Lebanon's Unfulfilled Promise

The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005, casts a long shadow over Lebanon. Five and a half years later, the investigation into his killing remains an explosive political issue in the country. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), an international body set up in March 2009 to investigate Hariri’s death, is likely to report its findings by the end of the year, and it may seek to indict those it holds responsible for the killing. If members of Hezbollah are indicted, the Lebanese militant group’s response could severely undermine general stability in Lebanon and may lead to large-scale domestic conflict, an outcome that would cause great harm to U.S. interests.

Lebanon has rapidly deteriorated since the popular uprising against Syria in March 2005, following Hariri’s assassination. One million Lebanese people -- the so-called March 14 movement, led by Saad Hariri, the son of the slain leader and Lebanon’s current prime minister -- took to the streets of Beirut, helping to put an end to Syria’s 30-year military presence and political domination of Lebanon. It was a genuine, spontaneous, and unique display of Lebanese solidarity. Hariri’s death, though tragic, seemed to encourage Lebanon to assert its independence and identity as a democracy in a region dominated by authoritarian political systems.

During that turbulent transitional period, the United States championed the country’s cause both verbally and practically. Washington pressured Syria to leave Lebanon, helped jump-start a UN-led tribunal to try Hariri’s killers, and increased financial and military assistance to Beirut. Then U.S. President George W. Bush stated that Lebanon could serve as a democratic bellwether for the Middle East, declaring on March 8, 2005, that “if Lebanon is successful [as a democratic experiment], it is going to ring the door of every Arab regime.”

But now, free-minded Lebanese are depressed. Talk of democratic revival has been replaced with gloomy scenarios of a return to civil war. To the United States, as well as the

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