Dr. Mansour is faculty lecturer in the Department of Political Science at McGill University. He would like to thank Fares El-Zein, Joey Ghaleb, Farah Kawtharani, Farrahnaz Merali, Aram Nerguizian and Paul E. Salem for their comments.
President Obama’s historic speech in Cairo in June 2009 presented qualitatively different official American discourse towards the Middle East. Reaching out to the societies of the region, he spoke of positive change through mutual respect, using references from their own cultural-policy narratives. But he has yet to translate this good-will message into concrete action. Moreover, the United States needs to regain its prestige as the sole global power, its status having been tarnished by two major regional wars in this decade, both in the Middle East theater.
Lebanon, a small but central regional state, could help President Obama realize the aims expressed in his message. Washington could strengthen Lebanon’s state institutions and support a dialogue among the various parties, including Hezbollah, to reach a new and more inclusive power-sharing arrangement. Such an intervention could bring stability to Lebanon’s turbulent domestic politics and demonstrate U.S. resolve. Through Lebanon, the United States could reaffirm its credibility as a mediator and strengthen commitments to allies. It could also signal its willingness to accommodate interests of regional actors if they reciprocate its attempts to enhance regional stability, especially in the Middle East. There are going to be obstacles to any such movement by an American administration towards Hezbollah, and I will address two central ones: an Israeli veto and Congressional disapproval.
As the most prominent leader of Lebanon’s Shiite community, Hezbollah is enjoying a favorable status domestically. This derives mainly from a combination of material capabilities (military and financial) and popular credibility. This status was achieved through a combination of factors, from political activism among Lebanon’s Shiites to internal politics. Hezbollah, however, has no direct control over most of the factors to which it owes its rise; some are inherently neither reliable nor sustainable. Moreover, while Hezbollah claims to be the primary representative of Lebanon’s Shiites, its behavior since 2000 has actually eroded its credibility nationally and put Shiites into confrontation with other communities. There has been a declining national consensus around supporting Hezbollah’s military capabilities. Finally, and contrary to many existing arguments, Hezbollah even lost significant fighting power when its theater of operation was reduced after the 2006 war with Israel.
There is today an opportunity for Hezbollah to reverse its declining credibility and remain a significant player in Lebanese and regional politics by pressing for a new and more inclusive power-sharing arrangement. Such an arrangement could bring stability to Lebanon’s turbulent domestic politics and institutionalize a higher status for Shiites in national decision making.
A rare convergence of interests, therefore, exists between Washington and Hezbollah around stabilizing Lebanon. This should provide incentives for the United States to indirectly prod Hezbollah into a serious dialogue that could move Lebanon towards stability. A stable Lebanon would help guard the current status of Lebanon’s Shiites and boost Hezbollah’s credibility as a leader without compromising that of other communities. At the same time, this would demonstrate to regional parties the merits of nonviolent dialogue, thus polishing Washington’s image. This article explains why this opportunity exists and provides some policy recommendations for how Washington can take advantage of it.
This article contains two unconventional understandings of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The first is the proposition that mutual strategic accommodation is appropriate. Washington should not be expected to have leverage over Hezbollah; neither should Hezbollah be expected to concede anything to the United States. But the latter has the advantage of being able to prod Hezbollah towards a more political and less military role. Second, Hezbollah has over the past five years been losing the invincibility (in capabilities and credibility) that it had accumulated over the span of some three decades; and Hezbollah’s decline in status has resulted from its own behavior. In what follows, I explain Lebanon’s “revolving door” politics and the rise of a distinct Shiite voice in the country. I then highlight why Hezbollah’s behavior has eroded its dominant status.
Societal cleavages in modern Lebanon are predominantly along “vertical lines,” or religious sects. Vertical loyalties provide most Lebanese with a heritage, an identity and a sense of “in-group” belonging. Conflict over material spoils and power raises the stakes for various communities and is frequently “bound to become more savaging and, hence, the prospects for resolving the conflict peacefully all the more remote.”1 Conflicts harden in-group cohesion. Lebanon’s independence was itself made possible with the National Pact (al-Mithaq al-watani), an unwritten agreement among the elites of dominant sects (what I term politico-religious communities) on the distribution of rights and prerogatives and the nature of the political system. The National Pact “embodied the politics of accommodation” and “provided a workable solution to what was in reality a federation of religious communities.”2
Post-independence Lebanon passed through three milestone eras, managed by elites of politico-religious communities that shared power in a dynamic process. Each era was presided over by one of the three major communities: Christian Maronites (leading Christians, in general), Muslim Sunnis and Muslim Shiites.3 Common among these three eras were two discernable features: communal dominance and external patronage.
First, a community establishes dominance over the domestic political game; then it loses its position to another community. Based on the terms of the National Pact, dominance derives from two interrelated variables. One is the community’s demographic advantage (what the elites agree upon at the time, which might or might not reflect accurate numbers).4 The second is a political agreement by which they recognize (even if not accepting) the dominant position of one community.
In addition to the “intra-elite” horizontal acceptance of the contract, the community’s elites have to be accepted by the base. Vertical acceptance of the role and behavior of the elites endows them with the requisite power to bargain and act within the contours of the power-sharing agreements. The role of a community’s elites is to cater to “demands from below,” while at the same time allowing competitor elites some space. This hardens vertical alignment at the expense of alliances outside of elite control (i.e., along class lines). Vertical acceptance is also important for the stability of the system and the durability of agreements among elites. Acceptance of the role and behavior of certain elites, however, does not mean an end to elite rivalries or struggles for power. These have been important for elite turnover and intra-communal dynamism and regeneration.5 Much of this historic pattern has been challenged by Hezbollah’s behavior in the past half decade or so.
In practice, dominance is achieved through favorable quotas in the distribution of parliamentary seats and an appeasement of the base of the dominant community through favorable employment in the public sector (especially in key positions).6
A breakdown in collective support for the power-sharing agreement among the major communities’ elites or the reneging by one of them on its tenets (e.g., when a perceived potential for greater gain outside of the agreement becomes more attractive), opens a window through which a challenger can contest the terms of the agreement. The challenger tries to set a new, favorable equilibrium. It has consistently been the case that the motor of domestic change is contestation, where instruments of violence (military power) or the non-conventional means available to irregular militias (assassinations or car bombs) are used. Violence might be protracted or might dissipate after a short duration; it ends only after the transfer of dominance is perceived to have been concluded.
It is instructive to revisit the consociational-democracy concept of which Lebanon is often cited as a model.7 However, it generally provides a poor explanation of the Lebanese case, for one major reason: It fails to capture the full implications of pressures from outside the state and the relationship between domestic-elite bargaining and regional or international patronage. In particular, consociational democracy does not account for the role of external parties’ intervention to tip the domestic balance of power, and this has direct implications on the strategic preferences of domestic elites. External intervention is an essential and historically consistent trait of Lebanese politics. In the Lebanese case, the negative effects of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the introduction of the Palestinian factor into the political equation were integral in defining the intra-elite process.8
The second feature of the various eras is that an external party (normally a state actor) usually supports the ascendancy of a community’s elite into dominance through material resources (financial or military) and political support. An asymmetric relationship develops between the local client and the external patron. The local dominant community has little influence on the external patron’s agenda and is left at the mercy of the patron’s interests (over which it has little control). Finally, the ability of the dominant community to maintain its domestic status, and the ability of the challenger to alter the domestic equilibrium, are both contingent on support from external parties.
Features of Lebanese Politics
Based on the above, the contours of three political eras in post-independence Lebanon could be drawn as follows. The first era, from 1943 to 1975, was based on Maronite dominance. A demographic majority, according to the 1932 census, allowed the community’s elites to claim a preponderance of political power.9 The political elites of the Maronite community had fairly uniform preferences regarding the need to harden their vertical coherence. The Maronite religious institution — the Patriarchy — was essential for harmonizing elite positions (not eliminating opposition), as well as reaching out to other Christian elites, thus allowing them to bargain in a largely uniform manner.
External support for the Maronites came from France, with which they had historically strong political and cultural ties. French intervention to cement Maronite dominance started before independence and continued into the mid-1950s, when France’s influence in the Middle East theatre saw a marked retreat after the Suez War. Meanwhile, and in roughly the same time frame, the demographic balance was starting to tip toward a Muslim advantage. The French presence was supplanted by two groups of actors: an assertive and powerful Nasser and a variety of militant Palestinian groups. Nasser was sympathetic to Maronite dominance since it guarded Lebanon’s stability in a turbulent region, especially when the Maronite elites in Lebanon generally did not challenge his attempts at Arab leadership (despite distinctions among Maronite elites). A stable Lebanon allowed Nasser to channel energies into other theaters; thus he impressed upon his followers among the Sunni elites and leftist parties a continued acceptance of Maronite dominance. With Egypt’s diminished role after the 1967 war, Lebanon lost an important brake on the burgeoning Palestinian power. A volatile mixture of socioeconomic dislocations and ideological radicalism was fed by Palestinian militancy, plunging Lebanon into war in 1975.
