Lebanon and the balance between sovereignty and stability
During the past two years, since the election of General Michel Sleiman to the Presidency in May of 2008, the Lebanese pendulum has been constantly swinging between hope, harmony and stability on one hand and disappointment, anxiety and despair on the other. Lebanese and friends of Lebanon who follow the news and read opinions of analysts and commentators had their attention caught by a number of headlines such as: “The Lebanese are the winners," “Beirut is back...and it's beautiful" "Lebanon: Mid East's most improved democracy" and "Lebanese pursue tolerance and unity"... In the same period disappointing titles also appeared: "Lebanon: A house divided", "Lebanon: The land of lost hope", "Lebanon: Back to square one", "Lebanon held in boxing ring", "Lack of progress on Mid East peace affects Lebanon's stability." These optimistic and pessimistic views were interspersed and alternating and were not part of an improving or deteriorating pattern. While the election of a consensus president and the formation of a “so called national unity government” were important positive steps that triggered genuine relief, most of the country's potential problems have stagnated and remained largely unsolved. Two important questions: one raised in a May 2008 headline: "Lebanon: Reconciliation or Truce?" and the other in August 2008 "Do the Lebanese deserve Lebanon?" remain largely unanswered to date, and remain as legitimate questions today as at the time they were published.
While the Lebanese freedom, liberalism and diversity characteristics that had Pope John Paul II refer to Lebanon as a "message" and not just a country, the constant tensions and instability in the Middle East have hindered progress in crucial areas of the national identity. Since the formation of the Arab League, Lebanon's mission was supposed to be a "commitment to Arab causes and interests on the world scene and neutrality with regard to inter-Arab confrontations and feuds. Unfortunately, multiple factors, internal and external dragged Lebanon into taking sides when Arab divisions occurred. Instead of being mediator or conciliator, Lebanon became battle ground for all kinds of competing or exploding interests or clashes between local Middle Eastern neighbors and/or distant worldwide powers.
The Lebanese have demonstrated impressive successes as individuals, in all fields of life whether in or outside their country. However they have unfortunately had incredible failures in moving Lebanon towards stability and real national identity. There are many reasons, difficulties and circumstances that contributed to such failures. Nevertheless many outside observers have placed most of the blame on the hypocrisy and double talk of many Lebanese politicians, who felt comfortable criticizing various other Arab leaders for such practices, while they were themselves guilty of worse behavior. That resulted in very costly damages to both Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability.
After the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the cedar revolution and the Lebanese dream of a new independence, politicians for a multiplicity of reasons failed to reach new sincere understandings that could have genuinely consolidated national unity. For a long time thereafter we kept hearing of anti-Syrian March 14 and pro-Syrian March 8 groups, with leaders and politicians jumping from one camp to another for reasons frequently related to narrow personalized interests and concerns and not necessarily related to pro or anti Western philosophy or alliance or to friendship or animosity with the Syrian-Iranian axis. While there is still talk of March 14 and March 8 political groups, there is hardly anybody who wants to be anti-Syrian, particularly that Syria's rapport with the US has somewhat improved after the Obama administration made some revisions to the American foreign policy in the Middle East. On the other hand, all the Lebanese regardless whether independent or belonging within the March 14 or 8 groups look at Israel as the official enemy. President Obama, somewhat inspired by his family background, has tried to improve fairness towards the Palestinians. However in the process he snubbed Prime Minister Netanyahu and may have lost the trust of the Israelis and the Jewish lobby in the United States. Thus the prospects for peace appear diminished at this time, but developments on the US political scene, between now and the end of 2010 may open a new unique window for peace in the Middle East. Such possibility may be significantly enhanced by some results in the November elections that appear now to be very likely.
Those of us in the expatriate community who are planning to visit or spend summer in Lebanon know how difficult it is to make reservations for travel and/or hotel reservations. The tourist industry is expecting a fabulous summer season which should really help boost the Lebanese economy and prospective 2010 GDP. Nevertheless there are three subjects of anxiety that are constantly lurking at the horizon.
The first may come due in one to two months and relates to the UN Security Council plans to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. There are still important political differences on this issue inside and outside Lebanon. However, Lebanon's temporary membership in the UNSC puts the country on the spot and a decision has to be made and implemented when the time comes to vote on this matter. It is generally hoped that Lebanon's likely abstention will be understood and accepted by all sides. However what if either side insists in demanding full support from Lebanon to their position? This could be very destabilizing and if it occurs under severe external pressure, where would sovereignty be. There is no easy answer, but let us be optimistic that reason and understanding will prevail and abstention works out and this deadline will pass uneventfully.
