Friday, April 29, 2011

Lebanon should prepare for a different Syria

On Wednesday, Syria got a reprieve at the United Nations Security Council, when Russia, China and Lebanon opposed condemnation of the Syrian regime’s brutal repression of nationwide protests. But for all intents and purposes, President Bashar al-Assad has lost his legitimacy by unleashing security forces on unarmed civilians.

If discussion is stifled at the Security Council, it will find other paths. We can assume that the Assads will pursue their savagery. We can also assume that the Syrian upheaval will continue, since nothing is more degrading to a people than to be ruled over by a confederacy of thugs. In that case European states, perhaps even the United States, once the Obama administration reaches a conclusion about what it really wants to achieve in Syria, will take measures outside the confines of the United Nations, circumventing Russia and China.

Perhaps we shouldn’t blame the Lebanese for having played it safe. The country is hopelessly divided, and avoiding a problem is always more convenient than taking the morally defensible stance. However, Lebanon is as unprepared as ever for what looks like the certain disintegration, whether rapid or slow, of the Assad clique.

Every few days majority politicians assure us that a government will be formed soon, “if not Monday, then Thursday,” to borrow from the Lotto commercial. However, the prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, had no incentive to form a government “of one color” two months ago, before the unrest in Syria began, and he has even less of one today. Mikati initially wagered on Syrian backing to counterbalance the troublesome embrace of Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. But with Bashar al-Assad preoccupied with crushing his own people, Mikati has had to recalculate, finding that doing nothing is the best decision.

Mikati was foolish to imagine that he could form a government against Saad Hariri and the Sunni majority. Now he realizes that all his options are bad, and so Lebanon is left paying a heavy price for his conceit. However, there is an irony here: Hariri probably welcomes sitting out of government while the storm hits in Syria. In other words, if Mikati were to step down and Michel Sleiman were to call for new parliamentary consultations, it is not at all certain that the acting prime minister would relish receiving a fresh mandate.

Amin Gemayel has proposed that a government that is non-aligned on regional conflicts be formed. The idea is worth considering, although it may be better to establish a government of national unity, ideally on the basis of a 10-10-10 distribution of power – split evenly between the March 8 parties and Aoun; Sleiman, Walid Jumblatt and Mikati; and the March 14 coalition. Better still, these three blocs could nominate technocrats to represent them. The government’s principal aim would be to fill the leadership vacuum, stabilize the situation on the ground, and move forward on the economic and administrative fronts, leaving more bothersome political issues for later on.

It won’t be easy, but Lebanon should begin preparing for the possibility of a post-Assad era in Syria. Above all, Hariri and his March 14 allies, along with Sleiman and those wedded to Lebanese state authority, should determine how to address the future of Hezbollah, which could emerge as the great loser if Assad falls. Yet the party will not disappear; indeed, it may become more dangerous if politically cornered. That’s why Hariri and his partners, as well as the president, must formulate a consensus position for the eventual neutralization of the divisive issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, when and if that becomes possible. Walid Jumblatt’s mediation, and even that of the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, may be useful in this regard.

The only realistic way to reassure Lebanon’s Shia if there is a leadership change in Damascus that undermines Hezbollah’s authority is to offer the community a quid pro quo: Hezbollah’s weapons in exchange for greater political power to the Shia in the context of the Taif Accord. The process would be complex; all communities would demand reassurances. But there is no alternative, if the sordid Baath order collapses in Syria, for Lebanon to renegotiate its social contract and reach agreement, once and for all, on Hezbollah’s arms, a cancer eating away at Lebanese concord.

As the Europeans and the US slowly maneuver into outright opposition to the Assad regime, which will become inevitable if the slaughter in Syria goes on, Lebanon should read the writing on the wall. There is nothing wrong with shielding the country from the tempests all around, as Gemayel has proposed; but it would be short-sighted not to prepare for the likely tempests in Beirut. Defenders of the state must consider participating in a national-unity cabinet, even as they lay the foundations for a political covenant that could absorb the political shockwaves from Syria.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Decision time for the U.S. on Assad rule

The Obama administration’s policy toward Syria has been narrowly portrayed as vacillating between heart and mind. On the one side the United States has sought to save lives and defend humanistic values; on the other, it has endeavored to protect its interests in the Middle East.

The tension between principles and political preferences is ever present in the foreign policy of democracies, so it should come as no surprise that Washington has struggled amid proliferating Arab uprisings. However, the Obama administration’s confusion on Syria has also very much had to do with the absence of an overriding strategy. The United States has had no center of gravity when dealing with Damascus.

