A terrible crime has been committed in the Middle East. Many innocent people have died. International law may have been violated. The United Nations is determined to bring the perpetrators to justice. An extraordinary international tribunal will be organized with the authority to assess guilt and recommend punishments.

As this crime drama unfolds, the two great defenders of international law and world peace are George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Their determination secured U.N. approval for a special tribunal to identify and punish the conspirators behind the Feb. 14, 2005, bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others.

Yet, as worthy as it would be to find and punish Hariri’s assassins, the larger message from the U.N.’s tribunal is that the one truly enduring and overriding precept of international relations is that might makes right.

Though the U.S. President and the British Prime Minister have the blood of possibly a half million Iraqis on their hands – deaths attributable to an illegal invasion in defiance of the U.N. Charter – no one in a position of authority would be foolhardy enough to suggest that Bush and Blair be hauled before a tribunal for their crimes.

Bush and Blair, after all, head powerful governments that possess nuclear arsenals and hold U.N. Security Council vetoes. Whatever the facts surrounding Bush-Blair violations of international law – regardless of how much bloodshed they have caused – they remain effectively immune from international law, beyond the reach of justice.

Or as Bush likes to joke when asked if his actions have violated international law, “International law? I better call my lawyer.”

Now, in the Hariri case, the world can again expect to witness the boundless capacity of the U.S. government and the American news media for hypocrisy.

Even as the U.S./U.K.-inflicted carnage continues unabated in Iraq, the principal architects of that human catastrophe will reemerge as principled defenders of peace and justice in Lebanon. To date, the U.S. news media appears powerless to spot any parallels in the cases or to detect any irony.

The major U.S. news outlets also appear to have forgotten that the preliminary U.N. inquiry which rushed to publicize suspicions about official Syrian guilt collapsed amid confessions of paid-for perjury and recanted testimony. The original investigator, German Detlev Mehlis, resigned and the U.N. essentially repudiated his work.

Mehlis’s successor, Belgian Serge Brammertz, announced that he would examine a wide range of possible motives and suspects, including Hariri’s business rivals. Since then, Brammertz has proceeded with far more caution and professionalism, keeping what evidence he has close to his vest.

Pariah State

But, given the behavior of the first U.N. prosecutor, Syria and its Lebanese allies have reason to suspect that the U.N. tribunal is likely to be more a pawn of U.S. power than an impartial body seeking justice.

As a pariah state in the eyes of the Bush administration, Syria knows it can’t count on presumption of innocence or balanced treatment in the Western news media, either.

In many ways, we appear to be in for a replay of the biased WMD case made against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2002-03. Just as every Iraqi action was viewed through a prism of presumed guilt, now every scrap of evidence against Syria will be embraced while contrary facts will be discarded.

Though Syria – or at least its freewheeling security services – should remain high on everyone’s suspect list, the U.N.’s initial rush to judgment and the Western news media’s largely uncritical treatment of those accusations suggest a forthcoming propaganda bonanza for the Bush administration, which has been eager to take on Damascus.

It’s still not known how far Brammertz’s investigation has advanced beyond where Mehlis was or whether Brammertz has corroborated or debunked Mehlis’s tentative findings. Initially at least, Syrian officials hailed Brammertz’s more open-minded probe.

On June 14, 2006, Fayssal Mekdad, Syria’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, praised “its objectivity and professionalism” and said the investigators “had begun to uncover the truth” after Mehlis departed. Mekdad promised that Syria would cooperate.

Since then, however, pro-Syrian Lebanese officials have led the resistance to the special U.N. tribunal, possibly signaling concern that Brammertz has uncovered damaging evidence against Syria or simply out of concern that the tribunal won’t be fair.

Syria’s grievances date back to October 2005 when Mehlis’s preliminary report pointed the finger at senior officials in the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

“There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services,” declared the U.N.’s first interim report on Oct. 20, 2005.

President Bush termed the findings “very disturbing” and called for the U.N. Security Council to take action against Syria.

Press Stampede

The U.S. press quickly joined the stampede in assuming Syrian guilt.

On Oct. 25, 2005, a New York Times editorial said the U.N. investigation had been “tough and meticulous” in establishing “some deeply troubling facts” about Hariri’s murderers. The Times demanded punishment of top Syrian officials and their Lebanese accomplices, although the Times cautioned against the Bush administration’s eagerness for “regime change.”

