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The Freedom Agenda

The insidious legacy of WorstPresidentEver's damnable invasion of Iraq is that other despots around the world can use that as an example of why they must maintain their rule:

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Horror at the bloodshed accompanying the U.S. effort to bring democracy to Iraq has accomplished what human rights activists, analysts and others say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been unable to do by himself: silence public demands for democratic reforms here.

The idea of the government as a bulwark of stability and security has long been the watchword of Syrian bureaucrats and village elders. But since Iraq's descent into sectarian and ethnic war -- and after Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the other side of Syria -- even Syrian activists concede that the country's feeble rights movement is moribund.

Advocates of democracy are equated now with supporters of America, even "traitors," said Maan Abdul Salam, 36, a Damascus publisher who has coordinated conferences on women's rights and similar topics.

"Now, talking about democracy and freedom has become very difficult and sensitive," Salam said. "The people are not believing these thoughts anymore. When the U.S. came to Iraq, it came in the name of democracy and freedom. But all we see are bodies, bodies, bodies."

Ordinary people in Syria are hunkering down, and probably rightly so, said Omar Amiralay, a well-known Syrian filmmaker whose documentaries are quietly critical of Assad's one-family rule.

"If democracy brings such chaos in the region, and especially the destruction of society, as it did in Iraq and in Lebanon, it's absolutely normal, and I think it's absolutely a wise position from the people to be afraid to imagine how it would be in Syria," Amiralay said. "I think that people at the end said, 'Well, it is better to keep this government. We know them, and we don't want to go to this civil war, and to live this apocalyptic image of change, with civil war and sectarianism and blood.

. . .Meanwhile, Syria's people remain spectators of their government's maneuvering, free to watch it but not to speak.

They enjoy the small freedoms that their neighbors in dangerous Iraq no longer do -- such as the ability to go out after dark. This month, after breaking the daily Ramadan fast, families chugged in their cars up the steep roads of Mount Cassion to stroll, sip colas and fruit drinks and take in the view of Damascus spread out below.

Seated on a plastic chair on the road with a friend, real estate salesman Mohammed Yousif gestured toward the city. Green lights of mosques glowed among the white lights of a capital fully powered and at peace. Speaking to a foreign journalist, the 42-year-old salesman measured his words carefully, answering questions with the blandness often seen in Iraq before Hussein was toppled.

"We are talking and enjoying ourselves," Yousif said, waving the nozzle of the traditional water pipe he and his friend were using to smoke flavored tobacco. "This is our democracy. This is our freedom."

So that's it? Has Bush's awe inspiring incompetence destroyed the hope that real positive change could come about without severe consequences?

Well, not necessarily. American military interventions in foreign countries have rarely produced free democracies. The best way to spread freedom is for the people to buy it themselves.