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Bush says someone should get to Syria; why shouldn’t that someone be him?

ASK THIS | July 19, 2006

Thanks to an open microphone, we know what President Bush genuinely thinks would put an end to the sudden crisis in Israel and Lebanon. A Syria expert, professor Joshua Landis at Oklahoma University, thinks reporters should ask what he’s waiting for.

By Dan Froomkin

In a private moment that quickly became very public, President Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair over lunch the other day: “See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over."

But who is this “they” Bush was talking about? Is the United States just a bystander here? I asked a Syria expert, professor Joshua Landis at Oklahoma University, what he thinks reporters should be asking.

Q. Why hasn’t Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Syrian President Bashar Assad to talk?

Bush apparently would rather send United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to talk the Syrians, but “that’s like sending your butler to do the job,” Landis says. “Damascus isn’t going to talk to Kofi Annan because Kofi Annan doesn’t run the show. It’s America that runs the show. What Bush was telling Blair was: I’m not doing anything.”

Syria would be happy to talk to the United States, Landis says. “But the United States has refused to talk to Syria for the last two years, and for three years has been squeezing Syria, trying to ruin its economy.”

Landis says that American diplomats are strictly forbidden from talking to their Syrian counterparts; even the U.S. attaché there (the ambassador was withdrawn last year) is not allowed to talk to any Syrian officials.

“Of course, if they talked to Syria, they’re going to have to do it politely,” Landis said. “It would have to involve a deal. And that means the U.S. recognizing Syria as a player in the region.”

Landis says the Bush administration doesn’t want to give Syria that kind of recognition. But “America can either bomb Lebanon into the stone age [via Israel], or it can use diplomacy.”

Q. What happened to our commitment to Lebanon and democratic government? And what’s the message to potential reformers in the Middle East?

Bush has built his foreign policy around encouraging democracy and reforming the Middle East. Up until now, the democratically-elected Lebanese government was his greatest success story.

Here’s Bush in March 2005: “And any who doubt the appeal of freedom in the Middle East can look to Lebanon, where the Lebanese people are demanding a free and independent nation. In the words of one Lebanese observer, ‘Democracy is knocking at the door of this country and, if it's successful in Lebanon, it is going to ring the doors of every Arab regime.’….

“Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon's future belongs in your hands, and by your courage, Lebanon's future will be in your hands. The American people are on your side. Millions across the earth are on your side. The momentum of freedom is on your side, and freedom will prevail in Lebanon.”

Landis says that Bush promised the Lebanese government that he would help protect it against Syrian influence – and against Syria, if need be. “Bush went out on a limb. And they went out on a limb.” Part of the deal was that the Lebanese government had to take on Hezbollah, Landis says. But as soon as Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack into Israel, “the U.S. pulled the plug” on the Lebanese government, Landis says.

“The Bush administration has two parallel policies: Bomb terrorists and encourage democracy in the Middle East,” Landis says. In this case they were mutually exclusive in the short run. But rather than try to find a way to achieve both, Bush opted for attacking terrorists over encouraging democracy.

By giving Israel the green light to bomb Lebanon – and not just Hezbollah strongholds, but critical Lebanese infrastructure – Bush has dealt a heavy blow to his own democracy initiative. Rather than have patience and make some sacrifices – rather than calling off Israel and calling up Damascus – the U.S. “sacrificed these great exemplars of democracy,” Landis says.

“It sends a clear message to every Arab reformer and every Arab politician who’s thinking of allying with the United States and going out on a limb in order to push reform. And that message is:  Don’t count on the United States. They don’t really mean democracy. What they really mean is ‘I want you to go and hunt terrorist for me. And if you don’t hunt those terrorists for me, I’m going to bomb you.’”

Posted by Jon Carson -
07/19/2006, 03:02 PM

This is a fine story.I only wish someone would ask these questions publicly to Bush.

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