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US Policy Not Working in Lebanon

by Dr Ghassan M. Rubeiz*

In trying to solve the problem posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the US destroyed the infrastructure of that country, and, as a result, found itself in a quagmire. Similarly, in trying to disarm Hezbollah, Israel is destroying Lebanon and risking self entrapment. Israel’s plan to pressure the Lebanese to “deliver” Hezbollah has also apparently backfired.

On July 12, the Middle East crisis was about Hezbollah’s provocative border incursion. But since then, the disproportionate Israeli reaction has shifted the crisis from a border issue to a regional conflict.

The US Secretary of State was in Beirut on July 23, starting a series of shuttle diplomacy trips to try and stop hostilities, albeit in risky slow motion. Condoleezza Rice’s top priority is Israel’s border security. She also wants to re-empower the Lebanese government. But while Ms. Rice takes precious time to reach her political goals, a bad humanitarian situation has reached the level of a massacre. Rapidly worsening conditions are not giving the US diplomats any pause to rethink their approach. On her recent trip, Rice promised a “new Middle East”. What does she mean by this optimistic but ambiguous phrase? Regional observers have come up with many wild scenarios to interpret the unfolding U.S. policy.

Despite earlier indications from the heads of some influential Arab countries that Hezbollah should be “disciplined,” the predominant sentiments of Arabs in the street, and their leaders, now include rage over Israel’s fierce retaliation, anger over US support of the Jewish state, and a growing admiration for Hezbollah’s defiance of Zionism.

The US insists that Hezbollah’s military wing should vanish, the captured Israeli soldiers be returned, and the Lebanese government assume defense of its borders. The US insists that all three goals guaranteed before a cease fire goes into effect. Regrettably, the US is unable to see or acknowledge the realities that undermine the goals it seeks.

First, Hezbollah has proven to be more resilient than expected and the Lebanese state looks weaker today than ever. When there is an equilibrium of power between adversaries, and the cost of continuing fighting is high to all parties, a cease-fire should precede, not follow, a political settlement. A cease-fire is supposed to create the space in which political negotiations can take place.

The second new reality that the US must appreciate is that Hezbollah’s militancy after the civil war is an artifact of Lebanese politics. The Shiites there compensated for a lack of power, privilege and status by maintaining a militia. Militias thrive in environments of perceived social injustice. Placing Lebanese soldiers on the border with Israel will not work without a voluntary and sensitive integration of Hezbollah into a reformed, viable Lebanese political arrangement. The idea of a multinational force to take responsibility for the nation’s borders seems to be gaining currency. But a deprived, humiliated and angry Shiite community, which represents 40% of Lebanon, will again destabilize the country and sabotage the multinational force. In any case, such an external force could only perform well if Iran and Syria choose to cooperate.

The third reality is that in the current crisis is of multiple competing national interests and causes Syria, a staunch supporter of Hezbollah, wishes to regain its occupied Golan Heights from Israel. Hezbollah serves Syria’s interest and, in return, gets its support. Palestinians, who have bonded with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, are struggling to “liberate” the occupied territories. Hamas, in particular, is pressing to be recognized as a legitimate government. Iran, an ideological partner and financier of Hezbollah, wants normal relations with the US, leverage in developing its nuclear capabilities, and recognition of its new status as a regional power. Israel and the US are closely tied into a symbiotic and blinding alliance that often slows their learning of how best to reach their own long term strategic interests.

All of these competing problems and claims cannot be solved at once. But it is imperative for the US to focus on urgent Israeli-Lebanese issues first. Then, the US should be seen to take the Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian claims more seriously.

A cease fire must be declared soon. It should be based on four urgent measures: deployment of an international force (with a peace enforcement mandate), deployment of the Lebanese army on the border with Israel; the exchange of the three captured Israeli soldiers for Arab prisoners (including the recently captured Hamas politicians in Israel); and an Israeli promise to return Shib’a Farms to Lebanon.

Next, the cease fire agreement should stipulate an immediate reactivation of the regional peace process that would engage the US and Israel with all parties. Such a comprehensive conference would deal with Shib’a Farm (per a 1949 agreement between Lebanon and Israel ); Hezbollah’s demilitarization and political future; (UN Resolution 1559); full Palestinian statehood; the return of Syria’s Golan Heights; and Israel’s lasting peace with the Arab world (UN Resolution 242 and 338). Additionally, the conference would discuss normalization of relations between Iran and the US.

US tolerance for negotiation with adversaries, both states and militia representatives, is a requirement for peace making. Israel has negotiated with Hezbollah before, the British negotiated with the Irish Republican Army and leaders of the former South African Government negotiated with the African National Congress. If adversaries are cavalierly ignored, conflicts will drag on. In the present case, the US risks losing all forms of cooperation with the Arab and Muslim world in the next ten to twenty years.

Solving Lebanon’s problem is dealing with its divisive sectarian power-sharing and responding to regional issues that directly influence Lebanese politics. There is a popular theory in the Arab world that Israel and US policy targets ethnic and sectarian fragmentation of Arab countries. While this may sound paranoid, developments in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon are not likely to diminish Arab anger and suspicions. Even if Israel does not intend to destroy Lebanon, a continuation of the current irresponsible fighting could cripple Lebanon and make it a failed state for generations to come.

*Dr Rubeiz is a Lebanese-American Middle East analyst with special interest in political sociology, social justice and democracy. He is a former professor of social work and psychology. He was Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches for the Middle East during the eighties and early nineties.

Dr Rubeiz has also served in Eastern Europe for seven years for the Geneva office of Christian Children’s Fund. Between 2000 and 2005, he was the Washington Liaison Director of CCF. In the last three years, he contributed a series of articles to the Christian Science Monitor Online edition, the Lebanese Daily Star and the Arab American News. In January 2007, he will offer a course on Middle East Minorities within the Life Long Learning Society program at Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Oakland Institute.