Freedom for Lebanon

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 George W. Bush's calls for democratisation of the Palestinian Authority. Now there is the Syria Accountability Act of 2002, which demands that the US help end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and restore freedom there.

"Nation-building" is becoming increasingly popular in Washington. Any number of lawmakers are moving towards the view that democracy begets stability, rather than the reverse. They are also beginning to support the radical notion that the US 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 weekend's news that Syrian- or Iranian-backed Hizbollah 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 US immigrants from the Middle East, and the groups that represent them, are mounting a grass-roots push for Middle East democratisation. Jewish groups are part of it - but not the leaders. To understand, it helps to trace the origins of the Syria legislation, which has 163 supporters in the House of Representatives (House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas was an early supporter) and 42 in the Senate. The legislation emanated not from the 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, Mr Abdelnour departed war-torn Lebanon in his youth. In the US, 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 enjoyed a career as an investment banker, working at Michael Milken's Drexel Burnham Lambert.

But as the Syrian occupation took its toll, Mr Abdelnour became increasingly impatient with US policy towards 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 US would tolerate terror in Lebanon. He did not share the Clinton administration's toleration of Lebanon's domination by Syria.

Mr 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, Mr Abdelnour believes that continued Syrian influence has created a "Vichy Lebanon". Especially troubling, he says, are Saudi Arabia's support of Syria and US tolerance of that support. A Christian, he seeks the establishment of the sort of liberal state that was envisaged when Lebanon was decolonised.

He is not alone. In 1997, he and 55 other Lebanese-Americans created the US 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 Hizbollah. More than 10,000 people have joined; while mostly Christian, the membership also includes some Muslims and some Jews. The group links America to progress in Lebanon: its emblem superimposes Lebanon's national symbol, the cedar, on a waving US flag.

The committee joined other immigrant associations to create the Syria Act, which calls for the US to back efforts "to halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction" - and generally 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. As Elias Saadi, a US-born cardiologist of Lebanese extraction, told Congress recently on behalf of the Coalition of American Lebanese Organisations: "America has been talking to Syria for years and has failed to convince or persuade them in any way. Talk does not work with Syria." The Syria Act's supporters believe any acceptance of terror or individual abuse encourages further terror.

A second feature is their view that democratisation must precede investment if Lebanon is to thrive. Mr Abdelnour wants to return to Lebanon to rebuild it but rejects a Chinese-style path to freedom via economic growth: "I don't want an arrangement where you have to partner with this warlord who take 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 democratised and disarmed Iraq could supplant Saudi Arabia as America's main Arab friend, reducing traditional US reliance on the Saudis. And without US tolerance of Saudi support for Syria, the argument goes, Lebanon might have a shot at becoming at least a Hong Kong rather than a Hanoi.

Today, such a vision is more dream than plan. Still, it helps explain why Mr Bush has garnered support for his Iraq policy. The democratisers believe that it is the trend of democratisation that matters, not the order in which that democratisation proceeds. The end of a containment policy for Iraq, they assert, offers the best chance of rescue for that ultimate casualty of containment, Lebanon.

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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