Lebanese President Michel Sleiman visited Washington last week, for his first visit with President Barack Obama. The meeting was a quick one, tucked in amongst the myriad of domestic issues that are demanding Obama’s attention.
Yet despite its brevity, the meeting touched upon issues that strike at the heart of the U.S.-Lebanon relationship — U.S. military aid to Lebanon, the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, Palestinian refugees, and Hezbollah’s arms.
In a press conference following the closed-door meeting, Pres. Obama emphasized the historical relationship between the two countries, but also told the gathered reporters, "President Sleiman and I aren’t going to agree on every issue with respect to how Israel, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Syria, are interacting."
He went on to say, "What we do share is a commitment to resolve these issues through dialogue and negotiations, as opposed to through violence."
The U.S. president’s comments reflect both the contentiousness of the issues on the table as well as the many factors that tug at the threads of this bilateral relationship.
In addition to taking on such intrinsic issues, the meeting between the two presidents comes at a time of significant developments in Lebanon’s political scene. In the days before Sleiman arrived in Washington, Lebanon’s parliament approved the newly formed national unity cabinet and its ministerial statement, capping a tumultuous six-month process in the government’s formation.
Also, official visits to Damascus by both Pres. Sleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri following the Washington trip signal a real change in Lebanon’s relationship with its larger neighbor, a country that dominated Lebanon politically and militarily until 2005.
While these steps mark significant milestones for a Lebanese government that was, in essence, non-existent until November, they also demonstrate the fundamental challenges to real unity and Lebanon’s role in the regional and international arenas.
Not least among these challenges is the role of Hezbollah in the new government. Though the pro-Western March 14 coalition won a majority in the June parliamentary elections, the Hezbollah-led opposition still maintains a significant presence in the government, and Hezbollah itself has 10 representatives in the parliament and two cabinet ministers.
Also, the ministerial policy statement includes a controversial clause that confirms Hezbollah’s right to maintain arms. Reports released by Sleiman’s office after he returned home indicated that the Lebanese president emphasized that the Shia party’s stance as an armed "resistance" was a topic for Lebanese domestic debate and not subject to demands by the U.S. or other international actors.
Despite such statements, Obama reportedly pressed Sleiman about the enforcement of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s arms also impact another issue that topped the agenda of the meeting: Sleiman’s request for additional military aid. While Lebanon has been a top recipient of aid from the United States, falling just behind Israel on a per capita basis, the U.S. has been reluctant to supply the Mediterranean country with more sophisticated weapons given its proximity to Israel and the fear that such equipment could fall into the hands of Hezbollah’s militia.
Media reports following the meeting indicated that Pres. Obama supported strengthening the Lebanese Army but also tied any additional military aid to compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. He also pressed Sleiman about stopping the flow of smuggled arms that supplies Hezbollah with their increasing arsenal of weapons.
The U.S. supplied Lebanon with military aid in 2006 for the first time in more than 10 years, after the withdrawal of Syrian forces. More recently, Israel has expressed disapproval of the sale of sophisticated weapons like M60 tanks to Lebanon, based on fears that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
However, according to reports by the Congressional Research Service, a U.S. Department of Defense official specified that the United States military aid to Lebanon is supposed to "strengthen the army domestically, not regionally", therefore maintaining Israel’s strategic edge.
"I think in Washington, and probably for [most] Lebanese as well, Hezbollah and the strength of their arms really is the core U.S. issue," said Senate Foreign Policy Committee staffer Perry Cammack in a November briefing on Capitol Hill. However, building Lebanese security capabilities remains one of the United States goals in Lebanon, Cammack added.
Despite that commitment, U.S. military aid to Lebanon faces the constraints of a U.S. policy, codified into law last year, which requires the U.S. to consider Israel’s qualitative military edge when supplying its neighbors.
In addition to questions about supplying the Lebanese Armed Forces, the emergence of the new government has raised questions about how other states will interact with Lebanon.
Since the June parliamentary elections, the Israeli government has warned its northern neighbor that the incorporation of Hezbollah members into the cabinet would result in Israel holding the Lebanese state responsible for any attacks perpetuated by Hezbollah.
Similarly, the United States faces the challenge of how to deal with a Lebanese government in which Hezbollah is represented.
In the wake of the formation of the new cabinet, the White House announced that it is eager to work with, "a new Lebanese government that is committed to extending its authority over all of Lebanon, and to advancing political and economic reforms that benefit the people of Lebanon."
Meanwhile, Jeffery Feltman, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told al-Jazeera television in an interview last week that while Hezbollah is an important part of the Lebanese government and the political scene, the U.S. would not hold talks with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is, Feltman said, "a strong institution but at the same time a militia that is violating international resolutions and subjecting the Lebanese people to dangers."
Commonly known as "the resistance" in Lebanon, Hezbollah is backed by allies in Iran and Syria and has participated in Lebanese politics since 1992. The Shia group has also been included on the United States’ list of terrorist organizations since 1999.
However, Hezbollah has undergone changes that reflect the organization’s evolving role in Lebanon. A policy statement released earlier this month — only the second public policy statement released since the group’s founding in 1982 — details a shift in Hezbollah’s goals, calling for a unified Lebanon that represents everyone.
From military aid to a growing Lebanese-Syrian relationship, all of the issues that are at the crux of the U.S. relationship with Lebanon are intrinsically tied to the United States’ role throughout the region.
"The U.S. needs to remain above the political fray in Lebanon and resist the temptation to play out regional conflicts in the Lebanese arena," said Mona Yacoubian before a full audience at the November Capitol Hill briefing.
Yacoubian, director of the Lebanon Working Group at the United States Institute for Peace, warned, "In the absence of regional comprehensive peace, Lebanon will still be vulnerable to various tendencies throughout the region."
(Inter Press Service)