Landis Responds to Michael Young
My dear sparing partner, Michael Young, has taken on my article grading the Syrian state and its neighboring counterparts on their ability to protect their subjects from death. He doesn't like it. His most apt criticism is that I use what I call "the dead body count" as a basis for comparison. This method leads to Syria being ranked much higher than Lebanon, which annoys Michael. The Lebanese government allowed 1 in 27 of its citizens to be killed, not to mention all the displaced since 1970. Syria's numbers are somewhere in the vicinity of 1 in 500 and it has become a haven for refugees, Lebanon's traditional role.
Michael is right to suggest that the dead body count is a crude measure that cannot include the general economic welfare of the population or freedom quotient. He is, of course, right about this. But the dead body count is part of the picture. For the purposes of a short opinion piece, it must stand on its own. Readers can factor in the rest, as they have done in the comment section. Let Michael argue that Lebanon has done better than Syria, given its higher per capita GDP and greater level of political freedom. Perhaps he would like to make such an argument; he insinuates it, but doesn't seem to be comfortable in coming right out to say it. His life is no doubt better as a citizen of Lebanon than it would be if he were Syrian, but that is because he is one of the lucky 26 out of 27 Lebanese who was not killed in the war. Maybe he feels that the improved life-style of the 26 was worth the sacrifice of the 27th? He might be right. It is a legitimate debate. How many Americans would come out and say they would like to go back in time to undo the American civil war, leaving blacks in slavery and allowing Confederacy to become an independent country, in order to prevent the sacrifice of 1 in every 64 Americans, who gave their lives during the war. But what did Lebanon accomplish in its war? I guess it switched from 6 to 5 Christian deputies to equality that is something.
But, where Michael and I really differ is on the policy implications of the article. He writes:
This broader message here is important for the United States as it tries to figure out how to address despots in the Middle East, including many who are its allies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got it when she observed in Cairo in June 2005, "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East--and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."We all agree that the US should support democracy, defend civil liberties, and pressure the Syrian regime to respect civil society and the rule of law. To suggest that I do not support such a policy is just peevishness and irresponsible journalism on Michael's part
Bashar Assad is no paragon of stability, no matter what Landis thinks. Giving him an "A" on security at a time when the regime is arresting prominent opposition figures because they signed onto a petition the regime didn't like, because they seek to express their views freely in a Lebanese press that is not controlled, is incredible, particularly when Landis' subtext is that, comparatively speaking, Syria has been a better place than elsewhere.
The question is how the US should pursue this goal. Michael was a cheerleader for regime-change in Iraq and continues to be an advocate of teh "creative instability" school of US foreign policy, advanced by the neo-conservative school. Unchastened by the human catastrophe of Washington’s misbegotten democracy experiment in Iraq, Michael called for regime-change in Damascus in his articles this past fall. He believes that the US must tighten the screws on Damascus to the point that the regime collapses or internal rebellion is sparked.
In my opinion, such a policy is lunacy and motivated by irrational impulse and anger. We have learned that using violence as a policy tool can backfire. We have also learned that the democracy deficit in the Middle East is not simply a question of bad government or evil tyrants, its goes much deeper into political culture, national institutions, and the nature of education. Simply ripping off dictatorial regimes or smashing states will not solve the democracy deficit, it will only engender whole-scale slaughter, civil war, and national collapse. The problems of the Middle East do not stop at the authoritarian regimes. When Michael suggests that Hama was not a Syrian problem, but the problem of a regime trying to hold power for its own narrow interests, he simplifies the problem. If American policy makers listen to his advice, they will mess up Syria as they did Iraq. The promotion of democracy in Syria must be a long-term project. It cannot be accomplished through the present policy of trying to nail the Syrian regime, destroy Hizbullah, and bring them to their knees. This confrontational policy will only lead to exacerbating the cycle of violence and producing ever more extremism on both sides. This is my dispute with Michael.
If I remind readers that the Syrian regime has not completely failed in comparison to other regional states, it is to make the point that much worse things could happen to Syria, if present policy makers are pursuaded that only confrontation and victory should be tollerated in relations with Syria.