Don't Dismiss Obama's Role in Lebanese Elections

07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This has been tossed around on the internets today and I think it is very much an open question. There was a wide expectation that Hezbollah was going to win the parliamentary elections, instead the more pro-western March 14th movement was victorious. The AP framed the elections as "the first major political test in the Middle East since President Barack Obama called last week for a 'new beginning between the United States and Muslims.'" So presumably Obama passed the test -- but is this right? Could Obama's speech have had such an impact that it contributed to a March 14th victory?  In short, while there are plenty of reasons to be very cautious in jumping to that conclusion given Lebanon's politics, Obama's impact definitely shouldn't be dismissed by observers either.

Many Lebanese experts have dismissed the impact of the speech pointing to a variety of domestic reasons. Lebanon political expert Dr. Omri Nir told the Jerusalem Post that

 "I didn't see an impact of the speech [from Cairo] on the elections campaign," he added. Nir attributed the unexpected outcome to internal politics among Lebanon's Maronite Christians. Lebanese citizens usually cast their vote based on the people running and not according to party lines, he explained.

Christopher Dickey at Time also makes the useful point that "The fact is, Lebanese politics are uniquely treacherous... when elections take place, that old adage, 'all politics is local,' comes into play at every level and in very particular ways."

But although many Lebanese political experts dismiss the impact of Obama, sometimes issue-area experts are so immersed in their area that they really can't see the forest from the trees. The fact is that atmospheric changes in political environments matter and are often really hard to detect at the time.

One thing I found bizarre about the literature on democratic transitions was how most of the theories were on the causes were focused almost exclusively on specific internal developments and largely neglected outside factors, such as the international movements or events. For instance, concerning Spain's transition most theories focus on internal dynamics and often totally ignore the demonstration effect of having a successful democratic club in the European Community next door. While each of the southern European transitions happened as a result of their own internal political dynamics, it wasn't a coincidence that Spain, Greece, and Portugal all transitioned at the same time. Additionally, it is not a coincidence that there are often particular years at which revolutionary change happens suddenly -- such as 1989 and 1848. Each successive revolution in those years evolved due to its own particular circumstances -- but the demonstration effect contributed to the snowball of change that occurred.

Now what happened in Lebanon was no revolution. We are talking about a small shift in the electorate. But just as the atmosphere of 1989 or 1848 created an impetus for change, the same principles apply to 2009 -- albeit on a much much smaller scale. President Obama's efforts beginning with his inaugural address, continued with his overtures to Iran, his engagement in the peace process, leveling with Israel on settlements, his speech in Cairo, and the nature of his story and background -- may not be revolutionary -- but they have no doubt changed the climate of American engagement with the region.

It would follow then that if Bush's approach and his policies had a negative impact in this regard, then dramatically changing the tone and approach would surely have to have some impact. For instance, under Bush, it was clear that American support for a particular candidate or party was likely a death blow in the Middle East. So the fact that the side that the Obama administration was clearly pulling for did better than expected -- or at least wasn't hurt by that stance -- would seem to suggest that there was some impact, since Obama's speech was last week, Biden did go to Beirut, and Ray Lahood was there today. Therefore, former Cheney adviser David Wurmser deserves to have a significant amount of egg on his face after tell the WSJ before the election that "The Lebanon vote could mark a major strategic shift for the region...Iran could increasingly be viewed as preeminent, while U.S.
influence wanes."

Instead, the vote, at the very least demonstrates that Obama's approach is a vast improvement over the Bush administration. The Telegraph quotes, Rami Khouri, of the American University of

"This was the first real victory by pro-American groups in the ideological battle that has defined this region in the last 10 years. Every time the US tried to help somebody in the region, it hurt them and they lost." A 25-year old software designer from West Beirut, said: "It was 'you are either with us or against us' before and both sides had this attitude. Now it is something in the middle with Obama and I think there is more freedom there."

However, despite all of this, it is really hard to tangibly assess the precise impact of Obama's engagement with the region on the election. And the fact that many point to the Iranian elections as the big test maybe very unfair to the Obama administration, since local issues may very well dominate and even though we may think otherwise the world does not always revolve around the United States. Nevertheless, while a great deal of politics is local, not all of it is. The international atmosphere matters and the approach by the Obama administration it seems has definitely helped change it -- the question that we are all wondering is by how much.