Diplomats acting a little too fast condemning Syria

CNJ staff

The apparent assassination by car bomb of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is tragic for Lebanon and could unleash a period of turmoil that could upset arrangements throughout the Middle East. That is why it is curious and perhaps dangerous that the United States has acted so swiftly and on the basis of supposition rather than fact to encourage placing the blame on neighboring Syria.

A self-made billionaire who during the 10 years he was prime minister presided over some real economic development and inspired a sense of hope in Lebanon following a long and bitter civil war, Hariri seems to have been a political leader of a type rarely found in the Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter). He seemed to care more about the country he led than his own personal power. He resigned last October largely because he was upset that neighboring Syria, which has exerted virtually complete control over Lebanon since the civil war ended in 1990, had maneuvered to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian puppet.

One can see why Syrian leader Bashar-al-Assad might want Hariri, who had lately called for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, dead. Assad’s hold on power is said to be somewhat shaky, and it is certainly not beyond the capabilities of the Syrian regime to engineer an assassination.

But Syrian involvement has not yet been proved. Lebanon is calling in Swiss explosives and DNA experts to assist, which should make the investigation more credible. Despite reasonable suspicions, however, the smart thing is to wait for a more definitive answer.

That is why it is puzzling that the United States has acted as if it already knows Syria did it. The statements surrounding the action were carefully hedged, but recalling U.S.
Ambassador to Syria Margaret Scobey for “consultations” is a clear sign — although far short of military action — that the United States is ready to pick a fight with Syria.

There are plenty of armchair warriors in Washington think tanks who might be eager to confront Syria, whose regime really is quite obnoxious. But diplomats with real responsibility should step a bit more lightly.