But – as we noted at the time – the U.N. investigative report was anything but “meticulous.” Indeed, it read more like a compilation of circumstantial evidence and conspiracy theories than a dispassionate pursuit of the truth. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]

Mehlis’s initial report, for instance, failed to follow a key lead, the Japanese identification of the Mitsubishi Canter Van that apparently carried the explosives used in the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others.

The van was reported stolen in Sagamihara City, Japan, on Oct. 12, 2004, four months before the bombing, but Mehlis’s hasty report indicated no effort to investigate how the vehicle got from the island of Japan to Beirut or who might have last possessed it.

The report also relied heavily on the testimony of two dubious witnesses. One of the witnesses – Zuhair Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik – was identified by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming “a millionaire” from his Hariri testimony.

The other, Hussam Taher Hussam, later recanted his testimony about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis investigators after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million by Lebanese officials.

Having relied on “witnesses” who appeared to have been set-ups, Mehlis found his investigation under a cloud. In a follow-up report on Dec. 10, 2005, he sought to salvage his position by hurling accusations of witness tampering at Syrian authorities.

But by then, as noted in a New York Times news article on Dec. 7, 2005, the conflicting accusations had given the Mehlis investigation the feel of “a fictional spy thriller.”

More evidence also emerged about the shipment of the Mitsubishi van. According to a U.N. update released on Dec. 10, 2005, the stolen van was traced from Japan to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a close U.S. regional ally and a major center for commerce.

But it was unclear how the van got from Dubai to Beirut. According to the update, U.N. investigators had sought help from “UAE authorities to trace the movements of this vehicle, including reviewing shipping documents from the UAE and, with the assistance of the UAE authorities, attempting to locate and interview the consignees of the container in which the vehicle or its parts is believed to have been shipped.”

Evidence about the van’s ownership could either buttress or repudiate the tentative U.N. investigative conclusions implicating Syrian intelligence and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials in Hariri’s murder.

New Approach

In early 2006, Mehlis resigned and was replaced by Brammertz, who quietly jettisoned many of Mehlis’s conclusions and began entertaining other investigative leads.

“Given the many different positions occupied by Mr. Hariri, and his wide range of public and private-sector activities, the [U.N.] commission was investigating a number of different motives, including political motivations, personal vendettas, financial circumstances and extremist ideologies, or any combination of those motivations,” according to a U.N. statement released after Brammertz briefed the Security Council on June 14, 2006.

As part of his “wide reach,” Brammertz said he had made 32 requests for information to 13 different countries.

Though the U.N. didn’t directly criticize Mehlis’s earlier efforts, Brammertz’s investigation represented an obvious break from the approach of his predecessor. Still, the U.S. news media, which had played the initial Mehlis accusations against Syria as front-page news, barely mentioned the shift in the revamped U.N. probe.

Neither then nor since has the U.S. news media sought to alert the American people that the distinct impression they got in 2005 – that the Syrian government had engineered a terrorist bombing in Beirut – had become a lot less clear.

On one level, this U.S. journalistic failure to be evenhanded with the unpopular Syrian regime goes to the career fears of reporters who can expect that balanced reporting in such a case might earn them the label “Syrian apologist.” That risk would rise dramatically if it later turned out that Syrian security officials were guilty.

Journalists faced similar worries during the run-up to the Iraq War when any skepticism about Bush's WMD claims brought down the wrath of many readers, politicians and even news executives caught up in the war fever.

Career-minded reporters judged that the smart strategy was to play up the anti-Iraq WMD claims – even when they came from dubious and self-interested sources like the Iraqi National Congress – and to play down or ignore counter-evidence. The big career risk was that a skeptical reporter would be in hot water if it turned out Iraq indeed was hiding WMD.

However, after four-plus years of bloody war in Iraq – and no WMD – Americans might have expected the major news media to show a little more skepticism and exercise a little more caution when another round of unproven allegations were leveled at another Middle Eastern nation in Bush’s crosshairs.

Some Americans also might enjoy stories in the Washington Post or the New York Times about whether Bush, Blair and some of their senior advisers should be forced to stand before a U.N. tribunal empowered to judge if they violated international law and deserve punishment.

But that would require the world to be a place where equal justice is applied to all government officials who break the most important covenants of international behavior, not just those from weak countries.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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