Investigating Lebanon's Political Murders: International Idealism in the Realist Middle East?

By Harris, William | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Investigating Lebanon's Political Murders: International Idealism in the Realist Middle East?


Harris, William, The Middle East Journal


This article reviews the investigation of Lebanon's 2004-2008 string of assassinations, a novel international venture precipitated by the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. It argues that shifting realist and idealist impulses on the international level, alongside a vicious struggle in Lebanon, allowed the intrusion of international justice in the form of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), although with meager results up to late 2012. The impact on Lebanon of the uprising in Syria against the Asad regime, a prime suspect in Lebanese assassinations, has both overshadowed the affair and raised the stakes involved in the STL's pursuit of it.

Between October 2004 and January 2008, Lebanon endured a series of assassinations and attempted murders of salient local personalities. Those targeted encompassed nine politicians, two journalists, and three security officials, attacked in 13 incidents with a total casualty toll of 58 dead and at least 335 wounded. The most prominent victim was former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, murdered in a spectacular bombing that demolished a street in central Beirut on February 14, 2005. On the reasonable assumption that the incidents were interconnected, the series of political murders in Lebanon 2004-2008 represented the most dramatic assassination campaign in the post-Cold War world, threatening the Lebanese pluralist political system. From the outset, suspicion centered on the Syrian ruling clique, from whom Hariri and his Lebanese Sunni, Christian, and Druze partners had become estranged, and blame later encompassed Syria's Lebanese Shi'a ally Hizbullah.

The Hariri assassination led to a UN investigation and a special international/Lebanese tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the Hariri murder and "other crimes that the tribunal might find to be connected to the Hariri assassination and similar to it in nature and gravity."1 On one level this involved importing international justice - the essence of liberal idealist aspiration for a principled world order - into the brutally realist political jungle of the region, where everything can be reduced to interest and where only zero-sum games of winners and losers are taken seriously. On another level the story has been more complex. Supporters of international investigation and justice have exhibited a shifting mix of realist and idealist impulses; its enemies have claimed victimhood in an unfair world of selective justice while implementing the ferocious realist maneuvers of fingered suspects. This article explores international embroilment in Lebanese political murders and the intermingling of idealist and realist dimensions in the unfolding affair. American diplomatic documents illicitly released into the public arena by WikiLeaks confirm the account derived from conventional sources.

Goldsmith and Posner, in The Limits of International Law, propose that international law and institutions simply reflect state interests and rational choices of states following their interests.2 Realism trumps idealism. The argument in this article suggests that among Western states and other countries with pluralist politics, currently the majority in the international community, realism mingles with an impulse toward a standards-based international order. This impulse arises from public and political opinion that cares about human rights.3 International involvement in Lebanon's political murder saga has been characterized by the chance convergence of the interests of major powers with a more principled, idealist concern for international norms.

IDEALIST AND REALIST IMPULSES IN LEBANON'S MURDER CRISIS

Taking responsibility for dealing with Lebanese political murders represented a new departure for the international community and occurred because of a unique conjunction of international conditions in early 2005. French and American interests at the moment regarding Syria gave international moral outrage a critical boost toward action, a conjunction of realism with idealism. …

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