When History Turns A Corner

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SANA / AP

WITHDRAWAL: Syrian President Assad meets with Qatari Prince Sheikh Hamad Bin Khlifa Al thani to discuss withdrawing troops from Lebanon

How can you tell when history turns a corner? An assassination in 1914, a sneak attack in 1941, a wall falling in 1989—each came with a bang that was impossible to mistake once it happened, even if no one saw it coming. Across the Middle East last week, a tide of good news suggested that another corner might be near. Amid the flush of springlike exuberance, though, it was hard to know which events history would immortalize. Was it President Hosni Mubarak's startling announcement that Egypt would hold its first-ever secret ballot, multiparty presidential elections? Was it the popular demonstrations in Beirut two days later that finally forced the resignation of the Syrian-backed Prime Minister and his Cabinet? Or did the start of something momentous come on Thursday, when Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah welcomed Syria's President Bashar Assad to Riyadh and not only told Assad to get Syria's 14,000 troops out of Lebanon but also announced to the world that he had said so?

It was less the scope of each event than their accumulation and potential for transforming the region that seemed so heartening. Yet it was also right to remember that progress in the Middle East invariably moves a few steps forward—then a few steps back. Even as thousands of Lebanese gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square on Saturday to call on Syria to end its occupation, thousands of Syrians cheered Assad as he told his parliament that he would make only a partial pullback of Syrian forces. "Bush, Bush, listen. The Syrian people will not bow!" chanted the crowd.

In Washington, the reaction was just as defiant. The Administration called anything less than total withdrawal an unacceptable "half-measure." Said a senior U.S. official: "This is gathering momentum, but it doesn't have an easy path."

Ever since George W. Bush came into office in 2001, he has talked off and on about bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East—a goal regarded by many as completely laudable but utterly unrealistic.

The region has long been a card catalog of repressive, hereditary kleptocracies, held in place by exported oil and internal-security forces, and, since Sept. 11, a source of violent enmity toward the U.S. But as Bush's second term opened, he was blessed with rare opportunities to throw U.S. weight and prestige behind signs of reform. So Washington turned up the rhetoric about democracy to lean on longtime Middle East recalcitrants.

The sudden upheaval in Lebanon, set in motion last month by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in itself might have been enough to permit the Bush team to issue a whispered "I told you so" to critics who thought the President's optimism was naive.

But that was not what the Administration was doing—and that too was a promising sign. The "don't gloat" mantra of Bush's father during the heady days of 1989 was back in vogue at the White House. In public, Bush allowed himself only this much satisfaction at a stop in New Jersey: "We're living in amazing times."

There are plenty of reasons to be circumspect while the changes set in motion take their unruly course. U.S. officials know that the progress of the past few weeks could just as swiftly be derailed.

They held their breaths when a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv threatened to refreeze the Israeli-Palestinian thaw. "Things can move quickly," cautioned a White House adviser, "for good and ill." Yet even those who might be predisposed to withhold praise appreciated the moment.

"The fact that there are people in the streets of Beirut calling for Syrian withdrawal would have been inconceivable six months ago," said Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton's former National Security Adviser. "I realize that my partisan friends would not like it if I said it, but the answer is, yes, there has been some success."

Last saturday capped an astonishing week: an unrehearsable combination of tragedy, popular will, carefully coordinated behind-the-scenes diplomacy and unusual allied unanimity. The most electrifying moment came on Monday, when 25,000 Lebanese defied a government ban and staged a rally in Martyrs' Square to coincide with a parliamentary debate on the Valentine's Day massacre of Hariri, which was widely believed to be the work of Syria. The Beirut gathering was as unprecedented as it was diverse, in a country where power is constitutionally divided among sectarian communities. Troops and riot police deployed around the city center, but they did not stop thousands from joining the peaceful throng. Inside, the parliamentary debate dissolved into chaos after pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami stunned the chamber by announcing his resignation. "Real independence is not given," said Issaf Chaker Skinner, a Lebanese woman in the joyous crowd outside. "It must be taken." The unprecedented images of people power that beamed across the Arab world on al-Jazeera, said State Department officials, were almost as important as the event itself.

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