TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Price of Realism: The Gemayel Assassination and Democracy in Lebanon

The emerging realist hypothesis plays regional stability off against democratic reform. We’re presented with a choice: Peace or Freedom, i.e., to get to peace, we are apparently supposed to give up on freedom.

The policy vision of a democratized Middle East is now relegated to the dustbin of history, dismissed as a Wilsonian illusion strangely in the hands of a Republican president, now to be replaced by the older and wiser formula of a system of stable states, secure in their sovereignty and therefore committed to preserving order. It won’t be democratic but at least (so they promise) it will be quiet. After the revolution: Metternich (which is why we suddenly have to listen to Kissinger again).

More specifically—so the plan may go—if the US begins to “talk” with Iran and Syria, the axis-of-evil member and its mini-me might stop making trouble and become engaged in the establishment of order in Iraq. Clearly one important and dubious assumption is that the sectarian and factional war in Iraq (which for a long time has surpassed anything like an insurgency against the US) is primarily a function of Iranian and Syrian policies and not—as is much more likely—a consequence of the nature of Iraqi society itself. The regional version of realism which places the emphasis on an arrangement with neighboring states tends to minimize the significance of domestic Iraqi concerns: which is exactly why it involves dismissing “democracy.” Instead of pursuing the establishment of domestic Iraqi institutions, this strategy implies ceding influence to Tehran and Damascus, in order to “solve” Baghdad. (As if the Yugoslav wars could have been solved by “talking” in Budapest and Athens.)

Yet the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the minister of industry in the Lebanese cabinet, goes a long way to highlighting how realism is the genuine illusion. The US government may be being uncharacteristically circumspect in laying blame, but the rest of the world recognizes the hand of Syria in the killing. Even the former chief UN investigator of the Hariri assassination a year ago, Detlev Mehlis, attributes the Gemayel killing to pro-Syrian forces.

Syria has two objectives that it will not relinquish: in the short run to block the Hariri investigation, which still has to be approved by the Lebanese cabinet, where Gemayel would have supported it; and more broadly to reassert its control over Lebanon, after it was forced out in the wake of the democracy movement of last March. This is where the realist logic begins to get dirty. It is headed toward trying to buy a Syrian contribution to Iraqi stability at the price of democracy in Lebanon. (For an excellent analysis of the politics of the assassination, see the blog Across the Bay.)

Today’s (November 23) New York Times editorial runs right into this contradiction but pretends it doesn’t exist (another case of illusory realism). Let’s take a look:

This page believes that the United States needs to begin a dialogue with Syria, about Iraq and regional peace. But President Bashar al-Assad needs to understand that neither the tribunal [the investigation into the Hariri assassination] nor Lebanon’s independence will ever be on the bargaining table. Europe, Russia and all of Syria’s neighbors need to join Washington in delivering this message.

In other words: talk with Syria while denying its key policy objectives. Hardly realistic. The NYT advocates selling out democracy (in Iraq and elsewhere), while trying to keep its hands clean, presumably hoping to be able to leave the dirty dealing to the State Department. (The suggestion that the Europeans might carry this message is almost as hilarious as the suggestion that Putin will talk tough to Assad. What is that editorial board smoking?)

But if one were to try to find the solution to Iraq in Damascus, then it would be impossible to deny Assad and his family protection (his brother-in-law is probably the culprit) from the investigation. Nor can the Syrian regime survive without the advantages that its colonial dominion in Lebanon and its war footing with Israel provide. The NYT‘s moralism looks clean, but it implies a process that solves the Iraqi problem through a stabilization of Assad, that can only include: blocking the investigation, ceding considerable influence to Syria in Lebanon (via Hezbollah, as its de facto proxy), and therefore crushing the democracy movement in Lebanon. Needless to say, a stabilized regime in Damascus would also put an end to the hopes of the democratic opposition in Syria.

This critique of realism is directed at two distinct addresses, an unholy alliance of anti-democrats. First, there is the foreign policy establishment, looking for a Metternichian resolution of the region. In this arena, democracy is no particular desideratum: it’s all about stability. Fair enough, one might comment: there is no interest in democracy, and no democracy will be encouraged. At least there’s no hypocrisy. The problem is that a stable outcome is even more unlikely. To the extent that it ignores the real content of Iraqi society, while hoping to resolve all matters through international relations, it is simply insufficient, missing the nature of the really-existing sectarian war. Yet even worse, this realism may delude itself into trying to establish stability in Iraq by encouraging Iran and Syria, key agents of instability. Exactly how will a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon provide regional stability?

