Whenever Washington sits at the table with Syria, Lebanon usually turns out to be lunch. So it is understandable that Lebanese who treasure their country's independence would be nervous about President Barack Obama's new policy of "engaging" Damascus, which in 2005 finally withdrew Syrian forces from Lebanon after 29 years. Though American officials insist that no deal with Syria will be cut at Lebanon's expense, many Lebanese fear that Washington, despite its lofty promises, will abandon them yet again—this time to woo Syria away from Iran.
For that reason, the relative optimism about President Obama and his Middle East policies I encountered on a visit to Beirut last week—my first in more than a decade—was both unexpected and intriguing. Why were so many of Lebanon's most-seasoned political players suspending their well-justified cynicism about America and their country's political prospects?
For Nassib Lahoud, a minister without portfolio aligned with the pro-Western "March 14th coalition" that has ostensibly governed Lebanon since the national elections four years ago, the turning point came when he met earlier this month with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At a closed-door gathering during the conference in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh, Lahoud said, Mrs. Clinton assured Lebanon's prime minister, foreign minister, and him that U.S. policy toward Lebanon would not be tied to Syria but would "stand alone." America, she vowed, remains committed to Lebanon's independence and would continue supporting the Lebanese armed forces. (Washington has given $410 million a year since 2006 to bolster the country's pro-Western government and counter Hezbollah's well-armed militia.) She also pledged increased financial support for the international tribunal in The Hague investigating the 2005 the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
"We heard everything we wanted to hear," Lahoud declared.
On March 14, 2005, outrage over the massive bomb attack that killed Hariri and 22 others prompted 1.5 million of Lebanon's estimated 4 million citizens—representing nearly all political factions and its 17 officially recognized religions—to take to the streets demanding an independent Lebanon, free of Syria, which was blamed for the attack, although Damascus formally denied it. American support for this "Cedar Revolution" finally forced Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and helped the pro-Western, pro-democracy March 14th coalition win a narrow electoral victory over the Iranian and Syrian-backed alliance headed by militant Shiite Islamic Hezbollah. Nevertheless, Hezbollah's so-called March 8th coalition has accumulated enough power—partly through an alleged campaign of political assassinations—to block March 14th from governing effectively.
This June, the March 14th and March 8th coalitions will square off once again in crucial parliamentary elections that most analysts predict will be extremely close. "A pro-Syrian majority in the Lebanese parliament would be far more dangerous even than military occupation," said former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, the Christian leader of the Kataeb party and part of the March 14th alliance. "You can resist an occupation or an army, but how do you resist a parliamentary majority?"
Saad Hariri, the slain premier's son and the Sunni Muslim leader of the largest faction in the March 14th bloc, agreed. "If we lose the election," he said, "why should you help us?" Mindful of the recent assassinations of several prominent pro-Western politicians—not one of which "has been resolved," he notes—Hariri lives as a virtual prisoner in his lavish, well-guarded mansion, venturing out mainly for visits abroad and mandatory political gatherings.
David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, warned that a loss for March 14th would be perceived throughout the region not just as a reversal of the Cedar Revolution, but as a "a victory for Tehran and Damascus and other radical forces and a defeat for Washington."
Whenever so much is at stake in this cantankerous country the size of Connecticut, violence usually erupts. But my week in Beirut was amazingly violence-free. Lebanese analysts attribute this calm to Syria's relative good behavior not only because it is eager to engage with Washington, but also because it fears embarrassment by two international panels: the Hague tribunal and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
In a recent interview with al-Khaleej newspaper, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned that Lebanon would be "the first to pay the price" if the Hague investigation of Hariri's murder were "politicized" —that is, if it winds up blaming Syria. Meanwhile, the nuclear-monitoring group has criticized Damascus for failing to provide information about a facility that Israel bombed in late 2007. In a recent report, the IAEA came close to endorsing Israel's assertion that the facility was an undeclared North Korean-supported nuclear reactor, which Damascus has also denied.
March 14th supporters have been encouraged by Obama's choice of envoys to Damascus. Prior to his designation as acting assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman was ambassador to Lebanon and an outspoken proponent of March 14th vis-à-vis Hezbollah. The second envoy, White House National Security Council staff member Dan Shapiro, was part of a group of Senate staffers who helped secure passage of a bill that imposed trade sanctions on Damascus, which Syria now wants lifted.
Saad Hariri told our group of US journalists and policy analysts invited by a foundation close to March 14th lunch that he was "reassured" by the fact that the American envoys had visited Beirut before and after their talks in Damascus. Other coalition members applauded the envoys' decision not to be in Syria on March 8, and President Obama's telephone call to President Michel Sleiman on the anniversary of Hariri's murder. Such gestures have disproportionate impact in Lebanon's traumatized political culture.
The March 14th alliance itself, however, is fractious and fragile. For instance, while most coalition members we met said they welcomed America's effort to strengthen Lebanon's armed forces, Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's ever-shrinking but still powerful Druze community, called the idea that the Lebanese army could ever counter Hezbollah's well-armed, disciplined militia a "fantasy." One of the most powerful Christian blocs, headed by General Michel Aoun, continues to align itself with militant Islamic Hezbollah.
Though Beirut is still among the Arabs' most dynamic and creative capitals, a sense of sorrow and loss lies beneath its superficial gaiety. And, really, Beirut is at least two cities—the modern capital with its chic designer shops, expensive bars, raucous nightclubs, and billboards advertizing breast augmentations and tattoo removals, and what Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem calls "Little Tehran on the Mediterranean."
Hezbollah's southern suburbs are patrolled by the Party of God's own traffic police and security forces. No breasts or even hairdos are on display here. Dreary Iranian-style apartment buildings rise from the bombed-out craters alongside derelict buildings that Israel carpet-bombed into semi-oblivion in 2006. Some shops display the Iranian, rather than the Lebanese flag. "We will win the elections in June," a Hezbollah official told me confidently, as we sipped tea in his simple office, one of the few in this sector to display the Lebanese flag.