The United States and Lebanons Civil Strife

The ongoing popular challenge to the pro-Western Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora marks yet another setback in the Bush administration’s attempt to impose a new order on the Middle East more compatible with perceived U.S. strategic interests.

The success of the nonviolent people power movement against Syria’s overbearing role in Lebanese politics during the spring of 2005—dubbed the Cedar Revolution—was an impressive triumph of popular democratic forces, forcing the withdrawal of Syrian forces and enabling the country to proceed with parliamentary elections without Syrian interference. However, despite claims by the Bush administration to the contrary, the elections—which, like all Lebanese elections, took place under the country’s colonially-imposed confessional representation system—did not constitute a victory for “reformers.” Instead, the victors were primarily a group of corrupt pro-Western elite politicians from the same traditional political families who have ruled the country since independence.

Their credibility among the Lebanese people was reduced further this summer when the United States rejected their pleas to use its considerable influence to stop Israel’s brutal 35-day military assault against their country which took the lives of more than 1,000 civilians and caused billions of dollars of damage to the country’s civilian infrastructure.

Little Credibility

The recent U.S. assertion of “the unwavering commitment of the United States to help build Lebanese democracy and to support Lebanese independence from the encroachment of Iran and Syria” carries little credibility among the Lebanese: The United States has twice intervened militarily in Lebanon during the past 50 years to prop up unpopular minority governments, defended repeated Israeli incursions onto sovereign Lebanese territory—including a full-scale invasion in 1982—and supported Israel’s 22-year occupation of the southern part of that country, which did not end until 2000. (See my article The United States and Lebanon: A Meddlesome History.)

The United States has also tried to blame Syria for the November 21 assassination of Lebanese Minister of Industry Pierre Gemayel. Yet, while the Syrians have likely been responsible for a number of assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese political leaders, there are serious questions regarding Bush administration assertions of Syrian responsibility for Gemayel’s death. Given the heavy international scrutiny of Damascus over its likely role in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year, it is improbable they would engage in such a high-profile murder. Furthermore, being assassinated by gunmen in broad daylight is more typical of the method used by rival Lebanese groups; Syrian intelligence has traditionally used timed or remote-controlled bombs as a means of more easily denying their responsibility.

Many Enemies

Perhaps more significantly, Gemayel had plenty of domestic enemies. He was a leader in the Phalangist Party, originally a fascist movement modeled after Hitler Youth, founded by his grandfather and namesake in the late 1930s, which vehemently opposed the left-wing Arab nationalism which swept the Middle East over subsequent decades. The Phalangist militia, led by his uncle, was responsible for the massacres of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians during Lebanon’s civil war, including the infamous 1982 Israeli-backed massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. His father was soon thereafter installed as president under Israeli guns and was forced to suppress a popular uprising in large part through the deployment of thousands of U.S. Marines on the southern outskirts of the capital and U.S. air strikes against anti-government forces. As a result, there were plenty of Lebanese who did not wish to see the continuation of the Gemayal dynasty.

Though Syrian responsibility certainly cannot be ruled out, it is also quite possible that the eagerness by the Bush administration to affix blame on Damascus may be yet another attempt to take advantage of Lebanon’s ongoing tragic political struggles to advance its regional political agenda of isolating the Assad regime.

Similarly, criticism of what the Bush administration refers to as “attempts by Syria, Iran, and their allies within Lebanon to foment instability and violence” bear little weight in a country against which the United States has supported decades of violent and destabilizing Israeli attacks which have taken many thousands of civilian lives, destroyed many billions of dollars worth of property, and have inflicted serious damage to the country’s fragile environment.

Domestic Issues

Though Syria, and to a lesser extent Iran, undoubtedly hope to take advantage of the country’s instability, the current political crisis is primarily rooted in domestic issues, specifically the ongoing under-representation in government by Lebanon’s Shiites, the largest and poorest of the country’s three major religious communities. The opposition is led by the country’s two largest Shiite parties, the radical Islamist Hezbollah—backed by Iran—and the more moderate Shiite Amal Party, historically backed by Syria. Added to the mix are an assortment of Lebanese leftists and the Machiavellian retired general and former interim Prime Minister Michel Aoun, a Christian who, in previous political incarnations, had been backed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and later by the United States.

What is most worrying to the United States is the leading role of Hezbollah in the opposition campaign. However, it should be remembered that the Bush administration itself is largely to blame for Hezbollah’s ascendancy. The failure of the Lebanese government to fight this summer’s Israeli onslaught, combined with the surprisingly tough resistance by Hezbollah’s militia, shifted the allegiance of many Lebanese—even those who do not support Hezbollah’s extremist brand of Islam—away from the pro-Western government and toward the Hezbollah-led opposition.

The United States, which for many months had goaded Israel into attacking Lebanon (see my article How Washington Goaded Israel), had hoped this summer’s massive military assault would turn the Lebanese population against Hezbollah, which had failed to disarm its militia as required by both the 1990 Taif Accords and a 2005 United Nations Security Council resolution, and which had sparked the Israeli assault by its provocative July 12 attack on an Israeli border post and its seizure of two Israeli soldiers. However, as is usually the case when a powerful armed force wages a devastating air campaign against a guerrilla force and the country’s civilian population, it actually strengthened Hezbollah’s standing by allowing the radical Islamist group to assert its nationalist credentials as defenders of the nation against foreign aggression.

Few Islamist Slogans

Indeed, it is striking how the Hezbollah-led protests in the streets of Beirut have featured few Islamist slogans or Hezbollah colors and have instead been dominated by protestors displaying Lebanon’s national flag. Bush administration officials and congressional leaders who try to lump Hezbollah with mega-terrorist groups like al-Qaida fail to recognize that it is Hezbollah’s nationalist appeal more than its radical brand of Islam that is the basis of its power. And just as Hezbollah’s opponents try to depict them as puppets of Iran and Syria, Hezbollah and its allies are having greater success depicting the Lebanese government as puppets of France and the United States.

As dangerous and reactionary as Hezbollah’s brand of Islamist ideology may be, they represent an important departure from the traditional Lebanese politics of Western-backed Christian and Sunni Muslim elites by also offering a populist economic program that gives priority to the country’s poor majority and challenges the endemic corruption of the government. Prime Minister Siniora, who has strong ties with international finance, is an outspoken supporter of free trade and big business, positions that put him in favor with Washington and Paris, but are not popular with most Lebanese.

In addition, Hezbollah—thanks in part to generous financial support from Iran—has been far more successful in leading reconstruction of the war-ravaged country than the corrupt and inefficient central government. Furthermore, while willing to provide Lebanon’s relatively wealthy neighbor Israel with more than four billion dollars of unconditional aid annually, the Bush administration has offered Lebanon only $230 million in reconstruction aid in response to the estimated $3.6 billion in damage caused primarily by U.S. weapons and ordinance provided to Israel.

Thus, while the growing instability in Lebanon is indeed troubling and any undue Syrian and Iranian influence should indeed be challenged, it would be a mistake to over-simplify the complexities of Lebanese politics through the lens of the Bush administration’s world view or to underestimate the United States’ role in contributing to the conditions which have led to Lebanon’s current crisis.

Stephen Zunes is the Foreign Policy In Focus Middle East editor (www.fpif.org). He is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).