- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

Though it still considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, there are clear signals the Bush administration might be ready to soften its stance toward the militant Shi’ite group.

During his meeting at the White House with Jordan’s King Abdullah Tuesday, President George W. Bush raised the possibility Lebanon’s Hezbollah may enter mainstream politics.

Mr. Bush asked Hezbollah to demonstrate its legitimacy as a political party by “laying down [its] arms and not threatening peace…. We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they are not.”

Some may see the recent Middle East events — particularly Syrian pullout from Lebanon and Mr. Bush’s “acceptance” of Hezbollah — as a wind of change sweeping the region. It would more aptly compared to a strong gale.

It would be hard to deny Hezbollah has not become a political reality and an integral part of the Lebanese political landscape. The group has 12 lawmakers in Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament. It has a large following in the Shi’ite community and assembled more than 500,000 people at a pro-Syrian rally week.

Mr. Bush, however, said both he and King Abdullah worry “that Hezbollah may try to derail the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.”

If Hezbollah’s behavior since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s is any indication, it would not seem to be trying to undermine the peace process. In fact, Hezbollah’s actions, including the massive pro-Syrian demonstration, was quite conciliatory. One should look at subtleties — for example, Hezbollah’s followers all carried Lebanese flags and not the party’s yellow banners, as was their past practice.

Speaking to the demonstrators, Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah thanked the Syrians for their help but stopped short of asking them to stay in Lebanon. Many analysts said, in fact, the gathering was Hezbollah’s goodbye bash for the Syrians.

The chain of events since Hariri’s assassination has been amazing. One could not have believed a few weeks ago that Syrian troops would start leaving Lebanon, as they have. It is even more incredible to see Syrian intelligence units start vacating positions in Beirut, as they did Tuesday.

Along the way, the Bush administration will undoubtedly claim some of the credit for these all-important changes. But at present caution is needed: Too much chest-thumping may send negative signals to the Middle East.

While credit should certainly be given where due, one should not lose sight of political realities. To be sure, a number of people consider the toppling of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as the factor that led to much of what is unfolding in the Middle East.

Syria might have never taken Washington’s threats to heart were it not practically surrounded by U.S. forces. More than 130,000 American troops are across the Syrian border in Iraq and the U.S. 6th Fleet is just a day’s sail away in the eastern Mediterranean. Damascus cannot ignore these facts.

Maybe with the knowledge the U.S. is pushing for more democracy, political inhibitions are slowly giving way to an increase in courage. Middle East politics’ dominant fear factor is slowly yielding to demands by people for a greater say in how they are governed and by whom.

In Egypt, a growing popular movement has called for greater electoral reform. Before, a single candidate — usually the president — ran unchallenged. Hosni Mubarak, who has governed with the authority of a pharaoh almost 24 years, now finds this might need to change. If real elections are held next fall, Mr. Mubarak may not face a guaranteed victory.

As a former French government minister told his American guests over lunch, “One of the side effects of democracy is that there are no preset outcomes.”

Samir Franjieh, a prominent leader of the Lebanese opposition, described current developments as “a unique phenomenon” resulting from popular movements’ demands for change,rather than from organized politics.

That’s why it is risky for Washington to claim too much victory. No doubt President Bush will be quite tempted to point to the Middle East changes and seek credit. That would partly justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq, something with which the administration still struggles, since no weapons of mass destruction were found nor were any links between Saddam Hussein and Islamist terrorists that attacked the U.S.

While Egyptians demanding changes in their political system, or Lebanese pushing for independence from Syria might welcome U.S. support, too much American backing could have negative repercussions. Washington should not forget there is still much anti-American sentiment in the region.

This is one of the first lessons Karen Hughes, the recently named undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, must learn as she goes about her new and difficult assignment.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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