For the third time in five years, a mainly Muslim nation has suffered a war and now struggles to patch together a new state, curb terrorists, and secure its borders. Lebanon has joined Afghanistan and Iraq in such a task. Like them, it should not be forgotten.
A fragile truce in southern Lebanon between Israeli forces and the Hizbullah guerrillas is two weeks old, and only Sunday did the first new foreign troops of a UN-brokered deal show up. The slow political response to actually committing up to 15,000 peacekeepers to Lebanon means it could be more than two months before Israel finishes its withdrawal and the UN forces are patrolling the border with Syria and Israel.
And the UN Security Council has yet to take definitive action – after passing Resolution 1701 on Aug. 11 that began the truce – to ensure Hizbullah is disarmed.
The international community has also been slow to provide promised aid to the mainly Shiite communities in southern Lebanon that are the stronghold of Hizbullah guerrillas. This aid "vacuum" is being filled by piles of cash – an estimated $12,000 to each family whose home was bombed by Israel – being handed out by the guerrillas. (Presumably the money comes from oil-rich Iran.) Lebanon's government says it will need $3.6 billion in aid to fix the damages from the 34-day war.
Meanwhile, Lebanon's government has made little headway in reining in Hizbullah as a political entity under the country's weak democracy and in trying to integrate the guerrillas into the Lebanese Army. While severely weakened by Israel's attacks, Hizbullah still acts as an Islamic force outside the state with backing from Iran and Syria, which use it for strategic benefit against Israel and the West.
Most Lebanese favor Hizbullah laying down its arms, and they seem ready to blame it for starting the war by its July 12 raid on an Israeli Army post. But the government has yet to find the backbone to make this demand.
Some nations, such as the US, may be tempted in the days ahead to withhold aid and force Lebanon to act more boldly. That would be a mistake, as it would reduce foreign influence over Lebanon as the Army tries to command the southern areas and confront Hizbullah on its home turf. The democratic will of the Lebanese people must be given a chance to succeed if it is to overpower the armed independence of Hizbullah.
So far, most of the Army's 15,000 troops are being deployed southward, a good sign of the government's intent. And the UN should insist on the role of its peacekeepers in supporting the Army as it tries to secure the Syrian border and prevent arms smuggling. Making sure Hizbullah cannot again use southern Lebanon to stage attacks on Israel will require increasing trust between Lebanon and the UN, and a quick flow of foreign aid and forces. Syria must be forced to finally face that it cannot control its neighbor or use Hizbullah as a tool in its land disputes with Israel. Its threat to strangle Lebanon's economy by closing the border needs a strong UN diplomatic response.
Peace in the Middle East can come one step at a time, and right now the international community should not lose focus on the immediate need: rebuilding a new Lebanon.