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.