The Zombie Tribunal for Lebanon

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is reportedly set to soon indict several top Hezbollah leaders for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The expected indictments have brought Lebanon to the brink of crisis, while the Obama administration has rushed to express its support for the STL and to deliver an additional $10 million to its ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is reportedly set to soon indict several top Hezbollah leaders for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The expected indictments have brought Lebanon to the brink of crisis, while the Obama administration has rushed to express its support for the STL and to deliver an additional $10 million to its investigation. Most of the commentary thus far has focused on the potential impact of its anticipated anti-Hezbollah ruling, whether it might lead to war or how it might affect Hezbollah's participation in the government. But lost in that admittedly quite important shuffle is a more basic question: Does the STL have any credibility at this point? If not, how does that lack of credibility shape the likely political fallout of its indictment? And should the Obama administration really be hitching its wagon to a Bush-era zombie which might drag Lebanon into an unnecessary crisis?

Unlike the remarkable number of journalists who seem to know everything about the Tribunal's innermost workings, I don't claim any special knowledge of the Tribunal's investigations. But anyone who has followed the investigation of Hariri's murder over the last five years will remember being flooded with leaks, analysis and evidence which supposedly established the culpability of the Syrian regime with absolute certainty. We all read books, articles, op-eds, blog posts and official reports placing Syria's responsibility beyond a reasonable doubt. And then suddenly "new information" -- which most people in the region understood to be conveniently discovered in a new political climate -- led the STL to stop pursuing the Syrians and shift to Hezbollah. The Arab media has not failed to notice.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is reportedly set to soon indict several top Hezbollah leaders for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The expected indictments have brought Lebanon to the brink of crisis, while the Obama administration has rushed to express its support for the STL and to deliver an additional $10 million to its investigation. Most of the commentary thus far has focused on the potential impact of its anticipated anti-Hezbollah ruling, whether it might lead to war or how it might affect Hezbollah’s participation in the government. But lost in that admittedly quite important shuffle is a more basic question: Does the STL have any credibility at this point? If not, how does that lack of credibility shape the likely political fallout of its indictment? And should the Obama administration really be hitching its wagon to a Bush-era zombie which might drag Lebanon into an unnecessary crisis?

Unlike the remarkable number of journalists who seem to know everything about the Tribunal’s innermost workings, I don’t claim any special knowledge of the Tribunal’s investigations. But anyone who has followed the investigation of Hariri’s murder over the last five years will remember being flooded with leaks, analysis and evidence which supposedly established the culpability of the Syrian regime with absolute certainty. We all read books, articles, op-eds, blog posts and official reports placing Syria’s responsibility beyond a reasonable doubt. And then suddenly "new information" — which most people in the region understood to be conveniently discovered in a new political climate — led the STL to stop pursuing the Syrians and shift to Hezbollah. The Arab media has not failed to notice.

What are we to make of its really quite shocking reversal? Why should we consider the evidence now pointing to Hezbollah credible given the seeming collapse of the supposedly iron-clad case against Syria? Most discussion of this fairly obvious point that I’ve seen in the Western media has been framed around Hezbollah’s "efforts to discredit the STL." But the STL’s credibility problems seem a bit more real than that. If Hezbollah were really responsible than a strong case could be made for pursuing justice regardless of the consequences. But from the outside, it really does look an awful lot like the STL is being used as a political weapon against Hezbollah at a time of mounting fears of its power and of allegedly rising Iranian influence in Lebanon.

These credibility problems should not take anyone by surprise as the crisis unfolds. If Hezbollah really is guilty, then a case can be made for the pursuit of justice regardless of the cost. But I don’t think many people in the region are going to see it that way. I would expect the release of the STL’s expected indictments to be received as a political gambit rather than a legal investigation, and to change few minds regardless of the evidence presented. Does it make sense to throw the Obama administration’s support and prestige behind what looks like a zombie from a bygone era? Because like any good zombie, it may be only more dangerous as it relentlessly searches for new brains to devour.

(And by the way, I absolutely, 100 percent, certainly did not choose this metaphor just because of the alleged but unconfirmed Drezner-era editorial edict that all FP writers must include at least one zombie reference a week.)

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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