Elections, Hezbollah, Lebanon

Will the U.S. Punish Lebanon For Electing The Opposition?

she-loves-me-she-loves-me-notHillary Clinton popped over to Beirut yesterday to say hello to old friends, snap a few pictures, visit Rafiq Hariri’s tomb, and grab a quick falafel sandwich at Sahyoun’s. The aim of her visit was to reassure everyone that the United States is not planning to sell Lebanon down the river:

“There is nothing that we would do in any way that would undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty,” Clinton told a press conference in Baabda after meeting Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.

“So I want to reassure any Lebanese citizen that the United States will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon or the Lebanese people.”

Elbowing aside the dozing reporter from an-Nahar, I managed to catch Mrs. Clinton’s attention.

Hillary: Yes, you there. The tall dark and handsome fellow with the hand raised…

QN: Ahh, yes thank you Madame Secretary. Qifa Nabki, from qifanabki.com. I just had a question about what you mean when you say “never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon…”

Hillary: I’m glad you asked that, Qifa. Because I feel like this point really needs to be underlined.

QN: So there’s no chance of any kind of a return to the situation that obtained in the 90’s…

Hillary: Ancient history, my dear Qifa. Look, what could Syria possibly offer us that would make us give up Lebanon? Some kind of “grand bargain” which fundamentally changes the strategic balance in the region in Israel’s favor  by flipping Syria away from Iran and disarming Hizbullah? Pshaaww… They’re going to have to do a lot better than that…

QN: Umm, ok. Thanks!

Hillary gets a load of Mutassim Qaddafi

Hillary gets a load of Mutassim Qaddafi

Isn’t it funny how the job of Secretary of State is often indistinguishable from that of a motivational speaker. Joshua Landis has a great post over at Syria Comment in which he addresses the paranoid complaints of some Syrians who were hoping for a little more love from the top U.S. diplomat. One friend reportedly wrote to him: “Clinton has finally made her move, and how predictable it is? Forget it. They will never give Syria what it wants. The status quo is back. Obama is no different from any previous president.”

I mean, grow up already. What did they expect Hillary to do, desecrate Hariri’s tomb and french kiss Wiam Wahhab on Syrian national television? I think it’s pretty clear that the U.S. posture toward Syria has already begun to change drastically, and things under Obama are a heck of a lot better than they were under Bush. If Bashar keeps playing his cards right, I believe that some sanctions will begin to be peeled away within the year.

But the broader point should be addressed, namely: what is likely to be the U.S. reaction to a March 8 victory in the Lebanese elections? I think that this is a complicated issue, and its very premise is flawed, as I’ve written here before. In general, I think Joshua is right when he argues:

Michel Sleiman gets a load of Hillary.

Michel Sleiman gets a load of Hillary.

“if the Lebanese defy the US and vote for March 8 anyway, the US can cut aid but continue to finesse the situation by allowing the French and British to step forward and engage the new Lebanese government. Britain has begun a direct dialogue with Hizbullah. France has stated that it can live with any outcome of the elections so long as powersharing is respected in the new government. Both Britain and France have made it clear that they are willing to accept Lebanon’s democratic results without a major tantrum if their prefered party doesn’t win.

The US manages to shut its eyes to Hizbullah’s presence in Lebanon’s government today. What is to stop it from doing this even if March 8 wins? Eye shutting will admittedly be harder to do if March 8 forms the next government; but March 8 has already made a number of suggestions about how pro-American elements can play a big role in any new government. This compromise could be used as a basis to assuage US anger and mollify any desire on the part of Washington to pick up its marbles and go home.”

Couldn’t agree more. As discussed recently, a March 8th win is really going to be all about the Free Patriotic Movement. No matter how Fox News spins it, the reality is that the onus has been placed entirely upon Michel Aoun’s Change & Reform bloc to pony up the seats to push the opposition over the top. And while there may be a congressional effort to introduce something like a Lebanon Accountability Act, I just can’t see a politically expedient reason to do it if the Syrians are adding value to Obama’s Mideast efforts.

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Discussion

20 thoughts on “Will the U.S. Punish Lebanon For Electing The Opposition?

