Middle East: The dog that didn’t bark

posted at 6:10 pm on January 30, 2011 by J.E. Dyer

In the rapidly unfolding events in the Arab world over the past month, the most important feature is something that didn’t take place in an Arab nation.  In fact, what’s important about it is that it didn’t take place at all.

This interesting feature is the fact that, in the current Arab turmoil, the U.S. has done nothing – and the place where that matters the most is Lebanon. Lebanon has long been riven by predatory strategic actors; Hezbollah has been chief among them for the last 20-plus years, rivaling or exceeding the long-time role of Syria.  Previous US presidents have dealt realistically with crises in Lebanon, in the sense that they have understood this truth: politics in Lebanon are never taking place in a quiescent, honest atmosphere uninfluenced by armed factions and intimidation.  To achieve any semblance of a democratic, constitutional, or consensual outcome in Lebanon today, there must be active pushback against the antidemocratic, unconstitutional, and counter-consensual methods of Hezbollah.

This is why nations like the US, France, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan have sought to actively counter Hezbollah’s influence during crisis periods in Lebanon.  Far from being meddlesome, such intervention – with diplomacy, aid, and support to Western-oriented “unity” governments – is the only way to ensure some kind of power balance in Lebanon.  The US has no interest in regime-changing or managing Lebanon, but we don’t want others doing that either – or at least, we haven’t up until now.

It’s quite true that over time, our handling of Lebanon has, for the most part, been pragmatic and narrowly conceived.  The US has never proposed a grand plan for reforming Lebanon, kicking Hezbollah out, and ensuring that peace and harmony reign in an idealized future.  We have always been in reactive mode:  always looking for compromise solutions, narrow guarantees, a steady strain on the tensions between power blocs.  We have accepted very imperfect situations there as the best we could get.

But we have always been engaged.  We have always conveyed that we have a strategic interest in the outcome.  We have proclaimed what we would not tolerate, and backed our rhetoric up with material support and occasionally the threat of force.  Sometimes we’ve put ourselves in an untenable position by paying insufficient attention to the link between force and security – but our determined presence, even when we get a black eye, has perennially been the limiting factor on everyone else’s plans and plots.

That engagement is what’s missing in January 2011.  The biggest thing that has happened this month is that a terrorist organization took over Lebanon, and we did nothing about it.  Not only did we do nothing, one of our national spokesmen actually referred to Hezbollah’s effective coup as a “constitutional process,” with the implication that as long as the process is “constitutional,” we don’t care who takes over what nation anywhere on earth.

Lebanon differs from Tunisia and Egypt in that Hezbollah has been organized and armed for a long time, and it forced dissolution of the Saad Hariri government in order to take over the country.  Whoever may end up exploiting the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, the riots and frustration there are the result of genuine popular grievances.  From all appearances, they began spontaneously and are not centrally directed – even if they will ultimately be exploited – by groups plotting to form new governments.  There is ample excuse for everyone in foreign capitals, including ours, to be caught flat-footed by the unrest, at least for a while.

But there is no excuse for our failure to engage in Lebanon.  The effects of this policy failure will be far-reaching; we may well see them in the still-uncertain outcomes in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world.  There is a real sense in which the turning point of January 2011 is principally about us, and what we have not done.  The Hezbollah coup in Lebanon functioned as a test of what the US reaction would be, and unless something changes in the coming days, the answer is now obvious.

We could have acted as a limiting factor in Lebanon this month by engaging with the diplomatic process – the ad hoc negotiations among the factions in Lebanon – spearheaded by the Saudis.  It’s probable that the act of doing that would have signaled to Hezbollah that the timing was still inauspicious for attempting a takeover.  But we didn’t make even that effort.  I’m not sure American readers fully understand that we simply weren’t there. Hezbollah is playing it safe for the time being with a non-radical candidate for prime minister, a move that seems to be a nod to the expectations that prevailed in the status quo we are leaving behind.  But in the coming days, we can expect Hezbollah to maneuver as much for the impression on regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Turkey as for Western governments and the Western press.

