On February 14th 2005 Rafik Hariri, who until October 2004 was the Lebanese prime minister, was assassinated in Minet al Hosn road using a one ton bomb which killed 21 people including the former prime minister. Pro-Hariri factions in Lebanon largely blamed Syria for the event, demanding a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. By the end of the following April all Syrian troops had left Lebanon after nearly three decades of presence in Lebanon. The withdrawal came about after immense international pressure mainly led by the United States on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. The withdrawal took away Syria’s influence in internal Lebanese politics, which was one of its main playing cards in the region. It also influenced the July 2005 parliamentary elections in which the pro-American and anti-Syrian March 14th Alliance won 72 of the 128 parliamentary seats [1].

By the start of the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006, the political scene in Lebanon had become polarized, the war intensified this polarization even further. A couple of months after the war, the March 8th opposition withdrew its ministers from the Siniora government, robbing it of its legal authority. This marked the formal starting point of the Lebanese crisis. The main demand of the opposition was to have veto power in the cabinet of a new national unity government. The crisis which led to a political deadlock inside Lebanon and brought about fears of a new civil war persisted for over 18 months. During this period the United States was steadfast in its support of the Siniora government as well as pressuring it to resist the demands of the opposition led by Hezbollah. However all of this changed with the events of May 2008 which led to the Doha agreement resolving the crises. While the US was not formally present in the Doha negotiations however it seems unlikely that the deal was reached without a green light or at least a tacit approval from Washington. This paper discusses US policy in Lebanon in the post 9/11 world and attempts to address the core reasons behind Washington’s shift in strategy regarding Lebanon in the past few months, arguing that the Hezbollah victory in the Beirut clashes of May, the Iraq War quagmire and the need to calm the situation in the region for internal political reasons, forced the US to back down.

The developments of May 2008

In the first half of the month of May, Lebanon witnessed important events. On May 6th the Lebanese government announced that it had fired Brig. General Wafiq Shuqeir head of Beirut Airport’s security, as well as attempted to dismantle Hezbollah’s secure telecommunications network. As will be discussed these were highly significant and risky steps by the government which eventually led to the armed clashes in Beirut as well as in the northern part of Lebanon. At the end of the day the clashes tipped the balance of power in favor of the opposition [2].

The decision to sack the airport’s security chief was reached amid allegations by the March 14th coalition that secret surveillance cameras had been placed by Hezbollah overlooking Runway 17 of the airport which is mainly used by executive jets. On May 4th Walid Jumblatt head of the Progressive Socialist Party accused Hezbollah of trying "to monitor the arrival of Lebanese or foreign leaders and to kidnap or assassinate [people] on the airport road" [3].These accusation which were never proven, led to the decision to sack Shuqeir. According to the Lebanese TV station Al-Jadeed, the security cameras which were located at a construction site adjacent to the airport could not see above the airport’s security wall and thus were useless for spying on the airport [4]. The government also demanded the surrender of Hezbollah’s secure telecommunications network. According to the Wall Street Journal the network included an underground 200 mile long secure optical network, stretching all the way from Lebanon’s southern border up to the northern part of the border between Lebanon and Syria [5]. At the time of the 2006 war this network, which was less elaborate back then, was apparently one of the main reasons for Hezbollah’s victory, allowing commanders to communicate with field officers with secure lines immune from Israel’s espionage services. During the war all cell phone transmissions were jammed by the Israelis while the normal Lebanese wired telephone system was vulnerable to Mossad and IDF intelligence. When the government tried to take this away, according to Hezbollah leader it was trying to take away Hezbollah’s “number one weapon” going further to say that "it is forbidden to touch [anything] linked to the networks, whether an engineer, a company or a mayor. Touching them is like touching me." Trying to dismantle Hezbollah’s military capabilities used against Israel’s invading army was tantamount to declaring “Open War” according to Nassrallah [ibid]. On May 8th fighting broke out between the two opposing factions in the streets of Beirut, after just six hours of fighting in a period of three days, the entire West Beirut which is the central stronghold of the March 14th alliance, came under the control of fighters loyal to Hezbollah and the opposition. After the decisive show of force by Hezbollah, the Siniora government was quick to retract its two decisions. Although many analysts expected Hezbollah’s success in the street battles however very few expected Hezbollah to win so decisively and easily.

