US has it wrong on Lebanon

America can do the most to avoid escalation.

Israel Lebanon clash (photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel Lebanon clash
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The sniper fire directed at IDF soldiers by the Lebanese Armed Forces on Tuesday, which killed Lt.- Col. Dov Harari and seriously wounded Capt. Ezra Lakia, has spurred a flurry of speculation about the precise causes of the incident.
UNIFIL made it clear that Lebanese forces were to blame for the attack. But this did not prevent foreign news media – including the New York Times and AP – from taking a “neutral” approach, as though Israel was also somehow to blame. Reuters and Yahoo were even worse.
Meanwhile, some local pundits criticized Israel for a range of ostensible offenses, from “flying spy planes” over Lebanon to lacking the sensitivity to prevent an IDF unit from trimming trees on the border at a politically tense time, when the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to name the guilty party in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
In the four years since the Second Lebanon War, much has happened to undermine the uneasy quiet that prevailed until this week between Israel and Lebanon. But none of it has to do with Israeli actions. Most of the reason for the exacerbated tension lies in the inspiring, funding, training and arming of Hizbullah by Iran and Syria.
And some of it has to do with the US’s and Europe’s ineffective Middle East policy.
Unimpeded by America or Europe and with massive Iranian backing, Hizbullah has consolidated its military and political hegemony in Lebanon. Syria, meanwhile, has fully reinstated its military and political presence after being temporarily expelled from Lebanon by the March 14 Alliance.
Formed by Saad Hariri, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt and others after the February 14, 2005, assassination of Saad Hariri’s father, the Alliance had hoped to transform Lebanon into the Arab world’s first truly free democratic state. But the Second Lebanon War, sparked by Hizbullah aggression, diverted attention and energy from the movement’s push for an independent Lebanon, and in 2008 it effectively capitulated to Hizbullah and Syria.
Ostensibly, it was Saudi Arabia, the patron of present Prime Minister Saad Hariri, that pushed for reconciliation with Syria and Hizbullah. But in reality, this macabrely sycophantic act, in which Hariri the son courted his father’s murderers, is the direct result of the US’s weakening position in the region.
The Saudis, Hariri, and the courageous Jumblatt, whose war-hardened Druse community fought the Party of God to a standstill in May 2008, have come to the realization that with the US and Europe out of the picture in Lebanon, it would be suicidal to stand up to the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis, which is increasingly being joined by Turkey. In light of US passivity, meanwhile, the Saudis hope to maintain a semblance of influence in Lebanon by improving relations with Syria. Just this week, Saudi King Abdullah met with President Bashar Assad of Syria in Beirut.
The US refrained from providing the March 14 Alliance with crucial support when it needed it most, missing an historic chance to encourage the creation of new, democratic momentum. The Obama administration’s attempt to “engage” Damascus, instead of sanctioning it for tightening its ties with Teheran and turning Lebanon into a satellite state, has failed miserably. Nor have the US or Europe taken steps against Hizbullah, a key member of the Lebanese government, for bullying the UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon that are responsible for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
AGAINST THE backdrop of this dismal US track record in Lebanon, it was not surprising that, in response to Tuesday’s deadly incident at the border, Washington declined to take a firm stand against Lebanese forces.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, “We deeply regret the loss of life; we urge both sides to exercise maximum restraint to avoid an escalation and maintain the cease-fire that is now in place.” Even UNIFIL was more robust than that, conveying the message that if the Lebanese Armed Forces fired into Israel again – the IDF was targeted beyond the border fence but inside Israeli territory – the IDF would blow up its border positions, and flatly rejecting Lebanon’s suggestion that the peacekeepers should be doing the IDF’s gardening work at the border.
The truth is that it is the US, not “both sides,” that can do the most to avoid further escalation in Lebanon.
Washington should take steps to strengthen moderate Lebanese forces while imposing sanctions against the extremists. Otherwise, Israel will be forced, against its will, to fill the vacuum where a robust and savvy American Middle East policy ought to be.