It was obvious weeks ago, when the Syrian protests began, that the Obama team could not avoid addressing the situation in the country, whatever the outcome. If President Bashar Assad crushed his own people, the administration would face a major human rights challenge; and if Assad and his regime buckled, then Washington would have to attend to a volatile new political reality. Either way, more was required than the reactive, timorous responses we witnessed as the situation in Syria worsened. President Barack Obama and his advisers seem as unprepared today on Syria as they were last month.

The latest twist is that Washington is considering sanctions against Syrian regime figures, even as American officials whisper that the U.S. has little leverage over Syria. The second proposition underlines how low are the administration’s expectations that the first will succeed. Sanctions are there for show, to do something when one doesn’t want to have to do more. Yet Obama has no justification to pursue that vacant path when he was provided with ample evidence that sanctions against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime failed utterly to halt a military onslaught on eastern Libya, let alone ameliorate Gadhafi’s behavior.

If fears of a possible breakdown in Syria are serious enough to warrant excessive cautiousness by the Obama administration, surely that means the country is sufficiently important to impose a U.S. approach more coherent than what we have had until now. The grim fact is that there is no Syria policy in Washington. The Assad regime’s ever higher levels of barbarity have been eliciting ever sharper administration ejaculations of outrage, and feverish consultations with this ally and that. But none of those steps has established that Obama knows what he really wants to achieve in Syria, whether he actually sees beyond the Assads, what his endgame is, let alone whether he is looking to exploit the situation to bolster America’s otherwise uneasy status in the Middle East.

As numerous commentators have pointed out, Syria is that rare place where America’s heart and mind converge. The fall of the Assad regime, if handled properly, would represent a major setback for Iran and its regional allies. Potentially, this could have a positive impact in Lebanon, Palestinian areas and Iraq. More important, it could free the Syrian people from four decades of subjugation by a single sinister family.

Understandably, no one is seriously contemplating a scheme for the U.S. and European states to mount a military campaign to protect the Syrian population. Syrians have not braved the bullets of their security services and pro-Assad crime gangs in the hope of inviting foreign armed intervention. This is one society that has appeared quite determined to free itself largely through its own agency, and peacefully. However, with Western, especially American, apathy measured in lives, Syrian protesters are entitled to wonder why their plight has been so much less pressing than those of the Egyptians and Libyans.

You can still hear Western officials and spokespersons mouthing empty words about the need for Bashar Assad to embrace reform. Have they been watching what is going on? The Syrian regime knows that it simply has no such option. If you give society a bit of breathing space, it realizes better than anyone else, most Syrians will see an opening to overthrow the entire foul edifice repressing them. What many in Syria want is an end to the institutionalized suffocation and terrorization of Assad rule. They see no point in preserving Bashar if they can get rid of Maher, his brother who has led the savage military counterattack.

Bashar Assad is no more a reformer than Moammar Gadhafi or Hosni Mubarak. And with his security forces butchering Syrians from north to south and from east to west, his legitimacy has reached an end. It’s about time that Washington accept these simple propositions and reshape its attitude toward Syria accordingly. Bashar is not about to do what Washington, deep down, pines for him to do: He won’t reform, he won’t break with Iran, he won’t engage seriously in peace negotiations with Israel, and he won’t halt his interference in Lebanon.

What Bashar will do is continue to slaughter his own population, and they will likely continue to resist. It’s as simple as that, and Obama should place the U.S. on the right side of the fight against the Assads and their maintenance in power, while also helping to ease Syria toward a smooth democratic transition. This is not about regime change in Syria; the Syrian regime has already ascertained that change is obligatory. It’s about the U.S. accepting that change is inevitable and ensuring that it can become useful for whatever occurs next.

If politics is the art of the possible, it’s also about knowing what one desires. Barack Obama has so often accepted the restrictions of what is possible that he has frequently proven unwilling to pursue what he finds desirable. The president’s wavering on Syria has been a prime illustration of this shortcoming. And yet the sordid methods of the Assads make even the most difficult decisions fairly easy to take.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The shadow of April 13

Next week Lebanon will commemorate, doubtless in vapors of indifference, the 36th anniversary of the start of its civil war. Indifference is not necessarily a bad thing, but given the polarization in the country today, particularly between the Sunni and Shia communities, a look back is necessary.

