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Neo-Cons See Democratization, Others Fear Disintegration

Analysis by Jim Lobe

Lebanon's Christian Factions Behind "Spontaneous" Demonstration

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Feeling vindicated by dramatic events in the Middle East since the Iraqi elections Jan. 30, especially the growing international clamor for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, neo-conservatives are calling on Bush to seize the moment by pressing for "regime change" in Damascus and Iran, as well.

Despite its own missionary rhetoric, the Bush administration, however, seems inclined to wait until the dust from the latest developments has settled and, to the growing frustration of the neo-cons and other unilateralists, to ensure that it not get too far ahead of its European allies in dealing with the region.

The administration's relative caution reflects the persistent influence and concerns of so-called policy "realists" who remain skeptical about whether recent events in the Middle East will lead to a new era of democratization, rather than a new cycle of destabilization or worse.

Even if the latest developments indeed represent the Middle East equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as proponents of Bush's democracy agenda claim, the realists stress the considerable risks, most notably the empowerment of Islamists across the region, that more democratic governments may well bring.

But Bush's caution also reflects his administration's new determination to coordinate more closely with Washington's traditional allies, particularly in the wake of his European tour last month.

"Bush's meetings with European leaders were very enlightening, because they convinced him that, 'if you don't work with us, we're not going to succeed, our initiatives will fail, and you will find yourself isolated again,'" said Geoffrey Kemp, head of Middle East programs at The Nixon Center here.

"I see a more cautious administration that is working more closely with allies than ever before," added Kemp, who served on the National Security Council under former President Ronald Reagan.

As evidence, Kemp, as well as other specialists, point to Bush's decision after the trip to reassess Washington's policy on the ongoing negotiations between Germany, France, and Britain (EU-3) and Iran on Teheran's nuclear program.

Before the trip, even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, considered the most Atlanticist of Bush's top advisers, insisted that Washington was not prepared to offer economic or other incentives to Iran as part of a possible package deal that would include Teheran's agreement to abandon its alleged quest for nuclear weapons.

But Bush now appears poised to make some of the commitments that the Europeans had sought.

This has dismayed many neo-conservatives and other hawks centerd within the administration in the offices of Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld. They believe that now is not the moment to be seen as "appeasing" or "engaging" adversaries, least of all in Teheran and Damascus.

In column after column, especially since the anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon broke out in the wake of the mid-February assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, their media mouthpieces have claimed vindication for their long-standing predictions that democratic elections in Iraq would reverberate throughout the region, encouraging democratic forces to stand up to their oppressors.

"Who's the simpleton now?" crowed Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot earlier this week. "Those who dreamed of spreading democracy to the Arabs or those who denied that it could ever happen?" he went on, citing the Iraqi and earlier Palestinian elections, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, events in Lebanon, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's unexpected pledge last week to permit multi-candidate presidential elections next fall.

Boot, as well as virtually every other hawk writing on the subject, quoted Lebanon's Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, as crediting Bush for the chain of events: "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq."

"We are at the dawn of a glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East," exulted another neo-con, Charles Krauthammer, in Friday's Washington Post in a column entitled "The Road to Damascus."

"It was triggered by the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and televized images of 8 million Iraqis voting in a free election."

Like his ideological colleagues, Krauthammer called for the administration to press its advantage by ensuring that that Syria completely withdraw from Lebanon, and confidently predicted that such a withdrawal would fatally weaken President Bashar Assad who "has succeeded Saddam Hussein as the principal bad actor in the region. Syria, an island of dictatorship in a sea of liberalization," according to Krauthammer, "is desperately trying to destabilise its neighbors."

But Krauthammer's main target was as much the "realists" as Assad, as he railed against a Mar. 3 New York Times column entitled "Don't Rush on the Road to Damascus," that was written by Flynt Leverett, a fellow at the Brooking Institution who headed Middle East affairs in Bush's National Security Council until 2003.

"The turmoil unleashed in Lebanon by the Hariri assassination," he noted, "may indeed represent a strategic opening, but not for the risky maximalist course that some in the administration seem intent on pursuing."

Leverett went on to argue that any attempt to establish a pro-Western government in Beirut would fail as a result of the resistance of fervently anti-American Hezbollah, the country's largest and best-organized party. That, in turn, would create "more instability in the region when the United States can ill afford it."

As for helping oust Assad, Leverett warned that the "most likely near-term consequence of (his) departure would be chaos; the most likely political order to emerge from that chaos would be heavily Islamist."

Clearly sensing that Leverett's arguments might be making headway within administration councils -- indeed, acting assistant secretary of state for the Near East David Satterfield had warned that Hezbollah stood to gain new power if Syria withdrew -- Krauthammer ridiculed them.

"This is no time to listen to the voices of tremulousness, indecision, compromise and fear," he wrote. "These people never learn. Here we are on the threshold of what Arabs in the region are calling the fall of their own Berlin Wall and our 'realists' want us to go back to making deals with dictators."

On Thursday, Bush explicitly called for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, a position that, significantly, had already been taken by France and was echoed by Saudi Arabia, which, in contrast to Krauthammer, reportedly believes it will actually save the Assad regime.

As to "regime change" in either Syria or Iran, on the other hand, insiders say he remains uncommitted, particularly given his new determination to forge closer cooperation with Europe. (

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Albion Monitor March 9, 2005 (

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