Pimping for war

Back in late December, Time magazine published the following “exclusive”:

The Bush Administration has been quietly nurturing individuals and parties opposed to the Syrian government in an effort to undermine the regime of President Bashar Assad. Parts of the scheme are outlined in a classified, two-page document which says that the U.S. already is “supporting regular meetings of internal and diaspora Syrian activists” in Europe. The document bluntly expresses the hope that “these meetings will facilitate a more coherent strategy and plan of actions for all anti-Assad activists””¦

American officials say the U.S. government has had extensive contacts with a range of anti-Assad groups in Washington, Europe and inside Syria. To give momemtum to that opposition, the U.S. is giving serious consideration to the election- monitoring scheme proposed in the document, according to several officials. The proposal has not yet been approved, in part because of questions over whether the Syrian elections will be delayed or even cancelled. But one U.S. official familiar with the proposal said: “You are forced to wonder whether we are now trying to destabilize the Syrian government.”

Some critics in Congress and the Administration say that such a plan, meant to secretly influence a foreign government, should be legally deemed a “covert action,” which by law would then require that the White House inform the intelligence committees on Capitol Hill. Some in Congress would undoubtedly raise objections to this secret use of publicly appropriated funds to promote democracy.

The proposal says part of the effort would be run through a foundation operated by Ammar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based member of a Syrian umbrella opposition group known as the National Salvation Front (NSF). The Front includes the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that for decades supported the violent overthrow the Syrian government, but now says it seeks peaceful, democratic reform.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident and blogger, writes that the Time scoop was in fact bogus; a classic disinformation campaign:

According to an article in Time magazine this month, I am the central figure in some cockamamie plot to overthrow the Syrian government. The plan, apparently, is to undermine Bashar al-Assad’s regime through the ballot box, starting with the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2007.

But as every Syrian knows, these elections tend to be quite staged and inconsequential. Perhaps the American officials who concocted the classified plan for regime change believed they could make it appear more credible by assigning a primary role to a dissident like myself. No one, however, could exude the kind of aura needed to cover the naiveté of the proposed scheme.

If nothing else, this half-baked plot exposes how much the United States is struggling to develop a coherent policy toward Syria. Washington is clearly unable to grasp the reality on the ground, both in Syria and across the Middle East — and nowhere is this disconnect more visible than in the naive insistence, by the Iraq Study Group and others, on linking progress in Iraq to the revival of Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

If Israel returns the Golan Heights to Syria, the advocates of this line argue, the Assad regime will become more agreeable to helping the United States in Iraq and to reining in Hezbollah and Hamas. But little consideration is given, at least officially, to the fact that Assad may not be in a position to help achieve any of these things once the United Nations’ investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri is completed.

This open secret has led many to believe — with ample justification — that despite the Iraq Study Group’s emphasis on obliging Damascus to abide by all relevant U.N. resolutions, the Assad regime will ultimately be rewarded with a free pass on the Hariri assassination. Indeed, there is an implicit acknowledgement among all advocates of talks with Assad that the regime’s real interest lies more in killing the Hariri investigation than in retrieving the Golan. But since this matter cannot be acknowledged publicly by either Damascus or Washington, returning the Golan is made out to be a key to solving the region’s problems.

Suffice to say, Time’s initial report received a great deal of mainstream coverage, but this rebuttal much less so. It seems that Time magazine – while busy celebrating the internet as Person of the Year – has been used as a convenient tool of Bush administration propaganda. We shouldn’t presume that they weren’t willing participants, of course. Many government “leaks” these days are little more than sanctioned bits of information designed to assist the “war on terror.”

Far too many journalists play the game, believing that taking the “right side” will help their careers. They’re probably right on that front, but the media’s role is to always question and challenge, never blindly accept. 9/11 has created an all-too-willing environment where reporters and editors receive “exclusives” – on, say, Iraq’s WMDs or Iran’s supposed WMDs – and all the while forgetting their critical faculties. Perhaps if they thought more often about why governments want to release such information, they’d be more cautious. Of course, many in the media are not especially intelligent, and are quite happy pimping for whatever government is in power. If that means assisting a path for war, then so be it.