Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why is the Other Side Winning? Lebanon's New Government As a Case Study

By Barry Rubin

The moderate March 14 movement, in the words of the New York Times, won “a clear victory” in Lebanon’s June elections, while the Hizballah-led alliance suffered a “loss.”

Why, then will the forces that won a majority, again in the phrasing of the Times, “have little chance to dictate the agenda?”

On the surface, things are bad enough. The March 14 movement will have fifteen cabinet seats, Hizballah and its friends (all of whom are allied because they are clients of Iran and Syria) get ten, and the other five will be controlled by President Michel Suleiman “who has struggled to maintain neutrality,” says the Times.

Now to the fine print which makes things look far worse.

Suleiman is Syria’s man. That’s why he got the job. Almost all the time, and perhaps all the time, he will back the Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah line.

Then there’s Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, who up until recently was the toughest, bravest March 14 leader. Reading the writing on the wall, he has jumped ship and tried to switch sides, at least to some extent. So that tilts the situation even more in favor of Hizballah-Iran-Syria.

But why is this happening, why do those who won the elections have to give veto power to those who lost? Why will this government be unable to disarm Hizballah, stop arms’ smuggling across its borders, prosecute those responsible for terrorist attacks within Islam, prevent Hizballah from attacking Israel and thus dragging Lebanon into war whenever it wants, and be too friendly to the West?

On the surface, of course, this passivity is necessary to maintain the peace. Lebanon has always had a weak government, and the specter of civil war hangs over the country based on past experience.

The full answer, however, is two-fold and these factors interlock.

The first point is that Iran and Syria give lavish support to their side. They provide lots of money, weapons, and political support. They virtually never betray their friends. They are strong and ready to intimidate their enemies.

And the second point regards the opposite side: The United States and Europe don’t subsidize their “clients.” U.S. aid money goes to the Lebanese army which is arguably now under Iranian-Syrian control if it came to a crisis. Their political support is unreliable, either because they don’t do anything or they actually make concessions to Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. They usually do betray their friends, are apologetic, and prone to engage in appeasement.

Quick, who would you depend on to keep you alive politically and personally if you were a Lebanese politician?

If the March 14 coalition tried to disarm Hizballah’s militia, stop it from controlling the south, block it from attacking Israel, interdict all the arms’ smuggling from Syria, or do lots of other things, Iran, Syria, and Hizballah along with their other local allies would smite them with a mighty blow.

But if Hizballah took over neighborhoods, ignored the government, made fools out of the UN forces which are supposedly policing them (or even attack them in a deniable way), the United States and Europe would do nothing.

Is it really so hard to understand, then, why things are going the way they are in Lebanon, or in the Middle East generally for that matter?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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