Levantine Reset: Toward a More Viable U.S. Strategy for Lebanon

Bilal Saab
Bilal Saab Visiting Fellow, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

July 20, 2010


The United States should adopt a new approach toward Lebanon if it wishes to secure its interests in that country and in the broader Middle East. The 1983 attack against the U.S. Marines in Lebanon was the beginning of the end of the United States’ involvement in Lebanon. Since then, with the exception of a brief period during the George W. Bush administration, there has been a strong sentiment in Washington that the price of U.S. engagement is too high, and that problems in Lebanon are not threatening to American strategic interests in the Middle East. Even when Lebanon’s problems boiled over on several occasions and threatened to engulf other parts of the region in conflict, the United States still assumed it could treat these problems on the cheap. When the United States did engage during the George W. Bush administration, it did so inconsistently, without a sense of purpose, and without a long-term plan in mind, thus undermining not only Lebanon’s stability, but also U.S. interests in the region.

The core of a new, effective U.S. strategy toward Lebanon should entail a clear understanding by Washington of what is at stake and what it will take to achieve success. The United States has gotten it wrong in Lebanon over the years because it misdiagnosed its own interests there and misunderstood the implications of Lebanon’s problems for U.S. policies.

There are three main reasons why Washington should pay closer attention to Lebanon and help it address its problems while nurturing its assets: One, Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty uphold U.S. geopolitical interests in the Middle East by denying U.S. adversaries—Iran and Syria—the ability to exploit Lebanon to improve their strategic positions in the region at the expense of the United States and its allies. Two, an internally secure and strong Lebanon that is capable of fixing or defusing its own problems boosts U.S. security interests in the Middle East and those of its ally, Israel. Three, the United States has a strategic interest in supporting democratic countries and in strengthening democratic institutions around the world. The fact that Lebanon is a democracy (even if imperfect) with liberal impulses that plays an important cultural-intellectual role in the region, but is surrounded by neighbors who are outright hostile to it should be an American concern.

The United States’ past experiences and setbacks in Lebanon furnish a number of useful lessons that should guide the formulation of a new U.S. strategy toward Lebanon:

• The United States should strike the right balance between immediate needs and longterm interests.

• Washington should take concrete diplomatic action to prevent Israel from using excessive force against Lebanon during times of military confrontation with Hizballah, as largescale punitive operations by Israel against Lebanon are counterproductive and undermine American interests in Lebanon.

• The United States should not intervene militarily to support one Lebanese camp over another. Doing so would deepen Lebanese political polarization, exacerbate existing communal cleavages, and jeopardize the entire U.S. approach.

• The United States should not use Lebanon as a battlefield against regional adversaries or as a bargaining chip in regional diplomacy. Doing so would further destabilize the country.

• Washington should implement a policy that contains Hizballah. No U.S. policy in Lebanon can succeed without an effective containment strategy for Hizballah, the single most powerful political and military actor in the country.

Because Lebanon has internal problems, such as a weak central authority, as well as external problems, such as excessive intervention in its domestic affairs by outside forces, any new U.S. policy toward Lebanon should contain a local component and a regional component. The local part of a new U.S. strategy should entail assisting Lebanon in bolstering its internal strength and stability. While USAID has already made strong contributions to strengthening Lebanese state capacity, Washington should focus on investing in the building of a strong, modern Lebanese national military and security apparatus. Indeed, no area in Lebanon’s state apparatus deserves more urgent attention by Washington than the Lebanese Armed Forces. The current Lebanese military is incapable of assuming the responsibility of defending the country from major internal and external threats, given the small size of its budget and poorly trained and badly equipped combat force. Therefore, because security in Lebanon is in short supply, all attempts at reform and state building will suffer and remain incomplete unless security is achieved.

The regional part of a new American strategy toward Lebanon should address the problem of external intervention. While Hizballah is a product of Lebanon’s internal weakness (the Lebanese state has been historically unable to address the political, security, and socio-economic needs of Lebanese Shi’ah), it is also the product of Iran’s and Syria’s interventions in Lebanese domestic politics. Indeed, Lebanon would have been able to more effectively limit external intervention in its affairs if it were not for Hizballah’s links to Damascus, and especially, Tehran. Washington’s goal, therefore, should be to take diplomatic measures that help turn Hizballah into a purely local actor and end its active involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The “Syrian solution” to the Hizballah challenge (asking Syria to reign in Hizballah) should be a non-starter because its record is bleak and its price tag is high. Indeed, not only did Damascus fail to contain Hizballah when Syria was militarily present in Lebanon (1990-2005), it also harmed Lebanese democracy by maintaining a tight grip over Lebanese politics. A Syrian solution should be even more unappealing to Washington today because President Bashar al-Asad has repeatedly stated that it is in his country’s interest to pursue policies that seek to bolster, as opposed to weaken, Hizballah.

The United States should also forgo military approaches to declaw Hizballah. Israel’s 2006 war shows (as do its previous military actions in Lebanon) that any strategy aimed at militarily destroying Hizballah—short of waging a total war against Lebanon as a whole, which would ignite a regional conflict—would likely fail and backfire. Equally important, any U.S. or Israeli military approach to the Hizballah challenge would significantly undermine other U.S. and Israeli interests in Lebanon by weakening the country and possibly causing further political breakdown and disintegration.

Only Iran, which has long invested in and nurtured Hizballah, is in a position to exert control over the group. Therefore, the United States has a good chance of localizing and taming Hizballah by engaging in direct talks with Iran. However, Washington should realize that Iran will never accept demands to disarm Hizballah (in any event, only the Lebanese people can disarm Hizballah). The most it would do is instruct it to discontinue its regional role and adopt a more compromising posture toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process.

While it is true that a U.S.-Iranian understanding that includes an agreement on Hizballah would not eliminate Syria’s influence in Lebanon (perhaps nothing would), it can significantly limit it. The main reason why Hizballah has defended Syrian interests in Lebanon over the years is because Syria sends arms to the group and facilitates weapons shipments that come from Iran, making it possible for Hizballah to be a regional, rather than a local, actor. However, if Iran were to instruct Hizballah to discontinue its regional role and armed struggle against Israel, the group would no longer need to receive weapons from Syria and would no longer feel obliged to defend Syrian interests in Lebanon. Instead, it would focus on its local interests, Islamist agenda, and role in Lebanese politics.

Yet, a strategy that reduces Syrian influence in Lebanon would not address the Palestinian issue in Lebanon. Only an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement that successfully tackles the future of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (and elsewhere) would solve Lebanon’s refugee problem.

In order for the United States to protect its interests in Lebanon, it will have to break from its past policies and look at Lebanon in a truly different light.

Implementing a new U.S. strategy for Lebanon would be a difficult task, given the country’s many internal and external complexities, but it is a challenge worth pursuing. The opportunity for a more principled and consistent American approach in Lebanon, one that benefits Lebanon and advances both American interests and ideals still exists, but the recent drums of war in the region serve as a stark reminder that the opportunity may not be around for much longer.