The Middle East Channel

Beirut in Baghdad: Is the ‘Lebanonization’ of Iraq complete?

Four years after a flurry of predictions about the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, they may be coming true. "Lebanonization" was a derogatory term, a hint at imminent civil war, political deadlock, Iran’s hand in local militias and on many domestic levers. The columns and commentary on Iraq’s "Lebanonization" issued a collective "uh oh," warning the state ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Four years after a flurry of predictions about the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, they may be coming true. "Lebanonization" was a derogatory term, a hint at imminent civil war, political deadlock, Iran’s hand in local militias and on many domestic levers. The columns and commentary on Iraq’s "Lebanonization" issued a collective "uh oh," warning the state would fall apart like Lebanon did from 1975-1991.

What moved the term through officialdom was a perception that Iran and Syria were playing Iraq the way they played Lebanon in 1980s: perpetuating a status quo of chaos, then profiting from the melee. The Sadrists were like Hezbollah-in-waiting, tied to Tehran and using force to stymie Iraq’s government, if they couldn’t control it outright.

"What prompted me to use the term was the external dynamic … and it has still has some validity," said Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has served as the top U.S. diplomat in both Iraq and Lebanon. He concedes that at present, in Iraq as in Lebanon, Iran has a virtual veto – influence enough to block any major decision that crosses its interests.

"Iran can’t call the shots in Iraq. They can’t make things happen, but they can screw things up. And they play a long game … they’re waiting for us to be gone to make life harder for Iraqis."

Today the "Lebanonization" of Iraq is a different story, in which the parallels are mostly political. In Iraq’s March election and its tussled aftermath — there’s still no government in place and likely won’t be one until after Ramadan — analysts see a repeat of Lebanon’s 2009 parliamentary poll. In both cases a "pro-U.S." leader edges out the Iran-backed alliance, but it’s a watered-down win. The country triangulates the interests of its three main blocs (Iraq: Shiite, Sunni, Kurd; Lebanon: Sunni, Shiite, Christian) through a long negotiation (this week talks in Baghdad broke down). Then a government theoretically comes together, balancing power among its political actors, whose voters cluster around their ethnic or religious base.

"The comparison holds. Today, Iraq has a Lebanon-style government: tribes with guns and a state that’s not able to provide what a state should provide, like basic security," said Paul Salem from the Carnegie Endowment’s Beirut office. In the vacuum, violent groups from al Qaeda in Iraq to Salafist movements in Northern Lebanon undo law and order.

Analyst Louay Bahry calls Iraq and Lebanon "junior democracies" at work, successful in at least roughly projecting the majority and generally protecting the minority. Others describe their system as a consensus democracy — applied with some success in Europe, but made difficult by an Arab political culture.

"In the consensus system you cannot win everything and you cannot lose anything. This becomes difficult because compromise in Arab culture is not acceptable — it’s seen as a shame or a weakness," said Fuad Hussain, chief of staff to President Massoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"When someone is in power he is not willing to share power. When someone is in the opposition he doesn’t want to share power; he wants everything."

The answer, he and others say, is greater federalism in Iraq. A strong central authority in either country would be too rigid, more likely to topple into civil war.

"If you look at Arab countries there are two phases: dictatorship, which is still the case in some places, or a zero-sum struggle between the tribes, which we’ve seen in Lebanon," said Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a visiting fellow at Chatham House.

The problem, he says, is that consensus democracy is an oxymoron: Consensus is the rule of all; democracy is the rule of the majority. "So you get paralysis, which has governed Lebanon, until one of the tribes to grow strong enough to dominate the others," he said.

There are other downsides to the consensus system, like the risk of freezing identity politics, with the country locked into thinking and ruling by sect. Lebanon is an extreme case, where each sect has a certain number of seats in government, guaranteed by law and unshakable by the changing will or demography of the voters. Iraq, which has mindfully avoided such a setup, could still succeed in evolving toward a secular civic model. But that is some ways away.

"Identity politics remains very important in Iraq, especially in the time of national elections.… Iraqis will stick with their communitarian groups," said Michael Knights at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Part of that, he said, has been engineered externally.

"Iran has quite successfully managed to prevent this last election in 2010 from breaking out of the sectarian mode. If Iran and its proxies hadn’t struck up the de-Baathification issue just before the election it would have gone more smoothly."

Kenneth Pollack, a former NSA and CIA official now with the Brookings Institution, points to two pillars of independent Iraqi politics: a strong national identity and enough force to push back on Iran’s will. The massive oil revenues coming online would also help, strengthening state authority and its patronage networks.

"There is a consensus in Iraq that they don’t want something like a Hezbollah out there, able to block the powers of the state," he said. 

"To the vast majority of Iraqis, Lebanon is only a model in terms of what they shouldn’t do. The leadership is very, very cautious about becoming more like Lebanon. They don’t want to move down that path."

That makes this moment the real test of Iraq’s "Lebanonization" — can Baghdad form a stable and successful government any better than Beirut? Would that government hold together and act from a unified national interest? It’s a test with dramatic outcomes, for Iraq and for democracy in the Middle East.

"Iraq can bicker for months without falling into civil war … that’s noteworthy," said Paul Salem, the Lebanese analyst with the Carnegie Endowment.

"And Iraq is harder to dominate externally, so if they get their act together they’d stand a better chance than we do."

Lara Setrakian is based in Dubai, where she reports on Iran and Arab affairs for ABC News. She blogs for ABC’s MidEast Memo and tweets at @laraabcnews.

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