Bush understands Lebanon

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The US’s former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, recentlyconfirmed that Washington rejected calls for a ceasefirethis past summer and let Lebanon wither under Israeli attackfor several more weeks. An early cessation of hostilitieswould have been “dangerous and misguided,” said Bolton, whowas “damned proud of what we did.” So, maybe it’s worthwhileasking, with friends like the Bush administration, who needsenemies?

And yet strange as it may seem, certainly to thoseunfamiliar with the tangled relationships that constituteMiddle Eastern politics, this White House, having sponsoredor backed a series of UN resolutions supporting Lebaneseindependence and pledging almost $1 billion in foreign aid,is probably the most pro-Lebanese US administration inhistory. And that’s no small feat, since the US has had astake in Lebanese affairs ever since it became thepre-eminent Western power in the region shortly after theend of World War II.

The key date is 1956, after the Suez crisis, leaving the USwith the primary responsibility for containing Sovietinfluence in the Middle East. Eisenhower’s sending troops toBeirut to shore up the Chamoun government suggests that forWashington, clarity in Lebanon has tended to look like twosharply polarized sides, with one clearly pro-Western, andthe other decisively not. When the internal Lebanesesituation is muddier, as it was during the fifteen-year-long civil wars, US officials have had a much harder timefiguring out where American interests lie—and hence whataction to take. Indeed, when Ronald Reagan dispatched theMarines in 1982, the only clear divide was in theadministration itself, which debated the wisdom of gettinginvolved for as long as US troops were based here.

It was partly because American blood was shed in Lebanonduring the ’80s for no apparent reason, as well as placatingHafez al-Assad, that the current president’s father showedvirtually no interest in Lebanon, a state of affairs thatcontinued through the Clinton years. And without aremarkable chain of events these last seven years, thingsprobably would’ve remained the same during the tenure ofthis administration.

It may seem paradoxical in light of last summer’s war withIsrael, but as I was reminded recently during the annualAmerican-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) PolicyConference, it was largely the power of the Israeli lobbythat kept Lebanon a live issue here in Washington when noone else was paying attention. In 2003, the US House ofRepresentatives passed the Syria Accountability and LebaneseSovereignty Act, largely meant to force the Executive branchto reconsider its dubious policy of constructive engagementwith Damascus.

Still, it wasn’t until the Iraq war that Washington realizedwhat it had in Lebanon—not just a staging ground to rollback a confrontational Syrian regime and a fight aregion-wide Iranian agenda, but a high-profile showcase forthe keystone of the administration’s new national securitystrategy: Middle Eastern democracy. It is hardly lost onthe White House that to date, Lebanon, for all its problems,is the most successful part of its regional portfolio.

What’s bizarre is not Washington’s support of Lebanesedemocracy, but that so much of the rest of popular USopinion seems to have turned its back on Beirut. Ever sincethe formation of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group, there hasbeen intense domestic pressure on the White House tonegotiate with Damascus. Though seriously weakened with itsfailing position in Iraq, the Bush administration does notbelieve that solving Baghdad means acquiescing to Bashar in Beirut.

And then there’s the American media. Bush, explains theclueless Seymour Hersh in a recent New Yorker article, isbacking Al-Qaeda militants through the offices of theSeniora government. Other media reports also contend that USfunds used to shore up the Internal Security Forces areessentially being used to create Sunni death squads to waragainst the Shia.

Through it all, the Bush administration has brought Lebanoneven further within the fold. To date, in addition todiplomatic support and financial aid, Washington has devotedan unprecedented amount of White House prestige to Beirut. And as for Lebanese officials making their way toWashington, the State Department, Pentagon and White Househave all thrown open their doors to leaders from every sect,including a host of younger Shia hopefuls who seek anotheroption for their community other than that articulated bythe grim Islamic resistance.

And now with Bush having only a little more than a year leftin office, the natural question is, what happens to the Washington-Beirut relationship when the most pro-Lebanese president in the shared history of the twocountries leaves the White House? As today, Washington’sinterest will be determined by circumstances, and mostimportant among them, it is the will of the Lebanese peoplethat will decide if in, say, 20 years time, we will lookback on the beginning of the 21st century as the goldenyears of the US-Lebanon alliance, or as merely the start ofa beautiful friendship.