- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

The man in the new coffin is what he has always been. He is a mass murderer of his countrymen and foreigners, the master of torture squads in the prisons of his security forces, and the protector and dispatcher of terrorists abroad, the suffocating occupier of a neighboring country, a proudly self-proclaimed block to Middle East peace, and the destroyer of liberty and prosperity for all under his power.

He is not was. His ways of exercising power are his heritage to the military and civilian servitors he put in position to rule the country. It is they who will decide whether the son he announced as his successor will remain in office, or shows signs of going his own way, not only his father's and therefore must be killed.

How long and at what price in blood, Hafez Assad will reign from the coffin will depend on the willingness of Western nations to tear away the cloak of prettifying legends that they put around him in life and now covers him in death how clever, wise, trustworthy, reliable he was.

Despite the proclaimed enmity and antagonism of dictatorships, and decades of wars with them, free governments eager to make deals keep giving them the respect they did not merit, and will not ever, even when they take residence in the grave.

Members of the Chinese Politburo are greeted with embraces in Europe and America. Obituaries of people like Deng Xiao-ping oozed with admiration. To my knowledge, only one journalist wrote in protest "but he was a killer." Christians and Jews dance at Washington embassies of countries where they are not allowed to live or even pray.

Fidel Castro is cute and charismatic and Asian despots are praised for their acumen, just before they are thrown out by their people.

Now the Clinton people pronounce that Kim Jong-il, dictator of North Korea, whose maniacally terrorist regime has brought his country to starvation and who diverts international food-relief to his military and political forces, has qualities we never noticed before courage and vision. This astonishing judgment was made after Mr. Kim, driven by his fears of revolution, tried to save his head by getting political and economic payoffs from South Korea and the United States.

President Clinton did not go to the Assad funeral nor send the vice president given the fact Syria was on the American terrorist list and Syrian operatives were involved in killing hundreds of American soldiers and civilians. Mr. Clinton said that, although he had "differences" with Mr. Assad, he respected him. Respected? A man whose prisons put specially designed torture machines into the orifices of prisoners?

Somehow Western culture has brought us to the point where although we would not shake hands with a person guilty of one vicious murder, we invite the perpetrators of thousands of murders to White House banquets.

Our governments lie almost automatically about how respect-worthy our favorite dictatorships are, what great partnership material they are. That of course perpetuates their atrocities, demeans ourselves and soils our democratic values, if you forgive the phrase.

And let us not start slobbering over newly anointed heirs before they earn it with their accomplishments or courage, which do not necessarily come when the sperm meets the egg. If the new Syrian president wants respect, he can start earning it by taking some obvious steps, despite the objections of his father's henchmen and paid killers:

(1) Get out of Lebanon, which has been held down, milked and made a terrorist preserve by the occupying forces sent in by the man in the coffin.

(2) Accept the Israeli offer to give back the Golan Heights to Syria, which lost it in the 1967 war against Israel. Such a deal may not come again: Syria gets the heights, giving its rocket troops a magnificent, reachable view of Israeli villages. Israel gets a pat on the back from the United States.

(3) Most feared by the henchmen-terrorists, give Syrians at least some taste of what they have never had freedom of discussion and press, freedom from being tortured and/or shot for dissent.

From a report published recently by the valuable Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, here are some things the United States could do:

(1) Demand an end of the occupation of Lebanon, the country other countries love to forget; its victimization has been too painful to remember. The man in the coffin had promised officially to pull his troops out promised three times. But the Western legend lives on that good old Assad keeps his promises.

(2) Until Syria leaves Lebanon, send no money to the Syrian economy that the Assad dicataorship made ever more ramshackle, even for the Mideast.

(3) If the new president refuses or cannot deliver, help Lebanese democrats there and in the U.S. and call an international conference to free Lebanon.

For all we know about the new president, Bashar al-Assad, he might have the courage to leave his father's policy in the coffin, or he might run from the idea in terror. Either way, saying what we should say and doing what we should, and cutting out the embarrassing lickspittle hypocrisy, will increase our respect, for ourselves.

A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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