Thursday, June 28, 2007

Washington's Obsesssion with Lebanon's Hezbollah

East Meredith, New York, June 28, 2007



The politicians of Lebanon are doing their thing again: pushing their country further into a “failed state” position. While the country is falling apart the warlords of this republic argue ceaselessly about when and how to strengthen Hezbolla’s role in Lebanese governance, a measure that would reflect its constituency. There is consensus that Hezbollah is to stay intact as a party retaining its militia. This obsessive Byzantine circular exchange between the two sides reflects poisonous lack of trust. The government wants Hezbollah diminished and Hezbollah wants the government handcuffed. Cues for politicians’ posturing come from outside the country.

The official Lebanese army remains the only hope of future national unity. But this poorly armed army continues to bleed as it struggles with a ruthless Fateh-al-Islam insurrection in a camp that houses angry and neglected Palestinian refugees. The FAI is a mixed group of Sunni anarchists that include Palestinians, Lebanese and other Al-Qaeda inspired Arabs. In the northern city of Tripoli, and elsewhere, security is deteriorating. In the south the international peace forces have just lost six of their soldiers to an FAI related attack.

As Fateh-al Islam’s mayhem spreads from the north of the country to the south, from inside the camp to outside it and from the Lebanese army to the United Nation’s peace force, Riad and Paris, now look pragmatically at the Hezbollah led opposition. Do they see the potential of Hezbollah’s as a protective agency for a rapidly disintegrating state?

Lebanon invited Amro Musa last week, Secretary General of the Arab League, to resolve a seven months old crisis. Not surprisingly, and not for the first time, The General Secretary failed in his mission after four intensive days of shuttle mediation. Ambassador Musa’s position seemed closer to the government side than to the opposition.

Hezbollah and its allies retain a popular base in several regions of the country. The majority of Shiites(roughly 30% of Lebanon’s population), about a third of the Christians and a minority of (Arab national) Sunnites rally behind Hezbollah. Even some of those who dislike Hezbollah respect its leader, Sheik Hasan Nasrallah.

Opponents of Hezbollah in Lebanon are concerned about its religio-political subculture. They ask the obvious question: will Hezbollah turn fundamentalist in the future? There is no verifiable answer to this speculation. In practice, since its inception in 1983, this movement has been national in scope, welfare oriented in policy and respectful of other minorities. After the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, Hezbollah did not take revenge against the South Lebanese Army, a former Christian militia that fought along the side of Israel against the Shia south border community. Currently Hezbollah allies itself with Aoun’s party whose constituency is secular and Christian.

Local politics is only one part of the story of Lebanon. To a certain extent Beirut politics is a pantomime; the voices of local leaders are significantly muted by external mechanisms from the East and the West. Ambassador Musa could have gone to Washington, Paris and Riad and then to Damascus and Tehran to negotiate Lebanon’s crisis. The US, France and Saudi Arabia support and finance the current Lebanese cabinet while Syria and Iran support and finance the Hezbollah-led opposition.

Lebanon’s instability invites Israel’s intervention. Israel regularly tramples on Lebanon’s soil and penetrates its skies. A million unexploded Israeli cluster bombs remain on Lebanese territories from the 2006 war. Cluster bombs are a form of continued Israeli “occupation”. The 400 000 Palestinian refugees carry arms in their camps. The Lebanese army is barred from entrance to refugee camps. Hezbollah’s reluctance to disarm is not simply an act of defiance.

For many, Hezbollah provides at least four major benefits: social services, a second tier national security, screening for political corruption and a moderating influence on rapid Westernization. Its opponents remain unimpressed; they worry about a Lebanon with a culture of militias as they reflect on their bloody civil war history. They also fear that the Shia community seeks to compensate military strength for its marginal socio economic status.

Despite significant Lebanese support the US and Israel are highly mobilized to defeat Hezbollah. There is unconfirmed evidence, (Seymour Hirsh reporting) that FAI received financial support from Lebanese and US government sources to position this group as a shield against the (Shiite) Hezbollah.

The Administration’s enmity to Hezbollah is not serving the country. Riad and Paris, America’s close partners in Lebanon have observed that Al-Qaeda cells, such as Fateh-al-Isalm, are destabilizing both to Lebanon and to the region. This fundamentalist insurrection has caused France and Saudi Arabia to soften their stand on Hezbollah.

It is counterproductive for the US to orient its foreign policy in Lebanon around isolating and dismantling Hezbollah. The US rationale for targeting Hezbollah is the protection of the sovereignty of Lebanon and the security of Israel. It may be true that in principle, militias interfere with state sovereignty. It is also a regrettable fact that Hezbollah provoked a disastrous war with Israel last summer. But Lebanon is a weak state in a dangerous region; it has always lived with a power sharing (sectarian) handicap. Despite its social modernity, politically “Loubnan” has always been a co-habituation of religious tribes. This precarious republic has always lacked state sovereignty and faced danger on its borders.

Al-Qaeda’s recent penetration in Lebanon through the FAI and similar anarchist groups is lethal. Lebanon needs all its indigenous resources mobilized and coordinated to cope with the external threats that are rapidly becoming internal structures. If treated as an asset Hezbollah may fulfill positive expectations. Washington’s obsession with Hezbollah is not justified if the intention is to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty or Israel’s security. Are there are better ways for Washington to achieve those two goals of merit? Indeed: revive the peace process and change the paradigm of foreign policy.

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