Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, July 11, 2005


This portrait of Bashar Assad is quite readable, and fairly flattering. Assad is not worried about regime change because:

Well, was he worried that they may indeed strike from somewhere? "No," he said, as a wry smile formed on his lips. "I think the experience in Iraq has not" -- he hesitated for a beat -- "worked out."

Assad's wife is British-born, and has lived in New York. Assad himself adopts the pose of a ruler trying to groom his country for democracy. Assad echoes the West in all sorts of ways, and when he says these words, he is echoing the West, too; telling a New York Times journalist what he wants to hear. After all, what would it mean for the Iraq experience to "work out?" What were the administration's objectives in embarking on it? The central objective of the Bush administration was to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein, and that's the logical yardstick to measure the war by. But a huge swath of the West, from hard left to soft left and sometimes including segments of the right, and including most of the intelligentsia, has preferred to evade this logic, preferring "subtler" and fallacious opinions.

The real reason that Assad is right not to fear regime change is not that the Bush administration has met a nasty surprise in Iarq and been cured of its former naivete. Rather, we all knew from the beginning that regime change would be costly and dangerous, and only an utterly evil regime like Saddam's was worth the sacrifice. Assad's is not a bad enough regime that changing it through foreign invasion would be beneficial. Probably at some level Assad understands this. Indeed, he probably also knows that his survival may well depend on not being a bad enough regime to be worth changing, and all the "earnest talk of bureaucratic reform" that the article describes is driven in part by the Iraq War. This is not to say that Bashar Assad is a would-be monstrous dictator whose efforts to treat his people humanely and move his country towards democracy are only because of fear of America. Rather, like all of us, he has both good and evil impulses. Like all of us, he needs to be held accountable. In the wake of Iraq, Arab rulers are accountable in a new way.

Instead of admitting this, Assad naturally prefers to adopt his best New York Times tone of voice and say "the experience in Iraq has not... worked out," even if this doesn't make much sense. He knows that this journalist will not follow up by asking, "What do you mean when you say it 'hasn't worked out'? What would be the criteria for success, from the American administration's point of view?" He will not ask, "You think, then, that the Bush administration wishes it had left the Baathist prison-state in power?" Assad and the journalist will enjoy their moment of feeling superior to Bush, and move on.

UPDATE: Tom Reasoner just made an interesting but hardly persuasive comment, which concludes: "We might be making his political life tough with our demands and accusations, but as far as democratic reforms go, we've had a minimal (possibly negative) impact on the region, at least in the short term." What?! The revolution in Lebanon? Multiparty elections in Egypt? Abbas's election in Palestine? The whole Arab spring in general is a coincidence, or even in spite of our intervention? (In this blogging age it's common for people to make one-liners that expose them to ridicule. Tom should watch his step.)

Tom writes that "Bashar Al-Asad has been preaching democratic reforms since he succeeded his father as ruler of Syria in June of 2000." That is true. But the article he links to also reports that:

[W]hat began as a promising reform process (nicknamed the New Spring) foundered. The higher echelons of power seemed more interested in reverting back to the old-guard policies of tight state control.

Now, by contrast:

[T]here was a debate in Washington over whether he was in control of his government. I asked his view. He laughed. ''That was before our conference,'' he said, referring to the Baath Party congress that had just ended. Several senior figures had stepped down; Assad had now replaced all but 6 of the 21 members of the Syrian Baath Party's top panel, its Regional Command, and in replacing them, he had whittled their total number to 15.

Accountability does not apply only to Bashar Assad himself, but to the government in general, strengthening Assad's reformist side vis-a-vis the reactionary elements in the same regime. Plenty of dictators and totalitarians have "preached democratic reforms" at one time or another; many totalitarian movements, in any case, are cloaked in democratic garb. But if regimes and rulers are to practice what they preach, accountability helps.


  • Actually, I think what he means by the invasion "not working out" is that America, through its mishandling of the whole scenario, has severely diminished its capacity to wage "regime change" against other countries, including his own. America does not have the capital, domestic or international support, man power, or political will to instigate another round of regime change, and thus Bashar Al-Asad feels like he's perfectly safe (or at least, that's the impression he's trying to give).

    And no, the democractic reforms in Syria have nothing to do with our invasion of Iraq. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if our invasion actually hurt democratic reforms in Syria, since most Arabs don't want to follow the example of the US, and they don't want what's happening in Iraq (regarding the chaos) to happen to them. Bashar Al-Asad has been preaching democratic reforms since he succeeded his father as ruler of Syria in June of 2000. Here's a simple article I googled about him that talks a little about the things he's trying to accomplish, and the obsticles that are in his way.

    We might be making his political life tough with our demands and accusations, but as far as democratic reforms go, we've had a minimal (possibly negative) impact on the region, at least in the short term.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 2:25 PM  

  • Regarding your update, the Syrians were planning on moving out of Lebanon anyway, but it's really irrelevant since they still have basically the same control over the political landscape there. Egypt has had multiparty elections for a long time. It's true, they've recently allowed some parties that were banned before, but making the claim that they did this specifically because of the invasion of Iraq is ridiculous. The Palestinians of course had to have an election because their president Yasir Arafat died. It seems to me that I'm not the one making farfetched claims here. It's as if you want to attribute anything and everything you see as even a possible good development to the Bush adminstration, which I think is not only intellectually dishonest, but it's also not very contructive even if it's true. I mean, look how much you read into Bashar Al-Asad's insignificant comment, somehow spinning it into a "yay, for Bush" blog post. I'll "yay, for Bush" when he does something that actually deserves it, like granting illegal immigrants partial work-amnesty which he promised he would do.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 8:08 PM  

  • Thomas Reasoner - regarding the illegal-alien bit, the problem is that both the right and the left is against Bush on that. He is not a dictator and doesn't have the power to do it, really. Which is a good thing. (Not being a dictator, I mean.)

    I thought Bush's proposal was just about the only thing that has made sense and was as conservative as possible under the circumstances in an attempt to win support for it. Occasionally people in a democratic society refuse to see sense en-masse. No matter how often I point out the fallacy in those who want to throw all the illegal aliens out, no one ever agrees with me on the right or on the left.

    I do disagree with your idea that Bush's initiative in Iraq has not shifted the balance in favor of democracy in the ME a bit. It's not, of course, just going into Iraq but his constant harping on the idea that America will be the friend of those who are trying to liberalize and agitate for their rights.

    This year so far, Iraq held elections, Saudi Arabia held first ever popular elections (50% of municipal councils), Lebanon held elections (and elected an interesting and somewhat varied slate), Kuwaiti women got the right to vote, and in Egypt the law is being changed so that Parliament doesn't have to give a person permission to run for president. Not bad at all.

    Furthermore, there does seem to be a palpable hope among the moderate and reform-minded in the ME, and that's great. It makes me think of Sakharov, who pointed out the extreme value of pressing in on the margins of tyrannies because it released latent reformists within the oppressed population.

    This appears to be Bush's strategy, and it may be working. History, at any rate, favors it.

    By Blogger MaxedOutMama, at 1:40 AM  

  • Hey would you like to trade links with me? [I place your link on my site, you place mine on yours] I have over 20,000 hits a month on my blog - just post a comment if you're interested and I'll gladly put your link in my blogroll on the sidebar! Thanks, Paul

    By Blogger The Blah Brain, at 12:59 AM  

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