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Lebanon Second Thoughts

While it's obviously A Good Thing in a broad sense to see the people of Lebanon standing up and trying to get the minions of a quite odious Syrian regime to leave their country, I feel like there are a few skeptical notes that ought to be sounded here. One is that, near as I can tell, there's no really clear sense in which the Syrian sphere of influence in Lebanon is bad for the United States of America. Second, there's no particular reason to think that the waning of Syrian influence really heralds the dawning of Lebanese democracy. Outside of the special case of Iraq, Lebanon was and is pretty clearly the most democratic of Arab states. They have elections which are vigorously contested. They have a quite robust politics at the local level. The legislature is a closer facsimile of a proper democratic one than anything else in action in the Arab world. And they have a reasonably free press and free media.

It's not what you would call a real democracy for a variety of reasons. I won't get into them but see this two part primer for all the gorey details. Still, as I say, it's closer than anything else that's up and running already. I don't see any particular reason to think that kicking Syria out will fundamentally change the nature of the Lebanese polity, which is a kind of facade of democracy at the national level masking what is, in fact, a very weak state apparatus governed by interest-group deal-making. Cracking open the Lebanese political system would be a very risky course of action, and I don't think we should be surprised to see enough influential people not want to see it happen in order to ensure that it doesn't happen. Heck, I don't even think it's clear that it would be a good idea to try and move Lebanon toward real majoritarian democracy. One could imagine that simply leading to a breakdown of the current settlement and a resumption of civil war.

March 1, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

"One is that, near as I can tell, there's no really clear sense in which the Syrian sphere of influence in Lebanon is bad for the United States of America."

Haven't you heard yet Matthew? Until the entire globe is a model democracy, and/or every country is under the sphere of *American* influence (and preferably something the US press will be eager to call a model democracy, while the country in question remains under the sphere of American influence) its bad - very bad - for us.

Posted by: Robin the Hoodlum | Mar 1, 2005 1:01:32 AM

I was kind of surprised to see the demo coverage on LBC, I guess I sssumed that they were state run media in the Iranian style. Anyway, I guess they are more "Lebanese" Broadcasting Company in the sense that the BBC is British.

Posted by: stress | Mar 1, 2005 1:43:49 AM

"One is that, near as I can tell, there's no really clear sense in which the Syrian sphere of influence in Lebanon is bad for the United States of America."

Unless, of course, you incorporate into your perspective the ludicrous degree to which we've tied American interests in the region to Israeli interests.

From that skewed perspective, eroding the Syrian sphere of influence in Lebanon is a top priority for America.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 1, 2005 1:48:38 AM

Wow--within, what, four postings, Matthew has turned from an unabashed, idealistic supporter of Arab democratization (in Egypt) to a cold, cynical, realpolitik-spouting skeptic about this whole Arab democracy thing (in Lebanon). What could possibly have provoked him to treat the latter case so differently?

A less bad despotism? Mubarak's no saint, but Assad's surely worse.

A worse prognosis? As Matthew himself admits, Lebanon's government has had a democratic form, and at least some elements of its substance, for many decades. Egypt has never been democratic--ever.

More danger of a fundamentalist takeover? Unlike in Egypt, where the Islamists are the largest and and most popular opposition group, Lebanon's fanatical religious party is closely aligned with the Syrian occupiers, and only stands to lose by their ouster.

Worse outcome for America? Egypt's dictator, for all his faults, is a bought-and-paid-for US ally. Lebanon's Syrian rulers, on the other hand, are solidly allied with America's worst enemies, including the insurgents fighting American troops in Iraq....

Nah, couldn't be. Say it isn't so, Matthew....

Posted by: Dan Simon | Mar 1, 2005 2:04:53 AM

"Unless, of course, you incorporate into your perspective the ludicrous degree to which we've tied American interests in the region to Israeli interests."

This is your one and only warning young man. Any further comments of this sort and you will be cited for grave anti-semitism and being a gross danger to the empire - oops republic.

