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April 20, 2003

Friedman: Lebanon Is Key to Arab Modernizations

Though some experts in the ME suggest that it is Egypt that is the key to "building democracy and the economies in the region, Thomas Friedmansuggests Lebanon is central.
I was chatting with an Egyptian friend in Cairo two weeks ago when she got a joke e-mailed to her cell phone, 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 United States 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.

Last Sunday France's foreign minister Dominique de Villepin said, 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 is 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. [more]