American objectives in Lebanon are clear, reasonable and honorable. The United States wants an independent, democratic Lebanon free from foreign interference, particularly from Syria and Iran. It also wants a prosperous Lebanon at peace with its neighbors, including Israel.
The question is why have these goals been so difficult to attain? There is no single answer, but what is clear is that the United States does not understand the long-term political changes taking place in Lebanon and how they interfere with American objectives. Most important among these changes is the increasing influence of the Lebanese Shia community, which necessitates a redistribution of power within the Lebanese government. Until such redistribution takes place, the dominance of Hezbollah within the Lebanese Shia community is likely to continue.
The diversity of the Lebanese population has been unique in the Arab world since the time of the nation s founding. The large Christian population made Lebanon the only Arab state in which the preponderance of power rested with Christians, though Muslims still had sufficient levers of power to prevent the government from going against their interests.
By the mid-1970s, demographic shifts and changing regional politics created a rift between the actual division of power, and the original political compact no longer represented the interests of all. After 15 years of civil war, the 1989 Taif Agreement created equality between Muslims and Christians, marking a redistribution of power that was painful to the dominant Christian community, but essential for peace.
Since Taif, a new rift has been created. The crucial imbalance of power this time, however, is not between Muslim and Christian, but between Sunni and Shia. The Sunnis have always dominated Muslim politics, just as the Christians dominated national politics before Taif. Over time, the demographic and political balance has shifted in favor of the Shia, but no corresponding shift in the distribution of power within the government has occurred. If peace and normalcy are to return to Lebanon, Shia interests must be protected.
Each community – Christian, Sunni, and Shia – must be assured that the government cannot make decisions against its vital interests. Currently, Christians and Sunnis have the power to block any government action, but the Shia have no such protection. Christians control the presidency and command the army while the Sunnis appoint the prime minister and command the internal security forces. Both groups have a blocking vote in Parliament and the Cabinet. In contrast, the Shia have no controlling position in the Lebanese executive branch and must rely on the Speaker of the Parliament and militia to protect their interests.
The current crisis began in late 2006 when all Shia Cabinet members resigned their posts, thus terminating the ruling consensus. They thought this would force the government to reconstitute itself and address their concerns.
However, the decision was made to continue governing without them, which highlighted the Shia inability to protect their own interests within the executive branch. With limited government powers, many Shia turned to their primary source of strength outside the government – Hezbollah – for leadership and protection.
The strength of Hezbollah is likely to continue as long as the Shia feel this lack of political power. A lasting solution to the current crisis is not likely until the Shia are afforded the same protection from government mistreatment that the Christians and Sunnis enjoy. In the short term, affording them a blocking third – 11 of 30 members – in the Cabinet would appear to be the only way to achieve this.
Many argue that the Shia community should not be given veto power over government policies out of fear of increasing the influence of Hezbollah. In fact, the opposite is likely to be true. Empowerment of the Shia community would allow a wider diversity of views and over time would diminish the influence of Hezbollah.
If the American goal of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Lebanon and a diminished role for Hezbollah is to be achieved, then as a prerequisite, the Lebanese Shia community needs a guarantee that the government of Lebanon cannot act without Shia concurrence. A failure to provide equal protection to the Shia is likely to lead to greater instability and the strengthening of Hezbollah.
Graeme Bannerman is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. He runs his own international consulting firm and is a former staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.