by James Brooks
April 18, 2003
A Whitehall source recently confided to the British Guardian that the split over Syria between Prime Minister Blair and the Pentagon hawks is "a bit of a good cop, bad cop thing." He might well recognize it; Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is only the latest target of a passive-aggressive diplomacy used to confuse and co-opt domestic and international opposition.
Mr. Blair also played good cop to Washington's bad cop in the ultimately futile effort to get accomplices for the war on Iraq. Though he failed to sway Europe, Blair's plumping for moral war seems to have hit a chord with disaffected America, where he outstrips Bush handily in the polls. To moderate Americans tired of Bush playing the southern sheriff, Blair's perfect, earnest diction and cherubic features suggest the genial, unarmed English bobby. In him they find relief, a sane voice making a logical case for an illegal "pre-emptive" war of occupation against a nation he is helping to starve. It's another disturbing sign that the cult of celebrity is destroying the deliberative capacity of the American body politic.
Mr. Blair is also a handy foil in the Middle East "peace process", in which his main function is to fool moderates and liberals into thinking that someone in power is watching out for the Palestinians. Most think his efforts are sincere, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Mr. Blair's occasional statements have not and will not seriously affect even the "peace process", much less the fate of the Palestinians. When the sympathy and advocacy of the good cop are always trumped in the end by the caprice and aggression of the bad cop, sincerity becomes complicity.
The latest wrinkle in Washington's good cop-bad cop repertoire appears to be the news that George Bush has "ruled out" military action against Syria. He is reported to have "cut off" discussion of yet another war, perhaps on the sensible grounds that even the Lord Himself rested on the seventh day. Reducing Afghanistan and Iraq to basket cases was enough for one week. We'll take a breather before returning to GWOT (God's War On Terror).
Karl Rove should be delighted at this opportunity to cast Bush as the good cop against the Pentagon's bad cops, a sensible, peace-loving moderate heeling his dogs of war, for the moment. But that won't prevent a withering war of words, threats, and arm-twisting diplomacy against Syria, nor will it forestall another killing war, once Bush has rested up.
The diabolical strategy is to first amass a series of charges against Assad and Syria. Next, with these swords of Damocles hanging in the air, pressure Assad to betray Hezbollah, supposedly in exchange for Israeli prime minister Sharon's cooperation on the 'road map'. Removing Hezbollah would do little or nothing to reduce attacks on civilians, but it would leave Israel free to "deal" with Lebanon. The US will appeal to Syria to "make a real contribution to peace for the Palestinians", a trap set to suck up European and moderate support for the double-bind ploy. Should Assad prove stubborn, Colin Powell may reprise his "good cop going bad" role. It will be the usual two-step scam, of course; first, we take out Hezbollah, then Sharon will renege on his promise.
Like his friend in the Oval Office, Sharon also played the good cop recently. In an interview with Ha'aretz, scion of Israel's "liberal" press, he served up a bit of schmaltz about the settlements, carefully arranged to look like a softening of his position. Predictably, the English language media took the hook with the bait. "Sharon softens stance on Palestine" (The Guardian), ran a typical headline.
Buried several paragraphs deep in these "hopeful" reports lay the truth. Sharon "qualified his commitment to abandon settlements by making it clear that Israel would not have to deal with the issue until the final stage of negotiations" - a complete contradiction of the 'road map'. In other words, his position on the settlements hasn't budged an inch. But it's the headlines that count, and the paying public was suitably misled.
This was one of Sharon's "painful concessions", pantomimes of peace he is periodically obliged to present for the media to lap up and regurgitate. This time he played the teary-eyed old man, generously suffering the imagined loss of Bethlehem to the Palestinians. The immediate object was to throw another bone to the "peace process", and to millions of liberals who want to believe that it will all "work out" in the end. The main object was the usual one; buy more time to complete certain projects, such as the strangulation of Bethlehem. It was really no concession at all. It was classic Sharon.
Another piece in Sharon's present game is the Palestinian state. Will there be one, or not? Last fall, he played the dove to the foreign galleries and the Israeli middle by saying he was "committed" to the "inevitability" of a Palestinian state. It earned him the immediate wrath of his Likudnik and Ultra friends, who were close to alleging treason - for a few days. In these little dramas, the hard right's role is to voice "outraged Israeli opinion", the more histrionic the better. Many of them understand what Sharon is doing and admire his skill at the bait-and switch, which makes their denunciations all the more ridiculous.
Sharon formed his new government on a Palestinian state platform. But in January, just after making it official, he announced that his new partners (the most militant ethnic cleansers of Israeli politics) were, alas!, against a Palestinian state. He promptly withdrew his "commitment" and paid no discernible price for his duplicity. As usual, his good cop statement got far more press than his retraction. Naturally a bad cop, Sharon has learned to play the good cop against himself, and get away with it.
Passive-aggressive tactics are the hallmark of the sophisticated bully. As the police know, they work best when the subject is properly intimidated. In the current atmosphere of orchestrated fear, the well-intentioned public presents a ripe target. Delivered by a sympathetic and enormously powerful propaganda network, the good cop-bad cop scam is hard for the average American to resist. But when the bad cop's habit of executing suspects spills out of Palestine to menace Iraq and the world, the game loses its charm for the international community, which begins to wonder whether both cops shouldn't be prosecuted for murder.
James Brooks of Worcester, Vermont, is a writer and former business owner. His recent articles have been published by several Web sites covering the Middle East, investigative journalism and alternative politics. Currently Brooks serves as webmaster for Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (www.vtjp.org) and publishes News Links, a free, once-daily (Mon-Sat) e-mail digest of in-depth Middle East news and commentary. To subscribe, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.