American leaders continue to demonstrate that changes in the rest of the world, and the deep flaws in our foreign policy which they reveal, will have no impact on our thinking whatsoever. The latest case in point is the position staked out by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) with regard to Lebanon.
Remember Lebanon? Subsequent events have pushed Lebanon out of the news in the United States and even, to a lesser extent, in Israel, which has more reason to be concerned with what goes on there. But the collapse of Lebanon’s government at the beginning of this year remains at issue, and, with all the consternation these days
about where a post-Mubarak Egypt will end up, Lebanon has at least as much potential for both international intrigue and internal strife as any country in the Middle East.
Lebanon’s political situation is always precarious; it’s only a matter of degree. But with a caretaker government currently in power and the still-looming announcement of indictments by the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), Lebanon is a powder keg. And it’s not happening in a vacuum.
The two competing coalitions are each in the favor of a different array of outside actors. The March 8 Alliance, which currently holds 70 of the 128 seats in Parliament, includes Hezbollah and is sympathetic to Syria and Iran. The March 14 Alliance features former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and enjoys much stronger relationships with France, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The STL was set up to investigate the assassination of Hariri’s father, Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, a widely respected leader who was also opposed to the Syrian presence in his country.
Not surprisingly, the STL was, at first, expected to point the accusing finger at Syria. Now, the talk is centered on Hezbollah. The arrest and imprisonment for four years without charge of four pro-Syrian generals who were later freed for lack of evidence greatly increased the politicization of the STL, and this continued as Hezbollah went on a rhetorical offensive about it, including accusing Israel of Hariri’s murder.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s speculations about Israeli responsibility have only minimal evidentiary support, but they are not impossible either. But they served their purpose in further undermining the STL’s credibility.
Hezbollah and Syria both had motive to kill Hariri, and if both or either were involved, they would have every reason to do anything they can to discredit the STL. But the fact that supposedly key testimony has been retracted and that many accusations of false testimony have been leveled; that the direction of accusations was leaked to the public at such an early stage; that four Lebanese generals were jailed for four years without trial or charge and then freed for lack of evidence; that Hariri has publicly retracted his accusations against Syria for the killing of his father; and the campaign against it by Hezbollah and Syria, including the theory of Israeli involvement have all combined to cast the legitimacy into doubt should be giving us serious pause. It isn’t, apparently.
The politicization of the STL has turned an unstable situation in Lebanon into a powder keg. Regional leaders recognized this, and Saudi Arabia and Syria tried to broker some sort of compromise between the March 14 Alliance, which supports the STL and March 8, which opposes it. When those efforts finally failed, it led directly to the collapse of the government.
That meant that Hariri, the West’s preferred figure, was ousted from office and was replaced by Najib Mikati, from the Harakat Majd (Glory Movement), one of the smaller parties in the March 8 Alliance.
One would think that such a setback might have taught Washington that rigidity was not going to serve us well, especially not in the labyrinthine political scene in Lebanon. But that was not to be.
According to a statement released after their meeting with the Prime Minister-designate Mikati, McCain and Lieberman said: “The international community will judge Lebanon by the make-up of the next cabinet, its Ministerial Statement and ultimately the actions it takes in regard to the STL and Lebanon’s other international obligations.” It is the first condition that should draw some concern.
Like it or not (and I most certainly do not), Hezbollah is an integral part of the Lebanese political scene. It’s not difficult to parse the meaning in the McCain-Lieberman statement. It’s a warning to Lebanon that Hezbollah cannot play too important a role in government.
The US has already seen the result of our insistence on the STL in Hariri’s loss of power. The full-court press that McCain and Lieberman (as well as President Obama ) seem to want on the STL is very likely to lead at least to a political showdown, and quite possibly a physical one, between the two coalitions. And, if that occurs, the smart money wouldn’t be on the West’s favored March 14 crew.
I don’t mean to suggest that the STL doesn’t present a real dilemma. Setting aside the double standard we employ (can you imagine Joe Lieberman insisting on respecting the Goldstone Report, a piece of work about which virtually no substantive issues, like the ones that are dogging the STL, have been raised?), the STL should be given the chance to present its work and have it judged on its merits.
If there is a single theme running through the changes in the Middle East, from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt through Bahrain, Yemen, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories it is the desire for independence. A big part of that is a determination of the people in these countries to determine their own fate. Lebanon has a problem with outside interference on both sides of their political spectrum, with the US on one side and Syria on the other. But we will make no friends by pushing the country back into civil war, which is what we are risking by pushing so hard on the STL.
And it is hardly as if the US is trying to pursue accountability for its own sake. The agenda here is to try to undermine Hezbollah.
It is understandable that the US, and certainly Israel, do not wish to see Hezbollah playing a prominent role in Lebanon. But that is not up to them, it is up to the Lebanese people. To be sure, the US does not have to send arms to a country it believes will use those arms against Israel; but recent experience should have taught us that we must also refrain from using our support as a lever to influence a foreign country’s sovereign choices. Surely, we can make our wishes and views plain without actions that turn popular opinion against us.
The United States has neither the ethical right nor the moral standing to decide who is or is not worthy of serving in another government. The Lebanese know we don’t like Hezbollah; they don’t need a constant reminder. But, as with Hamas, we are not stating what we expect another country to do in order to be our ally (except for Israel, which seems free to spit in our face on a daily basis with no consequences), but rather who the people of that country may elect.
This is the hypocrisy that wins us so much enmity in the Arab world. The US is not judged when it elects a fundamentalist Christian to the White House who, in an unguarded moment, let slip that he was launching a “crusade”. We can elect who we want, and it is our policies and actions that have ramifications. Israel has had two Prime Ministers who were once wanted terrorists, and currently has a fascist foreign minister; and has a religious fundamentalist party, Shas, holding powerful positions in one government after another.
No one decides for the US or for Israel who their leadership will be, nor should they. Other countries respond to American and Israeli policies and actions, not to their internal politics. If we want to make friends and influence people in the new Middle East, both countries would be wise to behave in kind. We must deal with Hezbollah, or any other party that comes to power through popular support, based on the policies their (still theoretical) government pursues. Just as others do with us.