Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Beacon No. 23: On Sending Ambassador Scobey Back to Damascus


The U.S. reacted swiftly to the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut on Monday, recalling Ambassador Margaret Scobey from … Damascus.

Which is in Syria, not Lebanon.

At some level it's natural that the U.S. and practically everyone else should point fingers at Syria. Politically speaking, Lebanon is a suburb of Damascus thanks to the 14,000 or so Syrian troops stationed there. Syria backs lots of Lebanese freelancers who have bombs and bullets. Mr. al-Hariri led last winter's doomed parliamentary opposition to changing the Lebanese constitution, which allowed yet another presidential term for Emile Lahoud, a Syrian ally. (Al-Hariri resigned the premiership rather than tolerate the seamy way Lebanon's constitution was changed to keep Mr. Lahoud in office.)

But it's a mistake for the U.S. to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus for "emergency consultations," which is dip-speak for "cool your heels in the Potomac until we figure out who offended us." In spite of the circumstantial evidence, there is no way at this point to link Syria to the al-Hariri assassination, and even Secretary of State Rice admitted: "We're not laying blame. It needs to be investigated."
From a soft-power standpoint it might be better to send Ambassador Scobey, a longtime Near East hand and accomplished Arabic speaker, back to Damascus to give a local voice to U.S. positions as the al-Hariri investigation gets going. The U.S. is already perceived as too quick to jump to the wrong conclusions about Arab states, as the failed hunt for Iraqi WMDs underlined. If the U.S. needs to express anger, President Bush and Secretary Rice have all the media ears they need to make themselves heard without taking a U.S. diplomat out of the region.

The only plus that comes out of the al-Hariri assassination is that it gives France and the U.S. common cause. Mr. al-Hariri, a billionaire, got much of the credit for rebuilding Lebanon after the civil war and is described by the NY Times as having been a close ally of France as well as the U.S.

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