Despite the clear evidence provided by the Iraq adventure and its fallout of the limits of American power in the Middle East, the new president will assume control of the world’s only superpower, with the global ambitions and huge military budget to match. This ensures that American policy will continue to have an impact, albeit one within limits.
The history of American foreign policy in Lebanon is not a particularly glorious one - an ignominious departure from Beirut even as their Israeli allies wrought their own forms of appalling devastation. Moreover, there is an unfortunate history of taking sides in a communal conflict where US ideas of black and white clearly do not exist.
That the US has consistently failed to get to grips with the idiosyncrasies of the confessional system is not a great charge in itself. After all, the Lebanese national identity is a fractured one. However, the US has struggled not to view Lebanon through the prism of relations with some outside force, be that the Soviet Union, Syria, Iran or Israel.
The war of 2006 provides us with a good example of American relations with Lebanon. Despite the US government feting the Beirut Spring and a Lebanese ‘fledgling democracy’, Bush, with bipartisan support, was very quick to give the nod to Israel’s savage month-long campaign against Hezbollah. Moreover, the US actively helped to delay initial efforts towards a cease-fire.
The confusion of the American position is clear - support for Lebanese democracy does not go hand in hand with the invasion of sovereign territory and the obliteration of critical infrastructure.
Unfortunately, both of the two main presidential candidates provided support for the Israeli campaign through the US Senate. With the Israeli right to a highly aggressive form of preventative self-defence enshrined in both their worldviews, it is worth examining the candidates’ positions on two other key players, Syria and Iran.
Iran provides an enormous challenge for US foreign policy, and the way the US deals with it will have an impact on Lebanon. The Bush administration has tried to strengthen sanctions against Iran and has, at times, appeared ready to go to war over the nuclear issue and the Iranian threat to Israel. For now though, as Council of Foreign Relations expert Ray Takayeh asserts, the US is trying (and failing) to contain Teheran though sanctions and it is apparent that any change in US policy depends on the next president’s position
It would appear that John McCain favours a continuation of this containment policy, although he is famed for his hawkish stance on Iran and has advocated military intervention in the past. Support from Russia and Iran’s resource wealth means that containment can only result in continued diplomatic conflict, with the prospect for military escalation should the situation be allowed to get out of control.
Any military conflict between the US and Iran, or Israel and Iran, would have severe repercussions in Lebanon. Whilst Hezbollah are not beholden to Iran, any conflict could bring them in - either by way of Iranian encouragement or through simple opportunism. As the 2006 war ably demonstrated, the Lebanese population and infrastructure do not need further Israeli attack, no matter how capable Hezbollah is of providing trenchant resistance.
In contrast to McCain, Barack Obama favors direct and unconditional negotiations with Tehran - a ‘critical dialogue’ that reflects a less idealistic view of the world. Although this clearly requires tough bargaining, efforts should be made by the US to persuade Iran that detente and the global implications of this is preferable to developing nuclear weapons or exercising supranational power through Hezbollah.
Indeed, although Hezbollah has strong local support, a severing of ties with Iran would weaken it militarily and force it into a position of greater compromise. Certainly, it is not beneficial to Lebanon to have a sub-national force so capable of over-turning the state and whilst a weakening of Hezbollah may increase the risk of an Israeli attack, someone must make the first step towards a climb-down.
The candidates’ positions on Syria reflect their Iranian stance. As part of an acceptance of the current strategic environment, Obama advocates direct talks with all US rivals, while John McCain’s position is guided by the current administration, which has put little effort into engaging Damascus.
Moreover, the US has excluded itself from the current track of negotiations between Israel and Syria, where the status of Lebanese territory is undoubtedly up for debate. As former Bill Clinton advisor Martin Indyk points out, both Syria and Israel will undoubtedly look out for number one in these discussions.
Indky, a former US Ambassador to Israel, told the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs these negotiations: “would surely lead to an undermining of Lebanon’s independence since Israel has only one interest in Lebanon these days: the disarming of Hezbollah.”
There is a danger, he asserts, that any Syrian efforts at disarming Hezbollah would give Israel reason to accept further intervention and interference in Lebanon. Whilst history shows that the presence of the US is by no means a guarantee of protection for Lebanon, it could help prevent a unilateral carve-up by the two states.
Given all the rhetoric about regime change, Syria remains sensitive to the threat of a Western ‘beachhead’ in Lebanon, and although it has already relinquished a good deal of influence since 2005, it is unlikely to go any further before rapprochement with the United States. Whatever the details surrounding the US raid into Syria, and whether the Syrian government had prior knowledge or not, it is clear that any improvement in relations between Washington and Damascus will have to wait at least until the end of George W. Bush’s presidency.
US policy in the region has only encouraged Syria and Iran to use their influence in Lebanon to get what they want through channels outside of the international community, partly, at least, because other channels are not available to them. Enforced isolation, with Syria especially, is a poor idea, particularly at a time when European states are beginning to engage with Damascus.
At this time it is engaged diplomacy with a view towards political stability that the Middle East needs from America, not belligerent posturing and military adventurism. Engagement should be designed to bring Iran and Syria into the international community, through multilateral ties, both diplomatic and economic. Whilst there is no guarantee that Barack Obama will be able to achieve this, he is far more willing to explore all avenues of diplomacy.
For Lebanon, there are two main issues, which are always intertwined. Lebanese politicians have a responsibility to resolve internal issues, and blaming outside powers is simply not an acceptable excuse. However, outside powers do play a role and Lebanese politics is caught up in the conflicts of its difficult neighbourhood and in those between the Middle East and the West. For this reason, a US president willing to move American policy away from this kind of conflict would be of great benefit to Lebanon.
Tags: Al Qaeda, America, Barack Obama, Beirut, Elections, Iran, Iraq, Israel, John McCain, Syria, US