Posted by: The AIPAC Internet Patrol | Mar 1, 2005 2:21:58 AM

Seriously, are Bush supporters the biggest whiners in the history of the world? And the monomaniacal obsession with the reaction of liberals to everything...

Matthew, I think you're being too pessimistic here. Admittedly pre-Syrian occupation Lebanon dissolved into a brutal civil war, but these kinds of dramatic peaceful revolutions (assuming no brutal crackdown by Syria) seem to create such optimism and national unity that they neutralize sectarian sentiment.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Mar 1, 2005 2:29:33 AM

"This is your one and only warning young man. Any further comments of this sort and you will be cited for grave anti-semitism"

This is a charge to which I'm immune, as I'm a member of the tribe not named Eric Alterman.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 1, 2005 2:35:27 AM

Matt,

Fair enough.

But beyond welcoming developments in Lebanon for the sake of the Lebanese people themselves it's worth pondering the impact of humiliation in Lebanon upon Syria itself.

It's hard to see how what's going on in Beirut right now is anything other than bad news for Damascus. From that point of view, it's good news for the United States.

Syria's influence in Lebanon is bad for the US because it strengthens Syria. (It's even worse for Lebanon of course).

Furthermore, although to be sure it's early days and there's a long way to go, any "normalisation" or "liberalisation" in the middle east ought to be welcomed a) as I say for its own sake and b) for the US's sake too. Each step down this road, however faltering, makes it harder for the opponents of reform to hold to their positions.

And that's something worth celebrating. Momentum does matter. As does the inspiration of example.

Posted by: Alex | Mar 1, 2005 3:16:47 AM

Juan Cole has a post up this morning on the history of the region. It is well worth reading, since it gives a bit more perspective on the issue than is evident from this post.

Posted by: raj | Mar 1, 2005 6:57:45 AM

How is it good for the US? The Syrian regime siphons money off from its Lebanese sphere of influence, which they can use to do all sorts of things not in our intersts. The chance, mentioned above, that this rebuff might lead to changes within Syria itself. And, pace the typical neocons as Likudniks slur above, the fact that Syria funds and helps manage various rejectionist groups against the peace process in Southern Lebananon (Hezbollah, etc) means that a reduction of Syria influence might help the peace process move forward, which everybody agrees is in our interest, whether Doug Feith was a more for Sharon or not.

Posted by: rd | Mar 1, 2005 8:10:52 AM

Post above should end, sarcastically, "mole for Sharon or not."

Posted by: rd | Mar 1, 2005 8:55:40 AM

Elections in Afghanistan
Elections in Iraq
Elections in Saudi Arabia
Elections in Lebanon
Softening by Khaddafi
Truce between Israel/Palestine

Democrats demand an investigation!

Fool.

Steve

Posted by: Steve | Mar 1, 2005 9:10:35 AM

Gee, is it an American interest that a provocation by Hizbullah in Southern Lebanon doesn't turn into another full-scale Arab-Israeli war ?

I wonder.

Posted by: Ron | Mar 1, 2005 9:44:04 AM

A free-er Lebanese polity is good news. But is it good for America?

Unlike Egypt, which sends its best and brightest to crash planes into big New York buildings, disgruntled Lebanese don't attack America. They kill Israelis, fulminate against Syria, and remain in a state of general disgruntlement.

A more democratic Egpyt may allow unhappy Egyptians to vent their anger in a non-NYC direction. What will a more democratic Lebanon (and be sure to read the two linked posts to get an idea of what Lebanese democracy is) do for America?

Will a weaker Syria be good for fighting Alqaeda? Like Lebanon and Iraq, young Syrians don't learn to be pilots for nefarious purposes. The country is run by the Alawite religious minority, with little freedom of action for violent members of the religious majority. Also, Syria currently tortures people on behalf of the American gvt (see Arar, Maher), to help the fight against terror. Will a weaker Syrian gvt still help out?

A great thing for Lebanon -- but is it good for Yglesians?

