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Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Posted: June 6, 2009 03:02 PM

Telling the Lebanese How to Vote


In recent visits to Lebanon, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear that the United States would react negatively if the March 8th Alliance -- a broad coalition of Islamist, Maronite, leftist, nationalist, and pan-Arabist parties -- won the upcoming parliamentary elections. These not-so-subtle threats have led to charges of U.S. interference in Lebanon's domestic affairs. What prompts U.S. concerns is that the largest member of this coalition is Hezbollah, the populist Shiite party which the United States considers to be a terrorist organization.

As senators, both Biden and Clinton insisted that this diverse coalition was somehow controlled by Iran and/or Syria. In reality, there is little evidence to suggest that Syrian and Iranian influence on the populist Shia party and its allies is any greater than U.S. influence on some of Lebanon's other political factions. While the Iranians played a key role in the early development of Hezbollah's militia back in the early 1980s when it was fighting the Israeli occupation of the southern part of their country, the party has subsequently emerged as an independent and popular -- albeit in many respects fundamentalist and reactionary -- force and the only major party not tied to the elite families which have dominated Lebanese politics for generations.

Such interference by top Obama administration officials has not been well-received by the Lebanese. Both Biden and Clinton were outspoken supporters of Israel's devastating 2006 military offensive in Lebanon, which took the lives of up to 800 civilians and caused billions of dollars of damage to the country's civilian infrastructure. Much of Israel's massive bombardments struck areas many miles from any Hezbollah military activities and ended up strengthening popular support for this extremist group beyond its base in the Shia community.

Despite exhaustive empirical studies by Human Rights Watch and other groups which found no evidence that any of the civilian deaths were caused by Hezbollah using civilians as "human shields," both Clinton and Biden -- without providing any contradictory evidence -- have insisted that they did and have refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing by the Israeli government. Even moderate and secular Lebanese, who strongly opposed Hezbollah's provocative actions (used by the Israelis and their American supporters to launch the offensive), still harbor enormous resentment towards the Bush administration and those in Congress who supported this devastating war against their country.

There is particular anger at Biden over his support for Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which led to the deaths of up to 17,000 civilians, as well as his defense of the Israeli occupation of the southern part of that country and the shelling of nearby Lebanese towns and cities, which lasted until May of 2000. Many Lebanese -- including some of Hezbollah's bitterest opponents -- wonder why those like Clinton and Biden, who have defended foreign forces wreaking such death and destruction on their country, have any right to tell them how to vote.

In addition, the United States has had a rather fickle history in its support of various factions in Lebanon's notoriously fratricidal politics. Indeed, the United States has a history of switching sides in terms of who it views as the bad guys and the good guys.

For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, the United States backed right-wing, predominantly Maronite militias such as the Phalangists against the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party. During the 1982-84 U.S. intervention in Lebanon, U.S. forces fought the Socialists directly, including launching heavy air and sea bombardments against Druze villages in the Shouf Mountains. Now, however, the U.S. supports the Socialists, who currently ally themselves with the pro-Western May 14th Alliance.

Similarly, the United States supported the Shia Amal militia in 1985-86 when it was fighting armed Palestinian groups as well as in 1988 when Amal was fighting Hezbollah forces. Today, however, the United States is strongly opposed to Amal, now part of the March 8th alliance, acting as if they are one with Hezbollah.

The United States supported Syria's initial military intervention in Lebanon back in 1976 as a means of suppressing leftist forces and their Palestinian allies. Similarly, the U.S. supported the bloody Syrian-instigated coup in late 1990 that consolidated Syria's political control of the country. Subsequently, however, the United States became a leading critic of Syria's domineering role of the country's government, which continued until a popular nonviolent uprising during the spring of 2005 forced a Syrian withdrawal from the country.

In a more recent example, as part of a U.S. policy to support hard-line Sunni fundamentalist groups as a counter-weight to the growth of radical Shia movements in Iraq and Lebanon, the U.S. encouraged Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri to provide amnesty for radical Salafi militants, who were released from jail. As such militants began causing problems in the northern city of Tripoli in 2006 from a base in a Palestinian refugee camp, however, the U.S. then backed a bloody Lebanese army crackdown.

One of the most bizarre switches in U.S. allegiances involves former Lebanese Army General Michel Aoun, a Maronite, and his Free Patriotic Movement, the most popular Christian-led political group in the country. As an ally to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1990, the United States gave a green light to the Syrians to have Aoun overthrown as interim Lebanese prime minister in a violent coup. Not long afterward, however, the United States then switched sides to support Aoun and oppose the Syrians and their supporters. As recently as 2003, Aoun was feted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies - a neo-conservative group with close ties with the Bush administration, which includes among its leaders Newt Gingrich, James Woolsey, Jack Kemp, and Richard Perle, as well as Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Joseph Lieberman. The group declared him a champion of freedom and democracy. Aoun won similar praise from both Republican and Democratic members of Congress when he testified that year before the House International Relations Committee.

Soon after his return to Lebanon from exile, however, Aoun became one of the most outspoken opponents of the U.S.-backed political leaders and parties which dominate the current Lebanese government and he and his movement are now allied with Hezbollah in the March 8th Alliance. Not surprisingly, he is now considered once again to be one of the bad guys.

If history has proven anything, the United States has little to gain and much to potentially lose in taking sides in Lebanon. It would behoove President Barack Obama to keep hawks like Clinton and Biden on a short leash and allow the Lebanese people to determine their own destiny.