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From Mar. 13, 2005:

Look Who Has a Shot at the Nobel Peace Prize

TOWARD THE END OF HIS LATEST RHETORICAL FLIGHT INTO liberal idealism, at the National Defense University last week, George W. Bush called the roll of high-minded American initiatives in the past century: Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, Harry Truman’s Marshall Plan, the Reagan Doctrine. Three of the four Presidents invoked were Democrats, and the policies cited were spiritually quite the opposite of the Bush Doctrine, at least so far. They emphasized poverty and economic development over military action. They assumed, perhaps naively, the best about human nature.

It has been clear from the start that if President Bush was serious about his lovely rhetoric of freedom, his policy would have to involve more than the use of force. He would have to make a leap of faith about the ability of oppressed, impoverished and largely uneducated people to govern themselves. He is now midair in that leap and working without a net. “All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience,” Bush said at the National Defense University. “The American people are on your side. The momentum of freedom is on your side, and freedom will prevail in Lebanon.”

As the President delivered these remarks, however, the people of Lebanon had a message for him: half a million of them–far more than had attended any pro-democracy rally–had been gathered in the streets of Beirut by the terrorist-military-civic group Hizballah. The demonstration’s message was both confusing and crystal clear. Was it pro-Syria? The demonstrators carried photos of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Was it pro-democracy? The demonstrators carried Lebanese flags. Hizballah was cleverly announcing its ability to either thwart or support the “liberation” of the country, depending on the hand it was dealt in the negotiations for a new government. It was also announcing that it was, by far, the largest and best-organized political force in Lebanon.

In fact, a month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese anti-Syrian opposition is in disarray. It has no clear leader. The Cedar Revolution can rally thousands of better-educated, upper-middle-class Lebanese in Martyrs’ Square–it is mockingly called the BMW Revolution, locally–but it couldn’t stop the reimposition of the pro-Syrian Prime Minister, Omar Karami, nine days after he was forced to resign. And so the Bush Administration finds its hopes for democracy in Lebanon almost completely dependent on the good faith of Hizballah–a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran, which provides the group with $100 million to $200 million annually, according to intelligence estimates–a group traditionally more interested in lobbing Katyusha rockets into Israel than in organizing municipal elections.

Hizballah’s power reflects a larger truth about the pitfalls of democracy in the region. “The religious fundamentalists are the only real countervailing power to the local oligarchs,” a Middle Eastern diplomat told me. “There may be, as President Bush believes, a general desire for freedom, but the number of people who really understand democracy and free-market economics is very small, and it’s groups like Hizballah that are ready to move into the vacuum.” Indeed, last week’s Hizballah rally may be a leading indicator of events in the Palestinian territories, where Hamas–another terrorist-military-civic group–dominated the municipal elections in Gaza and is poised to win the Palestinian parliamentary elections in July.

The Bush Administration is weirdly sanguine about this dangerous turn of events. In a way, the White House has been spoiled by the incomprehensible restraint and common sense of the Shi’ites in Iraq. Under the enlightened leadership of Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the Shi’ite majority has played the democracy game with gusto. It has acknowledged the importance of Kurdish and Sunni minority rights and seems unlikely to demand the constitutional imposition of strict Islamic law. Most important, it has resisted the temptation to retaliate against the outrageous violence of Sunni extremists, especially against Shi’ite mosques. Several Administration officials told me they hope that Hamas and Hizballah will respond similarly to the peaceful desires of their people, that they will emphasize stability, economic development and social services and avoid military posturing and attacks on Israel. Yes, the U.S. still considers Hizballah a terrorist organization, but it won’t insist on the disarming of the group’s militia, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, before Lebanon’s May elections.

One wonders what that noted hardfella Dick Cheney thinks of all this. One can only imagine the Republican wrath and utter ridicule–the Rush Limbaugh fulminations–if, say, John Kerry had proposed a similar policy: Let’s pin our Middle East hopes on the statesmanship of Hizballah and Hamas. But that is where the democratic idealism of the Bush Doctrine has led us. If the President turns out to be right–and let’s hope he is–a century’s worth of woolly-headed liberal dreamers will be vindicated. And he will surely deserve that woolliest of all peace prizes, the Nobel.

At this point I think Kobe has a better shot.