wounded Middle East peace process. On substance, he'll have a new
Supreme Court nominee to steal a few headlines and rally his conservative
In Bashar's case, he has set about naming an "independent prosecutor" (it's
hard to type the words without laughing aloud) in the off chance enough
evidence sticks and he then demands to try the posse - I mean perpetrators - at
home for what he has conveniently described as an act of treason. Never mind
the fact that Hariri wasn't Syrian.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, there's word that Syria's Kurds may be
granted citizenship - after 43 years. Finally, in a move a la Hosni Mubarak in
Egypt, Ba'ath leaders hint at possible multiple-party elections in the future.
Of course, both leaders could have averted this chapter in their political
careers. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman said in the
opening of The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam: "A phenomenon
noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by
governments of policies contrary to their own interests."
Or, as the close confidante of Bush Sr, Brent Scowcroft, put it, "We
continually step on our best aspirations. We're humans. Given a chance to screw
up, we will."
Bush is no more immune to outright, unexpected failure than Assad.
Despite all the technological advances, the satellites and computer gadgetry,
the wiretaps and intercepts, no American leader is omniscient. Mistakes are
made. Case in point: the war in Iraq.
Do you really believe that with more than 2,000 American fatalities, tens of
thousands of injured soldiers and well over 30,000 Iraqi civilian casualties
with no end in sight, that this debacle was the anticipated outcome?
Has Bush tipped the scales toward Israel? Absolutely. But Bush's misdeeds
should never mitigate Assad's. There is room for two bad actors, three if you
count Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; four, if you include the
unrehabilitated Muammar Gaddafi. The list could go on and on.
Let each one suffer the consequences of his actions. Let no one escape
In the end, no one will.
Maggie Mitchell Salem is a former special assistant to US secretary of
state Madeleine K Albright; a former career foreign service officer; former
director of communications and outreach at the Middle East Institute in
Washington, DC; she now provides Middle East analysis to private and public
sector clients in the US and the region, including a number of dailies in
Arabic and English.