Revolutions do not stand still. They either move forward or 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 Hussein and televised images of 8 million Iraqis voting in a free election. Which led to the obvious question throughout the Middle East: Why the Iraqis and not us?
To be sure, the rolling revolution began outside the Middle East with the Afghan elections. That was followed by the Iraqi elections. 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 Hosni 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, took to the New York Times to oppose the immediate end 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. It would betray our principles. And it would betray the people in Lebanon who have been encouraged by those principles.
Moreover, the cedar revolution promises not only to liberate Lebanon but to transform the Middle East. Why? Because a forced Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could bring down the Assad dictatorship. And changing Damascus would transform the region.
We are not talking about invading Syria. We have done enough invading and there is no need. If Bashar Assad loses Lebanon, his regime could be fatally weakened.
This is 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 such as Assad's rule by fear, which is sustained by power and the illusion of power. Control of Lebanon is the centerpiece of that illusion. Its loss, at the hands of unarmed civilians no less, would be a deadly blow to the Assad mystique.
Bashar Assad has succeeded Saddam Hussein 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 is universally believed to be the work of Syria. The orders for last Friday's Tel Aviv bombing, 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.
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 could all be reversed, of course. Liberal revolutions were suppressed in Europe in 1848, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Tiananmen Square in 1989. Determined and ruthless regimes can extinguish revolutions. Which is why the worst thing we can do is "engage and empower" 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.