Skepticism is no doubt a quality the Bush administration has unintentionally (and legitimately) provoked in many a journalist angry at being suckered by false pre-Iraq war intelligence (though why Ahmad Chalabi should somehow still be regarded by the New York Times as avatar of its own journalistic shortcomings is beyond me).

However, the selfsame skepticism has also served to cast doubt where very little doubt is merited. Recently, for example, Seymour Hersh had this to say on Syria at a conference organized by Washington's Middle East Institute:

I'm exceedingly skeptical, and I have been all along, of the point of view of what happened to Hariri. The American point of view is that it was Syria with the aid of some people in Lebanon. Despite all the back and forth about how the American press corps was totally manipulated, to its embarrassment, about WMD, I would still argue, we're still being totally manipulated by this administration about Syria and Lebanese involvement.

This was disingenuous at best, and at worse showed how Hersh frequently does himself in by confusing healthy doubt and obdurate dislike. In fact, it's not just the American view that Syria was involved in Hariri's death; the argument was first given credibility by Detlev Mehlis, the United Nations investigator, who, it's fair to say, does not speak for the Bush administration, has evidence, and knows more about the matter than Hersh. It's also the view of everyone to whom I've spoken here in Beirut—politicians, diplomats, security officials, and more—most of whom also have a better idea of Hariri's murder than Hersh. Admittedly, though, I may be as credulous when it comes to my sources as Hersh has sometimes been with his in recent years.

The fact is, as Hersh indirectly proves by offering zilch in the way of proof for his doubts, no serious alternative theory explaining the crime has ever been floated, whether by Syria, its peons in Lebanon, or anybody who has followed the investigation.

Hersh has apparently caught a rampaging malady among those reflecting on American behavior in the Middle East; it is now fair game, it seems, to interpret any regional news story through the parochial prism of a "wag the dog" scenario, so that the Katrina and Harriet Miers debacles, or George W. Bush's wilting ratings, have become perfectly good explanations for U.S. policy toward Syria, Iran, Iraq, or anything you might want to shoehorn into a preposterous narrative. (The fact is that U.S. policy toward Syria was shaped months before Bush won the 2004 election, at a time when he was doing very well, and this was encouraged by, of all people, French President Jacques Chirac.)

In recent years, Hersh has been peddling the argument that Syria was a useful ally of the United States in the war on terrorism, before Bush and the goddamn neocons screwed it up. He wrote about this in The New Yorker in July 2003, and even quoted a "Syrian foreign ministry official" (whom I would guess was Buthaina Shaaban, now Syria's minister of emigrant affairs) as saying: "It saddens us as much as it saddens you. We could give you information on organizations that we don't think should exist. If we help you on Al Qaeda, we are helping ourselves."

Maybe Sy should sadly reread that line the next time he travels through Damascus airport, from where Islamists, many from Saudi Arabia, have been steadily making their way to Iraq to collaborate in the great adventure of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

(Thanks to Chuck Freund for the VOA link)