Power Chessboard Lebanon

President Bush travels to the Middle East to bring peace – right at the moment the West has to swallow another defeat there.

Wasn’t he just there four months ago? George Bush is touring the Middle East again. Without doubt, that’s his favorite spot in a crisis-rich world. He has blessed the Middle East with his complete attention as well as three devastating military experiments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and with support for Israel’s summer war against Lebanon in 2006. There hasn’t been much talk of peace. Now, near the end of his term, George Bush wants to bring about peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. But is it an opportune time for that? This attempt comes precisely at a moment in which the Western and pro-western Arab states have to swallow another painful defeat. The talk now is of power chessboard Lebanon.

This is an historic turnabout. Just three years ago, Lebanon celebrated its cedar revolution. It blossomed in its many colors as Syrian troops finally withdrew from the country. Syria’s defeat was at the hands of the self-confident Lebanese. And the West, along with most Arab countries, celebrated along with them. But now: Beirut is upside down. The world watches as the radical Shiite Hezbollah pushes these self-confident Lebanese back with their rifles. A bearded man with a black turban has the final word. Hezbollah, the “party of God” triumphs with the help of Syria and Iran.

Is this Lebanon still the hope of the Arab world and the West? Or is it rather an allegory for a new menacing epoch? The meaning of the country lies in its role as a dual showcase. Lebanon is, first of all, an arena for a potpourri of democratic experiments and freedom of expression. Second, the great powers of the region and the world all wage their proxy wars here. Look at Iran’s arming of Hezbollah and America’s support for Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon. Where does this pivotal country stand now during the Hezbollah uprising?

Freedom and democratization in Lebanon has long had a bright and a dark face. The bright face shows the vibrant differences of opinion in the free press, the many languages heard in Beirut’s streets, the churches, mosques and temples crowded together, the outspoken talk shows and openly political programming on television. In Beirut beats the heart of liberal Arabia.

The dark face is the same as the bright, but from a different perspective. Precisely because the country is so diverse, because its religious factions waged a tragic civil war from 1975 to 1990, the watchword has been: be considerate. That meant restrict the democratic principle of majority rule. Thus Lebanon since 1990 has adhered to a carefully hatched survival compromise under which neither Christian nor Druse, neither Muslim Sunnis nor Shiites, could have a majority. The country’s most important government administrative offices were firmly parceled out before the elections. Every faction was to be assured that another could not usurp sole rule.

This compromise has now been killed by Hezbollah. It wasn’t enough to be the only party with a militia as large as an army, it wants to be a state within a state in order to finally control all of Lebanon. The attempt by the pro-West cabinet to close the party’s illegal and impenetrable telecommunications network resulted in the Hezbollah attack against the government and its supporters. It became clear how ill-advised the frantic recommendation from Washington to cut the Hezbollah telephone lines was in the absence of the military backup needed to do the job.

The Shiite militias – allied with but not taking orders from Iran – beat the government supporters on the battlefield and turned the conquered territory over to the weak Lebanese army. It was to play referee by the grace of Hezbollah. Regardless whether the president or prime minister was Christian or Sunni, from there forward real power resided in Shiite Nasrallah.

That has caused the world a political aftershock just like the events of 2005. At that time, as Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon, the tide of events turned against Damascus and Teheran. But today they’re on top, and the fickle nemesis has to struggle with the pro-West government in Beirut, the powerful Arab states Egypt and Saudi-Arabia, the Americans and the Europeans. The mighty American destroyer USS Cole and the German navy’s similarly armed-to-the-teeth vessels can cruise up and down the Lebanese coast as much as they want, but they can only watch helplessly as power in the Near- and Middle East reverses.

This historic shift began in 2006. At that time, Iranian president Ahmadinejad had been in power six months and was vowing the destruction of Israel. Early in 2006, radical Hamas won the election in Palestine and later seized sole power in Gaza. Ahmadinejad jumped in to help Hamas against western isolation. In the summer, Israel attacked Hezbollah and experienced a debacle. Their army got stuck in south Lebanon while Hezbollah continued to bombard the Israeli interior with Iranian-made rockets. Sheik Nasrallah became a cult figure danced around in Arabian streets. The strongest state in the Middle East had bared its wounds to their mortal enemy.

Next door in Iraq, the Americans demonstrated how the greatest military power in the world could defeat itself by marcheing into a foreign country. Since then, their threats of invasion have become hollow. And because of that, nobody in Lebanon now believes that American destroyers offshore can do much on dry land.

Is there any hope to be found in Lebanon? One should never give up on this colorful, open country with its beautiful capital. The Lebanese are not a people who would willingly give themselves up to an Islamic ideology. But the latest western defeats in the country have sent two eerie messages to the world: first, it doesn’t help the Beirut government one bit that it has the “complete support” of the world’s only superpower. That power has, first and foremost, paralyzed itself.

Second, Iran is becoming stronger. Wherever conflict bubbles up in the Middle East, wherever war, suffering and injustice rule, that’s where this land ruled by religious fanatics will expand its powers. Precisely there where in past years America and Israel sowed their bombs, Teheran’s seeds have sprouted: in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip. The exclusive Shiite power is winning hearts and minds beyond national and religious borders. That severely restricts the maneuvering room of pragmatic Arab governments and western intermediaries. It isn’t likely that Bush will be able to broker an historic peace between Jerusalem and Ramallah as long as Gaza simmers and Lebanon topples. In the final analysis, these places are just a few hundred kilometers apart and are part of an enormous problem.

When President Bush visits the Middle East this week, he will have the feeling that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is looking over his shoulder. But it’s worse than that: the Iranian is always one step ahead of him.

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