April 19, 2004


Lebanon's free fall: Political bickering, poor governance and economic woes - with foreign debt of $53.7b - weigh down the country (Pranay Gupte, 4/18/04, Straits Times)

Lebanon's strategic eastern Mediterranean location is important to Syria's own status as an anti-American Arab leader in a region of 300 million people and 24 countries. He cannot afford to antagonise Lebanon's majority Muslims, particularly the Shi'ites of Lebanon's Hizbollah party, whose radical programmes the Syrians support through money and armaments.

At the same time, Mr Assad is known to fear that if he pulls Syrian troops from Lebanon, its ethnic communities will once again start tearing one another apart, perhaps rekindling the civil war.

Conflict in Lebanon could then spill over into Syria, where Mr Assad's secular-minded - but authoritarian - government is facing mounting opposition from fundamentalists.

Mr Assad also sees the value in having the Hizbollah nip constantly at neighbouring Israel from its militarised bases in southern Lebanon. In his calculation, it is financially worthwhile for Syria to fund the Hizbollah because it keeps Israel from military excursions into his country.

With the intifada still raging in Palestine, the Israelis may not have a Syrian assault in mind just yet. But try telling that to the people of southern Lebanon. A visit to the Bekaa Valley, the region's cradle of Islamic fundamentalism, shows how much anti-Israeli propaganda the Hiz- bollah undertakes.

Judging from posters and fundraising in the Bekaa's towns and villages, one would think that the Israelis are about to invade Lebanon. Hizbollah street literature also alleges that the Israelis prompted the US invasion and occupation of Iraq last year.

The Hizbollah is doing more than mouthing anti-Israeli mantras, however. It has acquired political legitimacy by transforming itself from a guerilla movement into a full-fledged party: It holds 12 of the 128 seats in Lebanon's unicameral Parliament.

Its leader, Ali Nasrullah, has said that although the Hizbollah does not wish to see Lebanon transformed into an Islamic theocracy, he would not mind if that happens. But Lebanon's Maronite Christians and even Sunni Muslims do not share Nasrullah's enthusiasm for outlawing alcohol, gambling and Western lifestyles that have long contributed to the country's reputation as the Middle East's playground.

Perhaps paradoxically, that reputation, put on hold during the civil war, is blossoming again. Since Sept 11, Gulf Arabs who used to travel to Europe and the United States for pleasure are increasingly indulging themselves in free-spirited Lebanon, buying valuable real estate, hotels and resorts. If Lebanon were to become an Islamic state, it's a sure bet that the Arab traffic, and the revenues it generates for this country, would dry up.

It is a situation that vastly worries Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a self-made billionaire who does not get along with Mr Lahoud, a former army general, nor with Lebanon's patron, Mr Assad. At the root of his worry is that the Syrian presence and incipient Hizbollah threat are driving away Western investors.

Mr Hariri made his fortune in Saudi Arabia in the construction business, and is widely considered to be the main force behind the post-war reconstruction of Beirut. He often appeals to global investors - and, increasingly, those from Singapore and South-east Asia - to help develop the tourism industry, the country's main foreign-exchange earner after remittances from an estimated 20 million people of Lebanese extraction who live overseas.

The response has been discouraging. Investors are frightened by the country's staggering US$32-billion (S$53.7-billion) foreign debt, or nearly 200 per cent of the gross national product. They see little being done to streamline Lebanon's traditionally lethargic bureaucracy. They view Lebanon's economy as hopelessly encumbered by a bewildering body of regulations. And they are disheartened by the unending corruption.

No one accuses Mr Hariri of corruption - he's too rich for that - although some of his Cabinet colleagues are not immune from bitter criticism. He fears that the main cause of Lebanon's economic deterioration is that, unlike Singapore - a country he hugely admires - it does not enjoy good governance.

This, of course, is an indictment of his own management. But it also suggests that Mr Hariri's room to manoeuvre is limited by Mr Lahoud's opposition to any Hariri initiative. A recent agreement with foreign governmental lenders to reschedule Lebanon's debt has already faltered.

One of the benefits of getting rid of Baby Assad will be that it allows Lebanon's politics to become more rational.

