Bashing Bassar al-Assad

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Over at the Wall Street Journal, Reason Contributing Editor Michael Young–the editorial page chief at Lebanon's Daily Star–lays out the dilemma of the Syrian strongman who suddenly isn't as strong as he used to be:

Expectations of a liberal opening have been neutralized by the president's need to consolidate his authority. This is Mr. Assad's dilemma: to effect economic and political reform he needs more power; but in accumulating power, he becomes more of an autocrat.

Whole thing here.

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  1. Isn’t a prerequisite of being a middle eastern strongman is being, well, strong?

    How come there’s no heads rolling or dogs drinking blood in the gutters of Damascus? Where’s the ruthlessness?

  2. Political reform requires Assad to have more power …. isn’t his power the problem that needs reforming?

  3. Isn’t a prerequisite of being a middle eastern strongman is being, well, strong?

    They’ve been strong with external props. The Europeans have become irrelevant, the Russians can’t prop as could the Soviets and the U.S. is volte-face its former propping against the Soviets and Islamic fundamentalists.

  4. “Expectations of a liberal opening have been neutralized by the president’s need to consolidate his authority.”

    I read the piece, and this reference still isn’t clear to me. Who had “expectations of a liberal opening” in Syria?

  5. “Given their mindset, the Syrians are understandably confused. In the 1980s, Mr. Assad’s father plotted or winked at deadly attacks against Americans, particularly in Lebanon. For his efforts he was rewarded with political recognition and the admiration of Washington “realists,” agog with the man’s cunning.”

    Please consider the following a request for information rather than a challenge: When Mr. Young refers to “realists” here, to whom is he referring and in what context?

  6. Young Ken, you may think of me.

  7. Syria Preserves Human Rights

    Washington, March 1 (SANA)

    The U.S. State Department talked about the Syrian constitution that achieved equality between the man and the woman in the field of work, pointing to the protection extended by the Syrian law to children.

    In a report on human rights, the Secretary of State talked about free education in Syria in all stages, pointing out that education from ages 6 to 12 is compulsory.

    The report also stressed that the Syrian government provides health service to all children under the age of 18, adding that Syrian law was strict against children abuse “It is rare to notice cases of child prostitution or trafficking of sex workers across borders in Syria'” it said.

    It noted that Syrian law bans discrimination against the handicapped, offers them protection and seeks to include them in society and the workplace.

    Regarding religious freedom and ethnic minority, the report said the Syrian government allows those minorities to practice their religious, social and cultural activities.

    I’m just trying to improve our score on the UN HDI. I’m doing it for the children of Syria, for they are our future.

    Bashar

  8. Well, Mr. Kissinger–and before I start, may I say that IMHO I think you give a bad name to pragmatists everywhere–my understanding is that you brokered the disengagement agreement in 1974.

    It seems to me that many among those who have supported the Bush Administration’s foreign policy seem to divorce your many “accomplishments” from context–almost as if the Cold War never happened. Wasn’t Syria a Soviet ally back in ’80s? Indeed, didn’t Syria sign a 20 year treaty of friendship and cooperation with the USSR in 1980?

    …I’m certainly no master of such things, but, I looked it up, and didn’t the Reagan Administration break off relations with Syria in 1986 and impose sanctions because of Syria’s state sponsorship of terrorism? Excuse me, but I’m tryin’ to put the “recognition and admiration” in context; you understand, right?

    P.S. Also, Mr. Kissinger, while we’re talking about your “achievements” out of context, doesn’t the U.S. incursion into Cambodia look, in retrospect, like the good neoconservative thing to do?

  9. Haw Haw Haw Ken

    What an insight you have attained to…the invasion of Iraq was an invasion, right? Therefore it must be like other invasions, altogether.
    Aw shucks! We know that you’re just a fundamentally simple guy, who – in his own childish but shrewd fashion – stumbles on to nugatory wisdoms.

    Keep it up Ken. And when, by the end of the year, the entire Mid East is on the same sheet of music, you can say that if it was up to you, it never would have happened (we could be chasing bin-Ladin, or something) – because we’re never supposed to use our army…except under circumstances where we’re never likely to have to.

