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Lebanon to West: Wake Up Fast!

Written by Barry Rubin

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May 2008
By Barry Rubin
While America’s secretary of state devotes her time to doomed Israel-Palestinian talks and America goes ga-ga over a candidate whose entire foreign policy strategy is to talk to dictators, still another crisis is empowering radical Islamists and undercutting Western friends and interests.

The Lebanese logjam has broken at last as Hizballah has seized Beirut and inflicted a major defeat on the government. Hizballah is pulling a more limited version of Hamas’s Gaza strategy in Lebanon as the world stands by.
 
Iran and Syria back their friends with weapons and help; the West responds with words backed by nothing. Who can blame Hizballah and Damascus and Tehran for laughing in contempt?

Why should the Lebanese Sunni, Druze, and Christian majority risk their lives when the West doesn’t help them? Every Israeli speaking nonsense about Syria making peace; every American claiming Damascus might split from Tehran; every European preaching appeasement has in fact been engaged in confidence-breaking measures.

At present, Hizballah and its sponsors seek not the full conquest of Lebanon but to control the government by violence and intimidation. Unable to gain full victory themselves they hope to win by the other side’s surrender. They want veto power over the government to ensure it does nothing they dislike: no strong relations with the West, no ability to stop war against Israel, no disarming Hizballah’s militias or challenging its control over much of the country, and certainly no investigation of Syrian involvement in internal terrorism there.

Now they have a new ally: Senator Barack Obama, though he does not understand the damage he does. His May 10 statement on Lebanon tries to sound tough, talking about “Hezbollah's power grab in Beirut….This effort to undermine Lebanon's elected government needs to stop, and all those who have influence with Hezbollah must press them to stand down immediately.” He says he supports the Lebanese government, wants to “strengthen the Lebanese army,” and “insist on disarming Hezbollah.”
How? By “working with the international community and the private sector to rebuild Lebanon and get its economy back on its feet.”

According to the Obama world view, it’s a development problem. But he doesn’t understand that bombs trump business. Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri followed that economic strategy; the Syrians blew him up. The only way to gain social peace is to appease Hizballah, Syria and Iran, whose disruption blocks prosperity.

The statement continues: “We must support the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions that reinforce Lebanon's sovereignty, especially resolution 1701 banning the provision of arms to Hezbollah, which is violated by Iran and Syria.”
Great. But 1701 has already failed. Will you fight on this issue? Mobilize the passive “international community” for action? Threaten Iran, Syria, and Hizballah with credible, tough action? There’s no hint of that.

As for Lebanon’s army, its commander is Syria’s presidential candidate, its soldiers are mostly pro-Hizballah, and its U.S.-supplied equipment stood idle as Hizballah seized more territory.

But here’s the worst part that few in America but all in Lebanon understand:
Obama writes: “It's time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and the development of the economy that provides for a fair distribution of services, opportunities and employment.”

 This is Hizballah’s program: a new Lebanese consensus based on 51 percent of power for itself and its pro-Syrian allies. What’s needed isn’t consensus (equivalent to getting Fatah-Hamas cooperation or an Iraq coordinated with Iran and Syria) but winning a conflict. Instead, Obama is—whether he knows it or not--backing a Syrian-, Iranian, and Hizballah-dominated Lebanon. Such talk makes moderate Arabs despair.

It is a consistent pattern. When Obama says he’ll make Syria and Iran partners in setting Iraq’s future, he signals every Persian Gulf regime to cut its own deal with Iran. When his stances convince Hamas that he’s the guy for them; when Iran and Syria conclude they merely need stand defiant and wait a few months until existing pressure vanishes, the U.S. position in the Middle East is being systematically destroyed.
 
Note this does not make Obama the candidate favored by Arabs in general but only by the radicals. Egyptians, Jordanians, Gulf Arabs, and the majorities in Lebanon and Iraq are very worried. This is not just an Israel problem; it is one for all non-extremists in the region.

If the dictators and terrorists are smiling, it means everyone else is crying.

The Syrian and Iranian regimes know that while they may walk through the valley of the shadow of sanctions they need fear nothing because there are all too many who  comfort them.  If Libya runs the UN human rights committee, UNIFIL forces in Lebanon are scared into passivity by Hizballah, if Westerners tremble and repeal freedom of speech lest some Muslims are offended, why should the “bad guys” worry?

But the West doesn’t have to play it stupid forever. Now is the time for energetic action on Lebanon to contain Iran and Syria, buck up Lebanon’s government side and all those Gulf Arabs and Iraqis who don’t want to live in an Islamist caliphate.
 
The battle isn’t over, which is all the more reason for real—not just verbal—struggle. Yet with mere words, compromises, and impractical economic projects, the battle will be lost eventually.

For all those in the West who don’t like Israel, then at least help the people you pretend to like. Back the government with real power and aid, covertly or overtly, those battling radical forces in Lebanon.

Rick: “Sam, if it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?”
Sam: “Um, my watch stopped.”
Rick:  “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I’ll bet they’re asleep all over America.”
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://www.gloriacenter.org/ at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal <http://meria.idc.ac.il/>. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur, and the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria.

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