Upon coming to from a nitrous oxide-induced coma this Monday, my dental surgeon told me that I’d been babbling endlessly about Lebanon as my wisdom teeth met their end. Such is the life of a Middle East political columnist. Any other week, this anecdote would have been fruitless. I don’t pontificate about Lebanon all that often. But by an unfortunate turn in parliamentary politics, Lebanon has descended into governmental limbo.
Yesterday, Hezbollah precipitated a collapse of the current coalition by withdrawing eleven of the ruling cabinet’s thirty ministers. While representatives of the Shiite paramilitary-cum-party declined to comment on the action, top American officials affirmed their support for embattled Prime Minister Saad Hariri – a noted break from the Obama administration’s limited-priority approach to Lebanese affairs.
For those who deny the authenticity of Obama’s change mantra, the administration’s policy on Lebanon stands as a marked counterexample. One of the most salient criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy is its tendency toward realism, the school of Kennan and Kissinger which holds that fostering relationships of powerful, reliable states should be the first priority of policymakers. Although few popular critics of ‘hope and change’ would criticize Obama for being too much of a realist, his focus on heavy-handed, authoritarian powers like Russia and Syria makes democracy crusader George W. Bush look positively pollyannaish.
More concerned with securing Syria’s cooperation on regional security and orchestrating the peace to end all peace processes between Israel and the Palestinians, however, the Obama administration seems to have dismissed Lebanon as largely ornamental. The consequences of neglect threaten to subvert the cause of regional stability: lodged precariously in the verdant nook between Israel and Syria, the Middle East’s most pluralistic society is not to be taken for granted.
To be sure, the Obama administration is partly responsible for the collapse of the Hariri government. But Washington is following in the age-old tradition of regarding Lebanon as nothing but a small, semi-Christian extension of the Levantine Arab world. Until 1943, Lebanon was but a district of French-mandate Syria – established as an independent state after some years of identity politics gone awry. Since, the international community has not yet gotten used to the idea of Lebanon being anything more than a political compromise.
Its neighbors haven’t either. From 1976 to 2005, Syria occupied the balance of Lebanese territory, maintaining a virtual monopoly on power; since then, Syria’s control over Lebanon’s internal affairs has changed little. In response to Syria’s power plays, Israel intervened in 1978, 1982, and 2006 – in the name of protecting the interests of Maronite Christians and beating back Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah militants. In the crosshairs lie cosmopolitan Beirut, religious pluralism, and any remaining trappings of Lebanese sovereignty.
Everybody feels bad enough about the destruction, lamenting the former cultural haven’s descent into violence and insolvency. But in the ‘global age’, it’s easy to be apologetic about the collapse of the nation-state’s power. Foreign Affairs is quick to note Hezbollah’s contributions to law and order on a local level, and regional specialists never seemed too disturbed by Israel and Syria’s quarter-century partition of Lebanon’s fragmented 4,000 square miles of territory. After all, Lebanon’s sovereignty was simply not as important as the cooperation of larger neighbors.
Foreign policy realism is useful to the extent that it allows the United States to choose helpful partners. But in practice, it can be perilously blinding. The abandonment of Lebanon, compact but hardly irrelevant, is a case in point: Obama and company’s focus on Syria has led to the collapse of Hariri’s coalition government. The rise of Hezbollah’s paramilitary brigades in its place could draw Israel away from the negotiating table, undo Syria’s incentive to cooperate with American diplomacy, and shift the regional balance of power away from Arab moderates and toward the Shiite partisans of Iran.
In light of the ongoing parliamentary crisis, the realistic case for a genuinely independent Lebanon proves summarily clear. Some Lebanese nationalists drive at the point just a bit too hard (Phoenicia, as glorious as it was, no longer exists). But with Hezbollah on the radical upswing, who wouldn’t agree with the case for a new tone in the babble about Lebanon?