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LEBANON: Dangerous times and encouraging signs

May 14, 2008 |  9:03 am

Scholar and Lebanon expert Augustus Richard Norton recently took time out for a lengthy e-mail interview with the Los Angeles Times about the confusing conflict in Lebanon.

NortonLebanon watchers have been worried for some time that the current political stalemate between the Western-leaning government and the Iranian-backed opposition could explode and plunge the country into civil war.

"While many Lebanese adults have a living memory of the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, many shabaab or 'young bloods' on all sides have been rearing for a fight," wrote Norton. "On several occasions dangerous clashes emerged and the country seems to have been close to the brink, and then wiser heads prevailed on all sides."

Norton knows Lebanon well. He served as a peacekeeper in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) during the 1980s and wrote the groundbreaking book "Amal and the Shi'a" in 1987.

Now a professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University, he recently published the timely "Hezbollah: A Short History," described by Publisher's Weekly as a "remarkably thorough, articulate portrait" and by the Washington Post as a "lucid primer" on the group.

He's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and  was an advisor to the Iraq Study Group in 2006.

Below is the interview.

Los Angeles Times: In your opinion, what is happening now in Lebanon?

Augustus Richard Norton: Lebanon has been trapped in a dangerous stalemate for nearly a year and a half. The stalemate was provoked by Hezbollah in league with its opposition allies — Amal, retired Gen. Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement, the Syrian Socialist National Party and a variety of other groups, including some Sunni Islamists. 

From the standpoint of the opposition, the political motives vary. Some opposition supporters call for an ending to corruption, improving governance and other prosaic political goals, but for Hezbollah, the leading opposition power, the agenda includes stifling the French and U.S. goal of supporting and consolidating a friendly government in Beirut that will disarm Hezbollah.

From Hezbollah's perspective, and particularly its many supporters in the Shiite community, Hezbollah's arms provide security for a community that has suffered disproportionately from more than three decades of internal war and foreign invasion. Indeed, Hezbollah's security narrative has actually garnered more support in the Shiite community since the summer war of 2006.  The Iraqi civil war has also had a spillover effect in Lebanon, further encouraging Sunni-Shiite animosities.

Obviously, Hezbollah's adversaries who support the Siniora government understandably see the party's military wing as a threat to their own security. External powers, including the U.S., France, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, have imposed their own agendas on Lebanon with the result that a political compromise has actually become harder to reach.  In effect, the internal political struggle in Lebanon is hostage to the geopolitical struggle that is underway between the U.S. and it allies on the one side, and Iran and its supporters on the other.

800pxflag_of_hezbollah_svgLAT: What has changed in Lebanon?

NORTON: The events of the past week or so have dramatically changed the terms of reference for the political struggle in Lebanon. Hezbollah and its allies have handily defeated their prime adversaries, yet done so in a way that signals what we might call "restrained aggression."

The opposition forces did not seize any government offices in Beirut to my knowledge, but primarily targeted the organizational offices of the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who is the effective leader of the pro-government forces. 

Rather than holding on to the offices they captured, the opposition turned over these positions to the Lebanese army.  In effect, they signaled a respect for the army as a legitimate agency of the state, while demonstrating that not even the army can contain their might when they choose to unleash it.

While the political stalemate may continue in form, in substance the weakness of the U.S.-supported government is now on full display.  In short, what has happened is a decisive setback for the U.S. agenda in Lebanon.

LAT: Is this the end of the democratic experiment in Lebanon?

NORTON: Lebanon's democratic institutions have had to weather some violent political storms, but however tattered and battered, they have survived. Despite the harsh words that have been exchanged recently in Lebanon, and the frustrating inability of the parliament to actually convene to elect a president, most Lebanese understand quite well that, despite many imperfections, their democratic institutions are essential to Lebanon's survival.  It is noteworthy that one of the key elements of debate between pro-government and opposition forces is over the rules for the parliamentary elections in May 2009. I take that to be an encouraging sign.

LAT: Where is this going? What does Hezbollah's latest move mean for Lebanon?

NORTON: My view is that Hezbollah has demonstrated that the dangerous stalemate will not end without compromise on all sides.  Historically speaking, Lebanese politics has been marked by consensus, compromise and accommodation.  No side can dominate the system by itself, at least for very long.

LAT: What does it mean internationally? What are some potential regional consequences?      

NORTON: There are a number of mostly negative (and linked) consequences, including:

  • The risk that Sunni-Shiite tensions will be further excited in places like Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and certainly Iraq.
  • The risk that the U.S.-Iran contest for position and influence will lend ammunition to those who advocate attacking Iran.
  • The risk that the slowly developing U.S.-Iranian dialogue in Iraq will be jeopardized.

On the other hand, prudent decision-makers may take the Lebanese events as an illustration of why it is important promote non-zero-sum solutions, including a thoroughgoing security dialogue with Iran.

LAT: What role does Iran play in this whole equation? Syria? Saudi Arabia? The U.S.?

NORTON: Iran and the U.S. are in a gladiatorial contest and that does not augur well for regional serenity.   Syria would like to insinuate itself yet again into a dominant role in Lebanon, and the success of its ally Hezbollah lends it encouragement (sadly). 

As for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has worked hard to challenge the Shiite-Iranian threat in Lebanon, including pouring in more than a billion dollars.  Saudi Arabia may now redouble its efforts, which would risk stoking the internecine flames once again. 

There is a non-trivial risk that unless wiser heads prevail, Lebanon could descend once again into civil war, even though many Lebanese understand that what a great disaster that would likely be.

LAT: How does the latest news in Lebanon help or hurt the Bush administration's vision for the Middle East?

NORTON: I take no joy in saying it, but the Bush administration has continued to blunder badly in Lebanon.  In 2006, the U.S. stiff-armed attempts to reach a ceasefire early in the war between Hezbollah and Israel with the result that Hezbollah was seen in many quarters as the victor. Since the war ended in August 2006, the US has thrown spanners in the works to prevent a compromise that would be seen as benefiting Hezbollah or its allies. 

There is also credible reporting ... that the U.S. has attempted to build up anti-Hezbollah militias (much as it did in Gaza vis-a-vis Hamas) and those efforts have come up short this past week.

The latest statements by President Bush reveal that he has learned little from what has been happening in Lebanon, and he seems to be drawing battle lines for a confrontation in Lebanon, which would be unfortunate, in my view.

LAT: If you were advising the Bush administration right now, what course of action would you recommend?

NORTON: I would tell the president that the notion that "our side" can impose its will on the "bad guys" is a bad bet. If the U.S. wishes to constrain Hezbollah, it stands a better chance of doing so politically than militarily.  As for the reality of Hezbollah's military power and despite clear Security Council resolutions demanding that the group be disarmed, I see little prospect that that will soon happen.

LAT: What do Syria and Iran want from Lebanon?

NORTON: I believe there is a significant difference between Syrian and Iranian goals in Lebanon.  Syria would like to return to something that looks like the status quo ante, which is completely unacceptable in my view, and most importantly for many Lebanese as well.

However, I think Iran's goals are more nuanced, which is to say that while Iran is certainly intent on seeing Hezbollah prosper, Iran has a compelling interest in a viable Lebanon that leans neither too far toward Washington or Tehran.  In that sort of neutral Lebanon, the Islamic Republic, which maintains a large embassy in Beirut, would enjoy an important Arab redoubt. 

Would the U.S. be willing to accept that outcome as part of a grand bargain, which included stability in Iraq, controlling Iranian nuclear weapons development, and tempered support for Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas?  I doubt the Bush White House could embrace that sort of outcome, but perhaps the next president should.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Augustus Richard Norton.

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