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In Lebanon, Peace Is Not at Hand

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<i> Augustus Richard Norton is the permanent associate professor of comparative politics at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, and the author of "Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon" (University of Texas Press, 1987)</i>

While the American public turns its attention to the Bush-Dukakis contest, there is another presidential campaign under way in a most unlikely and unnoticed setting--Lebanon. The outcome should help decide whether civility will return to Lebanon, or whether the people of Lebanon will continue to be governed by the AK-47 and the car bomb. Even under the best possible circumstances, though, there will be no miraculous advent of peace, but only the slim chance that a corner may be turned to set the Lebanese on a long and difficult path of reconciliation.

The words Lebanese election must seem like an oxymoron to Americans who no longer think of Lebanon as a state but merely as a place, a nest for terrorists and other assorted vermin who kidnap, hijack and kill innocents. The familiar sinister and grisly images of Lebanon as an anarchic slaughterhouse are just long-distance echoes of the explosions and shootings that punctuate daily life there with such regularity that outrage and compassion have been numbed, both in Lebanon and abroad. Violence has become such an expected part of the Lebanese scene that one American television network newsman has described it as an example of a “non-story.”

Yet we hardly need experts to tell us that the majority of the Lebanese are impatient for the nightmare to end. There is now a marked public disdain for the militias that man the omnipresent checkpoints, interdict productive economic activity, prosper through extortion and criminality, and subvert civility as a matter of course. But, disdain or not, the militias have a stake in the existing system--with its bounty of profits from illicit drugs, extortion and subsidies--and they still have the guns.

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The incentives that promote the enlistment of many poor youths into the militias are not hard to understand. For uneducated youths living in wretched conditions, the attraction is the same that draws young men into street gangs in American cities: It’s a way of asserting your identity, protecting your “turf” and earning money, all at the same time. The militias are not populated by thoughtful, idealistic revolutionaries who, if they laid down their arms, might pursue a range of career alternatives. Most of the rank-and-file militia members have no job alternatives, no skills save surviving a life of violence and poverty.

The continuing pattern of paroxysmal violence will end only when the balance of coercive power is no longer held by the gunman. And that halcyon moment will be realized only if the states that contend for influence within Lebanon can be brought to agree on a future that presumes the supremacy of the Lebanese state.

Notwithstanding the meddlesome role that Iran has been playing in Lebanon, the two major regional players are Syria and Israel. It is obvious that without their assent, decisive progress is unlikely. Both states have seen their grand ambitions thwarted in Lebanon. It now remains to be seen whether they can reach a mutually beneficial, if indirect, agreement to see civility return to Lebanon.

This all adds up to yet another reason why the United States cannot afford to remain aloof from the problems of the Middle East. Even as the attention of the American public is focused on the turbulent Persian Gulf, American diplomacy must strive to seize even a small chance to attenuate the disorder in Lebanon. There is ample and painful evidence that the violence will not soon abate on its own, nor will Lebanon disappear in one ultimate spasm of self-destruction. Instead, the country will continue to be a dangerous and unpredictable epicenter of regional instability.

Quiet American mediation efforts that were centered on Beirut and Damascus, which began in 1987 but are now stalled, must be restarted. Moreover, only the United States has the diplomatic wherewithal to promote a dialogue between Israel and Syria that aims at returning civility to Lebanon.

Obviously, civility will be trampled if the Lebanese fail to renovate their defective political system. Whoever emerges from the long list of presidential candidates to replace President Amin Gemayel must foster and sustain political reform and reconciliation, but he will be able to do so only if the proper groundwork has been laid both internally and regionally. This means that assenting nods of both Syria and Israel must be obtained, but the new president must be the pliant client of neither.

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If the election, which is to be held in the Lebanese Parliament on Thursday, is not thwarted by the Lebanese themselves, or by the Syrians or the Israelis, there is a slim--very slim--chance for Lebanon. In the right hands the country’s presidency could stand as a symbol against fragmentation and partition. The new president might even be able to exploit the growing public consensus that favors a program of demobilizing, if not disarming, the widely criticized militias. If the Lebanese Parliament fails to elect a new president, one of the last vestiges of the state will evaporate and the fiction of the state--a weak fiction, to be sure--may disappear from view. Then we can only hold tight for a further descent into pandemonium.

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