McCain's 'crusader' logic concerns Syria
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - For the past year, Arabs in general and Syrians in particular have
been banking on a victory for Democratic Senator Barack Obama in the United
States. They believe - at a grassroots level - that an Obama administration
would better serve their interests because it would depart from the Republican
policies of George W Bush, which led to the occupation of two Muslim countries,
Afghanistan and Iraq.
Republican Senator John McCain, they fear, would lead them to another deadly
war against yet a third Muslim country - Iran. As one young Syrian university
student put it, "If I were an American, I would vote for Obama because, being a
black man who grew up in the US, he knows the meaning of injustice. A man who
injustice would never practice it against others." She laughingly added, "His
father's name is Hussain; meaning Obama's name is Abu Hussain."
More recently, editorials have started appearing in the Syrian press,
questioning whether Obama would actually be good for the Arabs, especially
after his high-profile visit to Israel in which he declared his support for Tel
Aviv. The selection of Joe Biden as his running mate also caused many Syrians
to frown, associating him with the famous plan to partition Iraq into Shi'ite,
Sunni and Kurdish zones.
Many Syrians have started rethinking. They fear that Obama, because of his
Muslim origins, will work relentlessly to prove his "Americanism" by being more
radical than Bush. Some have even began bracing themselves for a McCain
victory, thinking that the retired Vietnam officer would have more courage to
take serious initiatives in the Middle East, especially related to the
Arab-Israeli peace process.
Sadly, however, archiving is poor in the Arab world, and those who are now
banking on a McCain victory fail to read his comments and career before running
for the 2008 presidential elections. In 1992, McCain appeared on Larry King Live
and gave two reasons why the US should involve itself militarily in the Middle
East. One was because America was a "Judeo-Christian nation" (which, to the
Muslim world, sounds like the Crusades).
The other was, "so long as the world's energy resources came from that part of
the world". Justice, peace, stability and human rights were not mentioned by
the congressman from Arizona. In 1991, also with Larry King, he argued against
a military invasion of Iraq, so as not to turn Saddam Hussein into a hero and
because it couldn't be done with air power alone and would require the
commitment of ground troops.
He also said that decision-makers in the US could not tell a Sunni from a
Shi'ite - meaning they were uninformed of the Arab and Muslim world - and cited
human casualties in Baghdad that the US should avoid. McCain said, "I don't
think you could do it with air power. Unbeknownst to a lot of people, we tried
bombing. We weren't trying to kill him, but we were just trying to bomb every
place we thought he might be or could possibly be. I'm not sure that if we did
go in on the ground we could tell a Shi'ite from a Sunni, even from a Kurd. And
who is it that we'd be fighting and battling against on the streets of Baghdad?
And, if we got into Baghdad, we would lose all of our military supremacy and we
would take casualties ..."
These are all wrong answers, as far as Arabs are concerned. And if these two
examples weren't enough to remind the Muslim world of McCain's policies, a
similar dialogue took place last week, when he was approached by one of his
supporters who said, "I don't trust Obama. He's an Arab." Instead of saying,
"There is nothing wrong with being an Arab", McCain said, "No, ma'am. He's a
decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with."
McCain and Syria
In 1984, McCain visited Syria with a congressional delegation and met with
president Hafez al-Assad. He described the 75-minute interview in an article in
the Arizona Republic (April 3, 1984), saying that Assad was an "outwardly
attractive man" who "projected an aura of confidence and the satisfaction of a
general who had just achieved a decisive victory".
Earlier, in 1974, a striking description of the Syrian leader had been made by
president Richard Nixon, who said in his memoirs that Assad was a "tough
negotiator (who has) a great deal of mystique, tremendous stamina, and a lot of
charm. All in all, he is a man of substance, and at his age [then 44], he will
be a leader to be reckoned with in this part of the world. This man really has
elements of genius - without any question!"
When Jimmy Carter visited Syria, he wrote, "Little was known about his
[Assad's] personal or family life, but former secretary of state Henry
Kissinger and others who knew Assad had described him to me as very
intelligent, eloquent and frank in discussing the most sensitive issues. I
invited the Syrian leader to come and visit me in Washington, but he replied
that he had no desire ever to visit the United States. Despite this firm but
polite rebuff, I learned what I could about him and his nation before meeting
Carter then added, "During subsequent trips to Syria, I spent hours debating
with Assad and listening to his analysis of events in the Middle East ... he
seemed to speak like a modern Saladin - as though it was his obligation to rid
the region of foreign presence while preserving Damascus as the focal point of
modern Arab unity."
