Place: Damascus. Scene: the office of the Syrian state newspaper. An editor has just been handed photos of the demonstrations in Beirut, where brave crowds demanded an end to Syria's occupation of Lebanon. "What should the headline say, boss?" a nervous underling inquires.
The editor thinks a moment, puffs on his cigar. "Twenty-five thousand Mossad agents riot in Beirut," he finally says.
It might have worked, once. But the entire Middle East seems to be remaking itself, and the old scapegoats have lost their power. Now Assad the Lesser finds himself under international pressure. This is a crucial moment in history, and it needs three things: momentum, pressure and the French.
Yes, the French. They come in handy here.
But! There are photos of Jacques Chirac shaking hands with various Assads; shouldn't that make us deeply suspicious? Remember, an old photo of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam somehow proved the United States sold Iraq 10 million tons of WMDs. (Which he also never had, remember.)
Ergo Chirac doing the diplomatic grip and grimace with a wizened old murderer and his chinless spawn must also mean France has some deep, dark ulterior motive here. Olives, that's it. It's all about the olive oil.
Of course the French have ulterior motives in wanting Lebanon free of Syrian control; they've long regarded the nation as rightfully belonging in their sphere of influence. Lebanon presents a fine opportunity to get a well-shod foot in the door of the emerging new Middle East. If Syria topples peacefully, then they can lecture America anew: See, that's how it's done.
Let them preen, if it makes them feel good. Welcome Back Kotteur, and all that. What's better: They come late to the party and help set the table, or they stay home and gossip about our cowboy matters? "Oh, sure, stick a fork in Bashar Assad, he's done -- but leave it to the Americans to use the wrong fork."
Why care about the Europeans at all? Because momentum is what matters now, and the more states that pile on, the better. This began, of course, with the assassination of Lebanon's ex-prime minister, which everyone now assumes was a clumsy bit of old-style Syrian statecraft. Whether Assad ordered the hit is in question; he's not regarded as having his father's brutality or craftiness. He's an eye doctor, for heaven's sake. But perhaps that means he can read the little tiny words at the bottom of the chart: uh-oh.
A few days later, Iraq TV aired a confession of a Syrian officer who admitted training the "insurgents." Uh-oh. Desperate for a little capital, Damascus coughed up Saddam's half-brother and a few dozen Tikriti miscreants who just happened to be kicking around in Syria, perhaps on an archaeology holiday. But that merely reminded everyone that Syria lets these guys hang around in the first place.
Then came terse words from Israel, announcing that it had proof Syrian elements were behind a recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. But this news was muted when the puppet government of Lebanon resigned en masse.
Oh, and somewhere in there Hosni Mubarak announced free, open, multiparty elections. Given Egypt's multi-millennia tradition of pharaonic rule, we should wait and see -- but at least the old man seems to be thinking ahead. There's no point in handing your country to your son if it's just going to string him up five years after you're gone.
The region, in short, has been destabilized, and three cheers for destabilization. At this rate Syria will be free, the mullahs will be toppled, and Saudi women will have the right to drive before the 2007 Benz models are unveiled. So to speak.
That would be too much to hope for, of course. Iran's nuclear ambitions are still a grave danger, Egypt is probably hunkering down to wait out the storm, and Assad could be preparing some old-style mass reprisals.
But perhaps democracy truly is the future of the Arab world. Perhaps the world may change, and the tyrants find no country that will take them in after the people have risen up. The old order's over.
Ah well. As Assad and Bogie remarked: They'll always have Paris.