In response to a reporter's request that Franklin Roosevelt admit that Samosa (Nicaragua's dictator from 1937 to the time of his assassination in 1956) was basically "an SOB," FDR is credited with responding that, "No, he's our SOB." That slim distinction is apparently all that separates the current Egyptian general's mowing down the Muslim Brotherhood with machine gun fire, and Syria's gassing of citizens who had the bad luck of living in a town from which an assassination attempt was made on the current dictator, Assad.
On Aug. 14, the Egyptian military junta, after pushing the first democratically elected president in Egypt's history out of office, shot and killed 278 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry. At least, as reported by Time Magazine, hundreds more died in the following days, according to widespread reports. As late as Sept. 3, Egyptian helicopter gunships have reportedly fired rockets at armed groups based in Egypt's northern Sinai Peninsula, killing 8 and injuring 15.
For 30 years before the current violence, Hasni Mubarak (who succeeded to the Egyptian dictatorship at the time of Anwar Sadat's assassination) sat on Egypt's fundamentalist dissenters with a brutality unmatched on the planet. When the United States wanted to obtain confessions without getting their hands dirty, the CIA delivered POW's from Iraq and Afghanistan to Egypt, despite the International Treaty banning "rendition" (i.e., the delivery of political dissidents to a regime where there was a significant risk of torture) because the CIA was certain that they would be tortured. That manifestly made Mubarak our go-to SOB in the Middle East during the "war on terror."
Bashar Hafez al-Assad, 47, a medical doctor, was, until his recent crushing of Syria's version of the Arab Spring, viewed as a potential reformer who would lead Syria to democracy and peace with Israel. This hope for reform would have constituted a 180-degree turn away from the 30-year rule of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who was broadly perceived as a Soviet puppet intent on terrorizing those who wanted peace with Israel. But the harsh repression of local dissent, capped by the use of sarin gas to kill 1,429 citizens, has understandably smudged Bashar al-Assad's public persona as a reformer; he is now, like his father, a certifiable political monster.
Neither the Egyptian generals nor Syria's dictator are plausible candidates for "champion of democracy and peace." But, aesthetics aside, what differentiates the murder of 1,000-plus dissenters by machine gun vs. sarin gas to sufficiently justify an escalation of U.S. response? The United States responded to the Egyptian machine gun horror by deferring a joint military training exercise; now we propose to send tomahawk missiles into Damascus to underscore a purported "red line" barring use of chemical warfare. Whatever the differences are, and there are some, they are miniscule to the parents, spouses and children of the thousands dead in both countries.
What remains is the suspicion that simple political convenience, the belief that Egypt's generals are good because they are pliable, and Syria's bad because they're difficult -- all measured by reference to our own political ambitions -- is the overriding geopolitical reality. We support the Egyptian generals because they are predictably "our" SOBs. They represent the possibility of an extension of the United States' 30-year lease on Egyptian politics, in the same way that Tacho Samosa's son, Anastasio Samosa, preserved American dominance of Nicaragua for another quarter century from his father's assassination in 1956 until he was himself chased out of Managua by the Sandanistas in 1979 (and assassinated shortly thereafter in Paraguay).
But Syria's Assad? No clear political opportunity there. Nah, he must be the other team's SOB. He definitely needs to see the business end of a cruise missile. After all, our credibility is at stake.
DePaulo is a lawyer in Charleston.