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The recent massacres in Oslo, Norway, and Hama, Syria, were both carried out by heartless sociopaths. Why does one of them—Syria’s Bashar al-Assad—continue to enjoy diplomatic relations with Washington?

Lee Smith
August 03, 2011
A pro-Assad rally.(Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)
A pro-Assad rally.(Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

What if Anders Behring Breivik, who’s charged with murdering 77 people in Norway two weeks ago, was not a twisted loner but the country’s prime minister? And what if in the middle of his killing spree, when he mowed down young Norwegians and bombed Oslo, the public began debating whether he had a right to rule or a place in the international community? It’s unimaginable—we’d never think of granting legitimacy and prestige to a mass murderer.

So, why are Washington policymakers working overtime to find a way to do business with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?

We’re still trying to figure out what made Breivik set off a bomb that killed eight outside the prime minister’s office in Oslo then dress in a policeman’s uniform, take a ferry to a youth camp, and methodically gun down another 69 people, many of them children. Maybe his reading of anti-jihad polemicists deranged his mind with visions of multiculturalism run amok, or maybe his strange interpretation of Christian values turned him into a self-styled crusader. Perhaps he imagined himself an avatar of Aryan purity, or perhaps he’s just a psychopath, cloaking his madness in whatever tattered stuff he could find on the Internet.

The problem with Western societies isn’t that we occasionally produce monsters like Breivik, of whatever political persuasion. Rather, it’s that we negotiate with monsters like Assad, who live in palaces and use the instruments of government to murder their own people. The difference between Assad and Breivik is that instead of an automatic rifle and a sidearm, the Syrian president uses artillery, tanks, government snipers, and government torturers to kill people, week after week, while the world watches evidence of his sickening brutality on YouTube.

Yet the United States, and many other democracies, still have diplomatic relations with Assad’s regime. And while the media put Breivik on a shrink’s couch, no one’s trying to figure out why Assad instructed his security forces to open fire on unarmed protesters over the last five months and perpetrated further acts of mass murder this past weekend in several Syrian cities, leaving at least 145 dead. Unlike for Breivik, no one in the Western press is wondering what Assad reads on the Internet, or if the god he worships made him a murderer.

Breivik’s identifying himself as a Christian (and conservative) raised the hackles of a number of commentators in the United States. They argued that he can’t really be a Christian, because his actions are so obviously not informed by Christian beliefs. Of course, the same argument was used when discussing Osama Bin Laden and other Middle East murderers—they weren’t real Muslims, the thinking went. Instead, Bin Laden hijacked Islam.

The argument was absurd regarding Bin Laden and it’s no less absurd with Breivik—or with pedophilic priests or adulterous evangelical Christians, for that matter. True, Islam and Christianity are not the same. Ideas, doctrines, sins, and virtues vary, because the ideas put forth in sacred texts matter, as do the interpretations of those texts in different times and places. But determining exactly where ideas, religious or otherwise, hit the rough ground of human life is the work not of bloggers, pundits, and psychologists but of philosophers, novelists, and theologians. To turn Breivik’s bloodshed into a referendum on the comparative virtues of Christianity and Islam is obscene. To argue with him and Bin Laden over the veracity of their respective faiths is to pursue a covenant for monsters.

In the end, this murderous sickness is not about religion as such. After all, the regime in Damascus is ostensibly secular and it’s slaughtering Sunni Muslims in cities throughout Syria. What does it say about our own values—religious, moral, and political—that the Senate is deliberating whether to confirm the recess appointment of Robert Ford as U.S. ambassador to Damascus?

President George W. Bush recalled the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria’s Assad regime was alleged to be involved in that crime as well as a series of political murders and bombs in Lebanon. Moreover, Syria was complicit in aiding foreign fighters traveling to Iraq to kill U.S. troops and ordinary Iraqis and boasted of its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. At the time, there were no deep mysteries about the Assad regime; its detentions, tortures, and murders of Syrian dissidents were a matter of ample public record. And yet the Obama Administration was convinced from the outset that treating Syria’s leader like a normal head of state was a more or less risk-free enterprise. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama explained that talking to your enemies was not rewarding them. He came to the White House promising to engage the rogue states that his predecessor had isolated.

Ford was dispatched to Syria on a recess appointment in December 2010, meaning that his appointment will expire when the current Congress recesses the session in the late fall, unless he is confirmed by the Senate, some members of which are disgusted with the administration’s Syria policy. It’s hard not to have some sympathy and respect for Ford, who by all accounts is a tough-minded foreign service officer who has served his country honorably in hard places, like Iraq, and is now being used as a political football. He showed courage three weeks ago when he traveled to Hama to show his sympathy with the Syrian opposition and perhaps to serve as a human shield—the Syrians wouldn’t dare attack Hama with the U.S. ambassador present.

Instead, the regime waited for Ford to get back to Damascus, where they attacked the U.S. embassy instead. Three weeks later, Assad’s security forces laid siege to Hama, with tanks firing shells indiscriminately into civilian neighborhoods and snipers placed on rooftops to pick off terrified people in the streets. Doubtless Assad would have gone after the people of Hama regardless of Ford’s visit, which was intended to draw a line in the sand and challenge the Syrian despot to stop killing his people. But the ease with which Assad crossed that line sent an unmistakable message of contempt for America’s empty condemnations of his behavior. Hama paid the price for what in the end has been revealed as American vanity.

It’s unclear whether Ford’s appointment will be confirmed or rejected by the Senate or if the White House will shy away from a possible setback and recall the ambassador, turning its current political weakness into an essay in late-blooming courage. But regarding the Syrian uprising that has so far cost the lives of thousands of peaceful protesters, the last thing the Obama Administration should be thinking about is politics. American prestige is not simply the sum of our military and economic power; it is rather a function of our values, taken from our historical experience as a free people. To have treated Assad like a statesman, let alone to have made him a focus for America’s ever-shifting plans for a new Middle East, is to have mingled with evil.

What we must finally admit to ourselves is that madmen are the products not of religion, video games, blogs, or other familiar parts of our common global culture but of an inner darkness that overrides sympathy as well as reason. The fact that the evil of such men cannot be redeemed by fine rhetoric, clever political dealings, or the ceremonies of polite diplomacy is precisely why it is so frightening. Now that Robert Ford has left Damascus for consultations in Washington, it is important that we don’t send him back until Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen are gone.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.

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