Friday, February 18, 2005

Syria: Friend or Foe?

Earlier this week, the United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria to protest the Syrians' alleged involvement in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister. In today's New York Times, however, Bob Herbert makes an excellent point. This is the same Syrian regime to which the United States Government delivered Maher Arar for torture. Is it really possible that the United States is condemning the behavior of a government that, when convenient, it employs precisely because of its lack of scruples? And that there's no demand from Congress (or from the public) for accountability?

Historically, the executive branch of the United States Government has been restrained (to some degree) with respect to covert operations by the fear of exposure and public censure. Some former intelligence agency heads have said they based decisions concerning secret activities on whether or not they would be willing to defend the decision when and if the operations became public knowledge. That restraint will disappear if there are no negative repercussions when the veil of secrecy is lifted. Perhaps it already has.

Consider what we've seen recently:

  • Prisoners in U.S. custody are tortured in multiple locations and only a few low-ranking personnel from Abu Ghraib are prosecuted. There is no public outcry.
  • President Bush is reelected in an election campaign in which both candidates avoid talking about torture in spite of the prominence of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
  • The President asks Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who says he accepts responsibility for Abu Ghraib, to stay on. Only liberals seem outraged.
  • Alberto Gonzales, a principal architect of the American effort to define away torture, is confirmed by the Senate as the U.S. attorney general with support from every single Republican and six Democrats.
  • And the U.S. condemns Syria within weeks of revelations that a Canadian citizen--an innocent man--was sent by the United States to Syria to be tortured. No one seems to care.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer--a pacifist at the outset of World War II who, by the end of the war, supported the violent overthrow of Hitler's regime--said, "If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction." We're on the wrong train, but most Americans haven't even bothered to get up out of their seats.