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What’s Next for Lebanon’s Governing Coalition?

January 25, 2011 at 8:51 PM EDT
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The announcement of a Hezbollah-backed prime minister sparked protests across Lebanon. Margaret Warner takes a closer look at the prospects for political compromise with Mark Perry, an author and foreign policy analyst, and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on all this, we turn to Mark Perry, an independent analyst. He’s spent years dealing with and writing about Hezbollah. His new book is “Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage With Its Enemies.” And Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a former journalist, he’s reported widely from the Middle East. His coming book is “In the Lion’s Den: Inside America’s Cold War with Assad’s Syria.”

Welcome to you both.

And, Andrew Tabler, I will begin with you.

What are we to make of the fact that it seems the next prime minister of Lebanon is going to be Hezbollah’s hand-picked candidate?

ANDREW TABLER, fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, definitely, in the short term, it is a setback for the Obama administration’s policies.

They had a tremendous amount invested in former Prime Minister Hariri. But in a number of ways, this is a crisis that has been long in coming. The — the reason why this all broke down is because of the special tribunal for Lebanon. And a lot of the incoming government’s decisions are going to be measured against Lebanon’s participation with the tribunal going forward.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think is the significance of this?

MARK PERRY, author, “Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage With Its Enemies”: Well, the United States has to get used to this.

There’s — we have seen in your reports today troubles in Tunisia and Egypt. Now we have in Lebanon — what’s an irony about this is that Lebanon may turn out to be the most stable of any of these governments, and that’s because it’s a confessional democracy. This wasn’t a coup.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain that. Explain confessional democracy, briefly.

MARK PERRY: The Muslims and — Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims hold — hold one part of the Parliament, equal to seats with the Christians. And they’re evenly divided. It’s very tenuous.

There’s a quota for each confession in the country.


MARK PERRY: And this government led by Saad Hariri collapsed, as sometimes happens in a parliamentary democracy. And now a new government is being formed.

This is something I think we can live with. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, as the secretary of state made clear, but it’s something we can live with.

MARGARET WARNER: But, now, Saad Hariri said this did amount to a coup. You saw people in the street. This is a country that has had a real history of violent, sectarian conflict.

Do you think that that — it could descend into that, or do you agree with Mark Perry that this is going to be very stable?

ANDREW TABLER: I don’t — I think that that’s unclear at the moment.

The government was brought down constitutionally, but it wasn’t without a lot of threats and intimidation by Hezbollah on certain factions inside of Lebanon and a lot of arm-twisting by Hezbollah, as well as — as well as their backers, Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you talking about political intimidation or threat of violence?

ANDREW TABLER: Political intimidation, although there were some reports of threats of violence.

But I think the most important thing now going forward is, how does Hezbollah react to the coming issue of the indictments, and where does the Lebanese government come down on all of this?

MARGARET WARNER: Before we get to the tribunal, I just want to ask, though, Mark Perry, does this mean that Hezbollah, which the U.S. calls a terrorist organization, is now or has become the dominant political player or faction in Lebanon?

MARK PERRY: They are the dominant political player and faction in Lebanon.

The question is, how closely tied are they to Iran and Syria? Are they a cat’s-paw for Iran and Syria? My belief is that they’re not. They have made very clear to me in their discussions, and they said so in public: They are a Lebanese party and movement. They’re committed to the future of Lebanon. They’re not acting on behalf of anyone.

We’re either going to take them at their word and see whether they keep that word, or we’re going to oppose them.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree they have become the dominant faction?

ANDREW TABLER: They’re definitely — Hezbollah’s power inside of Lebanon has definitely grown over the last few years.

MARGARET WARNER: And is that because the Shiites are a dominant majority, I mean, population-wise, despite this quota system that they have for government?

ANDREW TABLER: No, not exactly. There are internal reasons for that.

But the other thing is, is that — and I think majorly — that the United States is viewed inside of Lebanon and also other parts of the region as lacking a strategy in how to protect its allies moving forward, whereas Hezbollah and Syria have been very good at putting the Obama administration into dilemmas that it finds a hard time getting out of.

