By Joel Brinkley

Who's the world's most dangerous man?

You might think it's Kim Jong-il, the psychopath-leader of North Korea who frequently blusters about using his half-dozen nuclear weapons. Or, perhaps, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the diabolical leader of Iran, sworn enemy of Israel and the West who is working as fast as he can to build a bomb of his own.

Those two are obvious contenders. But my choice is Bashar al-Assad, Syria's duplicitous dictator, precisely because he has duped presidents and prime ministers into believing he is their indispensable friend -- even as he kills American troops, collects weapons of mass destruction and serves as the supply master for terrorist groups.

Even now, as his own people have at last taken to the streets to challenge his rule, prompting him to shoot and kill scores of them, Washington's criticism remains equivocal. A few days ago, President Obama remarked, "I strongly condemn the abhorrent violence committed" by "the Syrian government." But then he added: "I also condemn any use of violence by protestors." So both sides are equal offenders?

A few weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that Syria's leader is entirely different from Muammar Qaddafi, the embattled Libyan leader, because "many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer."

Less than a week after that absurd remark, Clinton's own department sent a letter to congressional leaders noting that "the flow" of terrorists crossing from Syria into Iraq, intent on killing American troops, "has lessened, though not ended." (Obviously embarrassed, Clinton's more recent statements have been tougher.)

Clinton is hardly the first senior official to be irrationally enamored of Syria. When he was secretary of state, Henry Kissinger famously remarked that "there can be no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria." Last month, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she told Assad, "the road to Damascus is the road to peace."

Where do these delusional views come from? For many years now, Washington has worked under the premise that, while Syria is unquestionably problematic, it is at least stable. Who knows whether another government might be worse -- the "devil you know" rule of foreign policy.

But how could any new government be worse? Consider the range of Assad's various extracurricular activities. Since the Iraq war's beginning, he has been the best friend of Islamic extremists transiting into Iraq. They've crossed the Syrian border by the busload, in full view of U.S. spy satellites.

He sells missiles to Hezbollah, the terrorist group in southern Lebanon that is the avowed enemy of Israel and the U.S. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that Hezbollah now "has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, more than most governments in the world" -- all pointed at Israel.

Khaled Mashal, the Hamas leader, actually lives in Damascus and does his murderous business openly from a storefront. American intelligence shows that Syria has a vast store of chemical weapons. Assad pursued a secret nuclear-weapons development program, until Israel bombed it in 2007. More recent intelligence suggests that he is back at it, though this time the program is better hidden.

So I wonder why Washington is taking such an ambivalent posture toward Syria's uprising, even with Assad's hollow promise on Saturday to lift his emergency law. Compare Syria to the other states in turmoil. Egypt was Washington's best friend in the region. Tunisia's leader was praised for his cooperation with anti-terror investigations, as was Yemen's. Libya gave up its nuclear and chemical-weapons programs at Washington's urging. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

In fact, all of the other nations in play have tried to be American allies. To be sure, all of them have horribly oppressed their own people, But in recent years none have openly worked against Washington, as Syria does even now.

Why is Syria more dangerous than Iran or North Korea? The United Nations has multiple sanctions in place against the other two states, and numerous nations' intelligence services are watching every move they make. Not so for Syria. In fact, Assad flaunts his contempt for Washington.

Last year, the Obama administration sent a new ambassador to Damascus, hoping to improve relations. The Bush administration had recalled the ambassador in 2005. Well, the very day after Obama made that announcement, Assad hosted a major, ceremonial state visit for none other than Ahamadinejad, the president of Iran. The timing was no accident.


Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times


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