This article by Peter Berkowitz in the Weekly Standard brings us up to date on the situation in Lebanon, where an election was held in June, but a new government is only now being formed. In the election, a moderate, pro-Western, pro-democracy coalition — led by Saad Hariri, son of the linfluential anti-Syria eader whose death by car bombing in 2005 sparked the “Cedar Revolution” — exceeded expectations and obtained a small parliamentary majority. The overriding issue, according to Peter, was “whether Lebanon would submit to Hezbollah and the political authority of Syria and Iran, or build a free and democratic state.”
Although the voters opted for the latter alternative, the winning coalition was unable to form a government for five months because Hezbollah blocked it — formally, by means of the powers it obtained through the Doha Agreement (a deal reached after Hezbollah forces took over Beirut in 2008), and informally, through threats and intimidation. But the stalemate has finally been broken, at least for now, by the formation of a “national unity government” in which 2 of the 30 ministerial portfolios will go to Hezbollah politicians.
Conventional wisdom holds that Israel is the key to undermining Hezbollah’s influence. The idea is that if the Israelis would only abandon the small strip of land they control in Southern Lebanon (Shebaa Farms) and negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state, Hezbollah would lose its status as the heroic resistance.
It’s a convenient analysis inasmuch as it relieves the Lebanese of responsibility for their own fate, but Peter rejects it. In his view, “resistance does not refer merely to armed struggle against Israel’s occupation of this or that piece of land, or even the battle against Israel’s very existence, but a fight to the death against the claims of liberty and democracy in Lebanon and throughout the region in the name of Islamic law as dictated by the Iranian mullahs.”
What should the United States do?
First, the Obama administration can stop encouraging the widespread view, rooted in decades of pan-Arab rhetoric, that the key to Middle East peace is solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians should be assiduously pursued, but to suppose that the absence of a final agreement between them is what stands in the way of security and stability in the Middle East is to play into the hands of Arab governments that cynically use the conflict to shift their people’s attention from their own countries’ internal failings and destabilizing ambitions.
Second, the United States can expand programs to support civil society in Lebanon, particularly K-12 education, and also economic development, particularly in the south, since one way to loosen Hezbollah’s grip is to enable the Lebanese government to better provide the social services and financial support that, thanks to Iranian financing, Hezbollah now delivers.
Third, the administration can redouble efforts to degrade Iran’s ability to deliver cash and transfer funds electronically to Hezbollah.
Fourth, it can place at the heart of engagement with Syria an insistence on cutting off the enormous flow of ammunition, machine guns, bombs, rockets, and missiles that Iran pumps through Damascus to southern Lebanon.
But ultimately, the future of Lebanon depends “most of all on crafting strategies to thwart Tehran’s export of Islamic revolution” which, in the near term “depends most of all on thwarting Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons.”