Lebanon is mired in a long running and seemingly intractable political crisis. The country has been without a president since November 2007, a reflection of deep-rooted problems in Lebanese politics. Three years after the withdrawal of Syrian troops, Lebanon has become less, not more stable. The United States therefore needs to craft a Lebanon policy that can help ease the country out of its constitutional gridlock. Such a policy would seek to rebuild state capacity and shield Lebanon from negative foreign interventions, respect its internal balance of power, push for the convening of the international tribunal on the murder of Rafiq Hariri and other Lebanese politicians, and continue sponsoring moves towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Lebanon ’s Unending Crisis
Lebanon has been struggling from what appears to be a non-stop crisis since former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut on February 14, 2005. There has been a string of political murders, the heavy cost of conflict with Israel in the summer of 2006, a battle with al-Qa‘ida-inspired terrorists, and relentless internal feuding. The result has been institutional paralysis, economic stagnation, and a political log jam. There have been intermittent episodes of domestic strife akin to the civil war (1975-90).
The crisis has led to an unprecedented political and institutional stalemate. For over a year, the Lebanese government has been under siege from a powerful opposition led by the Shi’i group Hizballah, which is allied with Syria and Iran. The governing coalition, which is anti-Syrian, is endangered by a dwindling parliamentary majority because of the targeted killings of its deputies. The government has vowed not to let Lebanon fall into what it calls the Iranian-Syrian axis. The opposition has pledged to prevent Lebanon from joining what it sees as the U.S. orbit.
Making matters worse, the considerable mistrust among the rival political blocs has prevented the election of a new president. Consequently, Lebanon has been without a head of state since President Emile Lahoud left office on November 23, 2007. Lahoud’s term had already been extended by Syrian fiat in 2004. More than a dozen parliamentary sessions to elect the Lebanese president in parliament have been called off by the speaker of the chamber, Nabih Berri. There is no prospect of a new president anytime soon.
The Domestic Roots of the Crisis
The roots of the crisis in Lebanon are the non-cooperative behavior of Lebanon’s domestic elites and the nature of the country’s power sharing arrangements. These behavioral and structural features of Lebanese politics thwarted any hope of change in the aftermath of Syria’s forced departure from Lebanon in 2005.
Hariri’s killing was followed by the largest demonstration in Lebanese history on March 14, 2005. The massive protest against the Syrian presence was evidence of a groundswell of opinion for national unity and freedom. The March 14, 2005 demonstration was successful and Syrian troops left shortly thereafter.
For a brief period, the momentum for change appeared to be unstoppable. Free parliamentary elections were held in June 2005. In the aftermath of the Syrian withdrawal the winning political bloc, the “March 14” coalition, won handily. For the first time in Lebanese history the result was a government with a clear majority in the council of deputies (72 out of 128 deputies).
These election results were unusual as the Lebanese system makes gaining a majority extremely difficult due to inbuilt checks and balances. Moreover, Lebanese electoral tickets are often formed on a constituency-by-constituency basis following negotiation among local sect leaders. These loose coalitions at the local level have rarely formed cohesive blocs at the national level in parliament. One factor that facilitated the “March 14” bloc’s victory was the gerrymandered electoral law bequeathed by Syria. Lebanese politicians from across the spectrum, and whatever their views of Syria, were happy to operate within the electoral law.
“March 14”: out of steam
The euphoria of the “March 14” bloc’s victory and its hold on the legislative and executive branches did not last. Despite support from the United States and the international community, the “March 14” coalition faced considerable challenges in governing. A key obstacle was the obduracy of the opposition, led by the Shi’i group Hizballah, which quickly rallied. One of the peculiarities of the Lebanese system is that it is consultative to a remarkable extent. As a result, the opposition sits as a separate group in parliament while at the same time has ministers in cabinet. Hizballah took advantage of this by asking the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, to shut parliament’s doors, refusing to attend cabinet sessions and then by putting its supporters on the street.
Still the governing coalition was also the author of some of its own misfortunes. Led by Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered former Prime Minister, the “March 14” bloc also thwarted the aspirations of all Lebanese calling for a free, democratic and sovereign Lebanon through internal feuding and its inability to come to an accommodation with the opposition. Arguably Lebanese politicians would have had a better shot at averting the present political crisis had their concept of change been more calmly and effectively negotiated. In particular, instead of politics as usual, they could have sought change under the framework of “no victor no vanquished,” thereby giving every political force a stake in the new system, and “no compromises whatsoever on the issue of Lebanese sovereignty and independence,” which would have considerably helped distance all factions from external backers.