In 1975 Lebanon did not seem like a country on the verge of a 15-year conflict. There were those who saw through the glitz of the era, the nights at the Caves du Roy and the imperishable cliché that one could swim in the sea and ski on the same day. Toufiq Youssef Awwad’s novel Tawaheen Beirut, like Ziad al-Rahbani’s brilliant, caustic plays, offered literary glimpses into the often impossible social contradictions the Lebanese had to juggle. Political life was, like today, deadlocked, the Lebanese divided over the role of the state, their social contract and the armed Palestinian groups in their midst.

The situation appears to be different today, but the contradictions are still there. There is still no consensus over a Lebanese social contract, still no broad accord when it comes to the state, and still a highly volatile quarrel over weapons not under the authority of the state, in this case those of Hezbollah. And you can still ski and swim on the same day.

But one thing we do have that we didn’t three-and-a-half decades ago is a memory of our civil war. Back then, the Lebanese perhaps still recalled the 1958 conflict, but what a mild walk in the park this was compared to the butchery between 1975 and 1990. And while Lebanon moved perilously close to the precipice in the six years since the Syrian army withdrew from the country, it never went over the edge. Even Hezbollah’s assault on western Beirut and the Aley district in May 2008 was designed to achieve swift, blunt political success, not initiate a full-scale confrontation, though the party played with fire.

How might the memory of war help us today? The priority for the political class in the foreseeable future, on all sides of the Lebanese divide, is to avert a conflict between Sunnis and Shia and create a framework for serious dialogue between the two communities. This may sound terribly trite, and it is illusory today to expect that the factions will find substantial common ground. The projects advanced by the March 14 coalition and by Hezbollah are largely incompatible, at least in the forms expressed by representatives on both sides.

Then there is the fact that dialogue is sometimes only useful in creating an impression of amity, until the clashes break out. That is why something a bit more serious must be attempted. While the political class may resurrect the national dialogue sessions, as cover for a broader exchange of ideas between the politicians, Saad Hariri and Hassan Nasrallah must establish their own mechanism to remain in regular contact, secretly, whatever their public stances and regardless of the personal animus they have for each other. Why secret? To shield such contacts from political one-upmanship on either side.

It is doubtless necessary for Nasrallah to climb down from his high perch, one from where he believes that he can intimidate his political adversaries to change their views on a host of crucial national issues, ranging from their support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to their disapproval of Hezbollah’s weapons. But it is also vital that Hariri take more steps of his own, for example reestablishing a relationship with Nabih Berri. From Hariri’s perspective, the parliament speaker has a lot going against him. Yet March 14 twice elected him to his post after the Independence Intifada of 2005, even though Berri had done everything to undermine the then-parliamentary majority.

Above all, Lebanon needs a government. That March 14 has chosen to remain in the opposition is constitutionally legitimate. However, at this stage, with so much uncertainty in the country and in the Arab world, it really makes more sense for it to join the government, on condition that it receive veto power. The former majority would thus place itself in a position to defend its stakes, including the Special Tribunal, and build useful coalitions with President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and even Walid Jumblatt on myriad issues. None of the three relishes the thought of seeing the government turned into a battering ram for Hezbollah and Michel Aoun.

Mikati may well agree to grant March 14 veto power, as it would allow him, finally, to form a governing team. More importantly, a new government would allow for politics within the confines of national institutions. Better in the cabinet than in the streets.

As Michel Chiha, an essential ideologue of the Lebanese system, wrote in 1936 that Lebanon’s diversities can only be brought nearer to one another “by allowing them to live politically together, by allowing them to make laws together in an Assembly and to control the implementation of these laws.” The government is one such assembly, but there are, potentially, many others. As the April 13 anniversary looms, let’s remember that Lebanon is condemned to manage its differences in consensual ways; otherwise the shadow of war will never be far enough away.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The shameful Arab silence on Syria

Many publicists have excitedly described the liberating promise of Arab satellite stations. However, the stations’ utterly inadequate coverage of the current upheaval in Syria, particularly the Syrian regime’s ruthless suppression of peaceful demonstrations, belies that optimistic view. Their failing can be measured in human lives.

Why have the major satellite stations, Al-Jazeera but also Al-Arabiya, been so profoundly reluctant to highlight the Syrian protests? Why have stations like Al-Hurra and the BBC Arabic channel been so much more imaginative, thorough, and professional in pursuing the story? By way of an answer you might hear that the Syrian authorities control journalists very tightly; that there is no independent footage to broadcast; that those opposed to the regime risk arrest when they are interviewed; and so on. Perhaps, but that’s not convincing.

