The problem in Lebanon: not enough democracy

Writing in The Washington Post, Steven A. Cook makes some important points about the alleged failure of democracy promotion in the Middle East:

…First, participating in a free and fair election does not necessarily imply that an organization is democratic. While Hamas and Hezbollah may have embraced the procedures of democracy, there is no evidence that they have embraced the rule of law, the rights of women and minorities, political and religious tolerance, and alternation of power. Second, some historical perspective is badly needed. Hezbollah has sat as an elected party in the Lebanese parliament since 1992, more than a decade before the Bush administration set out its “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East.

Cook makes the often-neglected point that Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature despite winning less than half of the popular vote.

The real problem in Lebanon is not too much democracy but too little. Had Lebanon emerged from its spring 2005 “independence uprising” as a democracy, Hezbollah could not have continued to operate as an armed and thus autonomous faction. Lost in almost all of the commentary about the fighting in Lebanon is the fact that many Lebanese who do not support Hezbollah wish that the organization could be disarmed. Thus the best way of dealing with the Hezbollah problem is not by Israeli arms but by Lebanese public opinion.

Here is where criticism of the Bush administration is warranted. Had Washington not turned its attention away from Lebanon after the dramatic events there a little over a year ago, Lebanon’s fledgling democratic government could have leveraged public opinion to domesticate Hezbollah. Instead, the administration allowed Hezbollah and its Syrian patron to undermine the democratic and pro-Western government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Cook may be over-optimistic about Washington’s potential leverage in Lebanon. But among the Bush administration’s myriad faults is a consistent failure to exploit political openings with the hard effort which could have produced different and more democratic outcomes in places like Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. This is an administration that is in too much of a hurry to “roll the credits” before the movie is over.