  1. More to the point… What alternatives does the US have?

    What exactly would ‘selling out’ look like, Mr. tall dark and handsome? What exactly is it that Syria wants, that the US could deliver? That term tends to imply a path of least resistance. I think the path of least resistance is supporting whatever government is to be had. At the moment, anyway.

    That said, there may be incentive to overcome resistance at some point.

    Posted by netsp | April 27, 2009, 2:35 pm
  2. QN,

    You and Landis both make the same mistake. You do not take into consideration the fact that the US congress is not one and the same with the US president and in fact, their interests are not completely aligned.

    In addition, Obama will have a hard time convincing anybody that the “Syrians are adding value to Obama’s Mideast efforts”. What tangible benefit will he be able to point to?

    As I explained in the entry that you graciously allowed me to contribute, the Republicans in congress will use a March 8 win to first stop the financial aid to Lebanon, and then advance a Lebanese Accountability Act. Obama could of course win this fight with them if he decides to put his weight behind it, but I doubt that this will be a battle he chooses to fight. It will just take too much effort to explain to the US public why the US should support a government led by people who murdered hundreds of Americans and routinely cry “Death to America!”.

    That in the US people will buy the nuance about this really being an Aoun government is wishful thinking. Personally, I think you are just wrong about it and the nuance does not exist. If the opposition wins, Hizballah will be the main power broker and not Aoun. They will put severe limits on what the Lebanese government can and cannot do. Plus, they have the credible threat that they will not be afraid to use force against fellow Lebanese (as they did last May), especially after the elections.

    Your thinking is very similar to the Hamas one. They were not worried also about the US not talking to them should they win. The nuance that was supposed to work there was that there a two different parts to the Hamas, the political one and the military one. The British are trying to push this irrelevant distinction now with Hizballah.

    The Syrian Accountability Act was something that the Congress forced on Bush. There are all indications that this will repeat itself with a Lebanese Accountability Act.

    Posted by AIG | April 27, 2009, 3:02 pm
  3. QN –

    I do not consider Hillary a particularly reliable source of information.;)

    http://www.voanews.com/english/2009-04-22-voa57.cfm

    Posted by Akbar Palace | April 27, 2009, 3:03 pm
  4. AIG

    Where the hell have you been man? It’s been Dullsville around here without you.

    You may be right about Congress; have to wait and see. But I don’t think it would be that hard for Obama to sell it, given that he is currently trying to engage Iran, which is a much scarier enemy in the minds of the U.S. public than Hizbullah.

    If the opposition wins, Hizballah will be the main power broker and not Aoun. They will put severe limits on what the Lebanese government can and cannot do.

    Actually, I think that the only limits they’re really that interested in concern the resistance. You underestimate the power that Aoun has with Hizbullah. He gives them credibility with a sizable chunk of the electorate in Lebanon, which translates into influence over them. The United States has spent a lot of time working with Lebanese governments in which Hizbullah has played a significant role… as long as they had an address. For a long time, that address was the Assad regime. Between 2005-08, there was no address and hence no way to influence the group. Today, with the U.S./Syrian rapprochment and the emergence of Aoun as a major player (potentially a coalition leader), the U.S. has plenty of ways to keep things in check.

    Your thinking is very similar to the Hamas one. They were not worried also about the US not talking to them should they win.

    Big difference. Hamas wanted to make a statement, prove itself. Hizbullah is trying to make itself as small as possible. They don’t have anything to prove. They’ve actually shrunk the size of their participation since 2005, and have more or less promised their ministerial shares to Aoun and Berri. This is not Hamas.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 27, 2009, 3:14 pm
  5. the Republicans in congress will use a March 8 win to first stop the financial aid to Lebanon

    AIG –

    Welcome back. I’m thinking the Republicans in congress aren’t going to have enough influence to overturn the administration. We’re in the minority baby!

    I’ll bet you 50 shekels aid will continue.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | April 27, 2009, 3:39 pm
  6. plus, WHAT financial aid?

