Burning Issues brings our best opinion writers to one podium, where they respond, in brief and in real time, to a question about one of the hottest news topics on the agenda. Our aim is also to get you, our readers, involved, by sharing your opinions with the JPost community, or if you wish, by responding to any specific posting.
Burning Issues 1-14:
Gaza cease-fire, Kadima, The Future of US Jewry, US midterm elections, Saddam on death row, the Lieberman factor, Gaza mess, Katsav scandal, North Korea, system of government, Abbas vs. Hamas, talks with Syria, Bush vs. Ahmadinejad, pope remarks.
Question #15President Bush has repeatedly said that he seeks to promote democratic values in the Middle East. Yet in Lebanon, the Shi'ite population has become the largest sectarian group and it appears only a matter of time until Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah takes control over Lebanon.
What, if anything, can the US/West do to prevent the rise of this Iranian-Syrian-Shi'ite axis in Lebanon? After all, it's democracy...
Contributions by Elliot Jager, Shlomo Avineri, Michael Freund, Daniel Pipes, Calev-Ben David, Amotz Asa-El, Isi Leibler and MJ Rosenberg.
Anti-democratic movements and parties should be allowed to take part in elections, a generalization that applies to Islamists as well as to such figures as Adolf Hitler and the just-elected Hugo Chavez. The Bush administration made two mistakes in Lebanon, as in much of the Middle East: pressing for snap elections and not objecting to the inclusion of Islamists. It now finds itself hoisted by its own petard.
The only way out is to acknowledge these mistakes and re-calibrate the campaign for democracy. Toward that end, here are four suggestions
to the US government I made right after Hamas won the Palestinian elections earlier this year, all of which still apply:
Slow down: Take heed that an impatience to move the Middle East to democracy is consistently backfiring by bringing our most deadly enemies to power
Settle in for the long run: However worthy the democratic goal, it will take decades to accomplish
Defeat radical Islam: Only when Muslims see that this is a route doomed to failure will they be open to alternatives
Appreciate stability: Stability must not be an end in itself, but its absence likely leads to anarchy and radicalization.
A devastating thesis
Shlomo Avineri: In Iraq, as well as in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, the Bush administration was basically wrong about understanding what democracy is.
Elections are obviously a necessary ingredient in any democratic society - but they have to be accompanied by the emergence and previous existence of a civil society, which is a necessary underpinning of democracy: it guarantees, among others, freedom of expression, pluralism, tolerance, a multi-party system, and elections free from intimidation by armed militias and gangs.
All these conditions are utterly lacking in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Nor is there a legitimate model of democracy in any Arab country that could be emulated.
In the best of cases it takes a lengthy process to achieve these goals, and the Bush Administration, in its messianic democracy gospel, just overlooked these aspects that any student of history would have been aware of.
Lebanon's problem is not just Shaba Farms
MJ Rosenberg: First, not all of us are that impressed with the word democracy. In fact, many people who care about Israel believe that the Sharansky-Neocon emphasis on democracy as a foreign policy goal is naive and dangerous.
Personally, I never much cared whether Israel's neighbors were democratic so long as they were willing to live in peace with Israel.
Jordan, for instance, is not a democracy in the western sense but it is precisely the kind of neighbor Israel needs. Egypt is not a democracy but is at peace with Israel. A democratic Egypt probably would not be. So let's lay the democratic crusade aside (which, of course, we do anyway if we don't like the choices made by the voters in these various countries).
There is only one thing the West can do about the evolving Iranian/Hizbullah/Syrian axis. And that is to work to destroy it by trying to engage Syria. If we can take Syria out of the equation, we can count on the very undemocratic Bashar Assad to take care of the rest. If a Golan deal meant that Syria would end its alliance with Hizbullah, it would be one worthy deal.
The real problem for Israel is Iran, which, thank God, has no border with Israel. Find a way to come to terms with Damascus and Iran loses its Hizbullah puppet and its entry point to Israel's immediate neighborhood.
We don't know if Syria is ready for a deal but if it is, Israel should go for it and break the back of this axis. As for democracy, let's worry about that later. Undemocratic peaceful neighbors are infinitely preferable to democratic neighbors, who decide, by a majority vote, of course, that Israel needs to swim with the fishes.
Now that Sharansky has retired from politics, it's time to retire his naive political conceptions as well.
In Washington: What's your solution?
Elliot Jager: What this region needs is pluralism and representative government -- not the "democracy" of pure majority rule.
The Madisonian model of democracy includes a mechanism for protecting minority rights, a system of checks and balances, separation of powers - but not raw "power to the people." Representative government is probably what Bush means when he talks about "democracy," but he's failed miserably to get this simple point across. The absolutely last thing the Middle East needs is pure majority rule.
While most of the Arab world is not ready for representative government, Lebanon actually has a history of institutionalizing the mechanisms for group representation. It's been a start - stop affair. Lebanon is highly fragmented - not just between Muslims and Christians but also between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and between the various Christian factions. The Druse seem to be more united internally but shift their support to maximize their interests.
Bottom line? This is yet another one of those cases where the West can't solve the crisis.
The real work needs to be done by the Sunnis, Druse, and anti-Syrian Christian coalition. (Some Christians are aligned with Hizbullah).
Do the good guys have the stamina to stand up to Hizbullah's intimidation? Will Saudi Arabia and Egypt stand with them in tangible ways?
Today's crisis may somehow be resolved, but given how well mobilized - and militarized - Hizbullah is, and given Syria's ruthless desire to keep Lebanon from sovereignty (not to mention Persian Iran's interest in using Lebanon as proof that pan-Islam trumps pan-Arabism), it is hard to be optimistic about Lebanon's future.
