Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The “Resistance” in Lebanon

by Elliott Abrams
January 25, 2011

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Nasrallah speaks in Beirut suburbs (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters)

The influence of the United States in the Middle East is declining while that of Iran is rising. That’s the meaning of events in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has in essence thrown Prime Minister Saad Hariri from office and is about to choose his successor. Under Lebanon’s constitution, the prime minister must be a Sunni. But Najib Mikati, the Hezbollah designee, is a Sunni who will owe his office not to support in the Sunni community but to Hezbollah’s decision to make him PM. Hezbollah now has the votes in parliament to put him in, and of course to throw him out should he cross them.

Mikati will be a competent official; he’s a talented man and a hugely successful businessman. That’s not the point. He has close ties to Syria and Hezbollah, and it is clear which side is in power in Lebanon.

Lebanese prime minister-designate Mikati attends a news conference in Baabda (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters)

Lebanese prime minister-designate Mikati attends a news conference in Baabda (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters)

One can argue that this outcome has been inevitable since May 2008, when Hezbollah sent its forces into the streets of Beirut to show that it could and would use its army against non-Shiite Lebanese—and the United States, France, the Saudis and other supporters of an independent Lebanon did nothing. But that’s three years ago and only now has Hezbollah defied the rest of the Lebanese population and demanded that it name the Sunni who will lead the government. This reflects the continuing reduction in American sway in the region, and especially the “engagement” with Syria. The last straw may have been the decision to send an ambassador to Syria by recess appointment despite the Senate’s unwillingness to confirm the administration’s candidate. That foolish gesture must have indicated to the Syrians and to Hezbollah that the administration had learned nothing from two years of insults and rebuffs by Damascus.

What now? Beyond the speeches, two issues arise. The first is how Lebanon’s Christians and Sunnis will conduct themselves (the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, has thrown in with Hezbollah). Will they keep up a political resistance to Hezbollah and to its hand-picked prime minister, with votes in parliament, demonstrations, and requests for international support? Will they, for example, ask the Obama Administration and the Government of France, and indeed the Arab League, to refuse to receive Mikati, and try to make it impossible for him to keep his poisoned office? Second, will the United States make it clear that a Hezbollah-governed Lebanon cannot be our partner?

Hezbollah’s power grab is a consequential event for the Middle East. Hezbollah claims that it is the “Resistance” but that mantle now moves to the other side, the March 14 movement that has won Lebanon’s recent elections. The key questions now are whether they will resist, and whether we will back them.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Dan Friedman

    That’s the beauty of being a terrorist. If you cross them, they kill you.

  • Posted by El Jefe Maximo

    You might take the inevitability of a Hezbollah controlled Lebanon back further, to 2006, when the organization survived the Israel-Hezbollah war. If it wasn’t certain in 2006, it certainly was following the US Presidential election; once it became clear the Obama administration wanted to try a conciliatory approach to Iran. Lessened pressure on Iran equates to less pressure on its Lebanon client Hezbollah.

    In the same vein, I think the apparent delay in the Iranian nuclear program (caused by Stuxnet?) has made some kind of unilateral Israeli military action against Iran less likely, thus reducing, for the moment, the chances of a general Middle Eastern war.

    Since Jumblatt switched sides, the prospects for the 14 March movement look pretty grim, if peace really is breaking out. How can what’s left of the opposition resist, much less dislodge, the Hezzies? The US administration will avoid involvement, unless it totally gives up hope of accomodation with the Iranians. The French will make a show, but do nothing, and the Arab League will do even less.

  • Posted by Charlee

    It means for an ordinary lebanese like me that;
    The west cannot stand and back up its moraly righteous positions,except send in a few tanks for an army that is really not up to work,
    and that in the end just like the other party says, we might as well join them, would be less costy, a nice big sharade.

    Personnaly, I will consere my conictions, of freedom, and prosperity, and on the ee of the west’s decline (sorry President Obama), I must say that the world was a better place with the West and its ideals, we will miss the US, and soldier on the same path.

  • Posted by Jeff

    What is missing from this analysis is are a couple of important facts. (1) Hezbollah has the backing of one of the country’s most important Maronite Christians, former general and president Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement as well as the Marada movement of Suliman Franjieh, also a Maronite, and (2) these alliances, without Jumblatt, were enough to give the Hezbollah-Maronite alliance 55% of the vote in the last election which, if Lebanon worked on the one man, one vote basis, it would have been declared the winner.

    That election, it should be noted, occurred AFTER Hezbollah’s sucessful military move in 2008 to prevent the Lebanese government under then PM Siniora from disconnecting the private fibre optics communications system set up by Hezbollah which had been a key to its successful resistance to Israel in 2006 and which Israel had been unable to penetrate

  • Posted by Paul Freedman

    Hezbollah is a local player not an alien implant. If they wish to be willing accomplices in complex arrangements with foreign powers such as Syria and Iran, well that is on their dime but they are as Lebanese as anyone else. The problem is that their operating concept of Lebanese is sectarian and activist in the old-school mold of the 70’s with a Parliamentary veneer–as noted, when it comes down to brass tacks, if you cross them they kill you. It comes down not to toleration of their ties to foreign powers but toleration of them maintaining a separate military force and, effectively, foreign policy hollowing out the institutional prerogatives of the formalistic parliamentary mechanisms. But the Hezbollah military-foreign policy sectarian independence has been accepted as a de facto reality since before 2006 and Olmert was not prepared to decisively attrit it when the superficial strategy of air force semi exclusive lead in military deconstruction so farcically (if predictably) came a cropper.

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