Pro-Iran coali­tion could win in Le­banon elec­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Bi­den Jr.’s visit to Beirut two weeks ago un­der­scored the enor­mous stake Amer­ica has in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions that Le­banon will hold June 7. The coun­try’s gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity — moderate, pro-West­ern, sup­ported by Wash­ing­ton — is run­ning neck and neck with a coali­tion dom­i­nated by Hezbol­lah, the mil­i­tant Shi’ite group con­trolled by Iran, backed by Syria and con­sid­ered by Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence to be per­haps the world’s most ca­pa­ble ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should con­tinue do­ing ev­ery­thing it can to avert this loom­ing strate­gic set­back.

Le­banon’s gov­ern­ment is led by the March 14th move­ment — a di­verse coali­tion that takes its name from the date of the mas­sive demon­stra­tion in 2005 that trig­gered the so­called Cedar Revo­lu­tion, which ended nearly 30 years of Syr­ian mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion. The protest it­self erupted on the heels of the mur­der of Le­banon’s for­mer prime min­is­ter, Rafiq Hariri, in a ter­ror­ist at­tack widely blamed on Da­m­as­cus.

Since its elec­tion in 2005, March 14th has been com­mit- ted, al­beit im­per­fectly, to lim­it­ing the ma­lign in­ter­fer­ence of Iran and Syria while re-es­tab­lish­ing Le­banon’s sovereignty and in­de­pen­dence. Cen­tral to this ef­fort has been a de­sire to im­ple­ment U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil reso­lu­tions call­ing for the dis­man­tling of Hezbol­lah’s pow­er­ful mili­tia.

For its part, Hezbol­lah, with Ira­nian and Syr­ian back­ing, has worked as­sid­u­ously to re­verse the Cedar Revo­lu­tion. Though blame never was for­mally af­fixed, a sys­tem­atic as­sas­si­na­tion cam­paign tar­get­ing March 14th of­fi­cials par­a­lyzed Le­banon’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. Hezbol­lah’s 2006 war with Is­rael left Le­banon dev­as­tated but Hezbol­lah claim­ing victory. Fi­nally, in May 2008, Hezbol­lah’s forces ram­paged through Beirut’s streets at­tack­ing el­e­ments of March 14th. When the fight­ing was fin­ished, Hezbol­lah and its al­lies had se­cured through bul­lets what had been de­nied them by bal­lots: enough seats in Le­banon’s Cab­i­net to block any ma­jor de­ci­sions — in­clud­ing, of course, the dis­arm­ing of Hezbol­lah.

With elec­tions so close, Le­banon’s fate hangs in the bal­ance. Will Hezbol­lah’s coali­tion suc­ceed in for­mally tak­ing con­trol of the Le­banese state? Will the coun­try’s pol­i­tics come in­creas­ingly to be dom­i­nated by Hezbol­lah’s brand of Ira­nian-style re­li­gious ex­trem­ism at home and con­fronta­tion with Is­rael and Amer­ica abroad? Or will March 14th be able to main­tain its pop­u­lar edge and con­tinue the strug­gle to pre­serve Le­banon’s iden­tity as a Mid­dle East­ern out­post of tol­er­ance, di­ver­sity and mod­er­a­tion?

Make no mis­take: Hezbol­lah’s tri­umph would con­sti­tute a ma­jor U.S. de­feat. De­spite the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s over­tures to Iran, it re­mains the case that across the Mid­dle East, the bat­tle for Le­banon is un­der­stood as part of a much larger strug­gle for power be­ing waged by Wash­ing­ton and Tehran.

The for­mal col­lapse of the Cedar Revo­lu­tion would send shock­waves through­out the re­gion, pro­vid­ing pow­er­ful con­fir­ma­tion of Iran’s as­cen­dancy and Amer­ica’s de­cline. It would dra­mat­i­cally em­bolden Te­heran at a time when Wash­ing­ton hopes to ne­go­ti­ate an end to Iran’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram, its sup­port for ter­ror­ism and its es­ca­lat­ing ef­forts — fre­quently us­ing Hezbol­lah op­er­a­tives — to sub­vert pro-U.S. gov­ern­ments across the Arab world from Iraq to Egypt to Morocco.

With the stakes so high and the elec­tions still too close to call, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should throw cau­tion to the wind and do what it can to tip the bal­ance in March 14th’s fa­vor. While the United States gen­er­ally re­frains from in­ter­ven­ing in for­eign elec­tions, an ex­cep­tion should be made in Le­banon — where the con­se­quences for U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity are po­ten­tially so grave and Amer­ica’s en­e­mies (read Iran and Syria) al­ready are in­ter­fer­ing heav­ily to se­cure an out­come harm­ful to U.S. in­ter­ests.

More­over, the odds ac­tu­ally are good that a U.S. em­brace of March 14th could make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence at the mar­gins. As in much of the world, Pres­i­dent Obama is ex­tremely pop­u­lar in Le­banon. Were he to act boldly to demon­strate Amer­ica’s un­equiv­o­cal pref­er­ence for March 14th, it could be decisive in mov­ing key con­stituen­cies off the fence and against Hezbol­lah. Mr. Bi­den’s visit to Beirut was an ex­cel­lent step.

More dra­mat­i­cally, the pres­i­dent could ar­range a snap Oval Of­fice meet­ing with March 14th’s leader, Saad Hariri (the slain prime min­is­ter’s son), and use it to un­der­score the depths of his per­sonal com­mit­ment to the Cedar Revo­lu­tion’s ideals as well as his con­cern for the fu­ture of U.S.-Le­banese re­la­tions should the gov­ern­ment fall to Hezbol­lah — a group, af­ter all, that no­to­ri­ously has Amer­i­can blood on its hands, in­clud­ing that of the 241 Marines who lost their lives when Hezbol­lah bombed their Beirut bar­racks in 1983.

It would be tragic in­deed to look back and won­der what more the United States could have done to save Le­banon. Time is short. How­ever, if Mr. Obama is pre­pared to spend some of his sub­stan­tial po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal, he could in­deed pro­vide the Le­banese peo­ple with the en­cour­age­ment they so des­per­ately need to re­sist Hezbol­lah’s Ira­nian-backed jug­ger­naut. In do­ing so, he also would be ad­vanc­ing Amer­ica’s vi­tal in­ter­ests in a more sta­ble and se­cure Mid­dle East.

John P. Han­nah was na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser to Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney from 2005 to ‘09 and is a se­nior fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

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