F or the second time in three decades, a substantial American investment of time, money, and effort to strengthen the Lebanese government and support its fledgling democracy has come to very little. Hezbollah, Tehran, and Damascus now dominate the country’s intractable domestic politics. US diplomacy is left powerless, wondering how to make the best of an increasingly untenable situation in the Levant.
Reflecting on American involvement in Lebanon in the 1980s often inspires neuralgia among former and current policymakers. Then, as now, a destructive mix of actors were wreaking havoc on the Lebanese state, beginning with the PLO’s relocation to Beirut after the Jordanians expelled it for “Black September.” The June 1982 Israeli invasion to root out the PLO triggered the United States’ dramatically deepened involvement in Lebanon. The US government sought to defuse tensions between Lebanon and Israel, and then deployed the Marines as part of the Multinational Force to facilitate the PLO’s evacuation, an opportunity that offered a moment of optimism for the Lebanese government to expand its writ. But a rapid tumble of events, including the assassination of incoming Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel, the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the failure of regional states to support the May 17 agreement for Israeli withdrawal negotiated by Secretary of State George Shultz, and the systematic effort of Syria and its allies to destroy an independent Lebanon created a difficult and dangerous environment for the American peacekeepers, culminating in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut—Iran’s first, but not last, use of proxies to carry out a lethal assault on US military forces.
In spite of some progress in training and equipping the Lebanese military, American efforts to strengthen Lebanese institutions were stymied. Domestic political concerns about the possible negative impact of America’s Lebanon policy on the 1984 re-election campaign encouraged some of President Reagan’s advisers to argue for a swift withdrawal. It is no wonder that a combination of frustration, guilt, and dismay often plague American reflections on this period in foreign policy. By 1984, when the United States turned away from Lebanon, it was clear that the country had been “lost” to Syrian domination.
Although the civil war ended with the 1989 Taif Agreement (inspired, more than anything else, by the exhaustion that fifteen years of violence had wrought), the Lebanese state continued to stagnate under Syria’s heavy hand. American involvement and interest in Lebanon, limited at best for the next decade and a half, was punctuated by rare outbreaks of concern about calming the Levant, including negotiating the 1996 Israel-Lebanon Ceasefire Agreement that established a multinational monitoring mechanism to minimize civilian deaths. The US granted some economic assistance and small amounts of military aid, but overall Lebanon was low on the list of Washington’s priorities.
Events in 2004 and early 2005 began to restore Lebanon-related issues to the forefront of American interests. In September 2004, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1559, which pledged international support for Lebanese sovereignty, calling for “foreign forces to withdraw; [and] disbanding and dis[arming] all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” Despite the Israeli withdrawal four years earlier, the Syrian military occupation remained and Hezbollah invented new reasons for maintaining its arms despite the end of the Israeli occupation—the ostensible pretext for maintaining an armed militia. Further, resolution 1559 inaugurated a push against Syria and a renewal of Franco-American collaboration in the Middle East after the froideur arising from the Iraq War. Assistant Secretary of State Bill Burns and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage traveled to Damascus to encourage Syria to reconsider its occupation of Lebanon, among other things. Such public support for Lebanon may have encouraged Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s boldness when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pushed to illegally extend Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term. The January 2005 vote in Iraq also appeared to play a role since it supported the notion that Arabs craved democracy. (Lebanese Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt gave credence to the importance of these developments when he said, “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. . . . When I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.”)
Hariri’s murder on February 14, 2005, catalyzed a majority of the Lebanese populace. They bravely asserted that they would no longer quietly ignore the stream of assassinations that had punctuated their country for decades. Many Lebanese rose up and proclaimed a revolution to bring freedom to their country. Backed by a strong and broad international consensus, they managed to push Syria’s military out of Lebanon in just over two months, ending its overt occupation of their country.
