Middle East

Stuff That Ballot!

France and U.S. vote No on Syrian election shell game

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Emile Lahoud may not be the most powerful leader in the world, but when he dresses up in his Gilbert and Sullivan admiral's uniform, he's definitely the funniest. Nor is the president of Lebanon's national service limited to gold-leaf displays; he did a fine job of reconstituting the country's army along multi-religious, desegregated lines after the long Lebanese civil war. And he has now served a fruitful term as president, maintaining some measure of stability through rocky economic times and a troubled reconstruction process.

None of which means he should become Lebanon's president for life. This week, after long and tedious preparation, the Lebanese parliament is expected to amend the country's constitution—in response to pressure from Syria, Lebanon's penniless patron and quasi-occupier—to give Lahoud an additional three years in power. (Lahoud's mandate ends in November and elections were supposed to be held in October.) This effort is precipitating an international incident that could isolate Syria, destabilize Lebanon, and ironically enough, help mend the rift between France and the United States.

France and the U.S. this morning produced a draft United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Syria to end its interference in Lebanese political affairs. According to the Associated Press, the resolution "demands that Syrian forces withdraw without delay from Lebanon" and voices "support for a free and fair electoral process in Lebanon's upcoming presidential election conducted according to Lebanese constitutional rules devised without foreign interference or influence."

Why does any of this matter? Because it's the first real test of the principle that democratic reform would get a boost from the American invasion of Iraq. Iraq hawks have not been shy in claiming that American "boots" in Iraq would put increasing pressure on Syria and Iran to accelerate the move toward democratization in the Middle East. So far, however, Syrian president Bashar Assad (who owes his presidency to a little constitutional finagling of his own in the Syrian Arab Republic) has become even more recalcitrant in his dealings at home and in Lebanon—Syria's sole remaining asset. Dealers in Qassiounology, the blind study of Syria's governmental inner workings, remain unsure of whether Assad is an ossified tyrant, a pliable statesman, or even a reformer quietly struggling against his late father's old guard. But the American threat has given him a ripe opportunity for demagoguery. Even in western-oriented, forward-looking Lebanon, the population finds the prospect of Washington asserting pressure on domestic politics largely unappetizing. In recent weeks, the new cooperation between D.C. and Paris has also allowed Assad's supporters in both Syria and Lebanon to rail against the most insidious Franco-American plot since Spaghettios.

But that cooperation has also given Assad an unwelcome surprise: that the United States still has some cards to play in the region. With American power and resolve pretty much fully extended in Iraq, Assad can safely assume that the U.S. won't be able to make any case for attacking Syria. And with the Syria Accountability Act passed and safely filed away, there didn't appear to be many new avenues of applying pressure on Damascus. For critics of the Bush Administration's unilateral foreign policy—including Lebanese who would prefer an international, John Kerry model of diplomacy, this new turn toward cooperation is at the very least unexpected.

For locals who have to live with the diplomatic consequences—including enthusiastic supporters of liberal reform—such international cooperation doesn't inspire total confidence, Chibli Mallat, a Beirut lawyer and human rights activist who has been largely supportive of American aims in the region, writes in an upcoming column for An-Nahar:

With Syria put on notice…we shall be entering a fight to the end which will rip the fabric of Lebanon apart, undermine any hope of gradual and non-violent reform within Syria, and end with an increase of Syria's isolation internationally, as well as regionally… Even more gravely, the UN Security Council Resolution will poise the Lebanese communities against each other…[and prompt] calls of extremism from the worst fringes of Lebanese society.

For Mallat, this worst-case scenario is an argument for allowing the October election to go forward without interference, and it's easy to imagine Syria, at least in the short term, imposing its form of dreary "stability" on Lebanon without much trouble. But Syria, which was never much of a chart-topper to begin with, is becoming increasingly isolated, and the open opposition in Lebanon to the proposed constitutional is encouraging. Among others, the Beirut Bar Association, not an organization generally known for its intellectual courage, is publicly opposing the idea.

Lahoud's term extension would, sadly, not be unprecedented. His predecessor Elias Hrawi enjoyed a similar extension, at the behest of Bashar Assad's more famous father. To the argument that Lebanese politics is a joke not worth paying much attention to, this writer can offer little response, except to say that Lebanon offers by far the most open and liberal polity in the Arab world, a robust private sector, and a thriving civil society. By all logic, it should be the first test of whether the American liberalization project in Iraq has any exportability.

The regional return on America's enormous investment in Iraq has so far been unimpressive. That Moammar Qaddafi, a real terrorist sponsor, a mass murderer of Americans and a person with whom the U.S. had a beef far more serious than its difference with Saddam Hussein, was able to buy his way back into polite society with promises of better behavior (insincere promises, as it turns out) was almost a parody of the great liberalization hopes voiced in the invasion's aftermath. Iran's crumbling theocracy seems, if anything, to have been strengthened by the new order. But a modest change in Lebanon, a regional backwater and the site of a great American defeat, could make an enormous difference in the direction of the Middle East. That the situation offers a possible end to the stupid and unnecessary split between the United States and France is a welcome lagniappe. It's almost worth hoping that Syria's Assad will be wise enough to accept the inevitable. But many people have gone broke in the Middle East hoping for wise reactions.