Failed Binary Middle East Lenses: Lebanon and Iranian Elections Edition

I realize this is the editorial page of the neocon Washington Post, but I find this kind of commentary on the recent elections in Lebanon and the upcoming ones in Iran far too common.

A hotly contested parliamentary election produced an unexpectedly decisive victory for the pro-Western coalition that has led the Lebanese government for the past four years. The outcome was a sharp reverse for the Hezbollah movement and for Iran and Syria, which had hoped to establish dominion over Lebanon.

This again shows the stupidity of seeing everything in The Middle East through this myopic binary lens of pro-Western versus pro-Iranian/Syrian.  Or in Condi Rice’s language “the moderates” versus “the extremists”.  Excuse me, but when exactly did Saudi Arabia become moderate?  And what about the Shia dominated government of PM Maliki in Iraq?  Are they on the pro-Western side or the pro-Iranian side?  Answer C: Both.  Or perhaps D: Neither.  As they don’t buy into that stupid framework. This lens is just another ignorant variation on the same dumb theme of the Cold War binary of viewing the Middle East solely through the pro-American or pro-Soviet glasses.

Anyone who has ever studied Lebanese history, especially 20th century history, will know how convoluted and difficult to grasp it is.  For one it doesn’t take into account left/right political distinctions or local economic and political concerns.

Juan Cole on exactly this point:

The March 14 Alliance won because of the strength of the local economy, the desire for tourism, and anger at Hezbollah for streetfighting in 2008 that left 11 dead, more than a year of protests and sit-ins, and the Hezbollah bloc’s ultimately successful attempt to strong-arm its way to effective veto power in the government.

The key issue going forward for Lebanon is for the winners to not use this election as a cover to marginalize the other electoral side.  Because those groups, like Hezbollah and Amal, represent populations–particularly lower class Shia from the south of Lebanon.  A group that historically was left out politically.  That is, the March 14th Alliance can not use this as a way to just try and push through its own Shia-less agenda. That would end badly.  Certainly the March 14th Alliance won enough seats to do a basically 50% + 1 ram through Parliament anything it wants.  But if does so, it doesn’t take a political science master to figure out what will happen–a return to the events of 2006.  Which the WaPo editorial reminds us of in just about the most falsely leading ideological way possible:

The winning coalition of Sunni, Christian and Druze parties is no match for Hezbollah in the streets; the Islamist movement used force to seize control of most of Beirut last year, and it compelled the government to grant it veto power over its decisions.

The reason Hezbollah launched those attacks was because the Sunni groups tried to cut off their telecommunications/satellites at the airport.  Now obviously there’s a question about whether Hezbollah should have its own private surveillance capacity but this is at the same time the US was funding Saad Hariri to form a Sunni militia to counteract them.  Which of course (unsurprisingly) failed.  So it’s not like they (Hezb.) were the only milita in town; they just happened to be the best organized most disciplined one.

Fortunately since the election so far–fingers crossed–both sides have said the right things.  Hezbollah’s spokesman has stated they are waiting from a legitimate offer from the other side and if they get one they’ll join up in National Unity Coalition government and as it were “turn the page” on Lebanese politics.  By a good one they mean one that recognizes they and their coalition represent something like 40% of the country.  Similarly from the winning March 14th side, Walid Jumblatt–one of the main coalition partners (head of the Druze faction)–said that Hezbollah should be brought into the government.

One point on which I do agree with the WaPo editorial:

But its political defeat, which leader Hassan Nasrallah was forced to acknowledge on Monday, probably will constrain its actions: It will be less likely to launch new provocations against Israel, for example. The prestige of Mr. Nasrallah, treated as a hero by the region’s satellite television networks after the 2006 war, has been dented.

This is a point I made in my (now erased from the inter-spheres) article on Hamas for Culture11.  Eventually these groups are going to have to be coaxed into playing the government game and when they do then they can become constrained without forces of arms in some cases.  Labeling a group “extremist” and then shunning them will only become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Which is why this next piece of the WaPo editorial is again so mind-achingly stupid:

All of this will reinforce the standing of Mr. Obama, whose speech was aimed at swaying opinion in Muslim countries away from extremists like Mr. Nasrallah, Osama bin Laden and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This is why using words like extremist and terrorist is so detrimental for making intelligent policy responses.  Terror and extremism are tactics.  Defining people by tactics–absent also understanding their political goals–is a sure recipe for ideological blinker-ism.  See President Bush.  See this WaPo editorial.  See how the latter supported the former for so many years.

Terror is partly in the eyes of the beholders.  Or in the bodies of the destroyed I supposed.  People in the tribal areas of Af-Pak live in constant fear of the terror of robotic drones dropping bombs on them.  I’m not saying the US is a terrorist organization but whatever your opinion on that approach it certainly qualifies as extreme.  If you lived in that scenario you would call it terror.

Which is why putting Hassan Nasrallah in with Osama bin Laden is just about the stupidest f’in thing one could do.  Or in this case the Washington Post did.  Hezbollah denounced the 9/11 attacks on the US perpetrated by bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.  Which doesn’t make Hezboillah good guys by any stretch, nor does it mean Hezbollah hasn’t practiced its own terror, it just means that you have to think of the goals of each group.  I can not stress that point enough.

Hezbollah wants in on the state-game.  al-Qaeda does not.  al-Qaeda’s political goals are completely off the chance of ever happening.  Hezbollah (while still again not good guys) are a rational response to the political marginalization of the Lebanese Arab Shia and Israeli occupation.  Not good but effective.  They have achieved political goals, they have a constituency.  That constiuency is now widening–to all of Lebanon.  Which means they have to answer to more than just their supporters.  Which is why they stayed out of the Hamas-Israel war last year.  They are becoming both more powerful and more bounded within the nation-state game.  The Iran-Syria-extremist axis only recognizes the first part of that dyad.