Washington quickly recognized the significance of the so-called Cedar Revolution and was enthusiastic about supporting Lebanon as it wrestled with the aftermath of this event. In a message to the Lebanese people, President Bush pledged, “The American people are on your side.” The nascent relationship rested on three pillars: strengthening Lebanese government institutions, particularly the military; establishing a transparent international investigation of the Hariri assassination; and isolating the Syrian regime to prevent it from destabilizing Lebanon. Implementing all of these elements turned out to be a much more complex, lengthy, and frustrating effort than American policymakers had imagined.
A chieving the first goal—encouraging stable and accountable Lebanese government institutions—required disbursing substantial, appropriately directed resources in a timely manner. Such agile efficiency is difficult for the muscle-bound US government, but not for those who seek to counter it and who are not subject to broad, time-consuming interagency processes and have few, if any, checks and balances on their ability to provide resources to allies. While the Syrian and Iranian governments quickly provided the terrorist group Hezbollah with sophisticated weaponry, the US commitment to devote more than half a billion dollars to rapidly train and equip the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) languished in the ponderous machinery of statecraft. Despite the clear urgency in Lebanon, it took until the fall of 2006 for the first materiel to arrive in Beirut.
There was, however, one dramatic moment when the system managed to defy expectations and serve its intended purpose: the 2007 battle of Nahr al-Bared. As the LAF waged its first battle since the civil war against a Sunni militia with questionable ties to Syria, Washington immediately grasped the significance of the moment. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had called any Lebanese military action against the militia, Fatah al-Islam, a “red line,” demonstrating how vital it was that the Lebanese state’s military not appear to have been intimidated by this threat. Using creative authorities and overwhelming effort, the US government managed to send more than forty C-130 planeloads of military assistance to Lebanon over a period of a few weeks. Without the quantity and quality of this aid, it is likely that the LAF—and with it, the Lebanese government—would not have succeeded in this critical battle.
The second pillar of US policy, supporting the investigation of Hariri’s assassination, was pursued in fits and starts. Many Lebanese and their supporters in the international community advocated an independent investigative mechanism under the UN Security Council. When the Security Council finally acted, there were five abstentions, underscoring fears in the international community about Syria and Hezbollah, both of which had consistently and publicly sought to obstruct and discredit the tribunal established to investigate the assassination. Funding issues have continued to frustrate the tribunal’s supporters, who simply seek justice in the face of a brazen act of political murder.
The third pillar—preventing Syria from re-establishing its hold on Lebanon—was the most critical element of US policy toward Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination. Three decades of Syrian domination had impeded Lebanese progress and helped Damascus destabilize the region. (For years, Syria held the dubious honor of serving as the most popular transit route for jihadists, particularly suicide bombers, entering Iraq during the high point of the war there.)
Syrian meddling in Iraq—directly targeting Americans, supporting terrorist groups, and drawing closer to Iranian sponsors of terror—made it clear to many American policymakers that the regime was problematic for US national security interests. Building on the tools offered by the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, passed by Congress in late 2003, US policy toward Syria grew more aggressive and outspoken. Various sanctions were implemented and senior US government leaders regularly directed harsh rhetoric toward the Syrian regime.
By the fall of 2005, the Assad government was getting the message. Damascus was still reeling from the international reaction to Hariri’s assassination, its humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon, and the UN Security Council’s condemnation of its behavior. The regime was further rocked when Detlev Mehlis, commissioner of the investigation into Hariri’s assassination, “inadvertently” published an un-redacted version of his progress report, which delineated Syria’s suspicious role. Syria was almost fully isolated at this time, both regionally and internationally. The first General Assembly meeting after Hariri’s assassination was marked by a group of officials from the United States, the European Union, and the Middle East—including Saudi Arabia and Egypt—meeting to demonstrate their support for a Lebanon free from Syrian domination.