There is no friendly stasis, with momentum of its own, in geopolitical conditions.  Maintaining a beneficial status quo is hard work.  It can’t be left to tend itself – and if you’re not transforming and resetting it to your benefit, it’s being transformed to someone else’s.  For the last six decades, the posture of the US, whether heroic or flawed, has been the limiting factor on what challengers of the status quo consider possible.  Our disengagement and effective absence from Lebanon this month were a signal that big challenges are now possible; the US might not even try to intervene.  Whatever our latent powers, we are not acting as a limiting factor, by defining and defending interests, and we have no apparent intention to.

This understanding is what’s missing from most coverage of the unrest in the Arab world.  Riots in Egypt are not unprecedented; Mubarak has survived them before.  He may again, for now.  It may take time for newly-encouraged challengers of the status quo, like the Muslim Brotherhood, to develop actionable plans targeting specific governments.  That hasn’t been their primary focus, unlike the always-prepared Marxist insurgents of the last century.

But riots in Egypt after Hezbollah has taken over Lebanon in a coup while the US did nothing – that is a set of conditions that means the world has already changed.  The West doesn’t realize it yet; its media continue to assess events as if everyone is operating from a common set of assumptions about global power relationships.  That will probably keep us stumped, for a while longer, about what’s happening.  But as the hours tick by, the reality is settling in: we are not in the post-Cold War stasis any more.

J.E. Dyer blogs at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions” and as The Optimistic Conservative.  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

This post was promoted from GreenRoom to HotAir.com.
To see the comments on the original post, look here.


Related Posts:

Breaking on Hot Air

Blowback

Note from Hot Air management: This section is for comments from Hot Air's community of registered readers. Please don't assume that Hot Air management agrees with or otherwise endorses any particular comment just because we let it stand. A reminder: Anyone who fails to comply with our terms of use may lose their posting privilege.

Trackbacks/Pings

Trackback URL

Comments

Comment pages: 1 2

This is what happens when you elect a POS in a suit as President

PJ Emeritus on January 30, 2011 at 10:39 PM

The biggest problem is that Obama does support and defend the Muslim Brotherhood, and does prefer them to dictate the Middle East’s direction, and yes, Iran has been working behind the scenes to make this happen!

How any of this could be doubted is beyond me!!!

It’s too obvious to even a simpleton like me!!!

Vntnrse on January 30, 2011 at 10:42 PM

It’s too obvious to even a simpleton like me!!!

Vntnrse

yes. y’are.

audiculous on January 30, 2011 at 10:43 PM

Mubarak can say whatever he likes. The Egyptian military will decide. A very effective check.
audiculous on January 30, 2011 at 10:36 PM

I see, the same Egyptian military that kept Mubarak from conducting himself for the last 30 years in precisely the same way that most modern dictators do? Ok then.

Bishop on January 30, 2011 at 10:49 PM

Obama, Jimmy Carter on steroids. We are so blessed. And by blessed I really mean screwed.

eaglewingz08 on January 30, 2011 at 10:58 PM

I see, the same Egyptian military that kept Mubarak from conducting himself for the last 30 years in precisely the same way that most modern dictators do? Ok then.

Bishop

we’re only arguing about how bad Mubarak is/was, not whether he ran the place really, really, undemocratically.

my point about the military is that Mubarak didn’t control it and that he had to avoid screwing it over to avoid having it interfere with what he wanted to do.

there are other countries where the military holds great power independently of the civilian part of the government.

in true dictatorships, the military is firmly controlled by the ruler.

audiculous on January 30, 2011 at 11:01 PM

Anyone who expects Obama to do more than wring his hands is, at the least, mis-guided.

jeanie on January 30, 2011 at 11:14 PM

in true dictatorships, the military is firmly controlled by the ruler.
audiculous on January 30, 2011 at 11:01 PM

Hehehehehe, as the Egyptian military does nothing to stop Mubarak from dissolving the government, and is actively protecting him during this crisis as they have for the last 30 years?

Nice try. “True dictatorships”? Come on, you can admit that Biden said something stupid in the interest of politics, what politician hasn’t?

Bishop on January 30, 2011 at 11:19 PM

Anyone who expects Obama to do more than wring his hands is, at the least, mis-guided.

jeanie

don’t be a gump.
a bad and undemocratic regime that we found very useful is being ousted.
what do you suggest that we do now?

audiculous on January 30, 2011 at 11:24 PM

Come on, you can admit that Biden said something stupid in the interest of politics, what politician hasn’t?