  10. And when, by the end of the year, the entire Mid East is on the same sheet of music

    Andrew-

    Genuine question here: If indeed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is the main force behind the latest positive events in the Middle East, and if you are right and the good news continues to roll in (I sure hope so, for the record), why didn’t the defeat of the Taliban touch off liberalization movements in Western Asia/Central Asia/whatever the appropriate name is?

    Why haven’t the Pakistani liberals been more successful in rolling back the power of Musharraf while containing the fundamentalists? Why are the formerly Soviet stans still under fairly oppressive regimes? Indeed, they have not only had the example of Afghanistan, they’ve also had the recent example of Ukraine, another former Soviet Republic.

    I guess what I’m asking is why the Democratic Domino Theory works in some places but not others.

  11. because we’re never supposed to use our army…except under circumstances where we’re never likely to have to.

    Whatever the merits of the Democratic Domino Theory (and I’m movin from confirmed unbeliever to cautious skeptic, if that makes you feel any better), you sound like a kid who sees his father’s gun and says “Aw, why can’t we take it out and play?”

    Guns aren’t toys and neither are armies. You can do practice exercises with them as much as you want, but real world uses should be few and far between, and should be unsought (well, there’s hunting, but that’s a little different). Anybody who goes out with the purpose of finding an excuse to use a gun (except deer, ducks, geese, etc.) is far to dangerous to be trusted with a gun, and anybody who goes around looking for reasons to use an army is likewise way too dangerous to be trusted with power.

  12. thoreau,

    That the Democratic Domino Theory is dubious at best is also well-demonstrated by Latin America and Africa, regions that have, for the last 50 years, always had several functioning democracies in them at any given time, but still saw authoritarian regimes repeatedly rise to power. And let’s not even speak of Haiti….

  13. Oh, SR, let’s not let facts get in the way of praising the Dear Leader! We’ve got an army to use, now let’s use it!

  14. In reference to Reverse Domino Theory, I’m obviously still a skeptic. I’m still waiting for an explantion as to how it works. So far, I’ve seen semi-claims that it’s a function of television (Tipper Gore must be beside herself with glee.) and then a bunch of post hoc ergo propter hoc stuff.

    …oh yeah, and then someone calls me a racist for askin’.

  15. Ken, why don’t you and your fellow klansmen do something constructive and donate some televisions to villages in Uzbekistan, instead of complaining about our efforts to free the oppressed people of the world?

    (just kidding, obviously)

  16. If it makes you feel any better thoreau, I do expect to see a lot of movement in the ‘Stans, and I will credit elections in Afghanistan (as well, Iraq) for much of it. Though it must be confessed, that democratic experiments have been underway in the larger Caucusus region – most notably in Georgia (and Russia should get a mention) – and will probably have been more important.

    In Pakistan, I believe Musharif, if he otherwise felt able to do it, could likely run on the record of his recent choices, and easily trounce ANY opponents, far and square. His problem, I believe, is with his own security apparatus.

    If you wanted a puzzler for me, thoreau, you might have asked why Pakistan remained in despotism for most of its history, while neighboring India has been largely democratic. Cultural rift lines supply part of the answer, perhaps – as well, that Pakistan defined itself as a Moslem redoubt – but I also believe that the unwillingness of the Indian regime to heed democratic outcomes in Kashmir has done much to discredit their example.

  17. “Why haven’t the Pakistani liberals been more successful in rolling back the power of Musharraf while containing the fundamentalists?”

    While the defeat of the Taliban didn’t do much for pro-democracy forces in Pakistan, some Pakistanis I’ve talked with, and others that I’ve read, have said that the event marked a turning point in halting the advance of Islamism as a political force in the country, both with regards to domestic and foreign policy. Clearly Pakistan still has its hands full when it comes to dealing with the influence of Islamists in both politics and civil society, but there are credible signs that the country is making tenative steps in the right direction.

  18. “In Pakistan, I believe Musharif, if he otherwise felt able to do it, could likely run on the record of his recent choices, and easily trounce ANY opponents, far and square.”

    Maybe, but I think it’s safe to say that the reason for his unwillingness to hold a real election has little to do with a belief that it would be unnecessary.

