Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | January 30, 2011

Middle East: The Dog That Didn’t Bark

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 Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JT, J.E. Dyer. J.E. Dyer said: Middle East: The Dog That Didn’t Bark: My latest at TOC on US, Arab world, global status quo… […]

  2. ‘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,’

    ‘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. ‘

    please do explain how our current efforts in and about Lebanon are any different from our past efforts.
    it seems to me that it has taken 15 years time for Hezbollah to become the most militarily powerful group in Lebanon and reached the position of military dominance more than 5 years ago.

    this last move to topple the Harari government, in the cabinet of which Hezbollah was strongly represented, was a response to the pressure being brought against the Hezis by the US/Euro-backed STL.

    for you to say that we’ve become disengaged there seems backwards as it has been that we’ve become more engaged in Lebanon in the last few years.

  3. I’m back J.E. and you are quite correct, events are unfolding in the M.E. that shall have profound international impacts in the long-term. These ‘events’ however, are merely the latest, in an ongoing historical drama that shall unfold in a series of ‘events’, which shall greatly complicate the circumstances U.S. interests face in the region, while simultaneously greatly reducing our options.

    Our unwillingness to ‘interfere’ in Lebanon is not going unnoticed and the more astute among our allies must now realize (with awareness slowly dawning among the less astute) that the US under Obama is indeed Bin Ladin’s ‘paper tiger’.

    Then there’s the nuclear proliferation that is certain to explode across the region.

    In recent years, Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and even Yemen have all expressed an interest in building nuclear power plants, ostensibly for civilian reasons, though only the naive or willfully obtuse imagine that other purposes are not contemplated.

    We are headed toward an eventual (5-20 yrs) nuclear confrontation in the region, ironically driven by the unwillingness of the left to militarily confront with conventional arms Islam’s radical elements. Once Iran gains the bomb it will be unavoidable.

    In the meantime, Iran continues to pursue its goal of creating an Iranian led alliance. It is making steady progress in that direction; Lebanon is now theirs, Turkey is already lost, Iraq will, within the next two years, ‘elect’ a Shia led, gov’t. One that will be essentially an Iranian client gov’t…

    When we leave Afghanistan, Karzai will reach an ‘accommodation’ with the Taliban who shall effectively regain control of the country. Pakistan is a dormant volcano, a nuclear armed Egypt in the wings, with large military and intelligence elements sympathetic to the Taliban. There are 20,000+ madrases in Pakistan…

    Egypt’s army (the real power) appears increasingly sympathetic to allowing regime change and the Muslim Brotherhood merely await their opportunity to participate in ‘one-time’ elections.

    Sudan and Libya will, at some point join the ‘alliance’.

    A nuclear armed Caliphate will pose a grave problem for the West and I expect Europe to then capitulate to Turkey’s incorporation within the E.U. which shall open the flood gates to Muslim immigration into Europe.

    Russia and China will rush to fill the vacuum of US naval retreat brought on by greatly reduced military budgets and Obama administration reticence to militarily confront any other power.

    There will be starts and stops, rather than a smooth progression but that’s the general direction we are headed toward. Quite reminiscent of Churchill’s prediction of the long term result of Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler in Munich, “Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war.”

    At this point and given the geopolitical factors extant, I don’t see how Wretchard’s ‘Three Conjectures’ is avoidable.

    Avoid it we may, as an awful lot can happen but if we do, it will be providential luck not the result of brilliant statesmanship or resolute firmness.

  4. GB — it’s absolutely awesome to have you back. I was extremely glad to hear from you earlier. I believe Ritchie Emmons may owe fuster a bag of Cheetos, although of course that’s between the two of them.

    It’s time to dust off my series from 2009, “The Next Phase of World War IV.” I appreciate the reference to Wretchard’s Three Conjectures, as it’s a beautiful snapshot of one strain of thinking in 2003. At that point, I don’t think the “geographicness” of the converging Islamist movements had been sufficiently appreciated by most Western analysts. They still thought very much in abstract terms about “Islamism” and “WMD,” as if the intersection of these phenomena had a sort of generic applicability realized through the vehicle of terrorism.

    But geography is actually a huge element of this multifaceted problem — and it’s eschatological as well as national and ideological. Everything starts from one point: Jerusalem. Since the end of WWII and the founding of modern Israel, the US has led a Western consensus that effectively governed the status of Jerusalem, keeping it officially unresolved but in a tense stasis. Islamist groups have never acceded to that status, they have only recognized that conditions were bad for trying to change it to their liking.

    What they now perceive is that conditions for making a move on Jerusalem — which is shorthand for multiple, intertwined ideas of what should happen to Israel, Israeli Jews, Christians, and all other infidels — are improving. If the US will no longer enforce the internal tension in Lebanon, which has kept Hezbollah under constraints, then there may be other things we will no longer enforce.

    I emphatically do NOT mean that Islamist groups are (a) all working together, or (b) planning to attack Israel en masse next week. What we’re seeing is the early stages of competing Islamist groups jockeying against each other, to be in the best position to effectively “occupy Jerusalem.” For a group like the Muslim Brotherhood, ruling Egypt would mean having a really spectacular position from which to weaken and snipe at Israel, in a variety of venues — economic and diplomatic as well as military and terroristic.

