Obama, Brooks, and Lebanon

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Today’s New York Times features a column by David Brooks wherein Brooks claims that Obama’s statements about the current violence in Lebanon, “has the whiff of what President Bush described yesterday as appeasement.”  The statement which Brooks feels has that whiff is:

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.

Leaving aside the question as to whether or not that would actually appease Hezbollah in some way (I would contend that Hezbollah is plenty enthusiastic about corrupt patronage systems and unfair distribution of goods and services, merely wishing that they be in charge of the corruption and unfair distribution), let’s focus for a moment on what is actually happening in Lebanon, and what Obama is saying should be done about it by the United States.

In many ways, the nation which Lebanon is most similar to politically is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  While power is not (and has not been for some time) concentrated in a single political party and strongman, Lebanon is a post-colonial state where the minority of Levantine Christians have, by design, been granted sole authority to rule.  Also like Iraq, Lebanon has had to contend with a lengthy war against one of its neighbors, which greatly destabilized the state.  Also like Iraq, Lebanon had an ethnically distinct minority (in Lebanon, the Palestinians; in Iraq, the Kurds) who attack another nation across their border, which led to the Turks and Israelis respectively to launch attacks within their territory and creates an international demand for police action by the government which cannot fully be satisfied.  And finally, as in Iraq, the majority Shi’ite population is  represented nearly entirely by an Iranian-sponsored militia whose agenda is not mainly set by the community’s popular will.  

So, what to do?  Iraq offers one powerful example; the corrupt tyranny of the minority-controlled government can be removed, but the result of this will merely be the replacement of the tyranny of the minority with the tyranny of the majority.  Without another preestablished Shi’ite power structure, Iraq became ruled by the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade, and the terror and ethnic cleansing that resulted was therefore inevitable.  There is a reason that the Israeli occupation of Lebanon never attempted to overthrow the Lebanese government and create an honest democracy there.

President Bush, Sen. McCain, and David Brooks all have said that the ills of handing the reins of power in Iraq to the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade are outweighed by the ills of having Iraq in the power of Saddam Hussein.  However, the argument shifts when it comes to Lebanon; what they want there is to somehow defeat Hezbollah before it ever gets the chance to overthrow the Lebanese government, democratically or otherwise.  Here, however, we have a problem.

The preferred method for Bush, McCain, and Brooks to remove powers such as Hezbollah is force.  Indeed, although Brooks dials back his rhetoric accusing Obama of appeasement in his column, he asks (and does not answer) the question to make it clear that he would prefer a forcible solution: “The question is whether he’s seasoned and tough enough to deal with implacable enemies.”  Clearly, the litmus test that Brooks is applying here is whether Obama has the stones to use force in dealing with them.

But regarding Hezbollah, this question is moot.  It has been tried, repeatedly, against Hezbollah.  And it was no lack of will, toughness, or cojones which caused it to fail.  The Israelis failed to dislodge or disempower Hezbollah over both a decades-long occupation and with a Rumsfeld doctrine blitzkreig.  In fact, both times Hezbollah emerged stronger from the conflict.  Israel’s methods in those conflicts as well embodied the worst fantasies of the neoconservative movement; they used cluster munitions, tortured suspects for information, and even permitted Lebanese Christian militias to massacre populations who supported Hezbollah.  Yet, despite the lack of restraint, Hezbollah persisted and grew in power.  The use of force by my nation was a failure, and my fellows and I served in Lebanon in vain.  As I watched Nahariya burn two summers ago, nothing was more certain in my heart than that what I was a part of over a decade ago had ended in failure.

So, what do we know?  We know that we cannot defeat Hezbollah through force of arms alone.  And we know that what is likely to come from our allowing and encouraging fair democracy in Lebanon will be similar to what resulted when we did so in post-Saddam Iraq.  Neither of these options should have much appeal.

And what does Obama’s statement suggest?  That he understands this.  He understands that there is little we can do that will improve things in Lebanon, and that our force of arms is unlikely to be able to play a role in that.  He understands the need to create a “new consensus”, a new political party which can represent Lebanese Shi’ites and compete with Hezbollah for their allegiance, and gain them genuine results in terms of jobs, representation, and government services.  Indeed, nothing could be more important for our interests in Lebanon than the encouragement of legitimate alternatives to Hezbollah in the Lebanese Shi’ite community.

Indeed, this is what makes Obama’s statement insightful.  The ability to understand that Hezbollah is our implacable enemy (and indeed, the enemy of all our values), and to simultaneously understand that Lebanese Shi’ites, whom Hezbollah represents, have real and important grievances against the government and the nations which enable the government, is crucial.  For Hezbollah to be defeated, we must divorce it from the people who support it because no one else pursues their interests.  We must refuse to treat with Hezbollah while being the advocates of their support base.

And I don’t know about Mr. Brooks, but I’ve got to admire the guts of anyone who is willing to tell such a difficult truth to the American people.


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  1. …this will be cross-posted to Daily Kos tomorrow.  Have a great weekend everyone.

  2. very informative for someone not so well versed in all this.

  3. comparisons to Irag. It made me see more clearly the ‘why’ of the problems in Lebanon, and the folly of brute force for resolutions of complex problems. Diplomacy is not appeasement, war or obliteration of anybody who threatens our ‘allies’ in a region as volatile as the Mid East is insane not just morally but strategically.        

  4. there are problems which do not have good answers.  One must then try to change the nature of the problem.  We do have an enemy in Hezbollah, if we try to crush them we will have an enemy in the Lebanese people.  It reminds me somewhat of Churchill’s attempt to defuse the German problem by removing the poison coursing through the system based on the foolish Versailles treaty, a hard dose of real diplomacy that made concrete improvements in people’s lives may bring about the irrelevance of Hezbollah in the intermediate future, in the interim one acts and endures.

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