There's an obscure branch of mathematics known as "catastrophe theory," which looks at how a small perturbation in a previously stable system can suddenly produce dramatic change. A classic example of the theory is the way a bridge, after bearing immense weight for many years, can suddenly collapse because of a new stress.
We are now watching a glorious catastrophe take place in the Middle East. The old system that had looked so stable is ripping apart, with each beam pulling another down as it falls. The sudden stress that produced the catastrophe was the American invasion of Iraq two years ago. But this Arab power structure has been rotting at the joints for a generation. The real force that's bringing it down is public anger.
It's hard not to feel giddy, watching the dominoes fall. In Lebanon, "people power" forced the resignation Monday of Syria's puppet government; in Egypt, the Pharaonic Hosni Mubarak agreed Saturday to allow other candidates to challenge his presidency for life; in Iraq, the momentum of January's elections is still propelling the nation forward, despite bickering politicians and brutal suicide bombers.
But catastrophic change is dangerous, even when it's bringing down a system people detest. This is not a time for U.S. triumphalism, or for gloating and lecturing to the Arabs. That kind of arrogance got us into trouble in Iraq during the first year of occupation. It was only when Iraqis began to take control of their own destinies that this project began to go right. The same rule holds for Lebanon, Egypt and the rest. America can help by keeping on the pressure, but it's their revolution.
Here are some warning flags about challenges ahead. My list is drawn from conversations this week with Arabs who are part of the new revolution. They worry that Washington, in its current giddy mood, may miss the danger signs.
The crucial issue for Lebanon is the role of Hezbollah. This Shiite militia is the most well-organized political force in the country, and it's now at a crossroads. Hezbollah cannot remain the "A Team" of terrorism and also help build a new democracy in Lebanon. An encouraging sign is that Hezbollah's leader, Said Hasan Nasrallah, met quietly Monday night in Beirut with Samir Franjieh, one of the leaders of the pro-democracy opposition. They discussed a possible deal whereby Hezbollah would agree to disarm its militia and join a new government, so long as that government wasn't openly anti-Syrian and Hezbollah was allowed to keep its "resistance" squads. That's a steep price, but getting Hezbollah inside the tent of political change might be worth it.
For Syria's leaders, the issue is survival. Until recently, a pro-Syrian analyst had been telling me about their "sandwich strategy" for squeezing America in Iraq between a Syrian-backed insurgency and Iranian pressure. Now it's Damascus that's in the sandwich, and there are signs that President Bashar Assad realizes that his best hope for survival lies with the United States. That's one of the benefits of catastrophic change: In the ensuing chaos, each player has to worry it will be sold out by its allies. Hezbollah must fear that Assad is about to cut a deal with the United States; meanwhile, Assad must worry that Nasrallah will make a deal first.
The biggest danger of all is Iran's bid to manipulate the new government in Iraq. Already there are signs of its influence. The ambitious Ahmed Chalabi announced that he was quitting the race for prime minister last month, reportedly the day after he met with Iran's ambassador to Baghdad, who apparently warned him to step back. That's scary; so is the recent proposal by the head of the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade that he be given the post of interior minister. To check Iran's influence in Baghdad, the United States must make clear its "red lines." The chief U.S. demand should be that the key security portfolios of defense, interior and intelligence must remain in friendly Iraqi hands.
An interesting idea for squeezing Iran comes from an Iraqi Sunni leader named Mithal Alusi, who's visiting Washington this week. He suggests inviting dissident Iranian Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri to the holy city of Najaf to explain his view that political rule by mullahs is incompatible with Islam. That would make Tehran think twice about meddling in Iraq.
There's no stopping the Middle East's glorious catastrophe now that it has begun. We are careening around the curve of history, and it's useful to remember a basic rule for navigating slippery roads: Once you're in the curve, you can't hit the brakes. The only way for America to keep this car on the road is to keep its foot on the accelerator.