    “I also believe that the unwillingness of the Indian regime to heed democratic outcomes in Kashmir has done much to discredit their example.”

    India did meddle a lot in Kashmiri elections in the ’80s, and to some extent before, but their record over the last decade or so hasn’t been bad. The problem over their legitimacy now has more to do with low turnout in the Valley.

    As for the influence of Indian political maneuvering in Kashmir on Pakistani politics, I suspect it’s negligible at best. Pakistan was run by military dictatorships long before the Kashmiri insurgency caught fire, while the country experienced a spell as a democracy during some of the insurgency’s initial years.

  19. Eric II

    I meant to say, that the LARGER question of Kashmir has always been an affront to Pakistan, since Independence. Kinda similar to the creation of Israel, it empowered revanchists for generations.
    As far as I know, the Indian constitution has been observed inside Kashmir, but from the beginning most Kashmiris would have preferred a Moslem state – either independence, or union with Pakistan.

    When I sampled some English-language Hindu nationalist web-sites a while ago, I was astonished to hear the same analysis, over and over: the successive governments of India have used hanging on to Kashmir as a hollow issue to distract Indians from their own lame performance; Kashmir isn’t worth the grief for India, and only empowered bin-Ladin with a quasi-legitimate issue, and a fifth column inside India; India should just gift Kashmir to pakistan, and get about India’s business.

    I think they’re right…and if these are the Hindu Nationalists talking, it may just happen.

  20. “I meant to say, that the LARGER question of Kashmir has always been an affront to Pakistan, since Independence. Kinda similar to the creation of Israel, it empowered revanchists for generations.”

    Yeah, Pakistani leaders have used the Kashmir issue at times in the same cynical way that many Arab leaders have used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I would still posit that, with the exception of times of full-blown war, it hasn’t been the leading factor behind the stifling of democratic impulses within Pakistan. I think the power and influence of the Army as an institution within Pakistani society has clearly been the largest factor.

    “When I sampled some English-language Hindu nationalist web-sites a while ago, I was astonished to hear the same analysis…”

    That’s not surprising, if you think about it. The Hindu nationalists – the fanatical ones, anyway – want to turn India into a Hindu state in much the same way that Pakistan is currently an Islamic state. So it goes to reason that many of them don’t care to have anything to do with a predominantly-Muslim region such as the Kashmir Valley. As a result, support for letting go of Kashmir is often higher with them than it is with the Indian populace at large.

    Read the mainstream English-language Indian publications, and you’ll find much less support for this point-of-view, though there is a lot of support for granting the Kashmir Valley full autonomy in non-defense matters. This unwillingness to grant Kashmir actual independence doesn’t stem merely from nationalist impulses, but also from a belief that doing so would undermine the notion of India as a secular state, and a belief that granting independence would likely stoke numerous seperatist movements that currently exist in predominantly-Hindu parts of the country.

    “the successive governments of India have used hanging on to Kashmir as a hollow issue to distract Indians from their own lame performance”

    I think they have India confused with Pakistan here. Dim bulbs within the Indian government have been much more prone to blame Western “imperialists” for the country’s problems over the years than Pakistan, though that phenomenon has been dying out as of late.

    “India should just gift Kashmir to pakistan”

    I don’t think most Kashmiris would be pleased with that. Pro-independence sentiment is pretty strong in the Valley, but the percentage of people who want to join Pakistan is much lower, with the violence wrought by Pakistani-supported insurgents having soured many Kashmiris on the idea. The recent agreement to restart bus services between the Indian and Pakistani-occupied parts of Kashmir will probably end up souring them even more.

  21. Since this has just sort of segued into a discussion of Kashmir, let’s say that India just turned Kashmir loose and made them independent. Without a guarantee of security by India, Pakistan would just take the place over.

    So even an “independent” Kashmir would still be dependent on India for defense if it wanted to remain “independent.” Which sounds more like greater autonomy within a federal system rather than actual independence. In the end, I suspect that the only options for Kashmir are outright rule by India, outright rule by Pakistan, or division between the 2. Complete Independence doesn’t seem possible. Desirable in principle, maybe (I’ll let those with a stronger opinion argue over that one), but not feasible.

