Thursday, March 10, 2011

Offer Shiites an arms-for-power swap

Here is the always entertaining Michel Aoun, showing in what ways the current discord over Hezbollah’s weapons can lead Lebanese politicians down paths at stark odds with their own past.

“We hold our head high with the weapons of the resistance,” Aoun said on Tuesday, “because [the weapons] have held our head high around the world. They [March 14] threaten us with the international tribunal, and they respond to us from the United States of America and Europe and Israel, because these weapons preserve our honor.”

For a man who once claimed to be a major force behind the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, American congressional legislation that, among other things, sought to cut arms supplies to Hezbollah and encourage Lebanese-Israeli peace talks; who supported United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which saw the light thanks to American and French cooperation, and implicitly called for Hezbollah’s disarmament; and who fought two bitter conflicts against the Lebanese Forces in 1989 and 1990 to compel the militia to integrate its weapons into the Lebanese Army, such a statement was characteristically deceitful. But is Aoun alone?

The decision of Saad Hariri and March 14 to make an issue of Hezbollah’s arms is overdue. Lebanon’s inability to consolidate its shaky social contract, to address political reform, to reinforce the authority of the state, and to fortify its deficient sovereignty are all consequences of the lack of a national consensus, deriving from the untenable relationship between a state and an armed group militarily more powerful than the state that has used its arms, or compulsively threatens to do so, in order to protect itself and its autonomy from that state. Until this matter is resolved, Lebanon will function at two speeds – that of Hezbollah and its allies, and that of everyone else.

However, does March 14 have what it takes to prevail? Not so long ago, Saad Hariri was defending what he described as the arms of the resistance. Three governments led by the former majority crafted convoluted policy statements to sanction Hezbollah’s retention of its substantial military arsenal. March 14 is correct in saying that Hezbollah has directed its weapons against other Lebanese, and that its deployment of men dressed in black in Beirut’s streets last January, after finalization of the draft indictment at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, was a threat to repeat that. But then March 14 went ahead and participated in the parliamentary consultations that gave Hezbollah the prime minister it and Syria wanted, allowing the party to claim that it had worked through constitutional channels.

That does not mean that March 14 is mistaken in focusing on weapons, but unfortunately the twists and turns the coalition has navigated to reach this conclusion indicate, rightly or wrongly, that it is relying to some measure on political improvisation. Worse, Hariri must respond more persuasively to the charge that he shifted gears on Hezbollah’s guns because he was not returned as prime minister. Unless he does so, March 14 could find itself on the defensive in advancing a very risky agenda to push for Hezbollah’s disarmament.

Perhaps it’s time to offer stronger medicine. It easy to forecast how Hezbollah will respond to demands that it surrender its weapons. The party will tell its Shiite coreligionists that this is a first step in taking the community back to the days of marginalization in Lebanon. As ludicrous as that may sound, given the party’s muscle, Hezbollah has been adept at exploiting communal anxieties. Such a warning would succeed in eliciting a defensive response from Shiites, particularly at a tense time in Sunni-Shiite relations throughout the Middle East.

That is why Hariri and March 14 should consider endorsing a quid pro quo aimed at neutralizing such fears: In exchange for Hezbollah’s agreement to disarm in stages, March 14 must offer to initiate a far-reaching dialogue on implementing political reforms within a specific timeframe, under the auspices of the Taif Accord, one of whose results would be to expand the political representation of the Shiite community. Shiites would, thus, have a choice between Hezbollah’s weapons and greater political power; between self-preservation under the party’s military umbrella or under the umbrella of the state.

The obstacles to such an arrangement are many. Hezbollah would doubtless reject it outright; Christians on both sides of the March 8 and March 14 divide would be exceptionally resistant to going along with Taif’s abolition of political confessionalism; it would be no easy task to agree to the precise staging in such an intricate process (what comes first, disarmament or deconfessionalization?); and, somewhere, a new population census would have to be taken, because Sunnis believe they are as numerous, or nearly so, as the Shiites.

However, the proposal would also be difficult for Hezbollah to permanently dismiss. It has the potential to constantly come back and provoke debate among Shiites, because it addresses their long-term status in Lebanon. The scheme would also oblige March 14 to define more clearly on behalf of its own partisans how it views Lebanon’s constitutional future. And even if nothing happens in the short term, a promise of reform in the shadow of Taif would impose a framework for discussion later on, placing Hezbollah’s disarmament on the political table far more effectively than today, since the party and the Shiite community have been offered no incentives to comply.

Hezbollah’s weapons are indeed the elephant in Lebanon’s sitting room. Saad Hariri and March 14 have finally decided to mention them, but what is their Plan B if the party doesn’t answer? Hariri sees Taif as the state’s most potent weapon. The time to use it is now.

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