For a few years after 1975, the vertical alignment of Maronite elites allowed them to block many efforts at political reform and expansion of Sunni and Shiite representation. But Maronite status started to seriously erode in the late 1970s, confounded by growing intra-Maronite elite divisions. Israel intervened to try and boost Maronite dominance but was really aiming to support a Maronite faction with which it was allied at the time. Ill-received by a Lebanese national majority, Israel’s consecutive invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 augmented Sunni and Shiite alienation and intra-Christian fissures and increased the attractiveness of Syria as an internal and external balancer.10 In particular, Israel’s self-proclaimed security zone provided a solid pretext for Hezbollah’s military operations. Meanwhile, drained by militarized violence and dwindling demographics, a divided Maronite elite could not by the late 1980s maintain its status. Saudi diplomatic intervention, with American and Syrian backing, prodded warring Lebanese parties to negotiate a new power-sharing agreement.
The second era in Lebanon’s politics was ushered in with the birth of the Taif Accord in 1989. Major military operations ended in 1990, when Syrian troops moved into the non-Israeli-controlled parts of Lebanon.
The Taif Accord had quasi-constitutional attributes: it reconfigured the distribution of power in the domestic political game and allocated rights among all the communal elites.11 By the end of the 1980s, Sunni, Shiite and Christian (as a group) demographics were on a par with each other, and the Taif Accord equalized communal political powers among Christians and Muslims. It moved representation in Parliament to parity (six Christians for six Muslim deputies, up from six Christians for five Muslims). It also redistributed public-sector employment equally among Christians and Muslims.12 In practice, however, Sunni elites were given the dominant role, despite the equality that the Taif Accord had set.
Post-Taif governments had the thankless task of handling a devastated country, a long-neglected and destroyed infrastructure, and a society craving change. Despite the succession of three governments, economic conditions were increasingly deteriorating, and social unrest was on the rise. Moreover, controversial parliamentary elections “widened an already existing gap between the elite and their respective power bases.”13 The growing malaise risked undermining Syrian control over Lebanon, which it could not afford.14 Thus, Syria promoted the premiership of Rafiq al-Hariri in 1992 in order to pull Lebanon back from the brink. As a very close protégé of Riyadh and a renowned entrepreneur, Hariri brought a markedly increased Saudi nfluence into Lebanese politics and the economy. Moreover, Hariri’s global persona and innumerable philanthropic activities cutting across communal lines revived Sunni morale and sense of empowerment. At the same time, his tenure (especially from 1992 to 1998) solidified Sunni vertical loyalties; economic recovery served to mute Hariri’s opponents, especially among traditional Sunni elites.15 A hardening of loyalties around Hariri, however, did not eliminate Sunni elite and mass divisions. Sunni figures were backed by Syria to act as intra-communal balancers.
During Hariri’s tenure, Riyadh was instrumental in backing Lebanon’s financial stability. This helped its fragile postwar economy gain the confidence necessary to launch massive reconstruction and infrastructure projects. Saudi support for a rise in Sunni power in Lebanon, it should be emphasized, could not have been possible or sustained without Syrian approval. Damascus reaped direct financial pay-offs and generous strategic rents by allowing the Saudi role in Lebanon.16 Syria benefited as well from Saudi backing in the Americanbrokered peace-making process.
But by the late 1990s, and with strong ties to Riyadh, Paris and Washington, Hariri was demonstrating an ability to chart foreign and domestic policies independent of Syrian control, and the latter started to withdraw support for him. Sunni dominance was in steep decline after 2000, marked mostly by Hariri’s uneasy relationship with Syria and its Lebanese allies.17 Weakness in Lebanon would undercut his international politics. Despite its vast resources, Saudi Arabia’s near total reliance on Washington’s military and security umbrellas does not allow it to lead an assertive foreign policy, especially one that could counter Syria in Lebanon.
The assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, amidst a wave of bombing and political murder that had started in 2002, ushered in the third era. Paradoxically, the transfer of power from Hafiz to Bashar al-Asad had opened a small fissure in Syria’s control over Lebanon, through which Hezbollah was able to enter into a greater role. In the years after 2000, Hezbollah had marginalized Hariri further, contained Amal (its Shiite competitor) and sought to build a “non-subordinate” relationship with Syria.18 This is not to imply Syrian or Hezbollah responsibility for the murder or Hariri and others, but to underline the use of violence in the transition between eras. Hezbollah currently dominates the third era. Before explaining the contours of this era, a brief review of the Hezbollah story is appropriate.
In the post-independence era, the Lebanese Shiite community remained largely on the margins of a growing economy, as its political elites were not duly represented in the National Pact. Shiite clerics themselves had no organizational framework to cater to religious affairs.19 Shiite demands went through traditional non-religious elites (zuama), who were personally placated and therefore had little incentive to effectively mobilize the community.
On a national scale, economic growth from the 1950s through the early 1970s was not complemented with a coherent and elaborate distributive policy to attend to demographic and social changes.20 Ruling elites failed to “pay sufficient attention to the socioeconomic content of economic development,” contributing to growing waves of public discontent.21 Hard-hit were Lebanon’s unorganized Shiites; their socioeconomic needs were rising in the 1950s, catalyzed by a demographic boom, while state services were significantly lagging. By the 1960s, a fragmented Shiite leadership was expressing greater discontent, while many Shiites were moving to cities in search of work and becoming more receptive to radical mobilizational efforts. Secular and religious parties and elites rose to harness Shiite potential; they converged in demanding far-reaching political change.
Secular political parties grew with a Shiite influx and were mostly visible in Southern Lebanon.22 Especially significant were the leftist Lebanese National Movement (LNM) and the Communist party. Also around that time, many Shiite elites and intellectuals found in the (also secular, but right-leaning) Syrian Social Nationalist party (SSNP) an important avenue for expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo and the traditional zuama. Secular Shiite intellectuals in both circles provided a sharply critical narrative to Lebanon’s modern identity, which had been founded on Maronite and Sunni superiority.23
Religious elites adopted moderate discourse but firm demands, emphasizing the uniqueness of Lebanon’s religious mosaic. Lebanon’s Shiites have historically had close ties with seminaries in Najaf, Iraq, especially through Mohammad Baqir as-Sadr’s movement to organize the Shiite voice regionally. The Lebanese cleric credited with the systematic mobilization of Lebanon’s Shiites, Imam Musa as-Sadr (himself trained in Najaf), “advocated an enlightened and open religious discourse and tried to build a third force between the traditional leadership… and the parties of the left…, which were highly influential among the southern public, especially the youth.”24 His reformist bent attracted resistance from the traditional elite.
Musa as-Sadr channeled Shiite demands through a distinctly Shiite voice, hardening the community’s vertical alignment. He institutionalized Shiite demands, creating the Higher Islamic Shii Council (a government organization administering Shiite affairs) to order Shiite religious affairs. He also created the Movement of the Deprived, a mass-based organization designed to pool Shiite capacities and formalize socioeconomic and political demands. With growing domestic instability in the Lebanon of the 1970s, the movement developed a military and security branch and has since been known as Amal (the Arabic acronym for the Lebanese Resistance Brigades). Musa as-Sadr, who was “disappeared” in 1978 (on a trip to Libya), essentially worked to integrate the Shiites into the Lebanese political, social and economic spheres and to force the state to meet their demands. Parallel to his work, many individual Shiites contributed to the socioeconomic development of the larger community.
Shiite expatriates, prominently in Africa, the Arabian/Persian Gulf and the Americas by the mid-1900s, formed the core of a bourgeoisie that started to deliver needed services, mainly in Southern Lebanon. By the late 1960s, however, many in this bourgeoisie had hit a ceiling: avenues for integration into the national economy were limited by religious considerations. Maronite and Sunni economic elites controlled most national industries and services, providing few opportunities for Shiite entrepreneurship. Facing such obstacles, the Shiite bourgeoisie “found that their interests converged with those of their coreligionists” and opted to throw its weight behind the organizing efforts of Imam Musa as-Sadr.25 By the 1980s, Amal had become the main transmission belt for most of the expatriate bourgeoisie to funnel (mostly) money into Southern Lebanon. Amal’s influence was weakened in the 1990s with the rise of Hezbollah and the growth in independent Shiite banking.26
Iran’s Entrance into the Lebanese Theater
With the disappearance of Imam Musa as-Sadr in 1978, Lebanon’s Shiites lost an important moderate leader. Meanwhile, Palestinian military operations and Israeli retaliation, mainly in Southern Lebanon, were exponentially radicalizing Shiites. The Lebanese government was almost absent and unable to restore order to that region. After the Iranian Revolution, clashes erupted between Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and the Iraqi regime, driving many of the Shiite organizational cadres from Najaf, Iraq, to Qom, the locale of Shiite seminaries in Iran.27 Shiite political activism in Iran was under the control of loyalists to Imam Khomeini.
