Bush has gotten it right in Lebanon.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 25 2005 11:36 AM

Under Western Eyes

Bush has gotten it right in Lebanon.

Saadeddine Hariri, son of slain former prime minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri. Click on image to enlarge.
Saadeddine Hariri, son of slain former prime minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri

Several weeks ago, during a debate in Lebanon's parliament, a Maronite Christian parliamentarian from the heartland launched a tirade against Syria. The speaker of parliament, a favored minion of Damascus, demanded that the offending words be stricken from the record. The parliamentarian turned to him, and in a high rustic twang, asked, "Why are you so scared? They're leaving."

They were indeed, and as Lebanon this weekend begins an election that will take place on four consecutive Sundays, it has embarked on a process of rejuvenation that has at several levels involved the international community, particularly the United States. Those who accuse the Bush administration of incompetence in the Middle East because of events in Iraq may soon have to temper that with an assessment of its shrewder behavior in Lebanon.

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Lebanon is today under de facto international trusteeship, and the mainstays of that order, ironically, correspond to what the Bush administration's critics would have regarded as ideal in Iraq: The United Nations is involved; the United States and the Europeans are reading from the same songbook; the administration has not used military force; and a heinous crime may one day be punished. Most important, change came through a combination of outside and domestic pressures, so even compulsive foes of U.S. unilateralism might approve.

The multilateral approach to a Syrian withdrawal was initiated in September 2004 when the United States and France co-sponsored Security Council Resolution 1559 demanding Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarmament of all militias—implicitly Hezbollah and Palestinian groups. The resolution was ignored by Syrian President Bashar Assad, who until early this year believed, disastrously, that it was merely a ploy to force Syria to bend to U.S. demands in Iraq.

Once former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed on Feb. 14, implementation of the resolution became an international priority. Syria was held responsible for the murder, and an American and French ultimatum, a Saudi threat, Egyptian displeasure, and a month of mass demonstrations inside Lebanon forced Assad to order his troops home. Hardly a shot was fired, and while a series of mysterious bomb blasts went off in Beirut's suburbs, they only isolated Syria further, though it was never quite clear who was behind the explosions.

Meanwhile, the United Nations investigated Hariri's murder. A preliminary report blamed Syria and the Lebanese security services for the political climate leading up to the death, strongly implied they were directly responsible, and accused the Lebanese authorities of engaging in a cover-up. The United Nations will begin a broader inquiry within weeks and has a three- to six-month deadline to report on its findings. In an unheard-of development in the Middle East, several Lebanese intelligence and security chiefs suspected of involvement in or responsibility for the crime were forced to resign thanks to a perfect storm of national and foreign outrage.

The third instance of international involvement has been more ambiguous but no less significant. The law governing Lebanese parliamentary elections, a gerrymandered mishmash prepared by the Syrians for the 2000 poll, has provoked divisiveness. However, the U.S. and French embassies, as well as the United Nations, have played a key role in persuading Lebanon's politicians and religious leaders to avoid delaying elections until after a better law could be passed. The reason is that no accord might soon ensue. As one diplomat told me, "We have evidence this process would be delayed indefinitely [by Syria's local allies], allowing Damascus to reimpose a measure of control."

The election will be a triumph for the Hariri movement, now led by Rafik Hariri's son, Saadeddine. He, too, benefited from international deal-making, having been "appointed" in April by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to lead the family. The Saudi prince also furnished international legitimacy by having Saadeddine meet French President Jacques Chirac and U.S. President George W. Bush on the margins of the prince's own meetings. The young Hariri will probably be Lebanon's next prime minister, giving the Saudis a new "strong Sunni" in Beirut, even as they look warily at Iraq's Shiite resurrection.

The fourth example of international involvement, and the thorniest, is disarming Hezbollah. For the moment, the party refuses to hand over its weapons and is trying to use a variety of means, including the forthcoming elections, to further anchor itself into Lebanon's political system. Getting Hezbollah to accept Resolution 1559 will take time and threats, but also flexibility. To be successful, the international effort must dovetail with domestic endorsement of the effort. Most Lebanese want to see an unarmed Hezbollah, but they don't want violence to be used to achieve this.

In 1982, after Israel's invasion, Lebanon also benefited from international assistance to help it back on its feet. This effort turned into a debacle after the October 1983 suicide bombing against a U.S. Marine base in Beirut. The United States withdrew because Lebanon wasn't seen as being worth the cost. Things have changed. With Iraq a lasting headache, President Bush wants post-Syria Lebanon to get it right so he can show that peaceful, U.S.-assisted democratic change in the Middle East works. Some critics deem this a new form of hegemony. Nonsense. The Lebanese recall that international indifference is what pushed them into Syria's suffocating arms in the first place.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, which the Wall Street Journal listed as one of its 10 standout books for 2010.