  22. “So even an “independent” Kashmir would still be dependent on India for defense if it wanted to remain “independent.””

    That’s another way of looking at it. It’s inevitable that any independence agreement would include India maintaining the right to intervene militarily if Pakistan invaded. And if the Pakistani-controlled parts were made independent, the converse would hold.

    “In the end, I suspect that the only options for Kashmir are outright rule by India, outright rule by Pakistan, or division between the 2.”

    I think the most likely endgame will be something close to what was suggested in a New York Times Op-Ed about a year ago. India and Pakistan will each retain military control of the parts of Kashmir that they currently possess, but the entire area will otherwise be an autonomous state, with its own constitution and elected government. Some kind of deal will be worked out to allow for the free movement of goods and people across the line-of-control, perhaps with the aid of Kashmiri identity cards (the “travel permits” set to be issued to Kashmiris for the bus service are a step in this direction). There will probably be provisions in the constitution to protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities (the latter including Shias along with Hindus), and to allow for the return of Hindus who were expelled from the Valley about 15 years ago.

    Such a resolution wouldn’t sit well with the hardliners on either side, but it wouldn’t cross the red line of either faction (the redrawing of national borders), and would probably be acceptable to most Kashmiris as long as it brought peace and stability, and minority rights were protected.

  23. The plus side of turning Kashmir over to Pakistan is a dramatic change in the composition of the Pakistani electorate – millions of new voters accustomed to the political rights and secular tolerance enjoyed by Indian citizens…and also more affluent, on average, than most Pakistanis. Huge prestige boost for Musharif, too…and it deprives the Islamists of their one issue.

  24. So, I was just reading about how we’re sending suspects to foreign countries to be tortured…um, I mean, subjected to harmless fraternity pranks. This way the US gov’t can maintain that it doesn’t torture people. Most of the countries doing our dirty work are in the Middle East, and include Syria (to get a little bit closer to the topic at hand).

    This raises the obvious question: If the region really does liberalize, to whom will we outsource torture? China? (Yet another example of those damn Asians taking our jobs via outsourcing.)

  25. Um, I mean, to whom will we outsource our fraternity pranks?

  26. I might suggest South Korea thoreau, but, using Andrew’s audacious logic, I suppose we should turn South Korea over to North Korea.

    …Then we’ll give Cyprus to Turkey, Taiwain to China, Ukraine to Russia, Rwanda to Congo and Grenada to Cuba.

    Let’s hope nobody gives the United States away.

  27. “The plus side of turning Kashmir over to Pakistan is a dramatic change in the composition of the Pakistani electorate – millions of new voters accustomed to the political rights and secular tolerance enjoyed by Indian citizens”

    9 million people added to a population of over 140 million doesn’t amount to a “dramatic change”. And while India does have a better record of respecting political freedoms than Pakistan, Pakistan isn’t exactly North Korea in this regard.

    “and also more affluent, on average, than most Pakistanis”

    Considering the Jammu & Kashmir is one of India’s poorest states, and that India’s per capita income is only about 20% higher than Pakistan’s, the opposite is likely true.

    “and it deprives the Islamists of their one issue”

    The Islamists have plenty of other issues.

    You appeared to completely ignore my comment, meanwhile, that most Kashmiris would prefer independence (and barring that, autonomy) relative to union with Pakistan. Even Musharraf appears resigned to this fact, as evidenced by the proposals he floated regarding Kashmiri independence (accompanied by demilitarization).

  28. Ken I would cheerfully do everything the OPPOSITE of what you suggested: turn NK over to the South: Cyprus to Greece; China to Taiwan…etc.

    Neither the US, or the UN, has had ANY success in the post WWII world, trying to be impartial. That was just the dumb model put out by the first generation of post-European-Empire “experts”, and it has clearly failed.

    Except in rare cases, the US doesn’t need to FORCE anybody to do anything…but why NOT take sides?

  29. Eric II

    I don’t mean to ignore Kasmiri independence…but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I asked pakistani (liberal) friends of mine, and they confessed that they weren’t certain, either way – whether Kasmiris really want independence, or whether they think it is the only formula India would accept. I sensed that their professed uncertainty was genuine. I understand that the post-Independence referrenda opted for union with pakistan…but that may hve been the only option offerred, and things may have changed.