In the midst of Lebanon’s war and consequent Israeli invasions, which the Lebanese army could neither deter nor compel, revolutionary Iran promised salvation. Central to Iran’s policy in Lebanon from the 1980s onward was an aggressive recruitment of young and enthusiastic clerics. Mostly from marginal families, they had little interest in maintaining the status quo. Such a policy created a clerical class with close ties to Iran’s seminaries and indoctrinated by Khomeini’s jurisprudence: the main cadres of Hezbollah.
While Iran’s revolutionary model appealed to the Shiite masses in Lebanon, many elites, especially clerics, were apprehensive about its implications. According to Khomeini’s interpretation, the legitimacy of the Wali al-Faqih (Supreme Jurisconsult, frequently termed the Supreme Leader) stems not from the nation or the people, but from his selection and appointment by the Mahdi and the previous Imam to direct Shiite affairs. Not only is the Wali al-Faqih unaccountable to the nation, but the people are supposed to have blind faith in his judgment and obey him at all costs.28 Khomeini’s ideas are not shared by many prominent Shiite clerics.
In Lebanon, the most visible of these clerics have been Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah and the late Ayatollah Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddine. Fadlallah is one of the most respected contemporary Shiite clerics. His emphasis on the centrality of Shiites in the Arab world has foiled his relations with the Qom-following clerics who rose to prominence after the Iranian Revolution. Fadlallah emphasizes political pragmatism and an avoidance of revolutionary change or radical disruptions of order in political and social life. He calls for the independence of Shiite clerical thinking and is reserved about Khomeini’s centralization of power in the Wali al-Faqih to advance a political program.29
For his part, Imam Shamseddine, alongside Musa as-Sadr, was essential in institutionalizing the Shiite voice in Lebanon. He was known for his moderation and for protecting Lebanon’s religious diversity. He left an important mark during the war years in Lebanon by allowing the Higher Islamic Shiite Council to act as a mediator among the various factions. Shamseddine differed from Fadlallah in that he favored a separation of the religious from the political, whereas the latter argued for their integral connection.30
Two factors stand out here. One is the role of secular and clerical indigenous elites in the rise of Shiite awareness and politicization in post-independence Lebanon; such awareness was not started by foreign factors or mere demographics. Domestic intellectual and political forces from within the Shiites of Lebanon were instrumental in galvanizing the community before Hezbollah’s Iranian-inspired revolutionary zeal arose.31 Second, many prominent Shiite clerics do not agree with the tenets underpinning the Islamic Revolution in Iran, especially Wilayat al-Faqih, from which Hezbollah draws jurisprudential legitimacy.32
In the 1980s, leading clerics of the Islamic Revolution in Iran stepped up their direct material support for Shiite parties across the Middle East. In Lebanon, their approach was two-pronged: first, investing in socioeconomic services in Shiite-majority regions, where Lebanon’s state institutions underperformed; and second, training loyal clerics (from marginal families) and imbuing them with revolutionary ideological zeal.
Iran’s drive to gain the absolute loyalty of the Shiite community polarized its masses and political elite. A Lebanese Shiite faction was in favor of a domestic settlement with other Lebanese parties (despite some links the latter — i.e., some Maronite elites — might have had with Israel). A second Lebanese Shiite faction rejected such solutions; it comprised Hezbollah leaders who justified their choice as “Islamic” and guided by the spirit of the Iranian revolution.33 Hezbollah drew on Iranian financial and military support to solidify its domestic status.
Regionalizing the Lebanese war served Iran’s ambitions and promised much-needed support to a Syria heavily involved in the Lebanese quagmire.34 By maintaining its vehement rejection of a compromise among Lebanese factions and by supporting Syria’s role in Lebanon, Iran propped up Syrian foreign policy and drove a wedge into an already fragmented Arab subsystem.35 By tying itself to Syria, Iran succeeded in Arabizing its role in the region, using its struggle with Iraq as one of the inter-Arab disputes. Moreover, such a strategy pushed Syria closer to Iran’s orbit but clearly gave the latter’s interests more weight in the alliance.
Operationally, the evacuation of the French and American multinational forces from Lebanon after the 1983 bombings had left a security vacuum in Beirut and its suburbs. Iran moved into the southern suburbs with its well-trained and -funded militias. The area was populated mostly by Shiites who had been moving there in search of work or to escape Israeli operations and militia harassment.36 Iran then formally launched Hezbollah in 1985. Since its “formal” birth with the 1985 Manifesto, Hezbollah has been able to gain significant social and moral capital among Shiites and many non-Shiite Lebanese because of its socioeconomic services and resistance operations. Hezbollah’s charity work is highly visible and appreciated by the local population, even though its services favor Hezbollah’s followers and sympathizers.37
Hezbollah’s formidable resistance operations against Israel were central in compelling Israel’s military incursions into Lebanon, while also affording protection to citizens in Southern Lebanon. These people have been largely left on their own to confront the abuses of one of the world’s most aggressive military occupations. Southern Lebanon had historically also suffered abuses from the unregulated presence of militias, Lebanese and Palestinian alike. Hezbollah was able to impose social order there.38 Through Hezbollah’s admired resistance operations and social services, Shiite morale was boosted and the community at large empowered.
External patronage was integral to Hezbollah’s successes. It owes its resources, training and organizational model to Iran’s Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards). It owes Syria a lot as well. In the 1980s, Syria and Hezbollah clashed in their respective bids to control Lebanon militarily.39 An understanding between Iran and Syria (reached in the late 1980s) placed Hezbollah in a position subordinate to Syria in Lebanon. Syria recognized Iran’s move by eliminating all other military parties in the country and allowing only Hezbollah to keep a sizable arsenal. Resistance operations against Israel were centralized in Hezbollah, making Lebanon’s security easier for Syria to manage.
In the 1990s, to draw benefits from both Iran and Saudi Arabia, Syria imposed a division of labor in Lebanon: Rafiq al-Hariri would lead the economy, and Hezbollah the resistance against Israel. The formula worked, in that Syria was able to keep the balance and maintain Sunni dominance. But, as noted above, Syria’s leadership change allowed Hezbollah to capture a higher status in Lebanon. When Syria exited from Lebanon in 2005, its role there was further reduced but not ended, and Hezbollah was catapulted into a dominant status.
Two anomalous features characterize this third era, distinguishing it from the previous ones. First, Hezbollah’s dominance has not brought political power and influence to the majority of Shiites or elites outside its circle. Hezbollah rose to prominence by relying on its own organizations, not those of the Lebanese state. Thus, it has not engaged in distributing state resources to its followers or the community as a whole. It is Hezbollah’s current ally — and natural and historical competitor — Amal that distributes state benefits. Hence, it is not certain whether Hezbollah actually increased the number of Shiite civil servants. Did it channel more public resources to Shiite regions (other than managing Iranian and other donations for war casualties)? How much was Hezbollah instrumental in raising Shiite representation in the Parliament? Hezbollah’s behavior might have freed it from having to rely on government financing and enabled it to draw upon more plentiful Iranian resources, but it violates a central proposition around which Shiites were originally organized in the 1960s: their integral connections to Lebanon and to state-building efforts.
Another anomaly is that Hezbollah’s dominance has been marked by its control over a military arsenal and trained fighting personnel that are unmatched by any other community’s capabilities (or their combined weight) — apart from the power of the official Lebanese Armed Forces. Historically, there has never been such a radical imbalance of intercommunal military capabilities. Consequently, the current situation encourages an aggressive internal “arms race.” Moreover, Hezbollah’s military preponderance makes the costs of “normal” disagreements — the stuff of everyday politics — severely punishing for those who disagree with its line. Regardless of what Hezbollah does with its military arsenal,40 timeless balance-of-power logic dictates that actors in Lebanese politics (Shiite or otherwise) will eventually pursue a military balancing policy, probably with the help of external patrons.
It should be emphasized, however, that Hezbollah was not propelled into dominance from obscurity. It had earned cross-communal capital through its resistance operations. It had succeeded in driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, a rarity in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and helped alleviate the socioeconomic marginality of Lebanon’s Shiites. Nevertheless, the factors that enabled Hezbollah’s rise might not remain favorable.