The clashes in Beirut and in the north of Lebanon was a warning of how tense the situation really was, with the possibility of a new civil war looking more real than ever. The Siniora government having been defeated militarily on the ground was more receptive towards the demands of the opposition led by Hezbollah. On May 21st after six days of high level negotiations in Doha, Qatar, the two sides were able to broker a historic deal. Under the agreement the parliament would convene to elect consensus candidate General Michel Suleiman as the president. Also a new “National Unity Government” with a 30 member cabinet would be formed. In the new government the opposition would hold 11 cabinet portfolios while the March 14th alliance would hold 16 ministers, with the president appointing the remaining three. According to this agreement the opposition would have one third of the seats needed to veto major cabinet decisions. This was the opposition’s main demand in the 18 month long crisis [6].

U.S. Policy towards Lebanon

The US has become more concerned with Hezbollah with the passage of time. Up until 1998 not a single Congress resolution had mentioned Hezbollah by name, in contrast to the period from 1998 to the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war there were more than two dozen resolutions condemning Hezbollah [7]. This increased concern has partly been due to the increase in power and influence that Hezbollah has enjoyed in the past decade. The Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in summer 2000 was the first Israeli withdrawal from Arab soil not involving concessions by the Arab side. The event raised Hezbollah’s prestige and influence in Lebanon as well as the region enormously. In the parliamentary elections after the withdrawal, Hezbollah was successful in winning an unprecedented nine seats in the 128 seat parliament, which in the highly divided Lebanese parliament where most parties only held a couple of seats, meant that it became the largest single party bloc in the legislative chamber [8].

With the events of September the 11th and the commencement of the so called “War on Terror” US policy towards Hezbollah and Lebanon in general has to be seen in the larger context of post 9/11 US policies in the Middle East. In this new approach, sought mainly by the neo-conservatives who were now in power, a return to the old foreign policy doctrine of John Quincy Adams which regarded Preemption, Unilateralism and Hegemony as its three main pillars was in the works. Under this new approach US foreign policy would shift from a relatively Realist approach to a more Idealistic approach. As part of this new direction, the US would strengthen its global hegemony by firmly controlling the region of the world which supplies a major share of the world’s energy supply, even by military force if necessary. By being in control of the Middle East the US would ensure its place as the world’s sole superpower well into the 21st century.

The March 2003 attack on Iraq was the first step in implementing this new plan. Saddam’s Iraq which was devastated both militarily and economically during the first Gulf War and the long years of UN sanctions and frequent air bombardments was not a significant and immediate threat either to the US or to Israel. Neither was it connected to the events of 9/11 and Al-Qaeda. The war in Iraq however was to be Washington’s first step in showing to the players in the Middle East and the world the new rules of the game, in which Washington was the big player in town with the power to preemptively attack any country it deemed to be a ‘threat’. In this regard Iraq was the weak link, a good ‘target’ which would be won quickly and decisively putting pressure on the other players in the Middle East, like Iran and Syria. Gradually however the war in Iraq went terribly wrong for the US, with consequence opposite of what Washington had intended.

The 2006 Lebanon War was a new opportunity for Washington to restart its plan for a new Middle East, something that up until then the US had been unable to achieve. Even though it was leaked a couple of months after the conflict that Israel had been planning in advance, for at least 4 months, to launch a major assault on Lebanon [9], however the support and encouragement of Washington was also instrumental in launching and sustaining the conflict. This encouragement was so strong that according to Israeli sources the United States even tried pushing Israel to expand the war to Syria, an idea that even the Israelis considered to be “nuts” [10]. When Hezbollah was able to survive the onslaught of massive Israeli air and ground attacks and at the same time inflict heavy causalities on the Israelis, forcing them to retreat to the border, the US’s master plan for the region had suffered another major defeat.

