Lebanon, at peace, braces for war


The Middle East has no shortage of conflicts to worry the rest of the world: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians. And now, add an old trouble spot to that list: Lebanon.

On the one hand, Lebanon’s economy grew by a dizzying 9% last year, the strongest pace of any country in the region. Its feuding religious and political factions have joined in a power-sharing agreement that seems stable. And it’s even selling itself, with some success, as a chic destination for European and American tourists.

But as I discovered on a visit to Beirut last month, the Lebanese are certain all this good fortune can’t last. They’re convinced -- not without reason -- that the confrontation between the U.S. and Iran will spill over into another war between Israel and Lebanon.


Just inside Lebanon’s southern border, where Israel and the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah went to war in 2006, Iran and its ally, Syria, have been helping Hezbollah rearm. The radical militia, which runs southern Lebanon as its own mini-state, reportedly has obtained Iranian-made missiles that can reach Tel Aviv, and Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has promised to strike at Israel at a time and place of his choosing.

Israel isn’t taking the threat lightly; its pugnacious foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, recently warned that Israel might use the next war to try to topple Syria’s authoritarian regime.

For all the saber-rattling, both sides are still being careful at this point. There have been no recent cross-border raids, no errant missiles from either side. The Lebanese government has complained about Israeli overflights, but its troops haven’t shot anything down. But this delicate equilibrium could easily be upset.

If Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Lebanese believe Hezbollah will respond by starting a war on Israel’s northern border.

Alternatively, if the U.S. and its allies impose tough sanctions on Iran, as the Obama administration wants, that could lead to war too: Iran could push Hezbollah to start a fight merely to entangle the West in another costly, distracting crisis.

It’s not just the Lebanese who are worried. In a speech earlier this year, Obama’s national security advisor, retired Marine Gen.

James L. Jones, noted that “when a regime is feeling pressure . . . it often lashes out through its surrogates -- including, in Iran’s case, Hezbollah in Lebanon. . . . As pressure on the regime in Tehran builds over its nuclear program, there is heightened risk of further attacks against Israel.”

Lebanon’s fragile domestic political system doesn’t seem capable of preventing the larger forces around it from starting a war. The Cedar Revolution -- the popular uprising that sought to turn Lebanon into a Western-oriented democracy after the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- has stalled over the last couple of years. It succeeded in forcing Syria to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 and in holding free elections in 2005 and 2009. But it seems to have met its match in Hezbollah, which has enough muscle on the ground to maintain its own military alliances with Syria and Iran whether the government in Beirut likes it or not.

Lebanon’s government today is an ungainly coalition led by Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri. (In Lebanon, even democratic parties are dynastic.) The Cabinet includes Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian factions, and they hold veto power over major decisions. Last month, Hariri quietly made peace with the man who probably ordered his father’s assassination, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“It was necessary,” Hariri told me in an interview. “It contributed to stability.”

Once, Hariri’s movement was mostly about political reform; now, hemmed in by Syria and Hezbollah, it is focusing on stability and economic growth instead.

Democratic political reform gets lip service, but it’s on a back burner. Lebanon’s political structure is as traditional as it’s ever been: Government jobs are allocated by religious sect. If a revolution is under way, it’s a revolution of lowering expectations.

Obama is still backing Lebanon’s government with military aid and offering “engagement” to Syria as he has to Iran. The United States is sending an ambassador to Damascus this year for the first time since the elder Hariri’s assassination. So far, though, Syria hasn’t offered much in return.

“My main job is to unite people,” Hariri, a Sunni Muslim like all Lebanese prime ministers, told me. “You push reform softly.”

Like his father, he’s hoping that economic growth will enable the government to deliver basic services such as education and electricity -- and that, in turn, will “gently” pave the way for political reform. “If people have something to lose, they will protect it,” he said.

Hariri is the opposite of a firebrand. When he took office last year at 39, he stumbled over the formal language of his first speech in parliament. But when I met him in a less formal setting -- on the terrace of a mansion in the hills overlooking Beirut -- he was at ease and in command of his brief.

But not in command of his country’s top priority. What does Lebanon need most? I asked.

“Peace, peace and peace,” he said.