Is Syrian President Bashar Assad a fool or a genius? That cannot be determined directly. What can be said is that his policy is simultaneously brilliant and disastrous for Syria.
To understand Syria - which is in many ways typical of Middle East politics - two basic principles must be taken into consideration.
First, the worse Syria behaves, the better its regime does. Syrian leaders do not accept the Western view that pragmatism, moderation, compromise, an open economy, and peace are always better. When Syria acts radical, up to a point of course, it maximizes its main asset - causing trouble - rather than its weakness in terms of its bargaining position. As a dictatorship, tight control and popularity achieved through demagoguery work better.
Secondly, success for the regime and state means disaster for the people, society, and economy. The regime prospers by keeping Syrians believing that the battle against America and Israel, not freedom and prosperity, should be their top priority. The state's control over the economy means lower living standards but a rich elite with lots of money to give to its supporters. Imprisoning or intimidating liberal critics means domestic stability, but without human rights.
This brings us to Bashar's task. Since the 1980s, Syria has faced big problems. Its Soviet ally (and arms supplier) collapsed; the economy has not done well, domestic unrest has increased, Israel has widened the military gap, and Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the Americans.
Bashar's father and predecessor, Hafez, maneuvered very well. He participated in the battle against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait enough to win help from the rich Gulf Arabs and the United States. His participation in negotiations with Israel also helped, though he refused to make an agreement in the end. Then, Hafez died and passed on the presidency to his inexperienced son.
Clearly, Bashar is no Hafez. His father was a far better strategist. In contrast to Bashar, he probably would never have withdrawn from Lebanon and would have been more careful to avoid friction with the Gulf Arabs and America. He would never have let Iran turn Syria into something like a client state or treat the Hizbullah leader on an equal basis.
Still, the Assad genes are still working. Bashar withdrew from Lebanon, but kept the security and economic assets in place. Almost 20 major bombings and assassinations have shown Lebanese that Syrian interests better be honored. And by killing Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, Bashar got into some apparent trouble but eliminated the only man who could unite the country and stand up to Hizbullah.
Today, Bashar's risk-taking seems to be paying off. On the Iraqi front, he is waging war against America at almost no cost to himself. Syria is equipping, training, and sending into battle terrorists who are killing hundreds of Iraqis and Americans without any threat of international action or even condemnation.
On the Lebanese-Israeli front, he has mounted what is basically a conventional war against Israel, again with no cost to himself. In this case, most of the arms and money is coming from Teheran, with Syria getting a free ride. Today in Damascus, Bashar is a hero for confronting Israel at Lebanese expense. He has also piled up considerable credit with radical Islamists by being their friend and ally in Iraq.
The whole thing might blow up against Bashar some day through international pressure or a domestic Islamist upheaval based on the Sunni Arab majority who hate Bashar and his Alawite minority. For the moment, though, he is riding high. And maybe that answers the question at the beginning of this article: someone who acts like a fool in Western terms is a genius as a Middle East leader.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center, and is writing a book on Syria.