Outcome of election in Lebanon last week a surprise
Posted: Monday, June 15, 2009 8:01 pm
By Douglas Cohn
and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON — The biggest single surprise last week was the election outcome in Lebanon, keeping a pro-Western coalition in power when all the polls pointed to a victory by Hezbollah and its allies. Turnout at 54 percent was the highest it’s been in the country in more than three decades. The voting occurred just days after President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo with its reasoned appeal to the forces of moderation to stand up and oppose Islamic extremism. There’s not enough evidence to be certain of cause and effect, but Obama’s words just may have made a difference in mobilizing like-minded people to exercise their right to vote and make their wishes known through the ballot box.
All the experts predicted Hezbollah would win and perhaps with enough strength to form a government, which would have been a major setback for U.S. interests in the region. As it stands, Iran and Syria, sponsors of Hezbollah, were the big losers. Even so, Hezbollah remains consequential. It functions as a political party, but it is also a terrorist organization with Israel its avowed enemy along with the U.S. and the ruling Lebanese government. Hezbollah controls some 57 seats in the Lebanese Parliament compared to 68 for the pro-Western coalition, and three independents.
These numbers alone assure Hezbollah’s continued power, but Obama’s speech set down a marker. It will be remembered as one of the most important speeches of the decade not because of every specific, but because he issued a credible call to reason — and he also made demands on the various players in the region.
He pledged to maintain America’s strong ties with Israel, but was tougher with Israel to abide by its past commitments and stop expanding settlements in the West Bank. Under an arrangement with the Bush administration, additional settlement construction has continued unchecked for what’s called the “natural growth” of families.
Obama was equally tough on the Palestinians, saying that lobbing rockets at sleeping children and blowing up old women on buses are the tactics of cowards, not courageous warriors. He belittled the violence and said it has cost Palestinians the moral high ground.
Obama is the first president to actually speak to the Muslim world, and he did it without abandoning America’s allies or its democratic principles. The fact that he could quote the Koran and offer a greeting in Arabic with the correct pronunciation did a lot to raise the comfort level of much of the world with America’s new president. They may not like all his policies, but they think they will get a fairer hearing than they did with the last administration.
Obama invoked his Kenyan father and the Muslim relatives he has on his father’s side of the family to stress his commonality with one of the world’s great religions. The receptivity was there as the speech was broadcast throughout the Arab world. Obama also recalled his childhood in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation and a democracy, citing it as a model of diversity where believers of varying faiths can co-exist in peace.
These are nice words and sentiments, but they will be forgotten if Obama does not move quickly to turn them into action. America’s role in the Middle East has traditionally been one of the honest broker. Judging by Obama’s tone in Cairo, he is ready to expand that role to one of a demanding parent. His tone suggests he has had enough with the games of delay and drift. The election in Lebanon shows that Islamic extremists can be defeated in a democratic election. That wasn’t the case just a few years ago when Hamas won the election in Gaza, a result that took the Bush administration by surprise. Words matter but actions matter more, and Obama mush move quickly to capitalize on the historic opening he has helped create.
Copyright 2009 Douglas Cohn
Published in The Messenger 6.15.09