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A hungry eye for Damascus?

MY HEART SANK when I read that Syrian exile Farid Ghadry met recently with Ahmed Chalabi, Iraq's deputy prime minister, in a Washington suburb. Ghadry heads something called the Syrian Reform Party. The party was formed three years ago, and is made up almost entirely of exiles, such as Ghadry, who left Syria when he was 10. ''Ahmed paved the way in Iraq for what we want to do in Syria," Ghadry told The Wall Street Journal.

The real heart-sinker was that the two met in the living room of Richard Perle, whom George Packer, author of ''The Assassins' Gate," calls the ''impresario of the neo-cons." Perle was among the leading intellectual lights urging forceful regime change in Iraq.

Perle told the Journal that ''there's no reason to think engagement with Syria will bring about any change," and he is worried that the conquistador zeal to spread democracy is diminishing within the Bush administration. Syria's strongman Bashir Assad ''has never been weaker, and we should take advantage of that," according to Perle.

And so regime change raises its head to hiss once again. But selling that apple to the Eves in the Bush administration won't be so easy this time around. Things have gone so badly in Iraq that I hope regime change won't gain a lot of traction outside of Vice President Cheney's office.

I doubt that Donald Rumsfeld will be all that interested in Syrian nation building. In Iraq he was less interested in the messianic urge to implant democracy than he was in the 9/11-given opportunity to prove his theories about a new, lightning-fast, American military. To achieve that end he single-mindedly focused on the race to Baghdad, refusing to even consider that getting to Baghdad might not mean mission accomplished, but only the beginning of a guerilla war.

The quagmire of Iraq has not only damaged his army, but guaranteed Rumsfeld's place in history as one of the secretaries of war who did the most harm to his country. When it comes to Syria, one hopes he would follow his own dictum: ''When you are in a hole, stop digging."

But the neo-conservative agenda is not just spreading democracy. It's American dominance -- ''benevolent world hegemony," as William Kristol and Robert Kagan call it.

As for Chalabi, he is often accused of seducing the administration with false intelligence into invading Iraq. But the fact is that the Bush administration desperately wanted to be seduced. If you are feeling charitable, you can say that Chalabi, having lived in exile for so many years, may just have been out of touch with the real situation in Iraq. But one suspects that Farid Ghadry may be no better informed about his homeland than was Chalabi.

One remembers that Perle was involved in the writing of a paper for Israel's Likud Party that said getting rid of Saddam Hussein should be a big priority. That same paper recommended doing damage to Syria as well.

One also remembers that Chalabi, in 1997, promised the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs that a new Iraq, with him in charge, would have friendly ties to the Jewish state. Yet when Chalabi ended up with a modicum of power in Iraq, and when one of his party members, Mithal al-Alusi, actually did visit Israel and advocated friendly relations, Alusi was thrown out of Chalabi's party. Several assassination attempts followed. But even Chalabi's detractors admire his skillful opportunism and his ability to reinvent himself -- the ''Jay Gatsby of the Iraq War," as constitutional adviser, Noah Feldman, called him.

Chalabi was once asked if he had deceived the Americans into invading Iraq, and he is said to have said: ''Never mind, we both got what we wanted." During a recent visit to Baghdad I tried to see Chalabi , but an aide e-mailed that they were not interested in someone like me who thought that the ''Saudi summer camps in Afghanistan" -- i.e. Al Qaeda -- had been more of a threat to the United States than Hussein.

For the moment, the Bush administration seems to realize that regime change in Syria would almost certainly bring to power people who would be more hostile to the United States than Bashir Assad. The slogan in Washington for the moment is ''behavior change," rather than regime change. But who knows? Those who pass through Richard Perle's living room don't give up easily.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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