Throughout most of civilization, killing a man in front of his four-year-old daughter–and then fatally smashing the young girl’s head against a rock–is considered a crime of the highest order. Few would be sympathetic to the murderer’s motivations for committing this crime, and it is unlikely that anyone beyond the murderer’s immediate family would await his ultimate release from prison–assuming that day ever even arrived.
Still, you probably already knew that Samir Kuntar was a special case. After all, despite committing the very crime mentioned above, Kuntar was welcomed in Lebanon with wild celebrations when Israel released him as part of its misguided July prisoner swap with Hezbollah. Indeed, even Lebanon’s supposedly pro-western leaders–including Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt–joined in Hezbollah’s homecoming celebration, making Kuntar the rare recipient of symbolically unanimous Lebanese affections. Naturally, Lebanon’s apologists chalked this warm reception up to each leader’s political weakness vis-à-vis Hezbollah–the typical excuse that one hears whenever a Lebanese leader fails to stand up for what’s right.
Well, moral depravity isn’t limited to weak Lebanese leaders–it infects domestically strong Syrian dictators as well. Yesterday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad outdid Beirut, presenting Kuntar with his nation’s highest medal at a ceremony in Damascus. In a press release, Assad hailed Kuntar’s “legacy of struggle and steadfastness,” further praising him as “a symbol of struggle and freedom throughout the Arab world.” It is further worth noting that the press release refers to Nahariya – the Israeli coastal city from which Kuntar and his associates staged their attack–as a “settlement.” The implication is clear: attacks on Israelis–toddlers or not, uniformed or not, in “Israel proper” or not–are 100% kosher.
One hopes that our Chicago-based administration-to-be is watching these developments closely. But I’m not too optimistic. After all, while on the campaign trail, President-elect Obama indicated that he would be willing to meet with Assad. Meanwhile, there have been whisperings that Robert Malley–a one-time Obama foreign policy adviser expected to serve in the administration– met with Assad only two days after the election, promising that Syrian interests would be better “taken into account.”
But if the Obama administration is as serious about public diplomacy as it promised it would be, Syrian-American rapprochement will be postponed indefinitely. For all of the ink that has been spilled claiming that the war in Iraq has hurt our standing abroad, there is one thing that would be even more harmful: sending mixed messages regarding where we stand on the most basic moral issues. In this vein, nothing would be more counterproductive than engaging leaders who grant ruthless murderers their highest national honors.