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Abraham Lincoln is looked upon today as a pillar of strength and rectitude, a beacon who saw America through the dark days of its civil war. And so, indeed, he was. But there were points during that narrative when, in the face of extraordinary challenges, his rectitude and respect for law were set aside in favour of political expediency; and there were other times when Lincoln's strength of character manifested itself in meek forbearance in the face of his own political weakness. 

Any number of snapshot views of his presidency, taken out of context, might have made him appear as anything but a paragon. In the end, however, the aggregate of his character, wisdom and compassion prevailed over both mortal enemies and duplicitous allies alike, for

Hariri has been consulting with world powers to devise a strategy for defusing the current Lebanese deadlock [Reuters]

Abraham Lincoln is looked upon today as a pillar of strength and rectitude, a beacon who saw America through the dark days of its civil war. And so, indeed, he was. But there were points during that narrative when, in the face of extraordinary challenges, his rectitude and respect for law were set aside in favour of political expediency; and there were other times when Lincoln's strength of character manifested itself in meek forbearance in the face of his own political weakness. 

Any number of snapshot views of his presidency, taken out of context, might have made him appear as anything but a paragon. In the end, however, the aggregate of his character, wisdom and compassion prevailed over both mortal enemies and duplicitous allies alike, for the simple reason that they were applied, selflessly and single-mindedly, to the lasting benefit of his nation.

These random thoughts come to mind as one contemplates the latest political crisis in Lebanon, and the advice one might responsibly provide to Saad al-Hariri. The plight of the young - now interim - prime minister and his political allies could hardly be more excruciating. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) established by the UN Security Council is set imminently to hand down indictments on those responsible for the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the late prime minister and Saad al-Hariri's father.

In the expectation that those indictments will include senior members of their organisation, the leadership of Hezbollah has demanded that the Lebanese government denounce the tribunal as a politically-inspired sham perpetrated by the US and Israel, and refuse all cooperation with it. 

Al-Hariri has thus been faced with a choice between abandoning justice for the killers of his own father, and pursuing a potentially disastrous confrontation with the most potent political, military and social force in Lebanon - a showdown which could potentially lead to renewed civil war.

In response to al-Hariri's refusal of its demands, Hezbollah has withdrawn its cabinet ministers, precipitating the collapse of al-Hariri's government; and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed to "cut off the hand" of anyone attempting to enforce a Tribunal mandate against his lieutenants.

Complex quagmire
 
Faced with such implacable opposition and highly unpalatable choices, the younger al-Hariri has sought external support in the usual places, including the US and France, whose capitals he visited in the past week. Predictably, the interim prime minister has received no end of US advice, both public and, no doubt, private.

Depending upon how one chooses to read them, US statements on the crisis have either been principled and moderate, or sanctimonious and disingenuous. Strongly urging continued Lebanese support for the tribunal, while pointedly indicating that the body will continue its work regardless, the US ambassador to Lebanon has described the STL as "an irrevocable, international judicial process; its work is not a matter of politics, but of law".   

Not much room for flexibility there. But at the same time, in a tacit nod to the potentially unfortunate consequences of Lebanese adherence to US principle, the ambassador likewise urged "all political factions to remain calm and exercise restraint". Meanwhile, the White House reaction to Hezbollah's abrupt withdrawal from the cabinet was almost taunting: "The efforts by the Hezbollah-led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear."
 
It is part of the Lebanese national pathology to seek outside support to address domestic disputes. But in listening to the US, Saad al-Hariri should be particularly wary.

Hezbollah treatment

Ever since the end of the 2006 war, the US has provided economic and military assistance to the Lebanese government in hopes of strengthening its ability and willingness to contest the "state within a state" which Hezbollah represents, and as an earnest gesture of its moral and political support for such a confrontation.

The physical support provided, however, is clearly unequal to the task; and in any case, Lebanese national institutions are far too brittle to withstand a sustained showdown with Hezbollah. Moral support for a patently unattainable and potentially disastrous goal is of questionable utility, to say the least, and casts strong doubt on the motives of the donor.

Al-Hariri would do well to remember that although the US professes loyalty to its Lebanese allies, the Americans were all too willing in 2006 to stand aside and acquiesce in a protracted and highly disproportionate Israeli military campaign, including sustained bombing of Lebanese national infrastructure which, if Israeli protestations that their quarrel was exclusively with Hezbollah were to be believed, amounted to a brutal form of collective punishment.

Indeed, the organising principle of US policy toward Lebanon in recent years is its opposition to Hezbollah, which it sees both as a terror organisation and a willing tool of Iranian hegemony in the region. That opposition, moreover, is highly reflexive and essentially heedless, both of the consequences of its application for Lebanon as a whole, and of its prospects for success.

Given the extreme difficulty in forming a new government, al-Hariri is likely to remain interim prime minister for a protracted period. While that may mean a suspension of active central governance, this is hardly a crippling problem. The positive side of the term "Lebanese government" having become largely an oxymoron is that the Lebanese are able to get on relatively well without one.

In the meantime, rather than looking for the support of dubious foreign allies, the March 14 alliance and others would do far better to devote themselves to a genuine national dialogue, and one which attempts to engage the Lebanese people as a whole.

Supporting the tribunal

As a catalyst for that dialogue, al-Hariri should in fact maintain support for the STL, which will surely carry on in any case. At the same time, however, he should make it explicit that the Lebanese state will not enforce the mandate of the STL, which after all is a foreign-controlled entity, and that no future government should undertake to do so.

The venue in which to debate the findings of the STL should not be a court in The Hague, but the court of Lebanese public opinion.

The workings of the STL to date have not been notable for their transparency. If the validity of its findings are open to doubt, as they may well be, then those findings should be made public and open to outside scrutiny. And if Hezbollah members are innocent, as they claim, they should not fear the open disclosure of any evidence against them, but instead welcome the opportunity to refute it.

Yes, such a process of "truth and reconciliation" would only be partial and, in a sense, arbitrary. There are more unfortunate truths in Lebanon than can ever be practically addressed, dating back at least to the start of the civil war of the 1970s. But it is not quixotic to hope that an airing of such truths as the STL may reveal could help to put a cap on the political violence of recent years, and facilitate a new national agenda, however uncomfortable the process might be in the short term.

Hezbollah's concerns in this affair are not physical or political, in the narrow sense, but moral. No one is about to arrest their senior members if the leadership chooses not to accede to it; nor is Hezbollah in danger of losing its core constituency. Hezbollah's current behaviour demonstrates, however, that it is not beyond the reach of broad public opinion, and that its reputation does matter to it.

Hezbollah's Lebanese rivals, and those represented in the March 14 alliance in particular, should not seek to isolate the organisation, however odious its past behaviour has been - but rather to embrace it and to incorporate it more fully into a national political system.

In the end, the party of Hassan Nasrallah should not be understood as the manifestation of a foreign plot, but as the political expression of a large and traditionally dispossessed Shia population, whose place in the Lebanese body politic cannot be denied. Moreover, the appeal of Hezbollah as an independent force for "Islamic resistance" would have much less cogency if its essentially nationalistic goals were fully embraced by other Lebanese parties.

Those who would rather see Hezbollah disarmed and the country left open to foreign domination than to capture its capabilities as part of a truly national force are worthy neither of foreign respect nor of domestic political support. True Lebanese unity and the political stability and national accountability which go with it will only be possible when all the main political forces in the country can demonstrate that they are, in fact, Lebanese.

It is worth remembering in this context that the reason history smiles on Abraham Lincoln today is not because of the force of his virtue per se, but because of its consistent application to the good of his country.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was the director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera