Ziad Asali
June 20, 2006 - 12:00am

It is, of course, a reassuring sight to see thousands of American citizens and other western nationals being evacuated by their governments from war-torn Lebanon. But spare a thought, and some serious political consideration, for those not so fortunate, especially the Lebanese and Palestinian people who are presently baring the brunt of the suffering caused by the conflicts between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas.

The humanitarian dimensions of the ongoing fighting, even beyond those innocent civilians killed or injured, shock the conscience. Most of Gaza and major parts of Lebanon, both now effectively cut off from the outside world, lack such basics as electricity, drinking water, sufficient food and medical supplies.

The situation is particularly grim in southern Lebanon, where an estimated 500,000 people, one eighth of the entire population of the country, have already been displaced.

On humanitarian grounds alone, the international community, led by the United States, needs to urgently intervene to redress this epidemic of man-made human suffering. The Arab states, most notably in the Gulf, have a particular obligation to finance the relief effort for their Lebanese and Palestinian brethren.

Beyond humanitarian concerns, however, lies a crucial political issue – that those who are seen as stepping in to provide for the needs of the innocent victims of this conflict will perforce reap significant political benefits.

A dramatic public relief effort is strongly in the interests of the United States and its Arab allies. It provides an opportunity to show that the international community has more to offer the Arab peoples than violence, humiliation and subjugation and give them a reason to feel that American foreign policy has something tangible to offer them.

However, to be truly effective, such a relief effort should be coordinated with an aggressive policy to strengthen and empower moderate, pro-western central governments such as those of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These leaders have been marginalized in part due to insufficient meaningful support from the west. We have much to gain by strengthening these weak and impoverished governments, since only by doing so can the appeal of extremist groups that provide goods and services, as well as nationalist rhetoric and appeals to communal dignity, be effectively managed over the long run.

We have an unexpected opportunity to enhance regional stability if the main element of the resolution of this conflict is the empowerment of these governments. Stability depends on the ability of national authorities to deny radical groups the use of violence which must be a monopoly of the state. A strong presidential guard in Palestine and a strengthened army in Lebanon are indispensable tools for stability.

Radical organizations thrive in chaos and their prospects are inversely proportional to the ability of governments to not only enforce law and order, but also to meet the basic needs of their citizenry. The greater the poverty, the more political battles are won and lost on issues of jobs, goods and services to the public.

If moderate actors like Abbas and Siniora and their fledgling social institutions are unable to meet those needs, and radical groups are, then the political orientation of the public will be deeply and negatively affected.

Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have used the combination of services and liberationist rhetoric to advance their standing with the disenfranchised and the destitute. If they are to be brought under the control of central governments, disarmed and transformed into peaceful political parties, then those governments need to be immediately, consistently and thoroughly strengthened by the international community for several years to come.

Arab states have both a moral obligation and a powerful vested interest in helping constructive actors like Abbas and Siniora acquire the means to provide strong central governance and solid social services. If they are concerned about countering the growing influence of Iran in the region, they need to make sure that their allies and partners are more robust and well-funded than those which receive support and funding from Tehran.

There has been much talk in recent years about the need to win hearts and minds in the Middle East, but most efforts at American public diplomacy in the region have born little fruit. A major humanitarian relief effort coordinated by the United States at this time aimed at Lebanon and the Palestinians would do far more to boost the image of our country among the Arab peoples than all the TV and radio stations that money can buy.

If politics is about influencing others with carrots and sticks, the reality is that most Arab people have mostly seen the stick from the United States, Israel and their own rulers. No wonder, then, that they are proving hard to win over. It is high time we moved, and moved quickly, to start showing the Arab people some carrots.


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