Thursday, April 3, 2014

Patrick Seale: an appreciation

The word from London is that the British journalist Patrick Seale is gravely ill. For those who know him or simply have read or heard him, the news is most regrettable.

When it comes to the Middle East, Seale has been a clarifying presence for some five decades.

Seale has been a contested figure for at least part of that time. His critics charged that his closeness to the regime of Hafez Assad often drifted into advocacy. Perhaps, but Seale was no fool. He knew that the heart of the Syrian regime was made of lead, and he put the access he received to good use. Seale’s biography of the late president, despite its frequent praise and omissions, remains a classic.

There was something highly laudatory in Seale’s interpretation of Assad as a grand regional chess player (the book’s subtitled, “The Struggle for the Middle East,” makes that obvious). But to a certain extent, this was true. Assad skillfully maneuvered between the United States and Russia and managed to remain an axial figure in regional affairs, even though by the end of his life his influence was in disproportion to the dilapidated country that he governed.

Like Bashar Assad, Hafez was a killer, but unlike his son, he rarely killed to cover for his proliferating mistakes. Though he was ruthless, he understood that leadership built almost exclusively on repression and intimidation could be shaky. That’s why he surrounded his regime with a bodyguard of Arab nationalist symbols and attitudes while generally avoiding measures that would highlight its minority underpinnings. Assad never ignored the details, was careful before taking major decisions and did not overestimate his power. Seale’s biography brings out the complexity of the man and his leadership.

A tour de force moment in the book is Seale’s chapter on the key episode in November 1983 when Rifaat Assad sought to take power from his brother after he was temporarily incapacitated. However, Rifaat was quickly opposed by a phalanx of generals, and Seale ably illustrates the way the balancing mechanisms that Assad had put in place to avert a coup were used to contain Rifaat.

The incompetence of Bashar Assad today has frequently resulted in efforts by the Syrian regime to go back and adopt the ways of the father. Though over 30 years old, Seale’s biography of Assad is still relevant in deconstructing the principles of the Syrian security order, and more broadly to see why a power remained in good health, in the sense of crime of course, until the debacle that began in 2011.

Before his biography of Assad, Seale had written another classic, “The Struggle for Syria.” In it, he described the Syria of the late 1940s and 1950s, buffeted as it was between conflicting ambitions in Baghdad and Cairo. To a great extent, Syria’s relative weakness in those years colored the author’s views of Hafez Assad, who gave his especially vulnerable country prominence after decades when it had been a playing field for regional and international rivalries.

Watching the Syrian conflict today, we can see how Bashar’s singular achievement has been to carry Syria back to those years and again transform his country into a terrain for proxy wars. Seale was always careful when writing about the Syrian regime, but he could not have been impressed with what followed Hafez Assad’s death in 2000; even less so the futile savagery of Bashar, which has undermined all that the father built with patience and cynicism.

Seale’s entrĂ©e into Hafez Assad’s hermetic circle was admired by many people, some of whom would later try to imitate him. But Seale always remained a gentleman, never trying to justify and protect his access by prostituting himself to his Syrian contacts by engaging in wanton attacks against those critical of the Syrian regime.

However, Seale’s qualities could not detract from remarkable missteps, for example the article he published in The Guardian after the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “If Syria killed Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister and mastermind of its revival after the civil war, it must be judged an act of political suicide,” Seale wrote. He concluded: “So attributing responsibility for the murder to Syria is implausible. The murder is more likely to be the work of one of its many enemies.”

Seale had reached a similar conclusion in his biography of Abu Nidal. He argued that Abu Nidal had done so much damage to the Palestinian cause that it was possible he was an Israeli agent. Indeed, Israel exploited Abu Nidal’s crimes – for example using his attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov, to launch its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But Seale provided no evidence to sustain his theory. The biography was interesting in other regards, but his reputation suffered as a consequence.

The assumption that unwanted outcomes must point toward the responsibility of the enemies of those initially accused of a crime is a recurring theme in conspiracy theories. But if that were necessarily true, how would Seale explain Bashar Assad’s actions in 2011? Was his repression in Deraa not politically suicidal? Yet who would blame anyone but Bashar for that monstrous blunder. As Seale knows, for having covered a region replete with such behavior, despots are predisposed to act stupidly because they are never sanctioned.

After a career covering the Middle East, Seale deserves to be remembered for more than his slip-ups. His books on Syria are an indispensable part of any education on the region. As these words are being written, Seale is alive. One can only hope that he gets better. But whatever happens, such a moment cannot pass without comment.

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