Forum on Lebanon

Just as the Lebanese must adjust to a severely altered landscape within their country, the United States must also adapt to the Middle East's transformed geopolitical landscape.

With Lebanon's infrastructure devastated after a month-long war with Israel, the United States and the rest of the international community are investing billions of dollars to rebuild the roads, bridges and lives of the Lebanese people. And just as the Lebanese must adjust to a severely altered landscape within their country, the United States must also adapt to the Middle East's transformed geopolitical landscape.

Yesterday, Geoffrey Kemp, the Nixon Center's director of Regional Strategic Programs, moderated a panel discussion on Lebanon's future that featured Fouad M. Makhzoumi of the National Dialogue Party of Lebanon, the Washington Post's David Ignatius and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Robert Danin. Danin spoke off-the-record.

The most contentious issue the panel tackled was U.S. diplomacy in the region-or lack thereof. To save Lebanon, the United States must engage the two most important players on the Lebanese scene, Iran and Syria, Makhzoumi argued. On the Iranian front, the Islamic Republic's uranium enrichment program and the defiance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have largely isolated the country. But, despite the West's megalomaniac depictions, Ahmadinejad is a highly skilled politician who is inspiring both domestic support and discontent.

"There's lots of opportunity to be in contact with people who oppose Ahmadinejad [in Iran]", said Ignatius, who recently visited Tehran. "It's not like a situation where he has totally grasped the levers of power."

Iran's power may be growing as U.S. influence wanes, Ignatius said. The insurgency in Iraq has undermined America's reputation and credibility, emboldening Ahmadinejad to raise his profile domestically and internationally, as evidenced by his denunciations of Israel, his vocal support for Hizballah and his recent offer to debate President George W. Bush.

"Iranians of every political persuasion feel that: ‘this is our moment, and we should be recognized as the great power that we are'", Ignatius said.

On Iraq's western border, despite its early cooperation with the United States in its War on Terror, Syria's support for Hizballah and Hamas-as well as its accommodation of insurgents entering and leaving Iraq and its suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri-have frozen bilateral relations with the United States. Following Hariri's death, the United States recalled its ambassador from Damascus in February 2005 and the post remains vacant. Ignatius suggested that Syria's foiling of a terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus on Tuesday could provide the impetus for a renewed dialogue.

"It's crazy for the United States to not have an ambassador in Damascus", Ignatius said.

The United States and its Sunni allies initially perceived this summer's war as an opportunity for Israel to unilaterally implement un Security Council Resolution 1559 by forcibly disarming Hizballah. Ironically, Israel's failures in strategic planning and execution further empowered Hizballah, Syria and Iran. The chronology of events exposed America's faint diplomacy, criticized by both Ignatius and Makhzoumi.

Makhzoumi called on the United States to appoint a diplomatic special envoy for the Middle East, something the recent conflict in Lebanon and continuing hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians necessitates. Kemp added that U.S. struggles in Iraq demonstrate that the path to Middle East stability may first and foremost go through Jerusalem.

But Lebanon's plight cannot be completely dismissed in favor of larger regional concerns. The March 2005 Cedar Revolution's promise remains unrealized, and as Lebanon begins the rebuilding process, Makhzoumi warned against repeating the past's mistakes. Following the Lebanese Civil War's conclusion in the early 1990s, $40 billion in reconstruction aid poured in from around the world, with little reaching the people in greatest need. It was during these years that Hizballah invested in social, human and military infrastructure, advancing its status above that of the government in southern Lebanon. Now, transient foreign aid without a sustained commitment to political reform could lead to an equally dangerous outcome.

"Instead of giving [Lebanon] money, [the international community needs] to work with the people in power to make sure that we move this country forward based on political reform", Makhzoumi said.

Makhzoumi acknowledged the Sunni and Maronite failure to recognize Lebanese Shi‘a as full partners in Lebanon's future. Addressing the Shi‘a community's grievances is a key to moving Lebanon forward. Simultaneously, Lebanon's neighbors, especially its fellow Arab states, must treat Lebanon as a unit instead of using sectarian groups as proxies to advance foreign interests.

As for Hizballah, even Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has admitted surprise at Israel's intense response to the abduction of two soldiers from Israeli territory on July 12. Prior to the eruption of hostilities, Hizballah acted under the presumption that it was most effective operating through state mechanisms. The toll of this summer's conflict confirmed the value of that mechanism, Ignatius said. Furthermore, Israel now knows Hizballah's capabilities.

"Hizballah was always seen as the sharp point of the spear of Iranian backed Shi‘a power in the Middle East, but in a sense now, that spear has been thrown-it's a card that's already been played", Ignatius said.

While Hizballah has played that card, many others are still being held. The two Israeli soldiers remain captive, the efficacy of the UN force is unclear, Shebaa Farms remains contested and Syria's intentions remain ambiguous. The panelists aptly described the present as a fluid moment in Middle Eastern politics, a moment the United States must seize.