A PRECARIOUS DOMINANCE Factors outside Hezbollah Control
Syrian support, which is critical for Hezbollah’s operational mobility, is not reliable. Syria has neither permanent allies nor foes; its long-held strategy in Lebanon is one of Realpolitik. For example, after militarized confrontations in the late 1980s, Damascus orchestrated (with Iranian approval) Hezbollah’s containment.41 The agenda in Damascus is set by Syria’s interests, not Hezbollah’s or Lebanon’s. Syria’s welcoming Arab environment and the potential for resumed peace talks with Israel have recently revived its foreign policy. Syrian interests might dictate qualitatively new strategies, including an altered modus operandi with Hezbollah. These are speculations, not certainties; but they are meaningful if blended with the other uncertainties surrounding Hezbollah’s dominant status.42
The most significant uncertainty concerns Iran’s preferences and strategies. Tehran’s calculus includes a variety of regional and domestic factors: the delayed standoff with the United States, the nuclear-energy file (which has been delicately navigated thus far), relations with Syria and its own calculations, and relations with the Arab Gulf states. Hezbollah’s options are contingent upon but, in Tehran’s calculations, subordinate to Iran’s own. Tehran can choose to alter its foreign-policy strategies and seek more compromises with the United States (and other major powers). It is not clear what Iran’s status in the Middle East is going to be; it might not remain ascendant.43
Finally, Imam Khamenei, al-Wali al-Faqih, on whom Hezbollah relies for ideological guidance, has never been regarded as an intellectual powerhouse; this has left Hezbollah’s leadership open to criticism. Moreover, Khamenei is currently under attack for abusing his power and targeting the opposition. Meanwhile, many respected clerics in Lebanon do not even agree with Khomeini’s jurisprudence (let alone Khamenei’s politics). One is the highly revered Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.
Mediating the external and domestic domains is demography. A strategic dilemma for Lebanon’s Shiite elites is that their numerical advantage in Lebanon is declining in comparison with Arab rates of population growth. Lebanon’s Sunnis have no impending concern that their identity will dissolve in the Middle East, but the Shiites do. The dilemma becomes more acute for Lebanon’s Shiites, as Sunni fundamentalism is on the rise, mobilizing Lebanon’s own towards militancy and intolerance.44 In such a negative environment, Lebanon’s Shiites will be increasingly on the defensive, and Hezbollah has done little to alleviate Shiite concerns.
Hezbollah’s behavior in the third era has eroded its status in Lebanon. In particular, two episodes — one external, the other internal — stand out. The external episode involved Israel. In July 2006, a Hezbollah operation against an Israeli military target in Southern Lebanon exposed Lebanon’s civilians to weeks of indiscriminate Israeli military retaliation. This was consistent with Israel’s track record of collective punishment.45 With Iranian training and hardware, Hezbollah demonstrated its military might and ability to halt Israeli land incursions. But this sense of overwhelming victory was not shared by all Lebanese. Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, publicly defended the party’s choice of military strategy. But he also noted that Hezbollah would not have proceeded with kidnapping the two Israeli soldiers had it foreseen the magnitude of Israeli retaliation.46 His speech had an apologetic undertone. Impacting Hezbollah further were the many consequences of the 2006 war.
On the military-strategic level, Hezbollah’s mobility was reduced with the deployment of the Lebanese army in Southern Lebanon (after an absence of almost 30 years) and the expansion of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in both numbers and zones of operations. These two moves on the ground were the result of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the war and to which Hezbollah agreed. More problematic for Hezbollah has been the political fallout of the 2006 war. In the wake of the devastation that Israel visited upon Lebanon, fissures were exposed in the national elite and public consensus over Hezbollah’s political and military roles. In various media outlets, religious and secular elites have since been questioning the appropriateness of Hezbollah’s monopoly on war-making decisions when these should be in the hands of the government or at least the combined communal elites.47
Leaks by “unknown sources” reported an internal critique of Hezbollah’s leadership, particularly its overreliance on its military apparatus. A monopoly of decision-making powers in the hands of the leadership was also termed “Stalinist,” denoting an internal dissatisfaction with how the party is run.48 Given the secrecy surrounding Hezbollah decision making, such leaks offer valuable insights into internal disagreements among the party elite.
More important, many Shiite voices have criticized Hezbollah’s behavior,49 some in unprecedented confrontational tones. Hezbollah became defensive, either directly or through sympathizers. A mere newspaper article started a national debate, posing the questions and concerns of many Shiite and non-Shiite Lebanese.50 Other voices criticized Hezbollah’s use of a discourse of “honor and pride” to justify its behavior. Honor refers to Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli encroachments and its refusal, alongside Syria, to betray “Arab and Palestinian causes” (as Egypt, Jordan and some Arab Gulf states allegedly had done).51 Shiites critical of Hezbollah, however, are being crowded out and have in recent years come under intense pressure.52 The internal questions around Hezbollah’s behavior took on a more serious tone in 2008, when Hezbollah overreached again. This episode produced more serious repercussions for Hezbollah, and for Lebanon’s Shiites, in general.
In May 2008, the Lebanese government decided to end part of Hezbollah’s private land-communications network. The party regarded this as a threat to its resistance operations. (Land lines are more challenging to intercept and monitor than airwaves.) In retaliation, Hezbollah launched a nationwide military campaign against the Lebanese government and other political foes, the majority of whom were non-Shiites. Because of the excessive violence, Hezbollah was referred to by some as “a militia” rather than a “national resistance” force.53 Many Lebanese who were modestly critical of the party before 2008 became openly vocal. Hezbollah’s use of force internally drew negative responses from a wide cross-section of Lebanese actors, including the Shiite community.54 Non-Shiite “vertical” loyalties were hardened and intercommunal tensions significantly heightened.
Lebanon’s Shiites have received considerable criticism for their perceived ties to Iran and their support for a non-Lebanese agenda. Questions about the loyalty of Lebanon’s Arab Shiites gained momentum after the Islamic Revolution and Iran’s foreign policy of exporting it. After all, Hezbollah does owe its existence and power to the patronage of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who have provided it not only with funds and training, but also with an institutional model.
Conscious of these factors, Hezbollah officials have become more expressive of an Arab identity for the party and of their involvement in Arab causes (such as support for Hamas). Hezbollah’s behavior, however, makes it hard not to perceive this as a rhetorical effort to legitimize itself in the eyes of its own, the broader Lebanese society and, more particularly, the Arab public. This public, after all, is predominantly Sunni and has major reservations about Iran’s role in Arab politics.55
Finally, a central dilemma seems to be facing Hezbollah since 2000.56 This has to do with Hezbollah’s distancing itself from Iran ideologically, logistically and strategically. The question is not so much whether the party wants to, but rather whether it has the ability to do so. This dilemma has to be contrasted with another set of concerns. If the intercommunal conflict continues and Lebanon’s Shiites remain under the accusation of compromised loyalties, will Hezbollah have to distance itself from Iran and throw in with Shiite Lebanese to guard its status and, more important, its power base? Given the opaque nature of the party’s operations, it is hard to accurately gauge its cadres’ reactions. But the majority of them are part of the Shiite presence in Lebanon, not Iran. Hezbollah’s politics have thus far reflected an ability to adjust, but never has it had to make such choices.
Hezbollah also has to factor into its calculations Syria’s peace-making process with Israel, as well as Iran’s bargaining with the United States for an elevated regional role. The contours of Hezbollah’s domestic decisionsin Lebanon might be set by factors beyond its control, thus perhaps making its choices clearer.57
A HEZBOLLAH MAKEOVER?
A window of opportunity is ready for Hezbollah to dive through and launch an initiative to reverse some of the negative trends noted above. An important facilitating factor is that it now has Lebanese partners with vested interests in making a dialogue work. Most of the current Sunni political and religious elites are fairly moderate and open to a dialogue. At their helm is Rafiq al-Hariri’s son, Saad al-Hariri, who has much at stake in Lebanon’s stability. As prime minister, Saad has to make his tenure confirm him as a credible heir; so far the Sunni community has been receptive to his calls for moderation. The Maronite leadership, formally represented in the president of the republic, has an interest in stabilizing Lebanon and reversing some of the losses it has suffered over the years. Another prominent Maronite pillar and Hezbollah’s ally, General Michel Aoun, would also have his oft-criticized choice of allies vindicated and his reaching out to Hezbollah replicated.58
Other communities eager for inclusion are the Druze and the Greek Orthodox. Both are integral to the Lebanese mosaic, but their respective leaderships fear their presence in the Levant to be threatened by relatively declining numbers. Finally, others interested in taking part are secular and independent groups, which have historically had a marginal impact on the political discourse. Secularist, Greek Orthodox and Druze elites can help calibrate Sunni and Maronite power.
