Just a few years ago, Lebanon appeared to be a foreign-policy success for the United States. Outraged by the brutal 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, likely at the hands of Syria and its allies, the Lebanese people, bolstered by international support, succeeded in expelling Syrian military forces and asserting Lebanese sovereignty for the first time in decades. Again in 2009, the Lebanese affirmed their support for the pro-Western ruling coalition, awarding it a solid majority of seats in parliament during the May general elections.
These days, however, the country looks headed for a frightening crisis. The March 14 coalition, as the ruling group is known, has been unable to capitalize on its popular mandate due to the overwhelming force wielded by Hezbollah, which is funded, trained, and armed by Iran and Syria. But it's not just Hezbollah's fault. U.S. policy toward Lebanon is significantly to blame for being unwilling to back up bold words with actions. Far from protecting America's allies, consecutive U.S. administrations have not only failed the pro-Western government but also empowered its worst enemies.
The slow-burning confrontation is about to reach a boiling point over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, charged with bringing Hariri's killers to justice. The court, established by agreement between the U.N. Security Council and the Lebanese government, is expected to issue indictments against members of Hezbollah in the coming months. As the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, up to six members are slated to be indicted by year's end, including Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah military commander and brother-in-law of the infamous Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mugniyah.
In an effort to pre-empt what would surely be a massive blow, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has launched a war against the tribunal, and U.S. officials believe that Hezbollah will stop at nothing to prevent indictments from being handed down. The risk of war is palpable, and if Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons -- and their Syrian puppets -- unseat the elected government and take control over Lebanon, it will be a grave blow to U.S. security and credibility around the world.
It would also bolster the reach and credibility of Iran. Fred Hof, deputy to U.S. Middle East special envoy George Mitchell and point man on U.S.-Syria policy, speaking to the Middle East Institute in the midst of the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, put it bluntly in assessing the Iran connection: "Whether most of his organization's members know it or not, and whether most Lebanese Shiites know it or not, [Nasrallah] and his inner circle do what they do first and foremost to defend and project the existence and power of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
The rise of Iranian influence in Lebanon is particularly dangerous at this moment, when moderate Arab countries are desperately looking for the United States to contain Iran. From the perspective of America's Arab allies, if the world's superpower can't contain the mullahs before they have a nuclear weapon, how could they themselves be expected to contain the mullahs should they get the bomb?
It's difficult not to lay the blame for this dire situation at the feet of former U.S. President George W. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. The Bush administration was eager to hold up Lebanon as an example of its successful Middle East policy: "We took great joy in seeing the Cedar Revolution. We understand that the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the street to express their desire to be free required courage, and we support the desire of the people to have a government responsive to their needs and a government that is free, truly free," Bush said in April 2006. However, when push came to shove, the president did little to help his Lebanese allies when they needed him most.
Judgment day came May 7, 2008, when an emboldened Hezbollah, alarmed that the government was moving to control the group's illicit private communications network, invaded the streets of Beirut and the Chouf mountains to the south, forcing Lebanon's democratically elected leaders to concede to a power-sharing agreement at the point of a gun. The result was yet another capitulation by the Bush administration, which signaled its acquiescence to the Doha agreement, signed on May 21 of that year, formalizing Hezbollah's veto over any government decision -- including its own disarmament.
But if the Bush administration opened the door to Hezbollah's takeover of Lebanon, President Barack Obama's administration is holding that door ajar, doing little to support the United States' erstwhile allies in the March 14 coalition out of fear that such a move would damage any chance of engaging with Syria.