T his was the moment that might have completely changed the balance of power in the Levant. The Bush administration, however, was unable to capitalize on this new dynamic. Some figures in the administration, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, believed that pressures for “regime change” would appear to be inconsistent with the Bush administration’s freedom agenda. At the same time, Israel expressed a different but reinforcing fear—fear of the unknown. For Israelis, the devil they knew was better than a roll of the dice that might lead to an Islamist takeover in Damascus, which they feared was the only alternative to the Alawite regime of Bashar Assad. Further, some US officials argued that the situation in Lebanon should be downplayed to gain Damascus’s support, which was needed to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.
By early 2007, Washington began engaging with Syria and Iran on matters related to Iraq; not surprising to many in the US government, neither country demonstrated real interest in cooperating and instead continued their attempts to stymie Iraqi stability. When pressures it had felt in 2005 were relaxed, the Assad regime quickly concluded that it had slipped the noose and began reasserting its influence in Lebanon, leaving those American officials who tried to keep track of such things to conclude that an opportunity had been squandered to use continued, calibrated, appropriately timed pressure on Syria to change the course of events in Lebanon.
The myth that the United States relied solely on a policy of isolation and pressure on Syria during the Bush administration remains an article of faith for many. The truth is actually the opposite: during this period, Washington, torn by internal dissension over Syrian policy and undermined by unhelpful interventions by Turkey and Israel, was never able to bring sufficient pressure to bear on Damascus. Syria’s few allies during this period included the Iranians and North Koreans, neither of whom had international credibility. The latter, however, managed to covertly build a gas-cooled graphite-moderated nuclear reactor, al-Kibar, that was nearly operational in Syria by the time Israel destroyed it on September 6, 2007. President Assad’s ability to keep the construction of such a game-changing capability almost entirely under the radar was worrisome, and his pursuit of it was yet another demonstration of his willingness to engage in risky and provocative behavior that threatened to destabilize an already volatile region. The failure to ratchet up the pressure at that point—a result of both Israeli sensitivities and the requirements of the Annapolis process for pushing the Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts—marked one more failure to seize an opportunity to exact a price from Syria for its reckless and dangerous policies.
In May 2008, the failures of US policy in Lebanon were exposed by the crumbling of Lebanon’s March 14 coalition as it attempted to confront Hezbollah’s effort to maintain and extend its state within a state. In ordering the cessation of Hezbollah’s parallel communications network and the removal of its presence at Beirut International Airport, the Lebanese government took on the most serious challenge to its sovereignty. Hezbollah responded violently to what it perceived as an existential attack, fomenting protests that triggered Lebanese fears of a return to civil war. Those years of bloodshed in the 1980s still echo loudly in the memories of too many Lebanese, and few were willing to return to those dark days. Key March 14 coalition leaders such as Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt were trapped in their homes amidst the worsening violence and escalating rhetoric, considering the implications of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s threat to “cut the hand that targets the weapons of the resistance.”
While the United States was unwilling to intervene militarily in the Levant again—a decision that surprised no one in Washington, but shocked many in Beirut who had perhaps invested too much faith in Washington—it faced a critical decision about what it should do. Should it continue with the plan to build Lebanese government institutions, an effort that would take years at best, or was it more prudent to direct aid toward nongovernmental entities, enabling them to confront the immediate threat posed by Hezbollah and its allies? The latter course was perceived as too risky; therefore, Washington decided to restrict its security aid to training and equipping the Lebanese military. Because of the reluctance of Washington and its European allies to get involved, the Lebanese were forced to deal with domestic and regional events on their own, making many skeptical of American willingness to support them.
The United States and its allies paid the price in May 2008 for its failure to capitalize on critical moments when Syria might have been immobilized, to rapidly provide assistance to the Cedar Revolution’s March 14 coalition in Lebanon, and more broadly, to support a strategy that looked beyond continuing to build the LAF.
Still reeling from Hezbollah’s willingness to use its arsenal internally, the Lebanese government got another shock later that same month when news broke that the Israelis were engaging Syria via indirect peace talks brokered by Turkey. This revelation served to diminish further the regional and international isolation of, and pressure on, the Syrian regime. Israeli engagement, Turkish patronage, and US inaction were seen as a harbinger of things to come. Syria recognized this shift, and managed to exploit it to its advantage; within months, Western and regional leaders were actively courting Damascus.
