First there was the Iraq Liberation Act, which funds Iraqi dissidents. Then came the conquest of Afghanistan and the revival of its democratic institution, the loya jirga. Next were President Bush's calls for the democratization of the Palestinian Authority. Now there is the Syria Accountability Act of 2002, which demands that the U.S. help end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and restore freedom there.
"Nation-building" is becoming popular in Washington. Any number of lawmakers are moving toward the view that democracy begets stability, rather than the reverse.
They are also beginning to support the radical notion that the U.S. may have to give up its old "containment" policy for the Middle East and redesign the political architecture in the region to spread democracy. How otherwise to deal with a multinational challenge such as the recent news that a Syrian- or Iranian-backed Hezbollah is pointing missiles at Israel from a base in Lebanon?
One interesting thing about this shift is that it is not entirely "made in Washington." Many U.S. immigrants from the Middle East, and the groups that represent them, are mounting a grass-roots push for Middle East democratization. To understand, it helps to trace the origins of the Syria legislation, which has 163 supporters in the House of Representatives and 42 in the Senate. The legislation emanated not from the U.S. State Department, which opposes it while expressing concern about Syria's role in Lebanon, but from Lebanese-Americans such as 41-year-old Ziad Abdelnour.
Like many of the several million Americans of Lebanese descent, Abdelnour departed war-torn Lebanon in his youth.
In the U.S., he found a life that distracted him from the bloody Syrian occupation of his country. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, he became an investment banker.
But as the Syrian occupation took its toll, Abdelnour became increasingly impatient with U.S. policy toward his homeland. He concluded that the Reagan administration's flight from Lebanon, following the 1983 massacre of 241 Marines, had sent a damaging signal that the U.S. would tolerate terror in Lebanon. He did not share the Clinton administration's toleration of Lebanon's domination by Syria.
Abdelnour also dislikes the State Department's de facto position that Syria and Lebanon are topics for another day.
Though Beirut is calmer now than in the 1980s, Abdelnour believes that continued Syrian influence has created a "Vichy Lebanon." Especially troubling, he says, are Saudi Arabia's support of Syria and the U.S. tolerance of that support. A Christian, he seeks the establishment of the sort of liberal state that was envisaged when Lebanon was decolonized.
He is not alone. In 1997, he and 55 other Lebanese-Americans created the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon. Its goal is to highlight the historical importance of Lebanon as an "outpost of western values;" the committee also seeks to liberate Lebanon from domination by Syria and Hezbollah. More than 10,000 people have joined; while mostly Christian, the membership also includes some Muslims and some Jews. The committee joined other immigrant associations to create the Syria Act, which calls for the U.S. to back efforts "to halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction" and to cease playing the bully.
Several things stand out about the act's supporters. The first is that they tend to reject the old Middle East realpolitik. The Syria Act's supporters believe any acceptance of terror or individual abuse encourages further terror.
A second feature is their view that democratization must precede investment if Lebanon is to thrive. Abdelnour wants to return to Lebanon to rebuild it but rejects a Chinese or Vietnamese path for Lebanon as impossible: "I don't want an arrangement where you have to partner with this warlord who takes half the profits. No."
From this point of view, call it a radical democratic one, the Bush campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein is valuable. A democratized and disarmed Iraq could supplant Saudi Arabia as America's main Arab friend, reducing traditional U.S. reliance on the Saudis. And without U.S. tolerance of Saudi support for Syria, the argument goes, Lebanon might have a shot at becoming a Hong Kong rather than a Hanoi.
Today, such a vision is more dream than plan. Still, it helps explain why President Bush has garnered support for his Iraq policy. Those who push for democracy believe that it is the trend of democratization that matters, not the order in which that democratization proceeds. The end of a containment policy for Iraq, they assert, offers the best chance of rescue for that ultimate casualty of containment, Lebanon.
Amity Shlaes is a syndicated columnist for the Financial Times.