Beirut Is Not Tehran

By Andrew Exum and Stephen McInerney
Friday, November 23, 2007 12:00 AM

Lebanese President Émile Lahoud's term expires today, and Lebanese democracy faces a stern test. With the apparent failure of rival political factions to agree on a new president, Lebanon could see the formation of two parallel governments -- or, worse, the outbreak of civil war.

The United States, as President Bush said recently, "strongly supports the success of democracy in Lebanon." Yet by viewing Lebanon through the lens of confrontation with Iran, the U.S. is failing to give Lebanese democracy the help it needs.

In the administration's view, Lebanon is a potential risk to U.S. security interests primarily because of Iran's ties to the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. The fear is that Tehran will manipulate those ties to further its influence in the region and use Lebanon as a pawn in an international confrontation over its nuclear aspirations. So the U.S. has thrown its weight behind Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated Lebanese prime minister and now leader of the majority bloc in Lebanon's parliament, and against the Hezbollah-led opposition in Lebanon's parliament. It has also provided equipment and other aid to the Lebanese army and internal security forces, continuing a longstanding policy that aims to build up the institutions of the state at the expense of militias.

The Bush administration clings to the notion that the majority of the Lebanese population appreciates the help and is united in confronting the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah. But the Lebanese public is deeply divided. As such, U.S. efforts have largely backfired. Hezbollah has scored political points by painting Hariri's coalition as tainted by its association with the U.S. And U.S. military assistance has generated suspicion. For instance, the recent Pentagon talk about a "strategic partnership" with the Lebanese army -- an army badly in need of both equipment and reforms -- prompted wild rumors that the U.S. was planning a long-term presence in the country.

Iran's involvement in Lebanon is destabilizing, to be sure. An international confrontation with Tehran would be serious indeed, and Hezbollah's political power within Lebanon is cause for concern. But the administration has allowed the focus on Iran and Hezbollah to result in policy that is dangerously blind to other dynamics at play.

In the context of the current political stalemate, the administration cannot afford to view the possible selection of a consensus candidate acceptable to Hezbollah as a greater danger than the failure to select anyone at all. And, beyond this week's crisis, the focus on Hezbollah and Iran has distracted from the rise of Al Qaeda-inspired Sunni radical groups in Lebanon -- groups that represent a far greater strategic threat to the U.S. and its allies.

These groups don't have the popular support in Lebanon that Hezbollah boasts. But that also means they have no "red lines" of violence they will not cross. And, while Hezbollah wants to play an expanded political role in the Lebanese state, the Sunni extremist groups would like nothing more than to see the collapse of the state into anarchy and civil war -- truly a worst-case scenario both for Lebanon's fragile democracy and for regional security.

Earlier this year, one such group, Fatah al-Islam, incited three months of clashes with Lebanese security forces around the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared. During a recent congressional hearing, the assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, David Welch, characterized the fighting as "extraordinary, unexpected." He also emphasized that the threat had been dealt with. "Today, the only armed militia in Lebanon is Hezbollah," he said.

In fact, many analysts had predicted violence involving emerging Sunni radical groups "in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south." While promoting their own interests in the power vacuum created by the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005, some of America's closest allies in the Lebanese government and nearby Saudi Arabia and Jordan are believed to have supported the growth of the Sunni extremist groups. Moreover, thanks to a steady stream of Sunni militants from Iraq -- the types responsible for the most horrific attacks there -- continued growth is expected for the foreseeable future. At least, as long as the U.S. continues to look the other way, and as long as U.S. efforts to help the Lebanese military confront such groups are viewed with suspicion.

President Bush may, indeed, support the notion of a successful democracy in Lebanon. But until the U.S. looks more seriously at the various threats there, Lebanese democracy doesn't have much chance.

Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army officer, studies Lebanese militant groups at King's College London. Stephen McInerney is the director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. They both spent several years living and working in Lebanon.

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