I went to take a look at Madeleine Albright the other day. She turned up in Beirut as part leader of the National Democratic Institute, one of those Washington gigs that checks up on the freedom of elections in dodgy countries. All kinds of sweet souls are washing up in Lebanon to do just that – old Jimmy Carter is expected before the 7 June poll – and the usual round of attacks, office-torching and billboard-defacing has already begun.
But I wanted to see the woman who in 1996, when asked by CBS News if the price of half-a-million dead Iraqi children was worth the sanctions against Saddam Hussein, infamously replied: "We think the price is worth it." She was US ambassador to the United Nations at the time. I had actually seen her before – she was lying on a hotel couch in London after prolonged and hopeless negotiations with a certain Bibi Netanyahu – but she was asleep at the time so I suppose that doesn't count.
In any event, suitably clad in black, the little lady popped up in Beirut, looking much older, with less hair than I remembered, but as feisty as ever when she read from her cue sheet alongside Joe Clark, one of Canada's infinitely colourless former prime ministers.
And among the problems she spotted – of course – was that "one of the political contestants maintains a major armed force not under the control of the state". Well, we all guessed the Hizbollah would end up in the dog house for that very reason, even though Albright was sharp enough to realise that "other parties also possess arms of various sizes and capabilities".
The catch, of course, is that if the Hizbollah and its running mates – they include the crackpot General Michel Aoun who has successfully split the Christian Maronites by posing as Syria's and Iran's new best friend – pick up a majority of the vote, America will have to talk to a "Hizbollah-led" government in Lebanon. Or will refuse to do so as the case may be.
The allocation of parliamentary seats in Lebanon runs along confessional lines – the list system in use needs a PhD to comprehend – but the Americans are hoping that the "democrats" who currently hold a majority – Saad Hariri's Future movement, jolly old Jumblatt's Druze and a clutch of Maronites – will win the day.
The best bet is that the country's ex-military president, Michel Sleiman, will fashion a centrist bloc from the bits and pieces of the election that will prevent either the Hizbollah or Hariri's lads from taking power. Be that as it may, Lebanon will be back to the same old parliamentary shouting shop it had before. In Beirut, it's parliamentary democracy along the lines of the French Third Republic.
That might actually be the real problem. For after the Second World War, European democracies realised that they could no longer be run by parliaments. De Gaulle – and the French themselves – accepted this in 1958, while Adenauer invented the principle of the Demokratur in Germany. True, parliaments still vote, but no one believes that the French assembly – rather than Nicolas Sarkozy – actually runs France any more than they think British parliamentarians, with or without moats, control Britain.
But back when the French created the Lebanese political system in the 1920s and 1930s, Europe was still in inter-war stasis, its democracies so corrupted that Messrs Mussolini and then Hitler came into their inheritance. This was the same Europe that built Lebanon – which is why this terribly divided country remains locked into a parliamentary system that Europe had long ago abandoned. And – given the fact that an all-powerful president could never run a sectarian state – it will remain so.
Nevertheless, the Hizbollah issue won't go away any more than Hamas is going to slide out of sight in Gaza. Barack Obama might not be too worried if it does slip into power – since his envoys are clocking up frequent flyer miles to and from Damascus, they might be in a better position to influence the Hizbollah's Syrian allies.
But don't be too sure. One of the big mistakes of the Bush era was to demand democracy for the Palestinians and to approve of fair elections before realising that Hamas would win. And once the Palestinians had achieved that astonishing result, they had to be punished for it. (It was, I recall, the Ottawa Citizen which announced that the Palestinians should be "threatened with fresh elections".)
But most of my Lebanese colleagues, listening to Mrs Albright, came away with a deep suspicion: that if the Lebanese elections bring the friendly "democrats" back to power, the National Democratic Institute and its other poll-sniffers will announce a fair and free election. But if the Hizbollah and their allies move into power, it will suddenly be discovered that the Lebanese poll was "deeply flawed". And then, I suppose, we would all be "threatened with fresh elections". The price, I am sure, will be worth it.
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