Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Debate this, not this . . .

In his recent book, The Twilight War, David Crist recounts the story of Suq al-Gharb, a town located south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
Militias of all stripes - Christian, Druze and Shia - moved into the void . . . General Tammous ordered the Lebanese army into the fray to reassert Lebanese government control and also tp protect the routed Phalange. He committed his best unit, the 8th Brigade, a multiconfessional unit (though its were majority Christians) trained by American special forces and under the command of an indecisive and panicky Francophile general named Michel Aoun. (p. 118)
Up until this crucial moment in 1983, the United States had committed to a limited, peacekeeping posture in the Lebanese Civil War. The battle for Suq-al Gharb changed the calculus. Then special Presidential envoy to the Middle East, Robert McFarlane sent a panicked cable to Washington urging tacit and immediate U.S. military support for the 8th Brigade, fearing that the Syrian faction would win the battle, and that the Soviet hand would extend to Lebanon via it's "client" in Syria. Not only had McFarlane under estimated the Lebanese army's ability to repulse the attack, he wrongly envisioned the entire conflict as a field in the Great Game of the Cold War. It wasn't, it was essentially a local conflict, granted that the "local" refers to the entire Levant.

Crist goes on to describe how the final decision was shifted to the local Marine Commander, Colonel Timothy Geraghty. Geraghty eventually sided with McFarlane, and the U.S. launched naval artillery attacks in support of the - primarily Christian - Lebanese Army. Any pretense to neutrality was lost. Writers such as Crist and Thomas Friedman believe that the attack on the U.S. Marines barracks, and the death of 241 Marines, was a direct result of that fateful decision in Suq al-Gharb.

It's important to remember this tumultuous moment in history when thinking about the contemporary Middle East, and particularly the remarks made by Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Romney has accused Obama of not doing enough in Syria. I am sure there are people who support Obama who do not think he has done enough in Syria. The question that remains conspicuously absent is, of course, what would you have Obama do? I have written on this blog before that, at risk of sounding like minimizing the challenges in Libya and Egypt, Syria remains a completely different beast. To understand just what sort of fray we are talking about here, we must first view the problem through the right lens. The Arab Spring and subsequent uprisings is not simply the Arab people yearning for freedom, it is the undoing of a system of borders and political arrangements that are unsustainable in the absence of dictatorships. This is the final undoing of the colonial legacy in the Middle East. The fact is, simply stated, that the endgame in Syria will affect every country in the Levant, and will have consequences for Israel, Iran and potentially Saudi Arabia.

So, is my recommendation to say "Its too complicated, so we should do nothing"? No. However, I actually do think that we are wiser to wait and see. Direct support for the Syrian opposition will embolden the Hezbollah and Iran, who have both chosen to sink or swim with Assad. The potential for disastrous mission creep looms large, considering that the combination of refugees, foreign fighters and popular revolts in neighboring countries (and increasing friction with Turkey)would inflame the tinderbox that is the Levant, and would likely draw the U.S. into a protracted and costly endeavor.

Regan pulled out of Lebanon after the bombing of the Barracks. The god-like Republican president also lost an Ambassador on his watch, along with several top-flight intelligence experts. I am curious as to what Romney thinks he could accomplish. I will gladly stand accused of being "soft" when suggesting there is nothing we can do to make this situation better. However, I think Romney is debating from the wrong side of this thing. He says that the Iranian people, for example, long for freedom from an oppressive regime. Is this true? We all saw the Green Revolution and its infant steps towards dissent. However, how often do we forget that beyond the northern suburbs of Tehran, Iran is a very conservative country, and for most Iranians, the biggest gripe is the economy, while the nuclear program provides a sense of pride in a nation that inherits a history that includes imperial glory and playing the fanatical underdog.

We need a debate on the Middle East that faces the uncomfortable facts, that sometimes there is no winning to be done. We must face the fact that in the decades-long absence of effective national narratives, Islam powerfully fills the vacuum. Despite our greatest aspirations, we need to accept the Middle East that is, and not the one we want.

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