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Lebanon: Diplomatic Pleasantries Discarded

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    Diplomatic Pleasantries Have Been Discarded Lebanon is Hanging by a Thread By KARIM MAKDISI http://www.counterpunch.org/makdisi11172007.html Lebanon is hanging
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2008
      Diplomatic Pleasantries Have Been Discarded
      Lebanon is Hanging by a Thread

      Lebanon is hanging by a thread.

      The UN Secretary General (SG) Ban Ki-moon has just left the country
      warning that Lebanon stands at "the brink of an abyss," and yet the UN
      itself remains an ambivalent actor in the post 9/11 Middle East
      setting, torn between its traditional commitments under the UN Charter
      (including the non-interference in the domestic disputes of a Member
      State) and the radical imperatives of a US administration.

      The unfolding drama and intrigue that constitutes the presidential
      election process has captured the attention of leaders of the Great
      and not-so-great Powers alike. As foreign envoys shuttle between the
      old and new imperial capitals-Washington, New York, Paris, Rome,
      Madrid, Damascus, Riyadh, Cairo, Tehran, Brussels, Moscow-in a bid to
      settle the on-going crisis, diplomatic pleasantries have been
      discarded. The pro-US March 14 coalition partners and members of the
      opposition are trading insults and accusations of high treason even as
      they simultaneously claim to be seeking consensus and a compromise
      presidential candidate. That is the way of Lebanese politics.

      The core of the dispute in Lebanon-of which the election of a
      President is only a part-revolves around the role of the Resistance
      and the status of Hizbullah's weapons. The opposition insist that the
      Resistance represents the only deterrence to Israeli aggression and
      larger US plans to re-divide the Arab world, and it will therefore
      only countenance debate about such weapons as part of an internal
      national dialogue. March 14 call for the immediate disarming of the
      Resistance (which it considers an existential threat to the State),
      and the dissociation of Lebanon from the larger regional problems that
      they claim has stifled Lebanon for decades. A secondary dispute
      relates to the sensitive issue of who represents Christian authority
      within the sectarian logic of Lebanon's political system. The
      opposition claim that only the Free Patriotic Movement's General
      Michel Aoun, the most popular Christian leader by some distance, is
      strong and independent enough to lead both the Christians and the
      larger nation. March 14 insist that only one of their own two official
      candidate-Nassib Lahoud and Boutras Harb, neither of whom has broad
      national support-should be President.

      Right now, the only thing the two sides have in common is the
      insistence that the other side is carrying out orders from evil
      'foreign' powers (the US and Israel on the one hand; Iran and Syria on
      the other). Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are enduring an unprecedented
      social and economic crisis fueled by years of neglect and exacerbated
      by the punishing policies of the neo-liberal government headed by
      Prime Minister Fuad Siniora (which has somehow found time to increase
      gasoline prices, ready the telecom sector for privatization, and
      implement US dictates to increase intellectual property rights

      The next 48-72 hours will be decisive as the political and
      constitutional crisis reaches its apogee: at midnight on the November
      23, President Emile Lahoud must step down from office and the Siniora
      government must resign in line with the constitutional process. After
      postponing the proposed extraordinary Parliamentary session to elect a
      President twice already, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has set a
      final date of 21 November to do so. If no consensus is reached by the
      23rd, Lebanon will enter what is commonly referred to here as al
      majhoul ("the unknown", which signfies a constitutional vacuum) and
      the possibility of civil conflict will be very real. Nearly all areas
      of the country are awash with weapons, and many of the shabab (young
      men) on all sides have been trained and are ready for action.

      Months of discussions and national, regional and international
      initiatives to resolve the crisis have failed for two principle
      reasons. First, the Lebanese political system was created with only
      one 'emergency hand-break' to halt such crises: sectarian consensus
      among an elite political class. Failing such consensus, the veneer of
      democratic institutions-the Constitution, the parliament, elections-is
      peeled off as sectarian leaders revert to their international patrons
      for guidance, and otherwise use the politics of sectarian fear to
      shore up support within their respective communities (something March
      14 leaders have drawn on to capitalize on the orchestrated
      Sunni-Shia'a splits in the region, while opposition in general, and
      Hizbullah specifically, has made it a priority to resist such
      sectarian overtones for fear of being drawn away from their perceived
      main mission: resistance against Israel and strengthening of State
      under a national banner).

