Say what you will about Bashar Assad, dictator of Syria and perhaps the dimmest eye doctor ever produced by British medical schools, but subtle he is not. Since the huge street demonstrations against his occupation of Lebanon, three terrorist bombings have occurred there, all in heavily Christian, anti-Syrian neighborhoods. Only slightly less subtle was the nearly half-million-man Beirut rally demanding Syria’s continued occupation, staged by Syria’s Lebanese client, Hezbollah, followed by the “spontaneous” demonstration Assad orchestrated for himself in Damascus.
Then there is this week’s public admission by a captured Hamas terrorist in Israel that he was trained in Syria. This is the first direct account of such active involvement by Syria, although everyone knows that the Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad are headquartered in, and assisted by, Syria. Everyone also knows that Syria is abetting the terrorist insurgency in Iraq. ~Charles Krauthammer
It used to be that the invocation “everyone knows…” was the sign of a poorly informed mind and a weak argument. Surely, the old attitude held, if someone had better evidence than some vague general statement he would use that evidence instead. Somehow this lazy, ignorant approach to argument does not fare very well in all those institutions where there is some measure of accountability and intellectual honesty. Naturally, it flourishes in journalism and punditry, and it can be used without a second thought in columns for one of the largest newspapers in the country. In Krauthammer’s case, I suspect the original assessment of those who use this phrase in argument still holds.
It became something close to gospel truth that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction.” Indeed, “everyone” knew this. If you contradicted what “everyone” knew, you were at best a silly or “irresponsible” (read insufficiently conformist) and at worst an apologist, or perhaps paid lackey, of Baghdad. Now “everyone” knows that Syria is aiding the insurgency in Iraq. There is, of course, not so much as a shred of evidence that the government in Damascus is doing this. This is not because Assad is virtuous or wise, but because he is not an absolute cretin and wants to stay in power and alive. He gains nothing by provoking the United States, and risks his head. He may have used inflammatory rhetoric before and during the start of the war, but it has always remained just that.
Once again, we are usually presented with the typical negative evidence that preceded the invasion of Iraq. We continually heard the claim, “If Iraq didn’t have weapons, why was the government there being so evasive? If they had nothing to hide, why not give full access?” And so on, and so on. These days, the “failure” of Syria to seal its borders with Iraq is taken to be the same as conscious, planned support for the insurgency. One might draw an unflattering comparison with what this must imply for Washington’s involvement in cross-border drug and human trafficking from Mexico. Of course, a government’s lack of action cannot be cited as positive proof of its active support for anything, and in the absence of any other evidence it is mere speculation to conclude much of anything from that inaction.
Syrian support for the insurgency makes as much sense as Baghdad’s support for al-Qaeda or Syria’s alleged involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri: the state interests of each are not served by these actions or alliances. Add to that that there is apparently no actual proof of either one. In the cold calculations of power, these states have nothing to gain and much to risk from such moves. Likewise, the idea that the ruling, secular Alawi Shi’i Assad clan is directly supporting the overwhelmingly Sunni and Salafist insurgency is ridiculous. This would be to empower the very sorts of people Assad’s father earned the scorn of the world for destroying in Homs two decades ago, as well as helping the Islamists whom the Baathist elite despises on account of their own ideology; support for such people contradicts the interests of every major institution in Syria. It is just the sort of lazy thinking we should expect from Krauthammer, ever keen to find a new Arab nation to despoil or humiliate. If “everyone knows” this, then “everyone” (i.e., Krauthammer and his ilk) is wrong.
The predictable call for still more pressure on Syria (which has, in fact, never done a single thing to any American, to the best of my knowledge) is the desperate ranting of a fanatic. It ought to be dismissed as the extremist notion that it is, but unfortunately Mr. Krauthammer has the ear of the President, so his lazy, poor arguments are all the more dangerous because they may be incorporated into the general anti-Syrian bias of this administration and translated into action.