    We did fine until a few yrs ago without a dime of military assistance.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 27, 2009, 3:44 pm
  7. QN and AIG,

    The Republicans are in a tight spot right now. Taking on Obama about his support of a Hizballah led country would be much more fun than criticizing his gift giving capabilities.

    I agree that if Aoun and Hizballah are able to portray the March 8 government as led by Aoun that things may be different, but I highly doubt it. For example, is Hizballah willing to let the government decide about Lebanon going to war, or will that be a Hizballah decision? Let’s see what happens.

    First we have to see March 8 win. Then we have to see Hariri not join the coalition. And then we will see who is right…

    Posted by AIG | April 27, 2009, 7:36 pm
  8. To expand on this a little, I think this myth of the U.S. “selling out” Lebanon needs to be deflated, both as a future possibility and as a historical event.

    When has the U.S. “sold out” Lebanon? In 1976, when the Syrians first rolled in? It wasn’t our business – the Syrians were invited by the “legitimate” Lebanese government. Or in 1990, when Syria booted Aoun and finally consolidated its grip on the country? Every faction in Lebanon had already agreed to the Ta’if Accord, which called for (brief) Syrian military control. Every faction but Aoun, who was being supported at the time by Saddam Hussein. How, precisely, was the U.S. to stand in the way in either of these cases – against the clearly expressed wishes of the Lebanese?

    The U.S. does not own Lebanon and is not in a position to sell Lebanon to anyone. Lebanon, however, is quite capable and too often willing to sell itself.

    Posted by Rayyan | April 27, 2009, 10:13 pm
  9. I would qualify Syrian occupation as “in kind” military assistance. The anemic ISF and LAF the Syrians left behind were and are in need of serious help to be up to controlling a country of even Lebanon’s size, and that’s forgetting the larger than average security problems Lebanon faces.

    I don’t think, however, that this aid necessarily has to come from the U.S. (or that this is even the best place for it to come from).

    Posted by Rayyan | April 27, 2009, 10:16 pm
  10. QN –

    Enjoy your articles. I think you’ve already dealt with this in previous posts, but I think that in light of this particular one, it would have been helpful to tell us a little more on what you think an M8 government will look like. I mean, it can’t be compared to Hamas as there is FPM in the mix. To what extent do you think the move from opposition to power would affect the common principles (to the extent they exist) within M8? In addition, the kind of things that the US would really find abhorrent about a potential M8 government — most likely things relating to Israel I guess — seem to me very unlikely to materialize, precisely because of Aoun. I am firmly convinced that Aoun now is careful in vocalizing principles he believes in that may not be fully in sync with others in the opposition, but he certainly isn’t contradicting them; once elections are over, and assuming he does well, I feel he will prove to be much less of an obedient Christian cover to Hizballah than some are expecting.

    Posted by PB | April 27, 2009, 10:45 pm
  11. PB,

    Good to hear from you. Right now it’s very difficult to get a sense for what a March 8 government would look like because the binding principle for the coalition is animosity toward the Siniora government. (This is why they are doing a better job holding together than M14… Syria is no longer in Lebanon, while Siniora still is.)

    To the extent that any other common principles could be isolated, they seem to gravitate around the pole of fighting corruption, etc. Hardly an original thought, and not exactly easy to pursue in office when the opposition has a big old broom to sweep threatening legislation out the door.

    But I do agree with you that Aoun may well pull the gloves off once he’s sitting on top of the biggest bloc in parliament. He’s going to throw his weight around, and even if it’s only behind the scenes with the Hizb, I think everyone in the ruling coalition will know what the red lines are.

    Sorry, that’s a vague answer… but as I said, we have little indication of what the FPM-Hizb-Amal majority will look like, especially if Saad al-Hariri is its chosen PM!

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 27, 2009, 11:37 pm
  12. “But I don’t think it would be that hard for Obama to sell it, given that he is currently trying to engage Iran, which is a much scarier enemy in the minds of the U.S. public than Hizbullah.”

    That assumes that Obama’s priority is congress or the public. Sure, the name Hizballah might mean something to them. The US public is relatively accustomed to strategic allies they don’t like when necessary.

