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Lebanon Adrift

Scott MacLeod The Middle East Blog on Lebanon's state of limbo:

Among the decisive new factors, perhaps, is Annapolis, the new U.S.-led effort, begun during the Maryland conference two weeks ago, to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East. It represents the Bush administration's gradual shift from idealism to realism--from pushing a democracy agenda that shows zero-tolerance for countries and groups like Syria and Hizballah to pushing a security agenda that involves bringing the Middle East's warring parties into negotiations. Syria would have made a strategic mistake by ignoring Bush's invitation to engage in talks aimed at a Syrian-Israeli accord over the Golan Heights. Seeing that the White House no longer had the stomach for brinksmanship in Lebanon, the March 14 forces threw in the towel and agreed to compromise with March 8.

That amounts to a hugely demoralizing setback for the millions of Lebanese who took to the streets on March 14, 2005 to protest Syria's military domination of Lebanon after the assassination of March 14's martyr, former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

Nick Blanford's story about the Suleiman deal this week captured the political shift and the accompanying disappointment, quoting a senior March 14 figure saying, "The message the Americans are sending to the region is that what succeeds is terror, bombings and a total disregard for democracy. No one is going to remove the feeling from March 14 that we have been dumped by the Americans."

The fear, of course, is that the U.S. will "sell" Lebanon to Syria once again, as it did in 1990, in order to get Damascus to cooperate on broader Middle East issues--such as getting Bashar Assad to join an anti-Iran coalition, just as his father Hafez signed up for the anti-Iraq war 17 years ago.

Couple this report with the must-read analysis released this week by Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr on Iranian-American relations, and it becomes pretty clear that the Wilsonian rhetoric of President Bush's '06 SOTU address is a thing of the distant past. Whereas the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was once the pivot point for policy decisions in the Middle East, the erosion of the Iraqi presence has created a vacuum that Tehran may gladly fill.

Now, the litmus test may not be where you stand on Jerusalem, or settlements, but rather where you stand in relation to Tehran. Nasr and Takeyh doubt the feasibility of an Arab alliance against Iran, and rightly figure that some states (such as Qatar and the UAE) will soon hedge their bets with the republic.

This creates a no-win situation for arguably the two most democratic regimes in the region--Israel and Lebanon. Prioritize security, or in the case of Lebanon your own national autonomy, and you may be infringing on American policy in the region. Take one for the team, and you're likely to sacrifice some of your own national interests.

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