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March 8, 2005

Unhappy With One Quagmire, Bush Looks for Another


by Paul Craig Roberts

How much longer can American prestige survive the embarrassments inflicted by President Bush?

Bush's demand that Syria immediately withdraw its troops from Lebanon is a ricochet demand. If Lebanon cannot have free elections while under foreign military occupation, how, asks the rest of the world, does Iraq have free elections when it is under U.S. military occupation?

Bush's latest guffaw-evoking bluster is the work of desperation. Every explanation and justification Bush has given for his ill-fated invasion of Iraq has proven false. There were no weapons of mass destruction. No terrorist links to Osama bin Laden. No WMD programs. The penultimate justification – to bring democracy to Iraq – fast faded when the Islamic Shi'ite winners announced that Islam would be the basis for the new Iraqi state.

The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri permitted the Bush administration to shift attention from its Iraq failure to Syria's presence in Lebanon, just as the U.S. invasion of Iraq shifted attention from Bush's failure to capture bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Bush hasn't sufficient troops to occupy Iraq and none to spare with which to invade Syria. But the lack of means does not stop Bush from issuing ultimatums. Bush's tough talk plays well to his supernationalist supporters at home.

Syria, of course, has its own reasons for getting out of Lebanon, and Syria's withdrawal lets Bush claim that his invasion of Iraq is spreading democracy to Lebanon. Yesterday Iraq. Today Lebanon. Tomorrow the Middle East.

This latest justification for invading Iraq was on no one's mind when the U.S. invaded. It is likely to be as short-lived as the other justifications. Throughout the Lebanese civil war from the mid 1970s until 1990, Lebanon was a collection of armed camps more numerous than those in Iraq today.

The Lebanese government invited the Syrians into Lebanon shortly after the outbreak of the civil war. Unlike the U.S. in Iraq, the Syrians have managed to perform the role of peacekeeper in Lebanon without leveling entire cities, destroying Lebanon's infrastructure, and killing tens of thousands of civilians. (This is not to say that in 1982 the Syrian government did not brutally put down an Islamic fundamentalist uprising in the Syrian city of Hama.)

Syria has a secular Alawite government. Now that Shi'ites are taking over in Iraq, Shi'ites in Lebanon – and especially the Iranian-sponsored and -controlled Shi'ite Hezbollah movement – are likely to gain additional political traction as well. Today, we are witnessing the creation of precisely the Shi'ite geopolitical bloc – the "Shi'ite crescent from Iran to Lebanon" – of which King Abdullah of Jordan warned, without effect, a deluded President Bush.

Proud not to be "reality-based," the Bush administration is oblivious to the situation on the ground. But reality in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia is up close and personal. The last thing wanted by the rulers of those countries, as well as the leaders of Egypt and Pakistan, is more instability that will play into the hands of such Islamist revolutionaries as Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But instability is rising, and the rulers of those countries now fear being swept away.

Syria had absolutely nothing to gain from the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Hariri. In fact, the assassination was a catastrophe for the Syrian government. It is Osama bin Laden's aim, and perhaps Iran's, to destabilize Lebanon and Syria in order to draw the U.S. in deeper. Instability serves bin Laden's revolutionary purposes and aids Iran by creating new problems for the U.S. in the region.

Today, Syria has begun to withdraw from Lebanon not because of U.S. and Israeli ultimatums but because of the threat of a new axis of Shi'ite power stretching from Tehran westward through southern Iraq into Lebanon, and then back into Syria itself from both Lebanon and Iraq. The secular Syrian government now sees far more danger from Iran and Islamists supported by Tehran than it does from the U.S. It may well be that Syria would like American protection from a rising Islamist and Iranian geostrategic revolution. The Bush administration, however, is too stupid to realize this.

The United States lacks the resources necessary to occupy the Middle East. Bush has failed to occupy Baghdad, much less Iraq. Indeed, U.S. troops could not even occupy Fallujah, a small city of 300,000. Unable to take control of the city, the Americans destroyed it. The U.S. cannot level every city in the Middle East.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq has brought to power long-suppressed Shi'ite majorities and shown Islamists that secular rulers can be overthrown. Change has begun that the U.S. cannot control, change that will exhaust American resources and will.


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    Paul Craig Roberts wrote the Kemp-Roth bill and was assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He was associate editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and contributing editor of National Review. He is author or co-author of eight books, including The Supply-Side Revolution (Harvard University Press). He has held numerous academic appointments, including the William E. Simon chair in political economy, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, and senior research fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has contributed to numerous scholarly journals and testified before Congress on 30 occasions. He has been awarded the U.S. Treasury's Meritorious Service Award and the French Legion of Honor. He was a reviewer for the Journal of Political Economy under editor Robert Mundell.

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