  30. Eric II

    Are you “ignoring” my point about the prestige boost for Musharif?

    Apart from Kashmir, I can’t see where Islamists have “lots” of other issues, safe for the back-to-the-8th-century stuff they peddle everywhere…and that never seems to have a real following when the lights get turned on.

    I think the following of Islamists under tyranny is sytematically over-estimated by observers, in the same way the following of hard-core Marxists was, during the Cold War. You can’t really measure public opinion in third world dictatorships, and Islamist (like communists) gain prestige by opposing the regime.

    But communists all but evaporated in post-dictator Spain and Portugal…and Islamists in post-dictator Bengla-Desh.

  31. “they confessed that they weren’t certain, either way – whether Kasmiris really want independence”

    Then they clearly haven’t been looking at the opinion polls and on-the-ground analyses that have been done for the Valley. The “everyone should leave us alone” mentality is pretty strong right now.

    “I understand that the post-Independence referrenda opted for union with pakistan”

    No referendum was ever held. The UN proposed one in 1948, but for a myriad of reasons, it never happened.

    “Are you “ignoring” my point about the prestige boost for Musharif?”

    Do you seriously think that a “prestige boost” for a dictator justifies overlooking the aspirations of 9 million Kashmiris, not to mention the political complications that would arise for India as a result of its religious and ethnic tensions? Again, the fact that Musharraf has given up on the idea of sole Pakistani control of Kashmir should tell you something.

    “But communists all but evaporated in post-dictator Spain and Portugal…and Islamists in post-dictator Bengla-Desh.”

    The Islamists have made a comeback in Bangladesh. They might not be on the verge of taking over the country, but they are a significant political force today. Dysfunctional, corrupt, economically incompetent democracies can breed Marxist and religious extremist movements almost as easily as dictatorships. India is a pretty good example of this.

  32. First he says:

    because we’re never supposed to use our army…except under circumstances where we’re never likely to have to.

    Comment by: Andrew at March 5, 2005 04:38 PM

    Then he says:

    The plus side of turning Kashmir over to Pakistan is a dramatic change in the composition of the Pakistani electorate – millions of new voters accustomed to the political rights and secular tolerance enjoyed by Indian citizens…and also more affluent, on average, than most Pakistanis. Huge prestige boost for Musharif, too…and it deprives the Islamists of their one issue.

    Comment by: Andrew at March 6, 2005 03:42 PM

    Finally, he says:

    Except in rare cases, the US doesn’t need to FORCE anybody to do anything…but why NOT take sides?

    Comment by: Andrew at March 6, 2005 05:28 PM

    What we have here is somebody who regards the world as a tinker-toy set. You can just take it and shape it and make things that you want out of it. It’s yours to play with so be creative!

    The world isn’t like that, Andrew. Or at least it hasn’t been in the past. Maybe this time it’s different, and Democratic Domino Theory will work. If so, it will be a drastic departure from past form.

    We cannot shape the world to be as we would like it to be. The best we can do is engage in peaceful commerce and defend ourselves when fucked with.

    See Washington, George.

  33. Dysfunctional, corrupt, economically incompetent democracies can breed Marxist and religious extremist movements almost as easily as dictatorships. India is a pretty good example of this.

    Comment by: Eric II at March 6, 2005 06:34 PM

    Very good point. Dysfunctional, corrupt, and economically incompetent democracies can also breed popular support for illiberal strongmen who do nasty things inside their borders and support nasty people outside their borders.

    Russia is a classic example of this.

  34. “What we have here is somebody who regards the world as a tinker-toy set. You can just take it and shape it and make things that you want out of it. It’s yours to play with so be creative!”

    That’s what I saw too–it looks to me like the foreign policy equivalent of central planning.

