The perennial Middle East crisis known as Lebanon has entered a new phase with the fall of Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri’s government. The proximate cause of the government’s collapse was the withdrawal from Lebanon’s coalition Shiite and opposition ministers aligned with Hezbollah. They object to Hariri’s support for the U.N.-authorized Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri. It’s little wonder —the Party of God’s general secretary Hassan Nasrallah fears that the STL will soon indict members of Hezbollah.

Such indictments would have significant implications for Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran, for Lebanese democrats, and even for Israel and the U.N. But the stakes are large for us, as well. America has, to this day, given its full rhetorical support to the tribunal. But, more importantly, that support reflected America’s long-term interest in a moderate government in Lebanon, and in reducing Syrian and Iranian influence at the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Our broader interests are entangled in the unfolding crisis in Lebanon.

The elder Hariri had opposed Syria’s and its allies’ chokehold on Lebanon. The truck bomb that ripped his life away left a crater in the streets and in Beirut’s politics, for the scale of the attack led many to suspect Hezbollah, aided by a foreign hand. Around that crater rose the Cedar Revolution of democratic forces that reclaimed their land and, with Western support, ultimately drove Syrian troops from Lebanese soil. Americans of both parties praised Lebanon’s new freedom. But punishment and further geopolitical consequences from the assassination were postponed pending the STL’s findings.

Knowing indictments would one day come, Hezbollah and its allies predictably delayed the investigation and prepared their defenses. Obdurate Lebanese pro-democracy figures have been killed or pressured. In May, 2008, Hezbollah seized the streets of Beirut and negotiated new political arrangements, as the West watched. Emboldened, a stronger Hezbollah has proclaimed that it would “cut off the hands” of any who serve indictments on its members. And now, with flair, Hezbollah has brought down Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government while he visited the White House. “What a coincidence,” the State Department spokesman said acridly.  If it was expected that Hariri would be quickly re-nominated to the post, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s decision to join officially the Hezbollah-led opposition, a choice apparently made under threat of violence, may forestall Hariri’s candidacy.

The region senses the new, compromised Lebanon bowing to the new reality – power, not justice, is in the air. Lebanon feels the pull of rising, unchecked powers that would claim Lebanon as their instrument against the West. Saad Hariri has had to pay obeisance in Damascus and Tehran to the patrons of his father’s alleged murderers. It would be nice to think that the son had learned that these patrons played no part in the crimes of the past or the defense of the guilty, but none in the region believe that to be his view. Meanwhile, Iran arms Hariri’s enemies, while some in Lebanon hail the self-proclaimed Shia champion of Islam. A more assertive Turkey enters as well; when his government fell, Hariri did not linger in Washington, but quickly went to Ankara.

Now comes the next phase of this prolonged race between a legal process and an armed resistance. If the indictments so long in coming go long unfulfilled, if they leave untouched those widely believed to have instigated the assassination, then the region will conclude that the victims and their friends have little will left for this fight.

This will mark the final success of the perpetrators’ strategy. They will have understood well the lands against which they plotted. Pursuing these indictments will bring violence, or even civil war, Western experts on the politics of the Levant say, adding with knowing resignation that few there want more violence now. That, as far as it goes, may be true enough. But the judgments of the democrats in Beirut are based on the forces they have come to know for six bloody years. They have no cause to suspect that those who killed in 2005 have abandoned their goals. By contrast, Western support will seem to have brought but temporary solace to our friends; the Cedar Revolution, which began with a bang, may leave only smoke.

The finely tuned ears in the region have not failed to catch the sounds of Washington edging toward the door. Just last week, before sealed indictments were filed, Secretary Clinton, echoed by the State Department spokesman, already pronounced our readiness to treat charges as limited to “individuals,” not “the groups to which they belong.” This must strike oddly Middle Easterners, who have long heard us call Hezbollah a “terrorist organization” and repeatedly proclaim that the U.S. is determined to end impunity for political murder in Lebanon.

Ironically, even as the Saad Hariri government fell, Secretary Clinton lectured the region on the virtues of political courage and the strength of American will. In Doha, she urged Arab leaders “to put away plans that are timid and gradual” and make bold, democratic reforms. “This is a test of leadership for all of us,” said Clinton. “I am here to pledge my country’s support for those who step up to solve the problems that we and you face.” Did some in the chamber think, “Lebanon?”

The Hezbollah leader, in his first public comments since toppling the government, mocked America’s empty promises of support. He publicly warned Hariri that the West had promptly turned on its former ally, the recently toppled leader of Tunisia, by denying him sanctuary.

In days to come, the region will recall Hariri’s fate, much as the assassins intended. If your friends can neither protect you nor deter attacks to come, then you best curb your course or face your fate. There is nothing exotic in this wisdom of Beirut; it sounds the same coming from the streets of old Chicago.

The West stumbles forward along the precipice of a slow motion defeat. Lebanon’s complexities focus us too often on the tactical, but it is the strategic shift to which the region responds. It has been years, not days in the making. Democratic forces in Lebanon have been the best, most peaceful, long-term hope for containing the terrorists of Hezbollah and blunting the forward edge of Iranian power. Tremors will be felt in the Arab-Israeli dispute and in countering radicalization across the region. Prospects for peace grow dimmer.

The future of a region that we still call vital lies in the shadows of such troubled places as Lebanon. We may have a limited taste for bearing burdens in such places; but then we should not be surprised at the course events take or the price we pay in the end.

Hillel Fradkin is director of the Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World at the Hudson Institute. Lewis Libby is senior vice president of the Hudson Institute.