Sunday, December 03, 2006

Reaping what has been sown in Beirut

No diplomat, journalist or politician should feign surprise at the mass protests now going on in Beirut. These were completely predictable, not in their details, but in terms of their dynamics, purpose and impetus. It was completely obvious that the Shi'i community emerge from the assertive, angry and mobilized, which is precisely why the war was counter-productive from the perspective of U.S., Israeli of March 18th perspectives.

That people were so blinded by their enmity and wistful thinking is instructive. What follows is the complete text of my commentary from July. You may find links to my other writings and interviews during the war on the blog.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006
When bombs stir a Shiite political revival
By Augustus Richard Norton
Commentary by

In 1991, after calling for the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein, President H.W. George Bush stood by as the Iraqi Army brutally crushed the uprising in southern Iraq. The reasons for American inaction then were less important than the results.

A dozen years later, when the United States invaded Iraq, the administration of George W. Bush was surprised when Iraqis did not rush to the streets in ecstatic celebration. It was especially surprised that Shiites were not secularized, as advertised by the Iraqi expatriate boosters of the war. Indeed, American decision-makers discovered two realities: Iraqi Shiites deeply revered the marjaiyya, the senior clerics who provide guidance to adherents; and Iran, virtually the only country that lent assistance to southern Iraq in 1991 and provided sanctuary for Shiite oppositionists, enjoyed considerable influence.

Fast forward to 2006: Lebanon's Shiites, believed to be the largest confessional group in the country, have borne the brunt of the Israeli assault. Other Lebanese have died and suffered, especially in the South. I think of the Maronites of Rmeish, the Druze of Hasbayya, the Greek Orthodox of Khiam, the Greek Catholics of Marjayoun, among others; but the biggest burden is upon the Shiites of the South, the Bekaa Valley and Beirut's southern suburbs.

When this war concludes, one hopes in the coming days, but more probably in early August, where will those Shiites turn politically and religiously? In this sense, 1991 is instructive. Will the Shiites turn away from Hizbullah? There is little doubt that the horrendous tragedy for Lebanon stems from misjudgment by the party's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. He admitted as much in an interview last week with Al-Jazeera. The early evidence suggests strongly that Shiites will emerge from this war even more politicized than before July 12, when the Israeli onslaught began. This war is consolidating sectarian loyalties, reinforcing the role of religious institutions and only heightening distrust of the US and major Arab states - most prominently Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Just because many tens of thousands of Lebanese Shiites may have to live in tents does not mean that they are going to emerge from this war a diminished political force. I expect the contrary to be true.

There will be two beneficiaries of their politicization: Hizbullah and Iran. There are other political trends in the Shiite community, including the secularized middle class and elites, and followers of the Amal movement, which retains its patronage networks. Nonetheless, Hizbullah will continue to appeal to many Shiites, particularly those who see the party as a manifestation of their modern understanding of Shiism and of Islamic values.

The willingness of major Arab states to lend license to Israel's war for hegemony will only confirm the need for a Lebanon-based party capable of protecting Shiite interests. But this party will also affirm Iran's organic connection to Lebanon. Moreover, if past patterns of government funding hold, peripheral areas like the South, the Bekaa and the southern suburbs will have to find their own capital to rebuild. Much of that money will come from Lebanese Shiites themselves - both inside the country and in the diaspora. Iran will also no doubt be a major funder. There is little likelihood that the US will compete with Iran to rebuild Shiite-dominated areas. One hopes that Europe would be more enlightened, but that is another subject.

For South Lebanon there is much discussion of an international force, or a revamped United Nations force, but its mandate remains unclear. Will it facilitate the movement of the Lebanese Army to the border area? Will it act to disarm Hizbullah? What will it do if Israel, with a robust record for recidivism, raids Lebanon, kidnaps or kills Lebanese, or attempts to prevent Lebanese from returning to their homes in a unilaterally imposed buffer zone? Will that force protect the Lebanese with firmness or even deadly force, or will it stand by permissively? One can imagine a variety of ways that the force may delegitimize itself and become part of the problem.

In the eyes of those Lebanese with the biggest stake in the South, namely the Shiites, many may still, incredible as it may seem to outsiders, put more stock in Hizbullah's ability to protect them than in that of well-intended Turks, French, Italians, Russians or Canadians.

At a time of heightened sectarian tensions in the Arab world, fed largely by the civil war in Iraq, the consolidation of Lebanese Shiite identity is likely to greatly complicate the challenges facing the US in the Middle East. The fact that this seems to be so poorly understood in the upper reaches of the Bush administration is alarming. The result is a facile analysis buttressing the administration's approach to the region, and its support for Israel's war in Lebanon, in particular. Had Bush desired Israeli restraint, he could have imposed this. But, Israel's war is America's war, or so the president believes.

Difficult times lie ahead for Lebanon. If much of the Shiite community comes out of this war politicized, not to mention angry and militant, then demands on the government will grow dramatically and the prospects for political turmoil or worse will accelerate. In this context, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's notion of what is under way seems to be irrelevant. She has said: "What we're seeing here, in a sense, is the growing - the birth pangs of a new Middle East. And whatever we do, we have to be certain that we are pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one."

Haven't we heard variations on that theme before?

Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations at Boston University, has been studying and writing about Lebanon for a quarter century.

He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR. Copyright (c) 2006 The Daily Star

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