As Our World Crumbles, "What's Happening in Lebanon?"

November 20, 2017

This is an essay about America. It is an essay about the world. That is not a contradiction, not in the traditional----"America-is-the-world"-----mode of American contradictions. 

 

A crisis in the American psyche has plagued interpersonal relations and politics since last November. While IR theorists have for years debated how interconnected domestic societies are to their global surroundings, the question now seems trivial. It is impossible to separate the angst of American political life from Americans' concerns for the stability of the world order. Americans are increasingly viewing instability in far off countries as evidence of the destabilization of the global order. 

 

Americans have for years asked, "What's going on in the Middle East?" It's a sort of prelude to, "That place is a mess." I'm not certain why they bother asking if their mind is set. 

 

The last time Middle East experts' friends and family were afforded the opportunity to ask this question was when ISIS ("Daesh") chopped through northern Iraq on its way to Syria and supposed statehood. The crisis in Lebanon----which is not much of a crisis in such a crisis-prone territory, and which is less in Lebanon than it is in Saudi Arabia----once again offers the opportunity for Americans to ask, in passing, "What's going on in the Middle East?"

 

This time around, the question comes from a different place in the American mind. Americans for the first time in roughly 40+ years are facing their own political crisis. They actually understand a crisis-ridden polity because theirs is one. When they ask, "What's going on in Lebanon?" the sentiment is less judgmental and more from a place of angst. 

 

Americans are (finally?) tuned--in to the subtleties of politics and their consequences. Compare the level of theatrics in ISIS's rise to the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Americans were camping, barbecuing, and fishing in the early summer of 2014 when ISIS started making headlines. There was the slaughter, the oil expropriation, the chopping--block for many of Iraq's Sunni and Shi'a alike. The consequences were no doubt of value to CNN's 24--hour news cycle. Uncles and cousins chatted about the viciousness of Islamists between flips of the burger.

 

Can we say the same of Hariri's resignation? Lebanon is in a perpetual panic. In the summer of 2016, Beirut's trash was on the floor because tempers were through the ceiling. Lebanese moods were somewhere in-between; they were used to such happenings. The US public scarcely made a peep. There were jokes. "Clean your room," said more informed Joes and Janes. "It looks like Beirut in here." 

 

The worry over something as simple as a trash crisis (somewhere else) didn't produce lines of interrogation on par with brutal ISIS. Having witnessed several cabinet crises in the past year, the US public now has the tools to recognize and ask questions about the causes and consequences of crises and scandals. It is attuned to more subtle political change because it is no longer sheltered by a bubble of political stability.

 

Americans had been accustomed to the simple and obvious chaos in the Middle East, but until now, with few exceptions in recent history, they were free to disengage. Not so anymore. There have been attacks on the press for its coverage of successive crises, generals stepping in to calm White House tensions, and protests with violence after each new bizarre remark or scandal that sinks confidence in American governance. 

 

In short, now that Americans see that their own backyard is a mess, they understand, sympathize, and worry for Middle Easterners. They now see that the latter are merely ordinary people like them, but trapped, left to wade around in the cesspool that their governments have created.

 

Americans are, moreover, concerned the world is being torn asunder. For the first time since the 1970s, they have had to intensely follow the news. Will my taxes increase in order to give tax breaks to the wealthy? Will they sneak an anti--woman measure into a bill on wildlife? Who is running my child's public school, and how do I need to address that at home? Are the officials we elected running a complex opioid-pushing ring (and then using double-speak in their "fight" against the opioid crisis)? Are they crooks (a la Nixon)?

 

An unintended consequence of greater engagement is that many Americans now understand----even if only 10--15% better----the dynamics of the international system. Cursorily following Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign's evidenced (and here, and here) ties to the Kremlin and Trump's potential obstruction of justice over those ties forces the observer to ponder tangential questions, like why Vladimir Putin has an interest in a Trump-occupied-WH.

 

Uncomfortable truths follow about Putin's complex goals to erode the postwar American order. Pax Americana stands in Putin's way; it blocks his vision of a reinvigorated, less besieged Russia. Putin's efforts have borne fruit in the US and elsewhere. So, pundits belabor a rising China, a menacing Russia, an ambitious Iran, and an alliance of the three.

 

Americans are simply more awake to the world's changes. So, they wish to know, what is happening in Lebanon?

 

In the early 2000s, the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iranian regime----in no hurry to enhance the power of Al-Qaida, which had orchestrated a major attack on a superpower thousands of miles away----aided the Americans until George W. Bush alienated the regime with his inexplicable "Axis of Evil" speech. Having seen the US dismantle two countries on its border, the Iranians felt renewed pressure to destabilize this (now) hostile power's war efforts. Simultaneously, the regime reinvigorated its nuclear weapons program.

