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NERGUIZIAN / SCHBLEY: Lebanon vote tilts to the West

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COMMENTARY:

The pro-Western alliance favored by the United States won Sunday's parliamentary elections in Lebanon.

The result is a boon for the Obama administration, but it also presents a challenge. The United States would be well-advised to play for the long term in Lebanon with a pragmatic policy that deals with the reality of Hezbollah's political power while continuing to strengthen moderate forces and national institutions.

This parliamentary election - the fifth since the end of Lebanon's civil war -- evaluated the strength of the two main political blocs: the March 14 Alliance, the current majority bloc, which is seen as pro-Western and close to conservative Sunni Arab regimes, and the opposition March 8 Alliance, which is seen as close to Syria and Iran.

With the election complete, the next step for the Obama administration is to help ease tensions in Lebanon and engage all communities rather than support one side against the other. A positive and impartial approach to navigating Lebanese politics will strengthen national institutions and positively influence the U.S. image in the Levant.

Lebanon being Lebanon, however, it isn't nearly that simple. Both alliances include Muslims (both Sunnis and Shi'ites), Christians and other ethnic groups and religious minorities. Lebanon's constitution guarantees its 18 religious communities representation in Parliament. This makes Lebanese politics a game of high-stakes poker that is never winner-take-all and requires every player to blink in the end.

Lebanese parties and institutions have to negotiate and compromise with their adversaries, including Hezbollah. All sides are well-aware that past conflicts over competing sectarian and communal interests have led to instability, violence and civil war.

U.S. policymakers have cultivated a close relationship with the leadership of the March 14 movement, named after the March 14, 2005, mass demonstration in Beirut to commemorate the assassination one month earlier of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. March 14 demanded an end to the 30-year Syrian presence in Lebanon.

The March 14 victory offers the United States a pro-Western, anti-Iranian partner in Beirut, and Washington should encourage the new government to reform and strengthen Lebanese institutions - particularly the presidency and security forces. Any domestic reform is as vital to Lebanon's long-term security as is curbing Syrian and Iranian influence.

However, Washington should avoid characterizing the victory as that of the "good" or "bad" forces. While March 14 won the polls, in his victory speech, Parliament member Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister and a key leader in the March 14 Alliance, said, "There is no winner and loser in these elections; the only winner is democracy and Lebanon." A significant portion of the population - which includes an important number of Christians and most Shi'ites - voted for the March 8 Alliance, named after the March 8, 2005, pro-Syrian mass demonstration in Beirut.

The Obama administration should increase its engagement toward some moderate March 8 leaders and avoid alienating the Shi'ites, one of Lebanon's main communities. It also should encourage the new government in Beirut to espouse a similar approach. This could create a space to distance it from radical policies and ideologies.

The United States should continue to cooperate with the Lebanese government even if it includes some members of Hezbollah, just as it did in 2005 and 2008, when Hezbollah joined the March 14-led governments.

Hezbollah may opt not to demand the new government's key ministries: interior, defense, finance and foreign affairs. It understands that to do so would make Lebanon an international pariah state and also could make Hezbollah itself accountable in ways that could undermine its power base.

The new government should encourage the continuation of the national dialogue with regard to disarming Hezbollah and other armed groups in Lebanon.

A new centrist alliance could emerge, encompassing all major Lebanese communities and sharing power. History has demonstrated that no single party or limited coalition can rule Lebanon, so such an outcome could be desirable both for Lebanon and for the prospects of continued U.S. engagement.

The real test for Lebanon will occur during the formation of the new government. New alliances may trigger intense political disputes that could spill over into civil disobedience and violence. And whoever forms the next government must deal with the disarmament of all non-state actors, including Hezbollah; the continuing operation of the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon to investigate political assassinations; and institutional reform - all critical challenges for Lebanon's future.

Aram Nerguizian is a resident scholar with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ghassan Schbley is a national security project associate at the Rand Corp.

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