How Lebanon Was Lost

A former U.S. ally under Bush's Freedom Agenda, the country is now being neglected in the name of "engagement" with Syria -- and the results could be disastrous.

Last month, Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon and the son of Rafik Hariri, the beloved former prime minister who was murdered five years ago in a massive car-bomb explosion, publicly recanted his allegation that high-level Syrian officials had ordered the killing. "During a period of time we accused Syria of being behind the assassination," he said in a newspaper interview. "This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has ended." Hariri has not changed his mind, of course; rather, he has recognized his own helplessness.

Pity poor Lebanon. That charming and tormented mix of beachfront property and guerrilla warfare has been the playground of rival states and militias and gangs since a war of all against all broke out in 1975. Much of it, perhaps, was the fault of the Lebanese themselves; read Fouad Ajami's masterful and terribly sad The Dream Palace of the Arabs on the subject. But right now, Lebanon, or at least the democratic forces in Lebanon, are being held hostage. And no one, including the United States, is going to come to its rescue.

The situation is incredibly complicated, as it always is in Lebanon. A special tribunal, impaneled by order of the U.N. Security Council, has been investigating Hariri's murder and is likely to hand up indictments soon. The tribunal was once expected to finger high-level Syrian officials, but it is now widely believed that the initial round of indictments will be lodged against Hezbollah, which for years has acted as an agent for Syria's interests in Lebanon. The next round will probably target Syria directly, though Syria has left it to Hezbollah to make dire threats over the prospects of indictments.

The triggering event for Hariri's sad surrender was the rapprochement of Saudi Arabia with Syria, with whom it had been on bitter terms since the Rafik Hariri murder. The Saudis wanted to enlist Syria in the effort to shape a new government in Baghdad and frustrate Iran's ambition of installing a compliant, Shiite-controlled regime. So King Abdullah paid a high-profile visit to Damascus in late August. Hariri, meanwhile, had long depended on the Saudis for support. Now he, too, very reluctantly traveled to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As David Schenker, a former official in George W. Bush's Pentagon who's now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says, "The Saudis sacrificed him and made him go kiss the ring of the man who probably killed his father." It's not easy to think of a more powerful and terrible illustration of the maxim that the strong do what they can, while the weak do what they must.

If Hariri and his March 14 coalition suddenly found themselves friendless, what does that say about Washington's role? The Bush administration had taken the Cedar Revolution, the spontaneous public uprising in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, as supreme confirmation of its policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. Bush gave Lebanon's democratic forces unequivocal support, while treating Syria as an adjunct of the axis of evil. The policy, however, began to wane as the White House's own enthusiasm for the Freedom Agenda diminished after 2006; the war between Israel and Hezbollah that year further diminished the administration's influence in the region. Barack Obama's administration has given its full support to Lebanon's democratically elected government, but has also ended Syria's isolation. The administration has renewed diplomatic relations, while both special envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have met with senior Syrian officials. Just as Lebanon was an emblem of the Freedom Agenda, so Syria is a leading instance of Obama's "engagement" policy.

Is there a zero-sum relation between the two approaches? Schenker insists that there is, arguing that Obama has failed to put pressure on Syria to respect Lebanon's sovereignty, done little to halt the deterioration of the Hariri government, and allowed Syria to drift away from its commitments to the country. A State Department official who works on the region sharply disputes that view, arguing that the administration has in fact followed Bush policy quite closely in Lebanon and adding, "We have used our dialogue with Syria to impress upon them our concerns regionwide, and that includes Lebanon, and the Lebanese government is aware of that." Speaking fluent engagement-ese, this official observes that "having a conversation with a country is not a concession; it's a way of advancing our interests."

I'm not convinced that either policy has proved very effective. The Bush administration's diplomatic support in Lebanon meant little in the face of Hezbollah's growing strength, thanks to weapons, funds, and training from Iran as well as Syria. In any case support from a remote and loathed superpower is a coin of questionable value.

On the other hand, engagement only makes sense when it advances U.S. interests enough to justify possible unintended consequences -- not a clear balance in Syria. The Syrians are slippery customers who love to be courted, whether by Saudi Arabia, France, or America. "The Syrians like to make us believe they are winnable," says Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel and head of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. But in the end, he says, "Syrians don't deliver." There is a kind of symmetry between the naiveté of the Bush administration's controlling belief that it could sow the flowers of democracy in rocky Arab fields and the naiveté of Obama's belief that a new posture of respect and understanding could win over recalcitrant states and publics in the Middle East.

