A daunting job awaits Washington’s new Ambassador to Lebanon

The view from the US embassy in Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean and Sanin Mountains will probably be the only tranquil picture that Washington’s new Ambassador Maura Connelly will encounter as she readies for her new mission. The latest border clash between the Lebanese army and the IDF, and the leaks of a possible involvement by ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The view from the US embassy in Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean and Sanin Mountains will probably be the only tranquil picture that Washington's new Ambassador Maura Connelly will encounter as she readies for her new mission.

The latest border clash between the Lebanese army and the IDF, and the leaks of a possible involvement by Hezbollah in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, are driving tensions high in the country. As such, the current situation begs a vigorous US diplomatic push on several fronts in order to avert further escalation and a possibility of war that might spill beyond Lebanon's borders.

The view from the US embassy in Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean and Sanin Mountains will probably be the only tranquil picture that Washington’s new Ambassador Maura Connelly will encounter as she readies for her new mission.

The latest border clash between the Lebanese army and the IDF, and the leaks of a possible involvement by Hezbollah in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, are driving tensions high in the country. As such, the current situation begs a vigorous US diplomatic push on several fronts in order to avert further escalation and a possibility of war that might spill beyond Lebanon’s borders.

Connelly, who is awaiting a Senate floor vote on her nomination after a unanimous confirmation by the Foreign Relations Committee, will bring with her an in-depth political knowledge of the country that she watched closely while Charge d’Affaires in neighboring Syria. Her close working relationship with her direct boss and predecessor in the new post, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern affairs Jeff Feltman, will help her in navigating not only Washington but also Lebanese circles, where Feltman is viewed as a strong and effective advocate for US policies. The new appointee also enjoys good relations with Syrian officials, but is known to be tough when it’s required. Her summoning of Syrian acting Ambassador Zouheir Jabbour to the State Department last April, to voice concern over Syria’s transfer of Scud missiles to Hezbollah, was indicative of her ability to present a hard-nosed position when necessary.

For Connelly to succeed in her new mission, however, Washington will need to take a much more proactive approach in addressing Lebanese policy. The increasing tension in the country over the possible Hezbollah indictment by the Special Tribunal on Lebanon (coming as soon as September) has occasioned recent visits by Saudi King Abdullah along with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the Qatari Prince Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and the foreign ministers of Germany and France. In contrast, the last high US official to visit Beirut was Undersecretary for Political Affairs Bill Burns, back in February.

Without a sustained diplomatic engagement in Lebanon, Washington will continue to be perceived even among some of its local allies as ignoring its role there, thus stoking conspiracy theories that it is pursuing a deal with Syria at the expense of the Lebanese. It is true that assurances to the contrary have come from as high up as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently said that "there is nothing that we would do in any way that would undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty…I want to assure any Lebanese citizen that the United States will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people". But the lack of extensive engagement in the last six months, and in the period leading to the parliamentary elections and government formation last year, has weakened the US leverage in the country and driven its Lebanese allies into making costly compromises with the Hezbollah camp. Those compromises came in the form of  the March 14 camp (pro-Western) agreeing, even after its parliamentary victory, to give the Hezbollah coalition a powerful role (including veto power) in the current government. Hezbollah of course used this leverage to block resuming discussion on its arms – or what is known as the "National Dialogue."

The situation has seen a much more confident Hezbollah, and has restored some of Syria’s influence in the country it withdrew from in 2005. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah urged March 14 leaders two weeks ago to follow Walid Jumblatt’s lead and "undergo a self-evaluation" by "admitting their wrong to Syria". Jumblatt, the Druze leader, defected from March 14 camp last November and has visited Damascus twice since then.

While the US policy does not favor these outcomes, and considers things like Hezbollah arms transfers to be "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States", the perception of a less engaged Washington has muddled the issue. Yet perception matters in Lebanon. Senior Lebanese leaders, amongst them Jumblatt, read in the Obama administration’s overtures to Syria, and lack of engagement in Lebanon, a broader shift in Washington’s regional policy. Prime Minister Saad Hariri himself has visited Syria three times so far, and so has President Michel Suleiman and leader of the Lebanese army Jean Kahwaji.

