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Optimism over Mideast Democracy Tempered by Fears of the Unknown

March 9, 2005
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President Bush’s jubilant predictions may be right and democracy may be coming to the Middle East — but the road ahead is not without its dangers. “Don’t start uncorking the arak,” David Makovsky, a top analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, quipped, referring to a popular Middle Eastern liqueur. “We don’t know yet how this plays out.”

Bush made burgeoning anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon and progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks the centerpiece of a major policy speech Tuesday to the National Defense University in Washington.

“For the sake of our long-term security, all free nations must stand with the forces of democracy and justice that have begun to transform the Middle East,” Bush said.

But experts cautioned that democracy could produce militant leaders, who would not serve American, Israeli or international interests.

In his speech, Bush went further than ever in demanding a Syrian withdrawal from its 29-year occupation of Lebanon, saying that unless the Syrians are gone by May, he would not consider the Lebanese elections scheduled for then as being free and fair. He also called for international observers.

“Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon,” he said. “All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon’s future belongs in your hands, and by your courage, Lebanon’s future will be in your hands. The American people are on your side.”

Bush has led international support for the popular Lebanese anti-Syrian movement that burgeoned after last month’s assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who was leading efforts to end the Syrian occupation.

Many in Lebanon blamed Syrian agents for the attack, although the Syrians have said they have nothing to do with it and insist that it has been counterproductive to their interests.

Still, under pressure, Syrian President Bashar Assad this week pledged a limited withdrawal by the end of this month. News reports said that a partial redeployment into eastern Lebanon had begun on Tuesday.

It is not clear if the redeployment simply will be toward the Syrian border, or if any of the 14,000 occupying troops actually will cross back into Syria.

Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, told CNN Tuesday evening that all Syrian troops would be gone from Lebanon.

Syria was central to Bush’s appeal on Tuesday, but he sees events there as the bulwark of regional change.

He noted Saudi Arabia’s recent municipal elections, but said next time they should allow women to vote as well. He also commended Egypt for its plans to open up its presidential elections to opposition candidates.

He especially praised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, citing his January election as a beacon of the democracy he hopes will spread.

“The people of the Palestinian territories cast their ballots against violence and corruption of the past,” he said.

The problem, though, is that democracy is often messy, and experts warned that the consequences of recent events are not yet clear.

“Democracy can produce militants,” said Moshe Maoz, Israel’s leading Syria expert, who is on leave this year with the U.S. Institute for Peace.

“Look at Algeria in 1993. With militants it’s hard to make peace, but you can make peace with autocrats, like in Jordan and Egypt.”

David Mack, a former assistant deputy secretary of state for Near East affairs who also served at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, was appalled at the prospect of an electoral victory in Lebanon for Hezbollah, the Shi’ite terrorist group that brought tens of thousands of pro-Syrian protesters into the streets on Tuesday.

“Hezbollah will likely be returned as the largest group in parliament,” said Mack, the vice president of the Middle East Institute, a think tank.

“Call me an old fashioned Arabist, but the question is: Are we, in Washington and Jerusalem, going to be able to celebrate results of that? I wouldn’t want to bet on it.”

Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, who was in Washington Tuesday to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, praised Bush’s speech as outstanding, especially when Bush noted Syria’s role in harboring the terrorists behind last month’s suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv.

But he acknowledged fears that a Shi’ite ascendancy in Lebanon could bring similar results in more moderate Arab states, including Jordan.

The threats inherent in democracy resonated closer to home, too, Shalom suggested. In recent days, he was spending much energy explaining to his Western counterparts that any victory by Hamas in forthcoming Palestinian legislative elections should not give legitimacy to the terrorist group.

“We’re worried about Hamas being seen as a legitimate political party,” Shalom said.

Tom Neumann, the executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, acknowledged the serious short-term risks of democratization, but said that in the case of Lebanon, they were outweighed by the reality of Syria’s negative influence there.

“Anything anti-Syrian right now is good,” Neumann said. “Syria is a cause for lots of problems in Israel, in Iraq, in Lebanon.”

In any case, Assad may not be ready to fold.

Syria has too much at stake in Lebanon. It is an outlet that bypasses existing and potential sanctions and provides jobs for about a million Syrian workers.

Even if Syria does remove all its troops, experts say, it will still keep its broad network of proxies and intelligence agents in Lebanon — and maintain its toxic influence.

A negotiated withdrawal could avert that possibility, as opposed to the forced pullout that reportedly began on Tuesday, Maoz said.

“One should use carrots and not just sticks,” he said.

Yet sticks were all that legislation proposed in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday promised.

The Lebanon and Syria Liberation Act, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Reps Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), would expand the sanctions made available in the Syria Accountability Act, an Engel-Ros-Lehtinen bill that overwhelmingly passed in 2003 and was implemented by Bush last year.

The prospects of the new legislation passing were not clear. Bush did not appear eager to mimic its tough language, which goes further than the Accountability Act because it would sanction third parties that deal with Syria.

In his speech, he stopped short of threatening further sanctions or any other action and emphasized the international unanimity in calls on Syria to leave Lebanon, citing the support of France, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“He’s trying for the multilateral, diplomatic press,” said Makovsky of the Washington Institute.

“We have to be very careful,” he said. “This is not 1989,” when pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe had much clearer, more widespread support.

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