Finally, the Doha Agreement brokered by Qatar at the end of May 2008 represented the third triumph for Syria and Hezbollah in less than a month. In breaking Beirut’s political deadlock by granting Hezbollah’s coalition veto power in the Lebanese Cabinet, the agreement codified the weakened influence of the March 14 coalition. By the beginning of summer 2008, it was evident that dynamics had changed within Lebanon and throughout the region more broadly. While the United States maintained some support for its allies in Lebanon and struggled to continue sanctions on Syria, its coalition for both efforts had been severely damaged.
P erhaps the most prescient reader of American political will at this time was Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community. After nearly thirty years of collaborating with Syria in an effort to protect his followers and to avoid suffering his father’s fate (Kamal Jumblatt had been assassinated in 1977 by regime supporters), Jumblatt began publicly chastising Syria in 2004. Following Hariri’s assassination, he became a leader in the coalition to strengthen the Lebanese government and diminish Syrian influence. For years, Jumblatt repeatedly traveled to the United States to coordinate with American officials, including some of the same officials, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom he had attacked decades earlier as a militia leader. But the events of May 2008 played heavily into Jumblatt’s calculations and, given his opportunistic tactics, he calculated that the influence and will of his current allies was diminishing. Jumblatt began an inexorable movement away from the United States and the March 14 coalition, and toward Hezbollah and Syria. It was clear to him that there was a new dynamic in the region, and any hope for his survival, and the survival of his tiny community, depended on his willingness to embrace it. Whether his shift could have been reversed is unclear, but there were no efforts on the part of the United States to demonstrably influence Levantine circumstances in new or different ways.
Within months, new leadership took power in Washington and the Obama administration, accepting the reigning conventional wisdom that pressure tactics had failed, entered office committed to a policy of outreach toward Syria. This emphasis on engagement pleased Damascus, but was met with much concern in Beirut, where memories of earlier American abandonment in 1984 echoed loudly. Further, the administration’s emphasis on Arab-Israeli peace process issues invariably lowered Lebanon on the administration’s list of priorities. While aid to building the Lebanese army continued, the stream of senior US government officials to Beirut slowed, as did public statements on Lebanon-related issues (save for the period just before the June 2009 Lebanese parliamentary elections).
T oday, with a new US ambassador in Damascus and political uncertainty in Lebanon, there are a few critical policies that can enable the United States to play a more positive role in the Levant. Yet the goal of building Lebanese government institutions remains worthwhile, and the United States continues to share vital counter-terrorism interests with the Lebanese government because of the worrisome potential infiltration of al-Qaeda in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp, among other places. It is also in the US government’s interest for the nationally supported and cross-confessional Lebanese military to be Western oriented and professional. In the long run, the LAF will remain the only institution that is theoretically capable of denying Hezbollah its excuse for remaining armed.
But the game has changed profoundly in Lebanon. Even without a military occupation, Syria has managed to reassert its influence inside the country. Although the Obama administration remains committed to a policy of outreach and engagement with Damascus, it has little to show for its efforts in the region. At some point, the pressure track will once again appear to offer the only real hope of altering Syria’s mischief in Lebanon.
For all of its life, Lebanon has been a hostage to the whims of external actors. The United States has offered its help with the best of intentions, but stumbled badly in two major efforts to positively influence the region. In 1983, Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam told senior US officials that the United States was “out of breath.” He proved to be right. Over the last decade, we have run out of breath again. Now, with the forces opposed to Syria and Hezbollah serving in opposition to the official Lebanese government, it may be worthwhile for the US government to bide its time and prepare for the next time it can make a commitment to Lebanese independence with the right mix of assistance and coercive diplomacy.
Eric S. Edelman, a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), served as under secretary of defense for policy in 2005-09. Mara E. Karlin, a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate at SAIS, served as the Pentagon's Levant director and as special assistant to the under secretary of defense for policy.