Lebanon: Hope and Trepidation

Well, it is not that difficult to see that something potentially quite important is happening in Lebanon. It certainly seems to be a move in the direction of independence and the idea of a civil society with democratic underpinnings – and the move is reflected or echoed elsewhere in the Middle East.

What is much more difficult to figure out is why it is happening just now, what forces have converged at this moment. Even more difficult is to guess how things will turn out when some of the dust settles.

The simplest explanation, and the most gratifying for many Americans, was expressed succinctly in a recent column by Peter Brookes of the conservative Heritage Foundation: "Inspired by President Bush’s reelection inaugural address, the recent Iraqi and Palestinian elections, and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Lebanon’s own Red and White (or Cedar) Revolution is underway."

Perhaps it’s that simple, that a tide of democracy is sweeping over the region – there have been municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak has promised elections sometime soon – inspired by President Bush and American success in Iraq. (Not that everybody, perhaps including a majority of Americans, depending on how you word poll questions, believes that American activity in Iraq constitutes a success, but it is the case that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, and that’s the kind of fact that gets the attention of other Middle Eastern rulers most urgently.)

More Complicated

As is usually the case with dramatic political developments, like the coming together of disparate forces to create enough pressure that Lebanon’s prime minister resigned and dissolved the government (although not, unfortunately, the permanent bureaucracy), the causes are more complex, and some are still hidden.

I talked with Claude Salhani, now UPI international editor, who spent 20 of his 30 years as an international correspondent in the Middle East. He notes that there has been a growing movement within Lebanon against military occupation by Syria that predated the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976 as "peacekeepers" during a civil war, and Syria has used those troops (and numerous intelligence operatives) ever since to exercise effective control of Lebanese politics.

After 30 years, the Lebanese, who before 1975 had an independent and relatively democratic country that was widely viewed as the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan place in the Middle East, have simply had enough of Syrian domination.

(It’s interesting, though it may be so far back in history that it has little impact on current attitudes, that the area that is now Lebanon was considered part of Syria – though it had some distinctive attributes – until 1920. The French, who took over Syria after World War I, divided it so Lebanon would have a Christian majority and therefore would presumably be easier to rule. The Lebanese system, following independence in 1943, was set up to ensure that a Maronite Christian would be president, with a Sunni prime minister and a Shia speaker of the parliament. It’s an odd system, but it worked for a while, at least until the civil war beginning in 1975, sparked in part by a growing Shia population with political ambitions, and Mr. Salhani doesn’t think the Lebanese will alter it no matter how the Syrian occupation plays out.)

"Would these dramatic events have happened in Lebanon if Saddam Hussein were still in power?" Mr. Salhani mused. "Perhaps; the potential forces were in place. Did the elections in Iraq give them courage? Probably."

Syria’s Blunder?

If Syria was behind the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, as most presumed experts now suppose, it could turn out to have been a huge blunder, perhaps one presaged by the auto accident death of Hafez al-Assad’s first son, Basil, in 1994, which made Bashar, who had been studying to be an ophthalmologist and seems to have few political skills, the heir apparent.

Some have gone so far as to suspect Israel or the CIA staged the killing, which involved a more sophisticated use of explosives than the more common improvised roadside devices, to destabilize Syria, though it would have been hard to predict (as it still is) the eventual outcome. Others hypothesize that it might have been a faction within Lebanon that thought it was acting in Syria’s interests but didn’t get authorization from Damascus. Still others think it might have been engineered by a faction within the Syrian government, which is none too stable – many "old guard" types seem less than enchanted with Bashar – just now.

Chances are reasonably good that we will never know for sure, despite a UN-led investigation

Although the United States has leapt to the forefront of those demanding that Syria withdraw from Lebanon, it has few effective tools available to pressure the regime. In 2002, it imposed economic sanctions on Syria, with which it had little trade anyway. There’s not much more it can do to punish the regime, short of a military option. If things go reasonably well from a U.S. perspective in Iraq over the next year, however, U.S. troops in Iraq could be available to make that option viable. Syrian leaders are well aware that in effect the U.S. is its next-door neighbor, at least as far as the stationing of U.S. troops is concerned.