Indyk doesn't blame the Obama administration for "losing" Lebanon. It was not, after all, America's to win or lose. It is Lebanon's tragic destiny to be sacrificed in the hopes of achieving larger goals -- which themselves seem never to be attained. I asked Indyk what he would do if he were in the Obama administration. He said he couldn't think of anything, but would call if something occurred to him. I didn't hear back. Even Schenker said simply, "It's gotten to a very bad point." The Arab media is rife with rumors that Hariri will disown the tribunal, thus undermining the legitimacy of its findings, or that he will hold fast, provoking Hezbollah to bring down the government, in which it holds a strong minority position. Other accounts suggest the possibility of renewed civil war. Obama must, at a minimum, publicly state that he will hold Syria accountable for any bid to topple the Lebanese government, whether by the Syrians or their proxies in Hezbollah.

An entity as frail as Lebanon requires both attention and delicacy from outsiders. The delicacy part is harder. Washington and Paris, in a rare moment of entente in 2005, pushed for the establishment of the Hariri tribunal. At the time, with overwhelming signs of Syrian complicity in the murder and the spontaneous outpouring of anguished public feeling in Lebanon, the tribunal seemed like a moral imperative. Perhaps, though, it was a mistake. The goal then was to punish Syria; but Syria, after a season in the wilderness, is back in charge. The hope now is to deal a blow to Hezbollah's reputation with the first round of indictments. That may happen; but it's also possible that the indictments will give Hezbollah a means to establish domination of the Lebanese government. In that case, the tribunal will weaken the sovereignty it was intended to fortify.

The case of Lebanon vindicates no grand theory of statecraft. If anything, Lebanon just illustrates how hard it is for outsiders to fortify fragile states and how easy it is to do harm. It is a reminder, in case one needed it, that problems don't get solved in the Middle East; they just linger on, growing more interesting and complex and intractable. Poor, helpless Lebanon. The one time I was there, in 2008, I got pulled into a Shiite wedding in Beirut. The women were spilling out of their tight dresses. I thought: This is Shiism in Lebanon? What a great country! If there are any grounds for hope at all, perhaps they arise from Lebanon's endlessly tested genius for life, and for survival. 


Terms of Engagement

A Long Road Ahead in Pakistan

If Obama wants to make progress, he needs to give up on making it overnight.

Last week, Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations. The foreign minister is a glossy, silver-haired gentleman, and he delivered a glossy address lauding the new "Strategic Dialogue" with the United States, his government's commitment to transparency and accountability in the distribution of humanitarian assistance for victims of the epic floods, and so forth. He was asked several terribly polite questions and answered in kind. Then I asked the minister if he worried that his government's lack of capacity and even lack of legitimacy in the eyes of citizens was impeding development. Qureshi blew a gasket. "I really fail to understand what you're trying to say," he shot back, "but I can tell you that there are no capacity issues. The Pakistan Army is working. [The] Pakistan Army is an institution that belongs to the government of Pakistan.… They are working under instructions of an elected government, and that is what it ought to be."

Of course, nobody believes that, not in Washington and not in Islamabad. The response to the floods has confirmed, with a vengeance, both the fecklessness of Pakistan's civilian government and the dominance of the military. Several days ago, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in a direct confrontation unprecedented during his tenure, upbraided the country's president and prime minister, supposedly his bosses, over the government's rampant corruption, demanding that they fire several cabinet ministers.

All this raises a question, similar to the question posed by the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan state: What, exactly, does Barack Obama's administration think it can accomplish there?

Although U.S. troops are fighting in Afghanistan, many of Obama's senior advisors see Pakistan as the real prize. Al Qaeda takes shelter there; nothing threatens American national security so much as the prospect of a giant nuclear-armed state overwhelmed by terrorists; and the United States would seem to have a much better shot at establishing stability in Pakistan, a democracy and a longstanding, if wayward, ally. In the middle of the long policy debate of 2009, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said to me, "If I said to you right now, we can send $30 billion a year to Pakistan or $30 billion to Afghanistan, which would you pick? Every goddamn person says, 'Pakistan.' So I say, 'OK, guys, we should be talking about a PakAf policy, not an AfPak policy.'"

