That is the question of the day, isn't it? The former Prime Minister of Lebanon is killed in a massive car bomb explosion and as a result, tens of thousands of people take to the streets demanding that the occupying Syrian army leave their country. But then, a couple of days later, an even larger crowd gathers, asking the Syrians to stay. Mass media coverage has been unhelpful, to put it charitably. The situation is far too complex to be condensed into a one- or two- minute sound bite, so all that most Americans get is a few words from a Bush spokesperson and perhaps a few more from some other Middle East analyst. Move on to the next headline.

The truth is, it's too complicated for even a story of this length, but we'll try our best to untangle it for our readers. Let's take the administration position first. Bush and his supporters have leapt at the opportunity to take credit for a development that suggests the president's vision of spreading freedom and democracy to the Middle East has affected yet another country-- although the cynic's view would be that they're exploiting the Lebanese situation to make the war in Iraq look more justified. They have also talked tough, saying only a full Syrian pullout is acceptable. And they have all but directly accused the Syrians of having murdered former Prime Minister Rafik al- Hariri.

Now, we are perennially skeptical of anything that comes out of politicians' mouths. In this instance, we find it distressing that no one in Washington (or the media, for that matter) seems to want to tell the American people that Lebanon is not Iraq revisited. The U.S. can't bring them democracy for the simple reason that they already are one, and have been since drafting their constitution in 1926.

Syria did not go in and install a general to run the country. Syria definitely has a powerful political presence in Lebanon, and maintains a substantial number of thuggish, widely-hated intelligence officers there, doing all manner of dirty deeds. Nevertheless, the Lebanese continue to elect members of parliament, who appoint the President and Prime Minister, just as they have for 80 years.

Thus we thought it might be a good idea to seek an impartial but informed opinion about what's going on, and we called old pal Jim Hougan. Jim, the Washington editor of Harper's before he left to become thriller writer "John Case," is eminently qualified. He's spent a lot of time in Beirut, has written a book on Lebanon, and helped arrange Mike Wallace's famous interview with Ayatollah Khomeini.

Jim agrees with the cynic's reading of administration motives, and adds that they better be careful what they wish for, lest they get it. He reminds us of the situation before the Taif Accord in 1989 ended hostilities: Nearly fifteen years of bloody civil war that killed 150,000, turned Beirut--the former jewel of the Mediterranean--into the world's most dangerous city, and left much of the landscape looking like the moon.

The war, which broke out because Israel had driven 300,000 Palestinian refugees into southern Lebanon, involved more factions than anyone could keep track of, but the main players were: Palestinians, Shia Muslims (now the largest population group at about 40%), Sunni Muslims (20%), and Maronite Christians (once the dominant group, but now 20%). Into this religious potluck were also thrown Greek Orthodox and other Christians (10%), and Druze Muslims (7%--a small group persecuted over the years by just about everybody). There were also the Syrians, not a few of whom still dream of the Phoenician Empire of 3,000 years ago; the Israelis, who invaded in 1982 to demolish Palestinian staging bases and stayed until 2000; the U.S., which tried to play peacekeeper but withdrew after the Marine barracks bombing of 1983; and Iran, which finances the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah militia.

Though we could go on at great length, suffice it to say that the only reason most of these groups are not still at each other's throats is because of the presence of some 15,000 Syrian troops (down from a peak of 40,000). Remove them, according to Hougan, and the likelihood of the violence starting all over again is high. "A car bomb in East Beirut," he says, "would quickly be followed by a retaliatory one in the West." And so on. It wouldn't take long to completely undo the amazing rebuilding accomplished under the leadership of Hariri.

The important thing to understand, Jim claims, is that this isn't about democracy, Iraq, America or any such thing. It's about Israel. Syria didn't go into Lebanon in the first place because it's some benevolent, well-intentioned neighbor. In fact, it purposely stirred the pot there for years, before its final military occupation, in order to fix a pro-Muslim (i.e. anti-Israeli) state on Israel's northern border. Israel in turn would prefer Lebanon to be pro-Western (and if not actively pro-Israeli, at least neutral). That's the real reason the Bush Administration wants Syria out. They want it back the way it was when the Maronites (a majority at the nation's founding) were in control.

Although he admits that the Hariri assassins could have come from any of a dozen different factions, Hougan is unpersuaded that it was a Syrian operation. For one thing, he says, it's completely against their interests. And for another, a huge car bomb on a crowded street isn't their style. If they wanted Hariri--a former Syrian apologist turned nationalist--out of the way, they would have done it more quietly and efficiently, most likely making it look like he died of natural causes, rather than doing it in spectacular fashion and predictably stirring up a hornet's nest of protest.

Regardless of who did the deed, American foreign policy has been presented with yet another conundrum. Hezbollah's leaders, who have widespread and perhaps majority support, are calling for democracy under the continued, pacifying presence of Syria. They have essentially guaranteed bloodshed if Syria leaves. On the other hand, Washington is rattling its sabers in what easily could be perceived as a veiled threat that Syria--a designated state sponsor of terrorism--better shape up or it may be next in line for regime change.

Only hindsight will tell if the Bush Administration has chosen wisely or blundered. But if the Lebanese civil war does resume, the next generation of peacekeepers is likely to be, well, us. It bears repeating: Be careful what you wish for.

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Posted 03-14-2005 5:19 PM by Doug Casey