By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN - April 16, 2003 - originalI was chatting with an Egyptian friend in Cairo two weeks ago when she got a joke e-mailed to her cellphone, which she immediately shared with me. It said: "President Bush: Take Syria — get Lebanon for free."
Now that it's become apparent that the Syrians have given military help to Saddam Hussein's army, and are alleged to be providing sanctuary for members of his despised clique, the question has been raised as to whether the Bush team might take out Syria's regime next. After all, when the Roto-Rooter truck's in the neighborhood, why not take advantage?
My short answer is this: There are many good reasons for the U.S. to promote reform or regime change in Syria, but we have no legal basis to do it now by military means and are not likely to try. Yet Syria, and countries like it, will be a problem, and we need a new strategic doctrine in the post-Saddam era to deal with them.
Let's explore this in detail. For me, the best argument for pressuring Syria is the fact that France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said on Sunday that this was not the time to be pressuring Syria. Ever since he blocked any U.N. military action against Saddam, Mr. de Villepin has become my moral compass: whatever he is for, I am against. And whatever he is against, I am for.
Yes, Mr. de Villepin did say, while actually visiting Lebanon, that the world should focus not on Syria, but on rebuilding Iraq and advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process. But what he neglected to mention is something I am also for, and France should be for and the world should be for: the end of Syria's occupation of Lebanon, which has been going on since 1976.
And that leads to the second-best reason for regime change in Syria: it could set Lebanon free. Lebanon is the only Arab country to have had a functioning democracy. It is also the Arab country that is most hard-wired for globalization. Trading and entrepreneurship are in Lebanon's DNA. Lebanon should be leading the Arab world into globalization, but it has not been able to play its natural Hong Kong role because Syria has choked the life out of the place.
Iraq is the only Arab country that combines oil, water, brains and secularism. Lebanon has water, brains, secularism and a liberal tradition. The Palestinians have a similar potential. Which is why I favor "triple self-determination." If Lebanon, Iraq and a Palestinian state could all be made into functioning, decent, free-market, self-governing societies, it would be enough to tilt the entire Arab world onto a modernizing track.
The third reason for taking on the Syrian regime is the fact that next to Saddam's regime, Syria's is the most repressive in the region, and the one most deeply implicated in protecting terrorists. Syria must get out of Lebanon, and Israel also needs to get out of Syria (the Golan), but that is going to happen only if there is a reformed Syrian government that no longer needs the conflict with Israel to justify its militarization of Syrian society.
But, as I said, we're not going to invade Syria to change Syria. So what to do? The Middle East expert Stephen Cohen offers a useful concept. He calls it "aggressive engagement — something between outright military engagement and useless constructive engagement."
Bush-style military engagement with Syria is not in the cards right now. But French-style constructive engagement, which is just a cover for dancing with dictators, is a fraud. The natural third way is "aggressive engagement." That means getting in Syria's face every day. Reminding the world of its 27-year occupation of Lebanon and how much it has held that country back, and reminding the Syrian people of how much they've been deprived of a better future by their own thuggish regime.
Aggressive engagement of Syria also feels right to me because a U.S. attack on Syria right now would make many Iraqis feel very uncomfortable about working openly with America. Iraq may be liberated from Saddam, but never forget that it is still an Arab country, dominated by an Arab narrative. Iraqis are not watching Fox TV.
Which is why I would also apply "aggressive engagement" — in different ways — to Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon. The Arabs need to force Mr. Arafat to retire, and the Americans need to test Mr. Sharon's professed willingness for a fair deal with a reformed Palestinian Authority.
Aggressive engagement in support of triple self-determination — for Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinians — would be a great way to follow up, and help consolidate, the liberation of Iraq.