The case of David Ignatius (updated by Paul)

David Ignatius is the prominent Washington Post columnist who specializes in foreign affairs. He writes highly regarded espionage novels in his spare time. Ignatius recently chatted up Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and produced an obsequious column. Over at NRO, in an understated and humane critique of Ignatius’s column, Elliott Abrams fills in the blanks. There is a context here that is beyond the scope of Abrams’s critique, but it is worth noting.

Ignatius is full of good feeling toward some of the world’s foremost terrorists, tyrants, and malefactors. In September 2003, for example, Ignatius got together for a little chat with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Ignatius’s subsequent column on the interview maddeningly refers to the Hezbollah war of extermination against Israel as “the horrifying dance of death between Israel and its enemies[.]”

He asked: “Are there terms under which Islamic militants might agree to halt their suicide bombings?” The answer was negative, which should suggest even to a moderately intelligent observer that Israel was not exactly engaged in a war of choice — contrary to Ignatius’s metaphor — with Nasrallah and his followers.

Ignatius had been invited to attend and speak at a Hezbollah jamboree. His speaking engagement led to his interview with Nasrallah. If you were invited to speak to a conference of genocidal murderers, what would you do? Ignatius appears not to have agonized much over that particular question.

In his column “Hezbollah’s success,” Ignatius resolved the question in favor of taking advantage of the opportunity to speak to Hezbollah. Invited to speak to the group in Beirut on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he “accepted — on the theory that it was a chance to learn about the group and that more information, even about alleged terrorists, is better than less.”

It isn’t clear to me why Ignatius referred to Hezbollah as “alleged terrorists.” Was it so that he could observe terminological neutrality between murderers and their victims? Because he has some doubt whether Hezbollah is a terrorist organization? Because identifying an organization as terrorist is uncomfortably judgmental? The rest of Ignatius’s column showed Hezbollah to be a cold-blooded advocate of terrorism — “‘martyrdom operations,’ as Hezbollah prefers to call them” — and Ignatius knows that the group practices what it preaches.

For a 2008 column, Ignatius got together for a chat in Damascus with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Paul Mirengoff picked apart Ignatius’s advocacy of Assad as America’s partner in a post that has not made the transition to our new site, but Paul demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt at the time that the superficial sophistication of Ignatius’s promotion of Assad was in fact a form of naivete or wishful thinking. Current events only put an exclamation point on the stupidity of Ignatius’s wishful thinking.

Paul also characterized Assad as an “evil tyrant.” Paul’s judgment reflects a universe of discourse that is foreign to Ignatius, at least insofar as his view of the Arab or Islamic world is concerned. Ignatius did not pass judgment on Assad’s actions, but rather on Assad’s moods.

In 2003, Ignatius found Assad tense over the prospect of America’s looming war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. By contrast, in 2008, Ignatius found Assad relaxed and full of fun, no longer worried about the threat American involvement in the region might pose to his regime:

Assad spoke in English during the 30-minute interview Monday. He was accompanied only by his political and media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban. This time, in contrast to my interview with him in 2003, when Assad was often stiff and doctrinaire, he was loose and informal, breaking several times into laughter.

Assad’s easy demeanor suggested that he’s more firmly in charge now. The Bush administration’s attempt to isolate Syria has failed, even in the judgment of senior White House officials. That leaves Assad in the catbird seat, courted by European and Arab nations and conducting back-channel talks through Turkey with his erstwhile enemy Israel.

Asked, for example, about reports that Saudi Arabia is seeking to improve its relations with Damascus because it sees U.S. engagement with Syria ahead and fears that “the train may be leaving the station,” Assad laughed.

“Maybe it has already left the station,” he said. But he vows that he is ready to receive any emissaries. “I have no problem with the Saudis. We would like good relations with every country in this region.”

That Assad, what a card.

At the end of his column, Ignatius referred to the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri. Ignatius didn’t appear to have troubled Assad with any questions on that topic:

An international tribunal is scheduled to meet in The Hague to weigh Syria’s alleged role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. But in the meantime, Assad is receiving a stream of visiting diplomats. He looks like a ready partner for Obama’s diplomacy, but a cautious one — waiting to see what’s on offer before he shows more of his hand.

Knowledgeable observers believe that the trail of evidence from Hariri’s murder leads to Assad’s regime. See, for example, Joshua Hammer’s December 2008 Atlantic Monthly article on the investigation of Hariri’s murder.

Ignatius had no comment on Hariri’s murder or its meaning. Instead, he served up Assad as America’s willing Middle East partner — if only the Obama administration had the sagacity to accept Assad’s outstretched hand. It strikes me that there is something chilling about the case of David Ignatius.

PAUL ADDS: You can read the post I wrote about Ignatius and Assad here at the Hopelessly Partisan blog. Thanks to Scott for his kind words about my post.