The inclusion of all of Lebanon’s communities is important to building a national consensus and will mitigate confrontation between Hezbollah and the other Shiites. Since at least 1985, Israel has continually placed the predominantly Shiite inhabitants of Southern Lebanon under heavy bombardment in retaliation for Hezbollah “operations.” The many displaced as a result have become proxy tools to pressure Lebanon’s government and Hezbollah. During the 2006 war, Lebanon’s displaced were hosted in homes or makeshift shelters in mostly non-Shiite regions across Lebanon. But after the May 2008 events, especially in Beirut, it is not certain how non-Shiites would react to an inflow of Shiites displaced by Israel. Hezbollah’s militarism in May 2008 aroused negative sentiments among many Lebanese.59 While vertical alignment can help Hezbollah rally a wider audience among the Shiites, it transfers negative sentiments towards the party onto the Shiites as a community.
It is important to link the various challenges noted above with the anomalies of the current era. Until very recently, Hezbollah’s dominance was built on suppressing serious opposition with Syrian help. After 2006, critics of Hezbollah’s leadership have been more assertive, many challenging a core aspect of the party — its ties to Iran — and tying that to the identity of Lebanon’s Shiites. A schism exists within the Shiite community over Hezbollah’s role, but its magnitude cannot be accurately gauged yet. Five years ago, no one would have expected such developments.
The argument above runs counter to most of the media reports and “strategic analysis” of Western, especially American, sources. The media seem to prefer a powerful Hezbollah for a variety of reasons: perhaps to justify Israeli intransigence and continued operations, perhaps out of sheer lack of understanding of Lebanon and the region’s nuances, perhaps both. Also, given the strong ties between Iran and Hezbollah (which both publicize), the latter is used as a proxy to emphasize Iran’s growing regional power and the threat that must be curbed, especially when the nuclear issue enters the picture. Hezbollah wears Western and Israeli reports of its military prowess as a badge of honor, to consolidate its ranks. Yet Hezbollah cannot ignore the reality that its credentials are being questioned. For all of the above reasons, the current era is unstable.
A NEW ARRANGEMENT?
Hezbollah can redefine the contours of the third era to entrench its current favorable status, dampen criticism of Lebanon’s
Shiites, and bring stability to the country. In essence, this entails strengthening its ties to the Lebanese polity relative to those with Iran. Some variants of this transformation have been termed the “Lebanonization” of the party.60 It can accomplish this by soliciting a power-sharing formula in Lebanon. This would be carried out under the rubric of the Taif Accord. The latter recognized the equality of Christian-Muslim representation in Parliament and equalized decision-making prerogatives; the main problem was its unbalanced application by the Syrians. A new arrangement would have to entail a revision of the terms that still need to be executed. Hence, changes in the formal constitutional set-up would be modest.
The starting point would have to be a bitter pill for Hezbollah: its military arsenal. In phases, it can transfer its power to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) or at least place much of it under LAF command. Military power is an important deterrent against Israel, but after May 2008, only concrete action will be sufficient to ease domestic tensions. A nationally integrated and accepted Hezbollah, however, is more dangerous to Israel than merely a strong one.
A shift in Hezbollah’s political standing in Lebanon might mean some distancing from Iran’s regional politics, but not necessarily a reneging on their intricate historical relationship. A politically integrated and accepted Hezbollah, even if less powerful militarily, will prove more of an asset to Tehran than a discredited Hezbollah leading a “suspect” Shiite community. Therefore, even if it makes a modest start, Hezbollah has to take credible action to allow it to ask for a greater political role.
A new political arrangement would confirm the current position of Hezbollah as a central, but not the sole, speaker for Lebanon’s Shiites. The party should also be able to appoint (as it does today) the majority of Shiite ministers. Moreover, while the Lebanese government as the administrator of state affairs should be more involved in Southern Lebanon and the Eastern Beqaa (Hezbollah’s strongholds and historically underdeveloped regions), the party can coordinate socioeconomic projects there. These processes would allow Hezbollah some veto power in decision making, as well as influence over organizing the qualitative improvement of living standards in impoverished regions. Hezbollah would be given an increased quota in public-sector employment. While delivering tangible returns to its followers, this process would also include them in the domestic economic cycle and make them less reliant on direct financing by the party without undermining loyalty to it. As such, while Hezbollah would be given a greater opportunity to bring benefits to its followers, and Shiites in general, it would need to work with government agencies in matters of international financing and foreign direct investment, where it has relatively little competence. Hezbollah has to help confirm that Shiites do not pose a threat to the future of Lebanon’s mosaic, while avoiding any resort to violence.
A U.S. ROLE?
President Obama signaled an American interest in qualitatively altering relations with Middle Eastern states and peoples. But after having raised expectations, little has been done to change policy. One place to start would be to stabilize Lebanon, and in the process encourage Hezbollah to enter a new power-sharing arrangement.61 An important first move would be to tone down U.S. terrorism rhetoric, especially as there is no clear answer to “who is a terrorist” in the Middle East, given the behaviors of Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, al-Qaeda, and many other state and non-state actors. Many are American allies. Washington can pressure them, especially Israel, to try and decrease some of the threatening rhetoric against Hezbollah, which has so far enabled the party’s leadership to rally the base around its flag. A cornered and threatened Hezbollah will not be amenable to dialogue with other Lebanese actors.
A critical factor in Washington’s strategy towards Hezbollah is its diplomatic skills. Washington hasn’t had the chance to use them with Hezbollah.62 Through informal channels (such as Hezbollah’s representatives in the Lebanese parliament), Washington can signal its accommodationist stance. Washington can also encourage some parties in Lebanon with which it has good ties to propose a more meaningful dialogue with Hezbollah. In this way, the United States would prod Hezbollah towards options favorable to both of them and thus help stabilize Lebanon.
A combination of nonconfrontational rhetoric and informal prodding would signal an American interest in accommodating a greater political and lesser military role for Hezbollah. It is not to be expected that Hezbollah would sever ties with Iran or Syria, or that it would fundamentally alter its discourse. Rather, relieving pressure on the party would help make domestic non-confrontational political options more attractive and sustainable.63 The domestic domain remains receptive to Hezbollah’s choices, though it has little influence on regional processes tied to Iran and Syria. I am not proposing dialogue, collaboration or coordination. But the United States can help tip Hezbollah’s scales in a direction that would at least avoid confrontation and at best bring stability to Lebanon.
Concomitant with encouraging Hezbollah to adjust its domestic behavior, Washington should help the state harden its institutional structures through two potential venues. The first is to support the long-term economic and financial developmental planning of the Lebanese government, including efforts to professionalize and modernize pertinent bureaucracies. Such efforts would help wean Lebanon off Saudi financing. The second venue is to empower the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces through military hardware and training. This will help dilute Hezbollah’s claim to be the defender of Lebanese sovereignty and shift responsibility to a national institution. This in turn will help restore citizens’ trust in the government and make it more immune to external intervention.64 A strong Lebanese Armed Forces will also cause politico-religious communities to be less reliant on foreign powers for their survival and deter internal military power balancing. A sovereign and strong Lebanese state will be a regional asset for Washington. Resistance from Hezbollah is to be expected but should not discourage the American administration from sustaining its pressure and encouragement of positive Hezbollah gestures. Hard-line diplomacy, rather than military force, can best serve American interests in Lebanon and the Greater Middle East; the use of force has only further radicalized many regional actors.
American efforts would face two significant inhibitors. The first, and more important, is the inability of the American administration to chart a “Lebanese policy” independent of the Israeli government or pro-Israel groups in Washington — especially when this policy has a Hezbollah dimension.65
The second inhibitor is a combination of American technicalities and Hezbollah posturing. The American administration still brands Hezbollah a terrorist organization, thus hindering its ability to be lenient (however weak the chances of accommodation are). American long-term interests should take primacy.66 For example, “in the immediate aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration excluded Hezbollah, along with Syrian-backed Palestinian groups, from its war on terror in order to secure the backing of Arab states.”67 A variation on such a tactic might signal current American intentions, but it has to be consistent. The fact that “Hezbollah was returned to the [terror] list” when Dick Cheney opined that a “presumed Hezbollah operative” probably met with an al-Qaeda representative in South America in 2001” reveals a wavering United States, not a global superpower.68
For Hezbollah, much of its discourse revolves around “resisting American preponderance.” Despite its demonstrated Realpolitik, especially towards Syria, Hezbollah has a vehement ideological opposition to what it perceives as an “evil empire” — the United States. Khomeini’s rhetoric referring to the “the meek and oppressed countering the belligerent” underpins Hezbollah’s world vision and is consistent with Shiite mythology. Therefore, the United States should not expect open or positive responses from Hezbollah to low-key (and informal) American signaling.69 With diffuse American pressure, and in the light of the particulars of Lebanon’s realities, however, Hezbollah would be well-positioned to capitalize on opportunities to maximize its interests.
