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How much longer can American prestige survive the embarrassments inflicted by President Bush?
Bush’s demand that Syria immediately withdraw its troops from Lebanon is a ricochet demand. If Lebanon cannot have free elections while under foreign military occupation, how, asks the rest of the world, does Iraq have free elections when it is under US military occupation?
Bush’s latest guffaw-provoking gesture is the work of desperation. Every explanation and justification Bush has given for his ill-fated invasion of Iraq has proven false. There were no weapons of mass destruction. No terrorist links to Osama bin Laden. No WMD programs. The penultimate justification–to bring democracy to Iraq–fast faded when the Islamic Shi’ite winners announced that Islam would be a basis for the new Iraqi state.
The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri permitted the Bush administration to shift attention from its Iraq failure to Syria’s presence in Lebanon, just as the US invasion of Iraq shifted attention from Bush’s failure to capture bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Bush hasn’t sufficient troops to occupy Iraq and none to spare with which to invade Syria. But the lack of means does not stop Bush from issuing ultimatums. Bush’s tough talk plays well to his supernationalist supporters at home.
Syria, of course, has its own reasons for getting out of Lebanon, and Syria’s withdrawal lets Bush claim that his invasion of Iraq is spreading democracy to Lebanon. Yesterday Iraq. Today Lebanon. Tomorrow the Middle East.
This latest justification for invading Iraq was on no one’s mind when the US invaded Iraq. It is likely to be as short lived as the other justifications. Throughout the Lebanese civil war from the mid 1970’s until 1990 Lebanon was a collection of armed camps more numerous than those in Iraq today.
The Lebanese government invited the Syrians into Lebanon shortly after the outbreak of the civil war. Unlike the US in Iraq, the Syrians have managed to perform the role of peacekeeper in Lebanon without leveling entire cities, destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure, and killing tens of thousands of civilians. (This is not to say that in 1982 the Syrian government did not brutally put down an Islamic fundamentalist uprising in the Syrian city of Hama.)
Syria has a secular Alawite government. Now that Shi’ites are taking over in Iraq, Shi’ites in Lebanon–and especially the Iranian sponsored and controlled Shi’ite Hizbullah movement–are likely to gain additional political traction as well. Today, we are witnessing the creation of precisely the Shi’ite geopolitical bloc–the "Shi’ite crescent from Iran to Lebanon"–of which King Abdullah of Jordan warned, without effect, a deluded President Bush.
Proud not to be "reality based," the Bush administration is oblivious to the situation on the ground. But reality in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is up close and personal. The last thing wanted by the rulers of those countries, as well as the leaders of Egypt and Pakistan, is more instability that will play into the hands of such Islamist revolutionaries as Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi. But instability is rising, and the rulers of those countries now fear being swept away.
Syria had absolutely nothing to gain from the assassination of former Lebanese prime Minister Hariri. In fact, the assassination was a catastrophe for the Syrian government. It is Osama bin Laden’s aim, and perhaps Iran’s, to destabilize Lebanon and Syria in order to draw the US in deeper. Instability serves bin Laden’s revolutionary purposes and aids Iran by creating new problems for the US in the region.
Today, Syria has begun to withdraw from Lebanon not because of US and Israeli ultimatums but because of the threat of a new axis of Shi’ite power stretching from Teheran westward through southern Iraq into Lebanon, and then back into Syria itself from both Lebanon and Iraq. The secular Syrian government now sees far more danger from Iran and Islamists supported by Teheran than it does from the US. It may well be that Syria would like American protection from a rising Islamist and Iranian geostrategic revolution. The Bush administration, however, is too stupid to realize this.
The United States lacks the resources necessary to occupy the Middle East. Bush has failed to occupy Baghdad, much less Iraq. Indeed, US troops could not even occupy Fallujah, a small city of 300,000. Unable to take control of the city, the Americans destroyed it. The US cannot level every city in the Middle East.
The US invasion of Iraq has brought to power long-suppressed Shi’ite majorities and shown Islamists that secular rulers can be overthrown. Change has begun that the US cannot control, change that will exhaust American resources and will.
PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He was Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review. He is coauthor of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org