This dynamic, and absent a strong US engagement, might force more compromises on enforcement of any indictment and possible arrests issued by the tribunal. Nasrallah has called the tribunal an "Israeli Project" and probably sees the border clash as a welcome distraction from it. He reassured his supporters this week that "We will not sit with crossed arms…the Israeli hand that will be outstretched to strike the Lebanese military will be cut off."

While a war might offer both Israel and Hezbollah a political boost and would ultimately distract from any tribunal decision, its impact would be catastrophic to US interests in the region, especially to the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace and containing Iran.

A crucial part in averting such a scenario will be for Washington to push hard for resuming peace talks on the Lebanese and Syrian tracks. Regardless of the intentions of the leaderships involved, a process, whether indirect (through Turkey) or direct, will increase pressure on Hezbollah. Fred Hof, the U.S. senior diplomat appointed by Middle East Envoy George Mitchell to handle those tracks, visited Damascus this week and had to cancel his trip to Lebanon following the border clash. Though while Washington realizes the importance of these tracks, and the impact they would have on Hezbollah and Iran, it has yet to convince Israel to resume such a process. Even the talks about Israel withdrawing unilaterally from the Ghajar village in the South have been stalled after the current developments. Only the U.S. can play the role of a successful interlocutor in a process that might steer Israel back in a direction of confidence building and diplomatic progress.

Increasing the pressure on Hezbollah will also require a more robust presence from the U.S. administration on the domestic scene in Beirut. Lebanon, where a big part of the political game is feudal and sectarian, will allow Connelly to reach out to several Lebanese internal players across the spectrum-and beyond the March 14-Hezbollah dichotomy. Feltman’s visits during his tenure (and even during the height of US-Syria tensions in 2006) to pro-Syrian politicians like Suleiman Franjieh in the North or Speaker of the House Nabih Berri, have proven effective before in solidifying the US role as a strong supporter behind the Fouad Seniora government then, and in ensuring Lebanon’s stability.

Of course, there is no alternative to power-sharing with Hezbollah; it is part of the Lebanese community and is the most popular among the Shia. Today, however, Hezbollah stands more defiant and confident than ever before. The aftermath of the July 2006 war, followed by a show of force by the party in the streets of Beirut on May 7, 2008, along with the continued build-up of its sophisticated weaponry system, are tipping the post Taif agreement balance in the country. As such, the U.S. must commit itself in the short and long term to support electoral reform, and a more equitable distribution among sects reflecting changing demographics (the growing Shia and Sunni population vs. a shrinking Christian and Druze one). The policy can both acknowledge the  Hezbollah reality while working to contain its expanding influence. 

Continuing U.S. aid to the Lebanese army and state institutions will be instrumental as well. The army enjoys wide support among the Lebanese, widely demonstrated after the most recent clash, and has benefited from over half a billion dollars in U.S. aid since 2006. The U.S. Congress has already been raising concerns over the possibility of this aid reaching Hezbollah or being used to fight Israel, and the border incident will certainly increase those fears. However, the army remains a strong element in Lebanon’s stability.  A weak and divided army was a primary liability during the country’s civil war (1975-1990), and Hezbollah has been strongly opposed its current strengthening. Moreover, the Country Reports on Terrorism released Thursday by the State Department, points to a stronger performance by the Lebanese army in 2009 in combating terrorism and increasing security near the Palestinian camps.   

While the upcoming combat troops withdrawal from Iraq end of August, and starting direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis appear to be more urgent on the U.S. agenda, increasing the level of engagement in Lebanon will be necessary in the upcoming period and to prevent any miscalculation such as the border incident from turning into a larger regional conflagration.

Joyce Karam is the Washington correspondent for Al-Hayat newspaper, a leading pan-Arab daily.

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