When a gang of criminals ambushed and murdered four Lebanese soldiers on Monday in the Bekaa Valley, they might have expected a certain amount of impunity. The valley — which lies just over Lebanon’s Mediterranean mountain range and runs along the border with Syria — has long been a center of lawlessness in a country famed for its volatility. The Lebanese government — weakened by sectarian squabbling, rampant corruption, and interference by foreign powers — usually turns a blind eye to much of the drug cultivation and weapons smuggling that goes on there. But this time, the Lebanese army hit back. This week it launched a sweep through the Bekaa that netted some 69 prisoners, and large caches of weapons, counterfeit money and drug production equipment.
However, this latest battle for the Bekaa will probably be inconclusive. Stronger nations than Lebanon have failed to win their own wars on drugs. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable example of some of the changes that have been taking place in Lebanon ever since a new batch of non-partisan technocratic leaders took power last spring. Chosen as temporary compromise candidates to solve a political crisis that was turning violent, they are nevertheless proving remarkably active in trying to change Lebanon’s culture of lawlessness. Instead of choosing sides in the great questions that have torn apart Lebanon and the region — the Arab-Israeli conflict, the cold war between Iran and America, the clash of civilizations — they have focused on making Lebanon more livable for its average citizens. And in doing so they could be providing a model for moderate politicians in the Arab world — if they only had more time.
Expectations were low when the former head of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman, became president in May 2008 after a nearly two-year political crisis that ended in pitched battles between rival militias in the streets of Beirut. The country was torn apart by squabbles between the Iran-backed opposition led by Hizballah, the anti-Israeli militia group and political party, and the American- backed government that Hizballah suspected of trying to disarm it. Though Suleiman was respected by all sides, the political compromise that put him in office did nothing to solve the underlying issue dividing the country: should Lebanon be at the front line in the Arab and Iranian war with Israel, or should it be a Western-oriented nation, accommodated to Israel and focused on trade and tourism?
Unable to solve the big problems facing the country, Ziad Baroud, Suleiman’s choice to lead the powerful Ministry of the Interior, began focusing on problems that might actually make a difference in the lives of average Lebanese. In particular, the police began cracking down on the single biggest cause of death in the country: not terrorism, or war, but traffic accidents. After years without traffic enforcement, Lebanon’s roads were dysfunctional and dangerous, with stoplights often ignored and one-way traffic directions optional, and too many drivers acting like they’re on the Autobahn. So the police began setting up seat-belt checkpoints and speed traps, enforcing motor vehicle inspections, and ending corrupt practices such as the sale of drivers’ licenses.
The Suleiman era is changing other parts of Lebanese life as well. With the cooperation of both Hizballah and the United States, the Lebanese have begun modernizing an armed forces so weak and poorly-equipped that when it tried to put down a jihadist uprising in 2007, it had to hand roll bombs off of vintage Vietnam-era helicopters. In the past, such a weak Lebanese army was in the best interest of all the major regional players — from Iran and Syria to Israel and the U.S. — who used the country as a battlefield to settle their own scores. But there is an emerging consensus on all sides that Lebanon needs its own sovereign security forces to keep the country from being inundated by the Sunni jihadist insurgents who pose a threat both to American interests and to the Shi’a Lebanese who support Hizballah. So Lebanon has been receiving Russian weapons and American military aid, mostly focused on tactics and systems to secure its borders and fight international terrorism.
Meanwhile, the country has for now managed to avoid the worst of the global financial crisis, thanks to the conservative policies of its central bank governor, Riad Salame, who banned the exotic financial instruments and over-leveraged practices that became common in the rest of the world. While Salame took office before President Suleiman came to power, the validation of his banking policies are adding further shine to the reputations of the country’s non-partisan officials. Suddenly, Lebanon feels like an island of stability in a world upside down.
Taken together, the Suleiman team is hoping that it can do to Lebanon what American mayors such as Rudolph Giuliani did for American cities in the 1990′s. Employing a “broken window” theory of governance, they are hoping that by restoring law and order to the basic parts of public life, they can create an appetite among all Lebanese for law and order in all aspects of government.
Unfortunately, Suleiman and his caretaker team probably won’t have enough time to make a real dent in Lebanon’s political culture. Parliamentary elections scheduled for June are likely to reopen all the old wounds. Both sides seem unprepared to return to the status quo. Hizballah no longer trusts its rivals to leave the group’s military infrastructure untouched. And the American-supported coalition is busy scaring voters with dire scenarios of what will happen if the Hizballah opposition wins enough seats to form its own government: international sanctions and isolation akin to what happened when Hamas rose to power in Gaza.
In the end, Lebanon’s fate is out of the hands of even its best and brightest. While tempers may remain calm as leaders in Washington and Tehran test the waters of engagement, Lebanon can’t have a separate peace of its own for long. So there’s one more reason for Lebanese to fasten their seat belts: if the Obama administration can’t pull off a regional peace deal, there may well be another civil war.