After the war Hezbollah’s position inside Lebanon was strengthened. Not only was Hezbollah’s popularity on the rise but even more importantly the war had disillusioned Lebanese factions which hoped to disarm Hezbollah, because if the IDF, the most advanced army in the Middle East, was unable to disarm Hezbollah, it would be unrealistic to expect internal Lebanese forces to disarm Hezbollah. After the war Hezbollah’s position toward the March 14th coalition became hardened as it saw their demands for the group’s disarmament in line with US-Israeli goals. According to this view the US and Israel which had been unable to disarm the group after 33 days of fighting were now trying a new method to put pressure on the resistance movement. In the meantime the Siniora government also became more antagonistic towards Hezbollah. This was partly due to Washington’s encouragement and support. The US also pressured both Iran, largely on the basis of the “Nuclear Issue”, and Syria, under the pretext of the “Hariri Tribunal”. A victory by Hezbollah in Lebanon would mean the strengthening of the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. Something the US could not afford.

In the Doha Conference no official US representative was present. In fact the US Congress tried to implicitly undermine it. On May 22nd just a day after an agreement was reached in Doha, the US congress passed resolution 1194 which was sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The resolution which strongly condemned Hezbollah, called the group’s success in clashes in Beirut as the “illegal occupation of territory under the sovereignty of the Government of Lebanon”. Ignoring the fact that the clashes were between two internal militias, not involving the national army and also ignoring the fact that Hezbollah quickly handed the territory it seized to the Lebanese army [11]. In contrast the US congress never passed a single resolution condemning Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon for over 22 years which was in defiance of over ten Security Council resolutions. According to some analysts the wording of the resolution especially a section calling on the Bush administration "to immediately take all appropriate actions to support and strengthen the legitimate Government of Lebanon under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora," was actually giving legal authority for the Bush administration to intervene in Lebanon, militarily if needed [12]. The timing of the resolution should also be examined. While the fighting in Beirut was mostly over by May 10th, the resolution did not come until two weeks later. This fact strengthens the argument that the resolution was mostly aimed at undermining the sensitive negotiations being held in Qatar, rather than condemning the Beirut clashes which had been well over by the time the resolution was being deliberated.

Since the commencement of the “War on Terror” the United States has used various methods to eliminate Hezbollah. The US has vigorously promoted the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization as well as banning its TV station Al-Manar from satellite broadcasting to North America. The US was successful in passing Security Council Resolution 1559 in September 2004 which calls for Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon as well as Hezbollah’s disarmament. As indicated earlier the US was largely instrumental in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in summer 2006 which was aimed at disarming the group. After all these measures were unsuccessful in eliminating or even reducing Hezbollah’s military capabilities and its political influence, the US pushed the Siniora government to take a tough approach towards the Shia group, taking the country into a political deadlock. However as was the case with the 2006 war, the US miscalculated the strength and resolve of Hezbollah, forcing it to eventually back down.

Why did the U.S. back down?

The US was not officially represented in Doha, however after the agreement was reached, the US was quick to congratulate the two sides on reaching the agreement. In a statement issued by Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice issued on May 21st, the day the agreement was officially announced, it was proclaimed that the “United States welcomes the agreement reached by Lebanese leaders in Doha, Qatar. We view this agreement as a positive step towards resolving the current crisis by electing a President, forming a new government, and addressing Lebanon’s electoral law, consistent with the Arab League initiative” [13]. It seems unlikely that the March 14th alliance would compromise without at least a tacit US approval. After all the United States and its allies in the region namely Saudi Arabia were and still are the major supporters of the pro-government coalition. Then the question begs, why would the US and its allies back down on their position which they had stubbornly held for the past 18 months, namely to resist the demands of the opposition as well as pushing for the disarmament of Hezbollah. Not only did the agreement cave in to the opposition’s demands but also by giving Hezbollah a major share in the government, it gave the resistance movement the legitimacy it has always yearned. Why would the US yield to such important gains by one of its main adversaries in the region? Wouldn’t this strengthen the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis the US had so feverishly tried to weaken? If the US and its allies were willing to compromise, why did they hold it off for over 18 months causing a political deadlock in Lebanon and risking instability in a region where instability spreads like wild fire?

