March 11, 2005

Lessons From The Cedar Revolution

Clearly it's possible to go back and forth all day—or for weeks, or years—about whether the invasion of Iraq , and the elections thereafter, "caused" the pro-democratic movement in Lebanon. (Or let's say the "anti-Syrian movement".) I say, leave this stuff to the historians, or at least people who can gather lots and lots of info. Don't just talk to Walid Jumblatt and take his word for it. But, then again, this stuff is fun, so for what it's worth, Annia Ciezadlo is shooting down the "Iraq caused the Cedar Revolution" thesis in this week's New Republic:
The idea that the Lebanese were inspired by the Iraq war doesn't have much currency in Beirut. "I've never heard it from anybody except Walid Jumblatt," laughs Jamil Mroue, editor-in-chief of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper. "I've heard the Lebanese say, 'What the heck, are [the Syrians] going to take us back to the Stone Age?' They're saying 'Fuck it, we're not going back. And, if it means demonstrating in the streets, and if it means changing the government, then so be it.' But I don't think they thought, 'Oh, the Iraqis voted, so we can, too.'"

In actuality, some Lebanese have been struggling for reform for decades, hating their Syrian overlords. "Lebanon has been the only satellite state in the world since the end of the cold war, and no one lifted a finger," says Farid El-Khazen, a political science professor in Beirut. "It was business as usual until 9/11, and U.S.-Syria relations began to deteriorate. Internally, there was a movement all along that pushed for an end to the occupation. ... There is a linkage, if you like, with Iraq, in the sense that American policy has changed toward Syria due to their interference in Iraq. But [the Lebanese opposition] has been going on for a long time."
Indeed, Ciezadlo points out that the anti-Syrian opposition has been organizing protests in Beirut since the early '90s. So yes, this stuff can happen of its own accord. As I've been trying to point out, long before the Iraq war you had places like Bahrain with its own indigenous Shi'ite pro-reform protests in the mid-1990s, largely coming out of nowhere—er, unless you buy the Gulf monarchy line that Iran "provoked" them. You don't necessarily need some domino-toppling event, or as Thomas Barnett says, the "Big Bang." (Though domino-toppling events may do quite a bit of good—or bad.)

Also take note of the fact that Lebanese reformers had, for the last decade or so, created a very strong civil society on their own, without receiving much in the way of American funding. (A whopping $700,000 from the Bush administration in 2003.) It would be interesting to know if that's simply a function of Lebanon being a relatively advanced society, or if you could replicate these sorts of results elsewhere. A dry question, I know, but it's important to understand this stuff, lest we fall under the delusion that the U.S. can just sidle up to any Arab country and throw our weight behind the reformers, expecting a revolution out of thin air.

...and yes, yes, this assumes the Lebanon revolution will actually turn into, you know, a revolution, as opposed to merely a lot of people standing in the street with their curiously-attractive sisters waving flags. Etcetra.
-- Brad Plumer 3:09 AM || ||