Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dopes of the Day: Fooled by Syria...Twice

By Barry Rubin

Since I have written about how easily fooled Western politicians, officials, journalists, and academics are by Middle Eastern radicals, I'm going to try to provide examples in a regular feature called Dopes of the Day. This is a good starting point. (Be sure to read this article to the end to find out about both Dopes of the Day.)

There is a newspaper in Lebanon called al-Akhbar. Curiously, while other newspapers are in decline or starved for funds, al-Akhbar is expanding. The New York Times reporter fell for the foolish notion that this newspaper is some model of independence and enterprise. In fact, it is not exactly a secret in Lebanon that it is a hard-line, Syrian backed newspaper that repeatedly slanders the moderate forces there as well as delivers propaganda for Hizballah. And that's where the money comes from.

So the Times is cheering a Syrian propaganda operation just as, not long ago, the Guardian went into rhapsodies about a supposedly wonderful publication in Turkey that is a front for the Islamists and producing false material that enabled the regime there to throw innocent people into prison on trumped-up charges of conspiring to overthrow the government.

Any serious investigation should have shown the true nature of al-Akhbar but the reporter couldn't even find anyone to quote on this point, apparently not even trying to produce a balanced article, much less an accurate one.

Instead here's what we get:

"It was the latest coup for a five-year-old paper that has become the most dynamic and daring in Lebanon, and perhaps anywhere in the Arab world. In a region where the news media are still full of obsequious propaganda, Al Akhbar is now required reading, even for those who abhor its politics."

But perhaps this free advertising for a Hizballah and Syrian parrot can be explained by the article's lead:

"Ibrahim al-Amine, the hawk-eyed editorial chairman of Al Akhbar, describes his newspaper’s founding ambitions this way: `We wanted the U.S. ambassador to wake up in the morning, read it and get upset.'”

Right, so it's anti-American isn't that recommendation enough? But I don't think Amine would want the Syrian or Iranian ambassador to get upset. If they did they might cut off his funding and cut off other parts as well.

It is like the old Cold War joke about the American insisting that the United States had freedom of speech and the Soviet didn't. "After all, I can go in front of the White House and shout, `Down with Reagan!"

"Oh", replies the Communist, "We have just as much freedom of speech! I can go in front of the Kremlin and shout, `Down with Reagan!' any time I want."

Speaking of free advertising, al-Akhbar needs ads because it seems to prosper even while not running any! How about the Jammal Trust Bank, an institution that launders money for Hizballah, which also funds a tv station that supports Hizballah and is directed by one of al-Akhbar's editors (Jean Aziz), as well as helping to pay the newspaper's bills. The Times reporter didn't notice those details. One can compile a long and publicly known set of links connecting al-Akhbar with Hizballah and Syria, as well as writers who tend to follow the lines set forth by them.

To present such an enterprise as wonderful is shameful, especially since several honest journalists in Lebanon have been murdered or had to flee for their lives, while better newspapers are collapsing for want of financing. Yet it's the totalitarians that get the kudos from the New York Times. Oh, and Politico's Laura Rozen had to chime in about this truly wonderful newspaper which is an example to all Arab media!

I guess the proposed example is: support revolutionary Islamist terrorist groups, get backing from Syria, and only criticize America and those moderates opposed to Iran and Islamism. If there's a Pulitzer Prize for terrorism then al-Akhbar might be in the running for it.

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly likely that an international investigation will show that Hizballah, al-Akhbar's favorite organization, was involved in the murder of the opposition leader and former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Guess that will be one story al-Akhbar won't cover.

Speaking of Syria, while the Saudis are so worried about the United States being too soft on Syria and Iran that they are trying to cut their own deal surrendering Lebanon to the Syrians, what does President Barack Obama do? Why, of course, he is in such a hurry to name a U.S. ambassador to Syria that he bypasses Congress and does a recess appointment! Even though he has gotten nothing from Syria after two years of engagement.

What this technique does, of course, is shield the Syrian dictatorship from any criticism by Congress since if there had been confirmation hearings for the proposed ambassador there would have been a lot of questions about Syria's backing of terrorism, especially against American troops in Iraq. If this administration had more sense it could have used the harder line from Congress as a rationale to get tougher on Syria. But instead of a "good cop/bad cop" approach we get a Keystone cop approach. (Note below)

But there is also a truly remarkable and highly revealing quote from an administration official on this matter:

“We have implemented our commitments, and we expect Syria to [do the same]. The ball is now in the Syrians’ court.”

That statement will stand as the perfect memorial for this administration's foreign policy (including on the "peace process"): We've done everything for you, now it is time for you to do something for us. No, you don't give all the concessions first and then hope that your enemy will do something. That's a dopey thing to do. You use leverage and threats and credibility and sometimes even force. You take advantage to some extent of your being stronger. You make the other side give something, too.

The administration has argued that sending a U.S. ambassador to Syria is not a gift to that dictatorship (which is helping to murder Americans in Iraq, sponsoring Hamas and Hizballah, and helping Iran in every possible way) but a necessity to have a channel through which the United States can communicate with Damascus. But since this U.S. government only wants to communicate flattery and concessions it is hardly worthwhile.

Indeed, have no doubt that everyone in the Arabic-speaking world will interpret this as a Syrian victory. Here is Michael Young's explanation on this point. Equally, al-Nahar insisted that the Syrians must have done something big to earn Obama giving them such a big concession. That's why this action is also worthy of a Dopes of the Day award.

Oh, tremble all of you who depend on the United States as an ally and protector in these days! And tremble, too, if thou doth depend on the New York Times for your understanding of the world!

Note: good cop/bad cop refers to a police interrogation technique in which one policeman would be nasty and tough while the other would act as the suspect's friend to get him to confess or give information. The intimidation made possible the success of a softer approach. The Keystone Cops was a comedy group in the early days of movies who did slapstick comedies making fools of themselves. This name has become something of a slang phrase for people who are total incompetents. 

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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