“One revolution is like one cocktail,” Will Rogers observed. “It just gets you organized for the next.”
The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the “Revolution of Purple Ink” in Iraq – these and other recent acts of defiance against tyranny have helped inspire the “Cedar Revolution” now under way in Lebanon. And that uprising, if it succeeds, is bound to lead to dramatic changes elsewhere.
But revolutions beget counter-revolutions. Those opposed to Ukraine’s independence from Russia poisoned and disfigured Viktor Yushchenko – who nevertheless went on to win the presidency. Suicide bombers were deployed to keep Iraqis from casting votes – a terrorist offensive that likewise failed. And in Lebanon, the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was meant to intimidate anyone speaking out against the long and exploitive Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
The result, of course, was the opposite of what Hariri’s killers intended. Every day since his death, pro-independence demonstrators have taken to the streets to demand that Syrian soldiers and spies leave their country.
This week, however, Hezbollah – the Lebanese terrorist organization responsible for the murder of more than 250 Americans – struck back. On Tuesday, Hezbollah staged the first of what is to be a series of demonstrations meant to counter the Cedar Revolution. With no apparent sense of irony, demonstrators shouted “No to foreign intervention!” while holding up portraits of Bashar Assad – the Syrian dictator responsible for maintaining Lebanon’s neo-colonial status and who almost certainly ordered the murder of Hariri, Lebanon’s leading patriot.
How many of the demonstrators were actually Syrians – a million Syrians reportedly now live in Lebanon – is unclear. That is not to say that Hezbollah has no domestic support, particularly among Lebanon’s Shi’a Muslims. Hezbollah has 11 of the 128 seats in Lebanon’s Parliament. And there are plenty of Lebanese who do not vote for Hezbollah but fear it and are anxious not to provoke it. With Syrian and Iranian support, Hezbollah maintains an armed militia that is more powerful than the Lebanese government’s military forces.
Hezbollah, Assad and the Iranian theocrats all understand how important Lebanon has become. They foresee that if freedom advances there, other revolutions will follow. By the same token, if freedom can be defeated, a chill wind will blow across the Middle East.
President Bush appears to get this, too. Speaking at the National Defense University in Washington at the same time as the Hezbollah demonstration was taking place in Beirut, he demanded that the Syrians withdraw all military and intelligence forces by May, when Lebanese elections are scheduled. If the Lebanese want to vote – in a free and fair election – for a candidate promising to bring Syrian soldiers back, let them. But despite the message that Hezbollah’s demonstrations are meant to send, that is unlikely.
Even Bush’s harshest critics can’t accuse him of unilateralism where Lebanon is concerned. France and Saudi Arabia are among the many nations that also have demanded Assad finally release his grip on his neighbor. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for the same thing.
Nevertheless, the outcome of the Cedar Revolution cannot be known. Not all revolutions succeed – think of Hungary in 1956 or Tiananmen Square in 1989. It could be that Syria’s current strategy – relying on Hezbollah to make its case in public, making limited concessions to relieve the weight of international pressure and using its Mukhabarat (Assad’s secret military intelligence service) in ways we can so far only imagine – will prove effective. What today are peaceful demonstrations, could tomorrow be turned into deadly riots or a civil war.
Nor can we be certain that Iraqis, even with unstinting American support, will defeat the Ba’athist insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists who still have plenty of explosives and sharp knives, and a strong inclination to use them to pile up corpses, create chaos and stop progress.
What is clear is that Bush has no intention of backing down. He seems as committed as he ever was to fomenting democratic revolutions in the greater Middle East, to expanding the boundaries of freedom and forcing tyrants into spider holes.
Almost two years ago, just before the start of the war in Iraq, when weapons of mass destruction was the issue that held the media’s attention, Bush said: “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life.”
On Tuesday, he again said he was “determined to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. … (O)ur security increasingly depends on the hope and progress of other nations now simmering in despair and resentment. And that hope and progress is found only in the advance of freedom.”
Will Rogers would drink to that.
(Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)