Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Let’s talk geopolitics -1 (introducing the players)

Posted by worriedlebanese on 26/02/2007

For weeks now, I have been writing “hate mails” to journalists and getting into fights with friends and colleagues over the way their reading of the Lebanese situation is strictly geopolitical and their analysis ignores the political and local dimension of the current crisis. I firmly believe that this serves the interests of the Lebanese political class (that forms a “zaïmarchy”); it portrays them as mere pawns or victims of larger and overriding powers relieves them of all political responsibility. Not only does a strictly geopolitical reading of the internal situation unjustly unburden Lebanon’s zaïmarchy, but it also give us a very distorted reading of the internal dynamics (and sometimes of the regional dynamics, because the perspective of the analyst is paradoxically too local).
By criticizing Lebanon’s geopoliticians, I might have given the impression that I find geopolitical groundless and uninteresting, which I don’t. I find this exercise a whole lot of fun, and sometimes even insightful.

First let’s look at the main regional and international actors in the Lebanese crisis (in alphabetical order):
France: strong historical ties with the Maronite church and Lebanon’s Godmother. It had betted on Rafic Hariri during the past 10 years as part of its Arab (and more specifically) Sunni strategy in the Middle East.
Germany: Not much of a great player in the Middle East, but has enjoyed an important role as an intermediary between Hezbollah and Israel, and for some time between the US and Iran.
Israel: The neighbourhood bully or the regional hammer for which everything is a nail. This modern day Sparta firmly believes that the solution to its troubles (and sole guarantee to its very existence) is its unrivaled military power.
Iran: The uninvited guest or unwanted child. In less than 4 years, this country has become a major player in the Middle East by positioning itself as a Shiite power (not necessarily an islamist one), the protector of Shiites in Lebanon, Iraq, and probably soon in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but also the only “true defender of the Palestinian cause”. In many ways, the July war can be considered as an absorption attempt by the US of this regional power, or the birth pang (to use an expression dear to Condoleeza Rice) of a new regional power.
Palestinians: The PLO is no longer an active player regionally; many active and dormant groups have succeeded it (Hamas, Fateh, small islamists groups, ex-communists…).
Russia: The re-emerging power that has discovered that its strength lies in the nuisance it can incur. It hasn’t up to now made the Middle East the centre of its interest.
Saudi Arabia: The wealthy conservative Sunni neighbour. It doesn’t quite qualify as a power due to its weak military, unimaginative diplomacy, its inefficient use of resources and underlying paradox (it supports and fights Sunni islamist groups). It has been a player in Lebanese politics for years and is financially supporting the Lebanese government.
Syria: The mouse that roared. For years, Hafez el-Assad convinced many leaders worldwide that he headed a regional power while he was actually impoverishing his country and ruining all chances of making it a true power. His secret: a nuisance power exerted almost exclusively in Lebanon. His son and successor seems to be following in his father’s footsteps, only his country is too poor and weak to convince anyone of having any power at all, and its nuisance is used for self-preservation (his government and family are being threatened by an international inquiry over the assassination of Rafic Hariri).
Turkey: The disoriented State. Indoctrinated since WWI that geography is part of an international conspiracy to deny its true soul, this country has invested in its own military establishment to keep it on the right track. For years the military (the State’s godmother) was busy modernizing the state and protecting the Kemalist legacy (hyper-nationalism, pro-westernism and secularism) and killing off as many Kurdish fighters as possible (with many “collateral damages”). The Turkish military is slowly discovering geography and rediscovering that most of its territory is in the Middle East. Turkey’s government is getting more and more involved in Middle-Eastern affairs (Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq).
UK: America’s second. No specific foreign policy in the Middle East to speak of. At least not yet…
US: Israel’s fairy godmother. Has only exerted “force” on Israel once… to oblige Shamir’s government into attending the Madrid Peace conference. It is globally busy with a very costly “war on terror” that has taken it to Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries that have completely collapsed since the US administration has decided to help them out in institution building.

Did I leave any actor out? Yes, Lebanon. But thanks to the Chehabist legacy, the country sees itself as merely the battleground of Middle Eastern crises and refuses to engage in any policy whatsoever. Fuad Siniora’s only foreign policy engagement is that the country would be the last to sign peace with Israel (quite difficult to scramble for the last part when there are hardly two or three other contenders left). But this doesn’t mean that the Lebanese Zua’ama and their parties don’t have a foreigh policy: the Hezbollah is allied to Iran and wants to wipe out Israel, Saad Hariri and his Future Movement is allied to Saoudi Arabia and wants to wipe out the Syrian government, Walid Jumblatt is taking matters quite personally with Syrian president Bashar el-Assad and a bunch of Maronite presidential candidates helplessly wonder why no regional or international power is interested in them as allies, but are still ready to engage in anything to get the Lebanese presidency.

One Response to “Let’s talk geopolitics -1 (introducing the players)”

  1. jeremiasx said

    This is a good rough overview of the players…I agree with most of your assertions. I also agree that it’s more interesting and informative to know about all the members of a cast when watching them perform on the world stage.

    Good post!

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