A logic of power that threatens Lebanon


If there is one thing that has characterized commentary on the Middle East in the United States in recent years, it is self-flagellation. One article after the other, in tedious succession, tells us the same thing: The Bush administration’s policy in the region has been a disaster and America has lost all standing among the Arabs. “Why do they hate us,” the American lament after 9/11, has been picked up by a commentariat confirming that “they do indeed hate us,” and it’s all Washington’s fault.

To an extent that is mainly George W. Bush’s fault. When a president provokes such derision, he’s lost the confidence of his people. But that doesn’t make the criticism necessarily right, and it doesn’t mean critics should be allowed to inaccurately represent US relations with the Arab world.

I’ve argued here before that, in retrospect, once tempers have cooled and Bush has gone home, analysts will see that, other than the Iraq war in its early stages, this administration has pretty much acted in the Middle East through an international consensus, United Nations institutions, and in support of international law; in other words in the very way that Bush’s critics demanded he behave in Iraq. This applies to US policy toward Lebanon, Iran, and the Palestinian-Israeli track, even if there are those unhappy that the administration has not engaged Hamas. However, that refusal is neither new nor self-evidently misguided, and only echoes what previous administrations did, particularly that of Bill Clinton. Even in Iraq, soon after the end of the invasion in 2003 the US was obliged to go back to the international community to gain UN sanction for its presence. Examined more closely, unilateralist American neoconservative impulses in the region have been greatly overstated by Bush’s detractors.

Lebanon, more specifically, has suffered from the backlash against Bush. American policy here, though it has been based since 2004 almost entirely on UN resolutions as well as on enforcing international law by finding out who murdered the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, has been condemned, as has the isolation of Syria, though its regime was certainly behind Hariri’s assassination. And now it is all the rage to suggest that recent negotiated breakthroughs in the Middle East, including the Doha agreement that ended the recent fighting in Lebanon, have been the work of regional parties often ignoring or acting against the preferences of the United States. This has been repeated in articles by Rami Khouri and David Ignatius, and the latest version came to us from Robert Malley and Hussein Agha in a June 3 New York Times piece.

Malley, a former Clinton administration official who directs the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group (ICG), has often paired up with Agha in penning articles, including, most prominently, a much-debated revisionist view of what take place at the Camp David summit between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak in 2000, for The New York Review of Books. In their Times opinion piece, the authors wrote: “In the last few weeks, three long-frozen conflicts in the Middle East have displayed early signs of thawing [in Gaza, Lebanon and on the Syrian Israeli track]… That so many parties are moving at the same time in so many arenas is noteworthy enough. That they are doing so without – and, in some cases, despite – the United States is more remarkable still.”

Malley and Agha went on to observe that “[i]ntent on isolating its foes, the United States has instead ended up marginalizing itself. In one case after another, the Bush administration has wagered on the losing party or on a lost cause.” This conclusion is of particular relevance to Lebanon, because the authors believe that the recent Doha agreement was a victory for Hizbullah and a defeat for America’s allies in the March 14 coalition. They ask, “How much stronger would Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon and his colleagues have been had they agreed two years ago to the very power-sharing accord they were forced to swallow last month?”

Their thesis, intriguing though it is, merits scrutiny. For one thing the Doha agreement, as several commentators have pointed out, was perhaps not a case of the US being marginalized. As the fighting in Beirut flared up, the Bush administration held a conference call with its Friends of Lebanon partners. Rather than object to Qatari mediation in the Lebanese crisis, Washington, for a change, strongly endorsed Arab League action, in this case to end the fighting. Far from being irrelevant, the administration may actually have added some teeth to the Qatari efforts. And as Malley and Agha know well, there is more to Arab diplomacy than just pleasing the US. The Qataris also needed Saudi and Egyptian backing to mediate in the Lebanese crisis, and American support for the Qatari mission must have encouraged Cairo and Riyadh in that regard.

Then there is the question of whether US allies in Lebanon actually lost. In fact, no one was an outright loser in Doha, and Malley’s and Agha’s focus on the fact that the opposition received veto power in the government, what they refer to as a “power-sharing accord,” is simplistic. Lest we forget, Hizbullah shared power in the government until November 2006. But more significantly, that veto power, while it was a gain for the opposition, came at a price: the election of a president, when Hizbullah and Syria preferred to maintain an open-ended vacuum in the presidency to bring in a more pliant government, and a new president, on their own terms. One of their conditions, often restated, was that Siniora not return as prime minister. The Qatari initiative derailed that strategy. Siniora is back, Michel Suleiman has been elected, and while it would be a mistake to see this as a loss for Syria, his election has allowed a political process to resume in Lebanon with which Damascus feels uncomfortable, as it risks consolidating a post-Syria order. That is precisely why the Syrians are still pursuing, and will continue to pursue, their destabilization of Lebanon. And it is why the Saudis and Egyptians still refuse to reconcile with the regime of Bashar Assad.

But there is something else. In encouraging the US to take the realities of power into consideration when it comes to addressing the Middle East, Malley and Agha send a disturbing message. Their advice seems to be that if America’s allies are losing, then Washington should consider picking up with the winners. Malley and the ICG have long advocated, for example, that the US resume its collaboration with Syria, but they have thought little about guaranteeing that this will not harm Lebanon and its fragile sovereignty. Lebanon is not a priority to them, and now that Malley and Agha have all but declared that Syria’s Lebanese foes have lost, there seems to be no further reason to ignore a call for engaging Damascus.

Yet nowhere in their article do we see a word on what Hizbullah recently did and is still doing in Lebanon. Malley and Agha accuse the US of “[pushing]its local allies toward civil wars … [including by]financing some Lebanese forces against Hezbollah.” They might want to provide some evidence for so vague and misleading a statement, which suggests that both sides in Lebanon are equally guilty; that Hizbullah is armed and so are its enemies. Not a word is offered on Hizbullah’s massive advantage in weapons and training over its rivals; no mention is made of its mini-state that on a daily basis defies the authority of the legal Lebanese state, or the brutality of the party’s armed takeover of Beirut last month; nothing on the party’s conscious intent to humiliate the Sunni community in the capital; nothing on its openly expressed pride in what it did, or on the dangerous, hubristic belief among its officials that when Hizbullah decides to resort to its weapons, against the Lebanese state or the Lebanese in general, there is simply nothing anyone can do about it.

If that is not behavior certain to provoke a new civil war in Lebanon, then what is it? Are Malley and Agha suggesting that the US get real, abandon those in Lebanon who, for all their shortcomings, seek a sovereign and independent state, and instead deal with Syria and by extension Hizbullah, the stronger parties by virtue of their capacity to intimidate and kill? That is precisely where they are leading us. The US does need to overhaul its credibility in the Middle East, but if a new strategy is based on looking the other way while Syria and Hizbullah and Hamas use violence to advance agendas that cannot possibly be in the US interest, then you have to wonder if the ritualistic denunciation of the Bush administration is not feeding into a policy approach devoid of any moral center, and worse, that will only end up favoring those destabilizing the region.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.


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