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Meawhile, In Lebanon

By Matthew Yglesias

"Meawhile, In Lebanon"

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In a series of events predicted by virtually nobody allowed access to high-profile media positions, but virtually everyone who knows anything about Lebanon, the upshot of Israel’s military campaign against Hezbollah has been to strengthen Hezbollah’s political position and throw Lebanon’s relatively Israel-friendly into crisis, possibly setting the stage for a return to power of pro-Syrian elements or else for a re-meltdown of the Lebanese state. One wrinkle here that seems to go perennial unmentioned is that had the Cedar Revolution actually brought democracy to Lebanon (as opposed to the takeover of government by an anti-Syrian political coalution) victory for Hezbollah and its allies would be all but assured. The Taif Accords, among other things, implemented an odd electoral system that structurally overrepresents Christians and underrepresents Shiites. That’s not necessary a bad thing, under the circumstances, but a more normal and more democratic system would significantly enhance Hezbollah’s political power.

This seems like as good a time as any to mention George W. Bush’s recent decision to bestow a National Humanities Award on Lebanese emigré Fouad Ajami. As Martin Peretz points out, Ajami has probably been the single largest influence on American understanding of the Arab world; his books have been very influential and his writings have appeared widely in major publications. The non-Peretzian notion I would interject into this stream of praise is that America’s understanding of the Arab world, as evidenced by years of recent policy fiascos, is . . . extremely bad. Ajami has, in essence, become prominent by being a seemingly credible voice willing to tell American elites what they want to hear, offering an interpretation of Arab affairs that’s significantly more palatable than the analysis provided by the scholarly mainstream.

That some view represents that scholarly consensus is, of course, no guarantee that it’s correct — dissidents are sometimes right. Nevertheless, we’ve been using Ajami and Ajami-ism as our guide to the region for quite some time now and it keeps working out very, very badly.

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