When Bill Clinton met Assad in 1994, he added, "I was impressed by his
[Assadís] intelligence and almost total recall for detailed events going back
more than 20 years." Ambassador Edward Djerejian recalled a similar story, when
he was notified that he had become US ambassador to Syria in 1989, and happened
to be in Israel. He informed prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who said, "You will
be dealing with the smartest man in the Middle East." Rabin then warned against
what he called a "loophole" in what the Americans were offering to Syria,
because if there were any, "Hafez al-Assad will drive a truck through it".
Was Syria anti-American to start with? That is the question Syrians should
explain to McCain when and if he becomes president. Only briefly, in 1963-1970,
could the Syrian government be described as anti-American. After a tug-of-war
between the US and Great Britain in 1949-1954, carried out by proxy through
allies like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Syria began charting its own course, with
real democracy, in 1954.
During the elections of 1955, the ballots brought a communist into the Syrian
parliament. Terror overtook the US State Department. It expressed fear "at the
drift towards a leftist, anti-US position in Syria". The US ambassador to Syria
added, "If the present trend continues, there is strong possibility that a
communist-dominated Syria will emerge, threatening the peace and stability of
the area, and endangering the achievement of our objectives in the Near East."
The US began talking of regime change in Damascus, and even financed two failed
coups in the late 1950s, prompting the Syrians to expel a number of US
diplomats. The US responded by expelling Syrian ambassador Farid Zayn al-Din
from Washington. As a result, anti-Americanism soured and demonstrators stormed
the US Embassy and the home of the ambassador.
Why would Syria - in the 1950s and today - support a superpower that was
relentlessly trying to bring down its government? On the other hand, why would
it turn down the friendship of another superpower - the USSR in the 1950s and
Iran today - that was expressing unconditional military, political and economic
support to the Syrians?
As early as 1956, the USSR gave Syria 400 million Syrian pounds (US$8 million)
for oil extraction, and oversaw the supply of arms worth 20 million British
pounds ($34 million), through Egypt. Trade with the Eastern bloc back then was
at $19 million per year.
The US commented, after watching Syria snuggle up to the Russians, "Internal
medicine will not do; surgery is required for the cancerous growth [of
communism] in Syria."
The US began to accuse Syria of meddling in the affairs of its neighbors, and
destabilizing Lebanon. The parallel between 1955-1958 and 2005-2008 is
haunting; bombs would explode in Beirut, and everybody would blame it on the
Syrians. The US encouraged its regional allies to take action against Syria,
saying that it would support any covert or overt anti-Syrian activity under
Article 51 of the UN charter: self-defense.
Turkey moved its troops to the Syrian border, with US encouragement, and
repeatedly violated Syrian airspace. The result, instead of a u-turn, was more
Syrian-Soviet friendship. The formal US policy became to minimize contact with
the Syrian government, now that the US ambassador was out of Damascus, and to
support and fund the Syrian opposition. Records from the US put the amount paid
to ambitious officers wanting to overthrow the regime at $3 million.
The Aleppo deputy in parliament, and former prime minister Maarouf al-Dawalibi,
threatened to hold a plebiscite in Syria to show the US that the Russians were
more popular than the Americans, because the latter were held responsible "for
the Palestine tragedy". The New York Times retaliated by describing him as "the
most outspoken anti-American leader in the Arab world".
At this stage, president Shukri al-Quwatli came out, for the first time in
Syrian history, and described the US as "an enemy", in July 1957. It was the
Americans who had removed him from office in 1949, promoting, as Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice said in Egypt in 2005, "stability over democracy".
What else could Quwatli do? The Americans were financing revolution in Syria.
They were calling on Syria's neighbors to invade and topple the regime. They
were levying accusations of regional adventurism against the Syrians. All of
this was being done to a country that was never - in principal - anti-American.
Concerning the dilemma in Syrian-US relations, former secretary of state John
Foster Dulles wrote in late 1957: "Efforts to persuade moderate Arab leaders to
take an overt hard line towards Syria have failed. What alternatives do we
have? Force is ruled out. Clandestine activity would not succeed. A hard line
from the West would only drive Syria closer to the Soviet bloc."
McCain was in his 20s then, studying at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was
busy practicing as a lightweight boxer, earning a reputation as someone who
loved history and literature, hated mathematics, and more importantly, stood up
for people who were bullied.
Syria was bulled in 1955-1958, but it is doubtful if McCain was overly
concerned with the small Mediterranean country then. Given all of the above,
McCain should visit Damascus again with an open mind, as he did in 1984, to see
that both good things and bad things don't change that quickly in the Middle
And Arabs in general and Syrians in particular should think twice before
betting on McCain.