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Lebanon: Finding Consensus Without the Factions

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Back in the early 1990's, at the end of Lebanon's civil war, together with a few other Arab American organizations, we requested and secured a meeting with then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to discuss both the situation in Lebanon and some unhelpful positions taken by the Senate that we felt might adversely impact the still troubled situation in that country.

Unbeknownst to us, the senator's staff had insisted on including in the meeting a number of individuals associated with U.S.-based groups representing factions in Lebanon. The meeting, which we had hoped would provide an opportunity for productive conversation, instead turned into a factional fight dominated by the "exile" representatives. As we tried to focus the conversation on ways the U.S. might work to help Lebanon rebuild and heal, they, posturing in the positions of the parties they represented, brought their divisive rhetoric into the meeting reenacting Lebanon's war.

It is in the nature of the "exile" political groupings to behave in this manner. Though operating here in the U.S. they take their cues from "back home". And they are absolutists, acting as if they, and only they, and their point of view, can represent their country and their cause.

It is important to note that this phenomenon is not unique to Lebanon. It is found in every ethnic immigrant community from every corner of the globe. In fact, "exiles" and their politics are part of the very fabric of American life. At times, they have made important contributions to our national debate and our understanding of the larger world in which we live -- especially when the "exile" voices find consensus and promote a constructive agenda for their home country. In the cases of Ireland, Eastern Europe, the Philippines, to name a few instances, "exiles" have played a positive role in promoting change.

But there are as many times when "exile" politics have proved to be a problem -- with the recent Iraq debacle, a case in point, and fragmented Lebanon being another.

Which brings me to the present day. Concerned with the possibility that Lebanon may experience destabilizing violence following the issuing of indictments by the special tribunal investigating the murder of Rafiq Hariri, my organization and the American Task Force on Lebanon (ATFL) convened a meeting of Lebanese American leaders last week. We wanted both to develop a community response before the indictments are issued and to engage the Obama administration in a conversation in order to better understand their views and make sure they knew ours.

Having learned a lesson from that nightmare meeting with Mitchell almost two decades ago, we decided not to invite representatives from the exile factions. That's when the fun began. During the past week in blog postings and articles in the Lebanese press, supporters of these groups have behaved somewhat hysterically. In one article I was called "a stooge of the White House", in another "a paid agent of the Syrian ambassador". One piece was a bizarre fantasy, berating me for inviting to the meeting people who had not, in fact, been invited and criticizing me for not including the ATFL, which was, in fact, our co-host! This author invented conversations I was supposed to have had with individuals with whom I have not spoken and portrayed me as an opponent of the tribunal (a week after my article supporting the tribunal was published!). All this presumably because he wasn't invited! Basing themselves on this fabrication, groups claiming to represent the March 14th Coalition issued a resolution denouncing our meeting as a pro-Syrian effort and asking the White House not to meet with us.

That was not to be the case. The meeting took place on Friday. Leaders from my Institute and the ATFL were joined by community leaders from across the U.S. We largely came to a consensus supporting the tribunal and rejecting the notion that Lebanon must choose between stability and justice. Lebanon, we maintained, must have both and must provide for an open, fair and transparent judicial process to insure that justice is done. And just as we rejected threats and other forms of intimidation, we also called on all parties in Lebanon to remain calm. And finally we affirmed our support for Lebanon's national unity government and urged our Administration to continue to support it as well -- with special attention being paid to the need to ensure that violence does not once again tear the country apart, putting Lebanon and its people at risk.

As for the factions of "exiles", although in some ways I sympathize with them and respect the intensity of their feelings, the firestorm of name-calling and misrepresentation they created over our desire to convene a meeting to support Lebanon, makes me believe we were right to exclude them in the first place. They act more like a symptom of Lebanon's problems than agents who can provide a solution to the country's divisions.

Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.