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Terms of Engagement

How Lebanon Was Lost

A former U.S. ally under Bush's Freedom Agenda, the country is now being neglected in the name of "engagement" with Syria -- and the results could be disastrous.


Last month, Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon and the son of Rafik Hariri, the beloved former prime minister who was murdered five years ago in a massive car-bomb explosion, publicly recanted his allegation that high-level Syrian officials had ordered the killing. "During a period of time we accused Syria of being behind the assassination," he said in a newspaper interview. "This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has ended." Hariri has not changed his mind, of course; rather, he has recognized his own helplessness.

Pity poor Lebanon. That charming and tormented mix of beachfront property and guerrilla warfare has been the playground of rival states and militias and gangs since a war of all against all broke out in 1975. Much of it, perhaps, was the fault of the Lebanese themselves; read Fouad Ajami’s masterful and terribly sad The Dream Palace of the Arabs on the subject. But right now, Lebanon, or at least the democratic forces in Lebanon, are being held hostage. And no one, including the United States, is going to come to its rescue.

The situation is incredibly complicated, as it always is in Lebanon. A special tribunal, impaneled by order of the U.N. Security Council, has been investigating Hariri’s murder and is likely to hand up indictments soon. The tribunal was once expected to finger high-level Syrian officials, but it is now widely believed that the initial round of indictments will be lodged against Hezbollah, which for years has acted as an agent for Syria’s interests in Lebanon. The next round will probably target Syria directly, though Syria has left it to Hezbollah to make dire threats over the prospects of indictments.

The triggering event for Hariri’s sad surrender was the rapprochement of Saudi Arabia with Syria, with whom it had been on bitter terms since the Rafik Hariri murder. The Saudis wanted to enlist Syria in the effort to shape a new government in Baghdad and frustrate Iran’s ambition of installing a compliant, Shiite-controlled regime. So King Abdullah paid a high-profile visit to Damascus in late August. Hariri, meanwhile, had long depended on the Saudis for support. Now he, too, very reluctantly traveled to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As David Schenker, a former official in George W. Bush’s Pentagon who’s now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says, "The Saudis sacrificed him and made him go kiss the ring of the man who probably killed his father." It’s not easy to think of a more powerful and terrible illustration of the maxim that the strong do what they can, while the weak do what they must.

If Hariri and his March 14 coalition suddenly found themselves friendless, what does that say about Washington’s role? The Bush administration had taken the Cedar Revolution, the spontaneous public uprising in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, as supreme confirmation of its policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. Bush gave Lebanon’s democratic forces unequivocal support, while treating Syria as an adjunct of the axis of evil. The policy, however, began to wane as the White House’s own enthusiasm for the Freedom Agenda diminished after 2006; the war between Israel and Hezbollah that year further diminished the administration’s influence in the region. Barack Obama’s administration has given its full support to Lebanon’s democratically elected government, but has also ended Syria’s isolation. The administration has renewed diplomatic relations, while both special envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have met with senior Syrian officials. Just as Lebanon was an emblem of the Freedom Agenda, so Syria is a leading instance of Obama’s "engagement" policy.

Is there a zero-sum relation between the two approaches? Schenker insists that there is, arguing that Obama has failed to put pressure on Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty, done little to halt the deterioration of the Hariri government, and allowed Syria to drift away from its commitments to the country. A State Department official who works on the region sharply disputes that view, arguing that the administration has in fact followed Bush policy quite closely in Lebanon and adding, "We have used our dialogue with Syria to impress upon them our concerns regionwide, and that includes Lebanon, and the Lebanese government is aware of that." Speaking fluent engagement-ese, this official observes that "having a conversation with a country is not a concession; it’s a way of advancing our interests."

I’m not convinced that either policy has proved very effective. The Bush administration’s diplomatic support in Lebanon meant little in the face of Hezbollah’s growing strength, thanks to weapons, funds, and training from Iran as well as Syria. In any case support from a remote and loathed superpower is a coin of questionable value.

On the other hand, engagement only makes sense when it advances U.S. interests enough to justify possible unintended consequences — not a clear balance in Syria. The Syrians are slippery customers who love to be courted, whether by Saudi Arabia, France, or America. "The Syrians like to make us believe they are winnable," says Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel and head of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. But in the end, he says, "Syrians don’t deliver." There is a kind of symmetry between the naiveté of the Bush administration’s controlling belief that it could sow the flowers of democracy in rocky Arab fields and the naiveté of Obama’s belief that a new posture of respect and understanding could win over recalcitrant states and publics in the Middle East.

Indyk doesn’t blame the Obama administration for "losing" Lebanon. It was not, after all, America’s to win or lose. It is Lebanon’s tragic destiny to be sacrificed in the hopes of achieving larger goals — which themselves seem never to be attained. I asked Indyk what he would do if he were in the Obama administration. He said he couldn’t think of anything, but would call if something occurred to him. I didn’t hear back. Even Schenker said simply, "It’s gotten to a very bad point." The Arab media is rife with rumors that Hariri will disown the tribunal, thus undermining the legitimacy of its findings, or that he will hold fast, provoking Hezbollah to bring down the government, in which it holds a strong minority position. Other accounts suggest the possibility of renewed civil war. Obama must, at a minimum, publicly state that he will hold Syria accountable for any bid to topple the Lebanese government, whether by the Syrians or their proxies in Hezbollah.

An entity as frail as Lebanon requires both attention and delicacy from outsiders. The delicacy part is harder. Washington and Paris, in a rare moment of entente in 2005, pushed for the establishment of the Hariri tribunal. At the time, with overwhelming signs of Syrian complicity in the murder and the spontaneous outpouring of anguished public feeling in Lebanon, the tribunal seemed like a moral imperative. Perhaps, though, it was a mistake. The goal then was to punish Syria; but Syria, after a season in the wilderness, is back in charge. The hope now is to deal a blow to Hezbollah’s reputation with the first round of indictments. That may happen; but it’s also possible that the indictments will give Hezbollah a means to establish domination of the Lebanese government. In that case, the tribunal will weaken the sovereignty it was intended to fortify.

The case of Lebanon vindicates no grand theory of statecraft. If anything, Lebanon just illustrates how hard it is for outsiders to fortify fr
agile states and how easy it is to do harm. It is a reminder, in case one needed it, that problems don’t get solved in the Middle East; they just linger on, growing more interesting and complex and intractable. Poor, helpless Lebanon. The one time I was there, in 2008, I got pulled into a Shiite wedding in Beirut. The women were spilling out of their tight dresses. I thought: This is Shiism in Lebanon? What a great country! If there are any grounds for hope at all, perhaps they arise from Lebanon’s endlessly tested genius for life, and for survival. 

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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