Michael Totten

The HuffPo's Lonely Planet Foreign Policy

“Roger Cohen”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/tobin/55752 seems to have invented a genre. At the very least he has imitators. Olivia Sterns just published “a piece at the Huffington Post”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/olivia-sterns/syrias-softer-side-the-ob_b_205163.html decrying Syria’s “misrepresentation” in the media and arguing that President Barack Obama “embrace” Damascus’s tyrant Bashar Assad as a peace partner because the locals were nice to her when she visited Syria on vacation.
“Often described as a hotbed of anti-Americanism,” she writes, “that eschews ties to the West under Iranian tutelage, in reality that reputation couldn’t be further from the truth.” Her evidence that Syria isn’t really a hotbed of anti-Americanism? Assad schedules date nights with his stylish wife, locals in the souks are friendly to tourists, and the police keep visitors safe. All these things are true, but so what? Syria is still Iran’s staunchest ally, a hotbed of anti-Americanism, and a state-sponsor of terrorism and “resistance.”
Sterns lives in London and no doubt knows better than I do that European anti-Americanism is often in your face, rude, and obnoxious. The political is sometimes personal in the West, but that’s rarely the case in the Middle East. Arab hospitality even toward visitors from enemy countries is legendary and the stuff of guidebook clichés, yet Sterns writes as though she is startled to discover that Arabs have manners, that Syria isn’t a Mordor teeming with flesh-eating Orcs.
There’s nothing wrong with writing about personal warmth in Arabic countries. I often color my own dispatches from Lebanon and Iraq with Arab hospitality, but I’m careful to avoid making sweeping assumptions based on little else.
On my last trip to Iraq I visited the Adhamiyah sector of Baghdad. The people living there were just as friendly as the stridently pro-American Kurds in the northern provinces whose only insurgency was waged against Saddam Hussein, but their political views were radically different. U.S. Army soldiers introduced me to a trusted Iraqi informant who told me around 60 percent of his neighbors supported Al Qaeda not long ago. My Iraqi translator, who knows public opinion better than I ever will, said the neighborhood was a Baath Party stronghold when the old regime was in power and that a majority of the people there remain anti-American. Few Iraqis I casually met betrayed even a hint of hostility, and most would have been too polite to reveal it had I asked what they thought of me and my country.
If Sterns wants to write about what Syria’s people actually think about America and the peace process, she should ask them and quote them. They might politely conceal their anti-Americanism, but they aren’t at all likely to hide their support for Hezbollah or their hatred for Israel.
“Listen to what Lee Smith heard”:http://www.theweeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/012/478aqyud.asp during the 2006 war when he escaped Lebanon to Damascus, where posters of Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah were ubiquitous even in Christian areas. “If you think that the U.S. or anyone can offer the Syrian government a deal to abandon its support for Nasrallah and Khaled Meshal,” said a 25-year-old TV producer, “you are crazy, because all Syrians support the resistance.”
“The Arabs are traitors,” “another Syrian told him”:http://www.theweeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/012/493ptzfp.asp. “All the rest deal with Israel or they signed peace treaties with Israel. The only men in the Middle East worth anything are our President Bashar, Hassan Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. The Arab leaders combined aren’t worth the shoes of these three brothers.”
Smith had a hard time finding anyone in Syria who opposed Hezbollah’s jihad against Israel. “It is clear,” “he concluded”:http://www.theweeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/012/478aqyud.asp, “that the regime and the people are in perfect sync.” His in-depth reporting is strikingly different from that of Sterns and provides real evidence that Syria is part of the problem and not the solution.
“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/the-huffpo-s-lonely-planet-foreign-policy-15153.