    Honestly I don’t think Lebanese politics is solidified enough in the minds of the selectorate, to block an particular strategy.

    The millitary/intelligence community, that’s a different story. Obama is navigating a tricky term, with success largely dependant on strategic success. I think that all he really needs from Lebanon is stability. It seems likely that there is a bit of a flip going on in the US intelligence community. I think they are developing a preference for large chunks of power over smaller ones. In that sense, Hezballah = instability.

    Posted by netsp | April 28, 2009, 4:27 am
  13. Thanks for the reply, and so quickly!

    I fully agree on the binding principle of the opposition, and think you phrased it really nicely. This is why I am surprised not more questions are being asked (and perhaps clarity being demanded) about this. In other countries with coalition democracy, it’s not only important to think about the principles of the party you intend to vote for, but also to look at what coalition it is likely to join and what that coalition’s policies are likely to be. (I learned this the hard way.)

    Both coalitions, in my opinion, have been unnatural, and based on very lofty (but impractical and misleading) principles. I for one hope that after elections at least some parties can embrace at least a modicum of issue-based politics rather than expediency-based single-issue conservative politics.

    As for the US role in this, one would hope that the shift from Bush to Obama has led to more pragmatic thinking on how to more realistically interpret and approach our neighborhood.

    Posted by PB | April 28, 2009, 6:51 am
  14. Can anyone give a reason why Aoun WOULD kowtow to Hezb? He has his own independent base of support after all, it’s not like Hezb can just pull some sort of carpet from under him. Is there something I’m missing here?

    Posted by Abraham Rotsapsky | April 28, 2009, 9:44 am
  15. Aoun will just be a facade. Power in Lebanon comes from the bank or from the gun. Hariri has the money and Nasrallah the guns.
    Specifically, Aoun does not have the channels to the Saudis and international community when it comes to debt and money issues. Let’s say Aoun wants to make the army stronger. Can he ask the US for weapons without a Nasrallah veto? Can Aoun fight the Palestinians in the camps without a veto from Nasrallah? Can Aoun talk to Israel about Sheba? Can Aoun control when Nasrallah attacks Israel? If the debtors of Lebanon demand that Lebanon reaffirm 1701 before more money is given, what will Aoun do?

    Lebanon is not an island. It is a bankrupt country that lives on the good will of debtors. It is a country that is constantly worried that the US will sell it to the Syrians and that Israel will attack it again. It depends on the Gulf Arabs for much of its economic activity and on the US and Europe to keep it afloat by lending it money and letting the Lebanese diaspora send money to Lebanon. In short, Aoun will be severely limited in what he can do, and if he insists on playing the independent, Lebanon will suffer.

    Posted by AIG | April 28, 2009, 5:23 pm
  16. AIG

    The opposition has had a veto since last summer. Since then, there have been several military deals struck with the U.S. The defense minister took a high-profile trip to Washington to secure Ravens among other things and Nasrallah did not veto it. How do you explain that?

    With respect to Israel, Shebaa, Palestinians etc., Nasrallah’s position is really just one of many factors that will affect a March 8 govt. I’m frankly surprised that so many people are worried about the opposition coming to power. (I know that you’re not). This would seem to be the dream come true for all the doubting Thomases: a chance for Hizbullah to step into the limelight and prove itself.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 28, 2009, 6:57 pm
  17. QN,

    I think there is a major difference between Hizballah not vetoing a move when it is in the opposition than being seen as supporting a move when it is in power. I think also that part of the Doha agreement was that Hizballah would not veto such deals with the US. They were grandfathered in. However, when Hizballah is in power, all bets are off.

    I would very much like to see Hizballah in power so that the Lebanese will finally see what an empty vessel they are. Here is my challenge for the day: Show me ONE anti-western government in the Arab world that was successful in the sense of bettering the life of its citizens.

    Posted by AIG | April 28, 2009, 8:52 pm
  18. Somebody provided a rebuttal to your analysis

    http://joshualandis.com/blog/?p=2837#comments

    It is enlightening to watch the movie:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3733250393313583537

    Posted by Mike | April 29, 2009, 10:24 am

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