Lebanese voters went to the polls on Sunday and gave Hezbollah an unexpected shellacking. The anti-Syrian “March 14” coalition led by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement won 71 seats in the parliament. The Hezbollah-led “March 8” bloc won 57. Hezbollah itself only has ten seats in Beirut out of 128.
Most observers and analysts were surprised by the March 14 victory, but I could never figure out where Hezbollah’s additional support was supposedly coming from. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah strapped a suicide bomb vest around his own country when he picked a fight with Israel in 2006. Mounting an armed assault against the capital, as he did last May, was no way to win the hearts and minds of new voters. Until recently, I was certain Hezbollah and its allies had no chance of winning, but they grew so sure of their own propaganda that they managed to persuade even their enemies that they might come out on top. The March 14 side was rattled, and some of their analysts convinced even me that Hezbollah might pull it off. But Hezbollah lost, and Nasrallah conceded.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad also lost big when his most powerful proxy in Lebanon was rejected by the majority. “So much for Bashar’s ‘imaginary majority,’” wrote Lebanese political analyst Tony Badran, “in spite of all his terrorism, bombing, murder, violence, intimidation, coup attempts and information warfare over the last four years.”
“Sanity prevailed,” an unnamed Obama Administration official said after the results were made official. Indeed, it did. The press may be getting slightly carried away with crediting President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech for the March 14 victory, but Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Beirut recently and said everything that needed to be said before voters went to the polls. Biden rightly warned the Lebanese that American aid to their government and military would be reevaluated if the Hezbollah-led coalition emerged victorious.
The president himself said the United States will “continue to support a sovereign and independent Lebanon, committed to peace, including the full implementation of all United Nations Security Council Resolutions.” Everyone in Lebanon knows exactly what this means. A “sovereign and independent” Lebanon cannot be a vassal of Syria and Iran. “Committed to peace” is a slap against Hezbollah’s interminable armed “resistance” against Israel. The relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions demand the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon – including Hezbollah and those in the Palestinian refugee camps.
Some leftists are kvetching about Obama’s explicitly anti-Hezbollah position. I was slightly worried myself about other potential aspects of the president’s Lebanon policy before it developed, but he deserves support here from conservatives as well as from Democrats who understand that the United States can’t support a terrorist army that says, “Death to America is a policy, a strategy, and a vision.”
Hezbollah, though, has not been banished to the political wilderness, just as the March 14 movement wouldn’t have rolled over and died had it lost. The unstable status quo that produced three wars in the last three years is still in place. Michael Young, opinion page editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, put it this way in a pre-election analysis: “If the opposition wins, Lebanon will indeed enter into a period of long instability. If there is a substantial victory by the March 14 forces, in alliance with so-called independent candidates, you’ll also have a period of instability.”
An election can’t change what Lebanon is. It remains a country with a hybrid identity pulled in two directions at once. A few months ago I spoke to Salim al-Sayegh, Vice President of the Kataeb Party, and asked him what he and his pro-Western comrades would do if Hezbollah won. “We will never accept an identity change,” he told me. “We are all inheritors not only of the Persian Empire and the Arab world. We are also children of the Roman Empire, of the Western tradition.”
Nasrallah says the disarmament of his army is out of the question, and for now he’s right. Hezbollah is more than just a political party, a militia, and a terrorist organization. It is, in effect if not name, the Mediterranean branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. As Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told me the first time I met him, “the solution is not in Lebanon. The solution is in Tehran.”
I spoke with Jumblatt again recently in his fortress atop Lebanon’s mountains. “Is there any realistic way,” I said, “of either disarming Hezbollah or integrating it within the state and the army? Or will this problem go on and on and on?”
“It will,” he said, “go on and on.”