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'My Dinner with Assad' haunts John Kerry

Is Secretary of State John F. Kerry a hypocrite? That was the implication of a story in the British newspaper the Independent. Here’s the breathless lead:

“Pictures have emerged showing the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dining with President Bashar al-Assad, as Mr. Kerry continued to push for a military strike on Syria following a suspected chemical attack.”

The rather clumsy wording suggests that Kerry might have been spirited away from Washington over the Labor Day weekend to break bread with Assad at a secret CIA site. In fact, the dinner date between Kerry and his wife and Assad and his wife took place in Damascus in February 2009, when Kerry was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Different time, different roles, different circumstances. Yet the story clucks: “The images ... come in stark contrast to comments Mr. Kerry recently made about the Syrian president, describing him as a ‘thug’ and drawing comparisons between Mr. Assad and Adolf Hitler over their use of chemical weapons.”

When I was a high school debater, I was warned never to compare anyone to Hitler, and Kerry would have been wise to follow that rule. But is it embarrassing that he now describes his onetime dinner partner as a thug? Not really. Definitive proof of Assad’s thuggishness came with his response to Syria’s version of the Arab Spring, which began in 2011.

This cheap shot isn’t unique. When the U.S. began to distance itself from Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, also in 2011, ABC News reported that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton  -- in 2009! -- had volunteered in an interview that “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.”

Clinton probably shouldn’t have been so gushing, especially in an interview in which she acknowledged that the State Department had issued a report faulting Egypt for its human rights record. But diplomacy inevitably involves engagement, and sometimes socializing, with more or less unsavory foreign leaders.

This “in happier times” phenomenon is bipartisan. Critics of the Iraq war liked to point out that there was a 1983 photo showing former (and future) Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein -- proving, I guess, that Rumsfeld was a hypocrite 20 years later when the Bush administration invaded Iraq.

At least (as far as we know), Rumsfeld and Saddam didn’t do lunch.

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