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Blame Lebanon's failed statesmen.

Byline: Marc J Sirois

Summary: Blame Lebanon's Lebanon is at one of those historic crossroads that countries encounter every few decades or so - unless they are Lebanon, where the intervals between such intersections can be as short as a few weeks. The rapidity with which crises recur here is only partly due, though, to the larger number of problems engendered.

Blame Lebanon's Lebanon is at one of those historic crossroads that countries encounter every few decades or so - unless they are Lebanon, where the intervals between such intersections can be as short as a few weeks. The rapidity with which crises recur here is only partly due, though, to the larger number of problems engendered by a dysfunctional domestic political system, problematic neighbors, and the back-and-forth flows of contests between great powers. All of these are major sources of Lebanon's woes, of course, but the effect of each is multiplied by the tendency of the country's own politicians to delay, deny, demonize and/or dissemble, thereby painting themselves and their compatriots into corners.

The crisis du jour, for instance, is over the presidency. There are many facets to this issue, including how to amend the Constitution in order to make General Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), eligible for Baabda Palace; what effect the process will have on the next president's mandate; and what precedents it might set for future presidential selections. The latest question is over how much (if any) linkage there should be with the leadership, makeup, and platform of the Cabinet that will be installed after a president has taken office. To be sure, all of these are important issues, each having the capacity to impact the performance of key individuals and institutions. They are therefore more than worthy of nothing less than exhaustive debate and discussion.

Unfortunately, however, the timing is all wrong to deal with these particular questions. A better time would have been virtually any time in the past couple of years, but when the country's politicians were able to sit down for the "national dialogue" that preceded the summer 2006 war with Israel, they failed to agree on very much - and then disagreed on what little had been decided. After the conflict, the dialogue was replaced by more traditional means of Lebanese political discourse, namely mutual recrimination through the media. Almost nothing was done to head off the constitutional impasse that promised to rear its head when Emile Lahoud left office at the end of his (extended) term, and the failed efforts that were made came largely at the urging - and with the direct participation - of foreign governments.

Now the horse-trading over the next Cabinet has extended the hiatus that has left Lebanon without a head of state since midnight on November 23. If the negotiations succeed, the next president's authority will almost certainly have been diminished before the ceremonial sash has been draped over him; if they fail, a potentially explosive situation will test him from his very first hours in office.

Some of this is the fault of the framers of Lebanon's Constitution and of all those - both Lebanese and otherwise - who have contributed to its pell-mell alterations over the years. The document is riddled with ambiguities, not to mention something like two dozen avenues that lead to legalistic dead-ends. There are also pronounced disagreements over where authority to interpret the Constitution lies, and in any event, none of the institutions that might do so have anything like the popular support to impose their views.

It is primarily failed statesmanship, though, that has failed the Lebanese in this instance, not flawed statecraft. Whatever its weaknesses, nothing in the Constitution prevented the current crop of politicians from getting down to business months ago. Their own poor judgment - manifested in ways too numerous to count - did that. The most obvious examples were the dithering over whether or not there should be a consensus candidate and then the charade-like search for one that seems to have ended at Suleiman. How it took so long for his candidacy to emerge is a mystery: He has been a respected national figure for years, and Lahoud, his predecessor as LAF chief, was all but assured the presidency in 1998 from the moment he stepped aside in favor of an extension of Elias Hrawi's term in 1995. A cynic might write that seeming continuity off as the product of Syrian engineering, but at least that engineering got the job done. The same can emphatically not be said of Lebanese officialdom since it was left to its own devices by the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. In no way does this mean that Lebanon would be better off if it were back under the Damascene thumb, but it does indicate that this country needs desperately to improve the quality of its leadership.

With a little luck, Lebanon will get through this latest brush with disaster, perhaps because larger powers have agreed on larger issues and therefore on ending that facet of the local struggle that was really a proxy war between them. None of this should be of any comfort to the Lebanese, though, because the ingredients for the next imbroglio are still present in large quantities: Key political figures view one another as traitors, even less extreme parties on both sides have almost no trust in one another, and the general public has yet to demand something better of its leaders than the usual tribalism.

What can be done about this last point will decide the matter. Some of the rules have changed radically since the Syrians left, but Lebanon remains an asterisk democracy. It cannot, will not - and, some would argue, should not - take the next step unless and until it has an electorate capable of recognizing and rewarding capable leaders, and of identifying and punishing poor ones. Most of today's dominant politicians will not help voters to develop these skills, because they would be the first casualties of well-informed and responsible balloting. Indeed, they need private citizens to remain backward if they are to retain their power and privileges, so they have a vested interest in this element of the status quo.

The task must fall instead to civil society, whose first priority must be to remedy the sickening sectarian hatreds that shape the political opinions of so many Lebanese of all backgrounds and socioeconomic strata. These ugly tendencies infect people at all levels of society, including many of the academics and journalists who do so much to shape opinions through what they teach and write. If their influence cannot be sharply reduced or radically reoriented, the aforementioned asterisk will become superfluous because Lebanon will have no democracy of any sort, qualified or not.

Marc J. Sirois is managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.failed statesmen

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Dec 11, 2007
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