The Region: As Lebanon turns into Gaza

Iran and Syria back their friends with weapons and help. The West responds with words backed by nothing.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
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, yet another crisis is empowering radical Islamists and undercutting Western friends and interests. The Lebanese logjam has broken at last as Hizbullah seized Beirut and inflicted a major defeat on the government. Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah and Damascus and Teheran 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 Teheran, and every European preaching appeasement is engaging in confidence-breaking measures. At present, Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah 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, albeit unwitting, ally: Senator Barack Obama, who does not understand the damage he does. His May 10 statement on Lebanon tried to sound tough, talking of "Hizbullah's power grab in Beirut... This effort to undermine Lebanon's elected government needs to stop, and all those who have influence with Hizbullah must press them to stand down immediately." Obama said he supports the Lebanese government, wants to "strengthen the Lebanese army," and "insist[s] on disarming Hizbullah." 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 Rafik Hariri followed that economic strategy; the Syrians blew him up. The only way to gain social peace is to appease Hizbullah, 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 Hizbullah, 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 Hizbullah 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-Hizbullah, and its US-supplied equipment stood idle as Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah program: a new Lebanese consensus based on 51% 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 Hizbullah-dominated Lebanon. Such talk makes moderate Arabs despair. When Obama says he'll make Syria and Iran partners in setting Iraq's future, he is signaling every Persian Gulf regime to cut its own deal with Iran. His stances convince Hamas that he's the guy for them, with Iran and Syria concluding they merely need stand defiant and wait a few months until existing pressure vanishes. This is how the US position in the Middle East is being systematically destroyed. This does not mean that Obama is the candidate favored by Arabs in general; he is favored 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 Hizbullah. 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 as well as 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 Lebanese 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." The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.