To answer these questions it is necessary to look at developments inside Lebanon as well as the region. As discussed earlier the clashes of Beirut in early May were a turning point in the conflict. The United States in anticipation that a military showdown might be inevitable in the crisis, invested heavily on pro-government militias as well as the Lebanese army. According to some accounts the United States invested over 300 million dollars to arm and train the “Internal Security Forces” (ISF) which is the main militia of the March 14th coalition [14]. To the disappointment of the US, these forces were swiftly defeated by Hezbollah fighters who had become hardened by years of guerrillas fighting against the Israelis, also the army in fear of breaking down along sectarian lines, similar to what happened during the Lebanese Civil War, stood out of the clashes.

The clashes of Beirut marked a major defeat for the pro-government coalition as well as its backers. Even though the United States and Saudi Arabia continued with their tough rhetoric however they were unable to match them with force on the ground. The defeat was so humiliating that Hezbollah forces were able to encircle the houses of the March 14th coalition leaders Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri. According to Time Magazine, while their reporter waited nearby for an interview with Walid Jumblatt on May 11th, he heard Jumblatt placing a call to Nabih Berri, parliament speaker and a Hezbollah ally, saying “Tell [Nasrallah] I lost the battle and he wins," Jumblatt said. "So let's sit and talk to reach a compromise. All that I ask is your protection" [15].

The US’s only concrete move in support of its allies in the clashes of Beirut was to send the US warship USS Cole to the Mediterranean, hopping to intimidate and threaten Hezbollah. However when the warship failed to take any action or to force Hezbollah to back down, the move proved to be useless. After all, every player in Lebanon knows that it would be very difficult for a foreign country to intervene in Lebanon militarily. The memory of the disastrous intervention in the Lebanese Civil War in the early 80s is still fresh among US politicians. Not even the Israelis which have much more experience in Lebanon, have been able to win political points by military intervention in Lebanon. This caused the US move to be nothing more than an empty threat without any real effect. The military defeats of early May were the first reason forcing the US to reassess its policy.

Secondly all these events should also be looked at through the prism of US interests in the region. From this perspective the Iraq War comes to the forefront. As discussed earlier the Iraq War has gone terribly wrong for the United States. Up until recently the situation in Iraq was very worrying for US policy makers. Thanks to a troop surge, more cooperation from Iran in pacifying Shia militias, a stronger central government and the so called “Sunni Awakening”, the situation in Iraq has improved. For example the US suffered 20 casualties in the month of May 2008 compared to 121 casualties for the same month a year earlier [16]. The improvement of security in Iraq has been apparent since October 2007, in March 2008 however fighting broke out between the Mahdi Army loyal to Muqtada Al-Sadr and Iraqi forces trying to neutralize Basra. The fighting later spread to Baghdad and was a sign that security in Iraq was still very volatile. Ultimately a deal between Al-Maliki’s government and Sadr’s faction was brokered by Iran in the Iranian city of Qom [17].

Stabilizing Iraq and achieving a “victory” in Iraq is very much still, a major policy of the United States. The Iraq war has been very costly to US influence in the region. If the United States is ultimately defeated in Iraq, forcing it to a humiliating withdrawal (as was the case in Vietnam), the US’s strategic interests in the region will be greatly harmed for years to come. Thus it is not surprising to see the US invest a great deal of effort to turn its derailed adventure in Iraq into a military and political victory, even if this victory is half hearted. This situation however has created a strategic pressure point for US opponents in the region. The security situation in Iraq is very volatile meaning that all the tactical gains the US has achieved in the past 6 months can be reversed. This plays a significant role in US calculations when trying to pressure Iran, Syria and their ally Hezbollah. Thus if the US goes past a certain point in pressuring its enemies, then it might encourage them to retaliate in Iraq where the United States is very vulnerable.

On May 26th just days after the Doha agreement, Nassrallah, in his first speech after the agreement, for the first time proclaimed that Hezbollah supported the resistance in Iraq. Although he did not elaborate on what he meant by “support” however it seems that he was threatening the US that Hezbollah would lend his support to the Iraqi resistance, in case the US keeps following the path it has taken in the past couple of years with regards to Hezbollah. If indeed Hezbollah gets involved in Iraq, it would mean a serious escalation of the ongoing power struggle between Iran-Syria-Hezbollah on one side and US-Israel-Saudi Arabia on the other. The consequences of such a decision would also be significant for all sides. It seems that Nassrallah was giving the US a choice to either cool down the region after the Doha agreement or risk an escalation of the confrontation, in case it chooses to undermine the agreement and pursue its old policies.

