The Corner

A Level Playing Field in the Middle East

The United States dodged a bullet this weekend in Lebanon’s national elections. A coalition of pro-Western political parties eked out a narrow victory, garnering 71 out of 128 parliamentary seats. Hezbollah and its allies took 57 seats. This outcome certainly comes as a relief, but it cannot serve as an excuse for U.S. policymakers to grow complacent. The battle between moderates and extremists rages on throughout the Middle East, and today more than ever moderates are in need of unwavering support from the United States.

Iran and Syria provided substantial support to the Hezbollah coalition in Lebanon. Both countries saw an opportunity to tip the region’s balance of power in their favor — and to do so in an Arab democracy with historically close ties to Europe and the United States. They also realized that a Hezbollah victory would send an encouraging signal to Islamist groups in other countries, including Egypt and Iraq. So Iran and Syria funneled millions of dollars to Hezbollah and its allies. Hezbollah used this money to fund campaign commercials, billboards, and, in some cases, the outright purchase of votes. 

This is not the first time that the governments of Iran and Syria have sought to influence elections on behalf of Islamic extremists. Hamas would not have performed as well in the Palestinian elections in 2006 without funding from Iran and Syria. Similarly, in Iraq the United States presided over elections in which Iran provided support to numerous pro-Iranian candidates and parties.

The moderates, meanwhile, are left to fend for themselves. In Lebanon’s elections, for example, the most meaningful U.S. involvement was Joe Biden’s visit. Stopping over in Beirut for a few hours, Biden proclaimed his support for “an independent and sovereign Lebanon.” Hillary Clinton also called for “open and fair” elections that are “free from outside influence.” In the face of blatant, massive, and known involvement of Iran and Syria, these token rhetorical gestures rang more than hollow. In the end, nearly every manner of outside influence made itself felt in Lebanon’s elections except that of the United States and Europe. 

Under normal circumstances, and given a reasonably level playing field, the United States’s neutrality in such situations would be appropriate and laudable. Amidst the power struggles in today’s Middle East, however, it is simply naïve. The result of this unilateral restraint on the part of the West is an unfair advantage for the extremists, who benefit from networks of support while moderates compete without adequate tools or resources.

The United States has two options to correct course. The first is to essentially fight fire with fire. If the Iranians continue to provide funding to extremists, then the United States must consider providing funding to the moderates. Critics of this approach will no doubt argue that U.S. support will delegitimize moderates, allowing their opponents to characterize them as mere puppets of the West. But extremists already routinely level that accusation against moderates, even if they do not receive any assistance from the United States. Furthermore, a close association with the United States is less damaging than it has been made to appear by those who seek to intimidate the United States into remaining on the sidelines.

The second is to ensure that, in the future, U.S. calls for elections free from outside influence are more than merely rhetoric. The United States could work with countries like Lebanon to shore up campaign finance laws and assist in their enforcement. It could help establish dedicated accounts for political parties that are transparent and subject to international monitoring. And it could also better expose Iranian and Syrian involvement. These and similar measures would allow the United States to maintain the moral high ground on the principle of non-interference, while not ceding victory to extremists. 

One way or the other, the United States needs to level the playing field between extremists and moderates. Otherwise, democracy in the Middle East will turn into a sham, a game with decks stacked. And when democracy in the Middle East empowers the wrong groups, the United States will have only itself to blame.

– Alexander Benard, a New York attorney, has worked at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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