January 26, 2011

Lebanon: Why Does It Matter?

As many of this blog's readers know, I am not inclined to think tiny Lebanon really matters all that much in terms of U.S. interests. As much as I personally love the country and enjoyed the years I spent there, I just do not see a lot of U.S. interests that should occupy the time of senior policy-makers or the resources of a debt-laden state. This, obviously enough, is not in my interests to say, but there it is. CNAS has a few interns, though, who have also spent some time in Lebanon, and I asked one of them, Gregory McGowen, to make the case on the blog why U.S. policy-makers should care about Lebanon against the backdrop of the Special Tribunal. Take it away, Greg...

The situation in Lebanon reflects a greater trend in the Arab world that is directly opposed to American interests, goals and values. Viewing Lebanon as a leading indicator of social and political currents in the Middle East is admittedly an imperfect approach to an entire region, but it does have its benefits. Given that Lebanon is…

A.) The Arab world’s closest model of a “true democracy” (which doesn’t say much, but does provide a rough backdrop to gauge its potential) in the midst of:

B.) One of the world’s most highly charged sectarian environments, and:

C.) A proxy arena for outside interests to play out their regional agendas and settle their scores at minimal risk to all but the Lebanese

…this tiny country of just over 4 million invites further evaluation of the interplay between Western and Arab ideals and aspirations in the greater region. The controversy surrounding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) tell us loud and clear what we can expect when A, B & C are thrown in the ring together: Political chaos, paralysis, violence and popular uprisings begetting more violence, until either foreign governments step in to “mediate” (read: stall the conflict 6-18 months, ignore the fundamental and highly contentious issues at the root of the conflict, listen to Nasrallah declare a “divine and historic victory”, and move on) or the country erupts into full-scale violence and civil war. I won’t even venture to guess what might happen tomorrow in Lebanon. I do, however, think it’s important for observers in Washington to step back from the STL specifically and, before making any assessments, to ask why Lebanon matters. What does it tell us? How does it affect our regional goals and interests, and how can we use this situation to help inform our decisions, both in this country and (cautiously) across the region. Here’s my take:

First off, the line separating sect from nation is at once becoming more divisive and harder to distinguish. This dynamic is very damaging to democratic processes, especially because Lebanon’s governance system is based on confessional representation. The coalition, which ambitiously declared itself a “national unity government”, has been dysfunctional at best, living and dying on a “cult of consensus” which has categorically failed its people (Elias Muhanna wrote an excellent piece dissecting the coalition’s leadership failures). When Hezbollah staged an armed takeover of Beirut in May 2008, it simultaneously solidified its status as a terrorist organization (in my opinion) and gained considerable influence in the country’s government. This time, however, the militia and its allies’ toppled the government on constitutional grounds. Same goes for their appointment of new PM Najib Miqati yesterday. This is progress…sort of. Like everything in Lebanon, it depends how you look at it. Almost 100 deaths in the summer of ’08; None in January ’11. This is the positive. Contextually, however, things aren’t quite as promising. The incident seriously calls into question the vitality of democratic ideals in a society that places such heavy emphasis on sectarian identity.

What’s also apparent is the Arab world’s deepening mistrust towards the United States and international bodies like the U.N. and E.U., which many see as puppets in the Western-Zionist design to dominate the region. This is no surprise, but it’s certainly disappointing. With relation to the STL, there is a clear disconnect between our stated goals: “to end the era of impunity for murder in Lebanon and achieve justice for the Lebanese people” and the will of those on the ground (in this case, the overwhelming majority of Lebanese) who simply want the U.S. to stop meddling in their affairs. Most troubling is that anti-American sentiment continues to gain steam at the popular level, on the streets and not just in government offices. It reinforces a deepening sense of alienation for which many Arabs feel the U.S. is to blame. Nasrallah said it best in yesterday’s speech: “Leave us alone, don’t kill us, don’t stab us in the back, don’t conspire against us…We are people who are going to die and who want to die. Let us get killed by bullets fired in our chest and not in our backs.”

Such hostility and divisiveness threatens U.S. regional goals and interests and poses a very precarious situation throughout the Middle East. Arabs, on the other hand, are expressing their political will in sectarian terms, in part to counter the threat they perceive from Israel and the West. The seemingly unstoppable power of the Resistance ideal at Hezbollah’s core is anything but unique to Lebanese politics; Muqtada al-Sadr’s influential return to Iraq is another very recent example.

I would suggest that at the core of the STL drama lies a fundamental disconnect between Western and Arab perceptions of key ideals, especially justice. This is not to say that the Arabs and Hezbollah supporters don’t value justice; I believe they do, and it’s not my place to judge anyways. But I will admit that I’m having trouble grasping the way it has been playing out in Lebanon. Saad Hariri has been cast as a pariah for holding on to his values and refusing to back down in the face of Hezbollah’s intimidation and conspiracies against him. I admire the caretaker PM, and until evidence comes out to suggest otherwise, I think it’s very disturbing how much of a beating he’s been under for taking the moral high ground. For one, he’s all but committed political suicide.
The events in Lebanon should remind the U.S. of the dangers of trying to impose its will in affairs beyond our borders.

The political agendas of all parties involved have turned a righteous prosecution for political assassination into a morally ambiguous drama, at best. Unintended consequences have sprung up on all fronts. This should not come as a surprise in the Middle East, where politics and religion are deeply intertwined. Things have a tendency to take on a life of their own, and we soon find them outside our control. Our actions have very real and often unpredictable consequences. This is the blessing and the curse of being the world’s greatest superpower. I sincerely hope the Lebanese find a way to reconcile, and I believe they will. Moving forward, Washington would be well-served to view the STL as an exercise in restraint. There is a pressing need for us to rebalance our efforts in the Middle East; to reevaluate our priorities in the region and exercise our influence with greater concern for its effect on those on the ground.