Syria Out Doesn’t Mean U.S. In

Most real people had a 9/11 moment. Ann Coulter’s call to arms was particularly memorable. For exhorting, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity," she was even banished from National Review. This was indeed a puzzling purge, considering neoconservatives promptly adopted her recommendations, invaded Muslim countries, and killed their leaders.

The neocons have adopted all of Coulter’s recommendations, save the peaceful one. So long as it’s voluntary and doesn’t involve The Rack, I think that unleashing an army of missionaries on the Islamic patrimony would be far more efficacious than the military offensives currently underway. In fact, I’ve always suspected that an aversion to Christian conversion was at the core of the "girlie boys’" horrified response to Coulter’s cri de coeur.

When all is said and done, neoconservatives are committed cultural and religious relativists who firmly believe a good democratic heart throbs in every thorax. I don’t subscribe to that shibboleth, which is also why I think that Lebanon was a far more hospitable place when it was still dominated by Christians, and certainly worthy of the honorific "the oldest Arab democracy."

The Lebanese constitution still mandates power sharing: the president must be Christian and the prime minister a Sunni. But this sectarianism is just about the only facet of Lebanon’s political dispensation the Syrian "dynastic dictatorship" has retained.

Syria entered Lebanon during the civil war, ostensibly to keep the peace between the warring factions. That Syria was invited in 1976 by the Maronite Christians doesn’t justify a protracted occupation. Nor does it mean Lebanon can’t revoke the invitation. There comes a time – 29 years on – when a houseguest has outworn his invitation.

Syria’s latest political imposition was to extend puppet president Emile Lahoud’s term by three years. Action and reaction followed in quick succession. Disgusted, Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri resigned in October 2004, and the pro-Syrian Omar Karameh was ensconced in his place. Then on Feb. 14, business-as-usual for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ended with a blast – a bomb blast, killing Hariri. The tragedy saw thousands of Lebanese stream into the streets to protest Syria’s stranglehold on Lebanese politics.

The protesters blamed Syria for the assassination of the construction-industry billionaire – a patriot who was responsible for Lebanon’s recrudescence after the civil war. Hariri’s unconscionable slaying appears to have united Christian, Druze, and much of Muslim Lebanon (as well as Presidents Jacques Chirac and George Bush) against Syria and its stooges in Beirut. According to CNN, however, the demonstrations were composed mainly of Christians and members of the Druze community. Still, a young Maronite Christian protester preferred to underscore unity: "The unity among Christians and Muslims over this issue is a decisive element that will lead to the liberation of the country."

Bush has endorsed Kofi Annan’s investigation of the murder, and it’s certainly amusing to watch the White House, a bulldog with more bite than brains, loosen its grip on the beleaguered secretary-general for his alleged sins of omission in the oil-for-food affair. These, of course, pale in comparison to Washington’s sins of commission in Iraq. Also droll was how Hariri’s horrible demise cued the president’s staple speech about democracy (heavenly) and occupation (unheavenly). Is the Syrian occupation per se an impediment to Lebanese democracy, or is it that this particular occupier is insufficiently committed to majority rule? The president didn’t say.

Whodunit? French and American intelligence (not the most credible) agrees with (the more credible) Lebanese intuition and implicates the Syrians. It may well be the handiwork of hardliners and holdovers in Assad’s bent and brutal regime that oppose any and all reform, including of Syria’s relationship with Lebanon. In the aftermath of the assassination, Assad hastened to appoint his brother-in-law head of military intelligence, an indication he may be circling the wagons.

But the Hariri killing is far more likely the work of bred-in-the-bone Islamist fanatics – Shi’ite perhaps, whose quest for political dominance in Lebanon has been thwarted. Many Muslim Lebanese have been displeased with Syria for some time and impatient to regain their hegemony. Bush may be correct. Iraq, which the Shi’ites can now look forward to dominating, and where so-called Iraqi insurgents soak the soil with the blood of innocent Iraqis, might have been the catalyst for the killing in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, which Muslim Lebanese support unequivocally, is another likely culprit. Hariri’s main mission was the economy; Hezbollah’s main mission – terrorism – undermined Hariri’s. There’s more. Hariri had recently expropriated for development land claimed by Hezbollah. Theirs was a turf battle, pitting a proponent of progress and civil society against atavistic merchants of death. The latter need no special reason to eliminate a tremendously powerful and wealthy Arab moderate (with firm ties to the Saudis), a pragmatist who successfully straddled East and West. The liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz suggests, "Hariri’s assassination has eliminated Hezbollah’s most bitter foe in Lebanon."

Claims and counterclaims continue to circulate in the Arab world. Some discount the degree to which Hariri was at loggerheads with Syria. Imad Fawzi al-Shuaibi, head of the Strategic Studies Center in Damascus, told al-Jazeera: "The huge crowds that bid farewell to al-Hariri on Wednesday were not demonstrating their support for the Lebanese opposition, but rather were expressing their gratitude to, and admiration for, al-Hariri." (Well, okay.)

Shuaibi’s contention doesn’t quite stack up. Hariri was becoming increasingly radical in his stance against Syria. He joined the Christian-Druze opposition (led by firebrand Walid Jumblatt). Together, and in close collaboration with Paris and Washington, they pushed for the passage of UN Resolution 1559, which called on Syria to leave Lebanon. Bashar’s Ba’athists were unlikely to overlook such mutiny.

Implausible as Shuaibi’s rendition of events is, it’s still worth taking a very long perspective, such as Michael Young of the Lebanese Daily Star hints at:

"Most [Lebanese] opposition figures have avoided exploiting Syria’s difficulties with the United States to advance their agenda. Few would regard a Syrian pullout as a final divorce – quite the contrary. Even Jumblatt has said Syria can maintain forces inside Lebanon if it avoids intervening in Lebanese politics."

And this is precisely the kind of nuance one wishes Bush and his neo-nuts were capable of. We see the Lebanese groundswell through the filter of a media distorted by democratic demagoguery. However, should the U.S. charge headlong into Syria or Iran for that matter, there is no reason to think the Lebanese, who’ve been carrying signs screaming "Syria Out," won’t take to marching under very different banners.

It’s good that Hariri’s murder has improved the fractious Franco-American relationship. If the tragedy unites crescent and cross in Lebanon in common purpose, all the better. The best bonus for war-weary Americans will come about when the interminable neoconservative 9/11 moment, a flashpoint they have turned into an era, finally ends.

Read more by Ilana Mercer