Michael Young had an article in yesterday’s Daily Star entitled “Syria Will Win Lebanon’s Elections.” Young-haters will gleefully read it as a sign of surrender by one of March 14th’s most ardent and eloquent spokesmen, while his fans will tell you that there’s nothing new about this latest offering: Michael Young has been sour on March 14th for a good long while. Here’s the take-away:
“The March 8-March 14 dichotomy no longer seems appropriate today, despite the furious debate in Lebanon over who will win next June. Whoever wins, Syria will emerge on top, its crimes forgotten and its interests protected. That may sound benign when expressed this way, but those interests will certainly expand in the future, to Lebanon’s detriment. So much for Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution, never a revolution in the first place, and now as exposed as any old tree to being cut down.”
I seem to meet a lot of bitter March 14ers these days. Michael Young is not alone in his frustration with the coalition and its changing fortunes. The departure of the Bush administration and the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement have yanked the rug out (so people say) from beneath the feet of the Independence Intifadists, who now sit and wait for an election that will almost certainly give them a less convincing mandate than the 2005 polls, assuming that they even win at all. To be frank, I can identify with this embittered group, in certain ways. Sure, I seem to spend quite a bit of time and energy on this blog criticizing the leaders of M14 (both politicians and “messaging strategists”), but, at the risk of sounding duplicitous… I can explain.
(Exiting Syrian/Iranian apologist mode… entering USA/Saudi collaborator mode).
I know few people who were not, at one point or another, if only for a day, “believers” in the March 14th movement. This includes many people who have long since drifted away from their earlier convictions, or indeed renounced them vehemently. However, what I’ve found is that even when speaking with people who currently define their political alignment in terms of being against March 14th, the conversation usually winds up producing, curiously enough, some kind of conciliatory position vis-à-vis the “original spirit” of the movement: a spontaneous social uprising against a perceived historical injustice. I wrote an article on the psychological effect of this phenomenon, about a year ago for Syria Comment. Here’s an excerpt.
“What is often lost in the day-to-day analysis of Lebanon’s current despair and hopelessness, is the extent to which its paralysis stems, paradoxically, from two moments of staggering hopefulness. Beneath the surface clutter of parliamentary sessions postponed, foreign sponsors maligned, and electoral laws rejected, lie two emotional currents of deep nationalist aspiration, two currents which flow beneath the landscape of Lebanese politics like parallel subterranean rivers, welling up and intersecting at various points, then diverging once again and disappearing from sight.
I am speaking, of course, of the two monumental events which precipitated the current conflict, namely the “Cedar Revolution” of March 2005 and the “Divine Victory” of July 2006… In many ways, these two episodes were twin revolutions, remarkably similar to each other in their structural outlines and emotional resonance. They each represented a defining moment for a sizable portion of the Lebanese population, in which a dense set of accumulated resentments, anxieties, and righteous anger was focused upon a single historical injustice, and then exorcised – successfully – through a shocking and sublime victory. These twin revolutions made visible, for many Lebanese, a political reality previously unimaginable in Lebanon, a reality in which ordinary citizens were the masters of their own fate, where the dominance of foreign powers could be resisted successfully, and where national unity was not a purely hypothetical construct.
For the hundreds of thousands of people who would come together under the March 14 banner, the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri was a great crime, not against one sect but against the nation as a whole. The huge “Independence 05” rallies displayed an unprecedented degree of national unity… Having yoked their hopes and aspirations to the idyllic prospect of a new national beginning in Lebanon free of foreign tutelage, these citizens could not bear to see their gains dashed by what they perceived to be Syria’s attempt to bring Lebanon under its wing, once again.”
I suppose that this is my way of saying that I can understand Young’s bitterness vis-à-vis the state of the March 14th coalition and his paranoia about what the coming months will bring. However, at the same time, I think that he does not lay enough blame for the movement’s demise at the feet of its leadership. Like Young’s own editorials, March 14th’s leaders have continually looked beyond Lebanon’s borders to situate the source of the movement’s inertia. This was a state of affairs that the United States and the Sunni Arab regimes were only too happy to exploit in order to destabilize a despised regional opponent. As such, the movement never focused its energy on attending to Lebanon’s systemic dysfunctions, and instead tried to shoot the moon by exorcising all of Lebanon’s problems through regime change in Damascus.
It’s probably slightly unfair of me to give Joshua Landis the last word in an article about March 14th and Michael Young, but I believe that he made a strong point along these lines, in a recent email to me. He writes:
“Syria is both a blessing and curse to Lebanon. It is a blessing because it acts as the Sultan, stepping in to halt the damage done by Lebanon’s za`ama system and emulous factionalism It is a curse because it is the Sultan. Authoritarianism is good for stability but not for freedom.
Lebanon has proven that its political system does not produce stable self-government. Its za`ims need an outside arbitrator to mediate their squabbles which turn to violent. Whether the Ottoman Sultan, the French, the Americans or more recently the Syrians, an outside authority has been drawn into Lebanon’s battles to resolve conflicts that Lebanese politicians seem incapable of resolving on their own.
Obama, like Clinton, will buy Syrian good behavior in Lebanon through the promise of lifting sanctions that Bush imposed and by pushing for peace with Israel and the return of the Golan. This will work for a period of time.
Ultimately, the only cure for Lebanon, in my humble opinion, is to reform the confessional system that pits one Lebanese community against another in such a fashion as to undermine a common sense of national identity and purpose. Only then will the Lebanese abandon their need for an external arbiter and inoculate themselves against Syrian influence. So long as the za`ama system leads to deadlock and a zero sum approach to politics, Syria will remain a blessing and curse to Lebanon.