The march of freedom

Posted: Mar 04, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Revolutions do not stand still. They either move forward or they die. We are at the dawn of a glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East. It was triggered by the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam, and televised images of 8 million Iraqis voting in a free multiparty election. Which led to the obvious question throughout the Middle East: Why Iraqis and not us?

     To be sure, the rolling revolution began outside the Middle East with the Afghan elections, scandalously underplayed in the American media. That was followed by the Iraqi elections, impossible to underplay even by the American media. In between came free Palestinian elections that produced a moderate reform-oriented leadership, followed by an amazing mini-uprising in the Palestinian parliament that rejected an attempt to force corrupt cronies on the new government.

     And it continued -- demonstrations in Egypt for democracy, a shocking rarity that led President Mubarak to promise the first contested presidential elections in Egyptian history. And now, of course, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, where the assassination of opposition leader Rafiq Hariri led to an explosion of people power in the streets that brought down Syria's puppet-government in Beirut.

     Revolution is in the air. What to do? We are already hearing voices for restraint about liberating Lebanon. Flynt Leverett, your usual Middle East expert, takes to The New York Times to oppose immediate withdrawal of Syria's occupation of Lebanon. Instead, we should be trying to ``engage and empower'' the tyranny in Damascus.

     These people never learn. Here we are on the threshold of what Arabs in the region are calling the fall of their own Berlin Wall, and our ``realists'' want us to go back to making deals with dictators. It would be not just a blunder but a tragedy to try to rein in the revolution in Lebanon. It would betray our principles. And it would betray the people in Lebanon who have been encouraged by our proclamation of those principles.

     Moreover, the Cedar Revolution promises not only to liberate Lebanon, but to transform the entire Middle East. Why? Because a forced Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could bring down the Assad dictatorship. The road to Damascus goes through Beirut. And changing Damascus will transform the region.

     We are not talking about invading Syria. We have done enough invading and there is no need. If Assad loses Lebanon, his regime could be fatally weakened.

     For two reasons: economics and psychology. Like all Soviet-style systems, the Syrian economy is moribund. It lives off Lebanese commerce and corruption. Take that away and a pillar of the Assad kleptocracy disappears. As does the psychological pillar. Dictatorships like Assad's rule by fear, which is sustained by power and the illusion of power. Control of Lebanon is the centerpiece of that illusion. The loss of Lebanon, at the hands of unarmed civilians no less, would be a deadly blow to the Assad mystique, perhaps enough to revoke his mandate from heaven.

     And why is Syria so important? Because Assad has succeeded Saddam as the principal bad actor in the region. Syria, an island of dictatorship in a sea of liberalization, is desperately trying to destabilize its neighbors. The Hariri bombing in Lebanon is universally believed to be the work of Syria. The orders for the Feb. 25 Tel Aviv bombing, deliberately designed to blow up the new Palestinian-Israeli rapprochement, came from Damascus. And we know that Syria is sheltering leading Baathist insurgents who are killing Iraqis and Americans by the score in Iraq.

     There was a brief Damascus Spring five years ago when Syrians began demanding more freedom. Assad repressed it. Now 140 Syrian intellectuals have petitioned their own government to withdraw from Lebanon. They signed their names. The fear is lifting there too. Were the contagion to spread to Damascus, the entire region from the Mediterranean Sea to the Iranian border would be on a path to democratization.

     This of course could all be reversed. Liberal revolutions were suppressed in Europe 1848, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Tiananmen 1989. Nothing is written. Determined and ruthless regimes can extinguish revolutions. Which is why the worst thing we can possibly do is ``engage and empower'' the tyrants.

     This is no time to listen to the voices of tremulousness, indecision, compromise and fear. If we had listened to them two years ago, we would still be doing oil-for-food, no-fly zones and worthless embargoes. It is our principles that brought us to this moment by way of Afghanistan and Iraq. They need to guide us now -- through Beirut to Damascus.