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Is Syria smart?

Ahmed Salkini, a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, says that my post on Syria's alleged transfer of Scud missiles (or parts thereof) to the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah was "petty" and "ignorant." Here's his email in full:

Even though I usually maintain a policy of not responding to petty, ignorant journalism, the title of your post, "The dumbest country in the Middle East," intrigued me and so I thought I would make an exception.  It made me question, how can the "dumbest country" outmaneuver the strongest country in the world, and its superpower, along with the numerous Western and other countries that followed in its footsteps and that tried to isolate it? How can the superpower, during its previous administration, work so diligently on isolating "the dumbest country", yet end up being isolated itself (former Bush-official and current Obama-appointee, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman: "consequently, the United States, not Syria, seems to be isolated"; Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel in a 2008 op-ed: "our policy of non-engagement has isolated us more than the Syrians.")?  how can the "dumbest country" face all these economic sanctions imposed by the superpower, while simultaneously achieving some of the highest economic growth figures in the region and being considered one of the top 'frontier markets'?

It also made me question, how can an editor of a prestigious publication reach such an 'enlightened' conclusion, and dub another country with such distasteful, malicious, and nescient names, while by all accounts there has been no evidence of such weapons transfer -as stated by American officials (see articles in NY Times, Washington Post, and others). It finally occurred to me that while Mr. Blake Hounshell failed to discover the 'dumbest country in the Middle East,' I succeeded in discovering the dumbest reporting in the city.

I think it's very interesting that a representative of the Syrian government would respond this way, and also disappointing. In fact, it strengthens my view that -- whether or not it's true that Syria transferred the Scuds or not (and no U.S. officials are denying that Syria arms and otherwise supports Hezbollah in general) -- this is a country that has a history of making poor decisions in the face of tremendous opportunities to make a better life for its people.

Syria has a per capita GDP of less than $5,000, even though it borders countries with much more successful economies, such as Israel ($28,400), Turkey ($11,200), and even Lebanon ($13,100). Its real growth rate in 2009 was less than 2 percent -- hardly fast enough to catch up to its peers or forestall a coming economic crackup. Even Jordan and Egypt are doing better.

Washington has given Damascus countless opportunities to come over to the Western camp, and yet Syria chooses to align itself with Iran -- a world pariah whose leaders are laughingstocks abroad, and feared tyrants at home -- and groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, which offer no vision of a brighter future for the Middle East. This strategy can only lead to further marginalization in a world that is fast passing Syria by.

So, is Syria the "dumbest country in the Middle East"? It's obviously a subjective judgment, and there's plenty of competition in the region. But I haven't seen a convincing case that Bashar al-Assad's government is making smart choices these days.

If it's more polite criticism they seek, I'd suggest Salkini and his colleagues read this piece by Syria expert Steven Heydemann. His bottom line: Syrian leaders are getting dangerously cocky, and need to rethink their strategic direction.

UPDATE: More letters. This one's from Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in London:

I really find it extremely appalling to see a magazine of the caliber of FP going down to the level of such a poor political analysis.

Mr Hounshell has lost any credibility from the moment he chose the title for his article ...by saying that Syria is "the Dumbest Country in the Middle East" , the whole article turned into a personal statement and not even near to what is called professional journalism. Mr Hounshell you have to know that Syria is simply not a Charity and Syrian people are very proud of their culture and nation ...so whether you agree or disagree with Syrian policies in the region or the so called "Syrian behaviour"...... insulting 22 million Syrians by calling their country the Dumbest ...... was definitly the most insensitive and unprofessional thing to do.

i wish that you can educate yourself more about syrian affairs so you can write a worthy reading and more balanced article in the future.

An apology for Syrian people would be a good start for you,... and then you can think about writing an article on how can America and people like you help Syria becoming more Constructive in the Middle East on the basis of Mutual respect and common interest and not on the basis of might makes right.

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Samaranch's legacy

Former International Olympic Committee director Juan Antonio Samaranch passed away today at the age of 89. While Samaranch's tenure unquestionably transformed the Olympics into the multibillion-dollar global enterprise it is today and expanded participation among developing countries and women, the former Franco-regime official also left the games with a reputation corruption that will be hard to reverse.

Here's an excerpt on Samaranch from Olympic historian John Hoberman's "Think Again: Olympics" in the July/August 2008 issue of FP:

The corruption was never worse than when Juan Antonio Samaranch, an unreconstructed Spanish fascist, was president of the IOC from 1980 to 2001. Samaranch brought with him from Franco's Spain an authoritarian style that facilitated the bribery of IOC members, destroyed any chance of curbing doping, and appointed a generation of committee members who never dared to oppose him.

Samaranch, who insisted on being called "Excellency," filled the IOC with such characters as South Korean intelligence operative Kim Un Yong and Indonesian timber magnate Bob Hasan. Both have served prison time for corruption. Then there's Lee Kun Hee, the chairman of Samsung Electronics (convicted of bribery in 1996) and Francis Nyangweso, once the military commander in chief for Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s. Nyangweso remains on the IOC board to this day. Why this rogues' gallery was recruited into a "peace" and "human rights" organization remains a mystery.

In fairness, one improvement in the way the IOC operates should be acknowledged. After the 1999 bribery scandal in which IOC members were paid off to support Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games, the IOC established a technical committee comprising a small number of vetted members to oversee the host city selection process, thereby reducing the risk of bribes to less trustworthy colleagues. The one topic this committee will not address, however, is whether staging the games in a repressive society might be a bad idea. Last year, the IOC rewarded Russia's pseudo-democracy with the 2014 Winter Games. When protesters showed up during the IOC's visit there in April, they were beaten by police.