The thesis of Max Boot’s post yesterday, on the possibility that a friendly grenade killed British aid worker Linda Norgrove, is well-taken. Hewing to a blindly narrow principle of fault-finding, as if the context of a tragedy doesn’t matter, is unworkable for sound judgment and policy. It produces kindergarten behavior: tearful demands for vengeance against whoever dealt the last slap or taunt, regardless of what the fray was about.
But absurdly narrow principles don’t stop with fault-finding. The U.S. is invoking a surreally absolute principle of “national sovereignty” this week in addressing Lebanon on the subject of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit, for which the Iranian leader reportedly left Tehran this afternoon. This visit is the most freighted one the Middle East has seen in decades. It represents the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary seal being affixed publicly to Lebanon – an egregious display Iran has been wary of mounting until now.
Al-Qaeda is apparently clearer on the import of this visit than the U.S. State Department. An affiliate calling itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigades has issued dramatic threats against the Ahmadinejad visit. These particular warnings may not amount to much, but they’re a reminder that Sunni Salafists will mount a resistance to Iranian triumphalism in Lebanon. That is hardly a comforting thought for Lebanon, Israel, or the larger Middle East. Indeed, it’s a harbinger of how this confrontation will unfold, with Saudi-funded jihadists on one side, an increasingly powerful, Iranian-backed Hezbollah on the other, and Lebanese and Israeli civilians trapped in the middle.
The most significant aspect of this visit is that Iran and Lebanon feel free to stage it. It’s something the U.S. should have stopped. We shower aid of all kinds, including military, on Lebanon. We would have had the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt – as well as France – in persuading Beirut not to do this. We have a clear and urgent interest in preventing Ahmadinejad’s destabilizing antics; this isn’t a meaningless seminar at Columbia U.; it’s a visit affirming the ascendancy of Iran and the Hezbollah terrorists over Lebanon’s political arrangements.
Under these circumstances, the Obama administration should have done better than emit an ineffectual diplomatic bleat at Beirut and then fully offset it with the caveat that “we respect that these are judgments for the Lebanese government to make.” The truth is, they’re not. Lebanon’s recognized government is not even sovereign over all its territory – it never has been – and Lebanese officials have good reason to fear assassination and make deals with outside actors. This is not a situation in which Lebanon should be allowed to make judgments that affect the entire region. Failing to look after U.S. interests in this matter imperils the whole Middle East.