Say 'yes' to the 'hudna'
Michael Freund: What is taking place in Lebanon has very little to do with democracy, and a lot to do with Iran's regional and strategic ambitions.
Hizbullah may have a presence in the Lebanese parliament, but it is essentially a heavily armed militia and terrorist organization that uses violence and intimidation to achieve its aims. That is not democracy - it is mafia-style politics, and the two should not in any way be confused.
Allowing Hizbullah to take over the Lebanese government would prove disastrous - not only to Lebanon's fragile and highly imperfect political system, but to the stability of the region itself. It would give their patrons in Iran a more open base of operation along Israel's northern border, and put the levers of the Lebanese state at their disposal.
Moreover, any attempt by Hizbullah to turn Lebanon into a theocratic state using the Khomeinist model could very well plunge the country back into sectarian bloodletting and civil war.
Essentially, the West and Israel are now paying the price for their failure over the years to shut down Hizbullah, which has a long track record of attacking US, Western and Israeli targets and interests. Thus, it is now a little late in the game to start figuring out how to intervene in Lebanon to prevent Hassan Nasrallah from taking over Lebanese politics.
But all is far from lost. Since the root of the problem lies in Teheran, it is there that the US must concentrate its efforts. A sustained air assault against Iranian nuclear installations would not only set back the Ayatollahs' nuclear plans, but it would also deliver a decisive blow to the Shi'ite surge that is taking place throughout the region, Lebanon included. It is precisely because of perceived American weakness that Iran and Syria feel free to make mischief in Lebanon and elsewhere.
Only by hitting Teheran hard can the US shatter Iran's apocalyptic fantasies, and those of its faithful servant in Beirut, Hassan Nasrallah. Failure to do so will merely pave the way for continued Iranian trouble making throughout the area.
Right On: Sound familiar, Mr. Bush?
Amotz Asa-El: The West has already tried once, in 1992, to manipulate Arab democracy, when it tolerated - not to say inspired - a junta's removal of Algeria's freely elected Islamic Salvation Front. The result was a catastrophic civil war and a justified Islamic wrath at all things Western.
The same attitude was later implemented in the PA, when Washington and Jerusalem tolerated - not to say inspired - Hamas's absence from the presidential election, and made believe that Yasser Arafat was freely elected. The result was that Arafat constantly looked above his shoulder to see whether his actions are agreeable to Ahmed Yassin, meaning that effectively Hamas ruled and enjoyed all worlds: maximum authority and minimum responsibility.
It follows, that the people's will anyhow eventually prevails, and it therefore might as well be recognized and formalized. Yes, the people might initially choose war. In that case, they will have to be met in the battlefield. Manipulating the political process so that someone else theoretically rules over them will not prevent this, as the Abu-Mazen tragic farce has demonstrated.
In Lebanon's case, this will have to mean creating a one-man-one-vote system that will end the anachronistic quota system, whereby voters vote for candidates only from within their ethnicity, while ethnic shares in the overall legislative pie are defined based on an ancient census that has long lost all touch with reality. An electoral reorganization of Lebanon should of course also emancipate its Palestinian population, the way it was in Jordan, where Palestinians enjoy the full citizenship and right of work that Lebanon denies them.
Middle Israel: What went wrong in Iraq?
Isi Leibler: The major flaw underlying the philosophy of President Bush was his absolute belief that democratic elections in isolation could provide a panacea for the problems of the Arab world. That blind obsession led to the current disaster in Iraq, the rise of Hamas, and other problems
Democracy presupposes more than elections. One can visualize the disastrous repercussions if democratic elections in Jordan or Egypt enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to assume power. Democracy cannot be imposed overnight. It requires a liberal educational system and a cultural environment in which the majority of society accepts civility and recognizes the rights of minorities. Postwar Germany and Japan were only transformed into genuine democracies after a period of stability during the occupation when the public was educated toward democracy.
Of course, even in more enlightened societies, there are no guarantees. Hitler came to power supported by the largest number of voters because he effectively exploited the prevailing economic and social chaos.
In the Middle East, the West should pressure autocracies and oligarchies to modernize their economies and extend civil liberties, which may ultimately bring about liberalization and democracy.
If the West stands by in Lebanon and enables the Iranian dominated Hizbullah to crush the Saniora government, only a bloody civil war could overcome the newly entrenched Islamic Fundamentalist regime and enable the restoration of democracy.
The Gaza truce: Yet another capitulation to terror
Calev Ben-David: I challenge the premise of this question. As the elections last spring proved, there is a majority of Lebanese from various factions (even perhaps some Shi'ites) willing to take a stand against the attempts by Syria and Iran to rule Lebanon via their proxy force, Hizbullah.
Indeed, Hizbullah's unprovoked attack on Israel this summer looks increasingly like a clear strategy designed to undermine the burgeoning democratic process in Lebanon that produced the ant-Syrian and Iranian government of Fuad Saniora, which is now struggling to survive the onslaught of mob rule mobilized by these same forces.
If the democratic process is truly allowed to run its course, Lebanon has the potential to emerge as the most progressive and pro-Western Arab state in the region. But that will only happen if the US and Europe make absolutely clear to Syria and Iran that they will not tolerate their blatant interference in the internal affairs of another country, including backing a coup attempt by Hizbullah against the Saniora government.
To have credibility, these warnings must include the implied threat of punitive military action, be it from US forces in Iraq striking across the border at Syrian military installations where Hizbullah fighters are trained and equipped, or even the possibility of a multi-nation European force, perhaps headed by France, coming to the aid of the Saniora government.
Snap Judgment: A touch of the Irish