Neocon officials in the Defense Department call them “low-hanging fruit” — as though countries were produce ripe for picking and eating. The term refers to nations targeted for regime change that might be achieved with minimal strain, at least when compared with the effort needed to topple the regime in Iran. Some neocons are beginning to concede that the effort might not be feasible at this time (not that they would be climbing the tree and plucking the fruit; they’d stand below advising on how it should be done). They’re advocating instead that the Bush administration move soon against Syria.
From late 2003 to late 2005 it looked to me as though Syria would be the next “Terror War” target, largely because of Bush’s rhetoric, Israeli aggression against Syria and the Israeli propaganda campaign against Syria (suggesting that the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had been transported over the border into the Arab state). But then the Israeli government and Lobby urged the Bush administration to focus its energies on attacking Iran. (Asked by the administration for suggestions for a new leader in Syria to be installed after the toppling of Bashar al-Assad, the Israelis said they couldn’t think of one. This position has been repeated as recently as March 2007.) In any case the Israeli government sees Iran as the “existential threat” to itself, Syria more of an irritation.
But the advocated Iran attack has been long-delayed. The neocons have lost some influence, although they remain highly dangerous and influential. Rapid Islamophobes like Elliott Abrams, David Wurmser, Eric Edelman and Eliot Cohen retain their posts, while neocon ideologues such as Bill Kristol enjoy access to cable TV audiences and readers of op-ed pieces in the most widely-read newspapers. The latter very often articulate the view of Vice President Cheney’s circle. Cheney is known to be frustrated at the postponement of the planned Iran attack.
In this context, former Bush speechwriter and Christian rightist Michael Gerson published an op-ed in the Washington Post last Friday calling for an attack on Syria to stop its alleged support for the resistance in Iraq. He revives the horticultural metaphor. “Syria. … is what one former administration official calls ‘lower-hanging fruit,’” Gerson writes, adding “Syria’s Baathist regime provides a base of operations for its Iraqi Baathist comrades involved in the Sunni insurgency.” He immediately adds, “Suicide bombers from Saudi Arabia and North Africa arrive by plane in Damascus, and, with the help of facilitators, some 50 to 80 cross into Iraq each month. The Syrians say they lack the ability to stop them; what they lack is the intention.”
He calls for “forceful action against Syria’s Ho Chi Minh Trail of terrorists.”
Absent here is any indication of a mature understanding of the complexity of the Arab world. We’re to believe that Syrian Baathists (secularists) are helping their “Iraqi Baathist comrades” by facilitating anti-Baathist, Islamist Saudis and North Africans’ passage into Iraq? It doesn’t make sense. Those jihadis, the Los Angeles Times reported last month, include 45% Saudis; 15% are either Syrian or Lebanese, 10% North African, 30% other. U.S. generals on the ground have repeatedly acknowledged that these fighters are a tiny fraction of the forces resisting the U.S. occupation. The Saudis are responsible for the bulk of suicide bombings, and through their actions acquire a disproportionate ability to affect the overall political and military situation, but they have become increasingly shunned by the mainstream Iraqi resistance. They certainly feel little camaraderie with Baathists of any nationality!
The Syrian government has repeatedly stated that it is trying to prevent the passage of jihadis over its long border with Iraq into the U.S. occupied country. It (like Iran) enjoys cordial relations with the Iraqi regime brought to power by the U.S. The idea that it would help create a “trail of terrorists” at a time that it’s in the Bush administration’s crosshairs, accused of responsibility for the Hariri assassination and support for Palestinian and Lebanese “terrorism,” is inherently implausible, and the suggestion that the existence of such a trail is a product of Syrian and Iraqi Baathist cooperation is laughable given the composition of the “insurgency.” The Syrian government, concerned about its own survival, has indeed been seeking negotiations with the U.S. to resolve differences between the countries.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail analogy is stupid. That Trail was a well-coordinated logistical system that brought fighters and supplies from one part of Vietnam to another part of Vietnam through Laotian and Cambodian territory controlled by Marxist allies. The Syrian “Ho Chi Minh Trail” to which Gerson alludes is the supply line from the Euphrates (Iraqi) border town of al-Qaim to Baghdad, through which foreign fighters interested in joining the jihad against the U.S. invaders often pass. It is not the production of a state in alliance with a movement seeking national reunification. It’s a route for the movement of international Islamist fighters produced by the power vacuum created by an invasion.
But why should facts matter to Michael Gerson? As Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to June 2006, he may have come up with the “axis of evil” phrase (although some attribute this to David Frum). As a member of the White House Iraq Group, tasked to disseminate frightening disinformation about Iraq preparatory to the attack on Iraq in March 2003, he proposed the “smoking gun turns into a mushroom cloud” metaphor used by Bush, Cheney and Rice in late 2002 to frighten the nation into war. He was selected as on of the top 25 Christian evangelicals in America by Time magazine in 2005. His is a faith-based notion of geopolitical reality.
Many evangelical activists look forward to the violent transform the Greater Middle East, that biblical prophecy might be fulfilled and Jesus come back soon. According to the Book of Revelation, there must be a great war surrounding Israel before that happens, involving kings to the east of the Tigris and Euphrates. That implies war with Persia (Iran). So some want the U.S. to provoke war with Iran. But if that’s not doable just now, why not attack evil Syria?
I find Gerson’s orchard imagery interestingly biblical. Expanding on it, I’d suggest he wants to pluck the most succulent fruit: the Iranian peach. But if that fruit is out of reach, he urges, let us snatch up the Syrian date! (But dates are actually higher up than peaches so it might not be so easy. Date harvest, by the way, is typically in October.)
I personally see the Devil at work here. I hear the snake telling innocent Eve: “Eat of the fruit!” Recall how in the myth that bold little bite led to absolute disaster.