Take last Friday, when Syrian protesters had called for a “day of the martyrs,” in honor of those gunned down by the Syrian security forces in Deraa and elsewhere. The demonstrations were to begin after noon prayers, at around 1:30 p.m. Yet for two good hours, both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya relegated the Syria story to a brief and distant third in their broadcasts, focusing instead on Yemen and Libya. And when the day was over and the bodies had been counted, Syria was still not a priority. Al-Jazeera’s nightly news satisfied itself with showing telephone videos from the protests, with little commentary.

Since then things have only gotten worse. It has become a rule of thumb for the stations that when they speak to someone opposed to the Syrian regime, invariably off camera, they must also talk to a pro-regime propagandist, usually some member of Parliament or a political analyst. In journalistic terms, hearing both sides of a story is reasonable. Yet how little that rule was applied in Egypt by the same stations during the movement against Hosni Mubarak. And if the Syrian authorities are imposing that stations contact their devotees, interviewers should at least make this known to viewers.

In his speech last week before the Syrian Parliament, Bashar Assad bluntly accused the Arab satellite stations of inciting the rallies against his regime. But what the Syrian president was really doing was sending a message to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar principally, informing them that if they really wanted him to stay in office, they were better off keeping a lid on their satellite journalists. That warning, or threat, appears to have had an impact. Despite purported disagreements within Al-Jazeera (and, I suspect, similar debates at Al-Arabiya) over how to handle Syria, what is going on in the country continues to be treated with troubling reserve.

Nothing prevents these stations from borrowing much more from social media to strengthen their anemic reporting. Twitter is an invaluable resource for keeping pace with the hourly specifics of the Syrian revolt. Facebook is even more essential for the protesters themselves, as they plan their next move. Not surprisingly, quite a few Syrians posting on the site have expressed outrage with the way the satellite stations, Al-Jazeera in particular, have ignored their plight.

Showing telephone videos of people marching, or being shot at, is useful. However, without a context, without an informed explanation of what is going on and what viewers are seeing; without playing these videos on air to Syrian officials and demanding that they explain the murder of unarmed civilians expressing themselves peacefully, the power of media is stunted. One gets a nagging sense that the coverage on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya is an outcome of political compromises, but also, in Al-Jazeera’s case, of the station’s ideological agenda.

To toss Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya into the same basket is entirely justified here, because both Saudi Arabia and Qatar share a desire to avert a breakdown in Syria, fearing that chaos might ensue. Their views are echoed by a majority of Gulf states, whose leaders have called Assad lately to express their backing. Nor is there any quarrel with this in Washington, where the Obama administration has been baldly two-faced – praising itself for preventing human rights abuses by the Gadhafi regime in Libya while offering only pro forma criticism of the shocking number of deaths in Syria.

The hypocrisy of Al-Jazeera, the most popular Arab satellite station, is especially worthy of mention. In Egypt, Libya or Yemen, for instance, the station devotes, or has devoted, long segments allowing viewers to call in and express disapproval of their leaders alongside their high hopes for the success of the revolution. In Syria, nothing.

The reality is that the political allegiances and the self-image of Al-Jazeera make this thorny. Syria is part of the “resistance axis,” and the downfall of its regime would only harm Hezbollah and Hamas. The same lack of enthusiasm characterized the station’s coverage of Lebanon’s Independence Intifada against Syria in 2005. It is easy to undermine Ali Abdullah Saleh, Moammar Gadhafi, and Hosni Mubarak, each of whom in his own way is or was a renegade to the Arabs. But to go after Bashar Assad means reversing years of Al-Jazeera coverage sympathetic to the Syrian leader. Rather conveniently, refusing to do so dovetails with the consensus in the Arab political leadership.

So the Syrians find themselves largely abandoned today, their struggle not enjoying the customary Al-Jazeera treatment – high in emotion and electric in the slogans of mobilization. The televised Arab narrative of liberty has not quite avoided Syria, but nor has it integrated the Syrians’ cause. As the Arab stations weigh what to do next, they may still hope that the Syrian story will disappear soon, and their duplicity with it. Shame on them.

Hizbollah finds itself on the wrong side of revolutions

When Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power in Tunisia, soon to be followed by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, America's foes in the Middle East cried victory. The upheavals in the region would play to their advantage, they gloated, and among the loudest voices was that of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Now things are looking more complicated, as unrest ravages Libya and spreads to Syria.

