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Lebanon On The Edge

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Lebanon is once again headlining the news as a result of two distinct developments. In Lebanon, a Hezbollah-called general strike spilled over into violence. Meanwhile, in Paris, Western and Arab nations met with Lebanon's Prime Minister to pledge $7.6 billion in reconstruction assistance.

Some see the division between Lebanon's two camps growing and being fueled by external partners. There are fears that the government, emboldened by pledges and aid and strong words from US President George Bush, has hardened its position vis-à-vis the opposition. At the same time the opposition, supported by Iran and Syria, has also hardened its positions. With the genie of sectarian violence now out of the bottle, the situation appears quite precarious.

There is a way, however, to bring the Lebanese together, creating unity out of its fractured polity. The problem, of course, is that to do so requires vision, political will and international support. At present, all of these are in short supply.

A victim of its creation, Lebanon has long been plagued by its demographics and its setting. It is this that plays out today in the streets of Beirut and the seat of government. Represented in this clash are two distinct camps, each representing competing constituencies and patrons, engaged in a profoundly unsettling confrontation. Each side claims, for itself, absolute and exclusive legitimacy. Each claims to represent the majority will, denigrating opponents as "mere puppets" under foreign influence. And each claims that the other is engaged in a "coup". For months, the result has been a dangerous paralysis. Now it has become much worse.

It is as if Lebanon, itself, is on a precipice, with both sides, emboldened by their domestic bases and their international support, determined to push the country over the edge. Polling in Lebanon clearly reveals these two distinct tendencies. On the one hand, there are the obvious and worrisome differences that divide the two camps. In some ways the situation is an exaggerated version of the "red-state/blue-state" phenomenon that exists in the US. On matters relating to Hezbollah's armed presence and enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, the roles of Syria or the US, support for opposition to the current government, or naming the next leaders of the country, the divisions are deep.

On the other hand, there are remarkable points of consensus that exist as well. Most significant is the extraordinarily (and, one might add, surprisingly) strong attachment to a Lebanese identity. In fact, this identification with "country" (as opposed to other sources like "being Arab," religious affiliation, or family, etc.) is stronger in Lebanon than in any other Arab country. There is also broad agreement on a political reform and economic development agenda. Across sectarian lines, Lebanese support a more nonconfessional system and a new "national pact". There is also consensus on the desperate need to expand the economy, creating jobs and opportunities enabling Lebanon's young to remain in the country of their birth.

Here's the problem. Both Lebanon's leaders and major external players have focused their agendas on the issues that divide Lebanese instead of those that can bring them together. In this regard, the US bears a special responsibility. By reducing itself to "a side" in Lebanon's internal partisan conflict, the US diminishes its role and becomes a part of Lebanon's problem.

Given that Lebanon's two camps are as deeply divided as they are, the America's overall favorable rating in Lebanon is lower than that give to Syria and significantly lower than Iran's approval rating, the simple fact is that "taking sides" in Lebanon is a no-win proposition. By aggressively taking sides, the US has exacerbated the sectarian divide. The US has not only further weakened its already fragile standing in the country (due to its widely discredited support for Israel's behavior and the war in Iraq), it has also hurt, rather than helped, the very government it has sought to support.

It is true that the consensus issues discussed here could more easily have been addressed at an earlier stage - immediately at the end of the civil war or following Syria's departure from Lebanon. No doubt, given the tense standoff that exists, at present, it will be more difficult to find common ground. But several factors can not be ignored.

First and foremost, there can be no "victor or vanquished" in the current situation. Lebanon's divisions are too deep and the balance of forces between the camps is such that compromise is the only acceptable outcome.

For there to be compromise some fundamental considerations must be addressed. Lebanon's "jerry-rigged" confessional system must be reformed/abolished in recognition of the country's changed demography. Together with this, the central government must be strengthened, with the recognition that there can be no armed groups outside of a truly representative government's control. Finally Lebanon's constitution must enshrine the principles of the country's "special character" which provides for respect and protection for Lebanon's diverse constituencies. There can be no tyranny of the majority - however, that majority is defined.

What is needed now is for Lebanon's leaders and their international backers (including the US) to recognize that the country is a tinderbox with everyone playing with matches. It's time to back away from confrontation and define an agenda that saves Lebanon - before it's too late.