In a region of turmoil, Lebanon at a crossroads

An American could be forgiven for equating Lebanon with the Middle East messes that have come to characterize the region. How would any news consumer distinguish among the images emerging from the West Bank, Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon -- as well as neighboring Syria and Iran? There is daily video bombardment of masked men wielding weapons, the downtrodden streaming in and out of refugee camps, bombs, bullets, and assassinations. And there's last week's news that President Bush has signed a presidential proclamation barring entry into the United States of Syrians and Lebanese deemed to be destabilizing Lebanon. It seems hopeless and horrifying.
But the truth is that amidst a region in turmoil, Lebanon stands out as a potential bright spot, if one can see beyond the destruction and beneath the rubble of the most recent conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.
Lebanon is not "unsolvable." Its vision for a social, economic, and political future can become a model for the region. Lebanon bridges the Middle East and the West. Its people and leaders know that the only viable path forward is to become a liberal, democratic, and modern society, fully integrated within the global economy, where people have a say in their future.
Lebanon deserves a chance to reconstruct hope from agony.
The Cedar Revolution of March 2005 demonstrated, decisively, that the majority of Lebanese citizens long for a stable, pluralistic democracy, at peace with their neighbors, and free from radical political factions and foreign interference. Over one million Lebanese -- a third of the population -- took to the streets to protest Syrian control of their political lives. It was a homegrown, indigenous movement in which every sector of the multifaceted country demanded democracy and independence. It was a high point in a low season of violence and conflict that had taken the life of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri only the month before. It challenged the prevailing myth that Lebanon is a "divided" country destined to live along sectarian fault lines.
The Cedar Revolution was not just a snapshot in time, but the symptom of a growing movement for change. Recent polling data from Lebanon indicates that the majority of people from all across Christian, Shia, and Sunni regions support a Lebanon free from the influence of Iran and Syria. They want all militias disarmed. They support an international tribunal to investigate the Hariri assassination and all six -- so far -- assassinations that followed. And Lebanese citizens understand and articulate the importance of respect and protection for individual rights, the rule of law, religious freedom, and self-expression. They have done it before the age of Syrian hegemony.
Today, Lebanon stands at a historic crossroads between being integrated into the international community or remaining under the heavy influences of external forces. Success requires that the government be willing -- and empowered -- to allow the people of Lebanon to freely put aside sectarianism and unite behind a common vision. It will mean securing borders from the trafficking of arms and terrorists from Syria and Iran. It will mean stopping the proliferation of Syrian-sponsored terrorist groups, particularly amongst Palestinian refugees. And it will mean confronting the rearmament of Hezbollah.
At any moment, Lebanon could be dragged back into chaos and war.
The United States and the international community must help sustain Lebanon's sovereignty and democratic progress. The United States must press the UN Security Council to follow through on its prior resolutions intended to prevent arms flows from Syria and Iran, push for disarmament of all militias, starting with those pertaining to Palestinians, and create the tribunal to investigate the Hariri and other assassinations in Lebanon. And it needs to support Lebanese democracy with resources to strengthen democratic institutions.

Most importantly, the United States and its European allies need to support the government in protecting the upcoming presidential elections from foreign intimidators, so that a free president can supervise the democratic progress, consolidate sovereignty, and neutralize Lebanon of regional conflicts.

Going forth, the Lebanese diaspora communities in America and around the world can play a vital role. Charities and advocacy organizations must address problems of national security, burdened economy, and refugees. Democratic and security development assistance is critical as is investment by American and European companies to rebuild this weakened but resourceful country.
History has proven that the people of Lebanon, despite all myths, have managed to create a nation. Now it needs help as it becomes a state.

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