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Lessons in Lebanon

The government is fighting off a Hezbollah-Syria challenge. The U.S. needs to stay out of Beirut's way.

December 15, 2006

TWO WEEKS AGO, nobody was giving odds that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government would survive the year. Popular street demonstrations had brought together the major Shiite parties with a weird pro-Syrian coalition led by the Maronite Christian former general Michel Aoun (once a mortal enemy of Syria, confusingly enough). Siniora dismissed the protests as a coup d'etat engineered by Hezbollah and its Syrian backers, but without Shiite representation, his own government looked illegitimate and Hezbollah strongman Hassan Nasrallah's demand for a "national unity" government seemed almost reasonable.

Today, Siniora doesn't look much stronger, but his government is still in business, and the protesters have little to show for their efforts. Sunni Arab governments have supported the prime minister, and the pro-Hezbollah movement is, for the time being, in a stalemate. It is Hezbollah's pro-Syrian faction that remains locked out of the government (which the two major Shiite parties quit in November) and facing a crisis of momentum.

What lessons can we draw from this impasse? First, the current demonstrations are different from the protests last year, which were driven by public rage over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a crime in which Syria and its Lebanese clients were probably involved.

It's also clear that for all of Hezbollah's attempts to claim the banner of Lebanon's forgotten Shiites, there is more at stake here than an attempt to give voice to the disenfranchised. It was Hezbollah, along with the more moderate Shiite party Amal, that decided to quit the government last month after a cabinet-stacking power play failed. Nabih Berri, the Amal leader who has been a player in Lebanese politics almost since the time of King Solomon, has participated in governments far dicier than this one, and there is nothing stopping Lebanon's large Shiite minority from being represented in even greater strength than it was before Hezbollah's walkout.

While Siniora's opponents attempt to dismiss him as a U.S. puppet, he leads a broad coalition of Sunnis, Christians, Druze and other groups. Nevertheless, there is an issue here for the United States. In 1990, Lebanon was a chip awarded to Syria in return for its participation in the Persian Gulf War coalition. Now that a bipartisan consensus is beginning to form around the idea that negotiations with Syria are necessary, it's imperative that the U.S. not again make the mistake of sacrificing a shaky but functional democracy for token gestures at assistance in Iraq.

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