One organisation in particular, Hizbollah, is warily watching developments, and not only in the Middle East. Growing sectarian polarisation in the Gulf, protests in Syria, the likely naming of Hizbollah members in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and even the difficulties faced by Shiite expatriates in Ivory Coast have all heightened anxieties in party ranks. Hizbollah has also seen its political influence inside Lebanon shaken lately, as it faces deepening Sunni hostility.

Most of Hizbollah's injuries have been self-inflicted. As the recent protests in Bahrain took on a sectarian colouring, the party's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, proclaimed his solidarity with the kingdom's Shiites and condemned the ruling Al Khalifa family. The upshot was to effectively jeopardise the livelihood of thousands of Lebanese, especially Shiites, working in Bahrain and the Gulf. The Bahraini authorities interrupted air links between Manama and Beirut and warned of further retaliatory measures. Now Sheikh Nasrallah must explain to his co-religionists still in the kingdom, or who have had to leave, why he dragged them into a battle that was not theirs.

Lebanese earning a living in the Gulf, Shiites above all, will be equally alarmed by the growing tension between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Lebanon offers few economic opportunities and relies heavily on foreign remittances. There would be severe repercussions if Gulf labour markets were closed to them for political reasons. Most expatriates have no interest in being associated with Hizbollah's militancy, even less Iran's. Sheikh Nasrallah knows this, but is caught between balancing the preferences of his Lebanese followers with his allegiances to Tehran and its regional agenda.

The dramatic breakdown in the Ivory Coast was no fault of Hizbollah. However, the party may well face the backlash of whatever occurs there. The Lebanese ambassador in Abidjan was one of the few envoys to attend the January inauguration of Laurent Gbagbo, even though his alleged election victory was universally contested. As a result, Lebanese businesses appear to have been targeted by the men of Allasane Ouattara as they sought to remove Mr Gbagbo from office.

The ambassador is close to Lebanon's Shiite parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a political ally of Hizbollah. This means Hizbollah may have to absorb the discontent, albeit indirect, of another emigrant community if the Ivory Coast's Lebanese lose everything. The party may also have to help bear the burden of assisting expatriates who return to Lebanon. Hizbollah is not poor, but it has paid out much money to its Shiite base in recent years: for reconstruction after the summer 2006 war, but also in compensation after the collapse of a Ponzi scheme by an investor whom the party had endorsed.

Hizbollah has been even more uncomfortable with the ongoing repression in Syria, which potentially threatens an Assad regime that has supported and armed the party. Not only has the Syrian revolt shattered the narrative that Arab dissatisfaction is directed solely against the United States, it has placed Hizbollah on the side of the oppressors. For a party that purportedly identifies with the deprived everywhere, this poses problems. Hizbollah's Al Manar television station has played down the Syrian regime's brutality, even as the death toll has risen.

Inside Lebanon, Hizbollah has fared little better. The prospect that party members will be indicted in the Hariri assassination has been a source of domestic discord for months. This provoked the downfall of Saad Hariri's government when ministers affiliated with Hizbollah and its political partners resigned, after Mr Hariri refused to break with the special tribunal dealing with the case. Since then the Hizbollah-led coalition has failed to put together a new cabinet under Najib Miqati, after the party blocked Mr Hariri's return.

Not surprisingly, Lebanese Sunni-Shiite relations have worsened markedly, feeding off regional sectarian polarisation. Hizbollah has long tried to sell itself as the vanguard of a unified Arab resistance to Israel and the United States. For it now to be pigeonholed as a sectarian organisation under Iran's thumb represents an important step backward. In that context, any charge that the party contributed to the murder of a major Sunni leader like Rafik Hariri is anathema.

Hizbollah may be down, but it is hardly out. The party's leeway to combat Israel on behalf of Iran has been impeded. Sheikh Nasrallah cannot afford to impose the trauma of a new war in south Lebanon on his own community. However, an increasingly insecure Hizbollah is also potentially a dangerous one. Now is the time for the party's Lebanese rivals to consider innovative ideas for integrating Shiites into the political system. One such idea is to offer a swap - Hizbollah's weapons in exchange for more political power for the Shiites - in the framework of a broader reform effort.

Hizbollah will resist this. But the pillars of the party's power - its unquestioning, confident Shiite support, its ability to intimidate Lebanon's other communities, its regional alliances and its capacity to fight Israel - are all being put to a serious test. Hizbollah's adversaries, above all Mr Hariri, must offer the Shiites a way forward, a safety net if power shifts decisively away from the party. This can allay Shiite fears that what is lost to Hizbollah will necessarily be lost to them, and reduce the odds of a new conflict in Lebanon.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Stabilization time for Lebanon

For a man who was supposed to shield the Maronite Church from the tremors of politics, Patriarch Bishara al-Rai has launched himself into the political pit feet first and head forward. After offering a ringing endorsement of Minister Ziad Baroud last weekend, Rai declared on Wednesday that a government of “one color” was undesirable.

