January 24, 2011

Lebanon - failure of American leadership

Hizballah militiamen

While the Obama Administration has been focused on an engagement policy with nations like Syria and Iran, an American ally has slipped away. On January 24, the alliance that brought down the government of now former Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri nominated Najib Miqati as prime minister. The nomination was confirmed by the Parliament, and Lebanese President Mishal Sulayman had no choice but to ask Hizballah-backed Miqati to form a new government.

In effect, Hizballah has taken over the government of Lebanon. That's probably not the most accurate way to describe what has happened. Perhaps I should say that Hizballah now is the government of Lebanon. They have achieved their long-term goal of becoming the key power bloc in the country. Of course, with Hizballah in control, advice (read: instructions) will certainly flow from Tehran and Damascus.

Yes, guidance, advice, orders - whatever you chose to call them, will originate in the two countries that have been two key targets (note that I am still using the T-word) of the Obama Administration's engagement policy in the Middle East. Rather than continuing attempts to isolate the autocratic regimes in Iran and Syria, this administration decided to change the Bush Administration's policy and reach out to two governments with American blood on their hands.

The policy change has weakened our position with Iran. While many Americans (with little or no experience in the Middle East), including the President, believe that a willingness to talk is a sign of strength, it is perceived in Tehran (as well as Damascus) as a sign of weakness. Iran continues to support Syria and Hizballah, and has not wavered in its quest to enrich uranium, no doubt part of its program to develop nuclear weapons.

With Syria, the effects of the Obama Administration's policy are more immediate. The Syrians were forced to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri by Hizballah and Syrian intelligence. The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus and began to isolate the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad. Syrian influence over Lebanon appeared on the wane. Despite the 2006 war between Hizballah and Israel, Lebanon appeared to thrive under the pro-Western government. Business activity was up, real estate rebounded and life got better, and peace in Lebanon, elusive for decades, seemed almost possible.

With the advent of the novices to the White House, the policy of keeping the Syrians from regaining their influence in Lebanon changed to one of reaching out to the regime in Damascus. It happens every eight years or so when we have a change of administration. The new officials think they can change hundreds of years of tradition and history with their perceived superior wisdom and charm. Bashar al-Asad, who learned the art of Byzantine politics from a master, his father Hafiz, drew the new administration in. The new admininstration unwittingly gave up Lebanon in hopes of a better relationship with Syria.

In the Obama Administration's defense, I understand what they were trying to accomplish: befriend Syria and attempt to drive a wedge between the Tehran-Damascus axis. Once done, that would pave the way for progress on the Syria-Israel track of the Middle East peace process. The only hitch was turning a blind eye to Syria's resurgence in Lebanon. Along with Syrian resurgence came an increased governmental role for Hizballah.

First, Hizballah merely demanded a seat at the table. Then they asked for more seats in the Parliament. After a series of alliances with former foes, including the Druze led by Walid Junblat and the Maronite Christians led by Mishal 'Awun, they had enough votes to effectively veto any legislation in the Parliament.

When it beccame apparent that the Lebanese government under Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri was not going to oppose the United Nations Special Tribunal on Lebanon from indicting Hizballah officials for the 2005 murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, Hizballah and its allies resigned from the cabinet and collapsed the government in January. Lebanon has succumbed to the relentless onslaught of Hizballah political maneuverings, no doubt advised and encouraged by the Syrians and Iranians.

Until now a nominally pro-Western nation, with Najib Miqati Lebanon now has a Hizballah-sponsored and supported prime minister.

What is next?

Upon accepting the nomination Najib Miqati said that he hoped for "cooperation between institutions according to the Ta'if Accords." What an outrageous comment. The Ta'if Accords and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1549 established a mechanism for the cessation of hostilities in Lebanon and called for the disbanding of all militias. All of the factions agreed and complied with them with one glaring exception: Hizballah.

UNSCR 1549 also required the removal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. Hizballah maintained that the Syrians were there at the request of the Lebanese government and thus exempt. Israel removed its forces in 2000, as certified by the UN. Hizballah claimed that Israel still occupied a disputed border area (the Shaba' Farms) they claim is Lebanese; Israel claims it is part of Syria. Therefore, Hizballah maintained "Lebanese Resistance Forces."

We'd all like to see Hizballah abide by Ta'if and UNSCR 1549, but it won't. The fact that Hizballah is now not only the most powerful political force in the country but arguably the most powerful military force as well does not bode well for the country's future as a republic.

So, Mr. Obama, how is that outreach policy working out for you? More importantly, how is it working our for our allies in Lebanon?