    This is the same advantage it gives Hezbollah — and by extension Iran — to rule Lebanon. Radicalization of Egypt and Lebanon, if it develops, would force reckonings on Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and probably Syria too, whose Baathist rulers are deeply hated by true Salafists.

    Turkey under Erdogan will be a factor as well; the entire region, from Moscow to Islamabad to Cairo and Brussels, sees him as the aspiring ruler of a reestablished Ottoman empire — “Allah’s Shadow on Earth,” the seat of the caliphate.

    And of course, any such career of intra-regional jockeying will be a playground for Russia and China, and a security nightmare for Europe.

    As my 2009 series indicates, I’m not reacting without forethought to the events of January 2011. I think they are significant for a reason, one whose outlines I developed 18 months ago. The theory may or may not be proven right, but frankly, events are unfolding as the theory would predict.

    I am convinced that the unrest sweeping the Arab world is undirected and spontaneous — I’ll say that again. I’m NOT convinced the various Islamist groups out there are uniformly ready to seize national political power. That readiness was uncharacteristic of such movements when it was evinced by the revolutionaries in Iran in 1979. Revolutions in the Islamic world have more typically been led by Marxist-socialists, who by nature are better organized for conventional political power. (Survey all the revolutions of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and you see Marxist-ethnic-nationalists, with a healthy dollop of anticolonialism, at every turn.) ISLAMISM, per se, as an organizing principle for a nation-state, has a very inconsistent history as compared to the practiced revolutionary/insurgent methods of Marxists.

    So I don’t predict we can just haul out our old anti-Communist cheat sheets, or our conventional ideas about creeping fascism from the 1930s, and ready ourselves to interpret coming events. A number of things will be different. But we’ll be confused forever if we don’t just suck it up and recognize that for different Islamist groups, there is a unifying strategic theme, and it’s what we might call geo-eschatological. I call it the “race to Jerusalem.” Remove the handbrake applied by the US for the last 60-odd years, and the starting gun is fired.

    • J.E.,

      Thank you too for the warm welcome upon my return from my mini-sabbatical.

      In regard to your ‘race to jerusalem’ theory (with which I am in substantial agreement) this morning I stumbled across a relevant additional factor on Contentions, (stumbled across because since they eliminated comments, I rarely visit it anymore) articulated by Daniel Gordis in his commentary The Other Existential Threat

      Gordis’ central theme is that “What must be understood is that the threat to Israel is not that Iran will one day use the bomb. No, Iran merely needs to possess the bomb to undermine the central purpose of Israel’s existence—and in so doing, to reverse the dramatic change in the existential condition of the Jews that 62 years of Jewish sovereignty has wrought. The mere possession of a nuclear weapon by Iran would instantly restore Jews to the status quo ante before Jewish sovereignty, to a condition in which their futures would depend primarily on the choices their enemies—and not Jews themselves—make.” (initially, I had difficulty accepting Gordis’ premise but he makes a compelling case for it)

      “The creation and survival of the Jewish state in the late 1940s ended a millennium of abject Jewish vulnerability and brought to an astonishing close a long and anguished history in which Jews were assigned the role of victim-on-call.”

      “Many people are put off by the Israeli national affect, which they take to be a mix of arrogance and bravado. This is a misperception of an attitude that is born, in truth, out of collective relief: We Jews no longer live—and die—at the whim of others. That sense of security would evaporate the minute Iran had the weapon it seeks.”

      Gordis goes on to say, “the minute that Iran possesses its long-sought nuclear weapon, Zion becomes not a haven for the Jews but a potential deathtrap. Six million Jews (an ironic number if there ever was one) will again be in the crosshairs. And if that happens, Israel will have lost its purpose.

      Without purpose, Israelis will not remain in Israel. The allures of Boston and Silicon Valley, where intellectual and financial opportunity await without the burdens of war and the shadow of extinction, will be too difficult to resist. Those who now stay in Israel do so, in large measure, because they sense they are part of a historic transformation of the Jewish condition. Absent that awareness, however, the most mobile of Israel’s citizens—who also happen to be those whom the state most desperately needs—will be the ones who abandon it.

      In this way, Iran could end the Jewish state without ever pressing the button.”

      If Gordis’ analysis is as correct as I believe it to be, then Iran’s acquisition of the bomb will greatly accelerate the ‘race to Jerusalem’ because Israel will be psychologically defeated and Israeli’s will then be fighting what amounts to a rear guard action in defense of the lifeboats attempting to leave. Tragically, we could witness eerily reminiscent scenes of the last helicopter leaving Saigon…

  5. Good to hear from you Geoffrey, I had expressed concern, on another thread, due to
    an experience with someone who had been a longtime commenter on another blog. It is true that economics, and politics, in the broad sense, has driven this uprising, which started in the former lands of Numidia and Carthage, and has swept eastward as far as the Levant, now the doings of the Trabelsi/Ben Ali and Mubarak clans, brought into deep focus by wikileaks, didn’t help matters. If such as the motivations, it seems a little more likely that a technocrat like Ghannouchi might prevail, an option that Mubarak has foreclosed by dismissing Nazif. However, nature abhores a vaccuum, and finds a way to fill it, neither Suleiman nor El Baradei seem likely to do so, hence the problem of who is likely too,

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