Straight Talk from Lebanon

June 15th, 2009

Tom Friedman is a political writer who generally tells it straight, regardless of petty ideological concerns.  He was in Lebanon recently for the elections, and two of his columns in The New York Times on those elections are worth reading and thinking about:

From Ballots Over Bullets, June 9:

As more than one Lebanese whispered to me: Without George Bush standing up to the Syrians in 2005 — and forcing them to get out of Lebanon after the Hariri killing — this free election would not have happened. Mr. Bush helped create the space. Power matters. Mr. Obama helped stir the hope. Words also matter.

From Winds of Change?, June 13:

There are a million things to hate about President Bush’s costly and wrenching wars. But the fact is, in ousting Saddam in Iraq in 2003 and mobilizing the U.N. to push Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, he opened space for real democratic politics that had not existed in Iraq or Lebanon for decades. “Bush had a simple idea, that the Arabs could be democratic, and at that particular moment simple ideas were what was needed, even if he was disingenuous,” said Michael Young, the opinion editor of The Beirut Daily Star. “It was bolstered by the presence of a U.S. Army in the center of the Middle East. It created a sense that change was possible, that things did not always have to be as they were.” …

…the Bush team opened a hole in the wall of Arab autocracy but did a poor job following through. In the vacuum, the parties most organized to seize power were the Islamists — Hezbollah in Lebanon; pro-Al Qaeda forces among Iraqi Sunnis, and the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Mahdi Army among Iraqi Shiites; the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan; Hamas in Gaza.

Fortunately, each one of these Islamist groups overplayed their hand by imposing religious lifestyles or by dragging their societies into confrontations the people didn’t want. This alienated and frightened more secular, mainstream Arabs and Muslims and has triggered an “awakening” backlash among moderates from Lebanon to Pakistan to Iran. …

Finally, along came President Barack Hussein Obama. Arab and Muslim regimes found it very useful to run against George Bush. The Bush team demonized them, and they demonized the Bush team. Autocratic regimes, like Iran’s, drew energy and legitimacy from that confrontation, and it made it very easy for them to discredit anyone associated with America. Mr. Obama’s soft power has defused a lot of that. As result, “pro-American” is not such an insult anymore.

A few thoughts:  The first is, President Bush deserves some credit for positive developments in the region.  This will become more clear as objective history is written.

The second is that while Friedman’s positive observations about the elections in Lebanon are welcome news, it’s dangerous to generalize beyond that to imply similar progress in the entire Arab world.  Lebanon has always been a special case.  Lebanon has usually done well during periods when it was free of the violence generated by the presence of the PLO and then the involvement of Syria and Iran.  That’s because of the unusual mix of peoples and ideas in that one country.  But that isn’t replicated elsewhere in the Arab world.  The historical evidence and current circumstances clearly show that Arab societies are not inclined toward democracy or anything resembling it.

Finally, without the presence and involvement of the outside world, mainly the U.S. and Europe, progress in the Arab world isn’t possible.  And once we cut through the media-driven anti-American propaganda, a lot of folks on the “Arab street” appreciate the efforts of the U.S. in the region.


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One Response to “Straight Talk from Lebanon”



  1. Harvey |

    Tom,

    Mr. Friedman seems really eager to Democratize the world — especially the Arab world — at any cost. As I suggested in my recent post, its a fool’s game.

    The most intelligent stance that America can take is to spread it’s basic philosophy around the world — not its politics. We should allow the world the same freedom of religion and freedom of thought and freedom of speech that our Constitution allows us; i.e., we should say to the world you can think what you want, you can run your countries as you want, we are simply business partners in a global economy. We will sell to you and buy from you — we will never coerce and expect not to be coerced. We will never be hostile toward you unless you are hostile toward us first. Take a lesson from our posture toward terrorists — we intend to destroy those who attack us and we intend to live in peace with all others.

    Specifically to Arab countries: some Islamic sects may be, to our eyes, the most brutal, uncivilized religions on the face of the earth and when the people who are living under those conditions decide they have had enough they will attempt to change it — for us to help is, as I said, a fools game.


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