Commentary / World

Role of EU a year after war in Lebanon

by Mai Yamani

LONDON — It has been almost one year since the European Union committed to stabilize Lebanon following last summer’s war. With its decision to send thousands of soldiers to Lebanon to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, the EU took its boldest step yet in creating a common foreign and security policy. But it remains an open question whether the EU will actually be able to stabilize the most fractured polity in the most dangerous area of conflict in Europe’s immediate neighborhood.

The Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 reminded the EU, once again, that its strategic interests do not always coincide perfectly with those of the United States. Because the Bush administration took a “hands off” approach to the Israel-Hezbollah war in south Lebanon, and given the military straitjacket the U.S. finds itself in because of the Iraq war, the EU had to take the lead.

The EU remains — for now — relatively uncontaminated by America’s disintegrating reputation in the Middle East. But the EU could see its reputation worsen if it allows its commitment to Lebanon to become part of the emerging U.S. strategy of isolating Iran by hardening today’s regional Sunni-Shiite divisions.

To avoid this fate, the EU’s commitment in Lebanon needs to be supplemented with a nuanced political strategy that seeks to avoid isolating Lebanon’s long suppressed Shiite population.

The threats emanating from the Middle East are diverse: regional conflicts, totalitarian religious ideologies (mainly led by Shiite Iran and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia), terrorism, nuclear armament programs, obstacles to modernization, and unstable regimes. All of these affect Lebanon, and are aggravated by the country’s own peculiar sociopolitical dynamics — i.e., its Maronite, Sunni and Shiite divisions.

The EU’s mission in Lebanon is risky. Neither Hezbollah nor Syria, let alone Iran, has an interest in stability without some say in creating it. Resolution 1701 presupposes — in addition to separating the combatants — enforcement of the internal and external sovereignty of Lebanon’s elected government, without saying how this is to be accomplished given Hezbollah’s superior military power relative to the government’s forces.

In effect, the resolution envisaged reversing Hezbollah’s gains and ignored the deep changes that have occurred in Lebanese society, most importantly the Shiite community’s growing self-confidence.

Attempting to politically isolate and disarm Hezbollah is a task that the EU-led U.N. force cannot accomplish and should not attempt, for it would mean war, with Syria and Iran in the background. But were the EU to resign itself to mere observer status in Lebanon, the United Nations and Europe would lose all credibility. An armed peace has held for a year. But an armed peace never lasts. The mission must therefore walk a fine line to bridge the country’s communal divisions, which will be possible only with a clear understanding of Lebanon and the wider Middle East.

The road toward peace rather than ceasefire in Lebanon precludes the EU’s participation in America’s emerging “containment” strategy vis-a-vis Iran, at least in its current form, which is based on organizing the resistance of Sunni states to Shiite influence. For the Shiites are the biggest of Lebanon’s three religious communities. They also form a majority in some Persian Gulf states, as well as in the oil-rich regions of Saudi Arabia. So a neat Shiite-Sunni dividing line cannot be drawn.

Europe should instead push for new constitutional and institutional solutions that ensure the Shiites a legitimate role in the political arrangements of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states — all places where they now regard themselves as third-class citizens. Giving Shiites a real stake in the nations in which they live is the only way to satisfy the craving for empowerment that they feel after so many years of suppression.

Europe must also recognize why leaders like Hezbollah’s Sheik Hasan Nasrullah are popular. Anti-Americanism and an aggressive foreign policy are, of course, part of the allure of men like Nasrullah. But what has really allowed Hezbollah (and Hamas, for that matter) to win elections and cement support is their ability to provide education, health and other social services, particularly to the poor.

The U.S. and the political groups that it tends to support in the region, by contrast, offer very little in this regard. The Bush administration stresses democracy and human rights, which is a good agenda as far as it goes. But it is an agenda for the region’s “haves,” not its “have nots.” In places like south Lebanon, which suffer from deep social cleavages and inequalities, free elections and free trade hold little resonance for people who are impoverished and marginalized.

If the EU mission is to compete successfully against Lebanon’s Islamists and populists, it must start thinking seriously about a social agenda that appeals to the poor. Of course, no one wants to break budgets or create dependency. But healing Lebanon’s wounds requires finding the means to offer alienated Shiites what they want and need most, and not what outsiders think they should want or need.

Mai Yamani, the author of “Cradle of Islam,” is a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington D.C. Copyright 2007 Project Syndicate (