The collapse of Syrian influence in Lebanese affairs appears to be another victory for the cheerleaders of the New Domino Theory--tap on Afghanistan and Iraq, and Palestine, Ukraine, Egypt, Lebanon, and heaven knows where else will topple gracefully into the toga-soft arms of lady Liberty. There's little to bicker about in terms of the Bush administration's gamble for freedom (it's working), although the metaphor of a rotten stump being kicked over is probably closer here to the mark than visions of dominoes.
And though notes of interest will be publicly exchanged in the buzz over whether Mubarak is bending to our will or someone else's, and whether we have ourselves or an unknown Syrian stooge to compliment for the flowering of Lebanese democracy, who will remind us that the events playing out across the Middle East are but the latest reverberations of a game and gamble begun before any of the local regimes existed?What's happening in Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran completes a series of actions taken in the late 1950s--what we're watching are the last hot battles of the Cold War. Consider:
* In 1953, the CIA-orchestrated coup in Iran made Kermit Roosevelt the answer to a trivia question, permanently aggrieved the Persians, and predefined the American relationship with the Islamist regime that took power in 1979;
* In 1956, the French and British were driven away from the Egyptian-nationalized Suez Canal by an America unwilling to indulge European adventurism in a region in which great-power influence had already begun to collapse;
* in 1958, the Ba'ath Party came to power, Egypt and Syria merged into the United Arab Republic, and Lebanon survived a revolutionary scare that nearly tipped them into the U.A.R. as well--but not without a panicked call to President Eisenhower, who was urged to apply his own doctrine to Beirut. (He complied; an expeditionary force of Marines landed among wading sunbathers and passed into legend.)
These events set the stage for the Arab-Israeli wars of the subsequent decade; they established the disposition of the Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian regimes that would subsidize and guarantee the livelihood of the region's terrorist organizations; they set the framework for the alliance of nations dedicated to the elimination of Israel; and they, along with the timely arrival of American and British oil men, ensured that the Arabian Peninsula would remain isolated from the political development of its northern neighbors.
The itch being scratched in Lebanon is virtually as old as the modern state of Lebanon itself; ditto that in Iraq, where regional populations have been given a vote steadfastly denied them by the British colonials who penned the bounds of their territory and put down a pro-Axis rebellion there.
But the real origins of the Middle East quandary, which is only now beginning to be sorted out amidst a geopolitically healthy dose of controlled chaos, stretch back further than the 1950s, back, indeed, to 1918, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Given the extent to which the United States has been made chief constable of territories partitioned and abandoned by the British, French, Belgian, and Dutch empires, very little of what is happening in the Middle East should come precisely as a surprise. The tipping over of the old Iraqi regime--whether domino or stump--has resulted in the seizing of initiative against a series of economically underdeveloped and politically ossified adversaries with no strategic interest beyond the preservation of the status quo within their own boundaries.
Witness therefore the uneasy backpedaling of the Syrians, the visionary hindsight of Mubarak, and the uncertain seat-shifting of the Saudis. Freedom might be on the march, but so is institutional panic. No nation in the region beside Iran is willing to put down a pro-democracy rebellion. No nation in the region beside Iran, coincidentally, is interested in pursuing a nuclear weapon as anything other than a counterweight to the rise of--a nuclear-armed Iran.For the United States, this is the good news and the bad news. Iran may be easy to isolate--Russia notwithstanding--but so was North Korea. And unlike the other powers in the region, Iran can neither be tipped nor spooked into letting off democratic steam. It has painted itself into an political corner where concessions are non-negotiable because they are ideologically impossible. Nowhere else in the Middle East does this reality hold. Nowhere else does the United States run the risk of decisive policy failure.