Has Washington lost Lebanon? (Part I)

By Franklin Lamb – Beirut

‘We anticipate that the shape of the US assistance programs in Lebanon will be evaluated in the context of Lebanon’s parliamentary election results and the policies formed by the new Cabinet.’ — Jeffrey Feltman, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs and former Ambassador to Lebanon, briefing the House Congressional Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, 03/24/09.

Part I: US Sinking: Serious Performance and Credibility Issues

Henry Kissinger, among others in the US foreign policy establishment, is reportedly aghast at how quickly and thoroughly the Bush administration botched US Middle East policy and handed much of the Near East and South Asia to Iran. Not just Iraq, Afghanistan, (plus the Af-Pak region) some of the countries bordering the Arab Gulf (increasingly referred to as the Persian Gulf) but the low hanging fruit of Palestine, ripe for picking.

As Iran rapidly expands its influence to South America, Asia and Africa, many observers in Lebanon think that their country may be next. Frankly, it is beginning to look that way.

US Lebanon Policy Pronouncements

Even before 1958, when US Embassy officials delivered suitcases filled with election buying cash to its favorite Lebanese politician, the incumbent, unpopular, corrupt, and anti-Muslim President Camile Chamoun, the Lebanese have looked favorably on America. Today, known Americans in Lebanon rarely skip a day without receiving thumbs up, a ‘welcome to Lebanon’, or a puckering of the lips and a “mwwas” which translates locally more or less as “kisses to you.”

Yet it may be a case of unrequited love. Regardless of what President Obama personally wants, and though there are reportedly overdue new US Middle East initiatives being worked on at the National Security Council and the State Department, there is strong Israel lobby enforced reticence in Washington to do anything for Lebanon that Israel may object to. And the Lebanese know it.

American policy statements towards Lebanon are frequently incomprehensible or contradictory to many Lebanese, among the most politically sophisticated around.  With  the approaching  June 7 elections, now barely two months away, the  intensifying barrage of Press Releases and pontifications from US government employees including the US State Department and Congressional  Hearings witnesses,  have was left  many  in Lebanon with raised eyebrows and shaking their heads. It is said that the average Lebanese is so astute that they can read Politicians thoughts as if they were printed with size 24 fonts on the politico’s forehead. Many of the current musings of American spokespersons are being put into the same category.
Feltman on the Hill

Over the years, Congressional Hearings have strayed markedly from their original purpose of informing the country’s Congressional delegates about weighty policy matters in order to keep the American Ship of State on an even keel. The past three decades has seen vast quantities of information organized across the US Capitol Grounds at the Madison, Jefferson and Adams Congressional Libraries by the venerated Congressional Research Service. CRS research is available instantly to any member of Congress or their staffs and some of it, generally high quality Issue Briefs, may soon be available worldwide on the Internet. Added to the CRS resource, the arrival of the Internet, plus burgeoning Congressional staffs, the original purpose and even need for Congressional “Hearings” has drastically changed. Yet there are more and more of them and they have become increasingly politicized and are  now mainly useful as tools to promote Member images in their Districts, and less and less for learning. As a former “Hearing Specialist II” on the Hill for the House Judiciary Committee, this observer can report that little is normally learned from Congressional hearings anymore. In most cases, staffers prepare carefully the Members speeches, questions to witnesses, and answers the witness will very likely give, to each and every question from their bosses or even their bosses’ political adversaries and rivals on the panel.

Concerning many important but deemed ‘sensitive’ issues that Congress knows little about but certainly should investigate, Members often cannot get hearings-even classified hearings- because Congress continues to outsource many of its Constitutional prerogatives to an increasingly dominating Executive Branch.
This arrangement can be ideal for Single Issue lobbies that make excellent use of Congressional Hearings to publicly advance their projects. None more so than AIPAC, coordinating as it does the 120 plus pro Israel organizations that it quickly cobbles when the need arises to put together a fast hearing, forum, briefing, or Congressional Staff gathering, designed to keep the public in awe of important Israel related “key information or insights” revealed at a weighty “United States Congressional Hearing”. So much the better for Israel if the Committee Chairman is committed to its policies, as is the case with Congressman Gary Ackerman and the Chairs of the other 10 key House and Senate Committees, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Appropriations, Intelligence, and Terrorism that deal with Lebanon and the Middle East.

It is against this backdrop that Jeffrey Feltman was summoned last week to join Ackerman in signaling Lebanon to return pro Israel election results on June 7 or pay the price.

This commentary is not in any way meant to be some sort of ad hominum broadside aimed at Jeffrey Feltman or his rather more attractive and charming successor at the US Embassy in Beirut, Michele Sisson, or even the really heavyweight arch Zionist, Islamophobe and Arab baser, Gary Ackerman, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Yet it must be admitted that this duos current speeches on US Lebanon Policy are often unfathomable when considered alongside President Obama’s expressed Middle East objectives and what Lebanon sorely needs.

Feltman Warns Lebanon

Neither Feldman nor Ackerman minced words.

In his opening statement, Feltman, strongly discouraged any attempts by foreign powers to influence Lebanon’s elections, noting that "decisions on the shape and composition of the next government can and should be made by the Lebanese themselves, for Lebanon, free from outside interference, political intimidation and violence."