The second subject of anxiety is the final list of indictments by the Special International Tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination. This is now projected to be announced towards the end of 2010. A prominent Lebanese politician who was one of the loudest advocates for the Tribunal was recently quoted as saying "We absolutely still want the truth but should not necessarily expect justice." This prompted many to wonder what he may know that the rest of us are unaware of. Everybody knows that originally too many fingers were pointing at Syria without tangible evidence. Now media reports are trying to implicate Hezbollah without presenting the evidence on which the accusations are based. What if the Tribunal comes up with indictments not supported by “convincing evidence”? Could this trigger Sunni-Shia confrontation or a full fledged civil war? We can only hope that whatever indictments the Tribunal produces will be based on absolutely unquestionable evidence and that the Lebanese politicians will be fully prepared to handle and limit any consequences that may result from any Tribunal announcement.
The third and most dangerous subject of anxiety is the possibility of another devastating Israeli war. All indications for now are that a new war this summer serves nobodies' interests. Hezbollah people are Lebanese and constitute an important component of the current government. They know that Lebanon needs a successful tourist season this summer and nobody should do anything to jeopardize the interests of all Lebanese, whether in Beirut, the North or the South. On the other hand, the Israelis know that it will be disastrous for them to attack Iran or Hezbollah without US approval or support. To the best of our knowledge, there is no such approval yet and most of us who may have friends in the US Administration will do all possible to encourage and support a diplomatic solution for the Iranian nuclear problem. An Israeli attack on Iran may trigger Armageddon and Lebanon could become the biggest victim. Intelligent and realistic people know very well that in most wars there are no real winners. There are usually losers and bigger losers. In the 2006 war Hezbollah won a huge moral victory, being the first Arab force to block the Israeli army from advancing and to inflict significant damages to its personnel and equipment. Yet the price that Lebanon had to pay is well known to everybody. Nevertheless the anxiety and concern about a possible new Israeli war is justified because under the Netanyalui leadership nobody can be sure there would not be a "Samsonian complex" that could instigate a disastrous and potentially suicidal anti-Iran, anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah war.
Can Lebanon do anything to protect itself from the consequences of decisions and events outside its control? Lebanon’s leaders should direct their efforts towards two important goals:
First: They should work harder towards “true unity” based on sincere discussions of the divergent opinions and philosophies and work towards concessions by all, to reach a genuine consensus that minimizes the risks for all the Lebanese people.
Second: They should also work harder to reach sincere friendship and brotherhood with Syria. This should not mean to try to be subservient to Syria, a stance the Assad regime has officially rejected and criticized on various occasions. More importantly it should not mean looking for special deals with some corrupt Syrian individuals. We all know that corruption existed in Lebanon since the days of the Ottoman Empire way before the Syrian army entered in the mid seventies. We also know that corrupt people exist to various degrees in Syria, in the United States and in all countries of the world. An idealized quality relation between Syria and Lebanon as sometimes mentioned by President Bashar Assad is a win-win deal for both countries and could turn out to be the best pathway to the strategic choice Syria made in favor of a total and just peace in the Middle East. A sincere understanding with Syria should not be difficult at all after Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited Damascus and had heart to heart talks with President Assad. It can facilitate and boost Lebanon’s stability and national unity without impinging on sovereignty. It presents no risk to Lebanon, since President Assad has always declared his love and support and has offered more official recognition of Lebanon’s independence than any previous regime. He has gone all the way to the point of official diplomatic representation with exchange of Ambassadors. Further, it should be remembered that the concept of sovereignty has evolved immensely in the currently globalized world. Can Mexico exercise its sovereignty ignoring US interests? What happened to small countries such as Panama when President Noriega thought his sovereignty had no limits? How about the Prime Minister of Grenada, when he thought he could welcome elements that presented risks to US security? In a sincere understanding with Lebanon (supported willingly by all Lebanese) Syria can also benefit significantly from the support of many in the Lebanese expatriate community, who can best explain why Syria can not and should not split from its alliance with Iran. They can also remind US leaders that Syria is the most secular of all states in the Middle East with impeccable Arab credentials and that it can be a powerful ally in an effective fight against radical terrorism. Such efforts can further smooth the pathway to further normalization with the Obama administration and can improve Syria’s chances to recuperate its rights in the Golan and may be other areas
Many in the expatriate community continue to hope that the consensus President of Lebanon whose tract record demonstrated cautiousness and moderation, may still be the best suited leader to address the challenges of true Lebanese unity and sincere friendship and brotherhood with Syria. Success in meeting these challenges could help him make important progress in meeting his responsibility to secure Lebanon’s stability, while protecting the country’s sovereignty.
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