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August 13, 2007

U.S. Support Needed for Western-Style Democracy in Lebanon


BEIRUT, Lebanon – I made it this time. I’m finally able to enjoy my annual vacation and relax on the beach in Lebanon, although I’m frustrated that I can’t jump into the water. Around this time a year ago, I sat in London’s Heathrow Airport waiting for my flight, only to read on the Departures screen that the flight to Beirut had been cancelled.


The Israelis had just bombed the Beirut airport, soon after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed several more. Soon afterward, Israeli air strikes caused a major oil spill that for a long time blackened Lebanon’s beaches, rendering them hazardous for fishing and swimming. Since many have warned me that it is still a bad idea to get into the water, I brought my laptop with me instead.


This situation is a continuous reminder of the ever-increasing strategic importance of Lebanon in the widening battle of ideologies. Last year’s conflict between Israel and Hezbollah upped the stakes for all parties, and is still on the minds of everyone in the region. The waters are not the only reminder of what happened last summer. Both Lebanese and Israeli politics have been profoundly impacted by the conflict, as have been, more importantly, U.S. relations with Syria and Iran.


Nothing, however, does a better job reminding the Lebanese of the conflict than Hezbollah itself. Since the opening days of what is known here as the July War, the Hezbollah propaganda machine has been operating non-stop, and in full force. Al-Manar TV, Hezbollah’s television channel, has commentators speaking of the conflict as if it happened only a few days ago.


Revoltingly, even a kid’s show on Al-Manar discusses the July War and the “Zionist” violence. In the background of the sets are pictures of demolished buildings in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. (This is an area to which some Lebanese opponents of Hezbollah jokingly refer as the new soccer field. Get it? It was flattened). And above all, Hezbollah followers have convinced themselves and many others that they, in fact, were the victors of the July War, and that they actually defeated America itself by fighting off the Israelis.


The use of Lebanon as a battlefield in the bigger war between western enlightenment and Iranian fanaticism is widely accepted as reality. The Lebanese political scene is a microcosm of the global conflict. On one side sits the Iranian and Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah and its allies, while on the other is an alliance of western-backed Sunnis, Druze and various Christian parties. While the latter alliance currently controls the government, its majority is narrow, and the political conflict is intensifying as the presidential elections next month get closer.


A few days ago, elections were held to fill the seats of two western-backed parliamentarians who were assassinated in recent months. Camille Khoury, a member of a political party led by a former Christian warlord who is allied with Hezbollah, won one of the seats by a tiny margin of 418 votes, narrowly beating the alliance supported by the west. Later that week, a joke ran on the nation’s most popular political humor show: “What’s the difference between Al Gore and Camille Khoury? Al Gore lost to Bush by a mere 537 votes, but Camille Khoury beat Bush by 418 votes!”


The Lebanese understand that this struggle is not just about Lebanon, and that whatever happens here in fact carries global repercussions. With Iraqis fighting a difficult fight for their democracy and Palestinians making a mockery of theirs, Lebanon is the one remaining Arab country that boasts a legitimate democratic system along with a western-oriented culture.


Many Americans understand the value of Lebanon as the west’s and democracy’s gateway to the Middle East, and the Lebanese have seen tremendous progress over the years because of it. Many others, as evidenced by President Clinton’s overlooking of Syria’s disastrous occupation of Lebanon and by several U.S. congressmen and women who cozy up to Iran and Syria, unfortunately do not. Others still associate President Bush’s interest in Lebanon with the unpopular war in Iraq, which, although logical, should not turn Americans away from what is a worthwhile cause.


Having a pro-western government in an Arab country that is both democratic and relatively stable presents a unique opportunity for the United States – one that should not be taken for granted. With extremely sensitive presidential elections coming up in only a few weeks, Washington must make sure to give all the reasonable help it can to its Lebanese allies in order to ensure that a friendly, peaceful government remains in place.


Without such help, and if Iran and Syria regain control of Lebanon in the years to come, it would be doubtful that I or any other tourist would even be able to safely land in Lebanon, much less take a swim in this part of the Mediterranean. Nor would we want to.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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