Now that the guns in southern Lebanon have gone silent - at
least for the moment - the real battle for the political hearts and
minds of Lebanon begins.
With Islamist Hezbollah, supported by fundamentalist Iran and authoritarian Syria, competing for political ascendancy in the war-torn country, Lebanon could easily lose its democratic bearings.
The free world, led by the United States, must ensure that the necessary steps are taken to prevent the promise of Lebanese liberty and democracy from sinking into the abyss of Islamic fundamentalism and repression.
Prior to the Hezbollah-initiated war with Israel last month, Lebanon was making great progress. It threw off the shackles of a 30-year Syrian occupation and held free elections just last year.
But quickly following last week's cease-fire, a chorus of voices rose to claim victory in the largely inconclusive war. No voice was louder than that of Hezbollah.
But the war, while a military failure for Hezbollah, was a political victory. Its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has been widely lionized in the Muslim world for defending Lebanon against Israeli aggression.
But Hezbollah, a radical Shia group, isn't popular everywhere in Lebanon, especially among the more liberal Sunni and Christian communities, who fear its terrorist tactics and Islamic agenda.
While only holding 14 (of 128) seats in the Lebanese parliament and three cabinet posts in the government, Hezbollah could easily ride a wave of popularity to victory in the next Lebanese election. The result of a Hezbollah win at the polls? An extremist Shia, anti-American, anti-Israel Lebanese government - perhaps even a theocracy - headed by Hezbollah.
This wouldn't only be a disaster for Lebanon and the Lebanese forces of democracy and tolerance. It would be a nightmare for the Middle East, especially American interests.
The last thing the Middle East needs is another Hamas-like government. Not only has Hamas continued its terrorist ways, it has failed to provide for the Palestinian people who elected it.
Even worse would be a situation in which Lebanon, under Hezbollah's leadership, becomes a client state of Iran. (Iran founded Hezbollah and sustains it with $100 million annually.)
Iran, with its Syrian and Hezbollah allies, would create an axis of instability across the heart of the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, creating even more mischief.
Iran would use Lebanon as a base to harass Israel and coerce other Arab states, support (more) terrorism, underwrite Hamas and export its repressive brand of fundamentalism across the region.
That's why it's critical that the free world, especially leading, industrialized democracies, hustle to address the political, economic, humanitarian and security challenges that face post-conflict Lebanon.
A robust multinational force must be quickly deployed to keep the peace, and the international community must get to work on reconstruction and keep humanitarian aid flowing to the needy.
The democratically-elected Lebanese government must also be supported in disarming Hezbollah and exerting its control over the breadth and width of the Lebanon countryside.
But if we fail to support Lebanese democratic forces in a time of political confusion, Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian sponsors just might win the battle for Lebanon's political soul.
Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
First appeared in The Boston Herald