Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

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Briefing on Beirut

As the Siniora government today officially rescinds the two incriminating decisions about Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and the head of security of Beirut’s airport that sparked this month’s clashes, this Briefing on Beirut seminar at the New America Foundation takes stock of recent events.


See also video of the event below/ over the fold

Rami Khouri (pictured) is always worth listening to; he asks whether Beirut will follow Baghdad or Belfast and is optimistic that the Lebanese will move past the internal strife at this “historical moment of reckoning” to form a pluralistic society that can integrate Western and Arab ideals. Hisham Melhem represents the March 14-Hariri Inc view on Hezbollah’s intentions and is less optimistic, overstating Iran’s influence on Hezbollah. Nir Rosen (over)draws comparisons to Iraq on the Sunni-Shi’a conflict.

Flynt Leverett (see excerpt below) posits that there have been major mistakes in U.S. policy towards Lebanon and in the region and that by supporting the Siniora government, the U.S. has overlooked unequal representation (the Shia now make up at least 40% of the population yet do not have commensurate representation and power sharing). Daniel Levy asks ‘why now’ and speculates about the politics of the timing.

Some of the most interesting comments come from Flynt Leverett who comments on US policy:

“I think that one of the biggest mistakes that the Bush administration has made in the Middle East … is that in the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri in February of 2005 [was] to latch on to this so-called March 14 Coalition Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and to decide to use it as a fulcrum for trying to leverage various US policy objectives … first of all to leverage the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, it wanted to use it to leverage pressure … particularly through the UN investigation on the Syrian regime … and more broadly to leverage the creation of … “Lebanese democracy” as a bulwark against radical influences: Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, etcetera, in the region.

I think this was a colossal mistake for three reasons:

First of all, let us not be overly romantic. Lebanon in the post-Hariri period is not in any really meaningful sense a democracy. It is a political order rooted in the distribution of political assets along sectarian lines and the patterns of distribution are way out of whack with demographic reality, particularly with regard to the Shia. You know, the last conversation in the world that the March 14 coalition wants to have is about “one man, one vote” in Lebanon.

Second of all it was a mistake because the Lebanese arena is, at best, at my most generous, I would say it is a side-show in terms of America’s real strategic interests in the region and to use the championing of Lebanese “democracy” as a justification for not engaging with Syria strategically, for not engaging with Iran strategically is just the height of strategic malpractice as far as I’m concerned for an American administration.

Third, it was a mistake because in the end it doesn’t work. … What we have done here is what we did in the early 1980s in Lebanon; we picked a group of western-oriented Lebanese political actors whom we liked because they kind of looked like us, talked like us, seemed to be able to push all the right buttons with us in terms of what their political values were, and then we decided to array them against people who have real street cred in Lebanon. And the results in the 1980s were disastrous; I think the results now are proving to be very, very bad for US interests in the region: The Syrian regime is if anything more strongly entrenched, more powerful, more influential in its neighborhood than it was before the Hariri assassination, certainly Iranian influence in this part of the Middle East has increased over the last three years and this policy has been a colossal failure, it was a big mistake. Unfortunately, like a number of the Bush administration’s mistakes in this region, it is one that has enjoyed considerable bipartisan support. Democrats have rushed to go down this road with the administration as avidly as the administration on its own wanted to go.

I think it reflects a foreign policy that is based on illusion rather than a foreign policy that is based on a sober assessment of on the ground reality and a clear understanding of what America’s real interests are. And to the extent that we are going to continue to try to play this game with the March 14 coalition, it is only going to contribute further to the erosion of American standing and influence in this part of the Middle East. And if God help us we should be ever foolish enough to think like in the eighties that we could ever intervene by putting American military personnel on the ground, I fear that the only outcome will be the same as the 1980s: a good number of very fine military personnel will lose their lives for no good reason.”

Some notes

Leverett’s comments as transcribed above start around the 64 minute mark. An official transcript is not yet available, this is my own transcription.


  • Rami Khouri (by phone)
    The Daily Star
  • Hisham Melhem
    Bureau Chief
    Al Arabiyah
  • Nir Rosen (by phone)
    Former Fellow, New America Foundation
    Fellow, NYU Center on Law and Security
  • Daniel Levy
    Director, Middle East Policy Initiative, New America Foundation/The Century Foundation
  • Flynt Leverett
    Director, Geopolitics of Energy Initiative
    New America Foundation

Briefing on Beirut (85 minutes)

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"