The Middle East Channel

Beirut in Baghdad: Is the 'Lebanonization' of Iraq complete?

Four years after a flurry of predictions about the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, they may be coming true. "Lebanonization" was a derogatory term, a hint at imminent civil war, political deadlock, Iran's hand in local militias and on many domestic levers. The columns and commentary on Iraq's "Lebanonization" issued a collective "uh oh," warning the state would fall apart like Lebanon did from 1975-1991.

What moved the term through officialdom was a perception that Iran and Syria were playing Iraq the way they played Lebanon in 1980s: perpetuating a status quo of chaos, then profiting from the melee. The Sadrists were like Hezbollah-in-waiting, tied to Tehran and using force to stymie Iraq's government, if they couldn't control it outright.

"What prompted me to use the term was the external dynamic … and it has still has some validity," said Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has served as the top U.S. diplomat in both Iraq and Lebanon. He concedes that at present, in Iraq as in Lebanon, Iran has a virtual veto - influence enough to block any major decision that crosses its interests.

"Iran can't call the shots in Iraq. They can't make things happen, but they can screw things up. And they play a long game … they're waiting for us to be gone to make life harder for Iraqis."

Today the "Lebanonization" of Iraq is a different story, in which the parallels are mostly political. In Iraq's March election and its tussled aftermath -- there's still no government in place and likely won't be one until after Ramadan -- analysts see a repeat of Lebanon's 2009 parliamentary poll. In both cases a "pro-U.S." leader edges out the Iran-backed alliance, but it's a watered-down win. The country triangulates the interests of its three main blocs (Iraq: Shiite, Sunni, Kurd; Lebanon: Sunni, Shiite, Christian) through a long negotiation (this week talks in Baghdad broke down). Then a government theoretically comes together, balancing power among its political actors, whose voters cluster around their ethnic or religious base.

"The comparison holds. Today, Iraq has a Lebanon-style government: tribes with guns and a state that's not able to provide what a state should provide, like basic security," said Paul Salem from the Carnegie Endowment's Beirut office. In the vacuum, violent groups from al Qaeda in Iraq to Salafist movements in Northern Lebanon undo law and order.

Analyst Louay Bahry calls Iraq and Lebanon "junior democracies" at work, successful in at least roughly projecting the majority and generally protecting the minority. Others describe their system as a consensus democracy -- applied with some success in Europe, but made difficult by an Arab political culture.

"In the consensus system you cannot win everything and you cannot lose anything. This becomes difficult because compromise in Arab culture is not acceptable -- it's seen as a shame or a weakness," said Fuad Hussain, chief of staff to President Massoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"When someone is in power he is not willing to share power. When someone is in the opposition he doesn't want to share power; he wants everything."

The answer, he and others say, is greater federalism in Iraq. A strong central authority in either country would be too rigid, more likely to topple into civil war.

"If you look at Arab countries there are two phases: dictatorship, which is still the case in some places, or a zero-sum struggle between the tribes, which we've seen in Lebanon," said Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a visiting fellow at Chatham House.

The problem, he says, is that consensus democracy is an oxymoron: Consensus is the rule of all; democracy is the rule of the majority. "So you get paralysis, which has governed Lebanon, until one of the tribes to grow strong enough to dominate the others," he said.

There are other downsides to the consensus system, like the risk of freezing identity politics, with the country locked into thinking and ruling by sect. Lebanon is an extreme case, where each sect has a certain number of seats in government, guaranteed by law and unshakable by the changing will or demography of the voters. Iraq, which has mindfully avoided such a setup, could still succeed in evolving toward a secular civic model. But that is some ways away.

"Identity politics remains very important in Iraq, especially in the time of national elections.… Iraqis will stick with their communitarian groups," said Michael Knights at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Part of that, he said, has been engineered externally.

"Iran has quite successfully managed to prevent this last election in 2010 from breaking out of the sectarian mode. If Iran and its proxies hadn't struck up the de-Baathification issue just before the election it would have gone more smoothly."

Kenneth Pollack, a former NSA and CIA official now with the Brookings Institution, points to two pillars of independent Iraqi politics: a strong national identity and enough force to push back on Iran's will. The massive oil revenues coming online would also help, strengthening state authority and its patronage networks.

"There is a consensus in Iraq that they don't want something like a Hezbollah out there, able to block the powers of the state," he said. 

"To the vast majority of Iraqis, Lebanon is only a model in terms of what they shouldn't do. The leadership is very, very cautious about becoming more like Lebanon. They don't want to move down that path."

That makes this moment the real test of Iraq's "Lebanonization" -- can Baghdad form a stable and successful government any better than Beirut? Would that government hold together and act from a unified national interest? It's a test with dramatic outcomes, for Iraq and for democracy in the Middle East.

"Iraq can bicker for months without falling into civil war … that's noteworthy," said Paul Salem, the Lebanese analyst with the Carnegie Endowment.

"And Iraq is harder to dominate externally, so if they get their act together they'd stand a better chance than we do."

Lara Setrakian is based in Dubai, where she reports on Iran and Arab affairs for ABC News. She blogs for ABC's MidEast Memo and tweets at @laraabcnews.

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Marc Lynch

Debating an Attack on Iran

This morning, I posted my first contribution to the Atlantic's online debate about Jeffrey Goldberg's much-debated cover story on whether Israel will attack Iran.   I take Goldberg's reporting seriously, particularly since I have heard many similar comments from both U.S. and Israeli officials.   That's precisely why I believe that it's important to engage the argument for an attack on Iran head on.... now, rather than after a bad decision has already been made.  What do I think?   Well, the title chosen by the editors doesn't leave much to the imagination:  "Striking Iran is Unwarranted and It  Would Mean Disaster."  I argue that "the argument for a military strike on Iran remains weak, with massive potential negative effects, very limited prospects for significant positive impact, and much less urgency than its proponents claim. It is Obama's sound strategic judgement, not his lack of will, which makes an attack unlikely."   The entire debate has been instructive.  