The patriarch will have gotten significant assistance from Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian president’s speech on Wednesday was seen by most people as profoundly disappointing; but worse, it was viewed by many Syrians as an insult. This can only complicate the political situation in Syria, which means the Assad regime may be loath to sanction a government in Beirut that creates more headaches for Damascus.

A headache is precisely what the Syrian president may face by endorsing a one-sided government under the influence of Hezbollah. Assad does not want to alienate the Sunni-dominated states of the Gulf, whose leaders this week called to express support for his regime. But he had already gotten a warning last Friday, when Sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi, in his Friday sermon from Doha, welcomed the fact that “the train of revolution” had reached Syria. For Assad, this was a troubling reminder that his margin of maneuver in dealing with Syria’s Sunni community, and by extension Lebanon’s, is limited.

It is doubtful that the protests in Syria will die down in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the contrary is more probable. In that context, Rai’s advice is sound. It would be a grave mistake for the prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, to go through with establishing a government allowing Hezbollah and Michel Aoun to impose agendas that might only increase tension in Lebanon. Until now Mikati has refused to do so, and in this he has had the backing of President Michel Sleiman, but also, more furtively, of Walid Jumblatt.

This week Jumblatt spoke for the first time in months with Saad Hariri, and has called for a resumption of the national dialogue. The Druze leader is worried about events in Syria and their repercussions for Lebanon. He is also annoyed with Michel Aoun’s rapacious cabinet demands. Jumblatt has made it clear to his allies that he is the one responsible for taking the parliamentary majority away from March 14, and therefore will not consent to being marginal in the government.

Almost everyone appears to be quietly but firmly abandoning the notion of a government led by Hezbollah and the Aounists. According to Al-Jumhouria on Thursday, the Qatari government has circulated ideas, allegedly with Syrian knowledge, to refloat the present Hariri government. The idea would be to revive the previous ministerial statement approving Hezbollah’s weapons, in exchange for a reaffirmation of Lebanon’s commitment to United Nations resolutions. This would shelve Hezbollah’s plan to use the “false witnesses” controversy to discredit the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Hariri is not soon likely to accept such a proposal, however there is a definite need to go along with the Qataris’ rationale: Namely, to find a formula to stabilize the Lebanese political scene at a moment when developments in Syria may exacerbate Lebanese sectarian differences. Not many in March 14 are willing to listen to Jumblatt these days, but he’s correct in that a vacuum in Beirut at such a sensitive moment next door is in the interest of none of the Lebanese parties.

Complicating matters is Michel Aoun’s health. He reportedly suffered an ischemic incident this week, most commonly caused by a blood clot in the brain. Reportedly, the attack was transient, which means that Aoun may emerge with little or no lasting negative consequences. However, many will be watching to see whether this situation affects the political calculations of the poles within the Aounist movement, particularly those family members competing for Aoun’s legacy.

At the least, Aoun’s health crisis, like his political intransigence in negotiating cabinet shares, makes it increasingly certain that we have entered a new phase in the months-long political face-off in Lebanon. The Special Tribunal is no longer the main preoccupation of the hour. Hezbollah’s strategy toward the so-called false witnesses has hit up against numerous obstacles, above all the fact that Sunni-Shia relations will suffer if Lebanon severs ties with the tribunal.

Perhaps Hezbollah can take some solace in the fact that the tribunal’s prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, recently filed what was described as an expanded draft indictment. For some foreign legal experts, this was very possibly a sign that his initial draft was deficient.

Mikati cannot fashion a government of national unity, but he should think seriously of a government of national consensus. The new cabinet should include competent independents, approved by the major political factions. Call them whatever you want, but the prime objective of this team should be to do what the Mikati government of 2005 did: manage affairs impartially until parliamentary elections, while shielding Lebanon from the convulsions of the Middle East.

The prime minister-elect should begin by bluntly announcing that the “government of one color” project is dead. Hezbollah and Aoun might resist, but it’s time for Mikati to show nerve. Lebanon needs someone to lead, and Mikati stood against Hariri and a majority of Sunnis in saying that he could do so. With events in Syria as they are, the prime minister-elect should downgrade his ambitions and manage a delicate Lebanese transition. We shouldn’t expect more for now.