"We don't want to be another Iraq," says one of the leaders of the Lebanese movement for democracy. That's not meant as a shot at the Bush administration but as a statement of political strategy. He knows the Beirut Spring will wither and die if the United States becomes the driving force for change, rather than the Lebanese people.
That's why the Bush administration must be very careful as it steers around the curve of history in the Middle East. President Bush's bully-pulpit speech this week about Arab democracy unfortunately pumped the gas so much it risked flooding the engine. It threatened to make the United States the issue, rather than the Lebanese people.
The Bush administration rightly wants to keep the focus on Syria -- and the demand that the Syrians withdraw their troops from Lebanon. To accomplish that, the White House needs to cool its rhetoric and keep its allies out front in pressuring Syrian President Bashar Assad to pull out. The lead negotiator with Assad will be U.N. representative Terje Roed-Larsen; that's as it should be. Behind him is a broad coalition that includes France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other nations, in addition to the United States. That powerful alliance should deny the Syrians any port in the Lebanese storm.
This week's events in Beirut and Damascus showed that the passage toward Arab democracy won't be a smooth, straight line of the sort Americans like but a complicated series of stops and starts, curlicues, smudges and ink blots. That is to say it will be written in the political language of the Middle East.
The biggest challenge involves the Shiite militia, Hezbollah. If anyone had forgotten that this was crucial, they got a noisy reminder Tuesday when the group's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, pulled 500,000 of his followers into the streets of Beirut. Calling it a "pro-Syria" rally was a misnomer; this was a pro-Hezbollah demonstration -- a statement that Nasrallah has the ability to sabotage the democracy movement if he chooses.
Wednesday brought one of those absurd rent-a-crowd demonstrations in Damascus, like the ones Saddam Hussein used to stage in Baghdad. A crowd of Syrians "spontaneously" marched on the president's palace and called on the beloved leader to speak. To me, it only underlined Assad's weakness. Another sign of Assad's weak hand was his restoration of the Lebanese puppet government of Prime Minister Omar Karami. That government was deeply unpopular, and trying to push it back into power is just "the old, old, old Syrian game of trying to buy time," as a Lebanese democracy leader put it to me.
Members of the Lebanese democracy movement saw mixed messages in Nasrallah's self-celebration. They were upset that he chose belligerent anti-Western and pro-Syrian language, but they noted that he repeated his calls for dialogue with other Lebanese factions about building a new Lebanon. The Hezbollah demonstrators carried both Lebanese flags and portraits of Assad. The Bush administration thinks Hezbollah should have to choose between these symbols: Lebanese independence or fealty to Damascus. That seems like the right strategy.
In dealing with Hezbollah, perhaps the Lebanese democracy movement can learn from John F. Kennedy's ploy in the Cuban missile crisis: Respond to the message you like and ignore the one you don't. In practice, that means people should take Nasrallah up on his demand for dialogue. The goal of these discussions should be to find a formula for bringing Hezbollah and its millions of poor Shiite followers into the political framework of a new Lebanon.
When I interviewed Nasrallah in Beirut in October 2003, I asked him what he wanted to do with the power he had created in Hezbollah. Could the Lebanese state, I asked, accommodate that new political energy? Nasrallah replied that Hezbollah wanted to be part of Lebanon and would take no actions to undermine the Lebanese state.
So here's a simple agenda for Lebanese democrats and their supporters around the world: First, Syrian troops must leave Lebanon, and Assad must set a clear and unambiguous timetable for their withdrawal. Second, negotiations should begin on finding ways to adapt the Lebanese political formula to the reality of Hezbollah's power. That agenda puts the issue squarely to Nasrallah: Is he a Lebanese patriot or a Syrian stooge? Is he a man of the future or the past? It's time to find out.