Will the international community abandon Lebanon?

Will the international community abandon Lebanon?

Will the international community abandon Lebanon?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
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.

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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.

But in recent weeks, the Lebanese military—which is supported by the United States—decided to stay on the sidelines rather than clash with Hezbollah militants when Hezbollah demonstrated its power by taking over parts of Beirut. Hezbollah was willing to cave on many political components of the Doha deal. Its main interest and achievement was not in the shuffling of Cabinet seats but, rather, in avoiding any attempt at disarmament of Lebanese factions by the Lebanese state. The international community, knowing full well that Hezbollah will be the most challenging roadblock on the way to a peaceful, democratic Lebanon, was suddenly silenced. A deal is a deal—and if this is what the Lebanese people want, no one will be able to stop them.

This, essentially, is what Jeffrey Feltman, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and until recently the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, said even before the recent crisis was resolved at the Doha talks. About two months ago, Feltman was a guest at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "The international community," he said there, "has been supporting an agenda defined by the Lebanese themselves and not imposed from the outside with the combination of the broad Lebanese domestic desire and the international backing that leads to success." In other words: The Lebanese have to lead—the world will follow.

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This might be the realistic, perhaps even the noble, way of handling a country. The problem is that the decisions the Lebanese have recently made only increase the likelihood that they will eventually be abandoned by the international community. "There is no contradiction between having a foreign policy that looks at Lebanon as Lebanon and also sees how Lebanon fits into our regional calculations," said Feltman. That is true, unless "Lebanon as Lebanon" makes decisions that render it easier for regional forces to meddle in its affairs. Choosing a pro-Syrian president might be such a decision. Avoiding the question of disarmament might be another such decision.

"Hezbollah does not want power over Lebanon, nor does it want to control Lebanon or govern the country," Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed on Monday. Why would he want such a thing? He already has the power he wants—the power of arms. As long as no one tries to confront him, he has no problem letting the government take care of the less important aspects of daily life.

If the Doha agreement proved anything, it is that regional forces are now taking things into their hands, brokering a deal that is far from ideal but that buys some quiet for the time being. The Bush administration will be gone pretty soon; the Israelis and the Syrians have started to talk; Hezbollah can quietly get more arms from Iran via Damascus. All the components for a future that is not much different from the past are in place.

That is, unless the Lebanese people decide to take matters into their own hands. In his Saban Center talk, Feltman described a cable he sent from Beirut just one day before the "March 14" demonstrations swept Lebanon, leading to the withdrawal of Syrian forces and to the most hopeful period in Lebanon's recent history. "So there was nothing at all in my cable of March 13, 2005, about the fact that the following day more than a third of Lebanon's population would turn out in a mass demonstration that changed Lebanon's history," he confessed. Feltman and the international community did not help initiate these demonstrations, nor did they understand the impact they would have.

The one thing the international community could do was to support Lebanon after the fact. That was the case in 2005—and it's the case today. So will Lebanon eventually be abandoned? That's for the Lebanese people to decide.