There are two standard readings of the entanglement between Lebanon’s domestic politics and external dynamics. The first and most widespread account begins with the external environment. It argues that the key to the stability of Lebanon’s power sharing resides in the ability and willingness of external actors to bring coercive pressure to bear on internal factions. According to this analysis of a century and a half of Lebanon’s history, external guarantors have been able to bring about stability, but only when interested foreign powers agreed not to draw the country into their regional power struggles.
The second account starts from within. It focuses on the manner in which insiders draw outside powers into their ‘games’. The scholar Bassel Salloukh suggests that this begins with the premise that local actors use transnational ideologies or bandwagon with external actors to strengthen their positions in domestic struggles. This account, therefore, begins with state weakness.
One of the major consequences of weak states is the lack of a credible deterrent. Weak states have a tenuous monopoly over the use of force. They do not have the wherewithal to prevent sub-state groups from using violence. This is the history of Lebanon’s army, continuously threatened with implosion along communal lines and therefore incapable or unwilling to forcefully step in to prevent groups from using violence. In the 1958 civil war, Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander General Fouad Chehab refused to involve the military in the conflict fearing its implosion. During the war, the Lebanese military establishment stood on the sidelines as militias fought one another. Ultimately, some army units split to fight alongside their co-religionists. In 2008, the LAF also stood by as 8 March and 14 March combatants took their disagreements violently to the streets.
Nor can a weak state credibly provide assurances to internal groups that, if they comply with the rules of the game, no other group will take advantage of them. That, in many ways, is the quandary of the Lebanese state as it seeks to address the fact that Hezbollah remains the only legally armed militia in the country, with other groups fearing that the ‘Party of God’ will use its weapons not simply against Israel but also against internal opponents. Weak states are particularly likely to be captured by private interests in which case the state can be seen as a threat by groups that do not share the orientations of those in power. In 1958, anti-status quo forces felt very strongly that President Camille Chamoun did not have the interests of all Lebanese equally at heart, and that his decision to join the US-sponsored Baghdad Pact coalition of states was an attempt to orient Lebanon’s foreign policy in ways that would protect, privilege and give precedence to Christian interests over Muslim ones.
These situations contain the seeds of a ‘credible commitment’ problem. A state that fails to deter and assure cannot credibly commit to protect sub-national communities. When the latter feel threatened, they can feel they have two options: build up their own military strength, or enter into alliances with stronger (ie external) powers that can protect them. This second option provides a window into an alternative understanding of the entanglement of domestic Lebanese politics with the regional and international environment.