No Premature Evacuation

Otherwise it will be open season on Arab democrats


It might please Bush administration officials to know that twice during the funeral on Wednesday of slain Lebanese journalist Gebran Tueni, the United States was applauded: the first time when the ambassador in Beirut entered the church where the funeral service was to be held, the second while Tueni's coffin was accompanied by tens of thousands of chanting, angry mourners to the cemetery. With a bit of luck, this item might even find its way into Arabic newspapers courtesy of the Lincoln Group.

Writing in the Washington Post last Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued, "Supporting the growth of democratic institutions in all nations is not some moralistic flight of fancy; it is the only realistic response to our present challenges." In other words, global democracy is the ticket to greater American security. If any institution in the Middle East can be considered democratic, indeed Babel-like in its diversity, it is Tueni's newspaper, Al-Nahar. Though the publication has often been described as a staunch critic of Syria, it has also been a house of many mansions, publishing columnists friendly with the Syrians, others with much-too-comfortable access to Lebanese intelligence chiefs, luminous polemicists, liberal clerics, dispassionate analysts, dusty stenographers, gifted novelists, world-class poets, forgettable apparatchiks, and many more in a daily feast of broadsheeted contradiction.

In being open to everyone else's agenda, the newspaper paradoxically retained its own independence, ending up mostly serving the agenda of its owners, the Tuenis—Gebran, but also his father Ghassan, who turned Al-Nahar into a national institution starting half a century ago and who has just buried his third and last child. That's why Gebran's assassination on Monday was viewed as such a national calamity: Not only was an elegant, charismatic figure obliterated in an instant, the institution of Al-Nahar was seen to be existentially threatened.

There was never any doubt that Syria was behind his murder. There are those who will, out of sheer malice, demand that Bashar Assad's fingerprints be lifted from the detonation device before they can believe such a reckless accusation (what they fear most, of course, is finding themselves on the same side as the Bush administration). But Tueni knew who was after him, as did the foreign ambassadors who frequently warned about the dangers to his life. He had been threatened by the Syrians, several times even publicly, if deniably, in their official media. Much the same can be said of other Lebanese officials, politicians, and journalists who either have been killed, have left the country, or remain virtual prisoners in guarded residences to avoid liquidation.

Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader at the epicenter of Syria's crosshairs, put it bluntly on Tuesday, telling Reuters: "Gebran Tueni and Al-Nahar were being threatened for a long time by the Syrian regime. … We got the message. We will persevere." In an interview with CNN that same evening, he went further, calling Assad "sick" and accusing Syria, for the first time openly, of having murdered several prominent national figures, including Jumblatt's own father Kamal, President Rene Mouawad, and the Sunni Mufti Sheikh Hassan Khaled.

The Syrian regime today also stands accused of having ordered the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. A United Nations investigation of the crime is moving forward, and on the day Tueni was killed, the German magistrate in charge of the inquiry, Detlev Mehlis, released his second report describing his team's progress. The Tueni killing was likely timed to coincide with the release.

Mehlis pointedly wrote that "the investigation has continued to develop multiple lines of enquiry which, if anything, reinforce [the] conclusions" of his first report. UN investigators had earlier found, among other things, "converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in [the Hariri murder]"; and affirmed that "given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge."

The relevance of all this may not be immediately obvious, though the fact that today Iraq is holding its second major election—and effectively its third countrywide referendum—in less than a year might help explain it. It's simply this: As Americans, no doubt legitimately, look forward to a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, their impatience shouldn't mean adopting an "after me, the deluge" attitude, because that would lead to open season being declared on the region's democrats—people like the Tuenis. In places like Iraq and Lebanon, as columnist David Ignatius wrote earlier this week, now is a time for assassins; "The shame for America isn't that we have tried to topple the rule of the assassins, but that we have so far been unsuccessful."

On the day after Tueni's death, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, one Faysal Mekdad, proved how even the tedious functionaries of despotisms end up sounding like the thugs they represent. In a closed door session at the UN, Mekdad is said to have told another Arab ambassador, "So now every time that a dog dies in Beirut there will be an international investigation?" He was referring to the fact that the Lebanese government had, just the day before, requested that the UN investigation of the Hariri murder be expanded to include the dozen or so bomb explosions that have occurred since February, and that have killed not only Tueni, but also Samir Kassir, George Hawi, and several others, including three South Asian workers and an old man, and severely injured Lebanon's defense minister and a prominent television anchorwoman.

The Security Council might endorse the Lebanese proposal as soon as today, in a resolution supported by the U.S., France, and the United Kingdom—though Russia and China, never eager to tighten the screws on autocrats, oppose it. This resistance is worrying; a watered down or vetoed resolution could again undermine Lebanese efforts to investigate the crimes. Syrian intimidation and Syria's remaining allies in the Lebanese security services have helped delay previous efforts to uncover leads. The internationalization of Lebanese security when it comes to Syria, in the same way as the internationalization of security in Iraq (regardless of America's many blunders in the country), is essential to avoid a slide into something far worse.

That's not to say the U.S. should become fireman to the world. However, in those places where democrats have made headway, there may be a heavy price to pay for unreserved abandonment. As Rice observed about the Middle East: "When the citizens of this region cannot advance their interests and redress their grievances through an open political process, they retreat hopelessly into the shadows to be preyed upon by evil men with violent designs." Should this matter to Americans? One would have thought that 9/11 answered that question.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.