George Bush seems to want to be the president not of the United States but of the world.
Indeed, since his reelection in November, Bush has made foreign policy – a subject about which he displayed scant interest prior to September 11, 2001 – his primary focus. But, as with anyone who is new to complex subject matter, he has not always been graceful in his embrace of it.
This can lead to embarrassing contradictions, as we saw this week.
The president, appearing at the National Defense University, declared that, "Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon's future belongs in your hands."
Unfortunately for the president, on the "today" when he was speaking, one of the largest crowds ever to gather in the history of Lebanon was protesting against the approach that Bush has counseled for that country. This does not necessarily mean that Bush is wrong. But it does mean that he looked like something of a fool when he suggested that "all the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience" at the same time that the streets of Beirut were filled with 500,000 people chanting anti-US slogans and expressing sympathy with Syria.
Make no mistake, I'm on the side of the Lebanese people who want Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, just as I am on the side of the Palestinian and Israeli people who want Israel to end its occupation of Palestine and of the Iraqi people who want the United States to end its occupation of their country.
But these are not issues that should be decided by American policy makers. They should be decided by the citizens of the countries themselves, and the way to do that is with a popular referendum.
There is a very good model for such voting: the 1999 referendum in which the voters of East Timor rejected occupation of their territory by Indonesia. That referendum, which was organized by the United Nations Mission in East Timor (Unamet), saw 78.5% of East Timorese vote for independence. Indonesia grudgingly accepted the new reality – under the watchful eyes of United Nations peacekeeping forces – and with 450 years of foreign occupation finally ended, East Timor emerged as a free and democratic nation.
Why not follow the same course in those Middle Eastern countries where the climate seems most ripe for democratic experimentation?
Let the people of Lebanon vote--under the watchful eye of election monitors from the UN, the Carter Center and other international agencies--on whether they want the Syrians to leave on the more-or-less immediate timetable that Bush is promoting. My bet is that the majority of Lebanese voters would tell the occupiers to exit. But as someone who has spent a good deal of time in the region, I suspect that the vote would be closer than many observers from afar imagine. That's because after the horrific instability and violence of the 1980s, there is a portion of the Lebanese population that sees the Syrian military presence as a stabilizing force in a country that is deeply divided along lines of religion, ethnicity and class. The fact is that pro-Syrian parties have won a lot of votes in Lebanese elections, and it is not unreasonable to think that they will continue to do so in the future.
If President Bush really believes, as he told the Lebanese people on Tuesday, that "Lebanon's future belongs in your hands," then he should support a popular referendum that could settle the question of what future the Lebanese people want.
The president should not stop there. He should also support similar referendums regarding the occupations of Palestine and Iraq -- where polls suggest there is widespread opposition to the presence of foreign military forces.
If the president wants to lend credibility to the stirring statement he made in his speech at the National Defense University--"(Authoritarian) rule is not the wave of the future. It is the last gasp of a discredited past"--then he should begin by backing popular referendums and then making it the policy of the United States to abide by the will of the people of Lebanon, Palestine AND Iraq.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. John Nichols's new book is Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire.
© 2005 The Nation