Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
In a surprising outcome, Lebanon’s voters returned the pro-Western March 14 coalition to power in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. March 14 won 71 seats in the new parliament, while the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition – which had been expected to emerge victorious in these elections – wound up with 57 seats. Outside observers have attributed March 14’s victory to Hezbollah’s willingness to use violence to settle internal political disputes and the implications a Hezbollah-led coalition victory would have for Lebanon’s international alignment vis-à-vis the United States and Iran. At the end of May, for instance, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Beirut to warn that a Hezbollah victory would cause the United States to “evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the shape of the new government.”
These results clarify things quite a bit for U.S. policy. It removes from possibility (for the time being) that the United States would have to deal with Hezbollah members as legitimate representatives of the Lebanese state, as President Obama hinted at in a recent interview with NPR. They also mean that the current program of security assistance to the Lebanese armed forces will continue as planned.
But what clarifies for U.S. policy only manages to create problems in Lebanon’s dysfunctional confessional political system. These problems are compounded by the fact that Hezbollah maintains its own armed forces outside state structures and institutions, making it more powerful than its poll results indicate. The March 14 coalition will have to find a way to include Hezbollah’s coalition in its “national consensus” government without giving Hezbollah a veto. Failure to achieve some sort of consensus in the wake of the new political landscape could, as Lebanon expert Mona Yacoubian told Middle East Progress recently, “set Lebanon up for a period of dangerous political paralysis.”
March 14 faces a tricky road ahead of it: already Hezbollah has taken the question of its arms off the table, and issued threats that the political impasse will continue “unless the majority changes its attitude.” The fact that such threats are made and must be taken seriously indicates how far Lebanon still has to go before it evolves into a real democracy where internal political disputes are settled by legitimate, non-violent processes. In the face of such demands, the March 14 coalition will need the support of its external supporters, including the United States.
What the U.S. should do is encourage March 14 to create as broad and viable coalition as possible without giving the opposition a veto, and withhold criticism of deals struck to achieve that goal. In the long term, the United States should assist the Lebanese government in building non-confessional state institutions and structures – including and especially security institutions. Disarming Hezbollah is a long-term project that will require intense diplomacy with Syria and Israel in addition to internal development of the Lebanese state. Achieving stability in Lebanon will not be easy, but with dedication and diplomacy it can be done.