April 06, 2003

Syria Watch O.K. so maybe

Syria Watch

O.K. so maybe I was wrong that Dubya has been telling Rummy to cool it recently on Syria and Iran--if the NYT got this story right.

"Shortly after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a stark warning to Iran and Syria last week, declaring that any "hostile acts" they committed on behalf of Iraq might prompt severe consequences, one of President Bush's closest aides stepped into the Oval Office to warn him that his unpredictable defense secretary had just raised the specter of a broader confrontation. Mr. Bush smiled a moment at the latest example of Mr. Rumsfeld's brazenness, recalled the aide. Then he said one word "Good" and went back to work."

It does bear noting that Dave Sanger gets it wrong when he describes Rummy's statements as prompting 1441ish "severe consequences." I have Rummy's exact statement (and some analysis) here and, as the transcript shows, the phrase "severe consequences" wasn't used.

That said, I'm a bit alarmed by Dubya's reaction. I still think we should be handling this issue with Damascus off the public airwaves in private channels. We have an Embassy in Damascus and active diplomatic relations with that country. Colin Powell can pick up the phone and call his Syrian counterpart, Farouk Shara, anytime. Leaking to the NYT that the President, reacting to Rummy's press conference statements on Syria, simply smiled and says "good" won't go over too well in Damascus and points beyond.

Nor does it inspire much confidence that top-down policy formulation is taking place within the Beltway. Too often with this Administration, policy tortuously emerges after protracted in-fighting between the Pentagon and State Department. With major issues like this, where Rumsfeld's comment can contribute to potential regionalization of the conflict and fan suspicions among Arabs (and Iranians) that other countries are on the U.S. regime change list--we should expect that the White House has provided coordinated marching orders to both Foggy Bottom and Defense.

Instead, it appears this may be another Rummy free-lancing episode. Of course, if Syria is miscalculating and providing succor to the enemy through manpower and materiel transfers of material scope--such "shots across the bow" are likely justified. But I have to suspect we'd do better with Bashar Assad regarding having him cooperate more through concerted private diplomacy. More soon.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat over at the American Scene has a good post up on the whole Iran/Syria angle.

Posted by Gregory at April 6, 2003 11:56 AM
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