January 25, 2011

For Israel, Hizballah is Lebanon, Lebanon is Hizballah (UPDATED)

Anthony Shadid is reporting from Lebanon for the New York Times and observes that Hizballah is now the most powerful force not just in Lebanon but in the Lebanese government:

A prime minister chosen by Hezbollah and its allies won enough support on Monday to form Lebanon’s
government, unleashing angry protests, realigning politics and
culminating the generation-long ascent of the Shiite Muslim movement
from shadowy militant group to the country’s pre-eminent political and
military force.

To a degree, this is all democracy in action. Hizballah and its allies control the most seats in the Lebanese parliament, so they have the constitutional right to nominate whoever the hell they like to be the prime minister.* In that way, Najib Miqati is as or more legitimate a choice to be the prime minister as/than any of the prime ministers during the 30-year Syrian occupation. And after spending Lebanon's first 50 or so years as its most underrepresented and ignored major sect, the fact that the Shia are now exercising political power in line with their demographic strength is not in and of itself a bad thing.

But that's it for what passes for the good news.

Moving on, I do not think I need to highlight the number of ways this could go wrong, starting with the fact that the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, and Miqati is not by any means the consensus choice of that community. Hence the protests in Tripoli and elsewhere.

I want, though, to focus on how this plays into the way another war between Hizballah and Israel might look. Israel, since the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War, has always held the government of Lebanon responsible for the actions of Hizballah. In the 1993's 'Operation Accountability," for example, Israel said it was bombing southern Lebanon in part to coerce the governments of Syria and Lebanon to rein in Hizballah. (Why the Israelis thought Hafez al-Asad cared about people dying in southern Lebanon, Dear Reader, is as much a mystery to me as it is to you.) In 1996's "Operation Grapes of Wrath," meanwhile, Israel actually gave us a foretaste of the 2006 war by targeting Beirut and Lebanese infrastructure (such as power stations), again in an effort to get the government of Lebanon to crack down on Hizballah.

Obviously, this whole "getting the government of Lebanon to crack down on Hizballah" strategy was a bit crazy and did not work since Hizballah was so strong and the government of Lebanon so weak. But it was politically more viable than attacking the people that actually might have stood a chance at cracking down on Hizballah -- namely, Syria and Iran.

But Israel's habit of hitting Beirut gets a little less crazy each year. In 1993 and 1996, it made no sense to target the government of Lebanon. By 2006, though, Hizballah was in the government of Lebanon -- or was at least holding seats in parliament. And now, Hizballah has formed its first government in Lebanon, which -- and Paul Salem is right here -- probably makes the organization a little nervous. There are huge risks associated with this. In another war, for example, Israel will be able to claim -- for the first time, really -- that Hizballah is Lebanon, and Lebanon is Hizballah. Since Hizballah controls the government, any attack on the institutions of the state -- to include the US-equipped Lebanese Armed Forces -- will be legitimate. And even people like me, who genuinely love Lebanon and its people and do not like to see either bombed, will not have much of an argument for why Israel should not. (Other than my constant refrain that another war would not serve the interests of the people of either Lebanon or Israel and would only bring more unneeded suffering on each.)

The same applies to those aforementioned Lebanese Armed Forces. The one constant in U.S. governmental policy toward Lebanon has been -- and this dates back to the Civil War years -- our train-and-equip mission for the Lebanese Armed Forces. We have provided $720 million in aid to Lebanon's security services since 2006 alone. But if a member of the U.S. Congress asks me why we should continue to give money to the security forces of Lebanon when the institutions of the state are now controlled by a coaltion led by Hizballah ... well, I honestly have no good answer. I mean, U.S. aid to Lebanon and strengthening the institutions of the state makes sense in the abstract, but providing millions of dollars in aid and development money to a government controlled by a party our own government labels a terrorist organization? No. (On the bright side, hey U.S. tax-payers, you just saved $100 million annually!**)

This is the new era into which Lebanon has entered. The big winner in all of this, of course, is the government of Israel, which has long claimed that Lebanon is Hizballah (and visa versa) and can now credibly make that claim on the international stage in the event of another war.

The big loser in all of this? Everyone north of the Blue Line.

*As my buddy Sean pointed out, though, you don't have to work hard to imagine what Hizballah would have done if the March 14th coalition, employing the same logic as Hizballah and its allies now, had decided to choose someone other than Nabih Berri to serve as the speaker of parliament. It's kind of charming, in a perverse way, that Hizballah is behaving like any other participant in a democratic system, demanding rights when in opposition that it seeks to deny others when in the majority. It's less charming, of course, when you realize that Hizballah has a massive arsenal with which it can back up its own grievances.

**I would like to think our wise government will take this $100 million and use it to pay down the interest on our debt, but our Congress will probably blow it all on booze and Cheetos for its Super Bowl party.

UPDATE: Some smart comments from the readership. I will try to respond to them as the day goes on. I have responded to three such comments thus far but have just turned off al-Jazeera and am closing up the laptop so I can get ready for work. Sadly, I am speaking at the Middle East Institute today ... on Afghanistan. But I may call an audible at the line of scrimmage and open the discussion up to the events in Lebanon after we exhaust Afghanistan as a topic of conversation, so if you are around and want to harass me in person for anything I have written here, drop by.

UPDATE II: Man, the comments thread is smoking. Some great stuff. Let me point you all, though, toward some really good political analysis by Elias and Sean. Unlike me, Sean is in Beirut. And Elias is one of the smartest political analysts I know when it comes to Lebanon. Both dudes are great. One thing I want to stress is that I think war would be tragic for both the peoples of Lebanon and Israel. I think it would be a really, really bad idea and would not advance anyone's interests. Okay? That having been said, in previous engagements, the United States and others have asked the Israelis to distinguish between Hizballah and the government of Lebanon, while Israel has insisted the two were best considered one and the same. I realize that Hizballah has allies in its coalition, but there can be little debate about who the senior partner in the coalition is, right? In addition, you guys can all see how it will be tougher to claim the government of Lebanon and Hizballah are not one and the same when Israel starts bombing infrastructure in the next war, right? That's all I am trying to say. I am not saying bombing Lebanese infrastructure in the event of another war makes strategic or even tactical sense because I do not think that war itself makes much sense.