Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Lebanese protests

Mass protests in Lebanon have led to the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami, a Syrian loyalist. Let the credit-claiming begin. There are already ripples in the blogosphere (even Belle Waring!) that will likely build into a wave of praise for the Bush administration's foreign policy in Iraq. Democratization in Lebanon will be chalked up to the example of Iraq's elections, just as Qaddafi's dramatic shifts on nuclear disarmament a few years ago were credited to the example of Saddam Hussein's defeat.

My suspicion is that -- just as Qaddafi's disarmament was the product of longer processes of historical change, rather than a spontaneous reaction to a nearby war -- a showdown over Lebanon's relationship to Syria has been brewing for some time. The lines of causation here are complex. The funny thing about suspicions of complexity, though, is that they are usually felt either by very ill-informed or very well-informed people, and I know I fall into the former category when it comes to Lebanon. But Juan Cole falls into the latter, and he argues (in a very lucid and informative post) that the roots to the current events in Lebanon run much deeper than a month or two. I'm very inclined to believe him.

I'm less inclined to believe David Brooks (via Daniel Drezner), who unsurprisingly attributes Lebanon's democratization to the example of Iraqi elections. He quotes the Lebanese Walid Jumblatt: "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world." Cole sets Jumblatt in a much longer context, and suggests that this quote is a strategic move to flatter the Bush administration, much like Chalabi did with great success in Iraq. As Cole says, "Jumblatt has a long history of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment that makes his sudden conversion to neoconism likely a mirage. He has wanted the Syrians back out since 1976, so it is not plausible that anything changed for him in 2003." Moreover, if Brooks looked more closely at Jumblatt's statement, he might notice that the putative example of Iraq's election points Jumblatt to the "start of a new Arab world," which might not necessarily be meant to signify a newly democratic and pluralistic Middle East.

I am not cynical about Lebanon; in fact, the news reports strike me as very hopeful. But I am cynical about attempts by Americans to take credit immediately for their hope. I have no problem believing that Iraqis might have inspired some of the Lebanese who have taken to the streets, but I have a problem with coding the Iraqi example immediately as an American example. And I also have a problem with ideological attempts to screen out other potentially instructive examples that have little to do with the war in Iraq. The New York Times reports, for example, that "opposition leaders say they have consciously imitated the popular uprising in Ukraine." And I have a problem ignoring those parts of the Lebanese case that demonstrably depart from the history of Iraq in the last two years. The Times also reports, for instance, that Lebanese protesters handed flowers to soldiers. I think I remember that not happening in Iraq, for the obvious reason that many Iraqis see American troops the way that these Lebanese protesters see Syrian troops.

But even the Times goes on to say that the flower distribution provided "scenes reminiscent of protests in the United States in the 1960's." That historical analogy may well hold (I'm ill-informed on this subject, remember), but I wonder. Why must every step forward in the Middle East now be seen as proof that "freedom is on the march" in American boots? Why must we view these complex events through a backwards telescope, so that everything reduces to American example? Brooks writes that the "tendency to imagine new worlds" is America's unique gift to the world. Balderdash. Brooks writes that America is "destined" to provoke the question "Why not here?" He doesn't say whether that destiny is manifest, but I suspect he thinks it is. Hooey. I use these strong words because it is offensive and misguided for Americans to imagine that we are the only people capable of imagining change and hoping for better. That is truly the cynical position, a holdover from the eras of European imperialism and Cold War politics when "Arab" democracies could only be seen as American or European ones.

There is a deep contradiction in the manifest destiny of Brooks and the Bush administration. On the one hand, they say that freedom springs eternal in every human breast. It is a gift from God. It will rise, it will conquer, it will assure the triumph of democracy. On the other hand, when people in distant places do talk of democracy, it must be because they heard it from us, not because they listened to their hearts. Brooks gives this contradiction its most acute expression, but without realizing it's a contradiction:
For the final thing that we've learned from the papers this week is how thoroughly the Bush agenda is dominating the globe. When Bush meets with Putin, democratization is the center of discussion. When politicians gather in Ramallah, democratization is a central theme. When there's an atrocity in Beirut, the possibility of freedom leaps to people's minds.
I thought the possibility of freedom is always leaping to people's minds, put there by God almighty. That's Bush's position, and when he puts it this way he's closer to being right than wrong. But when Bush/Brooks goes on to claim that the spread of freedom is evidence of "how thoroughly the Bush agenda is dominating the globe," he takes back with one hand what he has just given with the other. And he turns from talking about the universal gift of freedom to the particular domination of American "soft" power.

Be glad that things are going so well and so peacefully in Lebanon. Applaud the people there and root for their success. You can even show me evidence that their success has been helped by American foreign policy, so long as you don't isolate that evidence from longer chains of causation. Because using these events as opportunities simply to applaud the Americans is actually a way of turning one's back on the Lebanese, and failing to see them for who they are and what they want.

UPDATE: I highly recommend Paul Musgrave's rejoinder to this post at In the Agora.

Collective Improvisation:
Love your posts. Too often blog stuff devolves to crap. Reasoned people can disagree or not.
Interesting exchange. Here's a piece I found that also speaks of 911's aftermath and the war. Worth a read.


Iraq, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, And The Couch Potato’s Burden:
A Muscular Centrist Attack On The Pro-War Position 

Posted by Flea

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/04/2005 11:27:00 AM : Permalink  

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