Instead, the promise of change became a political bludgeon that the governing coalition and the opposition used against each other. For the governing coalition, change meant first and foremost ridding Lebanon of any remaining traces of Syrian influence, jumpstarting economic reforms in line with the prescriptions of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), promoting a UN tribunal to bring Hariri’s killers to justice and closer relations with Washington and its Arab allies.
To advance this ambitious agenda, however, the “March 14” coalition needed to retain an upper hand over executive decision making. Unsurprisingly, the governing coalition refused to grant the opposition any veto power in the cabinet. Such an approach, in the eyes of the opposition, went against the historical Lebanese practice of consensus politics, the cornerstone of Lebanon’s often fragile political stability.
The opposition: united at home, divided abroad
The opposition was able to turn the governing coalition’s attitude against it, making Saad Hariri and his allies appear to be opponents of reform (which is not true). According to the opposition, the “March 14” approach of a strong executive under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was a violation of the spirit of the Ta’if agreement of 1989 that ended the civil war. Indeed, the Hizballah-dominated opposition was able to coalesce around its desire to overturn the political status quo which it views as corrupt, illegitimate, and discriminatory.
Unlike its domestic stance, the opposition does not have a unified foreign policy agenda. Hizballah is keen to maintain its strategic relationships with Syria and Iran, its weapons and its “resistance” option, even if it tarnishes its Lebanese nationalist credentials. Hizballah’s stance puts its Christian ally, Michel Aoun, and his Free Patriotic Party, in a difficult position. Aoun had fought a bloody war against Syria in 1989-90 that ended in his defeat and exile. He now says that he is against all foreign intervention in Lebanon: U.S., Syrian, or Iranian. After returning from exile, Aoun signed a document of understanding with Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah in February 2006. Aoun now finds himself trying to reconcile his vision for an independent Lebanon with his alliance to Hizballah, a party whose ties to Syria compromise any hope of Lebanese independence.
Squaring the internal circle
One of the better approaches for dealing with the domestic aspects of the current crisis is to promote pluralism in the Shi’i community. This involves a potentially feasible short-term approach of pushing apart Lebanon’s Shi’i political groups; and a more ambitious, difficult, and long-term strategy of politically distancing the Shi’i community from Hizballah. In the short-term, the governing coalition could promote a political divorce between Amal, the lesser but more secular of Lebanon’s Shi’i parties, and Hizballah, the dominant but fundamentalist party among the Shi’ah and the driving force of the Lebanese opposition. This will be difficult to achieve because the crisis has encouraged Lebanese to instinctively side with their co-religionists and because Amal’s association with Hizballah has in fact increased its political standing.
The longer-term approach will be difficult and time consuming to implement. Hizballah is deeply rooted in Lebanon’s Shi’i community. Moreover, the onus is on the governing coalition. Lebanon’s Shi’i are extremely sensitive to how they are treated by the Lebanese state, a legacy of decades of neglect. Most Shi’ah have unconditionally supported Hizballah because the group offers them social services and a political voice not available from the state or the governing coalition.
Providing the Shi’ah with an alternative to Hizballah will require implementing some of the reforms called for in the 1989 Ta’if agreement. These reforms will impose political costs on some parts of the governing coalition. Changes would include: the decentralization of administration and municipalities, the creation of a bicameral legislature with the lower house holding the legislative initiative and an upper house to represent communal interests, a new electoral law (to more fairly represent the popular vote and end the gerrymandered constituency system), and a stronger, independent judiciary. The abolition of political sectarianism, while essential to the future of liberal democratic politics in Lebanon, is not a realistic goal in the near term (a gradual process is a more stable and desirable path).
The Syrian obstacle
The continued negative interference of Syria in Lebanese domestic politics makes resolving the domestic crisis even more daunting. Syria has not left Lebanon quietly. Instead, Syria has obstructed the introduction of any serious reforms in Lebanon and has for years systematically eliminated its political enemies in Lebanon and cruelly silenced Lebanese voices calling for change and freedom from Syrian rule. Lebanon’s democracy and its foreign policy orientation directly affect Syrian national security. Damascus has been very clear that it will resort to any measure to regain its lost influence over Lebanon. The Syrian regime will also seek to impede any attempt by the UN tribunal to find the killers of Rafiq Hariri, whose murder the Syrian regime is strongly suspected of committing.
