Gaza is only the beginning of the bad news that's blowing from the Middle East toward the Obama White House. Like khamsins, those blinding sandstorms that sweep out of the desert as summer approaches, the crises to come will be huge, dangerous and grimly predictable. Indeed, many of the worst problems will be tied to electoral calendars, a sort of almanac of disasters, in a region where democratization has come to mean radicalization, isolation, conflagration and where ballots have become as important as bullets and suicide bombers to the fight against peace.
If Barack Obama wants to change the Middle East for the better, he'll have to rethink the notions of democracy that the Bush administration found so easy to espouse, yet so hard to manage. And he should start by considering the vital, visceral importance of resistance, of defiance, of what an Irish Republican Army supporter once described to me as "f--- you rage and resentment," when people see themselves as occupied and oppressed.
Throughout history, in truth and in fiction, those who die hard die as heroes, even if in the eyes of their enemies they died foolishly. Think of Masada, Thermopylae, the Alamo, the Light Brigade and the Little Bighorn. Stories of bravery and martyrdom make for compelling politics, and those are the kinds of narratives that politicians can exploit to great effect. Islamists with political organizations, from the Muslim Brothers and Hamas to Hizbullah and even the Taliban, are doing essentially the same thing. And nobody has a more refined sense of how to use these gut-wrenching, adrenaline-pumping tales of resistance to create sympathy, recruit fighters, inspire new martyrs—and yes, to generate support at the polls—than the Iranians and their operatives. Some moderate Arab politicians will even tell you that the explosion in Gaza is part of a vast plot by Tehran and Damascus that would use both violence and voting to dominate the region. And if so, the strategy would seem to be working.
It's been three years since Hamas won control of the Palestinian Parliament. The Bush administration, which wanted the elections but didn't want the results, then supported Israel as it managed to turn a debacle for the notion of democratization into a showcase for Palestinian defiance. A brutal economic blockade, the incitement of internecine Palestinian combat, the assassination of Hamas leaders and now the bombing and invasion of Gaza have not been able to reverse the outcome. And if Israel's precision-guided bombs and main battle tanks do succeed in re-engineering the Gaza government, will we call that a breakthrough for freedom and democracy? More to the point, can it be chalked up as a lasting defeat for Hamas? "The way these people fight a war, they don't believe in defeat," one prominent moderate Arab politician said privately, and with considerable chagrin. "As long as there is one person from Hamas left alive in Gaza, they will claim a victory."
And then there's Iraq. One of the many grim ironies of American involvement there is that the U.S.-sponsored electoral exercises have put the central government in the hands of parties with long, strong ties to Tehran. Iraq's other factions have been encouraged to play the democratic game, but in the next few months municipal contests and referenda in Kirkuk and Basra could help to tear the place apart. Meanwhile a vote on the presence of U.S. forces risks leaving the Americans with no legal standing to remain on Iraqi soil. And pre-electoral violence already is escalating: 57 people were blown up when groups of Kurds and Arabs met to work out their differences on Dec. 11; more than 20 died when Shiites and Sunnis sat down to talk south of Baghdad last Friday. From almost any angle in Iraq, ideals closer to jihad than to Jefferson are likely to triumph.
But the biggest Middle East electoral test looming in front of Obama could come in early June, when the Lebanese will vote for a new Parliament and Hizbullah, already a major influence, may take control of the government in Beirut. Will the reaction to a duly elected Islamist regime in Lebanon be the same as it was in Gaza? And with the same results?
Repeatedly branded an international terrorist organization by the Israelis and Americans, and with good cause, Hizbullah's political prestige in Lebanon and the Muslim world actually is rooted in its reputation for steadfast resistance to Israel on Lebanese territory. Originally organized and trained by Iranian agents in the early 1980s, it has come into its own as a political force under the leadership of the charismatic cleric Hassan Nasrallah. In 2000 it took credit for compelling Israeli troops to pull out of southern Lebanon after decades of incursions and occupation. In 2006, Hizbullah provoked a war by kidnapping and killing Israeli soldiers on the border, weathered a massive bombing campaign and then fought toe to toe against Israeli troops. It held out more than five times longer than all the armies of the Arab world did in 1967, and by the time a ceasefire was brokered, Hizbullah was still pouring rockets into Israel, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to take shelter.
Hamas, which appears to be emulating the Hizbullah strategy, will find the results hard to replicate. Gaza is 25 miles long and 7.5 miles wide, with all its borders and airspace controlled by Israel or the hostile government of Egypt. It has no strategic depth at all. Hamas's rockets are fewer and for the most part less powerful than those of Hizbullah, and the Israelis have much better intelligence, training and tactics for this fight than they had in 2006. But, then, the politics of defiance do not depend on military success.
Two and a half years ago, Hizbullah and Hamas were coordinating their operations against Israel, north and south. This time around, according to my friends in Beirut, Hizbullah is hanging back because it's looking for the bigger electoral prize to come in June and doesn't want to be distracted. In the meantime it can propagandize about the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza as a reminder of its own past "victories" against Israel in Lebanon.
So, again, what will the Obama administration say and, more importantly, what will it do if Hizbullah and its pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian allies can name Lebanon's next prime minister? It's not clear that Obama's team has given this looming crisis any thought. Indeed, the incipient administration remains silent even about the fight in Gaza. But in Paris recently I talked with Saad Hariri, who is the leader of the current majority in Lebanon's Parliament, and I caught a hint of that rare thing, a faint—very faint—suggestion of hope.
Sure, Hariri says he would like to see Obama "forcing peace on everyone," including the Israelis. And, yes, Obama can bring to bear prestige and credibility in the region that no American president has had for many years. But it won't be Obama who stands up to Hizbullah in Lebanon's elections, it will have to be Hariri and his allies who are united in opposition to Syrian and Iranian domination of their country's politics.
That is, as we know, a very dangerous position to take. Saad's father, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was blown up on the Beirut waterfront in February 2005 for taking just such a stand. Several others who allied themselves to his cause have been murdered since, and Saad himself has spent a great deal of time out of the country, which has not helped his political credibility. But when I saw him just after he had talked to French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week, Saad insisted that in the upcoming campaign he will be on the ground in Lebanon and in every corner of the nation, despite the obvious risks. "If anything happens, then the world will know that Syria has committed another crime," said Hariri.
We will see whether such brave talk will translate into a brave performance, and, if it does, to be brutally frank about a brutal situation, whether Saad Hariri will be able to survive. But if he and his supporters have the guts to defy the defiant, to resist the resistance, and defeat Hizbullah at the polls, then they may yet rescue not only Lebanon's independence, they may bolster the thin and dwindling aspirations for truly peaceful democracy in the Middle East.