A third reason for the change in policy stems from internal US politics. The Bush administration in its final year in office, has tried to paint a rosy picture of the Middle East for the American public, largely to cover up its failed policies in the past seven years which has caused great instability. One of the ways to achieve this has been to calm down the situation in the region. The launching of the Annapolis conference, as an attempt to foster peace in the long Arab-Israeli conflict was in line with this policy. Even if the event was mostly symbolic, with a minor chance for success, however it at least portrayed the United States as working towards peace, in a region where it is fighting two ongoing wars. The US has also been successful in calming the situation down in Iraq for the time being. All these gains in public image, even if minor by some accounts, in the last year of the Bush presidency and in an election year, would have been lost by an out of control Lebanese crises.

The emergence of a new balance of power:

An underlying issue in all of this is the new balance of power that has started to emerge in the region. The US war on terror caused the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Baath government in Iraq. With the demise of these two regimes, two of the major forces containing Iran’s power and influence in the region disappeared. If this wasn’t bad enough, the governments that emerged in the two countries, especially in Iraq, were friendly to Iran. The emergence, for the first time of a Shia dominated government in Iraq, has been especially upsetting to Sunni Arab governments of the region, especially American allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

By attacking Iraq, the United States shattered a long established balance of power in the region. The new balance of power that is emerging is increasingly in favor of Iran and the Shia’s of the region. The events in Lebanon were a step in that direction. The actions of the Bush administration have also left a strong sense of distrust among Washington’s Arab allies, who have become very suspicious of Washington’s plans for the region. The rise of Iran in the region is also causing a lot of apprehension in Israel who would much rather deal with Arab political rivals like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with strong ties to the US, than to deal with an ideologically oriented Iran who is spearheading the fight against American influence in the region.

The unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fruitless 2006 war of Lebanon have all lead to the diminishment of American influence in the region. It would have been unimaginable just a couple of years ago for a major Middle Eastern crises to be resolved by a small Arab state, Qatar in this case, with the US and Saudi Arabia being largely left out. This very fact speaks volumes on how low US influence in the region has gone. Although the US has been working aggressively to restore the old balance of power and put in line Iran’s movements and influence however these efforts have largely been unsuccessful. It was very humiliating for the US administration, that just as its president was preparing to travel to Israel to celebrate its 60th anniversary, Beirut was taken over by Hezbollah, with the US unable to do anything in support of the Siniora government. No wonder that Jumblatt, one of the pro-government collation’s main figures and one of the most hard core anti-Hezbollah Lebanese political figures, told Time magazine after the Beirut clashes and before the Doha agreement that he had spoken to the American embassy, telling them: "The U.S. has failed in Lebanon," adding. "We have to wait and see the new rules which Hezbollah, Syria and Iran will set. They can do what they want." [18].

Compared to the United States, Israel has been quicker in accepting the new realities of the region. It negotiated a cease fire with Hamas, a group it previously would not negotiate with, as well as having peace negotiations with Syria. Israel also recently negotiated a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, all this at a time when the US refuses to talk to any of these regional players and at the same time discourages Israel from doing so as well. By taking this hard line approach, the US has largely excluded itself from these negotiations which are being brokered by Egypt in the case of negotiations with Hamas, by Turkey for the Israeli-Syrian negotiations and by the UN, through German representatives, for the recent prisoner exchange. This fact has undermined the traditional US role as a power broker in the Middle East, even leaving room for countries like France who has tried to raise her profile by mediating between the Arabs and the Israelis as well as factions inside Lebanon, as apparent in the recently launched “Union for the Mediterranean” forum.

Although the Doha agreement has resolved the Lebanese crises for the time being however it seems to be nothing more than a tactical short term retreat by the United States. Due to US intransigence in not negotiating and compromising with its opponents in the region, while at the same time trying to reclaim ground lost to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas during the past few years, the political climate in the Middle East has become rather unstable. With the US unwilling to have comprehensive negotiations with its opponents and with Iran’s nuclear standoff reaching a dead lock, the Doha agreement seems nothing more than a band aid for a deep wound.