Regional and International Ramifications
As Syria’s continued involvement demonstrates, Lebanon’s domestic political crisis has an important regional and international dimension. While Arab League and European diplomatic initiatives have foundered, foreign actors, with the exception of Syria, have actually helped prevent rather than provoke a serious escalation in internal Lebanese tensions.
Wedged between Israel and Syria, Lebanon’s crisis is part of the broader struggle for influence between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and Iran, Syria and their proxies on the other. Regional tensions between Saudi Arabia (the strongest Arab sponsor of the governing coalition) on the one hand, and Syria (Hizballah’s strategic ally) on the other also play a role.
Although the governing coalition and the opposition routinely accused the other of arming and training for a possible confrontation, regional forces are working against a new Lebanese civil war. The most important factor here is the tacit agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to prevent a Sunni-Shi’i clash in Lebanon. Both countries fear that this could be transformed into a regional war along the lines of what has occurred in Iraq.
A civil war would cost Hizballah its status
This fear of the broader ramifications has fed down to these two countries’ Lebanese allies. The most militarized party in Lebanon, Hizballah, appears to be taking a more determined stance against conflict as its influence increases. This might appear counterintuitive, as renewed conflict could work in Hizballah’s favor on a local level. What is restraining Hizballah is that it would lose its symbolic status in the region as an Arab and Islamic resistance movement against Israel once it turns its guns on fellow Lebanese and starts a civil war.
The Lebanese and the region know a civil war is a loser for all sides
On a psychological level, all sides know that the logic of war is unconvincing. In April 1975 the Lebanese warring parties firmly believed that a war would produce a victor and a vanquished (they were wrong). In 2008, by contrast, the leaders of Lebanon’s rival political blocs appear to understand that a war would be lose-lose scenario. Regional actors, with the exception of Syria, have a similar perspective.
The Lebanese Army has also proved to be a buffer separating a politically tense Lebanon from the devastation of a new civil war. For the most part the army has acted to deter major and potentially uncontrollable outbreaks of violence.
While the regional and security factors have contained conflict, they are no cause for complacency. There are limits on the extent to which the governing coalition and the opposition can control their followers. As the opposition’s popular demonstrations in recent months have demonstrated, street politics are volatile and can acquire a life of their own. In Lebanon’s stateless society, the smallest external provocation or internal miscalculation can easily cause violence to spiral out of control.
Needed: A Different U.S. Policy
The United States needs to have a Lebanon policy that contributes to Lebanese state building rather than simply deny the country to U.S. adversaries. A collapse of the Lebanese state and a renewed civil war would have a deleterious affect on U.S. regional allies, in particular Israel, but also Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In a similar vein, were Lebanon to fall into the hands of Iran and Syria, this could tilt the regional balance of power against the United States and its allies.
On the positive side, Lebanon is a highly successful example of U.S. soft power projection in the Middle East. The cumulative impact of such U.S.-sponsored institutions and programs, such as the prestigious American University of Beirut, are too often underestimated. These bodies, and the connections that they have created, have served as important gateways for American ideas and values to reach the wider Arab and Muslim world. In addition, the Lebanese tradition of free market enterprise, democratic politics and religious-cultural diversity offer an alternative to the prevailing authoritarianism of most Arab League states. Nurturing the Arab world’s most open and free society should be a U.S. interest.
Lebanon need not be a costly theater for the United States
The problem for the United States is that its experiences in Lebanon have more often than not been unrewarding due to U.S. blunders and miscalculations. The U.S. intervention of 1958, when U.S. Marines landed at the request of Lebanese President Kamil Chamoun proved to be a misleading exception. The 1958 deployment was brief and without substantial cost.
The U.S. intervention of 1982 was influenced by its precedent in 1958. The United States soon discovered that the context was entirely different. In 1958 Lebanon had been threatened by internal dissent and the ambitions of Syria and Egypt. In 1982 it was a cockpit of warfare, with an Israeli invasion force besieging Palestinian fighters in Beirut, a bruised but powerful Syrian force in the Beka’a valley and dozens of separate armed Lebanese factions already embroiled in lethal contests. The cost to the United States is well known: 283 U.S. Marines were killed and dozens of U.S. nationals were kidnapped and murdered.
Lebanon as a bargaining chip
After the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984, Washington’s attitude was that Lebanon was tradable in the broader sweep of U.S. diplomacy. To secure Syrian participation in the international coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the United States acquiesced in Syria’s policy towards Lebanon. Benefiting from Washington’s decision to turn a blind eye, Syria launched a large and successful military offensive against Aoun’s anti-Syrian government in East Beirut, forcing his capitulation.
