Before we go all misty-eyed and euphoric about the spread of democracy in the Middle East and our influence there, we would do well to remember that much has occurred independently from the impact created by our invasion of Iraq, where violence and demolition of infrastructure continue on a massive scale. It is also important to understand that we are not the only players in the region. Significantly, Vladimir Putin, fresh from his meeting with President Bush, has agreed to sell nuclear fuel to Iran.
And in Lebanon, the assassination of anti-Syria Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, outraged the Lebanese people and renewed calls for Syria to withdraw from its country. Although it would hardly seem in Syria’s self interest to destabilize a country they have occupied and controlled for so long, they are nevertheless the prime suspect in the huge blast that killed Hariri and wounded more than a hundred others. Whatever the truth and despite claims of responsibility from a little-known Jihadist group, the event seems to have united Lebanon’s disparate elements. As one man put it “…the situation here has become unbearable and we have to regain our country,” while protestors filled the streets in an effort to “dislodge the pro-Syrian government and force its 15,000 troops out of Lebanon.” (article here)
Lebanon is an enormously complicated, factionalized country. But it has been a sophisticated one as well, Beirut, having been dubbed the flower of the Middle East before everything fell to pieces leaving the country vulnerable to invasion and occupation. Kariri’s assassination, however, has unified its people not so much in the cause of democracy per se but in a nationalistic fervor to rid the country of foreign control, although earlier on Syria had been instrumental in quelling Lebanon’s civil war and hastening Israel’s departure from its southern border. President Assad has said Syria will withdraw in the very near future but spoke of security concerns. Although he expressed confidence that Lebanon was better equipped than in the past to police and protect itself, he said security measures would have to be mapped out “because when Israel invaded in 1982…it was very close to Damascus” and a fortified border with Lebanon would be necessary. (article here)
Similarly with respect to Palestine and Israel, the death of Arafat rendered changes in the relationship between the two countries that had so recently seemed impossible. Ariel Sharon had been unwilling to meet with the Palestinian leader, and Arafat had been unbending with respect to Israel. But, despite a shaky truce and continued sporadic violence, some forward movement can be detected. Israel has finally decided that blowing up the family homes of suspected terrorists has proven to be an unproductive policy and, if anything, counter-productive as well as negative in terms of Israel’s image elsewhere. And Sharon has continued to plan for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and portions of the West Bank even though settlement expansion had once been his strategy for increasing Israel’s heft in the region. For his part, Palestine’s new leader Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to contain terrorist elements and appears to be working toward reconciliation with Israel.
Events in Iraq are much less clear. The elections were a step forward in many ways, but they were accomplished by draconian measures in terms of security – – no vehicles in cities or near polling places and heightened border security. It has always been questionable that cars were allowed to access places where bombs could destroy buildings and kill people so easily or why borders were so porous. It may be that there just aren’t enough troops to maintain high-level security all the time. But it is certainly a discouraging sign that, since the elections, assassinations, bombings and oil pipeline destruction have occurred with alarming frequency and at enormous human cost.
It is vital in future considerations of how to proceed not only in The Middle East but elsewhere, to realize that spreading democracy and freedom is not only message reinforced by power, but message reinforced by understanding of just what the issues are in the places we seek to tame or free. When experts on terrorism get together as they did for a panel recently (telecast by C-Span 2) their in-depth discussions provide valuable insights into the whys of terrorism and the problem of world stability. While not excusing acts of terrorism, it is helpful to realize that there are contributory causes and to understand that, agree or not, Bin Laden and his followers are very specific about issues and goals and do not stray from the message they wish to convey – – American bases in Saudi Arabia for example, absolutely not and so on. As Michael Sheuer, former CIA operative has said, actions taken will determine whether there is to be “war (or) endless war”, the latter condition an outcome we seem perilously close to approaching.
One has to wonder, then, if building all those bases in Iraq is such a good idea after all. In the end, is the presence of outsiders in any country ever truly acceptable over time? It seems wherever there is trouble in the world, over borders or the rights of various ethnicities or economic control, foreign entities have interfered in the internal affairs of those places leaving weak, ravaged lands and instability when they leave.
There will always be philosophical differences as to whether order or freedom is more important. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq there was order but no real freedom. On the other hand, freedom in the midst of disorder is simply chaos. The trick is to achieve some balance, but we as a nation have to be every bit as clear about our goals as the terrorists are about theirs. Spreading democracy can become merely an empty phrase when its definition is a variable and applies mostly to countries we disfavor. The enemy of my enemy may be my friend of the moment, but that kind of relativistic thinking doesn’t seem to have resulted in everlasting peace and tranquility so far.
Unfortunately we don’t always get it together when it comes to long-time friends and neighbors either. Most recently Secretary Rice cancelled a trip to Canada reportedly because the US is miffed that Canada has pulled back from supporting our missile defense program, a program that has failed almost every important test for years now. Actually, the American people should also have questions about a program of such great expense and such poor performance. Trimming its budget would seem a much wiser course than snubbing a good neighbor for not getting behind a dysfunctional weapon system.
The goal of making new friends is somewhere over the horizon; keeping old ones seems to have become problematic as well. Here at home we need to attend to our own democracy and make sure that our basic freedoms and institutions are adequately protected.

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