Other obstacles facing Washington in such a venture have partly to do with the United States itself. The system of checks and balances distributes power among the various bureaucratic offices and consequently leads to divergent interests. American foreign policy towards the Middle East today is conducted via a multiplicity of nodes, including the White House, the George Mitchell team, the intelligence community, the Department of State and the Congress (which effectively oversees the whole process). The United States is sending a plethora of messages to actors in the Middle East, many of which could turn out to be confusing and counterproductive. In the case of Lebanon, there does not seem to be a policy yet.70
In the effort to formulate American policy on Lebanon, the administration will face both internal resistance and support. Resistance to White House efforts is likely to come from the U.S. Congress, which does not approve of dialogue with parties such as Hezbollah. There remains a general apprehension among the majority of constituents and lobby groups about engaging parties such as Hezbollah. This effectively deters Congress from approving government efforts to alter the official U.S. position towards building up the Lebanese Armed Forces.71 Whatever the government is going to propose is going to hit the congressional wall and will therefore need some assistance.
To try and help the administration in its efforts, President Obama can turn to the intelligence community. This community would probably support efforts to engage Hezbollah. New American overtures in Lebanon would help quell some regional tensions and allow the shifting of drained resources to more pressing fields. Support for the president’s mission would also come from Senator Mitchell’s efforts. The envoy might be more involved in the Arab-Israeli track, but he has an interest in trying to stabilize Lebanon since on its territory intersect Syrian, Palestinian and Israeli interests. Finally, the State Department has a vested interest in seeing diplomacy conquer military intervention. Currently, the department seems to be preoccupied by the Iranian nuclear-energy program and its regional ramifications. If Hezbollah in Lebanon can be prodded by Washington into a new domestic arrangement, the ability of Iran to use it as a bargaining chip would be reduced, even if minimally.72
A RETURN ON U.S. INVESTMENTS
The United States is seeking to achieve two strategic gains: in the short term, to translate President Obama’s message of good will into tangible benefits; in the long term, to drive the Middle East region towards greater stability. Lebanon can incubate a reconciliatory American discourse at a time when America’s regional Arab allies cannot. Most of these allies openly and consistently suppress large segments of their populations, particularly religious minorities. In relative terms, there exists in Lebanon an environment hospitable to Washington’s efforts.
There might be a catch, however. American engagement should be designed for the long haul. In the short term, American assistance to state institutions (especially the security sector) will help transform the environment under which various groups in Lebanon are operating into a more predictable one. Under a changed structure of the political game, parties in Lebanon — especially Hezbollah — would alter their strategies for action towards strengthening a state presence. Such a positive dynamic would serve as a crucial confidence-building measure among Lebanese parties. It is only by seeing Hezbollah create solid bridges with other parties that a more lasting change in U.S. interests can be achieved.
Regional benefits could accrue to Washington from the two investments in Lebanon. With American signaling, a Hezbollah with high stakes in the maintenance of its domestic role in Lebanon will be encouraged to alter its domestic behavior. Hezbollah will not cut ties with Iran and Syria; but it may become more loss-averse, especially if its power base were under direct attack and its own privileges threatened.
With American assistance, a strengthened Lebanese state will be an important asset for making peace. Washington seems adamant in moving negotiations forward. If successful, an internal consensus under a robust Lebanese Armed Forces will make Lebanon’s parties more immune to external pressures, especially from Iran or Syria. A Hezbollah (and others in Lebanon) bound by newfound arrangements will have a greater stake in guarding its status. Also reduced, but not eliminated, would be Iran’s ability to force Hezbollah into actions that would compromise its domestic standing.
As American diplomats have experienced first hand, Lebanon’s particulars are closely linked with its environment. Current tensions in its domestic politics derive largely from the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s search for a status upgrade is pushing it to use its ties with regional groups, including Hezbollah. Iranian intervention is not consistent with the interests of Lebanon’s Arab Shiites, despite the various public attempts to try to harmonize them.73 For its part, Riyadh sees itself as the defender of Sunni rights, but it has over the years been financing the spread of a radical/Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, including in Lebanon.74 Both agendas are polarizing for the domestic discourse and detrimental to Lebanon’s delicate communal balance and internal stability.
In Lebanon, American inaction stands to serve the interests, paradoxically, of Israel, Syria and Hezbollah all at once. The most important issue so far is the veto by Israel of an American refurbishing of the Lebanese Armed Forces, claiming that hardware might fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Ironically, Hezbollah itself argues that it cannot let go of its arsenal as long as the Lebanese Armed Forces are deficient in defensive capabilities. The losers in all this are the Lebanese state institutions. Meanwhile Hezbollah guards its weapons, and Israel periodically finds pretexts to invade or bomb deep into Lebanese territory. Washington has not been asked to alter its regional alliances or turn Israel into a foe, but it should demonstrate to Arab states, including Israel and Lebanon, its ability to move freely in the region.
On a parallel track, Washington should initiate a deeper and more meaningful dialogue with Saudi Arabia and Iran about a new security arrangement in the Gulf. It could help roll back the threatening encirclement of Iran — a result of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, the stationing of large numbers of American troops in the Gulf, and the axis-of-evil rhetoric. In the Levant, Washington, through the Mitchell diplomacy, is investigating how to move forward towards concrete and immediate gains for Syria, the Palestinians and Israel. These entail complex diplomatic skills and demand that Washington understand regional nuances. Working through the Lebanese quagmire would show that the sole global superpower understands the actors’ interests and concerns, and that it is able and willing to accommodate them, if possible.
It is up to Hezbollah to alter its behavior, but Washington can prod it into a new direction. If no new equilibrium is reached, Lebanon’s politics will remain in a debilitating limbo, disadvantageous to the Shiites and Hezbollah. State structures will erode further while the national economy declines. These signs mark the contours of a potential cycle of internal violence in which Hezbollah and the Shiites will likely lose out. An opportunity exists, however, for the United States to advance its interests via Lebanon’s Hezbollah. That this idea has been largely developed through conservative Washingtonian optics is intended to underscore the reality that the United States can reap benefits by helping to bring stability to Middle Eastern theaters.
2 Majed Halawi, A Lebanon Defied: Musa al-Sadr and the Shi’a Community (Westview Press, 1992), p. 96. Halawi succinctly describes politics in post-independence Lebanon: “By stipulating proportional confessional representation in all branches of government, however, the practice reduced politics in Lebanon to a zero-sum game for which a minimax strategy was optimal; in other words, it became a situation whereby the actors conducted their affairs so that each sought the lowest maximum advantage, i.e., the lowest maximum advantage for the sum of all other actors. Consequently, intercommunal competition and the possibility of conflict were ever present. Stability in the country became predicated on the consent to perpetuate the status quo.”
3 On the evolution of communal politics, see Farid el-Khazen, The Communal Pact of National Identities: The Making and Politics of the 1943 National Pact, Papers on Lebanon Series No. 12 (Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1991).
4 The 1932 census placed Maronites in the lead. Estimates, which have since replaced exact numbers, seem to concur that Muslim Shiites and Sunnis are almost equal in demographics and occupy a higher rank than Christians. Sunni and Shiite leaders relied on shifting numeric advantages to end Christian dominance in 1989. See Muhammad Faour, “The Demography of Lebanon: A Reappraisal,” Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 27, No. 4, 1991, pp. 631–641.
5 See Farid el-Khazen, “Lebanon’s Communal Elite-Mass Politics: The Institutionalization of Disintegration,” The Beirut Review, No. 3, Spring 1992.
6 The confessional fight over spoils-sharing produced the self-reliance strategies among Lebanon’s politico-religious elites. Moreover, the consecutive wars Lebanon witnessed, and the increased marginalization of the state and its agencies (before the Taif Accord), contributed to the poor management and distribution of national income. The weakness of national institutions is frequently attributed to the confessional makeup of Lebanese society and the prerogatives of communal elites to determine their share of the national wealth, thus impeding and distorting social mobility and economic roles. See Boutrous Labaki, al-Siyasa al’inmaiyya waal-a’dala al-ijtimayya fi Lubnan [Developmental Policy and Social Justice in Lebanon] (Beirut, 1996).
7 The original argument was in Arend Lijphart, “Consociational Democracy,” World Politics, Vol. 21, No. 2, January 1969, pp. 207-225.
8 See Richard Hrair Dekmejian, “Consociational Democracy in Crisis: The Case of Lebanon,” Comparative Politics, Vol. 10, No. 2, January 1978, pp. 251-265.
9 On the demographic balance, see Rania Maktabi, “The Lebanese Census of 1932 Revisited: Who Are the Lebanese?” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, November 1999, pp. 219-241.
10 See William Harris, Faces of Lebanon: Sects, Wars, and Global Extensions (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997), Ch. 5.
