Lebanon’s hopes for democracy

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says: “We need to focus on the three Ds-defense, diplomacy and development.” No mention of another “D” word: democracy.

This new approach has garnered widespread applause across the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Not in Lebanon. At least not among members of the March 14 coalition, as the pro-democracy forces are known. The name is a reference to the date in 2005 when more than 1 million people gathered in downtown Beirut to protest the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive car-bomb blast widely believed to have been arranged by Syrian agents. Those protests, which came to be called the Cedar Revolution, garnered strong support from France and the United States and forced Syria to end its long occupation of Lebanon.

But in the four years since, Syria and its Hezbollah proxies have tried to stage a comeback described by former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel as “creeping annexation.” Although the Syrian regime has opened an embassy in Lebanon for the first time, it has still not sent an ambassador to a country that it has long viewed as a wayward Syrian province. It’s believed that Syria continues to ship arms to Hezbollah in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, passed in August 2006 to end the war between Hezbollah and Israel. The Syrian-backed campaign of intimidation culminated in a May 2008 rampage by Hezbollah gunmen through Beirut, which forced a power-sharing arrangement that gave Hezbollah veto power over the Lebanese government.


The coming parliamentary elections on June 7, assuming they are held as scheduled, will be the latest test of strength between the forces of March 14 and those of March 8 (the date in 2005 of a less-attended pro-Syria rally). But even if the March 14 coalition candidates win, they will face a difficult struggle to maintain their country’s fragile independence.

The Lebanese army lacks the capacity or the will to take on Hezbollah, while the Christian militias, active in the civil war from 1975 to 1990, have been disbanded. That leaves Lebanese democrats almost entirely dependent on outside support. They are cheered that the U.N. tribunal set up to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the Hariri assassination has now convened in The Hague, but they still fear they will be sold out by Western powers intent on doing a deal with Syria or Iran.

“Stop legitimizing Hezbollah by opening official channels with them as the British government is doing,” Ali Makdad, a Shiite political activist, pleaded with a group of U.S. visitors organized by the New Opinion Group, a pro-democracy nongovernmental organization. The British are claiming they will only talk to the “political wing” of Hezbollah, but Makdad and others point out that is a distinction without a difference: All of Hezbollah is dedicated to taking over Lebanon.

If American talks with Syria were aimed at curbing its meddling in Lebanese affairs, the March 14 activists told us, they would be acceptable. But more likely, they say, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad will simply stretch out the negotiations while he continues to try to undermine Lebanese democracy. They especially fear a relaxation of U.S. sanctions. “Any release of pressure on Syria and Iran would have serious repercussion on the Lebanese domestic scene,” said Fares Souaid, secretary-general of the March 14 coalition.

For the time being, Lebanon is flourishing. A plethora of newspapers and television stations air a variety of viewpoints. Political candidates vigorously debate the issues, including the possibility of normalizing ties with Israel. Beirut, a war zone not so long ago, once again feels like the Paris of the Middle East. Fashionably dressed young people party late into the night at bars and clubs where the booze flows freely. There are more burkas visible in London than in Beirut.

Yet everywhere there are reminders of how fragile the Lebanese achievement is. Just a few miles from secular Beirut neighborhoods, you can drive into Hezbollah-dominated Shiite strongholds where posters of “martyrs” such as terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyeh are rife and where an Iranian-style theocracy is taking root.


If President Obama proves willing to compromise on Lebanese independence to reach a deal with Syria or Iran, he’ll not only be undermining one of President Bush’s signal achievements, he’ll be consigning the people of Lebanon to a hellish existence.

Max Boot is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to Opinion and the author of “War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History.”