Movies and comic books condition Americans to think in terms of the "evil genius," a dangerously insane but diabolically brilliant adversary who carefully and calculatingly plots to destroy the world. Think Lex Luthor attempting to obliterate the California coast, or the Joker scheming to poison Gotham, or the countless forgettable villains who have conspired to change the orbit of the moon in an effort to unleash destructive tidal waves that will destroy the Earth's major cities.
For better or worse, this archetype has spilled out of the realm of fantasy and into the real world, coloring how Americans view nonfiction villains as well as fictional ones. As David Plotz pointed out more than a year ago in Slate, "We always put a face to our misery. And every so often, we anoint some foreign malcontent as the arch-fiend responsible for all our global difficulties." Before Saddam, Osama. Before Osama, Saddam. And so on. But there's one problem with this worldview: In the real world, most evil men aren't geniuses. Instead, the real danger, more often than not, comes from evil morons.
Take Bashar Assad. Has there been a more disastrous geopolitical move in recent years than the 38-year-old Syrian president's decision to cast his lot with Saddam just prior to Iraq's stunning military defeat? Before the war, Syria had actually done quite a bit to improve its standing in the eyes of the United States. It cooperated in the war against al-Qaida, sharing the intelligence it gained from interrogations of Muhammad Haydar Zammar, the man suspected of recruiting Mohamed Atta to carry out the 9/11 attacks. In addition, Syria supported the Saudi plan for peace with Israel. And it may not sound like much, but Assad denounced the 9/11 attacks, while Saddam (less smartly) praised them.
Now it appears that Assad may have gambled all of that away. By foolishly providing moral and material support to Iraq during the war—and, the administration says, now by harboring high-ranking Iraqi officials—he's created an environment that makes it possible for a Democratic presidential candidate (Florida Sen. Bob Graham) to openly support war with Syria. Already some hawks are pointing to the tantalizing parallels between Saddam's Iraq and Assad's Syria. Weapons of mass destruction? Check. Support for terrorism? Check. Repressive domestic intelligence services? Check. The comparisons go further: Both countries were ruled by tyrannical men who are not members of the ethnic majority. (Saddam was a Sunni who ruled over a largely Shiite country, and Assad is an Alawite who rules over a Sunni majority.) To top things off, Syria even has a Baath Party and a Republican Guard. No one expects war anytime soon, but Assad's stupidity has put the subject on the table.
When Assad came to power in June 2000, one week after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, many hoped that his ties to the West—the two years in London he spent training to become an ophthalmologist, his facility with English, his British-born Syrian wife—would make him a different kind of dictator. He was part of what Slate dubbed the "Arab Brat Pack," young rulers that were thought to be earnest technocrats, not ideological demagogues. But Assad's tenure as president has demonstrated that surfing the Internet doesn't make you a reformer.
While Assad's Syria isn't as repressive as Saddam's Iraq, it's still the kind of place where democratic dissidents get jailed. Assad has also proven to be wildly and vocally anti-Semitic. Less than a year after coming to power, he declared that Israelis "try to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ and in the same way they tried to kill the prophet Muhammad." He also said the election of Ariel Sharon proved that Israel was "a racist society, even more racist than the Nazis." When he came under international criticism for the remarks, he remarked, "I was talking about Israelis, not Jews."
Comments like those create the worry that Assad is not just pandering when he attacks the war in Iraq as a Zionist plot: He may actually believe it. Recently, the Jerusalem Post floated two other possibilities to explain Assad's head-scratching decision to support Saddam: Either Bashar is "not rational," or his plan is "designed not only to eventually tighten his grip on power in Damascus, but ensure the U.S. will not turn their smart bombs and bunker-busters on him next." In other words, Assad is either insane, or he's a genius. But there's a third possibility: He's rational, but he's also an idiot. Meaning, Assad believes he is acting in his own self-interest, but he's badly misjudged what his self-interest is.
Saddam, after all, surely thought he was acting in his own self-interest all the time, too. But if he had been better at gauging what was actually his best course of action, he might not have invited two catastrophic wars with the United States upon his country and his regime.
So, in the short run, you can see why Assad could think his gamble has paid off. His anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric has endeared him to both Arab nationalists and Islamic radicals in his country and in the region. "He's now the most important Arab leader," says Amatzia Baram, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Haifa.
But if Assad is now the most popular figure in the Middle East among Arabs of an anti-American stripe, it's worth noting that before Assad, that figure was Saddam. For Assad's sake, and for ours, let's hope Assad is smart enough to remember how that turned out.