Almost exactly six years after the Cedar Revolution led to a rapid withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the United States’ dream that it could use this fragile country as a launching pad for a New Middle East — one with a decidedly pro-American bent — has seemingly collapsed.
One could argue that it crumpled at exactly 11:58 a.m. on Tuesday, when a Christian member of the Lebanese Parliament from the Bekaa Valley named Nicola Fattoush strode into the presidential palace and cast his ballot against Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Mr. Hariri is the son of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister whose assassination in February 2005 is the basis for soon-to-be-expected indictments by the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Although the new prime minister, Najib Mikati, didn’t need Mr. Fattoush’s support to defeat Saad Hariri — the militant Shiite movement Hezbollah and the Parliament’s largest single bloc of Christians, headed by Gen. Michel Aoun, along with some Sunni Muslim and Druze members, provided the numerical edge — Mr. Fattoush’s vote held particular significance. Not only had he been an ally of Saad Hariri’s, but he had just days before received a widely publicized visit from the United States ambassador, Maura Connelly, in his home district.
That a small-time figure known for his political horse-trading would spurn a superpower’s attempt to retain his vote for its man provides an exclamation point on just how poorly Washington’s policy of “maximalism” — applying sporadic bouts of pressure on its allies while refusing to sincerely negotiate with its adversaries — has fared in Lebanon and the Middle East as a whole. The Obama administration is going to need a very different approach when it comes to dealing with the “new” Lebanon.
Unfortunately, though, such a change will be far more difficult today than it would have been just six years ago, when Hezbollah had its political back against the wall, lacking support outside its Shiite base and the insurance of Syrian troops in the country.
In April of that year, Hezbollah went so far as to send one of its affiliated politicians, Trade Hamade, to meet with State Department officials to work out a modus vivendi. He left Washington empty-handed: the Bush administration believed that American influence was on the rise in Lebanon and that Hezbollah could be cornered into agreeing to disarmament before any substantive negotiations.
Instead of undermining Hezbollah’s political support by broadening alliances with pro-American figures in Lebanon and addressing the concerns held by many Lebanese — the sentiment that Israel still occupied Lebanese territory in the south, that there were Lebanese in Israeli jails and that the country needed a stronger national defense — the Bush administration cultivated a narrow set of local allies and pursued a “with us or against us” strategy aimed at eliminating Hezbollah.
Sadly, it took this policy less than a year to result in a botched Israeli invasion that killed and wounded thousands of Lebanese citizens and gave Hezbollah unprecedented popularity in the region.
Today, Syria has regained much of its hegemony in the country — this time without the cost of stationing troops — and is again at the center of regional politics. Hezbollah’s military capacity, by all accounts, has soared, and many of its leaders seem to harbor the dangerous belief that they can decisively win a “final” confrontation with Israel. The Party of God has also deftly maintained and even expanded its political alliances — including one with about half the Christians in the country — that gave it the power to change the government this week by constitutional means.
Perhaps most frustratingly, Hezbollah has largely succeeded in undermining the legitimacy of the United Nations tribunal in the Arab and Islamic worlds. In this effort it had unintentional American help. As a recent report from the International Crisis Group put it, the manner in which the investigation was established, “pushed by two Western powers with clear strategic objectives” — the United States and France — “contaminated” the process.
So, what can the United States do to reverse Hezbollah’s new momentum? Its options are limited. Given the change of government, Congress may well try to cut off all aid to Lebanon and the Lebanese Army. The Obama administration will likely reiterate its support for the tribunal and push for any indictments of Hezbollah figures. But neither step would have much of an impact on Hezbollah’s core calculations or desires.
Hezbollah will continue to increase its military power, edging ever closer to what Israeli officials have called a “redline” of capabilities that would prompt Israel to mount a major “pre-emptive” attack. Such a move would, as it was in 2006, be devastating for Lebanon, probably for Israel and certainly for United States interests in the region, not least because Hezbollah would likely survive and even gain new adherents among those affected by Israeli strikes on Lebanese infrastructure and civilian areas.
Still, there is a way for Washington to stake out a reasonable, nonviolent alternative: by pushing for the immediate revival of peace talks between Syria and Israel. Eleven years ago, a peace agreement between the two countries that would have included the disarmament of Hezbollah fell apart, largely because the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, found it too politically difficult to hand over to Syria the last few hundred yards of shoreline around the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee bordering the Golan Heights.
Although a new deal on the Golan would not lead to the end of Hezbollah in the immediate term, it would contain the movement’s ability and desire to use violence, as Syria would need to commit to cutting off the supply routes by which Iranian (and Syrian) weapons are now smuggled into Lebanon. Militarily weakened, and without Syrian or much domestic political backing to continue in its mission to liberate Jerusalem, Hezbollah would find it extremely difficult to threaten Israel’s northern border.
Certainly some Israelis see the benefits of such a deal. Ilan Mizrahi, a former deputy chief of the Mossad and national security adviser to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told an interviewer recently that on his first day on the job, he recommended that Mr. Olmert make a deal with Syria because it would “change the security situation in the Middle East.” He said he still believed that.
When asked if a pullout might create a threat to Israel along the Golan, Mr. Mizrahi answered: “Our chief of staff doesn’t think so. Our head of intelligence, military intelligence, doesn’t think so … the best Israeli generals are saying we can negotiate it, so I believe them.”
Would pressuring Israel into a full withdrawal from the Golan be politically difficult for President Obama? Surely — as it would be for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. But given the alternatives for Lebanon, Israel and the United States, anything less would be merely setting up temporary roadblocks to an impending regional disaster.
Nicholas Noe, the editor in chief of Mideastwire.com and the editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.