      Second, and more importantly, the most significant international
      sponsor--the US--has thus far blocked any agreement that denies the
      realization of its own principle goal in Lebanon, namely disarming the
      Resistance and accomplishing what Israel could not do by force during
      its July 2006 invasion. US success in Lebanon would also be used to
      reclaim the initiative in its otherwise catastrophic 'war on terror'
      in the region.

      The French have now launched one final initiative with the apparent
      support of both Syria and the US. Foreign Minister Kouchner has
      succeeded in pressuring the frail and indecisive Maronite Patriarch to
      hand him a pre-approved list of some six or seven nominees for
      president. This list is then to be deliberated by the leader of the
      Parliamentary majority Sa'ad Hariri (representing March 14, but also
      the US, French and Saudi interests) and Speaker Berri (on behalf of
      Hizbullah, Free Patriotic Movement's General Michel Aoun, and to a
      certain extent Syrian and Iranian interests) behind closed doors. The
      Patriarch, until recently, had been deeply reluctant to officially
      name any candidate in the absence of consensus among the Maronite
      Christians he represents. He rightly fears that any non-consensus
      candidate elected-as March 14 has repeatedly threatened to do with US
      support-would further weaken Christian power in Lebanon, perhaps even

      If Hariri (a Sunni Muslim) and Berri (a Shi'a Muslim) can agree on one
      of the names proposed by the Patriarch before the 23rd of November,
      then the election of a President (a Maronite Christian) would be a
      mere formality and conflict would be averted for now. The crisis,
      however, would remain, as the two sides continue to lock horns over
      the formation of the next government (including the appointment of a
      new Prime Minister), its formal policy statement, the preparation of a
      new electoral law and eventually parliamentary elections in two years

      On the other hand, if before the constitutionally required date no
      agreement is reached between Hariri and Berri, then March 14
      (supported by the US) will likely convene outside the Parliament and
      choose a President of its choice by a simple majority. This will set
      forth a chain of reactions from the Opposition beginning with a
      campaign of civil disobedience, potentially escalating to the
      formation of a second government (or even a temporary military
      take-over), and ultimately to civil conflict.

      It is not clear which path Lebanon will take, nor how the UN will
      react in case there is conflict. During his two day visit to Lebanon,
      UN SG Ban Ki-moon met with key players on both sides to push for
      consensus. He departed no wiser about how to solve this crisis or what
      he should do beyond making standard diplomatic references to Lebanese
      sovereignty and respect for the constitutional process. Interestingly,
      the SG was flanked by two of his senior UN Special Envoys: Terje
      Roed-Larsen, responsible for the implementation of the divisive UN
      resolution 1559 that calls for the disarming of 'militias' (read:
      Hizbullah) in Lebanon; and Geir Pedersen, charged with following up on
      implementation of UN Resolution 1701 that marked the cessation of
      hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah following Israel's
      July-August 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

      If the SG's dilemma could be illustrated in an old-fashioned Tom and
      Jerry cartoon (where an imaginary devil and angel appear as
      contradictory advisors to the main character), we could imagine over
      the SG's left shoulder the UN 'bad guy'-Larsen, considered a persona
      non grata in much of Lebanon and Syria for his outspoken positions and
      clear bias-whispering in the SG's ear to take sides against the
      opposition and insist on disarming Hizbullah in accordance with the US
      neocon and Israeli demands. Over the other shoulder, the UN 'good
      guy'-Pedersen, representing the flawed ideals and genuine commitment
      of an international civil servant pursuing conflict resolution under
      impossible circumstances-would be urging the SG to seek consensus
      among the Lebanese, even on the controversial matter of the
      Resistance's arms.

      While the UN has little decisive influence on the ground in Lebanon,
      the epic battle between the contradictory imperatives of Resolution
      1559 and Resolution 1701 is represents the larger struggle the UN, and
      the international community in general, has faced since the end of
      Cold War and the rise of US unilateralism and global hegemony. If
      Larsen's influence on the SG prevails in tandem with the US's
      continued reliance on military confrontations and divisive diplomacy,
      then the region will be at war for years to come and the UN as a whole
      will continue its dangerous spiral towards illegitimacy in a region
      whose people increasingly identify the UN with US policies.

      If, on the other hand, Pedersen's more traditional diplomatic approach
      wins the day and Resolution 1559 is consigned to the backburner (at
      least temporarily if not permanently) it may not prevent conflict in
      Lebanon but it may yet preserve a legitimate space for the UN to serve
      as a forum for conflict resolution.

      Karim Makdisi is Assistant Professor of International Relations in the
      Dept of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American
      University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon. Email: km18@...



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