After Lebanon

The Washington Post

Two conceptions dominate public discussion on Lebanon. The first is that Hezbollah is a traditional terrorist organization operating covertly outside the law. The second is that the cease-fire marks an end to the war in Lebanon. Neither conception is valid.

Hezbollah is, in fact, a metastasization of the al-Qaeda pattern. It acts openly as a state within a state. It commands an army much stronger and far better equipped than Lebanon's, on Lebanese soil, in defiance of two U.N. resolutions. Financed and trained by Iran, it fights wars with organized units against a major adversary. As a Shiite party, it has ministers in the government of Lebanon who do not consider themselves bound by its decisions. A non-state entity on the soil of a state, with all the attributes of a state and backed by the major regional power, is a new phenomenon in international relations.

Since its creation, Hezbollah has been almost permanently at war. The first of three Hezbollah wars occurred when, in 1983, its attack on U.S. barracks killed 241 Marines and caused America to withdraw its peacekeeping forces from Beirut. The second was a campaign of harassment that induced Israeli forces to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000. The third was inaugurated this year with the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers inside Israel that led to the Israeli retaliatory attack.

We are witnessing a carefully conceived assault, not isolated terrorist attacks, on the international system of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. The creation of organizations such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda symbolizes the fact that transnational loyalties are replacing national ones. The driving force behind this challenge is the jihadist conviction that it is the existing order that is illegitimate, not the Hezbollah and jihad method of fighting it. For the jihad's adherents, the battlefield cannot be defined by frontiers based on principles of world order they reject; what we call terror is, to the jihadists, an act of war to undermine illegitimate regimes.

A cease-fire does not end this war; it inaugurates a new phase in it. This twin assault on the global order, by the combination of radical states with transnational non-state groups sometimes organized as militias, is a particular challenge in the Middle East, where frontiers denote few national traditions and are not yet a century old. But it could spread to wherever militant, radical Islamic groups exist. Leaders therefore are torn between following the principles of the existing international order, on which their economies may depend, and yielding to (if not joining) the transnational movements on which their political survival may depend.

The crisis in Lebanon is a classic case of that pattern. By the rules of the old international order, the war technically took place between two states – Lebanon and Israel – that in fact have very few conflicting interests. The U.N. cease-fire resolution affirms that the crisis was provoked by Hezbollah, which had kept the Lebanese armed forces out of the southern part of Lebanon facing Israel for 30 years. Yet, by existing international rules, the U.S. secretary of state was obliged to negotiate on the cease-fire with the Lebanese government, which controlled no forces in a position to implement it, while the only forces capable of doing so have never formally accepted it.

The real goals of the Lebanese war were transnational, not Lebanese: to overcome the millennia-old split between Sunnis and Shiites on the basis of hatred for Israel and America; to relieve diplomatic pressure on Iran's nuclear program; to demonstrate that Israel would be held hostage if pressure became too acute; to establish Iran as a major factor in any negotiation; to scuttle the Palestinian peace process; to show that Syria – the second major sponsor of Hezbollah – remained in a position to pursue its ambitions in Lebanon.

This is why the balance sheet of the war in Lebanon must be assessed in large part in psychological and political terms. No doubt the war inflicted heavy casualties on Hezbollah. The overriding psychological reality, however, is that Hezbollah remained intact and that Israel proved unable (or unwilling) either to suppress the rocket attacks on its territory or to gear its military power to political objectives capable of providing bargaining positions after the cessation of hostilities.

Much of the discussion over observance of the cease-fire applies traditional verities to an unprecedented situation. One of the principals in the war is not a party to the cease-fire and has refused either to disarm or to release the two Israeli prisoners it kidnapped, as called for in the U.N. resolution. The countries needed to enforce the agreement have been ambivalent because of the importance they attach to relations with Iran, their fear of terrorist attacks on their own territory and, to a lesser extent, their interest in improving relations with Syria.

The mandate for the U.N. force in southern Lebanon reflects these hesitations. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has declared that the mission of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is not to disarm Hezbollah but to encourage a political process that, in his words, "has to be achieved through negotiation, and an internal Lebanese consensus, a political process, for which the new [force] is not, and cannot be, a substitute." Syria has declared that it would consider the deployment of UNIFIL forces along its borders a hostile act, and the United Nations has acquiesced. How is the political process going to work when the U.N. force is precluded from dealing with the most probable challenges? The Lebanese army – composed largely of Shiites and armed with obsolescent weapons – is in no position to disarm Hezbollah or to control the Syrian border.