The debate about Goldberg's article over the last couple of weeks has been quite robust --- both the give and take among the eight panelists assembled by the Atlantic, and the broader discussion across the blogosphere which has been regularly rounded up in editor JJ Gould's daily summaries.   Gould has done an impressive job of orchestrating actual dialogue across analytical divides (Elliott Abrams is scheduled to respond to my post soon, and I am supposed to respond to Reuel Gerecht's post after he publishes it in a few days).  And, while I'm at it, a special shout-out to Goldberg for his strong stance on the New York mosque craziness --- he has been a strong voice, and a brave one.

Contrary to the complaint by skeptics like the Leveretts that since they weren't included the debate could only be an "echo chamber" (for the record, we published their take on the Middle East Channel here), many of the panelists have pushed back hard.  Some, like Gerecht, do indeed argue for military action.  But the general trend of the discussion is best captured by former State Department official Nicholas Burns, who came away "more convinced than ever that a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be potentially disastrous for U.S. interests. At worst, it could lead to a third war in the greater Middle East without the benefit of stopping Iran's nuclear program. It makes much more sense for Obama to stick to his bet that a combination of diplomacy and toughness might yet compel Tehran to yield."   Gary Milhollin doubts that an attack would really have a decisive impact on the Iranian nuclear program, while Robin Wright argues that we are "nowhere near the point of no return."  Some echo chamber.  Add in the vibrant debate across many other sites (which I won't try to summarize for fear of offending those whose contributions I leave out), and I'd say that Goldberg's article has succeeded not in paving the way for military action but in focusing attention on the issue in such a way as to make an attack less likely.

While I'm not going to reproduce my whole essay here, here are some of the major points:

  • a military strike is not likely to put an end to Iran's nuclear potential, or to provide any significant sense of certainty (I do not find Goldberg's notion of Israeli commandos quickly darting in from Iraqi Kurdistan to check things out especially reassuring).
  • the idea Israel has a fixed deadline is not credible. Israeli officials and American Iran hawks have paraded a never-ending series of such immutable deadlines over the last decade -- of 2006, of 2007, of 2008, and now of December 2010. None proved quite so immutable.
  • the costs could be high:  a strike by Americans or Israelis could trigger a wave of regional chaos, badly weaken the already struggling Green Movement, and seriously complicate the U.S. drawdown from Iraq. It would prove the death-knell for Obama's efforts to construct a new relationship with the Muslim communities of the world, trigger a wave of anti-American rage among Arab publics, deeply complicate the tentative moves towards Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. 
  • The "war bluff" argument -- that we will be most effective at diplomacy if we can credibly threaten force, with Israel playing the "bad cop" to force Iran to deal with the American "good cop" -- only works if there is adequate trust between the U.S. and Israel. This is why the Obama administration has taken to consulting so regularly and at such high levels with Israel, in order to ensure that communication is clear and consistent. Goldberg's suggestion that Israeli officials would nevertheless be prepared to spring such a surprise undermines that trust.
  • If Israel truly felt such existential urgency, then wouldn't it be willing to make concessions on Gaza or the peace process in order to build international support and sympathy? If Israel hopes to build an international consensus, this has been an odd way to go about it.
  • Much of the alleged urgency to attack Iran is rooted in an oddly anachronistic view of rising Iranian power in the region. But in fact, Iran's image and influence have been in retreat in the region during much of Obama's administration. Obama's initial outreach challenged the Iranian regime, which had grown quite comfortable in dealing with the Bush administration's aggressive rhetoric dividing the region into moderate and radical camps -- which had the self-defeating effect of ceding the popular mantle of "resistance" to Iran by default. But Iran today is isolated and beleaguered within the region, and has proven unable to capitalize on Obama's declining popularity or U.S. policy mistakes. 
  • That the leadership of most Gulf states remains deeply suspicious of Iran, and that the Saudi-owned media is full of anti-Iranian commentary and reporting, is nothing new. But compared to two years ago, Iran's position with Arab publics and the "resistance" trend is also far weaker. Turkey now offers a far more attractive -- and effective -- brand of "resistance", with its advanced economy, moderate Islamist and fully democratic politics, and creative diplomacy. Meanwhile, the botched aftermath of the Iranian elections and the repression of the Green Movement -- heavily covered by al-Jazeera and other popular Arab media --- badly harmed its image with Arab publics. An Israeli or American attack on Iran would almost certainly bring these publics intensely back to Iran's side, though, rescuing them from their own decline. 
  • The hostility to Iran in various Arab circles should not lead anyone to believe that Arabs would support an attack on Iran by the U.S. or Israel, however (see MEC editor Amjad Atallah's excellent post on this here). While Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation.  Arab leaders will likely continue to welcome any efforts to contain Iranian power, particularly when it takes the form of major arms deals and political support. And they will likely continue to mutter and complain about America's failure to magically solve their problems for them. But those who expect these regimes to take a leading, public role in an attack on Iran are likely to be disappointed -- especially if there is still no progress on the peace process.

There's more, including a strong warning to not repeat the experience of 2002:  as a general rule, beware of those claiming that there are no options other than war and that time is running out, that the benefits of an attack will be high and the costs low, and that it won't affect other important issues.  Hopefully we've learned something.  More on the debate later this week, when it officially wraps up.  

UPDATE:  Elliott Abrams responds by complaining that I blame Israel for everything, while declining to engage with any of my actual arguments.  How disappointing -- for some reason, I have to admit that I expected better.  

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