On April 18, US Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced a bill entitled the Syria Accountability Act, which would require the Bush administration to impose a variety of economic sanctions on Syria if it did not discontinue its illegal imports of Iraqi oil, end its sponsorship of terrorist organizations, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction, and withdraw its military forces from neighboring Lebanon.
While the American executive branch traditionally frowns on all congressional efforts to restrict its flexibility in setting foreign policy, this piece of legislation has greatly irked State Department officials primarily because of the fourth requirement.
Whereas the provisions pertaining to Syria's continuing violation of UN sanctions against Iraq, sponsorship of terrorist organizations, and development of chemical and biological weapons reflect the State Department's own self-declared policy objectives, the call for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon conflicts squarely with the policies of three successive American administrations.
The US has openly condoned, and tacitly supported, Syrian control of Lebanon for more than 10 years. No representative of the American government has publicly demanded, or even requested, that Syria end its occupation of Lebanon. In fact, US officials refuse even to use the word "occupation" in reference to the presence of 25,000 Syrian soldiers in Lebanon.
Public statements mentioning or even suggesting that Syria controls Lebanese policy decisions are carefully avoided, even as American officials head to Damascus whenever there is a crisis in south Lebanon. In 1997, the State Department took the unprecedented step of denying a visa to a former Lebanese prime minister who had been invited by a congressional subcommittee to testify about the Syrian occupation.
This policy of appeasement evolved in the late 1980s as a means of "stabilizing" Lebanon and coaxing Damascus to join the peace process with Israel. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 upped the ante.
Believing that Syrian participation in Operation Desert Storm would facilitate Arab support for the US-led Gulf War coalition, US officials gave Damascus a green light to invade east Beirut two months later and sweep away the last remnants of Lebanon's First Republic.
American acceptance of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon was not, as is often assumed, a case of US officials deferring to Arab or European sensibilities. The American government decided to back Syrian control over Lebanon much earlier than most of its counterparts around the world.
Many Arab regimes were publicly critical of Syrian involvement in Lebanon until Damascus completed its conquest of Lebanon in 1990 with American backing. The French persisted even longer, pressing (unsuccessfully) for a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Syria's seizure of east Beirut.
That the international community has today come to accept Syrian hegemony in Lebanon is due in no small part to this early policy of appeasement by the world's lone superpower.
AMERICAN appeasement has also discouraged resistance to Syrian authority within Lebanon itself. American reaction to Michel Aoun's failed 1989-1990 uprising against Syrian forces demonstrated to the Lebanese that taking up arms is virtually suicidal when Damascus can deliberately shell civilian population centers without evoking substantial American criticism.
Even peaceful opposition to the Syrian occupation has been discouraged by the US. Efforts to organize boycotts of the Syrian-orchestrated electoral process in Lebanon have been thwarted by US diplomats, who repeatedly urge Lebanese politicians and the public to participate (and then afterwards praise the high turnout of the elections).
The Syria Accountability Act, while well-intended, ignores the role of the US in legitimizing the Syrian occupation. Although economic sanctions against Syria can and should be strengthened, this alone is unlikely to have a significant impact on Syrian control of Lebanon - the US does not provide Syria with any economic assistance, and bilateral trade between the two countries is already minimal.
The most important step that America can take to end Syrian control of Lebanon is to begin publicly criticizing it. Since international and Lebanese opposition to Syrian hegemony is kept in check by the perception that America condones the occupation, the Bush administration should make it clear that this is no longer the case.
Relatively mild American criticism of Damascus after the collapse of US-sponsored Syrian-Israeli peace in the spring of 2000 sparked a wave of unprecedented calls in the Lebanese press for a Syrian withdrawal.
A public declaration by the Bush administration that Syria should withdraw its troops may be all that is needed to unleash the forces of liberation from within Lebanon.
The writer is the editor of the monthly online publication Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.