Posted by Alex on Sunday, May 31st, 2009
(posted by Alex)
According to a recently released book on Cheney’s term at the White House, Middle East foreign policy was conducted on the premise that, “the U.S. must not exchange tangible benefits for the promise of regime behavior change in the future.”
Barton Gellman is a prolific writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports that he wrote for the Washington Post. The book entitled “Angler” was written as a sequel to the newspaper series. It is a must read for those who want to learn more about the Bush-Cheney White House.
The U.S. policy towards Syria is predicated on defining Syria as a weak and undemocratic pariah state. The Bush White House formalized the process by creating the axis of evil club. Though Syria was not a formal member of the club, Cheney may have thought of Damascus as part of a “nexus”, a term that the VP preferred according to Mr. Gellman.
Democracy versus dictatorship:
The democratic U.S. governing process uses a system of checks and balances to avoid the abuse of power by a single branch of government especially by the Presidency.
The events of September 11th however, convinced the sitting President at the time that the country is simply too democratic for these trying and extraordinary times. Mr. Gellman explains in painstaking details how Cheney’s core understanding of government changed once he convinced himself that the country faces an existential risk. In a post September 11th world, Cheney thought that the presidency ought by rights to function as an elected dictatorship. Seeking power without limit became the White House driving force.
Set below is a particularly interesting paragraph from the book:
“With Bush’s consent, Cheney unleashed foreign intelligence agencies to spy at home. He gave them legal cover to conduct what he called ‘robust interrogation’ of captured enemies, using calculated cruelty to break their will. At Cheney’s initiative, the United States stripped terror suspects of long-established rights under domestic and international law, building a new legal edifice under exclusive White House ownership.”
The fact is that once leaders convince themselves that they face existential risks, abuse of power becomes the norm. This notion epitomizes the way Israeli leaders justify their brutality against Palestinians. To them, the outside world simply does not understand the existential risks that only they can comprehend.
Similarly, when faced with its own existential risk following the uprising of the Moslem Brotherhood, the Syrian leadership felt fully justified in using all means at its disposal to stop the insurgency. Other countries in the region have behaved similarly when faced with the same risks. The Bush White House started walking the same path when confronted with similar risks. Domestic wiretapping and NSA surveillance was soon taking a shape not too unfamiliar to citizens of the Middle East and other “undemocratic” nations.
Weak versus strong:
Syria is often branded as a pariah state which is too weak to exchange tangible benefits with. There is no doubt that Syria lacks the demographic card of Egypt or the financial might of Saudi Arabia. Aware of this, Syria’s leadership has had to improvise and keep pulling rabbits out of its hat to survive in this region. In spite of her apparent weaknesses, Syria has had measurable success in continuing to find rabbits to pull. Undoubtedly, her Iranian rabbit has proved to be her most successful trump card over the past 4 decades.
Rather astonishingly, Damascus is often asked to somehow give up on this card and “flip” to the other side.
But, if Syria is as weak as she is portrayed, why would she give up her cards and weaken herself for the hope of American promises?
The fact is that the new White House must hit the reset button when it comes to dealing with Syria in particular and the region in general.
This past Thursday, former President Bush made his first major speech since leaving office. He of course defended the policies of his Administration as he thought the country faced an imminent attack. He also thought that the U.S. and its allies are locked in a long-term war with ideological fanatics, and that the war has many fronts.
“We should care about poverty overseas, for our own self-interest”, he said. “Ideologues can only recruit when they find hopeless people”.
If poverty leads to despair and terrorism, how can the U.S. justify economic sanctions on countries and expect this to help?
In a newly released study, a typical Syrian household includes six people, living on an average of $318 a month. While the sanctions are by no means the sole reason for economic underachievement, it is not difficult for the populace to be convinced that it is in this predicament because of the country’s resistance and the resultant sanctions against them.
The new President must lift the economic sanctions immediately. These have done nothing to harm the Syrian leadership. They have, however, turned more ordinary Syrians against the U.S. Washington must also stop referring to Damascus as a pariah state that is somehow different than the “moderate allies” in the shape of the governments of Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
Syria must be brought to the table without “flipping” preconditions. If Mr. Obama truly believes that Bush and Cheney’s foreign policy was misguided, he must start with doing away with the first guiding principal of that Administration. The U.S. must look for ways to offer tangible benefits to foreign nations that have everything to lose once they are forced to give up what little cards they have up their sleeve.
Mr. George Mitchell is set to visit Damascus as the rapprochement between Washington and Damascus enters a new phase.
Hitting the reset button before Mr. Mitchell steps off his flight would be a good way to start.