Same with Ahmadinejad.  Discussing Ahmadinejad and his crazy ass rantings is useless absent a corresponding discussion of the actual system of government in Iran.  In which Ahmadinejad is actually hemmed in all sides and where the power lies much more strongly in the hands of the Supreme Leader.  But again even the Supreme Leader has checks on his power–via the Assembly of Experts.

Thankfully as the Iranian elections approach you can read smart articles like this one from Robert Worth in the NyTimes which correctly point out that the prime issue of debate there is the economy.  If the Reformist Candidate wins–(I predicted Ahmadinejad would fail to get re-elected 2 years ago so we’ll see soon if I was right or not)–notice it will have much to do with economic issues.  Keep that in mind if the analysis in the US becomes:  the extremists have lost, pro-US sentiment on the rise.  When in reality Iranian feelings towards the US had been the warmest of any Middle Eastern country (minus Israel) prior to the Iraq invasion.  While they may love our toys, illegal downloads of music and movies, and the youth bulge there probably think it’s cool we got a black dude middle named Hussein for President, opinion is not going to change unless the US changes its foreign policy relative to Iran.

1. Take regime change off the table.
2. Stop with this whole self-fulfilling prophecy of pro-Iranian Axis versus pro-“moderate” (i.e. Sunni) axis in Middle East.
3. Stop building the policy off of first lecturing Iran on what they should be doing and how we won’t deal with them until they do what we say they should.

If the Reformist candidate Mousavi wins, then it still becomes a question of The Supreme Leader and his relationship with Mousavi and his crew.  S.L. Khamenei (in)famously never really trusted previous Reformer Pres Khatami.  He did however let the Reformers put some trial balloons out there with the US (especially on helping out in Afghanistan) which the US ignored.  The cost of which is not much higher price of admission–probably nuclear weapons–for Iran’s entrance into the great powers club.  Since that approach failed, while Khameni was originally dis-trustful of Ahmadinejad he came to see Mahmoud-y as a useful puppet/idiot whose extreme rhetoric got things done that Khatami’s approach didn’t.

So….history would suggest that if the Reformers win the election what they will need from the US is a win. They will need some prize that they can take back to the Supreme Leader and the population to show that they can get stuff done.  If Obama sticks with the “Will take the sanctions off if you guys stop processing uranium” it ain’t going anywhere.

Which is again why this useless binary framework is so well destructive.  It sends US analysts into this yo-yo state of mind between despair and total euphoria.  Both unbalanced.  If the Reformers win, that’s good.  I hope it’s good.  I mean I hope they can help fix Iran’s economy for the people who live there.  But The Reformers winning is not automatically going to reign down the heavens.  Obama has so far been cautious and has smartly not offered anything of value since Ahmadinejad is still in power and that would only strengthen his hand.  But if the Reformers win Obama has to go big or don’t go at all. Anything less than burying all hatchets will not suffice at this point.

Update: Check out again the indispensable Juan Cole on the various power factions potentially lining up behind Mousavi.  If a pragmatic reformist-conservative alliance is starting to shape up with strong backing in the clerical oligarchy (e.g. Rafsanjani) and the Revolutionary Guards smell a winner (everbody wants to back a winner) as well as smell that Ahmadinejad’s goose is (halal) cooked then there is real possibility for major diplomatic initiative.  The guy will need an early win to convince the skeptics (including probably The Supreme Leader).

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4 thoughts on “Failed Binary Middle East Lenses: Lebanon and Iranian Elections Edition

  1. Fantastic analysis, Chris. But it’s just so much easier to call them “pro-Western” or “terrorist extremists” and be done with it. Can’t we just simplify things and get back to the good ol’ War on Terror?

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  2. well the election day for Iran has arrived and of course the coverage of the election by the media has been non stop (cnn) and completely worthless. i swear i know less by watching these shows being told what to think by people who supposedly know all!!

    but i guess my main comment goes towards your article above which i enjoyed though not fully. so if the (scary music please) neocon wash post rubbed you the wrong way could you offer your two cents on the amazing speech given by the President today that the election is basicly a result of His Cairo speech.

    oh and i will leave juan cole alone for now.

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  3. seth,

    my sense is always that we out to view these countries politics within their own country. Same as I have always seen in Iraq. CNN is so useless because they think everything is a result of the US. I realize the President has to play politics, but that’s a stupid to thing to say. His speech I doubt had little to nothing to do with what is going on in Iran.

    All of which still doesn’t get at the key political structural question. We (the US) knocked out their two biggest enemies and there was no way that was not going to make them the regional power. Anybody with brains who studied the Iraq invasion knew the winner was going to be Iran. Period. So we did that and that got all shocked (SHOCKED!!) that Iran then wanted a spot at the big boy’s table. Surprise!! And then we act like we can shut them out. So they just said fine, we’ll do this on our own and let you bleed in Afgh and Iraq. Which is what we have done.

    If the Reformers win (and their allowed to take power), then we ought to offer them what by all rights they ought to have. A seat at the adult table. Doing that would end whatever hold the Revolutionaries have left in the government. But it would come at the cost of a much longer need for a kind of containment detente era policy towards Iran and let the Ayatollahs crumble from within, since like the Soviets they are running on a failed ideology that will eventually run out of steam.

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