It takes a pretty stunted imagination to ask merely "Is Syria next?" The question isn't whether the self-described "Arab Republic" should become the next target of American liberation; it's why we should stop there.
Consider Jordan, another fake country carved out after World War I, and one that fits any number of the ever-evolving criteria for forcible liberation. If Syria's human rights abuses make the country worthy of decapitation, how do we square Jordan's abysmal human rights ranking by Amnesty International? Jordan's King Abdullah, like Bashar Assad a son of a forceful and long-lived potentate, has made even less progress toward freedom than Assad has. Freedom of the press, in fact, has moved backward since the ascension of the current monarch. Terrorist groups from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to the Abu Nidal organization have operations in Amman and continue to spew anti-American hate speech from there. The kingdom plays a complex game of footsy with Hamas—alternately cracking down on and freeing up that terrorist group, depending on the political winds. For all that, freedom of assembly is non-existent in the Hashemite Kingdom, and forced displays of loyalty are commonplace.
Am I saying that the kingdom needs to follow Syria down the path of changed regimes? That depends on whether you are a strict or loose interpreter of the war on terror's rhetoric. It's possible to read President Bush's mandate so tightly that even Syria does not qualify for an increasingly popular invasion. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, the president committed the nation to a war against every terrorist group of "global reach." Of the vaunted group of terrorist organizations said to be headquartered in Damascus, not one represents a threat to anybody outside of the Middle East. Most seem to be on the list merely to fill seats: The outdated, unpopular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is not nearly so adept at car-bombing as at publishing nostalgic Marxist rhetoric under the feeble inspiration of retired philosopher-king George Habash (whose 2000 successor Mustafa Ali Kasam Zabirihas already been killed by the Israelis); calling it a terrorist organization of global reach is like saying the Symbionese Liberation Army is a lethal viper poised at America's jugular.
But what of the background rhetoric of the war, the part about how undemocratic regimes are the real breeding grounds of terrorism? Admittedly, this vision is largely pieced together from speculation and the reading of gnostic texts, but the outlines are fairly clear: The undemocratic Middle East needs radical surgery. Its leaders deflect the ire of their populations into anti-American and anti-Israeli chatter that ultimately comes back to bite the United States. The solution is to give real power back to the populations, a principle voiced most eloquently by former CIA director James Woolsey in the apostrophic money shot of his famous "World War IV" speech at UCLA: "[T]his country and its allies are on the march, and … we are on the side of those you most fear: we're on the side of your own people."
This is a neat trick, given that the people of the Arab world, by all available evidence, hate the United States with a passion their leaders can never hope to match. But let's imagine that that is a temporary problem, one that a taste of real freedom would eventually solve. This still leaves us with the question of why a terrorist-harboring police state like Jordan is more qualified for leniency than any other terrorist-harboring police state. It raises the more critical question of why the police states in Saudi Arabia and Egypt—the countries that (Have you forgotten?) supplied the actual September 11 terrorists—should be spared. For that matter, why should any country in the Middle East be spared? The region as a collective generates and exports nothing but enmity, bitterness and violence, as efficiently as East Asia generates and exports electronic equipment. American friends and foes are equally responsible for turning the region into terrorism's breeding ground. Why should any of them be allowed to live?
Having ramped up the anti-Syrian oratory, the Bush administration now appears to be looking for non-martial solutions to the Syrian problem, and it was reportedly the President himself who nixed plans for an invasion against the Levantine goggle-smugglers. Does this mean President Bush has gone soft on terrorism?