Protesters shout slogans as they carry pictures of President Bashar Assad and national flags, during a demonstration to show their support for the Syrian President, in Beirut, Lebanon, June 11, 2011.
"Fool Me Twice: How the United States Lost Lebanon—Again"
Journal Article, World Affairs
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
For the second time in three decades, a substantial American investment of time, money, and effort to strengthen the Lebanese government and support its fledgling democracy has come to very little. Hezbollah, Tehran, and Damascus now dominate the country's intractable domestic politics. US diplomacy is left powerless, wondering how to make the best of an increasingly untenable situation in the Levant.
Reflecting on American involvement in Lebanon in the 1980s often inspires neuralgia among former and current policymakers. Then, as now, a destructive mix of actors were wreaking havoc on the Lebanese state, beginning with the PLO's relocation to Beirut after the Jordanians expelled it for "Black September." The June 1982 Israeli invasion to root out the PLO triggered the United States' dramatically deepened involvement in Lebanon. The US government sought to defuse tensions between Lebanon and Israel, and then deployed the Marines as part of the Multinational Force to facilitate the PLO's evacuation, an opportunity that offered a moment of optimism for the Lebanese government to expand its writ. But a rapid tumble of events, including the assassination of incoming Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel, the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the failure of regional states to support the May 17 agreement for Israeli withdrawal negotiated by Secretary of State George Shultz, and the systematic effort of Syria and its allies to destroy an independent Lebanon created a difficult and dangerous environment for the American peacekeepers, culminating in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut—Iran's first, but not last, use of proxies to carry out a lethal assault on US military forces.
In spite of some progress in training and equipping the Lebanese military, American efforts to strengthen Lebanese institutions were stymied. Domestic political concerns about the possible negative impact of America's Lebanon policy on the 1984 re-election campaign encouraged some of President Reagan's advisers to argue for a swift withdrawal. It is no wonder that a combination of frustration, guilt, and dismay often plague American reflections on this period in foreign policy. By 1984, when the United States turned away from Lebanon, it was clear that the country had been "lost" to Syrian domination.
Although the civil war ended with the 1989 Taif Agreement (inspired, more than anything else, by the exhaustion that fifteen years of violence had wrought), the Lebanese state continued to stagnate under Syria's heavy hand. American involvement and interest in Lebanon, limited at best for the next decade and a half, was punctuated by rare outbreaks of concern about calming the Levant, including negotiating the 1996 Israel-Lebanon Ceasefire Agreement that established a multinational monitoring mechanism to minimize civilian deaths. The US granted some economic assistance and small amounts of military aid, but overall Lebanon was low on the list of Washington's priorities....
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