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.