Bordering the Mediterranean Sea in the west, Israel in the south, and Syria in the east, Lebanon is surrounded by water, stability, and war. But next week will bring new developments: Lebanese politicians hope to form a new government. In two years of political gridlock, Lebanon has struggled with violent sectarian spillover from Syria and a collapse in basic services (most notably, trash disposal).
Now however, politicians are coalescing around a prospective new president, Michel Aoun. Aoun is supported by both his longtime opponent, Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni-dominated Future Movement, and Hariri’s enemy, the Lebanese Hezbollah. Aoun, age 81, is the figurehead of Lebanon’s largest Christian-nationalist party, the Free Patriotic Movement. His aspirations are also supported by Lebanon’s second-largest Christian party, the Lebanese Forces. In return for his support, Aoun says he’ll back Hariri in becoming prime minister. On paper, this political shakeup seems like a balanced, consensus-driven compromise.
The reality is far harsher.
What’s actually going on here is the manipulation of Lebanese democracy by Iran. The first telltale sign is Hariri’s new support for Aoun. That’s a shock, because Aoun is closely allied with Hezbollah. And since Hezbollah assassinated Hariri’s father (a former Lebanese prime minister) and many of his allies, Hariri tends to disagree with Hezbollah. The simple point here is that Hezbollah undercuts the government whenever its militia-insured monopoly on power is threatened. Hezbollah would not support an Aoun presidency unless it was confident it would win by doing so.
Hezbollah is right to be confident. Hariri is yielding to Aoun only because he feels he must. Hariri’s major financial interests in Saudi Arabia are struggling, and his leadership is questioned even within his own party. Making matters worse, earlier this year Saudi Arabia withdrew $3 billion in aid support for the Lebanese armed forces (the traditional semi-balancing force against Hezbollah). It did so in protest against the Obama administration’s acquiescent strategy toward Iran, and in impatience with lethargic Sunni political leadership in Lebanon. As I explained in April, by ignoring U.S. influence, the Saudis are substituting rational strategy for fear.
Still, there’s no doubt that this is a big victory for Iran and Hezbollah. Hariri knows that even if he becomes prime minister, his ability to form a government will be subject to Hezbollah’s gun-borne veto and its political cover from Aoun. There’s a record here. Hezbollah destabilized Hariri’s 2011 government after deciding he had grown too powerful. Ironically, the only major opposition to Aoun’s candidacy comes from another Hezbollah ally, Nabih Berri. Berri is the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament and the leader of the Shia Amal party. Long enriched by political patronage, Berri fears Aoun will sever his cronyism trough. But while Berri’s party has more seats in parliament than Hezbollah, he will not be able to prevent Aoun’s appointment. Again, Hezbollah’s guns and bombs — and its willingness to use them — make it the firm master of Beirut. This is democracy, Iran-style.
Hezbollah’s guns and bombs — and its willingness to use them — make it the firm master of Beirut. This is democracy, Iran-style.
It needn’t have been this way. In January 2015, drained by Israeli operations and losing fighters and matériel to the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah was struggling. Greater U.S. covert action then, and increased support for the moderate Syrian resistance, could have made Hezbollah’s situation even worse. In turn, Saudi Arabia might have doubled down on Hariri and the moderate potential his coalition represents. Instead, President Obama put his (paper-thin) nuclear legacy first, and embraced weakness toward Iran as its price. And today, with Russia guaranteeing Assad and Iran awash with nuclear cash, Hezbollah is consolidated.
Ultimately, Lebanon’s plight illuminates the fallacy at the heart of the Obama administration’s foreign strategy. President Obama and Ben Rhodes believe that by restraining American action, foreign actors will be forced into constructive compromises. The opposite is proved true. Where U.S. influence declines, our adversaries dominate the vacuum and then our allies. Hariri’s party has three times as many parliamentary seats as Hezbollah, yet Hezbollah remains the king maker. That speaks to something.
Whether it’s Russia’s use of Aleppo as a red marker for its domination of Middle Eastern politics, or Iran’s use of the Persian Gulf and regional capitals as metaphors for unbound Khomeinism, the overarching lesson is clear: President Obama’s foreign policy is a failure.
As I’ve argued before, America needs a strategy of credible realism.