Though its response has been comical up to this point, Washington has every reason to panic over Lebanon’s ongoing political crisis. al-Qaeda isn’t the ultimate night-mare scenario - unless, of course, it’s nuclear armed. In fact, al-Qaeda serves a useful purpose by offering America justification to occupy and militarize unstable Muslim states.
No, the real threat emanates from groups like Hamas, Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and Hezbollah, “terrorist” organizations that have evolved to the highest form of guerrilla warfare: legitimate political representation. So now that Hezbollah has positioned itself to take over Lebanon’s government, America is responding to the move like a declaration of war.
But if Washington actually expects to out-maneuver Hezbollah, it can’t treat Lebanon like the Gaza Strip.
Three days after Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), threw at least seven of his 11 parliamentary seats behind Hezbollah’s choice for prime minister, the March 8th Alliance dropped a bombshell on the Western world by announcing it held a majority of parliament - 65 out of 128 seats. Comprised of Hezbollah, the Shia Amal Movement, and Michel Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), March 8 has also selected its candidate for prime minister, Sunni billionaire Najib Mikati.
“It’s Mikati, unless something happens at the last minute,” a senior March 8 source told The Daily Star.
We were initially unsure of whether Hezbollah made right choice to dissolve Lebanon’s government. At the time it appeared to be a rash move to dodge the UN's tribunal over former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination, a "guilty" move that could jeopardize Hezbollah's own political support. But Hezbollah apparently realized it had the numbers all along, otherwise it wouldn’t have resorted to its current strategy.
And it already had its candidate lined up in Mikati, a seemingly perfect fit to avoid the UN’s tribunal and disarmament campaign. Asked about the tribunal, Mikati responded that "any dispute can be solved only through dialogue."
Considered politically neutral and wary of rocking the boat, Mikati comes with the additional bonus of believable unity. Instead of choosing Omar Karami, whose pro-Syrian interests threw him into media speculation, Hezbollah has trotted out a smiling face to offer an olive branch to Sunni Lebanese. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, claimed he favored a unity government during a speech Sunday night, though his reasons are certainly questionable.
“We have agreed with Mikati there is no objection to the formation of a partnership government, but without granting veto power [to the March 14 coalition],” said the Hezbollah source. “If they [March 14] refuse to join such a government, we will not beat ourselves up.”
Likely envisioned as Hezbollah’s checkmate, Mikati also happens to be on friendly terms with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. It’s widely believed that Hezbollah, rather than choosing an easy target to oppose, selected Mikati to force Hariri into rejecting an ally. Hariri said on Monday morning that he won't a Hezbollah-led government, but Mikati is expected to rub his charm on the current PM.
"I don't distinguish between anyone," said Mikati, a Harvard graduate whose wealth is estimated at $2.5 billion, after meeting President Michel Suleiman on Monday. "I extend my hand to everyone without exception... I say to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, let us all work together for the sake of Lebanon."
So how should America react to these developments?
A contrary position is likely to serve a greater interest than conventional thinking. Washington has achieved little progress in isolating groups like Hamas and individuals like al-Sadr, a policy that attracts criticism for “selective democracy” and often backfires by empowering U.S. opponents. Staying in the thick of Lebanon’s power vacuum and keeping an open mind to Hezbollah’s alliance could dampen accusations of U.S. meddling, as well as limit new Iranian overtures.
And as some point out, Hezbollah isn’t usurping power so much as skillfully manipulating Lebanon’s internal politics.
One reporter asked State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, “Hariri’s government had two ministers from Hezbollah in it. And it seems they’re probably not going to get more than two ministers. Are you more focused on the role of Hezbollah or the process itself? Because it seems the process is democratic and constitutional. So you’re not going to recognize a government that reflects the will of representatives of the Lebanese people?”
Crowley pegged a “representative” government on the UN’s tribunal, which Washington views as its best opportunity to weaken Hezbollah’s political power. Apparently America only wants to reflect the will of Sunni Lebanese. But with Hezbollah holding such a commanding political position whether it secures the premiership or not, icing out Hezbollah in hopes of marginalizing it doesn’t offer a realistic solution to Lebanon's crisis.
For now, though, this appears to be America’s course of action.
“We will reserve judgment until a government is formed,” Crowley replied, as if Washington’s judgment hadn’t already formed. “Our view of Hezbollah is very well known. We see it as a terrorist organization and will have great concerns about a government that – within which Hezbollah plays a leading role. It is hard for us to imagine any government as being truly representative of all of Lebanon if that government is prepared to take steps back, for example, from its ongoing support for the work of the tribunal.”
He added, “The larger the role played by Hezbollah in this government the more problematic our relationship will be.”
Now, with the Israeli Defense Force already on high alert, unconfirmed reports have two Western military fleets streaming towards the Mediterranean Sea, complete with two nuclear aircraft carriers, 200 warplanes, and upwards of 5,000 Marines. Hezbollah isn’t about to launch an attack while attempting to climb Lebanon’s power ladder, yet America and Israel are acting as though they’ll blockade the country. As if they can back down Hezbollah through their own show of force.
This scheme has historically encouraged Hezbollah’s pursuit of power.
Lebanon’s latest crisis calls for a new tactic of accepting the inevitable. While the state cannot be ceded entirely to Hezbollah, neither can Washington close its eyes and wish Hezbollah away. Real politik demands a practical response. America has fought against Hezbollah’s political representation from the beginning - and look at the result of this policy.