  35. A follow-up question on Democratic Domino Theory:

    Let’s say that DDT lives up to expectations. Why wasn’t this brilliant foreign policy insight revealed to the American public during the debate before the invasion? Yes, I know, it wasn’t exactly kept as a state secret, but it was hardly front and center. Looking back at the public speeches of the Bush admin, the case was, in order of emphasis from most to least:

    1) WMD–If Saddam does not disarm and demonstrate it to the world then we’ll invade
    2) Saddam sponsors terror. OK, maybe not Al Qaeda, the group that recently attacked the US, the group whose leaders remain at large and an urgent threat, but still. There’s a War on Terror and we must remain on offense rather than fall back to defense.
    3) Saddam is generally a bad guy and removing him from power would be a noble deed.
    4) Something about DDT.

    Now the order of emphasis has been reversed. Why wasn’t DDT front and center? What were the DDT theorists ashamed of?

    Now, maybe it’s because DDT was just an unknown back then, so it couldn’t get top billing. But if DDT is working so well and is a big star winning awards (DDT would like to thank the Academy…), will DDT get top billing before the next war?

  36. Eric

    it is my understanding that referenda were held, and the results ignored by India…but I could be wrong.

    I thought you and thoreau had worked out between you that real Kasmiri independence was impossible? In that case, why are you so anxious to maintain Indian sovereignty, if those Kasmiris would likely prefer Pakistani rule, given the forced choice?

    thoreau

    Absent the sort of provocation that would have caused ANY American president to go to war ANY time since 1945, I don’t believe this Administration, or any successor is especially apt to be using American soldiers for any more major missions. Iraq was a unique situation, brought about by Saddam’s defiance of treaty obligations – which is why his defiance, and the unknowns they posed (were INTENDED to pose) – received so much emphasis at the time….We have been over this about a thousand times, and you still play at being abtuse!

    Absent the crisis in Iraq, I don’t believe this Administration would have committed the US to a regime change in Iraq, or anywhere else, after 9/11. But otherwise, the change in US policy toward Democratic Transgormation, in the Mid East and globally, would have followed 9/11…and possibly, in any case.

    The real follow-up to the Cold War should have been to finish the transformation of the world to a global capitalism…not to coccoon until the next long, debilitating challenge: let’s put “history” behind us!

  37. BTW Eric

    In Bengla Desh, I understand that the Islamists – after being patronised by one of the two major parties during the 90’s – have since been shunned…and aren’t faring at all well, now.

  38. There is at least one alternative for the administration of Kashmir that thoreau didn’t contemplate, because it is very obscure. The Pacific Island state of Vanuatu (independent since 1980) was colonized by both French and British settlers. Rather than go to war over these rocks, the Limeys and Crapauds came up with a joint administration, known to those who kept their eyes and ears open in Comparative Politics class as “The Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides/Nouvelles-Hebrides.”

    Potted history here:
    http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/pacific/vanuatu/history.htm

    New Hebrides’ flags here:
    http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/vu_nh.html

    A similar Indo-Pakistani agreement, sharing nominal sovereignty while letting the Kashmiris run their own affairs, is probably much too sensible to emerge from this long contentious mess.

    Kevin

  39. “Iraq was a unique situation, brought about by Saddam’s defiance of treaty obligations”

    Sadly, no! At the time, the invasion of Iraq was sold to the American people as a “pre-emptive/preventive war” against a country that threatened the United States with WMD-based terror attacks, under the new Bush Doctrine first outlined in the 2002 defense policy review.

  40. “it is my understanding that referenda were held, and the results ignored by India…but I could be wrong”

    You are wrong. For a number of reasons that I don’t have time to go into now, the referendum was never held. BTW, it is not correct to assume that the result of a referendum in 1947 would inevitably have been pro-pakistan. Several provinces of India, some now in Pakistan, were actually disposed against partition. Of course, there were other regions, including hindu majority ones, that were against joining India, too. But what’s stunning is the new-fangled theory that Kashmir is the root-cause of dictatorship in Pakistan !! It looks like the domino-theory, having worked its way in the ME, is now travelling backwards in time to change history !

    “In Bengla Desh, I understand that the Islamists – after being patronised by one of the two major parties during the 90’s – have since been shunned…and aren’t faring at all well, now.”

    Say what !? That’s the opposite of what’s currently happening. The NYTime’s Magazine had a long article on the growth of fundamentalism in Bangladesh. In fact, the fundamentalists are allied with the ruling party.

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