David Hale, the U.S. under secretary for political affairs, went to Beirut last week to make anti-Iranian comments, to worry publicly about the destabilizing effects of Hizbollah in the region and to make it clear that, after Lebanon’s elections in May, the composition of the new cabinet, which has been taking months to form, is an American matter.
His visit, in other words, made it clear that the U.S. will continue interfering in internal Lebanese affairs.
As Hale’s boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, talks up the strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, Hale may have been interested in reviving the Saudi local coalition in Lebanon. In the past that group was clustered under the March 14 Alliance, which came together in 2005 to oppose the regime in Syria and to push the Saudi-American-French agenda in Lebanon.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greeted by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 28, 2018. (State Department)
Despite the overwhelming support of Western governments, Western media and Western human rights organizations, that coalition has fallen apart. And despite the usual U.S. and Saudi intervention and funding of its constituent elements in the last election, those candidates fared poorly. Some Shi`ite candidates who received Western and Saudi support drew no more than a hundred votes, and in one case, even less than that.
Hizbollah Wins Votes
Hizbullah candidates, by contrast, did very well, proving yet again that the party has the overwhelming support of the Shi`ite community.
Given the furor that Israel is raising over attack tunnels that it claims Hizbullah is building into its territory, it’s safe to presume, that Hale’s visit was made at the behest of Israel and aimed at bolstering a regional front against Hizbullah.
But that work is already complete. The Saudi-UAE alliance, have already declared Hizbullah a terrorist organization. The club of Gulf Arab despots is already aligned with the U.S. in its regional machinations.
Instead, the big problem that the U.S. faces in Lebanon is the dislike of the people. It’s unpopular. Its anti-Hizbullah agenda — which is partly but not fully dictated by the Israeli lobby— puts it squarely on the side of Arab despots and Israel, both of which are widely despised in the region.
The U.S. has never considered its presence in Lebanon during the 1980s — on the side of Israeli militias notorious for committing war crimes— as an occupying force. But that is how many Lebanese saw it.
Hezbollah fighters. (Wikimedia)
However, time has passed in that regard, at least for some. Two parties — the Amal and the Progressive Socialist Party — both had militias that fought U.S. forces. And both those parties now enjoy good relations with the U.S.
In Lebanon, the main thorn in the side of the U.S. is Hizbullah, as has been the case for decades.
Hizbullah, which is both a political party and a fighting force, officially established itself in 1985 with the issuance of its manifesto to the world. But it was born a few years earlier, during the tumultuous and horrific events that surrounded the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when the suffering of the southern Lebanese population spawned a new wave of radicalization that was sponsored and supported by the Iranian regime.
Starting Point Conflict
Its conflict with the U.S. began in that formative period, between 1982 and 1984, when U.S. troops were stationed in Lebanon to support and uphold the rule of right-wing sectarian militias aligned with Israel. It was during that time, in 1983, that the U.S. embassy in Beirut was bombed. A few months later, a U.S. Marine compound, which included French soldiers, was bombed as well.
A long-running dispute surrounds the question of who carried out the attacks. The U.S. remains convinced that Hizbullah and that one of its key leaders — Imad Mughniyyah personally—was responsible. After the attacks the U.S. and Israel labelled Hizbullah a terrorist organization.
Hizbullah is unwavering in its declaration of the U.S. as an enemy of Lebanon and all “downtrodden people” (although the latter phrase is used less and less). But it denies attacking the barracks or embassy. It also distances itself from the Islamic Jihad Organization, which claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Despite the heated rhetoric that the two sides use against each other, the U.S. and Hizbullah have avoided direct military confrontation over the years. Instead they have fought proxy battles, from Iraq to Yemen to Syria. Even the U.S. assassination of Imad Mughniyyah in 2008 was not—from the standpoint of the U.S. government–really a violation of the unspoken rule of direct combat since the U.S. has made it clear that it held Mughniyyah responsible for the attacks on U.S. targets in Lebanon.
The U.S. has been fully supportive of Israeli wars on Hizbullah (and on Lebanon as a whole), hoping that Israel would finish off the party.
A Turning Point
In 2006, the U.S. was unconditional in its sponsorship and support for Israel. But Hizbullah held its ground better than any Arab army that Israel had faced over the decades. The outcome for Israel, was an embarrassing retreat.
Since then, the might and skill of Hizbullah in facing Israeli occupation and aggression seem only to increase with every new war and every new confrontation. Regardless of one’s assessment of Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria, its fighters accumulated a unique battle experience there, along different fronts—which can only decrease Israeli confidence in its abilities vis-à-vis the party in the future round of war.
The U.S. does not want a military conflict with one of the most effective and popular militias in the Arab East. And Hizbullah does not want to add more conflicts to its plate. It is already actively engaged in regional conflicts and does not wish to start a global confrontation with the U.S.
Egypt’s former President Gamal Abdel Nasser(Wikimedia)
But Israel, since its founding, has tried to make its enemies the enemies of the U.S. During the long years of the Cold War, the Israeli propaganda machine was desperately searching the Arabic press to find statements that could be twisted to portray Israel’s enemies — whether Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser; or Ba`thist leaders, or the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat — as Soviet tools.
When Nasser and the Palestine Liberation Organization were indicating their desire for good relations with the U.S., Israeli was intent on portraying them both as the sworn enemies of the U.S.
Keeping the Fight Covert
Since its invasion of the Middle East after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has preferred to keep its own fight with Hizbullah covert while supporting the direct Israeli war on Hizbullah.
Israel, however, after suffering that stunning defeat in July of 2006, has become increasingly intent on having the U.S. engage Hizbullah directly. This is something that has been made clear in the speeches of Israeli leaders and in the unending supply of legislation sponsored by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, targeting Hizbullah.
As the Trump administration tinkers with the idea of retreating militarily from the Middle East — despite the opposition of the war lobby — it cannot possibly welcome a war between Israel and Hizbollah that could could spiral into a wider conflict and drag the U.S. into a heavier military intervention in the region.
What the U.S. wants now is to create a front to challenge Iran and its allies throughout the region. But the front could not add to what already is a long list of sanctions against Iran and Hizbullah and the placement of their names onterrorist lists and watch lists. None of that, however, is sufficient for the occupation state of Israel. After failing to dislodge Hizbullah in one of the longest wars of its history in 2006, Israel urgently wants the U.S. to take a shot on its behalf.