Using Lebanon to punish Syria
The value of Lebanon started to change in 2000-2001. This change in attitude evolved as a consequence of the death of Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad in 2000, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the installation of an ideological administration in Washington bent on pursuing an aggressive strategy of democracy promotion and social engineering in the Middle East, and Syria’s role in destabilizing Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Finally, there was the assassination of Hariri in February 2005 in which Syria was implicated.
Lebanon is at the heart of the Bush administration’s Middle East democracy promotion strategy. But for the United States, Lebanon is also the perfect battlefield for settling scores with its adversaries, namely Iran and Syria. As such, Lebanon is where U.S. idealism and realpolitik meet and often conflict. The result is a shattered country torn between two divergent trends of U.S. foreign policy.
Washington treated Damascus’ suspected role in killing Hariri, a U.S. ally and very close friend of Saudi Arabia, as a threat to its interests in the region. The U.S. administration therefore set out to punish Syria. The United States pushed to isolate Syria regionally and internationally, most notably by sponsoring three United Nations Security Council Resolutions (1559, 1701, and 1757) calling on Syria to stop meddling in Lebanese internal affairs. Washington also took bilateral action with presidential executive orders against Syrian government officials.
From denial to support
While U.S. diplomatic initiative, especially at the United Nations, has played an important role in supporting the Lebanese government, U.S. policy has now reached its limits. U.S. policy is having little effect.
Like most of the regional and international players, the United States supports the “March 14” coalition against Syria through diplomatic and economic means while seeking to prevent any military confrontation with Syria. In many ways, the current U.S. stance is a policy of denial, denying Lebanon to Syria but with little hope of promoting a resolution to Lebanon’s internal crisis. The danger of such a policy is that it hands the political initiative to Syria and its allies in Lebanon who can win by waging a gradual war of attrition.
Instead, Washington should craft its policy to support the Lebanese state, not to promote partisanship and political parties. Washington should continue to provide technical and military assistance to Lebanon in its pursuit of democracy consolidation and military modernization, such as by building up the Lebanese Armed Forces. Always stressing transparency and local ownership, U.S. efforts should focus more on inclusive programs such as strengthening the capacity of the Lebanese state as a whole in developing and supporting institutions that are responsive and accountable to all Lebanese citizens.
Similarly, U.S. officials should engage with those in official positions. While it is understandable that politicians belonging to the “March 14” coalition, who are physically threatened by Syria, should seek close personal partnerships and “bonding” with U.S. officials, this provides little benefit to the United States. (Of course, leaders of the opposition do not hide their partnership with Syrian and Iranian officials either). Instead, Washington should avoid becoming embroiled in Lebanon’s labyrinthine politics and its delicate communal balance of power, as the result is more likely to be the destabilization than the consolidation of Lebanon. This is not to suggest a hands-off policy—as this would naturally invite unchecked Syrian and Iranian intervention in Lebanon—but rather to recommend an approach that limits or denies as much as possible whatever rationale or pretext Syria and Iran may have for intervening in Lebanese politics.
By engaging with the government and by building state capacity, the United States can avoid being seen as playing sectarian favorites in Lebanon. After all, a key structural handicap for the U.S. government is its strained relationship with one of Lebanon’s largest communities (and now with its allies): the Shi’ah. Most Shi’ah support Hizballah, which the United States labels a terrorist organization. A policy of supporting the Lebanese state, rather than blindly supporting sect leaders and politicians belonging to the “March 14” coalition, can mitigate that handicap.
Protecting Lebanon from the Middle East
At the same time, the United States needs to shield Lebanon from the volatility of the broader regional struggle. U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations is just one aspect of such an approach. Not using Lebanon as a means of punishing Syria is another aspect. This does not mean, as some have suggested, abandoning or compromising on the UN tribunal to try the murderers of Hariri and other Lebanese politicians. Instead, the United States should push for the tribunal’s rapid installation. Once the tribunal is created and is a functioning, independent, and international legal institution, it is less easily treated as a bargaining chip in international diplomacy.
Finally, Washington has to continue sponsoring a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The peace process, which is not in the best of shape at present, will take many years. Any process that promises a fair solution to the Palestinian refugee issue (Lebanon has a large Palestinian refugee problem), that promotes an end to the Israeli occupation of the Sheba’a Farms and that releases Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails will bolster the Lebanese state.
Lebanon’s crisis is unfortunately not about to end soon. Promoting regional diplomacy that insulates Lebanon from the region’s conflicts and protects it from Syria is a good start.