Now, very suddenly, it does. In the days since former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was blown up on Feb. 14 (while driving in front of the St. George, as it happens), Beirut has become the new epicenter for democratic hopes in the Middle East. A peaceful uprising has begun, mobilizing Lebanese who blame Syria for the bombing. Never mind that the Syrians deny responsibility, and sent condolences. Never mind the apologists who claim even the worst thugs in the Syrian intelligence services wouldn't be dumb enough to do away with the incredibly rich and well-connected Mr. Hariri.
"Oh no, no, no. That's missing the point completely," a woman who was out marching in the Beirut demonstrations told me on the phone. "The Syrians aren't that stupid? The Syrians are dictators. What they do is dictate. That's all they know how to do. Hafez al-Assad [who ruled Syria from 1969 until his death in 2000] used all the tools of violence, but he had political instincts and a strategy. This guy [his son, President Bashar al-Assad] uses the same tools, but he has no instinct. There is no strategy. This was just punishment. 'Hariri defies us? Let's kill the son of a b----!'"
What the Lebanese protestors are saying is what many Arabs are feeling: they're fed up with all these dim-witted dictators. And because this protest movement in Beirut is spontaneous, it has street cred that's inspiring people all over the region. Important as the Palestinian and Iraqi elections were last month, Israeli occupiers and American occupiers actually dictated those exercises in democracy. So in the eyes of many Arabs, they were somehow tainted.
If President George W. Bush really believes his soaring rhetoric about freedom and liberty and human rights, and I think he does, then Lebanon's home-grown democracy movement is a critical test case of his commitment to push those agendas forward. But how? At the point of a gun, again? Not likely.
Enter the French. As part of Bush's charm offensive this week in Europe, he's been saying he wants advice, and French President Jacques Chirac was ready with plenty of that. In fact, France and the United States worked together to push Resolution 1559 through the United Nations Security Council last year, demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon and stop interfering in Lebanese elections. They may well move toward some sort of multilateral sanctions regime against Syria now, broadening the economic sanctions Washington imposed last May. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty pushing and shoving, the differences between Bush and Chirac are almost as serious as the divide two years ago about how best to disarm Saddam Hussein.
The French want to focus mainly on liberating Lebanon, not punishing Syria. But the Bush administration has a long list of complaints against Damascus and can't seem to decide which is the most important: forcing it to cut back support for Palestinian radicals, making it crack down more effectively on jihadists headed for Iraq, undermining its ties to Iran or, possibly, eliminating the Assad regime altogether. (Syria said today it will redeploy some of its troops in accordance with the 1989 Taif agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war, but that is too little, too late and beside the point as far as Assad's opponents are concerned. Syria's security forces, mostly out of uniform, far outnumber its troops in Lebanon.)
The Bush administration has also focused a lot of attention on Hizbullah, the Shiite militia and "Party of God" that sprung up after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and has been heavily backed by Iran and Syria ever since. Washington long ago put Hizbullah on its post-9/11 lists of terrorist organizations and it wants the Europeans to do the same.
The French refuse, not because Hizbullah doesn't have a terrorist past, but because for better or worse it will have to play a role in Lebanon's future. Did Hizbullah bomb and kidnap Israelis and Americans--and French--and anybody who worked with them in Lebanon throughout the 1980s? Yep. Has Hizbullah carried out terrorist attacks as far away as Argentina? Indeed. Did it keep up the attack on Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon so relentlessly for 18 years that Israel finally decided to withdraw completely in 2000? Absolutely, and it continues to fight Israelis occupying a little corner of Syria on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier called the Sheba Farms. Hizbullah also has coordinated some of its attacks on Israel with radical Islamic organizations operating in the occupied territories. So, in the global war on terror, Hizbullah should be on the enemy roster, just like Al Qaeda, right? You can certainly see why Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would think so.
But if we really want to liberate the Lebanese, lumping Hizbullah together with Osama bin Laden's lunatic cronies is counterproductive, a point that was often made by the late prime minister Hariri himself. In fact, more than a quarter of Lebanon's people are Shiites, and Hizbullah is the most revered of the Shiite political parties, precisely because its militia fought so long and hard against the Israelis. It's already represented in the Lebanese Parliament and on any day of the week, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah can put as many people in the streets as all the anti-Syrian protest groups combined. Moreover, its interest in fighting Israel is much less ideological and much more local than is usually portrayed. Hizbullah wants Palestinian land liberated so Lebanon can send back hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees on its territory, most of whom are in Shiite areas. That's a very tough political problem, but hardly the kind of cosmic, confrontational ideology that drives Al Qaeda.
Now, as Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt is making clear, Hizbullah has to decide whether it thinks the future of Lebanon lies with Syria or with the Lebanese people. If it turns against Damascus, then Syria's Lebanese holiday is over. So, instead of isolating and excoriating Hizbullah at this point, Washington might do better by looking for ways to encourage it to join the opposition and draw it into the pro-democracy movement. Certainly that's what Walid Jumblatt has been thinking.
Turn terrorists into democrats? That's not as incongruous as it sounds. The Palestine Liberation Organization was a terrorist group, by most definitions. Now its leaders are hailed as legitimate elected officials. Twenty-five years ago one of the most infamous international terrorist organizations in the world was a Shiite group called the Dawa Party, many of whose cadres eventually became involved with Hizbullah and carried out terrorist acts that included kidnapping Americans and blowing up the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. (The Dawa was fighting Saddam Hussein, in fact, and Washington and Kuwait were backing him.) Now Dawa Party leader Ibrahim Jafari may well become the new elected prime minister in Baghdad, with Washington's blessing. So, if politics have made terrorists our strange bedfellows in Palestine and Iraq, why not Lebanon? It's a tough call, and there's no guarantee Hizbullah will take on this role. But only if it does is there a real chance Beirut can emerge as the center of the center of the new, democratic Middle East.