The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shock and Awe at the Ballot Box

The Lebanon Election Proved Engagement Need Not Be Associated with Weakness

At first glance, Sunday’s victory in Lebanon elections for the Western-backed March 14 coalition over the Iranian-backed Hezbollah faction seems unremarkable. After all, the winning alliance was already the majority in parliament and its change in control over that body consisted of a single seat pickup at Hezbollah’s expense.

It was actually substantial for two reasons.

First, most analysts had expected Hezbollah to win by an ample majority and take control of Lebanon’s government, turning that nation fully into a proxy of Iran and Syria. Second, the March 14 coalition, consisting of Sunni, Christian and Druze factions, won the last time around by partnering with Hezbollah, whereas this time they won by running against Hezbollah on their own mandate.

There are numerous reasons attributable for the change in heart by Lebanese voters. Hezbollah won widespread acclaim and first came to power by championing resistance to Israeli aggression. This praise soured over time, especially among Lebanese Christians, when Hezbollah began using protests and street violence to demand a greater voice in government and submission to Tehran. Sectarian strife played a factor as well, with Sunnis turning out in large numbers to vote against any Shi’a political group. Finally, Lebanon’s excellent economy probably favored the ruling coalition.

However, some analysts believe President Obama was a factor too, for both his recent speech in Cairo as well as his policy of outreach and engagement with the Arab/Islamic world, including U.S. enemies.

“Lebanon is a telling case,” said Osama Safa, Director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “It is no longer relevant for the extremists to use the anti-American card. It does look like the U.S. is moving on to something new.”

“I think the speech of Obama in Cairo . . . played a role in neutralizing anti-Americanism,” agreed Khalil al-Dakhil, a sociologist from Saudi Arabia.

In fairness, a lot of credit rests with former President Bush too, as Thomas Friedman points out today in the New York Times. “Without George Bush standing up to the Syrians in 2005 – and forcing them to get out of Lebanon after the [killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] – this free election would not have happened. Mr. Bush helped create the space.”

“It would be fanciful to claim that Obama's bridge-building speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last week, attractive though it was, crucially influenced Lebanese voters,” notes Simon Tisdall in the Guardian. “But,” he adds, “The calmer, unconfrontational tone adopted by Washington on Middle East issues since George Bush trudged home to Texas appears to have struck a chord in a country that was teetering on the brink of sectarian civil war one year ago.”

Nor was the current Administration’s approach all sweetness and light. If Obama’s Cairo speech was indeed the elegant carrot held out to Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East, Vice-President Joe Biden wielded a clumsy stick when he visited Lebanon back in May and hinted none too subtly that a Hezbollah win could result in the withdrawal of U.S. financial aid.

Although Hezbollah remains a minority in Lebanon’s parliament, they also remain a powerful one and likely to insist on a continuing voice in deciding policy. However, it is reasonable to expect this outcome will curb Hezbollah’s effectiveness at stirring up hostility against Israel for the immediate future. Thus, while the Lebanese elections represent a symbolic victory as much or more than an ideological one, they still have positive possible implications on other conflicts within the region important to U.S. interests.

The next test will come this Friday in Iran via another election. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, noted for his vicious anti-Israeli and anti-American rhetoric, was a major supporter of Hezbollah in the Lebanon elections. Their defeat serves as an embarrassment to the limits of his influence and could weaken him further as the poor Iranian economy has allowed challenger Mir Hussein Moussavi to gain ground in recent weeks.

On another thorny front, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party have justified refusal to restart the peace process with the Palestinians on that basis that Iran, Syria, and their proxies represents Israel's top foreign policy concern. The defeat and/or chastening of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Ahmadinejad in Iran, while doubtless cheering to Netanyahu, nevertheless undercut his primary argument for avoiding the negotiating table.

Such hopeful outcomes are purely conjecture at this point but they are suddenly more plausible than they have been for a long time. Likewise, Obama worship is counterproductive but the President deserves credit where it is rightfully due.

It is naïve as to believe eloquent words alone won over the hearts and minds of Middle East voters. However, it is reasonable to believe that even our enemies may sometimes respond to restraint and dialogue in a similar fashion, just as they often respond to shows of strength and pressure in kind. Words can be powerful without accompanying displays of power. The U.S. can be a force for good by means other than our military forces.

Sometimes the ballot box provides just as much shock and awe leading to regime change as does the battlefield.

None of this proves that engagement is a superior approach to foreign policy. However, Lebanon does demonstrate that its use need not necessarily make the U.S. look weak or a laughingstock among its enemies and allies.

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