Posted by: Ikram | Mar 1, 2005 9:56:27 AM

I don't see any particular reason to think that kicking Syria out will

I don't think that Matthew has actually been paying attention. Since the protests incorporate Sunni, Shiite, Christian and Druze. It looks to me as though even the THOUGHT of kicking Syria out has already fundamentally changed the nature of the Lebanese polity.

Posted by: Al | Mar 1, 2005 10:29:49 AM

Bush obviously thinks that instability in the Middle East is a good thing. I think Bush is an idiot and he is usually wrong. Therefore, I think it is probably a good bet to argue that the current instability is probably more likely to turn out badly.

The hopeful Bush fans point to 1989, which for some reason they say Reagan was responsible for (which I never bought). But it could just as easily turn out to be 1917 or 1933. Those periods of instability didn't work out too well.

And this rapid democratization can only go so far. Nobody is interested in having a "real" democracy in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or the Emirates. The only revolutionary forces in those countries are those that would make the countries even more socially repressive than they already are and would be distinctly anti-western. They would probably even be willing to sacrifice oil revenue in the name of purging western decadence.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Mar 1, 2005 10:33:07 AM

As Juan Cole so aptly points out, one of the big problems in all these countries is that because the current leaders are relics of the cold war we encouraged them to destroy all secular opposition because as far as we were concerned secular meant communist. So we are left with radicalized islamists as the people who will be leading the revolutions. Hardly what the Bush administration has in mind. I think we are beginning to see this in Iraq where we are going to get a Shiite dominated government that will be a lot closer to Iran than we had bargained for.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Mar 1, 2005 10:40:26 AM

Freder,

In Lebanon, the "revolution" isn't being led by radicalized Islamists.

Posted by: Guy | Mar 1, 2005 11:15:02 AM

"disgruntled Lebanese don't attack America."

Imad Mugniyah ring any bells?

Posted by: Argyll | Mar 1, 2005 12:14:58 PM

In Lebanon, the "revolution" isn't being led by radicalized Islamists.

Not at the moment, but there are sure as hell a lot of radicalized Islamists running around Lebanon. As much as they may claim otherwise, I am sure the Israelis are not particularly thrilled about the possiblity of the withdrawl of Syrians from Lebanon (better the devil you know . . .)

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Mar 1, 2005 12:41:13 PM

radicalized Islamists running around Lebanon.

Yes, they're called hezbollah and they are on the syrian payroll.

Posted by: Argyll | Mar 1, 2005 12:47:21 PM

Yes, they're called hezbollah and they are on the syrian payroll.

No, they are not. Iran and Syria got into a pissing contest about matters that require looking at the politics of the region beyond the usual comic book style scribblings rendered above back around '99.

Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran are all independent actors and none of them are anyone's boss.


Posted by: Ed Marshall | Mar 1, 2005 1:02:11 PM

ok, ed marshall, don't believe me, believe notorious US puppet and neocon Walid Jumblatt, who termed hezbollah "a Syrian pressure levy with a frightening militia that may be used against us."

Posted by: Argyll | Mar 1, 2005 2:10:11 PM

Walid Jumblatt said so?!

My God!

I have to rethink everything now. I've got to forget that Iran moved against Syria by sending it's arms directly to Hezbollah.

I've got to dump every serious analysis ever written about Hezbollah because Walid Jumblatt decided all on his own and without any ulterior motives that he was wrong about the whole GWB 9/11 conspiracy to conquer the Middle East at a convienent moment and that Hezbollah was a Syrian catspaw.

Posted by: Ed Marshall | Mar 1, 2005 2:22:50 PM

I've got to dump every serious analysis ever written about Hezbollah...

Huh? are you suggesting Hezbollah receives neither funds nor arms from Syria? [Or at least that no 'serious analyst' has posited otherwise?] This seems to me to be a pretty uncontroversial point.

Posted by: Argyll | Mar 1, 2005 4:24:16 PM

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