President Bush's grand ambition to halt terrorism in the Middle East and inspire democracy there is under challenge in Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian territories. It may not seem the opportune moment for the administration to take on an urgent new task in the region. But it is.
The task is to squeeze Syria into ending its oppressive, decades-long control over Lebanon. Helping that small, part-Muslim, part-Christian, Arab state escape Syrian hegemony and establish an independent democracy would put flesh on the bones of Bush's visionary commitment to transform the Middle East over the next generation.
At a time when success seems distant on the bigger regional challenges, the moment is ripe for concerted international diplomatic pressure on the sclerotic Baathist regime in Damascus. President Bashar Assad's government also invites scrutiny and measured retaliation by its mischief-making along the Iraqi frontier and its support of terrorist groups.
Syria's influence in the region and the world has diminished significantly since Assad succeeded his dictatorial but astute father, the late Hafez Assad, in 2000. Assad the son has disappointed would-be Western patrons such as French President Jacques Chirac by not being able to impose new approaches or personnel on a faltering but implacable old guard.
Assad the father was careful to keep accounts balanced with Washington and Paris, giving the impression of movement on peace with Israel or offering other advantages -- when he had to -- in return for a free hand in Lebanon. The successor Syrian regime does not bother with such niceties. It asserts control over Lebanon in a blatant, offensive manner that suggests an uncharacteristic unsteadiness in power in Damascus.
More than a quarter-century after Syrian troops entered Lebanon "temporarily" to end the civil war and restore order, they remain as living proof of Napoleon's contention that nothing endures quite as long as the temporary. The occupation, originally encouraged by the Ford administration and other Western governments, has long since outlived any utility to anyone except the Syrian warlords and politicians who profit from it.
This time-warp quality may help explain the shrill Syrian reaction to an innovative joint U.S.-French initiative in the U.N. Security Council, which on Sept. 2 called on Syria (although not by name) to withdraw the roughly 20,000 troops it has in Lebanon and to stop meddling in Lebanon's politics. The vote on Security Council Resolution 1559 was 9 to 0, with six abstentions, including Russia, China and Algeria.
This was a significant vote by a body that is usually the forum for angry accusations from Arab governments charging Israel with refusing to observe Security Council resolutions on the Middle East. For the second time this summer -- Sudan was first -- an Arab government wound up clearly on the wrong side of a Security Council vote, this time on a matter involving military occupation.
The resolution was triggered by Assad's open maneuvering in August to get the parliament in Beirut to ignore the Lebanese constitution and extend the six-year presidential term of his trusted ally, Emile Lahoud, for three more years. Caught red-handed, Assad responded not with embarrassment or shame but with a damaging show of defiance.
He immediately summoned Lebanon's parliamentary leaders to Damascus and instructed them to change the constitution and extend Lahoud's term -- within 24 hours. Wanting to continue to live, they did as they were told. The Syrians also let it be known that they would increase the number of their troops in Lebanon to 40,000 by the end of the year. So much for the collective will of the international community.
The Bush administration followed up on the Security Council action by dispatching Assistant Secretary of State Bill Burns to Damascus. After meeting with Assad, Burns told reporters that he had emphasized that "Syria must end its interference in Lebanese internal affairs. . . . What is essential now is genuine progress, not rhetoric."
Hafez Assad, who transfixed four U.S. presidents and more secretaries of state (as well as journalists) with his steely, taciturn control of meetings, will be turning in his grave at the thought of his son's being dressed down by an American foreign service officer. Burns may have just done more to destabilize the regime in Damascus than the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and Britain's MI-6 combined.
Pursuing this initiative on Lebanon with energy and determination could breathe new life into Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative, which has stalled since being adopted at the Group of Eight summit in June. In the shadow of the violent challenges in Iraq and elsewhere, Washington does well not to lose sight of tiny but resourceful Lebanon and overbearing, overreaching Syria.