CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. - Tiny Lebanon once again looks like a fulcrum for what's happening in the Middle East. Indeed, earlier this month President Bush and his supporters were claiming that the anti-Syrian demonstrations there were leading a new wave of democratization that could serve American interests in the region and could even - along with the success of January's election in Iraq - be seen as somehow "justifying" the invasion of Iraq.
Well, yes and no ...
Let me say first that I strongly supported Mr. Bush when he vowed in his State of the Union speech Feb. 2 that "America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond.... Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens, and reflect their own cultures." This is a wonderful, visionary goal that would seem to reverse several decades during which Washington supported many authoritarian governments in the region.
Then in mid-February, in Lebanon, the atrocious killing of former premier Rafik Hariri gave a big boost to the movement of Lebanese citizens opposed to Syria's meddling in their country's affairs. (They accused Syria of organizing the killing, though no evidence of that has yet emerged.) Anti-Syrian demonstrations started building in Beirut. Bush exulted that this citizens' movement might drive out the 14,000 troops that Syria has long maintained in Lebanon; and some US critics of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even speculated that popular anger against him might soon erupt inside Syria, too.
Mr. Assad, apparently cowed, said he would pull his troops out of Lebanon - even if only in stages. It looked to many as though Bush's campaign against him, allied with the anti-Syrian movement in Beirut, had Assad on the run.
But the situation became much more complex. On March 8, the Lebanese group Hizbullah organized a massive counterdemonstration in Beirut that "thanked" the Syrians for what they'd done in Lebanon. Hizbullah also made clear it was not prepared at all to comply with US and UN demands that it disband and disarm the 5,000-man militia it maintains in southern Lebanon.
Hizbullah is a powerful political presence in the land of the cedars. It's the dominant current in the Shiite community, which makes up just under half of Lebanon's population. It has 12 members in the 128-member parliament - and ironically, if Syria's influence over Lebanon is reduced, Hizbullah will likely gain more seats in the elections scheduled for May. The party's leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, is patient and smart, and has built sturdy alliances with many other Lebanese politicians, Muslim and Christian.
After Hizbullah's demonstration, Washington did an apparent about-face, with unnamed officials telling The New York Times they were now eager to see Hizbullah incorporated in Lebanon's political system.
Since then, there's been another twist. On Monday, an anti-Syrian crowd - larger than that at the earlier Hizbullah demonstration - gathered in Beirut. But notably, neither this crowd nor any of the other anti-Syrian demonstrations before it ever called for disarming Hizbullah's militia. It is significant, too, that all the demonstrations of recent weeks have been dominated by the red and white of Lebanon's national flag. Moreover, miraculously for Lebanon, the demonstrations have all remained quite peaceful - thus far.
So maybe there is a new wave of real democratization in Lebanon: one in which even deep differences can be resolved through peaceful means. Much remains to be done if this is to continue. First, everyone concerned should work together to make sure the May elections are peaceable, as free and fair as possible, and - crucially - free of all manipulations by outsiders - whether from East or West. If Americans or other Westerners want to foster democracy in the Middle East, the last thing they should do is try to skew the elections in Lebanon, or anywhere else. Democracy is about respecting difference, and finding ways to deal with it through deliberation - not manipulation or the use of force.
Which brings me, sadly, to Iraq, where national elections were held under the shadow of the gun in January - but despite Wednesday's inaugural session of the National Assembly, as yet, the winners of the election have not been able to take power or even to form a government. Many Iraqis who risked their lives to vote have been sorely disappointed. Increasing numbers of them are asking if the US ever actually plans to hand over power, and to leave their country.
"Democratization" still has a long, long way to go in the Middle East. In Palestine as in Iraq, successful elections were held - but the winners still have not been able to enjoy any real fruits of their victory. In those places, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the region, deep-seated internal differences still need to be worked out - and the US, as an outsider, should hold back from making substantive input into those deliberations.
If the hoped for democratization does continue throughout the region, it will probably come with as many surprising twists and turns as in Lebanon. But at least so far, in Lebanon, the people have provided a fine example of how to do it - addressing their differences through nonviolent means. We should all support that. And we Americans should support the real empowerment of elected leaders where we do have responsbilities and influence: in Iraq and Palestine.
• Helena Cobban, who was the Monitor's correspondent in the Middle East from 1976 to 1981, is working on a book about violence and its legacies.