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  Paul's Column Archive

August 2, 2006

Lebanon and U.S. Success in the Middle East


Newt Gingrich was not too far off in his assertion that what we are seeing today in the Middle East demonstrates elements of a third world war. While some might argue that such a conflict began long ago, others believe it has yet to start, and others still might think it ludicrous and irresponsible to attach the “world war” label to the struggle. Whatever the technical categorization, however, it remains beyond question that the current situation in Lebanon and Israel, let alone Iraq and the Palestinian territories, carries colossal significance for the future of the United States and the world.


There have been multiple facets to President Bush’s campaign of Middle Eastern democratization. Military invasions and state-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, though necessary in theory and justified in intention, have proven a thorny matter and a challenge to the capabilities of Washington politicians and the U.S. military.


One of the alternative strategies used by the Bush administration for democratization in the region, however, could be seen in Lebanon, where as recently as a year ago, people were still enjoying the fruits of the Cedar Revolution that saw unprecedented unison among various sects in demanding a withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. This Syrian pullout was achieved through pressure mainly from the United States and help from the United Nations that built on the forces already raging inside Lebanon. At that point, it seemed that democracy and peace just might occur simultaneously in an Arab country.


Such hopes, however, were naďve. Despite a democratic structure, Lebanon retained a significant segment of the population that sympathized with Hezbollah, an unusual political party and the only armed militia in Lebanon. Sponsored by Iran and aided by Syria, Hezbollah is designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization and is viewed as an obstacle to having Lebanon join Egypt and Jordan in making peace with Israel. Since it is sponsored by sworn enemies of Israel and the United States, it is futile to hope that the promise of peace, democracy, and stability in Lebanon would deter Hezbollah from what it dubs “resistance” activities.


While expelling the Syrians was a positive step in the right direction, no permanent stability could be established in Lebanon – or anywhere, for that matter – with the presence of an armed militia that worked independently from and oftentimes contrary to the wishes and aims of the Lebanese military and population. The next step, therefore, would be to complete the disarming of Hezbollah, and to integrate it as a normal political party representing a segment of the Shiite population, as is the case with the Christian, Sunni, Druze and other communities. Bringing this about in a peaceful manner, however, necessitates work that transcends Hezbollah to include Syria, and more ominously, Iran.


The unforgiving Israeli attacks on Lebanon seen in the last few weeks demonstrate that Tel Aviv has abandoned any hope of resolving the Hezbollah situation peacefully, particularly since it would involve work with Iran, the president of which has repeatedly shared his views about wiping Israel off the map. In its substitute plan to incapacitate Hezbollah itself, however, Israel has blundered severely.


While it could have built on the anti-Hezbollah sentiment that developed in Lebanon and in parts of the Arab world in the opening days of the conflict, particularly among non-Shiite communities, Israel has done itself a disservice. By blockading Lebanon in its entirety, disregarding civilian casualties and bombing Lebanese army barracks, non-Hezbollah neighborhoods, and infrastructure and roads meant for civilian use, Israel has so far paved the road for a stronger Hezbollah that continues to regain sympathy from diverse segments of the Lebanese population every day that the conflict goes on.


Israel has now placed itself in a highly unenviable position. Its halting of attacks and withdrawal from Lebanon would signify the return of a significantly stronger Hezbollah amid a now economically ruined Lebanon with a weaker government that is even less capable of challenging the Iranian-backed militia. The alternative would be a full-scale land invasion that aside from costing countless lives on both sides, would create a wrecked Lebanon that is unable to sustain the type of stable government that Israel hopes would bring peace to its northern border.


These options are as threatening to the United States as they are to Israel. A chaotic Lebanon would be regarded as another failure of U.S. foreign policy by its opponents, and a stronger Hezbollah would play into the hands of Iran as it continues to challenge America and the world on the issues of Islamic radicalism and nuclear capability. While Washington seeks to involve multinational forces in southern Lebanon, it knows quite well that such a plan is not a solution to Hezbollah’s weapons, and in turn, to continued interference by Iran and Syria in Lebanese affairs.


Until the world finds a way to deal with Iran, the United States can begin by eliminating Damascus as the integral bridge between Tehran and Beirut. Syria continues to sow discord to its east and west, but after all, Syria is the one that is surrounded by four American-backed democracies. Perhaps, for once, Washington can begin to use these borders in its favor, as opposed to the status quo.


© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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