With Assad, Bush sees the future but not the past

Mike Royko

December 03, 1990|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

WHILE MOST families were spending the long Thanksgiving weekend eating, swapping memories, shopping, watching football games or just loafing, Daniel and Susan Cohen were writing a letter to President Bush.

The White House gets a lot of mail, so I don't know if Bush has seen the Cohens' letter. Probably not. But this is what it says:

"Mr. President:

"Many Americans are spending this long weekend with their families, and that is what we should be doing. However, on this day we are alone because our only child, our daughter Theodora, was killed in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103, along with 269 other innocent people, most of them Americans.

"Because of the bombing, there were a lot of empty places around Thanksgiving tables in America this year. You spent the day after Thanksgiving with a man without whom this act of mass murder would not have been possible, Hafez al-Assad, dictator of Syria.

"You said, with obvious pride in your voice, that you had 'no problem' meeting in friendship with this master of terrorism, so long as he aided in the coalition against Iraq that you are trying to hold together.

"This is cynical, amoral and unforgivable. There must be some limits to Realpolitik, but apparently you do not know what they are. Assad is more than 'the enemy of our enemy.' He is our enemy.

"You said you were almost moved to tears by pictures of the victims of atrocities in Kuwait. Not long ago, pictures of the victims of the atrocity at Lockerbie were produced at the inquiry being held in Scotland. They were so horrible that family members of the victims had to prove that they had received psychological counseling before they were allowed to see the photos. If you wish, we could arrange to have these photos sent to you. Perhaps they would bring the horror of the Pan Am atrocity home. You were elected to be President of the United States, not chief protector of the al-Sabah and Saud families.

"You have said that we must stop aggression now or America will have to pay a higher price in the future. Can not the same be said for terrorism? Indeed, you have often given lip service to that very idea. But when faced with the reality of terrorism, you have shown that you prefer to make deals with the terrorists. The American public now knows how to 'read your lips.' We suspect that Hafez al-Assad knows how to do it as well.

"By sitting down with one of the chief architects of the Pan Am horror, and by playing a game of winks and nods with Iran, the other nation behind the terror, you have dishonored all those who were murdered. And you have dishonored the nation which you increasingly fail to lead."

End of letter.

I can understand the grief and anger of the Cohens. But it is obvious that they don't understand the kind of high-level diplomacy required in this fast-changing world.

True, it was only a few months ago that we, as a nation, hated Assad of Syria more than we now hate Saddam of Iraq. In fact, we kind of liked Saddam because he had fought against the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. And we hated the ayatollah even more than we hated Assad of Syria. And before the ayatollah -- or maybe at the same time, sometimes it's hard to keep track -- we hated Kadafi of Libya more than just about anybody.

But now we hate Saddam because he is (choose one or more): (a) a naked aggressor, (b) a threat to the world's economic stability, (c) a threat to American jobs and industry, (d) a threat to stability in the Mideast, or (e) a threat to someday build a nuclear bomb. We don't hate Assad as much as we used to because Assad hates Saddam, and anybody who hates Saddam is an OK guy. At least as of today.

But there's always tomorrow. So just because President Bush got together with Assad doesn't mean that he really likes him or that he has forgiven him for encouraging terrorism. But in diplomacy, there is a time and a place for everything. And this wasn't the time for Bush to say: "Hi, there, Assad, blown up any more Pan Am planes lately?" It wouldn't have been good form.

So who knows, if we're patient and the economic blockade against Saddam works, he might back down, fold up or even drop dead, and we won't have to hate him as much anymore. Then Assad might become a naked aggressor or start to build a bomb on the sneak and maybe we can put him back on top of our hate list.

We must learn to take the long view. Many Americans are still alive who fought against China in the Korean War. And for decades, we were in a Cold War with the Soviet Union.

So that's why we have to take the long view. Someday, Saddam's children might buy a big Hollywood studio. Stranger things have happened.

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