“The frustration we have here,” the congressman thundered at a senior State Department official at a packed hearing in Washington on Sept. 16, “is that 24 years after Lebanon was placed on the State Department’s own list of countries that support terrorism, we’re still playing the same old game with Lebanon.” Eliot Engel was still in full froth when someone gently reminded him who the target was supposed to be. “You know, we…” he was continuing to lecture the official, John Bolton, when a whisper and short pause were followed by “…oh, with Syria, yes, I’m sorry.”
There was more than a touch of the Freudian about this telling faux pas by the principal sponsor of the Syria Accountability Act, which is on a fast track toward becoming American law. Congressional support for the bill, which would slap major sanctions and trade restrictions on Syria, is overwhelming, and the only thing preventing its passage in the past has been timely intervention from the White House. Bolton’s testimony, which was the substance of the hearing, raises serious questions as to whether another intercession is likely.
The tone at the hearing was best summed up by another congressman, Gary Ackerman, who soberly reviewed “the disastrous, devastating, horrible, horrendous things that Syria has done.” Engel mused that “it would not surprise me if those weapons of mass destruction that we cannot find in Iraq wound up and are today in Syria,” demonstrating that, in Congress, not only one but two countries can be castigated for hoarding the same phantom weapons.
Bolton’s testimony reflected the split in the Bush administration between neoconservatives who advocate an aggressive agenda to reshape the Middle East and the more cautious voices of traditional conservative realists. Bolton, who is both undersecretary for arms control and an extreme neoconservative, was originally scheduled to testify on Syria in July, but was blocked by a “revolt” in the intelligence community, which believed that he was preparing to grossly exaggerate Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and the extent to which it poses a “threat to regional stability.”
Bolton had already infuriated US intelligence officials by claiming in May 2002 that Cuba has a biological weapons program. Intelligence analysts declared themselves “fed up” with such assertions and drew the line at Bolton’s July draft testimony against Syria. It is hard to know how much of what the intelligence community regarded as unacceptable exaggeration was retained in the version he finally presented to the House Subcommittee.
Certainly, Bolton took a strong stand, grouping Syria with Iran, North Korea and Libya as “states of potential dual threat,” combining WMDs and terrorism concerns. He accused Syria of maintaining a stockpile of sarin, and of working on VX and biological weapons.
On the other hand, Bolton was careful to situate most of his statements in the context of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s preference for diplomatic solutions, and declined a number of invitations to endorse the Syria Accountability Act, maintaining that the administration had all the authority necessary to deal with the “threat” as he outlined it.
As Ackerman observed, “there seems to be somewhat of a squabble going on within the administration.” And, rather ominously, Bolton’s testimony was leaked to the notorious Judith Miller of the New York Times, who was the source of countless now-discredited reports regarding Iraqi WMD programs, as she put it “by individuals who feel that the accusations against Syria have received insufficient attention.”
The Bolton hearing was followed by a less formal session featuring three “experts” on Syria: scholar Daniel Pipes representing, in effect, the Likud Party perspective; former Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, expressing essentially the views of the Israeli Labor Party; and, to provide that all-important element of “balance,” the former head of Lebanon’s military government, Michel Aoun, a staunch opponent of Syria. Visiting Lebanese would have been deeply touched by the heartfelt anguish expressed about their sovereignty by Israel’s most passionate supporters in Congress, including Engel.
Syria lies at the very heart of divisions over the direction of US foreign policy. For neoconservatives such as Bolton, as well as those informed entirely by an Israeli perspective such as Engel, Syria is a central target in the battle to reshape the Middle East. This agenda draws little distinction between American and Israeli interests, or between Al-Qaeda and Hizbullah. Traditionally minded conservative realists who tend to dominate the State Department, CIA and other government agencies are far more skeptical about the need and the value of aggressively confronting Syria.
More rational voices that cast America’s post-Sept. 11, 2001 task in the Middle East as a confrontation with Al-Qaeda and like-minded anti-American extremists view Syria as a problematic, but extremely valuable potential ally. As Seymour Hersh reported in the July 28 issue of the New Yorker magazine: “(B)y early 2002 Syria had emerged as one of the CIA’s most effective intelligence allies in the fight against Al-Qaeda, providing an outpouring of information that came to an end only with the invasion of Iraq.”
However, as Hersh also noted: “Syria’s efforts to help seem to confound the Bush administration,” and the relationship was destroyed more or less deliberately. This was partly due to real differences over Iraq, and partly because neoconservatives such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney and others view Syria through a strictly ideological and emotional lens as a “rogue state” and a “supporter of terrorism.” It is no secret that Syria is on the neocon shortlist of potential future targets for “regime change.”
If the Bush administration does not quietly prevent the Syria Accountability Act from coming to a vote, the effects of the sanctions it imposes will be less worrying than the ominous future it portends.