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What the U.S. Has Failed to Learn in Lebanon

5 minute read
Scott MacLeod/Cairo

The gangland-style slaying of Lebanese cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel this week is an echo of Lebanon’s tragic past. It may also be a glimpse into a future Middle East that looks increasingly troubled.

In Beirut in the early ’80s, I watched as the Reagan administration threw its weight behind two other Gemayels, Pierre’s uncle, Bashir, and father, Amin, in a radical project to re-make Lebanon as a bastion of pro-Western liberalism, aligned with Israel and free from Syrian domination and Iranian influence. That effort failed: Bashir wound up dead; Amin went into temporary exile; U.S. credibility evaporated and Americans remaining in Beirut became kidnap targets; and Israel got mired in an 18-year military occupation. By contrast, Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon swelled.

History appears to be repeating itself, and not only in Lebanon. Syria and Iran have been fighting U.S. plans to re-make Iraq and the wider Arab world, and as America struggles, they are emerging as the winners. And once again, the casualties include pro-U.S. Arabs like the Gemayels.

Yes, the regimes in Syria and Iran are bent on undermining U.S. policies, including support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fuoad Siniora, who came to office in last year’s pro-democracy Cedar Revolution. But a key reason for the U.S.’s setbacks in the Middle East is it’s chronic refusal to wholeheartedly address the root causes of conflict, such as the lack of a negotiated end to Israel’s occupation of Arab lands, the failure to establish a Palestinian state and Western support for repressive Arab regimes. Instead, Washington labors under the fantasy that its political and military strength alone can win the day. With that approach fanning an unprecedented number of crises in the region, amid the largest long-term deployment of U.S. military forces in Middle East history, it is past time for Washington to learn from its mistakes.

Early-’80s Lebanon ought to have served as a cautionary tale heading off the U.S.’s more recent adventure in Iraq. In 1982, the U.S. backed an Israeli plan to invade Lebanon and destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization, kick out Syrian troops and install a pro-Western, Israel-friendly government led by Lebanese Maronite Christian leader Bashir Gemayel. Israel drove out the PLO, only to start negotiating with Yasser Arafat after a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza trip a few years later. Suspected Syrian agents assassinated Bashir Gemayel days before his presidential inauguration. His supporters retaliated by slaughtering hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut. The U.S. dispatched troops to quell the unrest, while Reagan’s envoys negotiated a peace accord between Israel and Amin Gemayel who had taken his brother’s place.

But, after militants with suspected ties to Iran and Syria bombed the U.S. embassy and the Marine base in Beirut, Reagan abruptly withdrew the soldiers and abandoned Gemayel. Syria forced Gemayel to abrogate his deal with Israel, and Hizballah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group founded by Iran, began a guerrilla war that eventually forced out the Israelis in 2000. That triumph that made Hizballah the most powerful faction in Lebanese politics, enabling it to trigger this summer’s war with a cross-border raid into Israel and more recently threaten to topple Siniora’s government.

So, what could the U.S. do differently? There’s no simple answer to the challenge of political Islam, terrorism and authoritarianism. But by using its considerable capacity to decisively address the root causes of conflict, the U.S. would bolster moderate forces like Siniora and isolate governments and groups that exploit unresolved grievances to justify violence. Otherwise, existing trends will continue and the region will see further polarization, extremism and war-and perhaps the deployment of U.S. troops to additional trouble spots.

Lip-service aside, the Bush Administration has largely ignored the 58-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict, which provides pretexts for wars, feeds political extremism and bolsters authoritarian regimes. Syria’s price for good behavior in Lebanon and Iraq is the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel for nearly 40 years. Labor governments negotiated towards that end with Syria, but the current Israeli government insists that the Golan is part of the Jewish State.

The Palestinian problem is the most important issue to revolve. The Hamas-led Palestinian government elected this year, which like Hizballah is also backed by Syria and Iran, refuses to recognize Israel, but that is hardly the only impediment: for decades, Israel has blanketed the West Bank with Israeli settlements that make it nearly impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. One of the factors in the continuing intifadeh and Hamas’s political rise is Arafat’s failure to win Palestinian statehood despite years of peace negotiations after he recognized Israel’s right to exist.

This summer, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Israel’s pummeling of Lebanon as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” A return to the old Middle East, more like it. Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon, despite achieving few of its objectives. But U.S. support for Israel’s bombardments gravely undercut the pro-American Siniora government to which Pierre Gemayel belonged and that now may not survive Hizballah’s bid for greater power. As I watch dramatic events in Lebanon yet again, the U.S. looks no more able to direct events than it was two decades ago when Pierre Gemayel’s uncle lost his life and his father was deserted by Washington.

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