Walid's Wanderings

Reflections on life, good-and-evil, family, humanity, and anything else that occurs to me, usually when I travel. Right now I am on a 6-year trip through Lebanon, the homeland I had never really lived in before.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

If You Love Lebanon, Set It Free

Hear Hear. The titla above, and the article below (apart from the bold references to Shia interests), sounds like it may have been written by a linguistically endowed member of Michel Aoun's inner cirlce. In fact, it was written by "Robert Grenier, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s counterintelligence center" and published in the New York Times today. I assume that pasting a copy here in my blog qualifies as "fair use" given the small readership that I have. If my readeship should suddenly grow, than I can only proffer the excuse that people like Robert Grenier write Op-ed articles in the New York Times to get the biggest possible audeince for a bold idea, and I'm thus on his side if I send it to everyone I know.


Washington

ONCE more, Lebanon is in political crisis. This time, we are told, it pits “Syrian- and Iranian-backed” Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal) and the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun against the “Western-backed” Christian, Sunni and Druze groups that support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These very descriptions — citing one external backer or another as a mark of political identification — illustrate the fundamental problem Lebanon must overcome. Call it the Lebanese Disease: rather than sorting out their differences internally and addressing the fundamental injustices at the heart of their disputes, the Lebanese constantly look to outsiders to gain an advantage over their rivals.

Naturally, any advantages thus gained are short-lived, for both the Lebanese and their foreign backers. In the end, the only result is greater popular suffering and instability in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Only the Lebanese can cure themselves of this disease, but a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the “Western backers” — primarily the United States and France — would greatly help. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best hope for American interests in the Middle East is not to isolate and minimize Hezbollah, but to further integrate it politically, socially and militarily into the Lebanese state.

Let’s dial back half a year, to the start of this latest crisis. The immediate reaction of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel to the cross-border attack by Hezbollah on Israeli troops was his most honest. This was not, he said, an act of terrorism — it was an act of war. And, issues of proportionality aside, it was quite justifiable to hold the Lebanese government to account.

The honesty of that initial reaction, however, was quickly replaced by the old formula to which Israel has resorted since 1978. Israel did not intend to attack Lebanon, its spokesmen insisted, but was just trying to help the Lebanese by attacking Iran-controlled Hezbollah. This was a polite way of saying to Mr. Siniora: We’re going to rid ourselves — and you — of Hezbollah, for which you should be grateful, and you’d better make sure they don’t rise again.

Now let’s try to view this from the perspective of a Lebanese nationalist. To acquiesce to the American-Israeli formula for Lebanon would be to accept that one’s nation should be entirely supine before a neighbor; that any time the Israelis decided to react to a limited provocation or threat, the only defense one could mount would be the tearful pleas of a powerless prime minister.

Thus it should not be surprising that many Lebanese, including Mr. Siniora, at least temporarily put aside their factional mistrust and embraced Hezbollah as the sole available means of national resistance. This, along with Hezbollah’s surprisingly successful resistance, has permanently changed the political calculus of the nation.

For one thing, it is harder today to suggest to Lebanese nationalists that Hezbollah is simply a mindless proxy for the Iranians. Throughout the Middle East, religious extremism and Arab nationalism are becoming identical, with the former becoming the only effective means of pursuing the latter. This is true of the Sunni extremists in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, as well as of the Shiite extremists of Hezbollah in Lebanon, whose resistance to the Israelis, clearly motivated at least in part by a desire to support the Sunni Palestinians, has paradoxically made them a hero of the Sunni Arab street.

Likewise, Hezbollah’s support of the Syrian presence in Lebanon — which should be anathema to any Lebanese nationalist — should be seen less as obeisance to a neighbor than as the cynical price the group must pay to ensure its logistical link with Iran.

As Hezbollah becomes more enmeshed in Lebanese politics, however, domestic political considerations will become increasingly influential in its calculations — a tendency that should be encouraged. Indeed, the closing stages of last summer’s war provided a fleeting opportunity for the Beirut government to gain a greater measure of state control over Hezbollah.

The hardship caused to average Lebanese by its recklessness meant that the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had some explaining to do. He quickly admitted that the raid had been a mistake. And his desire for a cease-fire, gained through the external political engagement of Mr. Siniora, put the prime minister in a relatively strong position to demand Hezbollah’s cooperation in demonstrating that it was being brought under at least the partial control of the state.

On the other hand, the potent demonstration of Hezbollah’s ability to resist Israeli forces gave many Lebanese nationalists, even Sunnis, a new desire to preserve the radical group in the service of all Lebanon.

Given a more farsighted leadership, these two factors could have given the Lebanese an impetus to forge a new political compact for the country. It has long been obvious that the Shiites are under-represented in Lebanon’s complicated power-sharing arrangements. In return for a greater measure of political representation for Shiites, Mr. Siniora could have insisted that Hezbollah’s militia be brought under some sort of state control — perhaps as a sort of home guard for the south, with its fighters under the command of senior officers drawn from the Lebanese armed forces.

This sort of overarching agreement would not have been easy to reach, and it would be naïve to suppose that somehow the Hezbollah leadership would allow itself to be totally stripped of control of its militia overnight. But its involvement in Lebanese politics since the summer has already brought discernible changes in Hezbollah’s attitudes and behavior. Its leaders understand that if they want to influence the policies of the state, they will have to accommodate the interests of other religious groups and political factions. This change of attitude would, over time, undoubtedly have a moderating effect. In sum, if Hezbollah were given a greater stake in Lebanon, it would progressively become more Lebanese.

WHICH brings us back to the barricades now dividing the center of Beirut. All sides are indulging themselves in an orgy of historical recrimination, and stoking fantasies that they can achieve their goals through confrontation. Not only would a civil war be a disaster for all Lebanese, but among the ever-present foreign backers, the United States would lose most.

Tacitly encouraging civil war is seldom wise, and particularly when the side with which one is affiliated cannot win. It should be obvious that American — and Israeli — interests are best served by a unified Lebanese state that has clear control over its people and its territory. We now know that Hezbollah is not going to be eradicated, nor its influence reduced.

So the only way of making the Lebanese government accountable is to encourage the progressive, moderating integration of Hezbollah into the political, social and military fabric of the state.

How could Washington help this happen? Well, for one thing, we should give up talk of greatly enlarging the multinational force in southern Lebanon, and convince the Europeans to do likewise. Fortunately, the plan to insert such a force this fall foundered when the French (wisely) decided they were not up to the task of disarming Hezbollah, although smaller numbers of European troops are apparently headed there soon. It is folly, particularly with lightly armed foreign forces, to try to get regional actors to do things that they see as fundamentally against their interests.

Second is to end the proxy battles between foreign powers. I don’t know what the Americans are telling the Lebanese government privately, but the public statements are disappointing. Last month the White House issued an official statement citing “attempts by Syria, Iran, and their allies within Lebanon to foment instability and violence” and insisting the United States would “continue its efforts with allied nations and democratic forces in Lebanon to resist these efforts.” In other words, we’re still trying to rile Lebanese sentiment as a wedge against our enemies in the region.

A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah’s war-making capacity. Make no mistake: Hezbollah is no friend to America. As a former United States intelligence officer, I know there are a few accounts yet to be settled with that organization. But Washington will never achieve its objectives in the Middle East — including its obligation to ensure Israel’s long-term security — unless it puts emotions aside and deals realistically with facts on the ground. Like it or not, Hezbollah is one of those facts. A less-than-pliable but strong government in Lebanon would be far preferable to no real government at all, which is what we have now.

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