So, the — Hezbollah and Syria have won this round, unfortunately.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, so, what is this going to mean for the tribunal, which seems to be on the verge of issuing public indictments?

MARK PERRY: They are on the verge of issuing public indictments. And I think that they will be issued. And the United States has backed the issuance of these — of these indictments.

The question is, how serious are the indictments? Who do they name? Do they name Hezbollah officials? We don’t know that yet. It’s clear, I think, that they probably do. It may be that Hezbollah will say, there are the indictments, so come and arrest the people, if you can, and they will ignore it.

I think the best policy for Hezbollah is to ignore this, for the indictments to go forward — they will — and for the United States to then make a demand that will not be fulfilled and allow Lebanon to reach political stability.

MARGARET WARNER: So, I mean, the previous government fell because the previous government wouldn’t denounce and pull out of this whole tribunal. And it bears repeating — or it bears mentioning that, officially, Lebanon “requested” — quote, unquote — this tribunal, correct, from the U.N.?

But you — you don’t think the new government will try to somehow cripple the — this whole process?

ANDREW TABLER: It’s unclear.

Incoming Prime Minister Mikati has not put forward a clear position, but, according to press reports that, yes, killing off or strangling off the tribunal is part of the plan going forward. And — but even — even Hezbollah has directly said that it will cut off the hand of anyone who tries to come in and issue an indictment against — against any member of the party. So, it’s pretty clear where Hezbollah stands in all this.

MARGARET WARNER: It must be hard to find — it might be hard to find process servers in that case.

ANDREW TABLER: Definitely.

MARGARET WARNER: So, back to Iran and Syria, now, what — do — how do you feel about what Mark Perry said, that, really, the U.S. has miscast Hezbollah, and by calling it Iranian- or Syrian-backed, we’re kind of missing the point, this U.S. government?

ANDREW TABLER: I think that Hezbollah and — that Hezbollah is definitely Syrian- and Iran-backed.

And the Obama administration has thrown a lot of resources into trying to get Syria to break away or to distance itself, at bare minimum, from Iran and from Hezbollah. Of course, it’s very early in the stages. And they were using the peace process to do so.

So far, they haven’t made a lot of headway, both because of a lack of progress in the peace process, but also because of a doubling down by President Assad with Hezbollah concerning some weapons transfers. So, the situation there is not going forward as the Obama administration had planned.

MARGARET WARNER: But, so, to what end? I mean, what — OK, if there’s a Hezbollah-led government, what would — what would Syria like that to mean for it? Let’s just take Syria and then Iran.

MARK PERRY: You know, we always lump these movements and groups together…


MARK PERRY: … Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

It’s clear from my discussions with Hezbollah that Hezbollah doesn’t want the Syrians back in Lebanon. They would like to run a very independent government. They have an independent foreign policy.

Do they have a strategic relationship with Iran? Of course they do. And with Syria? Yes. There’s a lot of pressure on Syria now, because the United States is pressing them to accept these indictments. Hezbollah, their ally, is pressing them not to.

They’re having talks with Mitchell, but they want to maintain their independence and their ties to Iran. It’s a very complex relationship that we have in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, Mikati, is he a firebrand or a moderate?

MARK PERRY: He’s a very moderate voice. He’s a Harvard-educated Sunni. This is — this is not a revolutionary. This is a bridge to Syria. This is a point for stability.

ANDREW TABLER: Where the rubber hits the road for Najib Mikati concerns what his position will be on the tribunal and whether his cabinet, whatever he puts together — and this is the next step, will be government formation in Lebanon — where they come down on the special tribunal.

And then the situation regarding the United States and Western allies is called into question. And there are a lot of other question marks around that.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think U.S. aid to Lebanon will continue?

ANDREW TABLER: It will in the short term, I think, but again, it’s something that will be called into question, especially on — on — in a Republican-controlled Congress.

MARK PERRY: It’s been difficult, even — even in a Democrat-controlled Congress, this aid package.


MARK PERRY: And it’s going to get more difficult in the days ahead.


MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there.

Mark Perry, Andrew Tabler, thank you both.