If the Obama administration is serious about confronting Iran, it must stand up for America's allies in Lebanon.
- By Josh BlockJosh Block is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and a former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Just a few years ago, Lebanon appeared to be a foreign-policy success for the United States. Outraged by the brutal 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, likely at the hands of Syria and its allies, the Lebanese people, bolstered by international support, succeeded in expelling Syrian military forces and asserting Lebanese sovereignty for the first time in decades. Again in 2009, the Lebanese affirmed their support for the pro-Western ruling coalition, awarding it a solid majority of seats in parliament during the May general elections.
These days, however, the country looks headed for a frightening crisis. The March 14 coalition, as the ruling group is known, has been unable to capitalize on its popular mandate due to the overwhelming force wielded by Hezbollah, which is funded, trained, and armed by Iran and Syria. But it’s not just Hezbollah’s fault. U.S. policy toward Lebanon is significantly to blame for being unwilling to back up bold words with actions. Far from protecting America’s allies, consecutive U.S. administrations have not only failed the pro-Western government but also empowered its worst enemies.
The slow-burning confrontation is about to reach a boiling point over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, charged with bringing Hariri’s killers to justice. The court, established by agreement between the U.N. Security Council and the Lebanese government, is expected to issue indictments against members of Hezbollah in the coming months. As the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, up to six members are slated to be indicted by year’s end, including Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah military commander and brother-in-law of the infamous Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mugniyah.
In an effort to pre-empt what would surely be a massive blow, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has launched a war against the tribunal, and U.S. officials believe that Hezbollah will stop at nothing to prevent indictments from being handed down. The risk of war is palpable, and if Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons — and their Syrian puppets — unseat the elected government and take control over Lebanon, it will be a grave blow to U.S. security and credibility around the world.
It would also bolster the reach and credibility of Iran. Fred Hof, deputy to U.S. Middle East special envoy George Mitchell and point man on U.S.-Syria policy, speaking to the Middle East Institute in the midst of the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, put it bluntly in assessing the Iran connection: "Whether most of his organization’s members know it or not, and whether most Lebanese Shiites know it or not, [Nasrallah] and his inner circle do what they do first and foremost to defend and project the existence and power of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
The rise of Iranian influence in Lebanon is particularly dangerous at this moment, when moderate Arab countries are desperately looking for the United States to contain Iran. From the perspective of America’s Arab allies, if the world’s superpower can’t contain the mullahs before they have a nuclear weapon, how could they themselves be expected to contain the mullahs should they get the bomb?
It’s difficult not to lay the blame for this dire situation at the feet of former U.S. President George W. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. The Bush administration was eager to hold up Lebanon as an example of its successful Middle East policy: "We took great joy in seeing the Cedar Revolution. We understand that the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the street to express their desire to be free required courage, and we support the desire of the people to have a government responsive to their needs and a government that is free, truly free," Bush said in April 2006. However, when push came to shove, the president did little to help his Lebanese allies when they needed him most.
Judgment day came May 7, 2008, when an emboldened Hezbollah, alarmed that the government was moving to control the group’s illicit private communications network, invaded the streets of Beirut and the Chouf mountains to the south, forcing Lebanon’s democratically elected leaders to concede to a power-sharing agreement at the point of a gun. The result was yet another capitulation by the Bush administration, which signaled its acquiescence to the Doha agreement, signed on May 21 of that year, formalizing Hezbollah’s veto over any government decision — including its own disarmament.
But if the Bush administration opened the door to Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon, President Barack Obama’s administration is holding that door ajar, doing little to support the United States’ erstwhile allies in the March 14 coalition out of fear that such a move would damage any chance of engaging with Syria.
In an Oct. 18 letter, Congressmen Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, protested the administration’s lack of support for moderate elements in Lebanon: "We remain concerned that your strategy of offering diplomatic overtures to hostile regimes has done little to provoke Middle East peace, and has only taken away leverage from our democratic friends and allies."
For its part, the administration continues to focus on reaching out to Damascus and has done little more than indicate that there are limits to America’s patience. On a visit to Syria this month, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman noted that the moderate thaw in U.S.-Syria relations "cannot go very far as long as Syria’s friends are undermining stability in Lebanon." That is a condition, however, that the Syrian regime has shown no intention of meeting.
It is vital that the United States reverse these years of drift and act decisively to help the Lebanese people reassert their right to self-determination — because it is in America’s national interest to contain Iran’s expansionist ambition and avoid giving legitimacy to its terrorist proxy.
The Obama administration must decide to resist the "resistance" and lead the West in a program to further empower Lebanese civil society and aid the dormant democratic forces in the country. It is these courageous actors, with the proven ability to lead successful political and media campaigns and expose the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis, who were specifically targeted by Hezbollah in May 2008 — exactly because they are effective. The Lebanese people need to know that the president of the United States supports their pursuit of freedom and democracy, especially as Hezbollah’s role in attacking the state is on the verge of being exposed.
Obama should look to Lebanon’s pro-democracy media, which has largely been silenced over the last year, intimidated not only by pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian, and Hezbollah foes, but hobbled by Saudi patrons who mistakenly thought they could pull Syria away from Iran’s influence. That strategy, like the United States’ outreach to Syria, has proved a disastrous failure. The Obama administration can help take the muzzle off of these Lebanese patriots whose courageous voices are the first defense against Hezbollah.
The Obama administration must also ensure that the Special Tribunal goes forward, prosecuting those it indicts. The United States’ $10 million contribution last week is commendable, but it is not enough. No problem, other than stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, calls as urgently for international focus as the effort to stop the Islamic Republic from expanding its sphere of influence throughout the region.
The United States must be willing to work with its allies in Europe and the Middle East to support those democratic elements who want to save their country. This policy will not be easy. It may require making the tough decision to give up on forces and programs that have failed to serve as a bulwark against Hezbollah, or it may require a deep reform of the same, but tough choices are what we face.
If the Obama administration takes a bold stand in favor of Lebanon’s independence, it will find that many figures in Beirut and other countries with a stake in Lebanon’s stability will enthusiastically follow its lead.
But whatever methods it chooses, the administration must make a clear public signal that the United States will not sit on the sidelines while Iran, through its satraps Syria and Hezbollah, successfully exports the Iranian revolution to Lebanon. Obama has spoken eloquently about the need to support democracy and tolerance in the Middle East. The time of decision has come. The president must now put his words into action.