Elisabeth Armstrong: Obama’s ‘gamble’ will affect whole Mideast region

Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013

BEIRUT — Reading the news in Beirut is a different experience from reading it in the United States. My family and I arrived in Lebanon only two weeks ago, ready to start our year in the country teaching at the American University of Beirut and going to school nearby.

People spoke to us about the situation, about how pleased they were to see the faculty from the U.S. joining the institution in the midst of these tensions. Imminent conflict is talked about constantly, but in these muted terms, of “situations” and “tensions.”

But reading the news while here is anything but muted, measured or predictable.

Most media reports I read seem to follow after what I have already experienced or heard. Before President Obama’s speech the weekend before last, Beirut felt as if the attack had already begun. The street of the Hamra district around the university campus had cleared out, with only a few people buying what they needed. The usually crowded streets that I remember from my trip here last May, with their filled cafes and restaurants, had a desolate air.

A drive a few days later in another district, Corinche al-Naher, saw the generally bustling commercial area shuttered. People there said that they were just waiting to see what was going to happen.

In other parts of the city, news is made before it is documented. A political party that supports President Bashar Assad had informally blocked a street, almost like road construction. Its flags announced their headquarters and political intentions. Along a parallel street, some shops flew the national flag of Lebanon. Other streets had other flags.

The marks of civil dispute, muffled since the end of the civil war in 1990, are re-emerging as a consequence of the war in Syria, and threaten to break out if the U.S. attack takes place.

I’m learning to read the news differently, looking at different tools of communication.

When President Obama outlined his intentions Aug. 31, there was a sigh across the city. That sigh lengthened.

What enraged me most was to read the earliest reports of Obama’s call to put a vote for the bombing to the U.S. Congress. The first reports read like gambling notations, giving tips on where to lay one’s bets.

Who wanted what, who didn’t like whom, who could bluff and who could not.

On the other hand, the news of war in Lebanon is immediate, visceral and devastating. The gamble will affect the entire region. It will pull into the conflict forces that have, up until now, stayed apart from the battleground of Syria.

U.S. bombing would mean more force from new and old encampments of war. Bombing means more death of innocent people, more disruption from homes and homelands, more loss of necessary resources for life. Even the U.S. military concedes that this bombing raid is not going to produce a simple result.

The world stands against it, as do most American people. I hope, from Beirut, that our Congress acts with maturity and intelligence.

President Obama is wrong. The choice is not between doing “nothing” or bombing.

Other options remain: Meaningful regional diplomacy, drawing in countries that are eager to solve the Syrian standoff, bringing in adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, bringing in U.S. allies such as Israel and Jordan, bringing in the major powers such as Russia and the United States itself, allowing the United Nations to fulfil the process known as Geneva 2.

All this is possible. It is doing something. If our media imparts news as a cynical display of power, it is complicit with any U.S. response that begins with military force. Other ways are possible. West Asia deserves another way.

Elisabeth Armstrong, professor of Women and Gender Studies at Smith College, is teaching this year at the American University of Beirut.


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