To compound these complexities, Hezbollah, as a political party, participates in the Lebanese parliament and, on the ministerial level, in the central government. Both institutions generally make decisions by consensus. Hezbollah thus has at least a blocking veto on those issues on which the cooperation of the Beirut government is needed for enforcement.

Hezbollah's next move is likely to be an attempt to dominate the Beirut government by intimidation and, using the prestige gained in the war, manipulating democratic procedures. In such a situation, Iran and Syria will be in a stronger position to shape the rules of the cease-fire than the U.N. forces, which – as experience shows – are likely to be withdrawn when terrorist attacks inflict casualties. The challenge for American policy and all concerned with world order is to recognize that the cease-fire requires purposeful management. A principal objective must be to prevent rearmament of Hezbollah or its domination of the Lebanese political process. Otherwise, the U.N. force will provide a shield for creating the conditions for another, even more dangerous, explosion.

The war in Lebanon has transformed the position of Israel dramatically. Heretofore the Palestinian issue has, for all its intensity, been about traditional principles of the state system: the legitimacy of Israel; the creation of a Palestinian state; the drawing of borders between these entities; the security arrangement and rules for peaceful coexistence. From Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's "land for peace" formula, to Saudi Arabia's offer of peace and mutual recognition, to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's concept of unilateral withdrawal from occupied territories, the so-called peace process was conceived as culminating in an internationally accepted peace agreement between internationally recognized states.

Hezbollah and other rejectionist groups are determined to prevent precisely this evolution. Hezbollah, which took over southern Lebanon, and Hamas and various jihadist groups, which marginalized the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, disdain the schemes of moderate Arab and Israeli leaders. They reject the very existence of Israel, not any particular set of borders.

One of the consequences is that the traditional peace process is now a shambles. After being attacked with missiles from both Gaza and Lebanon launched by non-state jihadists, Israel will find it difficult to view unilateral withdrawal as a road to peace, nor will it be able under current conditions to find a partner to guarantee security. Finally, in the aftermath of Lebanon, the current Israeli government lacks the authority or public support to withdraw even the 80,000 settlers from the West Bank envisaged in the Sharon plan.

At the same time, an indefinite continuation of the status quo is not sustainable. Some new road map must emerge to underpin the comprehensive Mideast policy that must follow the Lebanon war. To deal with the crisis produced by the combination of non-state fanaticism and state power politics, a joint project among the United States, Europe and the moderate Arab states is needed to work out a common approach. Only in this manner can a leadership accepting peaceful coexistence emerge in the occupied territories.

Everything returns to the challenge of Iran. It trains, finances and equips Hezbollah, the state within a state in Lebanon. It finances and supports Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, the state within a state in Iraq. It works on a nuclear weapons program, which would drive nuclear proliferation out of control and provide a safety net for the systematic destruction of at least the regional order. The challenge is now about world order more than about adjustments within an accepted framework.

A common Atlantic policy backed by moderate Arab states must become a top priority, no matter how pessimistic previous experience with such projects leaves one. The debate sparked by the Iraq war over American rashness versus European escapism is dwarfed by what the world now faces. Both sides of the Atlantic should put their best minds together on how to deal with the common danger of a wider war merging into a war of civilizations against the background of a nuclear-armed Middle East. This cannot be done through ad hoc bargaining over Security Council resolutions; rather, the Security Council resolutions should emerge from an agreed strategy.

Many of the countries in such a grouping have a more optimistic view about the prospects of diplomacy – especially with Iran – than the U.S. administration. We should be open to these concerns and be prepared to join a serious exploration of prospects for turning away from confrontation. But the European allies need to accept the idea that this process should not be driven by domestic politics or media pressure. It has to include a bottom line beyond which diplomatic flexibility cannot go and a time limit to prevent negotiations from turning into a shield for developing new assaults.

In the Lebanon crisis, one can detect the beginning of such a process. Europe shared enough of the American perception and America paid enough attention to European concerns to produce a coordinated diplomacy in the Security Council and to supply a significant peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon.

It remains to be seen whether this cooperation can be sustained in the next phase, specifically whether the U.N. effort in Lebanon can become a means to deal with the dangers outlined here or become a way to avoid the necessary decisions. This is even more true of the impending Iran negotiations. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, thoughtful observers have wondered whether the Atlantic ties can be maintained in the absence of a commonly perceived danger. We now know that we face the imperative of building a new world order or potential global catastrophe. It cannot be done alone by either side of the Atlantic. Is that realization sufficient to regenerate a sense of common purpose?

© 2006 Tribune Media Services Inc.