- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

When it comes to terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 21 months make it abundantly clear that President Bush is not one to engage in empty rhetoric. So, when the president on Monday read the riot act to Iran and Syria, criticizing those governments for supporting terrorists bent on wrecking the Mideast peace process, one would think that his words deserved prominent Page one coverage.

“Today, Syria and Iran continue to harbor and assist terrorists. This behavior is completely unacceptable, and states that support terror will be held accountable,” the president warned, adding that Tehran and Damascus should support the peace efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. This newspaper placed the story about the president’s remarks prominently across yesterday’s front page, while the New York Times buried its coverage of the president’s remarks in the sixth paragraph of a Page one story about North Korea’s nuclear program. The Washington Post put it in a separate story all the way back on Page A12.

While the press continues to look backward — obsessing over the technical accuracy of 16 words in Mr. Bush’s State of the Union speech about Saddam Hussein’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons — it seems determined to avoid a much more significant story about the future direction of American foreign policy in the Middle East: What to do about terrorism-supporting states like Syria and Iran.

Right now, it would be difficult to think of two governments that are doing more to undermine American foreign policy interests than these two governments. Both regimes have supported terrorist groups that are staunchly opposed to Mr. Bush’s road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and have been funneling arms and money to Islamic terrorist groups in an effort to sabotage the peace process. The two regimes are also working to undermine efforts to stabilize Iraq, where nearly 150,000 U.S. troops are stationed. Senior U.S. officials say Damascus has done nothing to prevent Iraqi, Lebanese and Syrian radicals from crossing into Iraq to carry out attacks on American troops in Iraq. (This includes, at a minimum, a few dozen Hezbollah fighters who were permitted to cross Syrian territory to attack U.S. forces in Iraq.) For its part, Tehran is also harboring al Qaeda operatives who fled Iraq once the U.S. military operation got underway in March, as well as operatives who fled Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. military campaign that began four weeks after the September 11 attacks. American officials also believe that al Qaeda operatives based in Iran were behind the May 12 attack on Riyadh compounds housing Westerners, in which 20 died.

Moreover, with all of this taking place, Iran continues to stonewall against International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its nuclear weapons facilities. Surely, all of these factors behind Mr. Bush’s remarks are deserving of at least as much in-depth attention from the press as the debate over 16 words from the State of the Union.

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