Rip Van Leverett

One of the rare disheartening aspects of recent developments in Lebanon is that it has allowed pundits, wonks, boulevardiers and quacks to settle domestic American scores while largely failing to quite understand, well, what's going on in Lebanon.

The latest offering comes in today's New York Times, which has published a piece by Flynt Leverett, formerly of the NSC and the Kerry campaign, where he criticizes the Bush administration's policy toward Syria. One wonders if Leverett, who is, be warned, writing a book on Syrian president Bashar Assad, has actually followed Syrian politics in the last four years. Indeed, has he followed Lebanese politics in the last 30 years?

Some choice passages:

For starters, any effort to engineer a pro-Western Lebanese government would be resisted by Hezbollah, the largest party in Lebanon's Parliament, which because of its record of fighting Israel is at least as legitimate in Lebanese eyes as the anti-Syrian opposition. In the face of such resistance, efforts to establish a pro-Western government would fail, creating more instability in the region when the United States can ill afford it.

Nonsense. First, the notion that Hezbollah is the largest party is meaningless. It is the largest single party bloc, but overall it is much smaller than several other blocs that are just as cohesive, and its overall influence is hardly as overpowering as Leverett suggests. Second, the Lebanese government that will form after a Syrian withdrawal will be like all governments in the past--open to both the Arab world and the West. Hezbollah hasn't the power to shape Lebanon's overall foreign policy direction, which reflects the society's contradictions, and the debate cannot even be framed in the terms used by Leverett: As a friend rightly observed: "'Pro-western government?' The Soviet Union went out of business 14 years ago, there's no 'East for us to set up 'pro-Western' governments against."

Then there is this:

To exploit the current moment wisely, the Bush administration must abandon ideological attachments to a bygone era when Maronite Christian leaders dominated Lebanon or fantasies of a strategically neutered democratic state emerging in Syria over the next few months.

Maronite Christian domination? Perhaps Leverett missed it, but the Maronites lost most of their political power in 1989, and even before, and the tens of thousands of Sunnis and Druze demonstrating against Syria in recent weeks were certainly not doing so to give the Maronites, a numerical minority in Lebanon today, their lost power back. And what in heaven's name is a "strategically neutered democratic state"? Evidently, in Leverett's repertoire, its better to be a strategically relevant dictatorship than a weak democracy. I prefer the latter, personally.

And this:

Moreover, the sudden end of the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad would not necessarily advance American interests. Syrian society is at least as fractious as Iraq's or Lebanon's. The most likely near-term consequence of Mr. Assad's departure would be chaos; the most likely political order to emerge from that chaos would be heavily Islamist. In the end, the most promising (if gradual) course for promoting reform in Syria is to engage and empower Mr. Assad, not to isolate and overthrow him.

Three mistakes here: The Syrians have been on the defensive because Lebanese society today is not fractious. Also, why assume Assad's departure will mean chaos? Isn't it conceivable that he might be ousted by others inside the regime appalled with, and worried by, his spectacular blundering in recent months?

And has Leverett bothered to notice that the U.S., the European Union and Syrian civil society have given Assad the benefit of the doubt on reform since 2000, even encouraging a "gradual course", and that the result has been a shambles? Economic reform is stagnant; political liberties have been curtailed; the Baath Party remains entrenched; the Assad family and their cousins the Makhloufs operate a splendid little kleptocracy; Syrian reformers are being harassed and demoralized. Empower Assad? He's been empowered since taking office, and Syria has regressed into abysmal, autocratic stalemate.

Finally, it all comes together here:

The Bush administration can elicit more sustained improvements in Syrian behavior on Iraq and terrorism by using the threat of intensified criticism of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon - including Security Council action - as a badly needed stick in the repertoire of policy options toward Syria. Washington should also not be afraid to spell out for Mr. Assad the carrots it would offer in return for greater cooperation. In so doing, President Bush could more effectively pursue some of his most important objectives for the region while tangibly improving the lives of ordinary Lebanese.

The decoder please. Use Lebanon to soften the Syrians in Iraq, but don't insist on their full withdrawal from Lebanon. Instead give Syria "carrots" there, and keep them on hand so you can take a stick to them to advance interests elsewhere. But because Leverett doesn't want to appear too crass in suggesting that Lebanese desires for liberty and independence be ignored, he earlier offers a consolation, namely "a freer Lebanese electoral process" (why not just "free"?).

