Did the US-led invasion of Iraq restore American deterrence in the Middle East after it had been tattered by the precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993?
It is an open question.
On the one hand, the actions of Lebanese opposition leaders and parties since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri last week would indicate that the US has restored its credibility in the region. These opposition forces, led by people like Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, have been outspoken in their demand for an end to Syrian occupation of their country.
Jumblatt, who in the past was a strong backer of the Syrian government's occupation of Lebanon, has always been a local bellwether – sensing the direction of the prevailing winds blowing across the Levant and acting accordingly. His behavior over the past week indicates that he is certain the prevailing wind now gusts forth from Washington.
On the other hand, the proximate cause of the Lebanese opposition's call for the ouster of Syrian forces from their country tells a different story. Syria's apparent decision to kill Hariri, who recently had become the most powerful critic of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, was based on a cost-benefit analysis by Damascus. According to that analysis, the price America would make Damascus pay for the murder would be significantly lower than the benefit it would accrue from Hariri's departure from the scene.
Clearly, then, Syria has not been deterred by America's post-September 11 positions and actions in the region.
The same is true of Iran. The Iranian government's public embrace of Bashar Assad's Ba'athist regime late last week, which entailed the two countries' announcement of the formation of a mutual defense pact, was a clear sign Iran believes that in the game of chicken it is now playing with America the US will be the first one to back down.
Truth be told, the Bush administration has given both the Lebanese opposition and the Syrian and Iranian regimes reason to believe that their diametrically opposed interpretations of Washington's resolve are correct.
In its backing of the Iraqi elections and its shepherding of the process of Iraqi democratization, as in the president's soaring rhetoric about US support for democracy and human rights advocates throughout the region, the Bush administration has given hope to the Lebanese that America will stand behind them if they take action to free themselves of Syrian occupation.
But then again, the Bush administration has also given the Iranian and Syrian regimes good reason to believe that they can test America resolve and survive.
The US-led invasion of Iraq, and America's subsequent resolve to stay the course in that country in spite of the hardships, is not seen by these regimes as representative of American policy as a whole. These regimes view American action in Iraq against the backdrop of America's overall policies, and these other policies give them reason to believe that in a game of chicken, America will be the first to back down.
They see America continuing to embrace Saudi Arabia and Egypt as its allies. America's support for these countries remains stable in spite of the fact that both states are ruled by tyrannical regimes that encourage hatred and terrorism against the US and its allies through their media, religious authorities, education systems and government pronouncements.
Iran and Syria see Washington backing the Palestinian Authority's new president Mahmoud Abbas in spite of the fact that Abbas has said consistently that he will not raise a finger against Palestinian terrorists. They see Washington embracing Abbas and showering him with US taxpayer dollars at the same time as Abbas signs execution orders for Palestinians who have helped Israel combat terrorism and declares his intention to "reform" the PA security services by enlisting Hamas and Fatah terrorists in their ranks.
These glaring weaknesses in American resolve to stand forthright against terror and tyranny in the region combine with the fact that both the Syrian and the Iranian regimes see their confrontation with America as a life-and-death struggle.
If America forces a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon then Hizbullah, the Iranian terror proxy, will be vastly weakened and the forces for democracy and human rights in Syria and Iran will be emboldened to topple the regimes. They cannot believe that America is willing to pay the price of toppling them.
President Bush is now in Europe attempting to shore up the Atlantic alliance that was damaged by European opposition to the American-led war against Islamic terrorism and its state sponsors. The results of this trip will do much to make clear whether it is the Lebanese opposition or the Syrian and Iranian governments who have the better understanding of Washington's policies.
Two possible outcomes can emerge. The president may be successful in persuading the Europeans and the Russians to join the US in using the coercive tools of diplomacy – sanctions and isolation – against the Syrian and Iranian regimes. If this happens, then Damascus and Teheran will be presented with irrefutable evidence that, contrary to their view, not only does the US not lack resolve to confront them, Washington's resolve is so strong that it has convinced its erstwhile allies to act in concert with it.
A second possible outcome is that in his conversations with his European and Russian counterparts, Bush will be convinced that they are committed to continuing their policy of opposing US global leadership even at the cost of emboldening and empowering Syria and Iran.
If this occurs, Bush will be faced with a choice. He can prefer good relations with Paris, Berlin and Moscow to his own stated policy objectives.
If this is the outcome – and it will be made clear if Bush in any way is perceived as even slightly backing away from his stated doctrine of fighting terror and oppression as a means of winning the war – the Syria and Iran leaders can breathe easy as their democratic opponents are forced to relent or go underground.
On the other hand, if Bush does not relent but remains true to the policy he has articulated, in the absence of European and Russian support the Americans will be constrained to turn to the one tool of coercion they have in acting unilaterally to achieve their objectives – lethal force.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.