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Realism, and Values, in Lebanon

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Baathists of Baghdad killed their opponents for all the usual reasons and a few original ones. They often slaughtered just to keep in practice, or for recreation, as shown on the videotapes they systematically made of their crimes. The Baathists of Damascus are more traditional. They murder adversaries only when necessary, after bribery, coercion or intimidation fail.

The sickening series of murders of Lebanese politicians and journalists opposed to Syrian control of their country is a new sign of desperation in Damascus that the United States and other nations must not misread or mishandle. This may well be President Bashar al-Assad's blood-soaked way of saying, "Let's make a deal." It is an offer that must be refused.

Those who complain that there is a lack of communication between the Bush administration and the Assad regime are not paying attention. By local rules, a well-timed murder such as the gunning down of Pierre Gemayel in Beirut last week is more effective in sending a message than a diplomatic demarche.

That does not absolve the Bush administration for foolishly allowing a secondary issue -- its refusal to have unconditional diplomatic contacts with Syria and Iran, to avoid "rewarding bad behavior" -- to obscure the growing international concern with those two nations. It is to say that the opening of communications channels with Damascus and Tehran must be handled with great care and clarity.

Murder is still an important tool in Middle Eastern politics, as is often noted. Unfortunately, the use of mayhem and slaughter to advance dynastic or personal fortunes in the region has not been checked in the 21st century by either U.S. unilateralism in Iraq or the multilateral legalism of the United Nations in Lebanon and Syria. The two approaches need to be reviewed and perhaps merged.

The Bush administration struggles in Iraq to prevent failure from becoming defeat. Ambitions of promoting democracy abroad through regime change are rapidly being scaled back to the bedrock question of intervention, from Kosovo to Darfur: Can "we" stop "them" from killing each other? If the answer is no, that is defeat.

An immediate benefit of intervention in Iraq was the overthrow of the sadistic Baathist regime that murdered in cold blood dissidents of all stripes in the hundreds of thousands. But the breakdown of order under a mismanaged occupation triggered a mass privatization by ordinary citizens of the government's former monopoly on assassination and torture.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has diligently and courageously pursued another course in dealing with Syria's systematic use of violence to regain control over Lebanon and the fortunes in smuggling drugs and arms that Syrian politicians and generals generate from their neighbor.

Citing the conditions created by the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister, in February 2005 as a threat to international peace, Annan creatively pushed for an international criminal investigation and an international tribunal to try the case. Syrian officials are prime suspects in that crime and are widely believed to be behind the assassinations of at least four other advocates of Lebanese independence that followed Hariri's murder.

The killing of Gemayel, a member of the anti-Syrian coalition headed by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, bears the hallmarks of a Syrian "initiative" to block the U.N. effort. And the murder came as Syria was reestablishing diplomatic relations with Iraq after 24 years of estrangement. This translation of Syrian actions quickly made its way through the Middle East: "You want help in Iraq? It will cost you Lebanon. For starters." That is realpolitik and real communication, Assad-style.

That is in any event the context in which any new U.S. move to talk to Syria and to Syria's ally, Iran, will be seen. Washington must avoid giving the impression that it is willing to allow Syria to regain hegemony over Lebanon in return for smoothing the U.S. path in Iraq.

The Bush administration should adopt a policy of making all substantive communications with Syria and Iran public as they are delivered, much as former secretary of state Jim Baker did when he dealt with Iraq's Tariq Aziz in Geneva in January 1991, on the threshold of Operation Desert Storm.

For one thing, such transparency would ensure that U.S. terms are delivered directly to those in charge without being distorted by filter or fear. And it would allow other nations to monitor for themselves Washington's intentions.

It is fashionable at the moment to decry black-and-white, evil-vs.-good visions of foreign policy and to maintain that only the expedient grays of "realism" can preserve world order. The debacle in Iraq has given the international promotion of democracy a bad name in some quarters.

But any "realistic" deal that undermines Lebanon's hard-won freedom from Syrian control and protects murderers in Damascus would quickly become a fool's bargain. This is a clear case, as the U.N. involvement to strengthen Lebanon's sovereignty over all its frontiers demonstrates, where doing the moral thing is also the realistic thing.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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