Evidently Leverett doesn't own a television set either. Did he not notice that hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have been demanding that Syria leave, that it take it's army and intelligence agents with it, and that it stay away? Did he not notice that Syria in Lebanon necessarily means unfair elections--parliamentary and municipal? I know, I've followed every single one in detail since 1992. If Leverett can break away from Brookings, where he has been deposited, he might even learn that Lebanon's Shiite "street" is as eager to see the Syrians depart as anybody else, even if they do not desire Hezbollah's disarmament under what is perceived as U.S. threats. That's why the party's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, started meeting with Lebanese opposition figures today.

We can only thank our lucky stars that Kerry lost.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    wow, can't wait for GG's rebuttal!

  • ||

    It would be much worse under Kerry!

  • ||

    Ha! For once I guess we really mean it this time!

  • s.m. koppelman||

    I can't comment on Mr. Young's broader arguments with Leverett's piece, but even a contemporary Lebanon-Syria ignoramus like myself can spot one place where he argues with a flat-out misreading of Leverett:

    Maronite Christian domination? Perhaps Leverett missed it, but the Maronites lost most of their political power in 1989, and even before ...

    Yes. That's why Leverett referred to it as a "bygone era when Maronite Christian leaders dominated Lebanon".

    Deep breath, Mr. Young. Inhale. Exhale.

  • ||

    >>Maronite Christian domination? Perhaps Leverett missed it, but the Maronites lost most of their political power in 1989, and even before, and the tens of thousands of Sunnis and Druze demonstrating against Syria in recent weeks were certainly not doing so to give the Maronites, a numerical minority in Lebanon today, their lost power back. And what in heaven's name is a "strategically neutered democratic state"? Evidently, in Leverett's repertoire, its better to be a strategically relevant dictatorship than a weak democracy. I prefer the latter, personally.

    This is bizarre. The passage you are responding to refers to Maronite domination as being part of a "bygone era", and then you say, "Perhaps Leverett missed it, but the Maronites lost most of their political power in 1989". I think that's what "bygone era" means. The more pertinent question is whether or not the Bush administration really is counting on a Maronite resurgence.

    And then: "Evidently, in Leverett's repertoire, its better to be a strategically relevant dictatorship than a weak democracy."

    I presume a "strategically neutered" state is one that has no effect on U.S. strategy in the region. I don't see where you go from "The Bush administration is entertaining fantasies of a strategically neutered democratic state" to "Levertt would prefer a strategically relevant dictatorship."

  • s.m. koppelman||

    Mr. Young's handlers at PNAC and the RNC ought to break the news to him that the Democrats are indeed considered a legitimate opposition party here in the US, and that his reflexive, blind rage at everything that comes from them comes across a little overdone, especially when he's condeming a Democrat's statement that he agrees with.

  • ||

    All the talk of regime change is interesting, and tells us how much the climate has changed. Since Baby Assad ascended, there's been speculation that HE might not last, but until recently, some kind of Syrian Baath police state seemed like a fixed feature in the Mid East landscape.

    What exactly does Leverett fear from a democratic Syria? That they won't wage The Struggle against the Zionist Entity?

  • ||

    "What exactly does Leverett fear from a democratic Syria? That they won't wage The Struggle against the Zionist Entity?"

    No. The fear is that it might provide an opening for the guys whom Assad's dad levelled at Hama. Whether that fear is justified, or large enough to justify supporting a corrupt, inept, and generally malevolent Baathist regime is a seperate matter.

  • ||

    In fact, Leverett wrote a sloppy and meaningless sentence. If the Bush administration must abandon attachment to a bygone era where Maronites dominated, that means that that bygone era is still alive in the administration's mind as a potential reality today. After all what's the point of his mentioning an "attachment" (and, vitally, warning against it) if this has no relevance to the present? I merely underlined that the Maronite era is indeed bygone, and that the Bush administration, because the era is bygone, has no obvious reason to be attached to it; and in fact is not.

    As for the question as to how U.S. fantasies of a strategically neutered democratic Syrian state lead to my presuming Leverett's apparent preference for a strategically relevant dictatorship; well if, according to him, achieving a strategically neutered democratic state is a "fantasy" whose pursuit shows an absence of wisdom, then it implies that it is "wiser" to accept what we have today: a strategically relevant dictatorship.

  • ||

    Yeah, you're probably right. Leverett belongs to the school which holds that no country where Islamist enjoy a following should hold an election. We need to shut down elections in Turkey, and prepare to do the same in France.

