Obama’s policy clears the Lebanese hurdle

So it appears that in the first of this month’s pivotal Middle Eastern elections, Lebanon’s US-Saudi backed March 14 coalition has scored a better-than-expected victory over the Hezbollah-Aounist March 8 opposition coalition. I don’t have much to add to the excellent commentary on and coverage of the elections being provided by Elias Muhanna, Andrew Exum, ...

So it appears that in the first of this month's pivotal Middle Eastern elections, Lebanon's US-Saudi backed March 14 coalition has scored a better-than-expected victory over the Hezbollah-Aounist March 8 opposition coalition. I don't have much to add to the excellent commentary on and coverage of the elections being provided by Elias Muhanna, Andrew Exum, Asad Abu Khalil, and many others. But I might as well toss out a few thoughts anyway.

So it appears that in the first of this month’s pivotal Middle Eastern elections, Lebanon’s US-Saudi backed March 14 coalition has scored a better-than-expected victory over the Hezbollah-Aounist March 8 opposition coalition. I don’t have much to add to the excellent commentary on and coverage of the elections being provided by Elias Muhanna, Andrew Exum, Asad Abu Khalil, and many others. But I might as well toss out a few thoughts anyway.

I don’t think the outcome matters very much on the ground in Lebanon. Some kind of coalition government will likely remain.  Last week, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustafa told me that his government had advised its allies in Lebanon that they should form a coalition, unity government including March 14 if they won and that he hoped that March 14 would reciprocate.  Hezbollah has already announced that it respects the will of the people and the outcome of the election. It seems that the only way which things could go really wrong here is if March 14 very unwisely tries to press its advantage and tear up the Doha power-sharing agreement which could plunge the country back into chaos.  I don’t think that anybody in Washington or Riyadh is advising them to do that.

The symbolic impact beyond Lebanon’s borders is potentially larger than the actual impact inside of Lebanon.  Lebanese affairs always receive disproportionate attention in the Arab media, partly because of its outsized role in the history of Arab journalism and partly because it has for so long been the site of proxy regional political warfare.  It’s like local or state elections in the U.S. becoming an index for the fortunes of national political parties.  Even though many of the issues were decidedly local and the main shifts took place in Christian and Sunni rather than Shi’a districts (i.e. there was no Shi’a rejection of Hezbollah) the results of the election will be trumpeted in regional politics as a victory for the United States and the Saudi-led “moderate camp” and a setback for the “resistance camp.”

I don’t think that this had much of anything to do with The Speech, though at some level Obama’s policies over the last few months may have contributed to shifting the perceived political stakes and terms of reference in advance of the elections.  If anything, the U.S. influence came through overt American intervention in the election, which I found rather heavy-handed:  Obama administration officials, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Jeffrey Feltman, more or less openly campaigned for March 14 (Biden famously held a private meeting with March 14 leaders on his recent trip to Beirut, and Feltman gave an election-eve interview to the Arab press warning that a March 8 win could endanger American aid to Lebanon).  As external influences go, huge amounts of Saudi cash and explicit threats made by American and Saudi officials about the consequences of a March 8 victory probably mattered the most.

The main impact of the outcome from an American perspective is that it avoids the complications which would have followed a March 8 victory.  Had March 8 won, opponents of Obama’s Middle East strategy would have pounced.  We would almost certainly have seen a massive campaign arguing that Obama’s policies had weakened America’s allies in the region, which would have been wrong and unfair (see above) but which would have put the administration on the defensive.  Obama would have faced a tough decision about how to respond, and how to reconfigure relations with a slightly-Hezbollah-dominated as opposed to a slightly-March 14-dominated government.  All of this would have consumed time and energy, distracting from the actually important issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian front, Iraq and Iran.

From Obama’s perspective, therefore, the outcome of Lebanon’s was a significant hurdle cleared.  Now on to the Iranian election, the outcome of which really does matter — a lot.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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