Getting it wrong on Lebanon and beyond

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images Passport contributor Andrew Exum and Steve McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy have a good piece in today’s Washington Post about Lebanon: When Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term expires on Friday, Lebanese democracy will face a stern test. Political factions there are deadlocked over the selection of a new president, ...

598021_071121_hariri_05.jpg
598021_071121_hariri_05.jpg

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Passport contributor Andrew Exum and Steve McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy have a good piece in today's Washington Post about Lebanon:

When Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term expires on Friday, Lebanese democracy will face a stern test. Political factions there are deadlocked over the selection of a new president, and Lebanon could see the formation of two parallel governments -- or, worse, the outbreak of civil war.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Passport contributor Andrew Exum and Steve McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy have a good piece in today’s Washington Post about Lebanon:

When Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term expires on Friday, Lebanese democracy will face a stern test. Political factions there are deadlocked over the selection of a new president, and Lebanon could see the formation of two parallel governments — or, worse, the outbreak of civil war.

In the context of the current political stalemate, the [Bush] administration cannot afford to view the possible selection of a consensus candidate acceptable to Hezbollah as a greater danger than the failure to select anyone at all.

I would even go further than Exum and McInerney, though.

Lebanon’s political crisis has everything to do with the changing makeup of the country. The Shiites have long demanded their fair share of political power and the Christian and Sunni populations that back the current government don’t trust that their interests would be represented in a system of “one man, one vote” (rather than the present system of sectarian proportional representation). More than anything else, Lebanon needs a new political bargain that updates the Taif Agreement of 1989, which formed the basis for ending the civil war. A lot has changed since 1989, and Washington is making a huge mistake by discouraging the so-called “March 14th forces” aligned with Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri from cutting a pragmatic deal. But the longer they wait, the more the sectarian balance in Lebanon changes in the Shiites’ favor, to say nothing of Hezbollah’s military might.

More broadly, Lebanon is just one more example of a mistaken U.S. approach to foreign policy that dates back decades and across administrations of both parties. Here’s how it works: The United States says it supports democracy, but ends up backing pro-Western leaders when push comes to shove. Take the case of Pervez Musharraf, whom U.S. President George W. Bush described Tuesday as “somebody who believes in democracy” despite the fact that the Pakistani leader has suspended the Constitution, thrown many of his opponents in jail, and gone after independent media outlets. Or consider the Palestinian territories, where the White House called for elections and then blanched when the distasteful Hamas won them fair and square. Is it any wonder that U.S. rhetoric on democracy isn’t taken seriously?

This is not to say that there aren’t some tough choices confronting U.S. policymakers. But it would be better, in my view, to either dial back the grandiose democracy rhetoric or else be more consistent about supporting democratic “rules of the game” rather than always backing the more pro-American side, win or lose, and calling it “supporting democracy.” If you want to get more in depth on this topic, Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment, which publishes FP, offers some practical suggestions here.

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