August 7, 2006 -- EVER since it emerged as an independent state almost 60 years ago, Lebanon has lived with three hopes and three fears.
One hope was that its religious and cultural diversity would help Lebanon escape despotism in the name of any faith or ethnicity; another, that its location at the heart of the Middle East, and millenia-long links to Europe, would let the country become a bridge between the West and the Islamic world. Finally, there was the hope that trade would let Lebanon claim a role in the regional economy beyond its physical dimensions.
Conversely, the fears were that its location would leave Lebanon as a battlefield in proxy wars by outside powers, that its evolving diversity would tempt some communities to try to punch above their weight at the expense of others, and trade would bring businessmen in search of a fast buck to milk the nation in disregard of its long-term economic interests.
For half a century, Lebanon's history has been the story of those hopes and fears, waxing and waning in turn. A month ago, on the eve of the latest Israeli attack, the balance was tilted toward the hopes.
To be sure, many problems remained. The parliamentary majority was in open conflict with a president determined to keep his post in the face of popular pressure. The government had little control over almost a quarter of the country, where a different social and economic system was taking shape under Hezbollah. And the nation was apprehensive about a series of assassinations that had followed the murder of former Premier Rafiq Hariri.
Nevertheless, for the first time in years, the economy appeared to be growing, while the idea of a pluralist system was making inroads even in communities most influenced by sectarianism.
Now the war, triggered by the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah and the massive response of the Jewish state, has tipped the balance in favor of fear. Worse, it seems that, for the first time, all three of Lebanon's fears may be on the point of simultaneous realization.
The economy is in shambles, with capital in flight. Fear of sectarianism is also growing, with communities that had disbanded their militias reportedly again stockpiling weapons and reviving military units. Most importantly, the current war is plainly a proxy for a larger one that may yet shake the region.
What we witness is the clash of two visions for the Middle East: one set by President Bush, and the other represented by radical anti-American states and movements from North Africa to the Indian subcontinent.
The defeat of the pro-American camp would embolden the radical camp not only to reclaim dominance in Lebanon but also to pressure Iraq to switch sides once the U.S.-led Coalition leaves. Then the road would be open for shaping a regional system that could send shivers down spines in Western capitals. A clear defeat of Hezbollah, on the other hand, could embolden those who claim that force could and should be used to reshape realities on the ground.
It's all bad news for Lebanon - which is in no position to drive out the Israelis or to bring Hezbollah under government control.
The Lebanese need and deserve a break with the pattern of intervention that has ruined their lives for decades. For a small country that becomes a battlefield in proxy wars, the best hope is to be transformed into a buffer state.
Such a solution is possible - but it can't be achieved through the current, largely dishonest, diplomatic maneuvers. What is needed is a major rethinking of Lebanon's political structures, with massive foreign political, military and economic support to implement it.
The March 14 movement, which holds a majority of seats in the Lebanese parliament, had begun debating such ideas before this war started. The key question: How to reassure Lebanese communities that their legitimate interests, indeed their physical security, could be assured without support from foreign patrons?
One answer, then gaining popularity, was to set up a second chamber of parliament to act as a mixture of senate and supreme court, where all communities would enjoy an equal veto on issues that affect their fundamental interests.
Once the communities have that insurance policy, the country could be redesigned as a federal state on the Swiss model, with four or five cantons enjoying the widest possible autonomy. This would allow Lebanon's communities, with their varied vastly different life-styles sustained by different faiths and cultures, the space for peaceful interaction.
With the new chamber seeking national consensus on a few vital issues, the other chamber (the current parliament) would no longer have to be elected on the basis of sectarian quotas. This would enable genuine political currents to emerge, away from sectarian divides, allowing for people-based policies, as opposed to community-based pork-barrel politics - and making it harder for foreign powers to intervene by fomenting sectarian rivalries.
Such reforms are obviously impossible as long as foreign armies are present, whether Syrian, as previously, or Israeli, as now. The withdrawal of Israeli force from Lebanon is a sine qua non of reforming and shaping the Lebanese system to make the country a buffer state outside regional rivalries.
What to do in the interim?
A new version of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) will be a non-starter. What is needed is a much larger multinational force with robust rules of engagement to enforce the peace rather than "observe" its (non)existence.
Hezbollah won't accept a force located only in the south, where the Shiite movement has held sway since the 1980s. The new multinational force should be present throughout the country, as an instrument of authority in the hands of Lebanon's elected government. Since that government already includes Hezbollah ministers, there would be no grounds for seeing it as a weapon in the hands of the Shiite party's domestic rivals.
To be effective, the force would need at least 20,000 men, with full logistics and materiel. Lebanon is slightly smaller than Kosovo, where a similar force, under the United Nations, has held the peace for years. Happily, Lebanon is already a U.N. member, with an elected government with a national army that could quickly assume the functions of the multinational force. The multinational force would likely not be needed for more than three years, until after the next Lebanese general election.
The only way to insure Lebanon against future tragedies is to help it assume its natural vocation as a meeting place of faiths and cultures, not a battleground for rival powers.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.