 

The increasingly assertive Iranian regime frightened the Saudis, but political polarization in the US prevented it from calming the Kingdom. Probably the most realistic way to contain Iran and curb its nuclear ambitions was the nuclear accord, which allowed for monitoring the Republic's nuclear program and brought Iran back into the international economic system----a powerful moderating incentive. America's Iran hawks capitalized on the hammering out of the agreement, ignoring all of the benefits cited by pundits and European diplomats to instead brand the accord as weak and ineffectual.

 

At the same time, the Saudi system is clearly undergoing political change. Most observers agree that Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (hereafter, MBS) is edging out his potential rivals for the crown in anticipation of the aging King Salman's death or abdication. All signs point to King Salman's appointing MBS, but the latter is securing his position in the face of almost certain challengers to his ascension. Whether because MBS believes it or wants to placate or gain supporters to consolidate power, the crown prince is an Iran--hawk.

 

Instead of decreasing ME tensions, the US has offered the Saudis partners in an aggressive campaign against the Islamic Republic.

 

Under apparent influence from MBS' hawkish foreign policy toward Iran, the Saudis have engaged in a reckless and abhorrent adventure in Yemen against Iranian--backed Houthi rebels; intervened in Syria, supporting various Islamist groups (often in contradiction to the foreign policy of its US "ally") against Iran and Hezbollah, which wanted to preserve their proxy-regime of Bashar al-Assad; and intervened help to suppress a Shi'a revolt in Bahrain.

 

The Obama administration supported the Saudis' belligerent foreign policy to quell the Kingdom's fears that the administration would abandon the Saudis for rapprochement with Iran and a nuclear accord. This would have gone a long way in preventing an arms race and greater Persian Gulf turmoil. The increasingly right-wing, anti--Muslim, Evangelical Christian GOP promoted a harder stance, and the Trump regime is full of Iran hawks.

 

The Trump administration seems to be motivated by anti--Obamaism and a hawkish attitude toward Iran. While the Saudis have been the largest "exporters of terrorism"----especially through their regional banks----for decades, Iran has now won that label. Jared Kushner and the increasingly autocratic MBS----the "princes of tech disruption"----have formed a relationship. (MBS cloaks his dictatorial ambitions in liberal policy, like allowing women to drive and the creation of Neom, a city on the Red Sea that will allow debauchery traditionally frowned upon in the Kingdom.) Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu, also in the Iran--hawk camp, has joined the party. 

 

Lebanon will get caught in the cross--fire. The Iranian--oriented Hezbollah and supporters of anti--Hezbollah PM Saad Hariri struck a deal to run the country in a coalition government. The Saudis have apparently forced their proxy, Hariri, to resign in order to cause a cabinet crisis.

 

The aim seems to have been to make Iran and Hezbollah take the next move. If Hezbollah demanded Hariri stay in the post, then Hezbollah will have demonstrated its need for Hariri in order to continue governing Lebanon. This would enhance the position of Hariri and the Saudis at the expense of Iranian influence. The Saudis might have been betting that if Hezbollah instead seized more power, enhancing the influence of Iran in Lebanon or provoking renewed civil conflict, then Iran--hawk PM Netanyahu would send Israel's military into Lebanon to break Hezbollah's power----and thus reduce Iran's influence.

 

For Americans, this means greater instability. The Trump administration could have claimed a victory (even if it not fully its own) in Syria as that conflict seemingly winds down. Instead, it is fueling greater instability by giving MBS a free hand to sprint down his path of destruction. While the US doesn't have a pressing security interest in the region, it also does not want a war that draws in all major powers----which a new Lebanon war surely would do. Assuming such a conflict avoided the use of nuclear weapons, the worst consequence would be US occupation of Iran, and the best outcome would be a Russian--Iranian alliance that bogs down the US in aid of Israel and Saudi Arabia. American hegemony, ie, Pax Americana, can not withstand another occupation or war. Despite its many flaws, that postwar system has preserved world order for over 70 years. 

 

The international system's polarity is in flux. I don't presume to know what follows, but uncertainty is instability, and instability is unsettling.

 

As the US--sponsored international order further erodes it is therefore no surprise that Americans are asking, "What's happening in Lebanon?" The difference is that they aren't asking with the customary lever des yeux au ciel. Their is now fear in their eyes. What's happening in the Middle East----even if they don't fully understand----is further evidence that their world is falling apart. 

 

 

 

***

 

Drew Kinney is co-founder of La Formoisie, and a PhD Candidate in Comparative Politics and International Relations at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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