Let's help the Lebanese in fight for democracy

October 10, 2007|By Firas Maksad

Don't complain about American politics. The U.S. system may seem complex and unwieldy, with multiple candidates vying to win multiple caucuses and primaries - and endless debates, speeches and television advertisements. But American politics look simple compared with the chaotic situation half a world away, in the Middle East, where elections are a matter of life and death.

Take Lebanon - a small country in a rough neighborhood. A political tug-of-war has left four members of parliament dead and a presidency that may or may not be filled before the end of the year. Lebanon's political factions cannot agree on a consensus candidate for president because outside countries - namely, Syria and Iran - are vying for control of the process. A presidential vote that was supposed to be held by parliament in late September has been deferred until Oct. 23, with no confidence that the players can even agree by then on who should run a country that, constitutionally, must choose a successor by Nov. 24.

The jockeying for power in Lebanon creates a dangerous void in a country whose interests converge with America's but whose fate may fall to those whose agendas conflict with those of the United States. Therefore, the U.S. can and must be a positive force for Lebanese sovereignty, independence and democracy. It is in its national interest to do so.

Lebanon sits in the middle of a war on terrorism. It recently concluded a four-month campaign against al-Qaida-inspired militants in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. An armed wing of Hezbollah, funded by Syria and Iran, controls parts of the country. U.N. troops continue to patrol Lebanon's porous borders. And American troops are in nearby Iraq, waging war against terrorists. All of this takes place against the backdrop of planning for a major regional Middle East conference in November that could determine the future shape of this vital region.

The fate of Lebanon matters to Americans. Democracy in the Middle East is now a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy. The majority of Lebanese citizens strongly support democracy, independence and reform. In a massive popular uprising, more than a third of the population took to the streets in the 2005 Cedar Revolution to demand an end to foreign domination and the restoration of freedoms.

Americans who want to see democracy flourish in the Middle East are pushing on an open door in Lebanon. But the ability of Syria, Iran and their local allies to forcefully dominate the political landscape in Lebanon stymies the democratic will of the people. Unchecked, their meddling could lead to a return to civil war, with regionwide consequences.

There are major international issues at stake. The first is the credibility of the United Nations, which has passed several resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon.

Also at issue is the question of whether an international tribunal will be formed to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1664 establishing the tribunal, but the Syrians, who fear being implicated in the scandal, are dead set against it. Their determination to install a pro-Syrian president in Lebanon through a campaign of intimidation in order to block the tribunal undercuts international rule of law.

Lebanon needs a new president. The United States and the international community have a responsibility to help Lebanon secure its democracy by ensuring that an open and fair political process can produce one. America should be leaning on its moderate friends in the region to pressure Damascus and Tehran to stay out of the internal affairs of Lebanon.

America and Europe can also galvanize the Lebanese diaspora worldwide to help with reconstruction of Lebanon. And America should lead the way in supporting the United Nations and its resolutions, so they have teeth.

In this season of politics, Americans should treasure their system of government and ensure that its benefits are extended to those around the world who are struggling to secure them.

Firas Maksad is executive director of the newly formed Lebanese Renaissance Foundation, an international organization supporting democracy and reform for Lebanon. His e-mail is firas.maksad@lrfusa.org.

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