Sunday, November 25, 2007

International: When Syria comes to dinner

Syria announced this week that, contrary to expectations, it would attend the meeting on Arab-Israeli conflict hosted by the US in Annapolis at the end of November. This could be a chance for a step forward in the peace process, if it were seized correctly.

It is not clear that Syria has ever actually been interested in peace with Israel. Having a foreign enemy serves a useful purpose for the Ba'athist regime: it gives them a scapegoat on which to blame any and all troubles faced by the Syrian people.

But one crucial thing has changed in Syria: its oil is running out. In 2007, for the first time in recent history, Syria became a net oil importer. This has significant consequences: income from oil exports have long been a crucial source of revenue for the Syrian government, and rather suddenly they have lost it -- just as oil prices are skyrocketing.

So why is this an opportunity? The loss of oil revenues means that the Syrian government is desparately looking for a way to balance its books. The first time the US was able to create peace between Israel and one of its neighbors, Egypt, it did so by offering massive side payments to an Arab state in need of revenues. Now Syria falls in the same camp: maybe, just maybe, it could be tempted to offer a lasting peace in exchange for a new source of funding for its cash-strapped government.

This is not to argue that the Syrian regime is either pleasant or trustworthy. Granted, there is a certain stench associated with American payments to a Ba'athist dictatorship. Maybe the best thing to do is to hope that the Ba'athist regime runs into so much trouble that it gets overthrown by its own people, and replaced by a regime more interested in peace. But opportunities to create peace in the Middle East do not come everyday, and the US should think twice before throwing it away.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

US: Democrats at the Temple of Cowardice

It's hard to grasp how the US Senate, especially the Democrats, can be so weak, so cowardly, and so stupid.

Recently they approved Michael Mukasey as the new Attorney General, despite his unwillingness to answer a simple question about the legality of torture. Asked whether "waterboarding" is illegal, he refused to answer.As the International Herald Tribune put it so well: "It was not a difficult question. Waterboarding is specifically banned by the Army Field Manual, and it is plainly illegal under the federal Anti-Torture Act, federal assault statutes, the Detainee Treatment Act, the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. It is hard to see how any nominee worthy of the position of attorney general could fail to answer 'yes.'" (IHT, Nov 11, 2007)

There really is a right and wrong answer on this one. America prides itself on its claims to freedom and liberty. It is also plainly failing to live up to its values on this issue.

My recent visit to three Arab countries reminded me that charges of hypocrisy are central to the low regard of America in the Arab world. No one admires it when Saudi Arabia locks up political dissidents, but the Saudi regime makes no pretensions to civil rights or democracy. When the US adopts similar practices, it is not just its actions but also its hypocrisy that tears into the American image.

It would be bad enough if this was just a matter of bad policy; it also seems like bad politics. The Financial Times reports that Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator whose support for Mr Mukasey was crucial, made clear that she had voted for him in part because "Mr Bush had threatened that if Mr Mukasey were rejected, he would not provide another nominee." (FT, Nov. 6) The fact that the Senate Democrats can be bullied around by Bush so easily -- still, after 7 years -- is appalling.

Democrats hope that if and when they seize the White House in 2008, all will be well in the world. Think again. Unless they learn to wield power responsibly, America's reputation will continue to suffer.