Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Lebanon On The Brink

What Happened

News of Hizbullah's withdrawal from the Lebanese government rocked the Middle East on Wednesday. Taking the opportunity of Prime Minister Saad Hariri's visit to Washington, D.C., the party and its allies withdrew 11 ministers, enough to topple the current government coalition. Hizbullah had threatened action in the looming shadow of an indictment from the Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL) which is investigating the assassination of PM Hariri's father, ex-PM Rafik Hariri, in 2005. The indictment is expected some time in February, and is rumored to blame Hizbullah.

What it Means

Hizbullah's participation in the government gave them some level of interest in the viability of the political system and the use of non-violence to resolve conflicts. While Hizbullah intended its participation mostly as a spoiler, the shifting character from militia to half-militia half-political party opened an opportunity to detract from Hizbullah's ability or interest in using violence. The withdrawal from the government signifies a closure of this opportunity.

Secondly, the move is a demonstration of Hizbullah's power in the looming shadow of the indictment of the STL. Hizbullah is demonstrating its ability and its willingness to cause problems for PM Hariri, who will now enter the indictment phase with a weakened coalition and under threat from Hizbullah.

Why It's Dangerous

By withdrawing from the government, Hizbullah is posturing for the indictment. It is signaling not only that it can cause violent trouble but that it intends to do so. This threat is credible.

This in turn is dangerous because it's a case of Hizbullah backing itself up against a wall. Iran acted similarly in creating its nuclear program under the political umbrella of fighting US domination. Such moves are sometimes effective, but they are always dangerous. The indictment is virtually impossible to stop. When it comes out and blames Hizbullah, Hizbullah may react violently not because violence is in its immediate interest but because it's backed into a corner and must follow through to remain credible. Using brinksmanship in the Middle East is playing Russian Roulette with the stability of the region.

It's also dangerous for Hizbullah because the major opposition of the US to funding the Lebanese government was Hizbullah's participation. Their departure lowers the cost of US investment in the Lebanese government (though not necessarily the Lebanese Armed Forces, or LAF).

What the US Should Do About It

Given that Hizbullah is blaming the US and Israel for the indictment's accusations, an overt show of US support would not be the most effective and might even backfire. Using proxies such as France and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have vested interests in a stable Lebanon, the US can effectively promote its interests while not taking blame and allowing itself to be scapegoated for Hizbullah's own actions. Secretary of State Clinton today showed excellent understanding of this point in seeking a global consensus on Lebanon. It will be significantly harder for Hizbullah to blame the US and the international community than it will be to blame the US alone.

However, even if the US executes this strategy perfectly, it is not at all guaranteed to prevent violence in Lebanon. If anything, it will be the country and the region's collective memory of its bloody past that will allow cooler heads to prevail.

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