The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted a policy luncheon on March 19, 2008 with Jeffrey Feltman, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and, until recently, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon. Feltman addressed the crisis in Lebanon in the context of his three and a half years experience there. Martin Indyk, Saban Center Director and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and U.S. Ambassador to Israel, chaired the discussion.
Feltman began by briefly addressing positive as well as negative developments in Lebanon since the March 14, 2005 “Cedar Revolution”, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese demonstrators took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of all Syrian forces. A month earlier, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri had been assassinated in Beirut, a murder that most Lebanese political forces accuse the Syrian regime of committing.
Whereas positive developments came about mostly as a result of coordinated efforts by Lebanese and the international community, Feltman said, the negative ones seemed to be linked to actions undertaken by Lebanese parties allied with Syria and Iran. Feltman stressed that the international community’s agenda to support Lebanon’s independence from Syrian rule was not imposed from the outside. Instead, it was an agenda defined by Lebanese themselves. This, in Feltman’s judgment, was key to the success of the “Cedar Revolution.”
Among the positive developments that occurred following the “Cedar Revolution” were the withdrawal of Syrian troops, the closure of Syrian intelligence offices across the country, the replacement of Lebanon’s Syrian-aligned security chiefs, the creation of an international tribunal to try to the killers of Hariri (and others), and the free parliamentary elections of June 2005 which led to a new pro-independence majority in the Lebanese parliament. The negative trends were reflected in the walkout of pro-Syrian ministers from the two main Shi’i Muslim parties, Hizballah and Amal, from an emergency cabinet session in response to the assassination of prominent Lebanese journalist Gibran Tueni. There was also the decision by the Speaker of Parliament, the Amal leader and pro-Syrian politician Nabih Berri, to close parliament and thereby prevent the election of a new president after the incumbent left office in November 2007.
Feltman argued that Lebanon was not only divided along political lines, but also economically and socially. Many young Lebanese feel disaffected by politics, and these grievances, he argued, will be reflected in the 2009 legislative elections.
Laying out U.S. policy toward Lebanon, Feltman maintained that the United States along with the international community should support Lebanon as a state for all its citizens. Feltman said that the United States has now crafted an independent policy toward Lebanon, which he said was a first in the history of U.S.-Lebanese relations. In Feltman’s view, Lebanon is no longer to be viewed simply or exclusively in the context of U.S. relations with Israel, concerns about Syria and Iran, or the Middle East peace process. Consequently, the United States hopes to continue to support the Lebanese army, police, judiciary, and municipalities. Feltman said that the United States would not trade away Lebanese sovereignty in return for changes in Syrian behavior.
The biggest problem for Lebanon, according to Feltman, is that Hizballah seems to have excluded itself for particularistic reasons from the national consensus for an independent Lebanon. Hizballah, Feltman argued, would like to maintain its weapons and “state within a state” status in parallel to attempts to control Lebanese executive decision making. The best way to solve this problem, according to Feltman, is to better incorporate Shi’ah Muslims into the Lebanese state on the condition that Hizballah surrender its weapons and refrain from undermining Lebanese sovereignty and independence.