This month Lebanon commemorates the second anniversary of the July-August 2006 war, and moreover, the dilemma it created for the country. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt defined that dilemma more than a decade ago as being a choice between Hanoi and Hong Kong; in other words, between Lebanon as a haven for open-ended resistance and militancy, or as a liberal economic system that would seek out peaceful transactions through free markets.
That dichotomy has been often repeated, to the extent that it has almost become a cliché. However, clichés often provide insight into reality, and it was noticeable that in a speech on May 26, the Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, returned to that dichotomy. He told his audience: “Some put the government and the resistance in front of two choices: Either Lebanon is Hong Kong or Lebanon is Hanoi. In other words either Lebanon is destroyed or it is the pearl of the East, yet with its land occupied, its sovereignty confiscated, its dignity trampled upon, and its security exposed to the Israelis.”
Wherever one falls in this debate, what is of particular interest is the way it has been formulated, so that capitalism, open markets, and striving for prosperity are antithetical to the idea of resistance — or rather of resistance defined mainly as the pursuit of armed struggle.
That approach is surprisingly narrow in this day and age, where power is not exclusively of the gun. The notion of “soft power,” in other words influencing others and shaping their behavior through persuasion and attraction, is now so widespread, so essential a product of globalization, that it too has become a cliché. And what kind of soft power does Lebanon have that might advance its “resistance” against Israel and liberate the Shebaa Farms?
Perhaps more than we know. Recent signs intone that the United States may push Israel to withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms. The US and the United Nations have an incentive to act on this front precisely because of the Hanoi-Hong Kong duality. If the Shebaa Farms can be neutralized, the reasoning goes, this may oblige Hizbullah to disarm, advancing a more attractive model for Lebanon. Their incentive is to react to, but also bolster, Lebanon’s soft power — to show why those things that make Lebanon appealing to outsiders are worth preserving. And if Lebanon offers beaches, good quality education, shopping, economic development, cosmopolitanism, and peaceful prosperity, then what better way to confirm that those attributes mean something in the world than for the UN, US or anyone else to show that it is a strategic priority for them to prevail in Lebanon?
In other words, Lebanon has soft power precisely because the influential in the world are willing to make its more liberal model triumph over the more martial alternative of perpetual resistance — aka Hanoi.
The problem with Hizbullah’s model is, simply, that it is rather grim. No one would deny that the party fought courageously until 2000, when the Israeli army was forced to withdraw from Lebanon. But after that the contradictions between Hong Kong and Hanoi sharpened. With most Lebanese expecting a de-escalation in Hizbullah’s activities, instead the opposite happened: the party accumulated more arms. From liberator of the south, it built up an arsenal suggesting it wanted to liberate Palestine itself. Here was a promise of endless Hanois.
The Hizbullah model is popular in the Arab world. After more than half a century of humiliation in confronting Israel, many see in Hizbullah a fighting force that works. But this lasts for as long as the fighting remains limited to Lebanon, where, not surprisingly, militancy is less popular, perhaps because the country is demolished every time serious shooting starts. Perhaps too because Hong Kong will always be much more appealing than Hanoi, since it offers an infinite number of possibilities and variations beyond the use of weaponry.
Hizbullah’s critics ought to define better how soft power can achieve the goals Hizbullah claims to be pursuing. They ought to show how being Hong Kong need not necessarily be a tale of land occupied, sovereignty confiscated, dignity trampled upon, and security exposed.
But on Hizbullah’s side, the party must really do better than simply dismiss the liberal capitalist model, Hong Kong, as a byword for perdition. Whatever Hizbullah does, the Lebanese, and we suspect most other Arabs, will always prefer an approach that promises more than open- ended conflict. With liberal capitalism you can be who you want, say what you want and make money if the opportunity allows. An ideology of war, in contrast, means what you build might soon be destroyed, what you want to be may be not be allowed and the opportunities you seek might disappear when the rockets fall.
Nasrallah is right. There are only two choices — and I suspect a majority of Lebanese have already chosen.