Bishop

he said something that was less than fully honest in the interest of politics.

Cordell Hull spent months meeting every day and night with representatives of the Japanese government in 1941.
he kept repeating to reporters that we could find a way avoid war despite being certain that there wasn’t one chance in a hundred.

audiculous on January 30, 2011 at 11:29 PM

he said something that was less than fully honest in the interest of politics.

Less than fully honest?

*hooooooooo boy*

Bishop on January 30, 2011 at 11:33 PM

And by blessed I really mean screwed.

eaglewingz08 on January 30, 2011 at 10:58 PM

Heh! Well put!

OldEnglish on January 30, 2011 at 11:35 PM

It’s too obvious to even a simpleton like me!!!

Vntnrse
yes. y’are.

audiculous on January 30, 2011 at 10:43 PM

Audiculous, you don’t know me so you are not allowed to insult me. STFU! I will not argue any point with a POS like you! Good Day!

Vntnrse on January 31, 2011 at 12:21 AM

Vntnrse on January 31, 2011 at 12:21 AM

Pull in your lip, quit stomping your feet, and take your thumb out of your mouth.

Dark-Star on January 31, 2011 at 4:04 AM

Reagan did not clean house in Lebanon after the bombing of our Embassy, the attack on the Marine barracks and the French contingent acting as peace keepers, and then the second attack on our Embassy after we left the place.

The USSR didn’t give a hot damn about Lebanon, and was coming to see Syria as untrustworthy, plus it was an economic drag.

The Jefferson solution would have worked very well in the 20th century. Instead we got left with the start of Hezbollah left un-nipped in the bud and the toxic roots put in by Iran and Syria have grown to bear bitter fruit.

ajacksonian on January 31, 2011 at 6:44 AM

Audiculous, you don’t know me so you are not allowed to insult me.
Vntnrse

why, I wasn’t arguing, I was agreeing with you.

audiculous on January 31, 2011 at 8:33 AM

Lest we not forget that the previous test was the 2008 “war” between Hezbollah and Israel. In that skirmish, the US was critical of Israel and our media/administration bought the Hezbollah/Hamas propaganda hook, line, and sinker. Same thing with the Flotilla crap. Let’s face it, we have yet to be fortunate enough to have any President that truly understands, appreciates, and strategizes correctly again the global Islamists. Even our alma mater of Reagan blew it in Lebanon as pointed out in previous comments.

Levinite on January 31, 2011 at 8:41 AM

When has Obama ever taken the part of Democracy?

His inaction is consistent with his previous behavior.

LarryD on January 31, 2011 at 9:08 AM

Lest we not forget that the previous test was the 2008 “war” between Hezbollah and Israel. In that skirmish, the US was critical of Israel and our media/administration bought the Hezbollah/Hamas propaganda hook, line, and sinker.
Levinite

That’s daft. Nobody in this country was taken in by Hezbollah propaganda. You’re talking rubbish.

All anyone criticized Israel for was bombing the hell out of people who weren’t part of the fight.

audiculous on January 31, 2011 at 9:13 AM

Breaking wind is set to be made a crime in an African country.

The government of Malawi plan to punish persistent offenders ‘who foul the air’ in a bid to ‘mould responsible and disciplined citizens.’

J_Crater on January 31, 2011 at 9:55 AM

Wow, the trolls just don’t care who they piss off anymore do they! Interesting!

Vntnrse on January 31, 2011 at 2:50 PM

Lest we not forget that the previous test was the 2008 “war” between Hezbollah and Israel. In that skirmish, the US was critical of Israel and our media/administration bought the Hezbollah/Hamas propaganda hook, line, and sinker.
Levinite

That’s daft. Nobody in this country was taken in by Hezbollah propaganda. You’re talking rubbish.

All anyone criticized Israel for was bombing the hell out of people who weren’t part of the fight.

audiculous on January 31, 2011 at 9:13 AM

LOL, so why exactly did you chime-in? Are you so ignorant that you are unaware of the well known practice of Hezbollah and Hamas purposefully shelling Israel from civilian enclaves? Poor stupid Israel even fliers intended targets prior to striking so that civilians will GTFO. Just like I said, “hook, line, and…”…sucker!

Levinite on January 31, 2011 at 3:54 PM

Comment pages: 1 2