Relatively few Lebanese have paid much attention to the debate taking place in Washington over whether the American president, Barack Obama, should agree to a counter-insurgency plan for Afghanistan proposed by his commander there, General Stanley McChrystal. The plan calls for a broad effort to make the country safer for its citizens, and involves increasing the number of American troops by 40,000 or so.
Relatively few Lebanese, albeit perhaps more than those following the events in Afghanistan, have paid much attention either to what is taking place in Iraq. Senior Iraqi leaders, including the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, have accused Syria of continuing to facilitate the passage of Al-Qaeda militants across its border as a means of pressure to ensure that Damascus will have more of a say in post-America Iraq. At the same time, the United States, while conscious of this, has sought to avoid a Syrian-Iraqi clash, because it believes this might complicate its overriding priority, namely withdrawing American forces by the end of 2011.
And yet both in Afghanistan and Iraq, what the US decides will have definite repercussions for Lebanon and our little neck of the woods. If Washington’s focus is on a military drawdown and political extraction, this could carry the Levant back to a period of American benign neglect. That would leave Lebanon ever more exposed to the whims of its neighbors and the dynamics of the Middle East. The prospects are not reassuring, particularly if they pit the mostly Sunni Arab world against Iran and its allies, with Syria in the middle leveraging its support for one side or the other in exchange for renewed hegemony over Lebanon.
The latest news is that Obama is trying to have it both ways. The president told congressional leaders on Tuesday that he would not substantially cut back American forces in Afghanistan and reduce their mission to targeting Al-Qaeda (as Vice President Joe Biden had urged); but he also indicated that he remained undecided about whether to dispatch the additional troops that McChrystal had requested. This could lead to the worst of possible outcomes: a US force that remains undermanned and continues to take casualties, and a president increasingly boxed in when it comes to changing that strategy toward a greater or lesser commitment.
A United States off balance in Afghanistan could lead to bad decisions being taken in Iraq, not least an acceleration of the military withdrawal. That would threaten the country with a dangerous vacuum which the countries of the region might seek to exploit. Iran would fight hard to protect the gains it has made in Iraq. Syria and Saudi Arabia, each for its own reasons, share an interest in preventing the consolidation of a strong central government in Baghdad. The Syrian regime seeks a larger role in Iraq, wants to take advantage of Iraq’s oil, and benefits domestically from being perceived as a defender of Iraq’s Sunni minority. The Saudis worry that a Shiite-dominated Iraqi order, especially one that might further empower Iran, would undermine the kingdom’s stability.
It takes little imagination to realize that all these conflicting interests and calculations can play themselves out in distilled form in Lebanon. However, that doesn’t really tell us what the Lebanese can do to avoid the worst repercussions of regional developments.
There is little the Lebanese can do to limit the damages of a debacle if they remain divided. But that’s stating the obvious, and Lebanese unity is not around the corner. However, even amid their divisions, the political forces can yet implement mechanisms to contain domestically what happens in the broader region, which requires properly reading the tea leaves.
What are some of these mechanisms? Plainly, an intensification of cross-sectarian dialogue at the local level, particularly between the Future Movement and Hezbollah, but also between the Lebanese Forces on the one side and Hezbollah and Amal on the other, whose supporters are cheek to jowl in the Ain al-Remmaneh-Shiyyah-Haret Hreik district. This can be complemented by periodic national exchange sessions hosted by President Michel Sleiman, bringing together major party leaders, and if needed security chiefs, to examine ad hoc measures that can be taken to ensure that the situation on the ground gradually improves.
Of course, all this has to an extent been done, and the span may seem rather far between what Barack Obama decides in Afghanistan and what Lebanon’s political leadership decides in Baabda. However, the reality is that the regional situation is so interconnected today, that what explodes in Kabul and Baghdad may send shrapnel Lebanon’s way. We need to think more about the region, for we are its point of highest contradiction.