Mindful of that old adage – “If you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been properly briefed” – on top of which I’m six thousand miles away, I’ll venture a few thoughts.
Political analysis, in as much as it is historically based, sees the present through the past. As applied to Lebanon this means that whenever there is violence, the specter of civil war immediately looms over the horizon. For that reason, Hezbollah’s show of force over the last week has been described as pushing Lebanon to the brink of war. But bloody as it was, it might more accurately have been described as bringing to an end political gridlock.
As always, Rami G. Khouri’s reflections on unfolding events have been particularly enlightening. On Monday he wrote:
Events in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon continue to move erratically, with simultaneous gestures of political compromise and armed clashes that have left 46 dead in the past week. The consequences of what has happened in the past week may portend an extraordinary but constructive new development: the possible emergence of the first American-Iranian joint political governance system in the Arab world. Maybe.
If Lebanon shifts from street clashes to the hoped-for political compromise through a renewed national dialogue process, it will have a national unity government whose two factions receive arms, training, funds and political support from both the United States and Iran. Should this happen, an unspoken American-Iranian political condominium in Lebanon could prove to be key to power-sharing and stability in other parts of the region, such as Palestine, Iraq and other hot spots. This would also mark a huge defeat for the United States and its failed diplomatic approach that seeks to confront, battle and crush the Islamist-nationalists throughout the region.
After the Cedar Revolution in 2005, the face of Bush-inspired democracy was Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement and current parliamentary majority leader. (Hariri, man of the people, also happens to be a Saudi citizen whose current net worth of $3.3 billion puts him on the Forbes list of richest people in the world.) On Tuesday, Hariri pledged he would not “surrender” to Hezbollah. Today the Lebanese cabinet reversed the two decisions to which Hezbollah had objected: the firing of the chief of security at Beirut’s airport and the order that Hezbollah’s telecommunications system come under state control.
Hezbollah might not have the power of a sovereign government – a so-called monopoly on violence – but it seems to have unambiguously demonstrated it possesses a controlling share.
Now there are those who choose to view what’s happening in Lebanon purely in terms of a contest of power between Washington and Tehran. That perspective seems popular in both capitals. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Tom Friedman said: “As the May 11 editorial in the Iranian daily Kayhan put it, ‘In the power struggle in the Middle East, there are only two sides: Iran and the U.S.'”
According to that view one would have to conclude that Washington goaded the Lebanese government into taking an action that turned out to be a gross miscalculation. Maybe so, but I’m more inclined to think that this was a homegrown mistake. Likewise, to say that Hezbollah is backed by Iran is not to say that it acts under Iranian direction.
In an interesting editorial, the Jerusalem Post says: “Of all the US presidents over the past 60 years, it is hard to think of a better friend to Israel than George W. Bush.” Even so, it goes on to say: “Though his policies in Iraq were paved with good intentions and Israelis are grateful that Saddam Hussein is dead and buried, we are left with the lingering sense, albeit informed by hindsight, that the Iraqi campaign was a strategic blunder of historic proportions.”
Still, while Bush may have been wrong on Iraq, he is dead right about Iran – though an ungrateful, sometimes spiteful world appears in denial. Iran is blatantly pursuing destabilizing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them beyond the Middle East, even as key international players stoke its economy.
Teheran exploits America’s dilemma in Iraq by encouraging chaos in a manner beyond the ability of most Westerners to fathom. On the Palestinian front, the mullahs are championing Hamas with financing, weapons and training. Mahmoud Abbas can strike no workable deal with the Islamists looking over his shoulder. Hizbullah-occupied Lebanon is looking increasingly like an Iranian satellite.
The president told The Jerusalem Post yesterday that before leaving office he wants a structure in place for dealing with Iran. Washington already has a strong security commitment to Jerusalem. Now we would urge the president to work for an upgrade in Israel’s relationship with NATO. Europe must understand that Iran is pivotal; that there will be no stability, no progress – not in Iraq, not in Lebanon and not on the Palestinian front – until Teheran’s advances are first contained, and eventually rolled back.
Bearing in mind that Bush was talking to such loyal supporters, his promise sounds quite modest. To have a “structure in place for dealing with Iran” sounds much more conceptual than anything vaguely resembling ‘shock and awe.’
And this brings me back to Friedman and the legacy that he envisages:
The next American president will inherit many foreign policy challenges, but surely one of the biggest will be the cold war. Yes, the next president is going to be a cold-war president — but this cold war is with Iran.
That is the real umbrella story in the Middle East today — the struggle for influence across the region, with America and its Sunni Arab allies (and Israel) versus Iran, Syria and their non-state allies, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Is this what Bush wants to think of as his legacy? That he can be seen as the father of the new cold war? Maybe so. After all, he does apparently like to think of himself as something of a strategic thinker.
But the problem with this kind of “big view” is that it sees all the local actors as pawns – as though they have not arisen out of and continue to represent any kind of local constituency.
Let’s turn back then to Rami Khouri. He concludes on a positive note and dares to revive Condoleezza Rice’s birth metaphor (though not of course in a sense that she would have envisaged it):
The new domestic political balance of power in Lebanon will reflect millennia-old indigenous Middle Eastern traditions of different and often quarreling parties that live together peacefully after negotiating power relationships, rather than one party totally defeating and humiliating the other. Lebanon can only exist as a single country if its multi-ethnic and multi-religious population shares power. As the political leaders now seek to do this, they operate in a new context where the strongest group comprises Iranian- and Syrian-backed Islamist Shiites and their junior partners, Christian and Sunni Lebanese allies. They will share power in a national unity government with fellow Lebanese who are friends, allies, dependents and proxies of the United States and Saudi Arabia.
If a new Middle East truly is being born, this may well prove to be its nursery.
So what’s it going to be for the next president? Back to an old mindset with a new cold war? Or is it possible that we and the next president are ready for something new?