Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What Obama's win means for Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

With the announcement Wednesday morning of incumbent Barack Obama’s defeat of Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the US presidential elections, a natural question for many Lebanese is what the consequences, if any, will be for them and their country, and how those might have differed had Romney been the victor.

Though analysts contacted by NOW Lebanon have divergent views on the specific implications of Obama’s win for Lebanon, none believed the outcome would have a direct impact in the short term; any effects that could potentially unfold being indirect and longer-term.

Some argue the result will make next to no difference whatsoever. “I do not think there will be any difference regarding Lebanon,” said Riad Kahwaji, head of the INEGMA think tank. “The US has already been leading from behind when it comes to Lebanon, granting the leading role to France. [French] President Hollande’s visit to Lebanon on Sunday was a clear indication who leads the way in the country from the Western side,” he told NOW.

Elias Muhanna, assistant professor at Brown University and author of the Qifa Nabki blog, largely agrees. “There is no evidence of a substantial difference between Obama and Romney on foreign policy. The third presidential debate demonstrated that on this area, the candidates are very difficult to tell apart. What that means for Lebanon is an extension of the status quo,” he said.

Others, however, argue that a Romney victory would ultimately have been in Lebanon’s better interests. “There are two elements to consider here: the Lebanon policy of a Romney administration and the Syria policy of a Romney administration. Both would have been to the benefit of Lebanon,” said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“We don’t have anything on record from Romney about Lebanon, but if we look at the people involved in his campaign, such as Eric Edelman and Elliot Abrams, these were very big supporters of the pro-democracy March 14 movement during the Bush administration,” he told NOW. The Obama administration, on the other hand, “really dropped the ball in 2009 by not having any creative ideas or a vision about how to consolidate the election victory of the pro-West March 14 coalition.”

As for Syria, Schenker argues that Romney’s support for “the arming of the Free Syrian Army to try and end the Assad regime was a real big distinction between the two candidates. It’s been 20 months so far, and I think everybody can acknowledge President Obama’s policy of focusing solely on the hapless Syrian National Council was really a waste of time. By not providing sufficient support to the opposition fighters on the ground, the largely secular opposition has lost ground to jihadists and more militant Islamists. And that is certainly to Lebanon’s detriment, particularly vis-à-vis the future of post-Assad Syria.”

Romney did indeed say during the third presidential debate that the US should “make sure [Syrian opposition fighters] have the arms necessary to defend themselves.” Other analysts, however, are less convinced that he would put these words into action. “[Romney] spoke in strong neoconservative terms while seeking the Republican Party nomination, but has shifted to more centrist, cautious views as he bids for independent and centrist voters in the general election […] on Syria and Iran he has generally endorsed Mr Obama's cautious approach while vaguely suggesting that he would be tougher,” wrote Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.

Obama’s victory may also allay fears that US funding of the Lebanese Armed Forces—typically amounting to some $100 million per annum—would be reduced under a Romney administration, given the latter’s campaign pledge to reduce foreign aid.

However, Kahwaji believes this question hinges not on the US president but on the Lebanese cabinet itself. “The US funding of Lebanon depends on the cabinet. When March 14 was in power, there was a great deal of spending and military support. After the Hariri cabinet collapsed and a cabinet considered to back by Syria, Iran and Hezbollah was formed, there was a significant reduction in military aid. To this day, US is no longer sending heavy weapons,” he told NOW.

As for Iran itself, analysts were in agreement that a Romney administration would have been more likely to take military action against the Islamic Republic, with the strong possibility of consequent battles between Hezbollah and Israel. That scenario, they believe, is now less probable given Obama’s re-election.

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

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