-In Search of Hezbollah (Adam Shatz, 4/29/04, NY Refview of Books)

Hezbollah's announced long-term objectives—the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon, and the elimination of the State of Israel— have not changed. But it interprets its founding principles with considerable suppleness, as when Nasrallah says he will not sabotage an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. Today it is not only prominent in Lebanese politics; it is also a major provider of schools, where the principles of Islam according to Ayatollah Khamenei and Hezbollah ideology are folded into a normal curriculum that is approved by the Lebanese government. It also provides an impressive range of social services such as hospitals and job training to the Shiite community.

In a country mired in patronage and back-room dealing, Hezbollah is respected for its lack of corruption. Although the party's yellow-and-green flag—depicting a fist brandishing a Kalashnikov, posed against a globe— still advocates "the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon," Hezbollah has recently said little about an Islamic state, and begun to build alliances across religious lines, particularly at the municipal level and in professional unions. In 1999, for example, Hezbollah members of Lebanon's engineering syndicate formed a coalition with the Phalange Party, a rightist Christian group, and the National Liberal Party, both allies of Israel during the civil war. Another change that is impossible to ignore is the growing prominence of female activists in the party, a development that makes the party progressive by Islamist standards. "One would have to be blind not to notice the changes Hezbollah has undergone," says Joseph Samaha, a secular Christian writer for the daily as-Safir. "Has Hezbollah tried to ban books or impose sharia? Not once. Their electoral program is [an] almost social democratic [one]. So we're confronting a very different kind of Fundamentalist party."

Moreover, as Daniel Byman, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, points out in his article "Should Hezbollah Be Next?" in Foreign Affairs, over the last decade Hezbollah's military wing has concentrated most of its efforts on strengthening its defensive capacity; according to Byman, Hezbollah has not been linked to a "single attack on a US target" since the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers. In its guerrilla war with Israel in southern Lebanon, it targeted soldiers, not civilians, although it is said to provide both financing and training for Hamas.

While Iran continues to supply Hezbollah with money and arms, including Katyushas that arrive through Syrian ports, it has shown increasing restraint since the mid-1990s, when it used Hezbollah agents to strike at American and Jewish targets outside Israel. Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi, has urged Nasrallah to avoid giving Israel a pretext for attacking Lebanon. Although American officials have called attention to the presence of about a hundred Hezbollah members in Iraq, few believe that they are organizing violent resistance.[10] Every Hezbollah official I spoke to vehemently denied such reports, some indicating that they would welcome diplomatic relations with the United States.

Observing these changes, a growing number of American scholars, notably Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University, Judith Harik of the American University in Beirut, and Sami Hajjar of the US Army War College, argue that the party has undergone a genuine transformation, that it cannot be regarded as a terrorist group comparable to al-Qaeda, and that it would be pragmatic to engage in talks with Hezbollah and test its intentions. Their views are shared both by European diplomats such as Giandome-nico Picco, former assistant secretary-general for political affairs at the United Nations, and by retired American diplomats, such as Richard Murphy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and by some officials in the State Department. Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy under the first Bush and Clinton administrations, has stated that Hezbollah's resistance to the Israeli occupation, unlike its past activities aimed at Western targets, is not terrorism.[11] While the United States, Israel, and Canada classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, European allies of the US, including Britain, say a distinction should be made between Hezbollah's political wing and the terrorist "external security apparatus." In their view Nasrallah and his Lebanese political organization are giving support to Palestinian extremists but are not directly involved in international terrorism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2004 7:42 AM

With regard to the second article, let's look at who's espousing this viewpoint:

Their views are shared both by European diplomats such as Giandome-nico Picco, former assistant secretary-general for political affairs at the United Nations, and by retired American diplomats, such as Richard Murphy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and by some officials in the State Department. Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy
Hmmm, sounds like the "stability" crowd. Knowing nothing but that, I'd be strongly inclined to opposition. But let's consider one of the actual facts in the article:
Hezbollah's resistance to the Israeli occupation
What Israeli occupation? The Shaaba Farms? That's hardly accomodationist nor the mark of a group that's interested in economic development over war and violence.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 19, 2004 1:52 PM

Somewhat off topic, Orrin, but do you think the fact that most of the major U.S. Army combat formations in Iraq have mysteriously "dropped off the radar" in recent weeks, as opposed to the Marines, who've been getting most of the press (due, no doubt, in part to the fact, that Marines are generally more quotable than any other segment of the military!) might indicate a prelude to a strike against Syria?

Posted by: Joe at April 19, 2004 5:41 PM


No. I think they sent in Marines because we need to kill some folks in Iraq before June 30.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 7:32 PM