In the "Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy" released this January, the White House promised an "enhanced partnership" with Pakistan that would move far beyond the military funding the previous administration provided. The promise of partnership was echoed in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which provides $7.5 billion to Pakistan over five years with the money divided between "high-impact, high-visibility infrastructure programs," humanitarian aid, and "government capacity development."

Those funds have only begun to be disbursed, and the imperative of responding to the flood has temporarily eclipsed long-term goals; but events of recent months have shown how very deep-seated Pakistan's problems are. The floods, though an act of God, were enormously exacerbated by state failure. The national disaster plan, drawn up after the terrible 2005 earthquake, had never been implemented. Squabbling among Pakistan's provinces had blocked the building of a dam on the Indus. And amid the calamity, President Asif Ali Zardari took a trip to Europe, including a widely publicized visit to his French château.

The premise of the George W. Bush administration's highly regarded Millennium Challenge Account was that U.S. assistance would be most effective in countries where the government was at least modestly accountable to its people, made investments in education and health care, practiced economic transparency, and reined in corruption. By those standards, especially in matters of public investment, Pakistan falls way below many much poorer countries. The administration is hardly blind to the fact that Pakistan is incurring the kinds of failures that would disqualify it from receiving Millennium Challenge funds. In a very unusual moment of public criticism, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told an audience that Pakistan cannot have a tax system in which elites "pay so little it's laughable" and expect "the United States and others to come in and help."

Alexander Thier, an expert on the region who now works at the U.S. Agency for International Development, uses the electricity sector as an example of the problem. He says, "You can build power plants until you're blue in the face," but unless you can deal with the country's "insufficient revenue collection," you won't be able to make much headway. In any case, he points out, $7.5 billion does not go very far in a country as big as Pakistan. Nevertheless, Thier thinks the United States and other donors can use aid to "leverage good governance and reform." Thier also says that the Strategic Dialogue bringing together officials in a dozen areas has "allowed us to encourage the Pakistanis at the national and provincial levels to actually go through the exercise of acknowledging the problems and prioritizing them."

True, there are modest grounds for hope. Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and a harsh critic of the Pakistani state, says that Zardari has installed a highly competent financial team in Islamabad. But Pakistan's problems are political, not technocratic, and so long as the country continues to be lead by urbanized feudals who stash their wealth in Dubai and London, the deep problems will not be acknowledged and prioritized where it counts. Think how weak U.S. leverage in Afghanistan still remains, despite 100,000 troops and billions in aid, in cases where President Hamid Karzai believes that his essential interests are being threatened. The same is all too likely to prove true in Pakistan. The White House has, of course, already encountered these sharp limits on the military side: Kayani has refused to send his soldiers to fight the Taliban in North Waziristan because those militants are willing to leave Pakistan alone.

Where does this leave U.S. policy? The central lesson that the Bush administration took from 9/11 is that the United States is now menaced more by weak states than by strong ones and thus must find a way to reach inside those places and make them better. Bush's answer to this problem was the Millennium Challenge Account in relatively nonproblematic regions, and the promotion of democracy in the danger zone of the Middle East. The conspicuous failure of democracy promotion has seriously chastened his successor in the White House, but the premise that the United States must build up weak states, above all in the Islamic world, remains central to U.S. national security policy.

The Obama administration has in some ways replaced democracy promotion with counterinsurgency and, more broadly, with a doctrine that focuses on economic and social development as well as the nurturing of democracy. That strategy, as Biden and others predicted, hasn't worked in Afghanistan; the place is just too inhospitable. Indeed, in recent years, idealistically inclined folk -- like me -- have been forced to absorb one painful lesson after another on the limits of America's ability to shape a better world. What if Pakistan is yet another example?

My own answer would be: patience. U.S. aid, advice, and leverage can help bend the trajectory upward in Pakistan, and even in Afghanistan. But it will do so only slowly. Shah Mahmood Qureshi will be long gone by the time Pakistan has a civilian government that is capable and legitimate. The metabolism of state-building or "enhanced partnership" is thus wholly unsuited to the urgency of preventing terrorist attacks. Nor do I think that the sight of U.S. helicopters rescuing Pakistanis from floodwaters will make ordinary people more sympathetic to the U.S. counterterrorism agenda or to the drone strikes along the border. Only a change in policy will do that.

It turns out, alas, that the weak countries that pose a threat to U.S. national security interests are also refractory places disinclined to accommodate U.S. interests. Policymakers should view them as long-term projects and lower their expectations for short-term progress.