01 March 2005

Yes, It's Freedom, But What's In It for Us?

Let's start with a quiz. Who wrote the following this morning?
One . . . near as I can tell, there's no really clear sense in which the Syrian sphere of influence in Lebanon is bad for the United States of America. Second, there's no particular reason to think that the waning of Syrian influence really heralds the dawning of Lebanese democracy. Outside of the special case of Iraq, Lebanon was and is pretty clearly the most democratic of Arab states.
. . . .
It's not what you would call a real democracy for a variety of reasons . . . . Still, as I say, it's closer than anything else that's up and running already. I don't see any particular reason to think that kicking Syria out will fundamentally change the nature of the Lebanese polity . . . . Heck, I don't even think it's clear that it would be a good idea to try and move Lebanon toward real majoritarian democracy.

Henry Kissinger? Pat Buchanan? Ann Coulter? Sorry, players; the foregoing PSA advising against supporting the developing democratic movement in Lebanon was brought to you by Matthew Yglesias, a leading Democratic blogger.

Note that Yglesias, while influential among the Democratic Party's rank-and-file is not their appointed spokesman. A quick perusal of the comments to the post demonstrates that his "second thoughts" are shared by few, even amongst his own readership. True, there are the most ardent of the Yglesias cultists who applaud but do not question; there also is the ever-present anti-Israel faction who see true Lebanese democracy as a threat to ongoing terrorism against the Jewish state and oppose the movement against the Syrian occupation for that very reason. Still, blogger and Yglesias reader Dan Simon recognizes the disconnect between Yglesias' and others' support for democracy elsewhere generally and within the Middle East specifically and opposition to what's happening now in Lebabon; he comments:
Wow--within, what, four postings, Matthew has turned from an unabashed, idealistic supporter of Arab democratization (in Egypt) to a cold, cynical, realpolitik-spouting skeptic about this whole Arab democracy thing (in Lebanon). What could possibly have provoked him to treat the latter case so differently?
  • A less bad despotism? Mubarak's no saint, but Assad's surely worse.
  • A worse prognosis? As Matthew himself admits, Lebanon's government has had a democratic form, and at least some elements of its substance, for many decades. Egypt has never been democratic--ever.
  • More danger of a fundamentalist takeover? Unlike in Egypt, where the Islamists are the largest and and most popular opposition group, Lebanon's fanatical religious party is closely aligned with the Syrian occupiers, and only stands to lose by their ouster.
  • Worse outcome for America? Egypt's dictator, for all his faults, is a bought-and-paid-for US ally. Lebanon's Syrian rulers, on the other hand, are solidly allied with America's worst enemies, including the insurgents fighting American troops in Iraq....

  • Nah, couldn't be. Say it isn't so, Matthew....
    Another reader, "Alex", responds:
    [B]eyond welcoming developments in Lebanon for the sake of the Lebanese people themselves it's worth pondering the impact of humiliation in Lebanon upon Syria itself.

    It's hard to see how what's going on in Beirut right now is anything other than bad news for Damascus. From that point of view, it's good news for the United States.
    Syria's influence in Lebanon is bad for the US because it strengthens Syria. (It's even worse for Lebanon of course).

    Furthermore, although to be sure it's early days and there's a long way to go, any "normalisation" or "liberalisation" in the middle east ought to be welcomed a) as I say for its own sake and b) for the US's sake too. Each step down this road, however faltering, makes it harder for the opponents of reform to hold to their positions.

    And that's something worth celebrating. Momentum does matter. As does the inspiration of example.

    "Ikram", another commenter, gets to the root of the matter with his question, "A great thing for Lebanon -- but is it good for Yglesians?" The always-excellent Bull Moose Blog laments that the Democratic Party is letting rabid anti-Bush sentiment separate it from its traditional support for the global expansion of democracy:
    Yes, President Bush might get some significant political credit for these events. So what. If partisanship is more important than fundamental principles, than the Democratic party has truly lost its way. Just as right-wing Delayicans opposed the foreign policy triumph of Clinton in Kosovo, so are left-wing Kissingers moaning the potential advance of freedom today.

    Remember, you're the Democratic Party.

    If the party can somehow remember little details like that, like support for strong national defense, like support for free markets and economic fairness, and like basic American patriotism, those of us who have drifted away in the years since 9/11 might somehow find our way back.

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