President Barack Obama can flash a smile when he thinks of Lebanon today—which is something no American president has been able to do for a long, long time. The election results being tallied and retallied in Beirut are showing not just a victory for forces the United States has supported, but a humiliating defeat for those publicly backed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And as that fact sinks in on the Iranian public, it might even help sink Ahmadinejad's own prospects for re-election this coming Friday.
A lot was at stake if things had gone the other way. Many analysts expected the Lebanese coalition led by Hizbullah, a militia originally created and heavily supported by the Iranians, to win a major victory. That raised questions about whether—or if—the Americans who deem Hizbullah a terrorist organization would be able to deal with the Lebanese government at all. That's not going to be a problem now.
But Obama would be wise not to read too much into the Lebanese results. His speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last week may have had some positive impact. Visits to Beirut in recent months by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have helped, too. At least they didn't hurt, which wouldn't have been the case with their predecessors. But it's just as likely that Ahmadinejad's endorsement of the Hizbullah-led coalition became more of a curse for his clients than a blessing.
A victory for Hizbullah in Lebanon "would change the situation in the region and would create new fronts for strengthening the resistance," Ahmadinejad declared last month. Of course, he meant resistance to Israel and the United States. But many Lebanese are at least as worried about their own need to resist Syria and, increasingly, Iran. Lebanese Christians, especially, proved to be a mass of conflicting sentiments —and votes—in Sunday's polls.
The fact is, Lebanese politics are uniquely treacherous, and not only because they often turn deadly. The country has served countless times as a proxy battleground for regional and global powers. As a result, the Lebanese have suffered decades of war, occupation, terror and thwarted development. Yet when elections take place, that old adage, "all politics is local," comes into play at every level and in very particular ways. Lebanon's government is divvied up by the Constitution on sectarian lines and can only function (when it functions) through coalitions. And the sects themselves are divided, with patriarchs and warlords, billionaires, visionaries, mystics, murderers and Lebanese mafiosi playing vital roles alongside more run-of-the-mill politicians. So this was never really going to be a two-way race.
On one side you have the coalition led by Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician with heavy Saudi backing whose father, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was blown up on the Beirut waterfront in February 2005. Syria is widely blamed for the killing. It has always denied any role, and United Nations investigators have yet to produce solid proof, but that remains almost beside the point. A month after the murder, on March 14, 2005, massive public protests forced the Syrians to withdraw the troops they had kept in Lebanon for decades. A few weeks after that, Hariri's "March 14 Movement" won the parliamentary majority.
The latest returns show that Sunni constituencies voted overwhelmingly for Hariri's candidates, and Shiite ones voted overwhelmingly for Hizbullah's. Which is why, at the end of the day, the elections in Lebanon were decided by neither the Shiites nor Sunnis, but by the country's Christian minority, which was divided down the middle. Gen. Michel Aoun, who once fought against Syrian occupation of Lebanon and presents himself as an ardent nationalist, had for his own reasons made a pact with Hizbullah. And based on past performance, that factor seemed likely to bring the group victory.
But many Christian voters remain deeply suspicious of the radical Shiite camp. When Ahmadinejad spoke in language that made it seem Iran expected Lebanon to fall in line behind Tehran, the message was particularly hard for proud Maronite Catholics to swallow. And then Obama made his speech last week and called for tolerance in the Muslim world. "The richness of religious diversity must be upheld," he declared, "whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt."
On its face, this would seem a fairly anodyne statement of general principles, but Lebanon's Christians got a different message: one of recognition, and sympathy. And that's more than they heard from Ahmadinejad. Already under attack by his opponents for poisoning Iran's relations with the world, the Iranian president is now vulnerable to charges he's undermined some of his closest allies.
This victory may yet be reversed by the violence, viciousness and venality that are trademarks of politics in Lebanon. But, still, it's good news in a time of great uncertainty. So if Obama is smiling, well, we might just want to join him.