Belmont Club

Dear Obama, from Beirut

Michael Totten reprints an email from the Lebanese Rennaissance Foundation offering some thoughts about what Barack Obama should say when he speaks to the region.

As Obama addresses Muslim world; a struggle to win Christian hearts and minds in the Middle East

In preparing to deliver his much-awaited speech from Cairo tomorrow, President Barack Obama may want to keep in mind that future American prestige and influence in the region depends not only on how his message is received by Muslims, but also by the region’s Christians.

After all, just three days after the speech, the voters of Lebanon go to the polls in parliamentary elections, and Christians there are likely to determine the results. Virtually everyone in the region – and especially Iran, America’s archenemy for influence throughout the Muslim world – has a vital interest in the outcome.

If the ruling majority wins, it will be a victory for Western interests; but if the Hizbullah-led coalition ekes out a victory, Iran will stand the victor. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — whose country arms and finances Hizbullah – recently said the outcome of the Lebanese elections “will change the Middle East.” Should Iran’s proxies win, Obama’s message to Muslims, no matter how hopeful and proactive, will be drowned out as Iran and Islamic fundamentalism will be seen as ascendant.

Whereas the majority of Lebanon’s Sunni population is expected to vote in favor of the Western-leaning March 14 coalition and the majority of Shia are expected to back the Iranian and Syrian-supported March 8 coalition, the Christians remain split.

This goes against past experience. Lebanon’s Christians historically have led the effort to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty against Syrian and Iranian meddling. Yet since the 2005 Cedar Revolution, which brought together Lebanese of all communal backgrounds to demand an end to Syrian occupation, both Syria and Iran have succeeded in making significant inroads into the Lebanese Christian communities, which include Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Catholics.

This follows several years of effort by Iran and Syria to build influence among Lebanon’s Christians – often by intimidation and violence directed at Christian leaders who backed the March 14 coalition. But there’s been a soft side to this influence-building: Christian leaders who acquiesced to Syrian and Iranian interference in Lebanon and yielded to Hizbullah’s powerful paramilitary force were rewarded with generous financial, political and military support. In landmark visits to Tehran and Damascus earlier this year Michel Aoun — leader of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc and formerly a staunch opponent of Syria and Iran — was received with honors usually reserved only for heads of state. Both countries described Aoun not only as the leader of Lebanese Christians, but as a leader of Christians throughout the Middle East.

The message from Syria and Iran to Lebanon’s Christians is clear: Stick with us and you will reap the benefits and gain protection; side with the West and you will pay a heavy price.

To its credit, the Obama administration recognized the importance of Lebanon’s upcoming vote, recently sending both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Beirut. Congress has been equally engaged as Senator John Kerry, Congressman Gary Ackerman and a number of other congressional leaders have met with Lebanese officials and expressed support for Lebanese sovereignty. These gestures are important, but they may not be enough to avert a Hizbullah victory at the polls.

If the U.S. is determined to prevent Iran from further expanding its influence in the Middle East, American officials must focus not only on winning Muslim hearts and minds but also those of Lebanese and Middle Eastern Christians. There needs to be a concerted effort to win back this community, which has historically been friendly to America but is now at risk of being co-opted by Iran.

So in his address from Cairo tomorrow, President must not only reassure Muslims that America has their long-term interests at heart. He must also reassure Christians throughout the region that the U.S. remains committed to freedom, national sovereignty, and peace. And three days later, we will know whether that message was received among Lebanese Christians, or whether Iran takes a major step towards “changing the Middle East.”

Lebanon Renaissance Foundation

I think the operative part of the message is the phrase “The message from Syria and Iran to Lebanon’s Christians is clear: Stick with us and you will reap the benefits and gain protection; side with the West and you will pay a heavy price.” The Lebanese Christians aim to survive; and to meet that requirement they’ll back the winner. The real downside to projecting weakness, abjection and apologetics at every turn is that you are broadcasting, whether you intend to or not the message that “I’m a loser”. In the life or death races of Middle Eastern politics, most of the punters want to know the answer to one question: who’s going to finish first. Barack Obama should at least try to convince his listeners that betting on democracy doesn’t make you un perdedor.

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