The critique of realism is also directed to the left. If one reads the midterm election as a repudiation of Bush foreign policy that is leading to this new realism, then one can only conclude that the electoral victory of the left in the US means counterrevolution in the Middle East: ending democracy in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

From London, where George Galloway “celebrated” Nasrallah during the summer, to Berkeley, where Judith Butler anointed Hezbollah as part of the international left, the anti-imperialist camp has made its allegiance quite clear: siding with Hezbollah and the forces of dictatorship against any westernizing or liberal democracy movement. Perversely the left’s attack on “unilateralism” and the realist’s suspicion of democratic idealism have converged—but only rightly so, since the left has its own anti-democratic legacy, while for realists, the name of the game is negotiation in which “unilateralism” is out of place. Butler and Galloway in bed with Baker and Kissinger—not a pretty picture.

Just so we understand whom the realists and the pro-Hezbollah left intend to abandon, here’s an excerpt from today’s Le Monde on the demonstration on the day of the Gemayel funeral:

The demonstrators, waving Lebanese flags, threw portraits of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the ground and trampled on them. ‘Resign!”, ‘Get Bashar’s agent out of Baabda’—the name of the Lebanese presidential palace—the crowd shouted, referring to Mr. Lahoud. ‘Lahoud must leave as quickly as possible, and we want him to be tried for the crimes committed during his rule,’ asserted Lea Eid, a twenty-four year-old student, in tears and carrying a portrait of Pierre Gemayel, shot down at the age of 34 in broad daylight in the residential area in the north of Beirut. ‘We will go all the way to Baabda to get rid of Lahoud with our own hands and to bring him to the tribunal which will judge him for the crimes he continues to hide,’ affirmed Asma Joueidi (27) wearing the blue flag of the ‘Current of the Future,’ led by Saad Hariri, the son of Rafic Hariri, murdered in February 2005.

‘We only want the army to have arms,’ shouted the protestors, referring to the Shiite Hezbollah, supported by Damascus and Tehran, which refuses to disarm and which caused, by its abduction of two Israeli soldiers, the Israeli offensive in Lebanon in the summer.

These are the voices of the democracy movement, which realism and anti-imperialism are uniting to oppose. One can only hope that the democracy movements throughout the region are able to survive this “realism,” but it won’t be the first time that Western realists and anti-imperialists line up to maintain order.

Of interest in this context also are the remarks by the father of Pierre Gemayel, Amine Gemayel, a former President of Lebanon, in today’s Le Figaro. The assassination of his son is one more in a long series of killings carried out by Syrian agents (including four other members of the Gemayel family).

Figaro: In your opinion, who is responsible for the death of your son?

AG: These are the same methods, the same techniques since the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt in 1977. The Syrians have never hidden their objective. President Bashar al-Assad publicly declared his intention to plunge Lebanon into chaos.

Figaro: For what reason?

AG: Syria has never digested the need to withdraw its military from Lebanon. It keeps a fifth column in the institutions. I mean the President of the Republic [Lahoud], who is nothing more than a representative of the interests of Syria and Hezbollah, which does not hide its alliance with Damascus, not to mention the pro-Syrian parties. All these people serve Syrian interests ‘with precision and fidelity,’ as the Arab saying goes. But we are ahead. We have a majority in parliament and in the government. The Security Council vote [to proceed with the Hariri tribunal] reinforces our position. We are encouraged to continue.

In other words, there is a battle between democratic forces for Lebanese sovereignty and anti-democratic forces acting for Syria. Will the wisdom of realism mean siding with Syria, against Lebanese democracy, in order to buy Syrian support for stability without democracy in Iraq?

Figaro: Why was your son targeted?

AG: All the ones who were killed, all these martyrs, were young: Gebrane Tueni, Samir Kassir, Rafic Hariri, who was relatively young, and now Pierre. It was these young people who mobilized public opinion, more than the older generation. Pierre played an important role in remobilizing the Kataeb Party. They targeted the leaders of the future. And by assassinating all these young martyrs, they are trying to destabilize the alliance of March 14 [the democracy movement].

And the question to western public opinion is whether it retains a principled solidarity with the democracy movement. Are democrats in the Arab world greeted with the same enthusiasm that was directed toward Eastern Europe after 1989? Or will the reform movement be treated with the disdain that was directed toward dissidents during the era of détente with the Soviet Union (another “realist” moment)?

Figaro: The situation is very tense. Do you fear a new civil war?

AG: No. The ingredients for a civil war do not exist. Hezbollah cannot take up arms against other Lebanese; it would destroy the prestige it has acquired in the Arab world. People aren’t convinced by their slogans or those of their allies, because their pro-Syrian game is so blatant. Nonetheless, one should not throw oil on fire, which is why I have called for calm. We can win a victory for a sovereign Lebanon without resorting to violence.

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