11 The Taif Accord defines Lebanon as a free sovereign country, with an Arab identity belonging to the Arab world and a final homeland for its people, thus ending decades of debate around the original identity of Lebanon. The Accord describes Lebanese society as one, characterized by diversity and richness in its communal makeup cemented by freedom of communication, speech and living. “...the legitimacy of authority in Lebanon is grounded in the agreement of the various communities to live together... Any authority that sought to undermine this solemn national and constitutional commitment to inter-communal amity would thereby make itself illegal” (Joseph Maila, “The Taif Accord: An Evaluation,” in Deidre Collings, ed., Peace for Lebanon?: From War to Reconstruction (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994), p. 35).
12 See Albert Mansour, al-Inqilab ‘ala al-Taif (The Coup on the Taif) (Beirut: Dar al-Jadid, 1993). See also Paul E. Salem, “Two Years of Living Dangerously, General Awn and Precarious Rise of Lebanon’s ‘Second Republic’,” The Beirut Review, No. 1, Spring 1991, pp. 62-87.
13 Farid el-Khazen, “The Making and Unmaking of Lebanon’s Political Elites from Independence to Taif,” The Beirut Review, No. 6, Fall 1993, p. 62.
14 Hegemony over Lebanon’s politics was a Syrian goal and was complete by 1990. It served two major Syrian interests. Lebanon had since 1968 provided Syria with an important strategic buffer through which to confront Israel; shifting the fight from the Golan plateau meant little direct cost on the Syrian interior. Moreover, Syria’s regime since 1970 feared that Lebanon’s political freedoms would encourage dissent inside Syria. Controlling Lebanon ensured Syria’s manipulation of potential threats from Islamic movements, political parties, ideological trends, or intellectuals. Lebanon’s open economy, as well, has historically been Syria’s gate to the world. Using Lebanon’s market economy, particularly its freedom for currency exchange, allowed Damascus to postpone pressing reform initiatives that might have brought uncertain political outcomes in the 1980s and 1990s. See Judith Harik, “Syrian Foreign Policy and State/Resistance Dynamics in Lebanon,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 20, No. 3, 1997, pp. 249–265.
15 Al-Hariri- Hezbollah relations were born in conflict. On September 1993, a confrontation between the Lebanese security forces and demonstrators left seven dead and 24 wounded. The demonstration was called for by Hezbollah and others to denounce the signing of the Palestinian-Israeli (Gaza-Jericho) agreement (An-Nahar, September 14, 1993).
16 See Nawaf Obaid, Region in Crisis: Saudi Arabia’s Critical Role in Lebanon (Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service; http://www.saudi-us-relations.org/articles/2006/ioi/060808-nawaf-lebano…). Riyadh backed (and still does) the stability of the Lebanese economy through sovereign deposits in the Lebanese Central Bank. With Lebanon currently burdened by a foreign debt in excess of $50 billion, Saudi financial support is critical for the continued confidence in an otherwise fragile economy. See, for example, the Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Profile, Lebanon, 2008, p. 11.
17 See George Bkasini, al-Tariq ila al-istiqlal: khams sanawat ma` Rafiq al-Hariri (The Road to Independence: Five Years with Rafiq al-Hariri (Beirut: copyright property of the author, 2008).
18 Hamze (2004 op. cit., chapter five) gives an excellent account of this transition phase, and the shifting power dynamic between Syria and Hezbollah. He notes an incident which signifies the newfound position of Hezbollah vis-à-vis Syria and Amal: Hezbollah’s rejection of the inclusion of a Syrian-nominated parliamentary candidate.
19 The Sunni Dar al-Fatwa was created in 1955, the Maronite Patriarchy centuries ago.
20 A study was commissioned by the Lebanese government in 1960 in an attempt to balance the historically uneven patterns of national development. The “IRFED report,” Besoins et Possibilites de Developpement du Liban (Needs and Possibilities for Development in Lebanon) was produced for the Ministry of Planning in 1964. The report generated progressive ideas that were needed to rectify existing dislocations, but political disagreements on exact execution mechanisms hindered the creation of meaningful applications. For references to the report and the role of government in national planning, see George Corm, Politique Economique et Planification au Liban, 1954-1964 (Political Economy and Planning in Lebanon: 1954-1964) (Beirut: Imprimerie Universelle, 1964).
21 Samir Makdisi, “An Appraisal of Lebanon’s Economic Development,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer 1977, pp. 267-275.
22 See Helena Cobban, “The Growth of Shi’i Power in Lebanon and Its Implications for the Future,” in Juan I. Cole and Nikkie R. Keddie, eds., Shiism and Social Protest (Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 142-143.
23 See Mahdi Amel, Fi Al-Dawla Al-Taifiyya [Writings on the Confessional State] (Beirut: Al-Farabi, 1989). On the LNM, see Mohsen Ibrahim, al-Harb wa tajrubat al-haraka al-wataniyya [War and the Experience of the Lebanese National Movement], (Beirut: Beirut al-Mazaa, 1983).
24 Fawwaz Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2007), p. 177.
25 Majed Halawi, A Lebanon Defied: Musa al-Sadr and the Shi’a Community (Westview Press, 1992), p. 75.
26 Elizabeth Picard, “The Political Economy of Civil War in Lebanon,” in Steven Heydemann, ed., War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (University of California Press, 2000), pp. 314–317.
27 A. Nizar Hamze, In the Path of Hizbullah (Syracuse University Press, 2004), Ch. 2.
28 Tawfiq As-Sayf, Nazariyyat as-sulta fi al-fiqh al-shi’i [Theories of Governance in Shiite Jurisprudence], (Beirut: Al-Markaz Al-Thaqafi Al-Arabi, 2002), pp. 243–257.
29 Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, Hadith aashoura [An Ashoura Discourse], (Beirut: Dar Al-Malak, 1997) pp. 35-37.
30 Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddine, Thawrat al-Hussein: Thorofoha al-Ijtimaeyya wa Aathariha al-Insaney ya [Hussein’s Revolution: its Social Bases and Humanitarian Consequences], (Beirut: al-Mouassasa al-Dawleyya lil-Dirasat wal Nashr, 1996).
31 See an interview with Hani Fahs, “Musa as-Sadr: Qussa Lam Turwa” [Musa as-Sadr: An Untold Story], ash-Sharq al-Awsat, May 16, 2008. See also Chibli Mallat, Shii Thought from the South of Lebanon (Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1988).
32 See Rashed al-Ghannoushi, “Al-Ilaqa bayna al-Shiia al-Arab wa Iran” [The Relationship between the Shiite Arabs and Iran], Al-Jazeera, June 24, 2009. 33 Waddah Sharara, Dawlat Hezbollah: Lubnan Moujtama’an Islamiyyan [The State of Hezbollah: Lebanon as a Muslim Society] (Beirut: Dar An-Nahar, 1996), pp. 118–119.
34 By the mid-1980s, Syria had fought with all major Lebanese parties on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as with the PLO; Syria was thus weak militarily and politically in Lebanon.
35 On the one hand stood status quo Arab powers such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, which were seeking to find a win-win compromise to end the Lebanon conflict. On the other hand, an alliance of convenience between Syria, Libya, and Algeria was crystallizing.
36 Sharara, Dawlat Hezbollah, op. cit. p. 120.
37 On Hezbollah’s services and administration, see Joseph Elie Alagha, The Shifts in Hizbullah’s Ideology: Religious Ideology, Political Ideology, and Political Program (Leiden: Amsterdam University Press, 2006). See also Dima Danawi, Hizbullah’s Pulse: Into the Dilemma of Al-Shahid and Jihad al-Bina Foundations (Beirut: Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, 2002).
38 Lebanon’s territory bordering Israel, before and after its 1978 invasion and eventual occupation, has been an active theatre for military exchanges between Israeli forces and resistance groups. The composition of these resistance groups has varied over the years, and so has their treatment of the local population, with frequent reported clashes.
39 The most prominent was the “Fathallah Barracks crisis” in 1987; see as-Safir, February 25, 1987.
40 After internal militarized clashes in 2008, Hezbollah’s leader Sayyid Nasrallah reiterated that it would not use its weapons internally, but has not quelled fears to the contrary. Al-Arabiya News Agency, May 26, 2008, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2008/05/26/50437.html.
41 See Asad Abukhalil, “Syria and the Shiites: Al-Asad’s Policy in Lebanon,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2, April 1990, pp. 1–20.
42 See Daniel Byman, “Hezbollah’s Dilemma,” A Postscript, Foreign Affairs, April 2005.
43 On Iran’s regional behavior, see Imad Mansour, “Iran and Instability in the Middle East: How Preferences Influence the Regional Order,” International Journal, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn 2008, pp. 941-964.
44 On the growing Sunni-Shiite divide, see Shibley Telhami, “America in Arab Eyes,” Survival, Vol. 49, No. 1, Spring 2007, pp. 107–122.
45 For an excellent account of Israel’s use of military force in foreign-policy decisions, see Zeev Maoz, Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy (University of Michigan Press, 2006).
