Tuesday, March 8, 2005

He never saw it coming

Mark Steyn's latest column is an even-better-than-usual (and that's a high bar in his case) example of his trademark combination of wit and commentary. Here's my favorite bit, talking about Bashar Assad's current situation (if you didn't already know it, Assad happens to be an ophthalmologist):


The ophthalmologist never saw it coming. Assad's plan for a phased partial withdrawal over several months would have been hailed as a breakthrough a couple of years back. Now Bush swats it aside as too little, too late. In a poignant conclusion to his interview with Time last week, the neophyte dictator said: "Please send this message: I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to co-operate." You don't have to be an eye doctor to read the writing on the wall.

OK, that's enough ophthamology. The headline on Newsweek's cover, alongside the aforementioned Lebanese totty, was "People Power" - a novel concept in the Middle East, but very real. But just as worrying for Assad is a much older tendency in regional politics - the inclination to side with the winners. Right now, for Bush and the Iraqi people and the Lebanese people and Chirac and Blair and the House of Saud and pretty much everyone except the Canadian prime minister, the winning side looks like whichever side Bashar Assad isn't on.

That's a tough spiral to climb out of. Two years ago, Colin Powell took Jordan's King Abdullah to one side and told him, modifying a Rumsfeldian paradigm, that America saw him as part of "the new Middle East". The Sauds, Mubarak and Gaddafi are not entirely on board with this "new Middle East" thing, but since January 30 they've been doing their best to pretend they are - and the easiest way to do that is to stick some loser with the label of "old Middle East". Syria's prestige, such as it is, rests on its subordination of Lebanon. Abandoning that on a time frame demanded by Bush and the Beirut babes doesn't exactly communicate strength. The Iranians are still officially Assad's pals, but the word is that even they wouldn't be averse to a palace coup.

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