“When I am abroad I always make it a rule never to criticise or attack the government of my own country . . . I make up for lost time when I come home. But I have no patience with Englishmen who use the hospitality of a friendly nation to decry their own ... ”
-Winston Churchill, April 18, 1947
State Sen. Dick Black studies the Middle East. He is an outspoken defender of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He opposes sanctions imposed by the United States. He believes Assad protects Christians and is a check against Islamic extremists.
But it so happens that Assad is one of the world’s most brutal dictators. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, over a half million Syrians have died. Twelve million people have been displaced in Syria and abroad. Assad has used torture, poison gas and barrel bombs on his own people. A barrel bomb is a large metal container filled with explosives and shrapnel dropped indiscriminately from an airplane or helicopter.
Black visited Syria in 2016 and 2018. At a press conference on April 29, 2016, in Damascus, Sen. Black said: “The American sanctions have prevented the transfer of funds to purchase medical supplies and medical equipment … I was a senior lawyer in the Pentagon, and I can tell you under the law of land warfare if you prevent medications from entering a country this is a very, very serious violation of the law of war, and it is a crime under the law of war.”
Black met with Assad for two hours during his first visit to Syria.
While touring an observation post in Aleppo during his second trip to Syria in 2018, Black said: “We have fought a war on terror for 17 years with nothing to show for it.”
After meeting with Assad again during his second visit, Black was interviewed on Al Mayadeen, an Arab news channel based in Beirut, and said: “Around four weeks ago, we knew that British intelligence was working toward a chemical attack in order to blame the Syrian government, to hold Syria responsible.”
Most Americans believe politics stop at the water’s edge. Taking issue with government policy and leaders, within our borders, is protected speech under the First Amendment, perhaps our greatest freedom.
By tradition, American leaders refrain from criticizing the United States while overseas. In July 1972, actress Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam. During her trip she made radio broadcasts urging the United States to stop bombing. She also posed on an anti-aircraft gun used to shoot down American pilots. Her actions earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.”
In the presidential campaign of 1992, George Herbert Walker Bush pummeled Bill Clinton for organizing a protest against the Vietnam War at the American Embassy in London in 1969.
Remember the Dixie Chicks? Shortly before the Iraq war, lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience during a concert in March of 2003: “We don't want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." The London audience cheered; the Chicks' fans at home not so much. A boycott and death threats ensued. The band never fully recovered from the bad publicity.
There is no difference between the actions of Bill Clinton, Jane Fonda, the Dixie Chicks and Dick Black in criticizing the U.S. on foreign soil.
When Black implied America committed war crimes and said the war on terror accomplished nothing, he wasn’t an idealistic college student, a liberal actress or a lightly educated singer, he was a retired career military officer and identified himself as such.
If Sen. Black uses his home office in Ashburn to broadcast scathing views on our Middle East foreign policy and actions in Syria – or any other topic – to persuade the rest of us he is right and we are wrong, more power to him. Even if their views don’t change, people acquire a greater understanding of an issue by listening to others' minority opinions.
My problem is Sen. Black made his statements in Syria.
Syria isn’t London in the 1960s or early 2000s. Our policy was transition to democracy. We had troops in Syria both times Sen. Black visited. Did he believe accusing the United States of war crimes made our troops safer?
When he said little had been accomplished in the war on terror, did he consider there has been no successful foreign terrorist attack within the United States since Sept. 11, 2001? (And accusing the Brits of planning a chemical attack was downright strange.)
Conservative Republicans don’t criticize the United States on foreign soil. The British have a saying: “It’s just not done!”
Charlie King is a Leesburg-based attorney. He was the Republican nominee for chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors in 2015.