The Return of Neighbourhood Politics in Lebanon?

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From the vantage point of Washington, Lebanon’s elections present both an opportunity and a question.  Since its creation, Lebanon has defied the old cliché that all politics is local.  Instead, politics in Lebanon have carried the weight of regional struggles far larger than it could reasonably be expected to bear.  Now, for at least two reasons, the opportunity exists for the June elections to be primarily about Lebanon. 

The question is whether regional actors will permit this to be the case.  Indicators to date are not entirely reassuring.  Yet the changes that have created possibilities for the return of local politics in Lebanon, suggest that this question could be answered positively on June 7, and in the post-election period.

The first reason for a shift in the local-regional balance in Lebanese politics is the changed regional context created by the Obama Administration’s approach to the Middle East.  After only four months in office, the new administration has transformed U.S. diplomacy in the Arab world.  In abandoning the “with us or against us” mindset of the Bush Administration, in launching a multi-track diplomatic effort built around engagement with Iran and Syria, in renewing active American diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli arena, and in signaling a modest step back from the Bush Administration’s uncritical support for Israel, the Obama administration has created an entirely new set of incentives to which local and regional actors are compelled to adapt. 

With the shift to engagement, the Obama administration has opened diplomatic channels for expressing, clarifying, and potentially—but only potentially—narrowing the significant differences that continue to define U.S.-Syrian and U.S.-Iranian relations.  But when principals are able to communicate directly the need to do so through proxies becomes less important.   Indeed, the use of proxies may well be counterproductive, especially during this initial phase of the Obama Administration’s engagement with longtime regional adversaries.  Engagement has powerful critics, both in the region and at home, and both would be pleased to see these efforts fail.  If Tehran and Damascus are serious about exploring U.S. intentions, leaders in both countries will prevent the elections from providing a justification for the U.S. to adopt a more adversarial posture in its regional diplomacy.  In the space this new context has created, therefore, and without underestimating the elections’ regional implications, there is now an important opportunity to bring local politics to the fore, and push divisive regional concerns into the background. 

The second factor that has helped to create this opportunity is changes on the ground in Lebanon itself.  Over the past year, the stakes of these elections have become distinctly more modest—a shift that Lebanese should welcome.  In contrast to earlier expectations that the elections would be a decisive contest between the forces of March 14 and those of March 8, it is now clear that they will not provide the kind of unbalanced results that might well have triggered a period of instability and perhaps even violence.  Instead, to all indications, the results will permit both sides to claim at least partial victory, creating incentives to accept the outcome, and work within political institutions to advance their own agendas, rather than to challenge the elections in ways that would undermine their legitimacy. 

Whether the opportunity these elections represent has been fully acknowledged or understood by regional actors, or even by some Lebanese, is another question and in this gap lies the chance for a dangerous misstep.  For many Lebanese, regional considerations continue to dominate these elections, making them a crucial test both of Syria’s intentions and of America’s commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty—concerns the U.S. explicitly addressed with Secretary Clinton’s recent visit to Beirut.  Among the regional powers who have long used Lebanon to play out their rivalries, recent shifts in U.S. policy may appear to have raised the stakes of these elections. 

Both Iran and Syria seem determined to interpret the elections as a referendum on their influence, specifically, whether the outcome will give them additional leverage in their relationships with Washington and in regional struggles.  On April 28, for example, prominent Syrian political analyst Sami Moubayad, known to be close to the regime, wrote "If March 14 continues to challenge Syria, it should not expect much support from the Barack Obama administration." Not only is this an exaggerated view of the state of U.S.-Syrian ties, it misreads the extent to which Washington would sacrifice Lebanon to its policy of engagement.  In reality, the trade-off will work the other way: Syria’s standing in Washington’s eyes will improve to the extent it permits domestic Lebanese concerns to determine electoral outcomes. 

From an American perspective, however, there is much to be said for an election that gives all sides the sense of having won something, rather than confirm to one side that it has lost everything.  It is probably for the better, therefore, that as now seems likely the voting on June 7 will not produce a breakthrough, but may well be seen as something much more important: an incremental step toward the construction of a viable Lebanese political order, one that is moving, slowing and with occasional setbacks, to address the cleavages and structural obstacles that have fueled cycles of violence in Lebanon over the past thirty years.

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