Monday, November 26, 2007

When the Spring Blows Back

Like Blake Hounshell, I recommend this op-ed by Stephen McInerney and Andrew Exum on the precarious political situation in Lebanon, and how the US can better address the various exigencies:

Lebanese President Émile Lahoud's term expires today, and Lebanese democracy faces a stern test. With the apparent failure of rival political factions to agree on a new president, Lebanon could see the formation of two parallel governments -- or, worse, the outbreak of civil war.

The United States, as President Bush said recently, "strongly supports the success of democracy in Lebanon." Yet by viewing Lebanon through the lens of confrontation with Iran, the U.S. is failing to give Lebanese democracy the help it needs.

In the administration's view, Lebanon is a potential risk to U.S. security interests primarily because of Iran's ties to the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. The fear is that Tehran will manipulate those ties to further its influence in the region and use Lebanon as a pawn in an international confrontation over its nuclear aspirations. [...]

In the context of the current political stalemate, the administration cannot afford to view the possible selection of a consensus candidate acceptable to Hezbollah as a greater danger than the failure to select anyone at all.

Blake's take is right on the money, as usual:

More broadly, Lebanon is just one more example of a mistaken U.S. approach to foreign policy that dates back decades and across administrations of both parties. Here's how it works: The United States says it supports democracy, but ends up backing pro-Western leaders when push comes to shove. Take the case of Pervez Musharraf, whom U.S. President George W. Bush described Tuesday as "somebody who believes in democracy" despite the fact that the Pakistani leader has suspended the Constitution, thrown many of his opponents in jail, and gone after independent media outlets. Or consider the Palestinian territories, where the White House called for elections and then blanched when the distasteful Hamas won them fair and square. Is it any wonder that U.S. rhetoric on democracy isn't taken seriously?

This is not to say that there aren't some tough choices confronting U.S. policymakers. But it would be better, in my view, to either dial back the grandiose democracy rhetoric or else be more consistent about supporting democratic "rules of the game" rather than always backing the more pro-American side, win or lose, and calling it "supporting democracy." If you want to get more in depth on this topic, Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment, which publishes FP, offers some practical suggestions here.

In addition, the authors identify yet one more example of the increasingly familiar pattern whereby the overt support of the US government for a given faction deligitimizes that group in the eyes of the indigenous population. The US hasn't been popular in the region for quite some time, for sure, but the situation under the Bush administration has rendered our imprimatur unduly poisonous such that it has become of meager help, if not outright counterproductive. Far cry from the prematurely vaunted "Arab Spring," huh?

There is another aspect of the McInerney/Exum piece that I wanted to focus on, however, and that is the penchant for the US to make unsavory alliances for the sake of a short term interest, only to have the erstwhile allies emerge as a more serious threat down the road. The arming and funding of the mujahideen in Afghanistan is only the most popular recent example. Similarly, there are valid concerns that some of our recent Sunni outreach efforts in Iraq could pave the way for the further destabilization of the current Iraqi government, and lead to warlord state down the road. McInerney/Exum hint at another such noxious mixture that could be brewing in Lebanon:

And, beyond this week's crisis, the focus on Hezbollah and Iran has distracted from the rise of Al Qaeda-inspired Sunni radical groups in Lebanon -- groups that represent a far greater strategic threat to the U.S. and its allies.

These groups don't have the popular support in Lebanon that Hezbollah boasts. But that also means they have no "red lines" of violence they will not cross. And, while Hezbollah wants to play an expanded political role in the Lebanese state, the Sunni extremist groups would like nothing more than to see the collapse of the state into anarchy and civil war -- truly a worst-case scenario both for Lebanon's fragile democracy and for regional security.

...While promoting their own interests in the power vacuum created by the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005, some of America's closest allies in the Lebanese government and nearby Saudi Arabia and Jordan are believed to have supported the growth of the Sunni extremist groups. Moreover, thanks to a steady stream of Sunni militants from Iraq -- the types responsible for the most horrific attacks there -- continued growth is expected for the foreseeable future. At least, as long as the U.S. continues to look the other way, and as long as U.S. efforts to help the Lebanese military confront such groups are viewed with suspicion.

Neither author accuses the US of supporting these Sunni extremist groups in any way. While unconfirmed, there have been reports in local media that the US has offered at least a tacit blessing to the efforts of our close allies in nurturing these Sunni groups under the theory that they could be used to counter Hezbollah. This would be an enormous strategic blunder, however, given the chaos that could be sown, and the fact that failed statehood breeds, rather than counters, the type of extremism that should be the chief focus of our efforts. Not only should the US government not offer tacit or overt support, but it should make it clear to its allies that such efforts on their part would be unacceptable.

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