I rarely get a chance to disagree with my friend Marc Lynch about Middle Eastern politics, so when I read his most recent article about the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), I thought I’d jump at the chance.
Here are the three basic arguments:
- The STL has credibility problems. In its early stages, it blamed Syria for the Hariri assassination, but has since shifted the blame to Hezbollah.
- The Arab world reads this shift as an obvious indication that “the STL is being used as a political weapon against Hezbollah” and is not a disinterested effort to pursue justice.
- Given the STL’s credibility problems and deep unpopularity in the Arab world, the Obama Administration should think twice about wasting its valuable political capital supporting it.
First of all, I don’t think that the STL’s credibility in the region is perceived much differently today than it was in 2005-06. With few exceptions, those who supported it strongly when it was first established continue to do so today, and the same goes for those opposed. Truth be told, most people outside Lebanon and Syria don’t care much about this issue at all, and among those who do, the STL has never enjoyed universal support or opposition.
Secondly, the implication of Syria in the crime was dropped when the credibility of the prime witnesses was compromised. Ever since then, we’ve had very little new information from the STL itself. All of the rumors about Hezbollah’s involvement are not based on any verifiable sources, and we have little knowledge of the kind of evidence that has been marshalled by the investigation over the past five years. Therefore, the STL’s credibility is not a function of what it has revealed publicly; it’s the product of the vast echo chamber of the regional and international media.
Finally, with regard to whether or not Obama should support the STL, I find Marc’s argument problematic. He writes:
If Hezbollah really is guilty, then a case can be made for the pursuit of justice regardless of the cost. But I don’t think many people in the region are going to see it that way. I would expect the release of the STL’s expected indictments to be received as a political gambit rather than a legal investigation, and to change few minds regardless of the evidence presented. Does it make sense to throw the Obama administration’s support and prestige behind what looks like a zombie from a bygone era?
In other words, even if the STL emerges with clear evidence of Hezbollah’s guilt (proving itself to be a legitimate legal investigation and not a trumped-up conspiracy targeting the resistance) Obama should consider bailing on it anyway because… George W. Bush supported it?
This prescription doesn’t make sense to me. It is perfectly reasonable, to my mind, to question the credibility of the STL and to anticipate its indictments with critical skepticism. But if you eventually are willing to concede — despite your initial skepticism — that the STL has “clear evidence” of guilt, then what is the argument for not supporting it? That walking away will make you more popular among those who remain opposed to it? This, to me, is wishful thinking.
Obama may be more popular in the Middle East than Bush, but this popularity has not translated into tangible gains on any of his major policy initiatives — from Arab-Israeli peace, to Iran, to “unclenching the fists” of regional despots. Disowning or supporting the STL is not going to win America any new friends or enemies, and even if the current administration is not as aggressively invested as its predecessor in trying to use the court as a political tool, there is no straightforward way to back away from it at this point.
Seeing it through until the indictments are released (and then letting the Lebanese and their regional sponsors find some way to mitigate the consequences) is probably the most realistic hands-off policy proposal, in my humble opinion.