A case can be made that engineering the assassination was not a blunder but part of a cunning plan to provoke an Israeli response that would give Syria cover to crush the opposition in Lebanon. That’s possible, but it seems more likely that the Syrian regime will suffer in the long run, which shouldn’t break the hearts of those not in love with authoritarianism, although things could play out in a rather bloody manner.

Other Democratic Moves

It’s tempting, especially if you’re carrying water for the Bush administration, to lump together other nascent moves toward something remotely resembling democracy in other parts of the Middle East and attribute them to the war on Iraq. But the Palestinian election, for example, was triggered by the death of Yasser Arafat, and something like it would have happened whether there had been an invasion of Iraq or not. And it’s way too early to tell whether new blood in the Palestinian Authority will lead eventually to a resolution of Israeli-Palestinian disputes. Even if they do, it could have more to do with a recognition of demographic realities by Israelis (the fear that Jews could be outnumbered in a greater Israel is an important reason many Israelis favor pulling out of Gaza and eventually the West Bank) than with the fate of Saddam Hussein.

I discussed in a previous column the evidence that Libya was making overtures to the U.S. long before the Iraq war or 9/11. To attribute that regime’s desire to resume relatively normal relationships with the rest of the world to the Iraq war, as many want to do, is far too simple an explanation and probably incorrect.

The forces of discontent that the Saudi regime wants to keep within the bounds of political – rather than physical – conflict eventually led to municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and those have been brewing since 9/11 at least. It’s difficult to tell just what effect the invasion of Iraq had on politics in that country, although the withdrawal of American troops might well have been a factor, and that might not have happened if the U.S. hadn’t been planning the invasion.

Discontent with Mubarak’s regime in Egypt – which has in the past been viewed as a U.S. ally – has likewise been building since long before the Iraq war. Did the Iraqi election in January serve as a catalyst? Perhaps. But the elements had to be in place for the catalyst to spark anything.

In his recent column, Claude Salhani also notes that "modern communications is breaking down the gates of censorship in the Middle East, helping spread democracy by denying governments the monopoly they once held on dissimulating information." Satellite television and the Internet have broken state monopolies on media, perhaps permanently. In Iran, whose regime unsuccessfully tried to ban satellite television, there are estimated to be 75,000 blogs, many focused on democratic change. Blogs existed before the Iraq war and their growth has not depended on it.

Interesting Opportunity

Whatever the reasons that what we might call "people power" dislodged a government peacefully, for the first time that I know of in the region, an interesting opportunity exists in Lebanon. The United States and France are united in demanding that Syria withdraw troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanon, confirming once again that great powers aren’t governed by emotions (though one wonders about those guiding the sole superpower these days) but by interests. The United Nations and the European Union agree. Syrian President Bashar Assad – whose regime may be on shaky ground as we have noted – has said (for the umpteenth time) that he will withdraw troops soon.

It is at least remotely conceivable that a reasonably satisfactory and relatively peaceful outcome is in the cards for Lebanon. Some experts say the Syrian economy depends on continuing the occupation of Lebanon, with Syrian officials skimming profits from the drug trade in the Bekaa Valley as well as taxing legitimate enterprises in Lebanon. If regime leaders in Syria really believe their economy would collapse – or government revenues would decline precipitously if Lebanon became independent – resistance to withdrawal could become predominant.

But one can imagine Syria finding a face-saving way to accede to international demands to pull its troops out of Lebanon, and Lebanon eventually becoming genuinely independent without too much bloodshed. The United States can hardly go wrong in pressing for Syrian withdrawal and the reestablishment of an independent democratic regime.

Ironically enough, however, it might be easier for the French, because of historical associations and present-day trade relationships, to facilitate that transition than the United States. So if the real goal is democratic reform, rather than a pretext for another military action, the United States might accede to the French and the Europeans, challenging them to prove their international mettle by settling Lebanon.

Getting there will not be easy, and it could be that the only operative law will be the law of unintended consequences. The world continues to surprise and delight us.

Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).