  • ||

    I can't be the only one who finds it ironic that Young starts here:

    "One of the rare disheartening aspects of recent developments in Lebanon is that it has allowed pundits, wonks, boulevardiers and quacks to settle domestic American scores while largely failing to quite understand, well, what's going on in Lebanon"

    and ends here:

    "We can only thank our lucky stars that Kerry lost."

    Right? Right?

    jb

  • ||

    Kerry would not have canceled Iraqi elections. I don't see how the endgame in Iraq would have been different under a Kerry administration. No idea if he would have turned up the heat on Syria, of course. We'll never know, will we?

  • ||

    Kerry who?

  • ||

    "One of the rare disheartening aspects of recent developments in Lebanon is that it has allowed pundits, wonks, boulevardiers and quacks to settle domestic American scores while largely failing to quite understand, well, what's going on in Lebanon."

    And for edification on this phemonomenon, Michael Young offers the above blog post.

  • ||

    Mr. Young

    There are several things which confused/bothered me about your arguments and I was wondering if you could clarify. Most strikingly was your decision to include your friends comments on the fact there is no more East for the west to set up governments against. This type of attitude and arrogance I was not expecting from someone who talks about his extensive coverage of the world outisde America. Are you suggesting now the Soviet Union is gone its just a big America love-fest?

    You further then describe how while Hizbollah is the largest single bloc party, that it is insignificant. Then you go on to say that Lebanon is not fractious. And then you go on to suggest regime change in Syria would have minimal consequences becuase of his recent blunders. When has regime change ever been a simple task?

    Finally and perhaps most mind blowing to me was this: Second, the Lebanese government that will form after a Syrian withdrawal will be like all governments in the past--open to both the Arab world and the West.

    Do you not remember the past in Lebanon?

  • ||

    At worst, Leverett was imprecise, but I think all know exactly what he meant: the United States should not overestimate the power of the Lebanese opposition or its ability or desire to pursue a course that suits US interests in the region. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, he was arguing against the US adopting a "maximalist" position with respect to Lebanon. The confusion over this may stem from perspective. Listening from Washington, it is difficult not to be worried by the verbiage coming from US administration, which repeatedly links a Syrian withdrawal with the dismantling of Hizbullah, deployment of the Lebanese Army to the South and by corollary an eventual peace deal with Israel (this comes more from the media than governmental officials, but who do you think they are listening to?). Any American with a concern for the well-being of the Lebanese and a cursory knowledge of the Lebanese civil war (like myself) reacts with concern to see this kind of bundling, because it rekindles fears of foreign interersts using Lebanese proxies to suit their regional interests, sometimes violently, to the considerable detriment of Lebanon. Further such pressure from the US will only complicate Lebanese efforts to resolve critical issues among themselves. On the other hand, Leverett's unfortunate syntax made his argument sound like appeasement, which some will defintely object to if they feel a historic moment has indeed arrived.

  • ||

    It is hard to say whether kerry would have held the Iraqi elections on schedule. Presumably he differed from Bush in wanting to defer to the UN, and they were asking for delays.
    The elections could have gone far differently in a context of already announcing a mechanically timed withdrawl of American forces, and introducing troops from Egypt, Saudi, Jordan and Syria - bad signals to be sending Iraqi voters already risking their lives - and those were Kerry's "ideas".

  • ||

    "What exactly does Leverett fear from a democratic Syria? That they won't wage The Struggle against the Zionist Entity?"

    What is particularly striking about Young and his ilk is that they genuinely believe that all this amazing democracy flowering in the Middle East means that suddenly all the peoples of the Arab world will embrace Israel with warm hugs, bow down to the Great and Only Democracy in the Middle East and say "gee we've been controlled by all these dictatorships all these years, we just really loved you all along." The sheer idiocy of the neocons is breathtaking.

  • ||

    The "Maronites", if it refers to the lebanese with a thing for independence and true multiculturalism and not stamping machines for the fallen but not yet gone arabist islamist ideology of middle eastern pachahoods, are not gone or bygone.. They have been suppressed and slaughtered by the syrians, as empowered by BushI during Gulf War I. Hizballa's grandiose halo is not a genuine phenomenon. The syrians protect them and shove them down the throats of regular citizens, the iranians finance them to the tune of 100 million dollars a year, and their "parliamentary bloc" came about following elections under syrian tutelage and intelligence services "guidance". Disconnected from their life lines, they will quickly wither. Bush II need rectify his dad's deeds.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement