Hafez al-Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq have much in common.
They are both absolute dictators who preside over totalitarian states with abysmal records on human rights, and they both rule by intimidation and brutality. Both have been involved up to their elbows in terrorism, either directly or as sponsors and protectors of free-lance terrorist groups. Both have attacked American targets, and Syria remains on the State Department list of countries that support international terrorism.Both have grandiose military ambitions and have built up enormous arsenals, including ballistic missiles and have rattled them in the direction of Israel. Saddam killed thousands of his own citizens, of Kurdish origin. Assad ruthlessly crushed a rebellion by some of his military officers, wiping out the entire city of Hamaa, with an estimated loss of life of 20,000 Syrians, mostly innocent civilians.
Saddam took over neighboring Kuwait by force in August. Assad took over much of neighboring Lebanon in the past year and, in effect, has annexed the eastern half of Lebanon as part of greater Syria. He has turned much of that area into one of the world's largest plantations of marijuana and opium poppies, with much of it being smuggled into the United States.
But Assad of Syria has one shining virtue in the eyes of the U.S. government. He dislikes Saddam of Iraq so intensely that he has joined the U.S.-led military coalition against the Iraqi president.
And so, President Bush, following up an earlier meeting with Assad by Secretary of State James Baker, will talk with Assad in Geneva on Friday. That meeting will have the effect of building up Assad's importance and prestige in the Arab world, giving him a kind of respectability that he would otherwise find hard to come by.
As one U.S. official said, "When you've got somebody who is prepared to fight alongside of you, it's better to talk to him. That's the bottom line."
Syria has sent about 2,000 troops and several hundred tanks to Saudi Arabia to join the anti-Iraqi multinational force.
But such bottom-line foreign policy has come under sharp criticism from officials and former officials who argue that one of the reasons that Saddam Hussein thought he could get away with the invasion of Kuwait was that the signals coming from Washington were mixed and ineffectual.
Vincent Cannistrario, a recently retired CIA expert on counter-terrorism, told a group of newsmen this week, "The tilt toward Iraq (by the U.S. government) was a mistake. It would be the same with Syria. Horrible things have been done by Syria."
But, in the current effort to keep up the pressure on Iraq, the administration has subordinated everything else to the anti-Iraq coalition. As one official said, "Not only must we keep together. We have to give the appearance of staying together or Saddam will just try to wait us out."
Thus, a State Department official said that Syria's record on terrorism and human rights will only be given passing mention in the meeting in Geneva on Friday with Bush. Those subjects would be brought up later, when the current crisis is over.
Although Baker insisted after his Sept. 14 meeting with Assad in Damascus, "Our foreign policy is not amoral," pragmatism has triumphed over principle, for the short term at least.
An Israeli professor, Meir Zamer, writing in the Wall Street Journal, believes that is unwise and repeats the mistake of the U.S. tilt toward Iraq.
"American policy toward Syria ought to be based on long-term objectives and not immediate benefits. If the past holds any lessons for the present, then only continuous pressure will persuade Assad to moderate his policies."