Illusions in Lebanon

Once upon a time a US secretary of state spoke of the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” That’s now the most laughed-at phrase in gravity-defying Lebanon, a country with two armies, a “unity” government too divided to meet, a wild real estate boom and a time bomb called the “international tribunal.”

By Roger Cohen

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Published: Wed 15 Dec 2010, 9:47 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:16 AM

Confused already? Lebanon is not for amateurs. Condoleezza Rice wanted to believe that in the bloodshed of Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah, the militant Shia movement, lay the seeds of a new Middle East – democratic, Hezbollah-free and amenable to US interests. Turns out she was dreaming.

Four years on, Hezbollah is stronger than ever. It has the more powerful of those two armies (the other being the Lebanese armed forces), a presence in government, veto power over Lebanon’s direction, and a leader – Hassan Nasrallah – whose popularity as the proud face of Arab defiance has never been higher.

Dahiye, the Hezbollah-controlled southern Beirut suburb flattened by Israel in 2006, now bustles with construction and commerce, including state-of-the-art juice bars and risqué lingerie stores. It feels about as threatening as New York’s Canal Street.

And America continues to dream, albeit in sobered fashion. Sure, the “new Middle East” has joined “axis of evil” in the diplomatic junkyard. But US policy still involves an attempt to ignore reality.

Hezbollah, Iran-financed and Syrian-backed, has assumed a pivotal role in Lebanese politics. It’s a political party, a social movement and a militia for which the term “terrorist group” is entirely inadequate. It has also become the single most powerful symbol of what is known throughout the Middle East as “the resistance.”

This is an unpalatable truth. It’s also, I suspect, an enduring one. For the United States to shun any contact with Hezbollah amounts to trying to play the Middle Eastern chess game without several pieces. As recent history suggests, that’s a recipe for failure.

A little of that history is in order. The 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s pro-Western Prime Minister Rafik Hariri set off massive protests that saw Syria withdraw its military and rekindled old illusions of a Lebanon firmly in the Western camp.

A United Nations tribunal was set up to investigate the killing amid widespread suspicion of Syrian involvement. A billboard – “The Truth – for the sake of Lebanon” – caught the giddy sense of new beginnings in the land par excellence of foreign meddling. Nobody spoke more about “truth” than Saad Hariri, the slain leader’s son and now himself prime minister.

Everyone, it seemed, was drinking the Kool-Aid. Even Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druse community and the ultimate Middle Eastern survivor, spoke of the “start of a new Arab world,” went anti-Syrian and was a strong advocate of the tribunal. As he’s a Lebanese bellwether, that seemed significant.

Now, over an exquisite lunch in his Beirut villa, I found the twinkly-eyed Jumblatt speaking of the “madness” of that moment, his brief sojourn on “the imperialist side,” his sense that he had “gone too far with the Americans and the Arab moderates,” and his realisation that the survival of his small community depended on taking the familiar road to Damascus.

The Obama administration has been infuriated by Jumblatt’s switch. But it reflects the changing tide. As Nadim Houry, the Beirut director of Human Rights Watch, said: “After what Israel did in July 2006, the United States lost the strategic war.” This was consummated in 2008, when Hezbollah defeated its pro-Western rivals on the streets of Beirut.

A recent meeting between Jumblatt and Jeffrey Feltman, the US assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, did not go smoothly. “He told me I’m a national leader and should back the tribunal,” Jumblatt said. “I said, no, I prefer to be a tribal leader, I’m downgrading! And I asked what the use of tribunal justice is if it leads to slaughter? It’s better to drop justice for stability.”

Jumblatt is flip but shrewd. An indictment from the tribunal is imminent; rumors are rife that it will name Hezbollah members. That could ignite tensions across an explosive sectarian fault line. It would also cast Hariri as Hamlet: heading a government including those accused of murdering his father.

Nasrallah has been multiplying warnings and advancing preposterous – but widely believed – theories of Israeli involvement in the assassination. Hariri has been talking less and less about “truth” and meeting more and more with the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

My sense is the passage of time – as well as bungling and inconsistencies – has rendered justice impossible in the Hariri murder. Lebanese stability is precious and tenuous: It trumps justice delayed, flawed and foreign.

In its way, the delicate balance of Shia and Sunni interests as the Lebanese economy booms and Hezbollah makes deals with Hariri does represent a new Middle East of money-making pragmatism. It’s just not the one the United States wanted or is ready to deal with.

As Houry said, “It’s not either or here. This is not a satellite of Iran. Real liberal instincts endure.” Is anyone listening in D.C.? It’s time to drop either-or diplomacy to address a many-shaded reality.

Roger Cohen writes the Globalist column for the International Herald Tribune

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