46 The 2006 war escalated from a kidnapping by Hezbollah of Israeli soldiers on the border with Lebanon. A 1996 “understanding” reached between the Lebanese and Israeli governments, with American, French, and Syrian backing, “organized” cross-border operations so as to contain them (not stop them). Hezbollah seems to have perceived the kidnapping as a contained act, but which did not prevent Israel from escalating (in July 2006) when its interests dictated so. See Nasrallah’s speech in An-Nahar, August 28, 2006; see also an interview in As-Safir, September 27, 2006.
47 On Lebanon and Hezbollah in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 Israeli war, see Paul E. Salem, “The Future of Lebanon,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 6, November – December 2006, pp. 13–22.
48 Amir Taheri, “Min Mona Fayyad ila al-Sayyid Ali al-Amine: al-Intiqadat Tatazayad” (From Mona Fayyad to Ali al-Amine: Criticism is Mounting), An-Nahar, August 31, 2006.
49 The most prominent Shiite cleric resisting Hezbollah’s hegemony over the community is Sayyid Ali Al-Amine, who has come under direct attack on his person and offices. See his official website (which notes the continuous pressures levied on him): http://www.al-amine.org/.
50 The article was written by a university professor, Mona Fayyad, and appeared in the daily an-Nahar (August 8, 2006). Fayyad posed a series of questions regarding Hezbollah’s behavior. In question format, the essay critiqued Hezbollah’s hegemony over the Shiite voice, the way it uses military power, and its overall actions, which compromised Lebanon’s Shiites. The article was translated at http://www.10452lccc.com/hizbollah/fayad10.8.06english.htm. See a reply by Hala al-Zein, “Munaqasha li ‘as`ilat” Mona Fayyad waijabatiha” (a discussion of Mona Fayyad’s questions and her answers), An-Nahar September 5, 2006.
51 A survey of “Hezbollah’s audience” appeared in An-Nahar, starting on August 29, 2006. The survey was to shed light on how this audience understands honor and resistance. Briefly, the survey found that three important factors have hardened Hezbollah’s popularity: feelings of exclusion, Israel’s destruction of Southern Lebanese villages that only Hezbollah was able to deter, and fear of being marginalized in Lebanon’s politics.
52 See an interview with Sayyid Ali Al-Amine, Al-Arabiya, November 14, 2008.
53 See “Hezbollah in Control of West Beirut,” Al-Jazeera, May 11, 2008, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/ middleeast/2008/05/2008614233813913460.html.
54 See Robert Worth and Nada Bakri, “Hezbollah Ignites a Sectarian Fuse in Lebanon,” The New York Times, May 18, 2008.
55 See Naim Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within, translated from Arabic by Dalia Khalil (London: Saqi Books: 2005); Qassem is Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General.
56 The year 2000 was a turning point for three reasons: first, Israel’s retreat from Lebanon under Hezbollah’s military pressure; second, the power transition in Syria to a new leadership less experienced in foreign policy; and finally, the beginning of the end of Hariri’s rule and Sunni dominance, and with it Hezbollah’s attempt to carve out a larger share in Lebanese politics.
57 The future of Lebanon’s Shiites will be impacted by Hezbollah’s actions. But Lebanon’s Shiites have a demonstrated ability to accommodate to adverse regional and domestic pressures and maintain their presence. See Ali Al-Zein, Fosool min tarikh al-Shi’a fi Lubnan [Chapters in Shiite History in Lebanon] (Beirut: Dar al-Kalima Lilnashr, 1979).
58 General Michel Aoun is a former Army Commander and prime minister (the legitimacy of the latter position is contested). He was driven out of his offices by Syrian forces in 1990, and settled in exile in France from 1990 to 2005. Upon returning to Lebanon, General Aoun proceeded to build a mass-based movement and a maverick network of alliances and friendships, including with the Syrian regime. More importantly, in 2006, he struck a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah designed to coordinate political strategies between both actors. Since that time, Aoun has drawn severe criticism from opponents and supporters alike. See Tamirace Fakhoury-Mühlbacher, “The July War and Its Effects on Lebanon’s Power-Sharing: The Challenge of Pacifying a Divided Society,” Journal of Peace Conflict & Development, Vol. 10, March 2007, (online edition); see also Carol Dagher, General wa Rihan [A General and a Gamble] (Beirut: Manshurat Malaff al-Alam al-Arabi, 1992).
59 Hezbollah’s rethinking of its role in Lebanon, in particular among the Shiites, would be important for both parties’ interests. See Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, “Epilogue”, in Shiite Lebanon: Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities (Columbia University Press, 2008).
60 See Mona Harb and Reinoud Leenders, “The Politics of Naming: Rebels, Terrorists, Criminals, Bandits and Subversives,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2005, pp. 173-197.
61 On the strategic potential that Lebanon affords the United States, see Nizar Abdel-Kader, “U.S. Policy towards Lebanon: Hurdles and Prospects,” Lebanese National Defence, No. 61, July 2007, online edition.
62 Diplomacy should complement America’s global military engagements. For an interesting assessment of American military capabilities, see Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 88, No. 4, July-August 2009, pp. 18-33.
63 On Hezbollah’s flexibility towards Syria, see Emile El-Hokayem, “Hizballah and Syria: Outgrowing theProxy Relationship,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2007, pp. 35–52.
64 On American-Lebanese Relations, see Margaret El Helou, “al-Siyasa al-Amerciyya tojah Lubnan: 2001-2007, tasadom al-ahdaf” (American Policy in Lebanon 2001-2007: The Conflict of Objectives), Lebanese National Defence, No. 62, October 2007: online edition.
65 American-Israeli ties are frequently seen by the Arab world, especially the Lebanese, as being to their disadvantage. As the sole superpower with effective presence in the Middle East since the 1970s, American intervention in regional war and peacemaking tallies to Israeli’s benefit. How accurate the Arab perception is remains hard to gauge. It clearly is a multifaceted issue, and Arab regimes carry part of the blame for being unable to articulate coherent interests or organize effective lobbies in Washington. Intra-Arab rivalries themselves helped elevate Israel’s regional influence. But the United States has in effect been unwilling, or unable, to put limitations on Israel’s intransigence (which it frequently does not condone), such as over settlements in the Palestinian territories, or the continued violation of Lebanese sovereignty. Most flagrant are Israel’s uses of American state-of-the-art military technologies against civilian Lebanese targets without much reaction from Washington. Regarding a recent Israeli campaign to prevent the arming of the Lebanese Armed Forces, see Patrick Galey, “Israel Tries to Block Military Aid to Lebanon,” The Daily Star, January 13, 2010.
66 See an interview with U.S. State Department official Christopher Ross in early 2002 in the Kuwaiti daily al-Ra`i al-Aam, discussing why Hezbollah’s resistance against Israel is not terrorism (http://www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/020323/2002032309.html). Obviously the context and timing are not exact, but the reference helps demonstrate the extent to which diplomacy can be extended if the desire exists.
67 Gary C. Gambill, “Has American Pressure Sidelined Hezbollah?” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin (December 2001); at http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1676684/posts.
68 Franklin Lamb, “Why Is Hezbollah on the Terrorism List? And Who Isn’t But Should Be?” Counterpunch, April 6, 2007, at http://www.counterpunch.org/lamb04062007.html.
69 “Hizbullah Party Refuses American Proposals” (November 17, 2001), at http://www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/011117/2001111702.html.
70 These “notes” on U.S. behavior (regardless of incumbents) are not recent and come from various shades of the political spectrum. See Danielle Pletka, “America’s Mixed Message on Arab Democracy,” Financial Times, June 29, 2005, at http://www.aei.org/article/22780. See also Elliott Abrams, “Dazed and Confused: The Israelis Can’t Figure Out U.S. Policy. For That Matter, Who Can?” National Review, November 23, 2009; see an abridged version at: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ZjYyOTg0ZjA5NjFkZjg5NTRmNmFkMTdmNW…. Even potential sympathizers with the current Obama administration demonstrate some degree of reservation and caution; on that see Nathan Brown, “Pointers for the Obama Administration in the Middle East: Avoiding Myths and Vain Hopes,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Web Commentary, January 23, 2009, at http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=22662.
71 See Aram Nerguizian, The Lebanese Armed Forces: Challenges and Opportunities in Post-Syria Lebanon (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009).
72 On U.S. strategies, see White House adviser John Brennan’s comments in The Nation, August 10, 2009, at www.thenation.com/blogs/dreyfuss/460718/white_house_opening_to_hezbolla….
73 Amir Taheri, “Hezbollah Didn’t Win: Arab Writers Are Beginning to Lift the Veil on What Really Happened in Lebanon” The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2006.
74 Vali Nasr, ‘Regional Implications of Shia Revival in Iraq,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 2004, pp. 7–24.