During her visit to the Middle East last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Lebanon, where she reiterated Washington’s support for that nascent democracy. Speaking in Beirut on Friday, Miss Rice warned Syrian strongman Bashar Assad against continuing his efforts to sabotage Lebanon’s economy.   “We would like to see the day when there are good neighborly relations between Syria and Lebanon based on mutual respect and equality, she said. “But good neighbors don’t close their borders to their neighbors,” Miss Rice said in reference to Syrian “security” measures that have stranded Lebanese vehicles at the border between the two countries. “It is a very serious situation on the Lebanon border, where Lebanese trade is being strangled,”she added.  Indeed, even though Syria formally withdrew all of its troops from Lebanon at the end of April, there have been persistent reports that Syrian intelligence agents continue to operate in the country. Lebanese democracy is also endangered by Iran and Syria’s longtime terrorist ally Hezbollah, which simultaneously functions as a Lebanese political party and a militia armed with more than 12,000 rockets, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. For now, Hezbollah, which substantially increased its presence in the Lebanese Parliament in the elections which concluded last month, will probably be successful in thwarting any efforts by the new Lebanese government to force it to disarm (as all of the other militias in the country, Muslim and Christian alike, did right after the Lebanese Civil War ended 15 years ago.) For the first time ever, the new Lebanese cabinet will include a Hezbollah member — the energy and water minister, Mohammad Fneish. Given the organization’s commitment to Israel’s destruction, this will likely block any possibility of negotiations with Israel over water issues, a longstanding source of conflict. Although he is not formally a member of Hezbollah, the new foreign minister, Fawzi Salloukh, is a Shi’ite Muslim who is seen as being sympathetic to that organization. Other members of the new Lebanese government, in particular Defense Minister Elias Murr, are allies of Syria — a reality that could paralyze the Lebanese Army and prevent it from ever becoming an effective counterweight to Hezbollah. So long as Lebanon’s security forces fail to exercise full security control over the country’s sovereign territory, Lebanon cannot be considered a fully independent, functioning democratic state.

Washington, with support from France, wants the new Lebanese government to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, a measure passed in September with the aim of forcing Syria to end its 28-year occupation of Lebanon. The resolution also calls for the “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias” (a not-so-hidden reference to Hezbollah). Although the Bush administration has taken a leadership role in demanding the full implementation of UNSCR 1559, it understands that if pressure is brought to bear before the Lebanese government has the capability to make Hezbollah disarm, it could backfire and strengthen the capability of that group and its rogue-state supporters to maintain a terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon.
    As a result, during her visit to Beirut on Friday, Miss Rice tread carefully in explaining U.S. policy towards Lebanon. She rightly emphasized once again that Washington has no intention of dealing with Hezbollah, which has a “history of blood,” a reference to the group’s role in bombing the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, bombing the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon and murdering American hostages in the 1980s. At the same time, Miss Rice noted the importance of supporting the “process of political reconciliation” now underway in Lebanon.
    But the enemies of a free, democratic Lebanon sit poised with their knives sharpened. Syrian Prime Minister Nagi Otri said Tuesday that disarming Hezbollah would constitute a threat to Syrian national security. Taking away its weapons “would transform Lebanon into open territory for the Israeli Mossad,” he warned darkly. Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has told associates that his group only needs to wait out the United States for three more years — in other words, until President Bush is on his way out of office. Then he believes Hezbollah won’t have to worry about an American president determined to go on the offensive against Islamofascism.
    On Friday, Miss Rice met with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Christian who is an ally of Damascus. Under pressure from Syria, Lebanon last year agreed to extend his term by three years, through 2007. American officials have suggested that Syria is attempting to damage Lebanon’s economy by delaying its exports at the border, causing Lebanese farm products to rot. During the meeting, Mr. Lahoud claimed that Syria had closed the border on grounds that explosives were found on Lebanese trucks. Miss Rice replied that she found it odd that Damascus could do such an effective job of halting traffic on its border with Lebanon while failing to prevent jihadists from crossing the border into Iraq.
    The bottom line is that Syria (aided by a curious coalition that includes Hezbollah and pro-Damascus Christians like Mr. Lahoud) has a vested interest in ensuring that Lebanon’s central government remains weak and that it never becomes a viable democratic state.