The worst of the Cold War-riors are back, the "realists" who tied the United States to the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein and the Saudi royal bigots. They've risen from their historical graves to warn against "instability" should we place too much pressure on Syria's Baathist regime.
Wait a minute, Dr. Realpolitik: Bashar Assad and his family mafia murdered Lebanon's prime minister. Then, forced to withdraw Syrian troops, they began a bombing campaign to destabilize a country that voted for freedom.
The Assad regime harbors die-hards from Saddam's murder machine and vigorously supports the Sunni-Arab insurgency in western Iraq.
Assad & Co. turn a blind eye to the use of Syrian territory to launch international Islamist terrorists into Iraq.
Syria's Baathist thugs continue to support terrorists who attack Israeli civilians and who are determined to prevent the rise of a rule-of-law state among Palestinians.
Let me see if I have this right: The collapse of the Assad regime would destabilize the Middle East? Exactly which stability are we talking about?
You bet that the fall of the House of Assad would create a period of turmoil in Syria. But there are various kinds of instability — the murderous sort Syria exports to its neighbors, and the kind that gives people a chance at a better future.
Regime change in Damascus may turn ugly. But the longer the people's will is suppressed, the worse the tumult will be.
Excusing dictatorships is never to America's advantage. The Shah always falls; the day comes when Saddam turns.
Turning a blind eye to Assad Junior's mix of malevolence and incompetence — as our deep thinkers recommend — would only prolong the current instability in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. If an interval of disorder in Syria is the price of increased stability in every neighboring state, that sounds like a bargain.
We live at a time when the popular will can no longer be ignored. Not all newly free societies will embrace American-style democracy or make the choices we'd prefer. But we needn't be their enemies — unless we continue our hypocritical and counter-productive support for strongman regimes left over from the last, awful century.
What should we do in Syria? There are several sensible steps:
* Don't fear the end of Assad's regime. It's pure good news.
* Continue building the international will to isolate Damascus if the regime doesn't cooperate with the U.N. probe into Syria's Lebanese murder spree. Keep up the diplomatic and economic pressure.
* When terrorist or Iraqi-Baathist targets are confirmed within Syria, strike them. This harms our enemies directly in their sanctuary, but also warns the Assad regime far better than words can do, while revealing the government's weakness to its people.
* Miss no chance to push the regime toward collapse.
* Don't fall for the warnings of apologists who claim that Muslim militants will seize control. They're the same fools who praised Saddam two decades ago.
The problem isn't what might happen to Syria tomorrow, but the damage Syria is doing to the region today. It's easy to imagine noisier regimes in Damascus, but not more vicious and subversive ones.
Of course, if we really wanted to see long-term, humane stability in the Middle East, we'd have to jettison our phony realists entirely and accept that the Middle East's borders have to change. The present frontiers of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon aren't about local affinities, but about bygone French and British spheres of influence. Those borders kill.
Despite the short-term disruptions it would cause, the best hope for the region would be the emergence of a Kurdish state that joined northern Iraq and the Kurdish territories in Syria (and other Kurdish regions in the future); a greater Lebanon that included Syria's coastal provinces; a rump Sunni-Arab state formed of Syria's desert provinces and western Iraq — and a Shi'a-Arab state at the head of the Gulf.
Our diplomats aren't that visionary, of course. They prefer to dismiss the desire for freedom of our Kurdish allies, while worrying about the mood of hostile, culturally bankrupt Sunni Arabs. Instead of exploiting the differences between Persian and Arab Shi'as, we drive them together. And we fail to see that Lebanon's culture is Mediterranean, not Middle Eastern.
We, the American people, the greatest force for positive change in history, let ourselves be conned into believing that the worst stability is better than the most hopeful instability. We've arrived at a bizarre point in our history when domestic extremists on both right and left agree that ridding the world of dictators is a bad idea.
We will never reduce the appeal of Islamist extremism until the Middle East is profoundly transformed. And the region cannot be fully transformed as long as our schizophrenic policies veer between support for democratic change and our default position of hugging vile dictatorships, whether in Riyadh, Damascus or Cairo.
No matter how much good we do and how many of our troops we sacrifice, our tolerance of duplicitous strongmen and bigoted regimes dilutes our finest efforts.
In the grand struggle to humanize the Middle East, the Assad regime has two flat feet planted firmly on the wrong side. Syrian activities kill American soldiers in Iraq, as surely as Damascus murdered Lebanon's prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in Beirut. Syrian-backed terrorists kill Israelis and subvert Palestinian efforts to build a respectable state.
Syria isn't an oasis of stability. It's an exporter of death and subversion.
Those who would preserve the Damascus regime on any count aren't merely out of step with the times — they're out of step with common sense and decency.
Ralph Peters' latest book is "New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy."
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