Today, I went to an event at USIP on Lebanon and the Arab Spring featuring Representative Charles Boustany (R-LA). I was generally impressed with Rep. Boustany, not because I agreed with everything he said, but because he approached the issues from a critical and sober perspective. Unfortunately that's all too rare when it comes to the Hill and the Middle East.
During the Q&A, I asked the Congressman: "It seems we do not have a policy on Lebanon, but rather a set of policies on Lebanese actors and institutions. We have a policy on March 14 and March 8, on the STL and on the LAF. But what is our policy on Lebanon? Does it matter we don't have one?"
Rep. Boustany responded first by clarifying that the US doesn't have policies for countries, but rather strategies. He then admitted that the US has not sufficiently developed a clear, unified strategy for Lebanon. While his speech emphasized the need to continue military assistance, broaden educational exchanges, and support parliamentary processes, among other measures, he did not explicitly delineate the strategy that these policies serve. So I'll instead say what I think.
As Rep. Boustany asserted, our primary interest in Lebanon is stability. As a weak state overwhelmed by foreign influences, Lebanon is both susceptible to externally-driven conflict as well as a catalyst to regional instability. We therefore simply cannot afford a flare up of either internal sectarian tensions or an external conflict with Israel - especially at this time of fragile democratic revolutions and a stalled peace process in the region.
It's at this point that many point the finger at Hezbollah and its alliance with Iran and Syria. To be sure, they have all had - some more consistently than others - a negative and disruptive effect on Lebanese and regional politics. But it is a mistake to therefore conclude a pro-stability strategy is an anti-Hezbollah strategy.
That's exactly what we have done in recent years. We've viewed Lebanese politics as a zero-sum game in which we must counteract Hezbollah's influence at every turn. We support its political rivals. We arm the Lebanese military. We push for the Special Tribunal on Lebanon. None of these policies is troubling in of itself. But our intentions to use these policies primarily as an anti-Hezbollah cudgel only escalates the political tensions within Lebanon and the region as a whole. We are sometimes acting - an external actor as we are - in ways that are just as intrusive as Syria and Iran.
In that sense, we are acting at cross purposes. We push against Hezbollah because they are a destabilizing force. But then we contribute to the very dynamic of foreign intervention that makes Lebanon unstable.
Instead, we must reformulate our approach to Lebanon from an anti-Hezbollah to a pro-Lebanese strategy. Many of our policies would remain exactly the same. We would still train the Lebanese military, promote civil society, support governmental institutions like the parliament, and provide economic and development assistance. But we would do so with the ultimate purpose of reinforcing the sovereignty, legitimacy and effectiveness of the Lebanese government.
A pro-Lebanese strategy would also recognize that Hezbollah represents a legitimate segment of the Lebanese population. They may have external patrons, but they are not an external actor. We can help shape the political, economic and social environment that determines Hezbollah's popularity, but no one can ever fully excise Hezbollah from Lebanon's future. Accepting this fact and acting accordingly will require political courage not only here in DC, but also in Tel Aviv and Beirut.
What will help make that pill easier to swallow is the realization that a pro-Lebanese strategy will cause considerable consternation in Damascus and Tehran. In recent years, Hezbollah has had greater difficulty balancing its dual identities as a regional resistance militia and a national socio-political movement. A pro-Lebanese strategy would exacerbate this tension within Hezbollah and help shift the balance towards the national. It may even help lead to a situation where Hezbollah's leadership will be given a stark choice by the Lebanese people: abandon your regional patrons or we will abandon you.
Moreover, unlike Iran and Syria, we can take comfort that our fundamental ideology as a nation does not ring hollow. Iran and Syria have little to offer Lebanon besides repression and economic stagnation. That's why they have no choice but to derive the majority of their influence by pitting one Lebanese faction against the others. But we can offer Lebanon a far more appealing example - one in which democracy and prosperity unite the country and ensure its stability. By adopting a pro-Lebanese strategy, we double down on our belief that our fundamental values are indeed universal - a bet I'm willing to take.
UPDATE: I recently wrote a paper on what a pro-Lebanese framework would look like for resolving the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. It also lays out the argument in much greater detail and, more importantly, addresses the counterarguments. I'll be looking for a way to upload and link the paper shortly.
UPDATE 2: You can read the paper here (PDF).