Will the international community abandon Lebanon?

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May 28 2008 10:18 AM

Will the International Community Abandon Lebanon?

That's for the Lebanese people to decide.

Gen. Michel Suleiman with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. Click image to expand.
Gen. Michel Suleiman with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem

Why Washington welcomed the Doha agreement—the deal that put an end to the political stalemate in Lebanon—is anyone's guess. You can take Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at her word and believe that she believes the agreement is a "positive step toward resolving the current crisis." Or you can assume that was the only option if the United States wanted to see a deal done. The agreement was signed, and Washington had no choice but to pretend that it was a good one.

So much so that Rice's assistant for Middle East affairs, David Welch, felt the need to praise even the most unlikely regimes: "If Syria and Iran have supported that," he said, "then perhaps they will continue to exercise a more constructive role in Lebanon." If he had his fingers crossed behind his back, no one saw. If he winked as he suggested such an improbable outcome, nobody noticed. But Welch knows, as do all the others, that neither Syria nor Iran are suddenly planning to play a "constructive" role in Lebanon. If they support the agreement and the United States also supports it, pretty soon one party is going to look stupid.

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The Doha agreement is a series of mostly bureaucratic measures—necessary in the most complex of systems that is Lebanese politics. One such step was completed Sunday with the elevation of Gen. Michel Suleiman—a Christian relatively close to Syria—to the presidency. A more important component will be tested in the future: There's an understanding that Lebanon will hold elections in 2009—that's assumed to be the main achievement of Lebanon's pro-democracy factions.

So the agreement has achieved its short-term goal—after weeks of clashes in which more than a hundred Lebanese citizens died, a full-fledged civil war was averted. And as for the long term? Maybe there's no such thing in the Middle East—especially when discussing the future of Lebanon.

The Lebanese understand this painful truth better than anyone else. Their deep-rooted mistrust of all the other players in the region—and beyond—is justified, considering circumstances and history. They fear that Lebanon will be the one to pay the price for a regional grand deal. And last week they had an even stronger reason to worry: As Syria and Israel announced the resumption of peace negotiations, the Lebanese could easily foresee that their sovereignty would again be compromised in return for a change in Syria's behavior.

That's one of the reasons the Bush administration was so reluctant to see a resumption of the Syria-Israel talks. In the last couple of years, Washington has changed its attitude toward Lebanon. A country that was mainly seen as a minor player—a chip on the regional trading table—is now a just cause.

President Bush and Secretary Rice have publicly committed themselves to a more democratic Lebanon. (During the 2006 Lebanon War, Rice was ridiculed for stating that the conflict represented "the birth pangs of a new Middle East.") They try to treat Lebanon not as a playing field on which Israel, Syria, and Iran can war with one another in a contained fashion but, rather, as a real country. Sometimes, they seem to believe this even more than the Lebanese themselves do.

President Bush has praised Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on many occasions. "He's a good guy; he's tough, and he's in a really tough situation. I admire him," the president told me in an interview two weeks ago. And Washington even backed its new commitment with action. Over the last two years, it has provided Lebanon with more than $300 million worth of equipment and training.

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