The Emerging Crisis in Lebanon

By / 1.13.2011

While the nation’s attention focuses on Tucson, a crisis emerges in Lebanon. Hezbollah, a member of the Lebanese governing coalition since a deal brokered in 2008 by President Michel Suleiman— has pulled out of the government coalition.  The move is in anticipation of the results of the UN-backed inquiry into the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which is expected to find Hezbollah members implicated in his murder. This is the first time a Lebanese coalition government has collapsed under pressure from resignations, a dangerous first in a country that was wracked by a brutal civil war in the 1980s. The ethnic-religious balance of power is precarious in Beirut, with Hezbollah representing the Shi’ite Muslims from the South.

All of this shows the problem with the Bush administration’s reckless democracy promotion in 2005 and 2006. The administration was quick to hold up the rallies in the wake of Hariri’s murder as the best example of the new post-Iraq Middle East, a future filled with democratic pluralism and rule of law. Lebanon “can serve as a great example (to other countries) of what is possible in the Middle East,” President Bush said.

But there was no follow-up, no larger strategy beyond supporting the UN tribunal.

The administration never had a plan for how to make Hezbollah disappear, save for giving Israel time to crush it in the 2006 war. The reality is that Hezbollah has a strong base in parts of the country, making the terrorist group-cum-political party impossible to excise without upending the country’s fragile balance.

Which is why promoting democracy from afar is so difficult. Local actors can always undermine the master plans of outside powers, and people living in any given country often have as much to fear from instability as they do from illiberalism. The Lebanese people seem to want justice. But not at the cost of further bloodshed.

The Obama administration is continuing on this risky path. Secretary Clinton accused Hezbollah of trying to wreck the UN probe by resigning from the government. She is surely correct, but the Iranian-sponsored group is not going to simply back down. And so there is a stand-off of sorts, with the U.S. and its allies on one side, Hezbollah and Iran on the other, and the majority of Lebanese people in the middle.

The worst outcome of all for the U.S. would be more violence. The best bet is to continue with the Syrian-Saudi attempts at mediation, which hopefully can find some solution that allows both sides to save face while preserving stability.