Rice Midwifes Lebanon’s Latest ‘Birth Pangs’

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a surprise visit to Beirut Monday to pledge her support for an agreement giving greater political power to Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite group that Washington still considers a terrorist organization.

The Doha-brokered peace deal – which grants a decisive veto power to the Hezbollah-led opposition bloc – is widely seen as a setback for the U.S. and its allies, which have backed the Lebanese government for three years in response to concerns about Iran’s growing influence in the region.

"Obviously, in any compromise, there are compromises," said Rice when asked by reporters if the agreement marked a defeat for the U.S.

"This was an agreement that I think served the interests of the Lebanese people. And since it serves the interests of the Lebanese people, it serves the interests of the United States," she said.

Less than one month ago, Lebanon was embroiled in its worst outbreak of sectarian violence since the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, as more than 60 people died in gun battles between government-backed militias and Hezbollah-led opposition fighters.

The violence and subsequent takeover of West Beirut by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah was the end result of an untenable 18-month political deadlock that paralyzed the government and further polarized the country’s sectarian landscape.

Hezbollah’s massive retaliation came in response to a government decision last month to sack the airport security chief and to shut down what the "resistance" group described as a vital telecommunications network used to repel Israeli attacks during the 2006 summer war.

Thanks to the timely intervention of the Arab League, the guns have – more or less – fallen silent, Gen. Michel Suleiman has been elected president, and the new government should remain intact until new elections next spring, if it is ever formed.

The promised formation of a unity government that gives the opposition 11 seats to the majority’s 16 has yet to be implemented. For nearly three weeks, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has struggled to find a cabinet acceptable to both the parliamentary majority and the opposition, and Rice’s visit appears aimed at bolstering the newly elected president.

Before the outbreak of violence, Washington had pushed the Lebanese government not to make concessions to the Hezbollah-led opposition, but using the March 14th coalition as a fulcrum for transformative U.S. diplomacy has had its costs.

Rice and other State Department officials remain deeply unpopular in Lebanon. During the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and as warplanes rained bombs down on the Lebanese population, Rice described the conflict as the "birth pangs of a new Middle East."

Mired in wars on two separate fronts, Washington may have hoped that Syria’s 2005 withdrawal in the wake of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination would give the U.S. room to influence the direction of Lebanon’s "burgeoning democracy."

But Washington’s embrace of Siniora’s government came at the expense of the Shia population, the largest of the country’s major denominations and which is seeking a political stake commensurate with its demographic numbers. It also occurs against the backdrop of a regional competition for influence between Washington and Hezbollah’s chief patron, Iran.

"Iran’s growing influence in the region has given organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas the kind of power and strength and backing that they would not have taken a few years ago," said Geneive Abdo, author of a number of books on Islamist parties, Islam, and the Middle East.

The opposition belief that Rice primarily aims to advance Israel’s interest, as Washington did during the 2006 war, has only been reinforced by continued U.S. involvement in Iraq and the saber-rattling between Tehran and Washington.

"Mrs. Rice’s visits have always been a disaster and a catastrophe for Lebanon because the U.S. government never works for the sake of the Lebanese people, but for the sake of their interests in the region as well as Israel’s interests," Hezbollah legislator Nawar al-Saheli told the Associated Press Monday.

"We fear Rice’s visit this time is aimed at obstructing the formation of the new government, especially if a national union cabinet was not in the interest of the U.S. administration," he said.

But Hezbollah’s show of military strength – its disciplined guerilla army easily took West Beirut in a matter of hours – has also exposed a profound weakness in the organization’s rhetoric.

If Hezbollah’s actions reflect short-term gains and enhanced power, the group, say analysts, will face considerable challenges to resurrect its credibility after breaking its promise to never use its "weapons of resistance" against fellow Lebanese.

"Their reputation has been tarnished, the myth of resistance has been shattered," said Mona Yacoubian, a scholar at the U.S. Institute for Peace, during a conference at the Nixon Center in Washington last Wednesday.

"Hezbollah made a miscalculation by turning its arms on the Lebanese, which vowed it would not do," she said.

While the scope of the retaliation was large, Yacoubian said that Hezbollah’s aim was not to take over the Lebanese government, and that the group was too "sophisticated" and "smart" to believe that one party or sect could rule over the others in Lebanon. Instead, Hezbollah’s response was aimed at what it believed to be an existential threat, a line crossed that could be accommodated.

"It was not a coup d’etat," said Yacoubian. "If you want to do a bumper sticker – ‘It’s the Weapons, Stupid.’"

Rice has apparently taken note. After meeting with Siniora, the U.S.’ top diplomat also signaled Washington’s intention to push Israel to return the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon. It is an issue that Hezbollah has used to justify its refusal to disarm under UN Security Council resolution demands.

According to the Lebanese pro-opposition newspaper al-Safir, Washington’s allies in Lebanon pushed Rice to "remove all the alibis that give a legitimacy to Hezbollah’s weapons." The pro-Western parliamentary majority also backs Lebanon’s claim to the small strip of land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War.