Crisis usually defines Lebanon, but these days, the country is navigating threats that many describe in existential terms: a battle, entering its third week, between the Lebanese army and al-Qaeda-inspired fighters in a Palestinian refugee camp; a seemingly intractable and altogether separate confrontation between the government and opposition that has paralyzed the state and closed part of downtown Beirut for more than six months; and, as important, deadlock over the choice of the next president by November. Since last year's war in Lebanon between the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah and Israel, the United Nations has stepped in twice to assume responsibilities usually left to a sovereign state, forming a court to try the suspected killers of a former prime minister and dispatching an international force to keep peace in the country's south.
While some analysts see the military's battle against the militants as a way to forge a stronger state, others worry about the prospect of its failure. The threat of civil war still looms large over this always fractious country, but the violence and paralysis may suggest a broader breakdown: not civil war, but entropy, where the country becomes hopelessly mired in instability.
"I can't say we're now in a failed state, but we could become a failed state if assassinations resume, we see more car bombs and if you see no political solution and no president elected in due time," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for al-Nahar newspaper. "If all this happens between now and November, it means we're in a big mess. And after that, you can say it's a failed state."
Lebanon's historically weak state -- in contrast to authoritarian neighbors such as Egypt and Syria -- helped to foster the country's redeeming qualities: a freewheeling press, relative freedom of expression and a measure of tolerance. The downsides were the descent into a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, Syrian dominance that continued until 2005 and the situation today, where Hezbollah maintains its own militia and the country's Palestinian refugee camps are suffused with arms.
My roommate and I were talking about strategies for creating a Lebanese nation-state. (One question we asked ourselves is why the Palestinians so often have to suffer in order for there to be a Lebanese state.)
People often speak of Hezbollah being a "state within a state," but that assumes that there is a state to be inside of, something I'm not sure is the case. As it is, Hezbollah has no real incentive to really and fully join such a weak state. But paradoxically, one of the reasons (but not the only one) why the Lebanese state is so weak is Hezbollah's external existence. So what could strengthen the state and give the Hizb a reason to join?
Ideally, a joint French/American/Iranian military funding and training venture would help Lebanon perform the military tasks that a sovereign state should be capable of, such as internal security, effective border control and defense against its neighbors (by land, sea and air). Since the chances of the US, France and Iran coming together for such a venture are slim to none, another, more doable, option would be military tutelage by a more neutral country, one that all parties in Lebanon could agree on. To my mind, Sweden would be perfect. They are a leading rich western arms manufacturer and are largely seen as neutral and even-handed.
So if the Swedes would train and arm the Lebanese army, then they could provide security within the country and stop things like the frequent Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, something almost no other country in the world tolerates (except when Russia decides to bully its former satelites -- Georgia comes immediately to mind). For this, a well-trained and modern air force would be necessary.
And for Hezbollah, once a strong Lebanese army were formed, perhaps Hezbollah's militia would be more likely to let itself be folded into a sort of National Guard or reserve unit commanded by a Hezbollah cadre who was directly under the command of the head of the Lebanses Army. Their job would be the defense of Lebanon against an Israeli ground invasion, so if (when?) Israel attacked, they would be a trained part of the Lebanese Army whose objective would be to push back any Israeli advances, and if need be, fight a guerrilla war in the event of an Israeli occupation. IT must be stressed that the ultimate control of this force would be with Beirut, not Nasrallah, although they would probably have to be allowed some level of autonomy, so long as they didn't carry out any offensive attacks against Israel. (Any attacks would have to be punishable by a court martial within the framework of the Lebanese Armed Forces.)
Now the tough part would obviously talking Hezbollah into joining the army. If the military were significantly strengthened, that would definitely help things, but there would most likely need to be some political ground given up by Beirut, perhaps in the form of more seats in the government. If Israel were to give the Shebaa Farms back, that would also help matters a lot.
Of course this assumes a lot of things, not least of which is the continuance of the current power-sharing agreement, which, to my mind, needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up, and in secular terms. A good step in that direction, however, would be a bicameral parliament in which the upper house stays as it is, but the lower house is decided by popular vote without any confessional quotas. But that, as they say, is an entirely different post...