Monday, April 27, 2009

The Idea of a Sovereign Lebanon

On a quick trip to Lebanon, Secretary of State Clinton said:

We want to see a strong, independent, free and sovereign Lebanon.

This fine sentiment hopefully means what it says. It might, by cynics, be read as expressing a threat that if the victor does not meet some highly prejudicial Washington definition of “free and sovereign” then Washington will reserve the right to exact whatever punishment it deems appropriate. A cynic would cite, in support of his interpretation, a threat from Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs David Hale, who reportedly said earlier in April that the U.S. would “not deal with Hezbollah” regardless of the outcome of the elections, an ominous throwback to the Bush Administration’s subversion of Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory which led directly to December’s barbaric attack on Gaza.

Hezbollah has clearly been evolving away from insurgency and toward democratic participation in recent years, but then, so has Hamas. It would be ironic if Washington were to force them both into full-scale opposition.

A strong, independent, free, and sovereign Lebanon means free and sovereign relative to everyone. If that is Washington’s goal, then Washington will have to do two sorts of things, neither easy:

1. Help Lebanon get the ability to defend its freedom and sovereignty;

2. Back off and allow Lebanon to exercise its freedom and sovereignty, even if that means demonstrating freedom from U.S. control.

In the context of a genuine desire to bring justice to Palestine, it would seem very much in Washington’s interest to persuade Hezbollah that it has a bright future as a normal political party. Were Washington to persuade Israel to live within its legal 1967 borders as a normal state, relinquishing the right to determine what technology and what weapons its neighbors are allowed to possess, that would help so persuade Hezbollah. Were Washington to provide Lebanon with the means to defend itself against Israeli aerial violations of its territorial integrity, that—again, in the context of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute--might help even more.

But change comes slowly along the hot, muddy Potomac…these days, more slowly than in the Mideast.

Moreover, a logical and unavoidable contradiction between the local issue and the big picture inhibits smooth, consistent policy formulation. The desire to fine-tune policy to maximize influence over a specific actor must be balanced against the message that the world will get. Yes, perhaps a highly intrusive U.S. policy in favor of one side in the Lebanese election might give that side some advantage (although it might also irritate Lebanese patriots). Nevertheless, it would also, in the current context of a new U.S. administration trying to lay out its own policy line toward the Muslim world, send a very clear message to everyone else.

For the Obama Administration to adopt the approach of openly undermining democratic elections or sabotaging an elected government would send a very clear message that Obama could be expected to reject change on much bigger regional issues, such as whether or not to push for a truly viable Palestinian state and whether or not to move toward accommodation of Iran. Resolution of all these issues depends on realization, along the Potomac, of a fundamental new perspective that Washington neither can nor should control the Muslim world.

“Control” need not mean the control of everything – only the control of that which the dominant power wants to control. If Washington asserts the right to say which countries can have nuclear technology, much less nuclear arms, it is asserting the right to control the Mideast. If Washington asserts the right to grant one country the right to attack others at will to destroy an arms convoy or technical installation, it is asserting the right to control the Mideast. If Washington asserts the right to overthrow democratically elected regimes, it is asserting the right to control the Mideast.

The alternative requires supporting the ability of the many small actors in the region to stand independently, which by definition means everyone else loses influence. Give Lebanon the power to defend itself and Washington will lose some influence over it, but so will Iran and Syria. The relative benefits of such a trade-off might well be worth calculating.

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