The Problem of US Diplomacy in Lebanon

A solution to the 'Hezbollah problem' will not be found by simply concentrating on Lebanon.

Joyce Karam – the Washington correspondent for the Beiruti daily The Daily Star wrote a piece today for Foreign Policy‘s The Middle East Channel that supposes the decline of US diplomatic activity in Lebanon is responsible for the dramatic resurgence of Hezbollah since the 2006 war with Israel.  There is no one simple solution to the complex political situation in Lebanon that ties Hezbollah to Syria and Iran; diplomatic pressure in Beirut must work in concert with other strategies in order to truly combat Hezbollah, and I am sure that Karam would agree.  However, Karam overestimates the effect of a stronger US presence in Lebanon.

Karam writes:

Reversing Hezbollah’s gains will require the United States and the international community to increase their engagement with the government in Beirut and have a more robust diplomatic presence in the country. Talking to Syria is a necessity, but that alone will not be enough to contain Hezbollah’s arms smuggling.

To support this claim, Karam notes the success of a strong US engagement in the aftermath of PM Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in 2005, when the US, Saudi Arabia and France worked together to help set up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and to brokering the UN Security Council Resolution 1701, as well as being instrumental in the forced withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.  Yet Karam only refers to the end results and ignores some of the more important public opinion trends.

It is certainly true that the US-Saudi-French trio aided Beirut and contributed to a pro-western feel during the age of the Cedar Revolution, but their efforts are hardly the whole story.  In 2005, after the assassination of Hariri, 77% of Lebanese supported Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon – up from 65% the year before.  The murder of a generally loved (if not respected) Prime Minister clearly forced many Lebanese to reconsider the cost/benefit ratio of Syrian occupation.  Strong anti-Syrian sentiment among the Lebanese population pushed the Lebanese government as much as the US pulled.

[tweetmeme] Today, circumstances are greatly different.  This year, polls show 97% of Lebanese Shi’a support Hezbollah, while 35% of the Lebanese community as a whole supports the Party of God (Lebanese Shi’a make up 25% of Lebanese citizens). Importantly, these figures do not include the approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (10% of the entire population), of which, 61% favor Hezbollah.  Furthermore, the 180 degree turns made by most politicians, including PM Saad Hariri and Druze/socialist leader Walid Jumblatt has once again paved a clear road for Lebanese politicians from Beirut to Damascus.

The reversal of policies by Hariri, Jumblatt and others arguably can be attributed to the withdrawal of US pressure to keep the Lebanese government facing West.  However, the rise of Hezbollah as a political force (now with veto rights in the government) and the continued threat of Israel has clearly been major factors in repaving Syrian-Lebanese relations.  Indeed, with Israel looking aggressively at Lebanon, Syria and Iran, war with the Jewish state looks increasingly possible.  Despite being supported mainly by Shi’a and a handful of Christians, Hezbollah finds mass support among Lebanese in the context of a war with Israel: 84% of Lebanese trust Hezbollah to protect the country against Israel.

It is true that the US diplomatic hand in Lebanon has been far less active than in 2005, but a reversal of US policy will not relieve the threat of war with Israel – perhaps one of the most important factors pushing Lebanon to Hezbollah and Syria – or the demographics of Lebanon.

Karam ends his essay by saying the status quo (a strong Hezbollah and a not-completely-western-based central government) will lead to a second round of violence between Hezbollah and Israel.  Certainly, increased American involvement could change the stance of some Lebanese politicians, but considering the type of support the US gives Israel – there is nothing President Obama can do to relieve the threat Israel poses to Lebanon.

(Though it is true, as Karam notes, that the threats to Lebanon increase as Hezbollah’s power increases.  Unfortunately, as the Israeli threat grows, so does Lebanese support for the Party of God – a pretty good demonstration of the cyclical nature of Middle Eastern politics.)

Lebanon and Hezbollah are thoroughly tied to Israel, Palestine, Syria and Iran.  Simply increasing US diplomatic efforts in Lebanon will not have the drastic change that Karam seems to imply.  A heavier US hand will not prevent the Lebanese from seeing the possibility of an imminent Israeli attack or their belief that Hezbollah can protect the country.

To ‘solve’ the Hezbollah question, the US must fully engage with Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iran (a daunting task) and seriously consider the security concerns of each.  The US needs to engage with Syria (something that the administration agrees with) and work towards peace between Israel and its neighbors.  Unfortunately, the US Congress has recently refused to confirm Robert Ford to the ambassadorship in Damascus, relations between Israel and Syria have hit a low point after peace talks broke down in 2008 and the proximity talks between Israel and Palestine look doomed even through rose glasses.

Without progress in these areas, an increased US presence in Lebanon will not be able to reverse the evolution of the political atmosphere that has taken place since 2005.

Photo from Lebanese Forces

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