His very next statement nullified what he had just said and he emphasized that the polls, with US help, “would provide an opportunity to continue the process of reinforcing Lebanon’s independence." Feltman then labeled the US backed March 14 group the "pro-independence" bloc, while highlighting March 8’s  association with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran as the most serious danger to Lebanon and the Region. He added that the US would support any dialogue between Lebanon and Israel.

Feltman then launched his zinger which shocked some people internationally but not many in Lebanon: "We anticipate that the shape of the United States’ assistance programs in Lebanon will be evaluated in the context of Lebanon’s parliamentary election results and the policies formed by the new cabinet."

The House Subcommittee chairman who introduced Feltman, Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY), provided a similar analysis in his prefatory remarks, listing US interests in Lebanon as "sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity."
"The US cannot and should not interfere in the election, but neither should we be impassive," he added (read: ‘watch what we will do not what we say’): "There is much we can do and should do on the outside to demonstrate that Lebanon’s future is not dependant on either militias or mullahs."

Whether or not Ackerman distinguishes Lebanon from Afghanistan or knows Lebanon does not have “Mullahs” with the cameras running and AIPAC very likely writing or at least vetting and editing his remarks, ‘Mullahs with  all its pejorative connotations  in Ackerman’s Brooklyn District was surely the politically correct term  for him to use regardless of what the Lebanese, a country with no Mulluhs, thought about it.

Ackerman also voiced support for the some military aid to Lebanon, noting the "pressing mission is battling terrorists activated and armed by foreign powers." (read: it might be necessary to use them against Hezbollah).

Rarely missing a chance to expound on issues of interest to Israel, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) submitted her questions and comments in writing and rather hysterically opined: “what happens in Lebanon in June can affect the US in July. Iran is stepping up efforts to assist extremist groups, like Hezbollah, operating in the Western Hemisphere. It is no surprise that our military and defense officials are now confirming that direct connections exist between Hezbollah and narcotraffickers”.

Interestingly, Ros-Lehtinen holds the record in Congress for authoring or co-sponsoring the most resolutions adopted by the House which claim a direct threat by Iran’s presence in the region poses to U.S. security. She and Ackerman are essentially tied for the record of post-9/11 anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim House resolutions.

On hearing reports of Feltman’s comments, some Lebanese strongly objected. Maysam, a pro March 14 student at the American University of Beirut explained: 

“How dare he (Feltman) try to bribe us! Each new Israeli aggression against Lebanon, every Israeli border crossing into Lebanon, harassment of shepherds along the blue line, mock aid raid, invasion of Lebanese airspace, theft of our fertile soil and our Wazzani river waters, each captured Israeli spy and threat to destroy Lebanon again or of more population transfers from Israel, every single new cluster bomb casualty and refusal to hand over land mine maps means more and more support for Hezbollah and their allies. If the Americans really cared about Lebanon or if they were smart they would put a stop to these Israeli crimes. But Washington is clueless. Lebanon does not need US Zionist projects anymore. As much as I care, let the Americans stop interfering in my country, pack up and go back and rebuild New Orleans! I am furious!”

As noted by Maysam, the US refusal to force Israel to provide cluster bomb and landmine maps returns almost weekly to the Lebanese and global public’s mind.

"I Am Not Able to Play Anymore"

On Sunday March 28, 2009 at the Marjayoun Public Hospital, 10-year-old Mohammad Jamal Abdel-Aal’s left leg and right hand got amputated after a US cluster bomb, left over from the summer 2006 war with Israel, exploded while he was playing in one of the fields near his home in the southern town of Hilta. Describing the few minutes that preceded the explosion, Abdel-Aal explained that he had gone out to a field near his house, "to take advantage of the spring time weather. I was walking between the yellow daisies when I heard an explosion and felt my body was being ripped apart," he said, adding that he started feeling pain in his leg and was bleeding everywhere."Then everything turned black."

According to the Director of the Marjayoun Hospital, physician Mouenes Kalakesh, the lad is deeply depressed because his wounds “are going to affect his life forever."

In a room next to Abdel-Aaal’s, 16-year-old Riad al-Ahmad is also recovering from a US landmine explosion that cost him a leg while herding his sheep in one of the fields of the southern village of Wazzani.

Given US opposition to the recent Cluster Bomb Convention, many politically active Lebanese believe the US bears responsibility for the continuing slaughter of unsuspecting civilians, and should at the very least organize a global political and media campaign and  organize and international conference to support demining efforts. The recent 1.5 million dollars the US gave the Mine Action Group (MAG), one of the few demining teams still working in South Lebanon is seen as a drop in the bucket given the close to 15 million dollar combined US aid given to Israel each and every day of the year.

Feltman to Hezbollah

Regarding Hezbollah, Feltman said the US would not follow the United Kingdom’s example by opening contacts with the group’s political wing. He called the group a domestic and regional "threat," adding "our position on Hezbollah remains as it was when the group was first designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997."

Yet, he offered Hezbollah an opportunity for much better relations  with the US declaring that if Hezbollah would “Renounce terrorism—both in Lebanon and abroad—and submit to the rule of law and the authority of the Lebanese state, we would reconsider this status," he said in reference to Britain’s decision to start contacts with the Hezbollah.

Presumably Feltman is aware that Hezbollah’s position has long been known regarding its theatre of operations against Israel. They were repeated this week when Hezbollah vowed that it would deter any possible Israeli aggression but would not carry out any military operation outside the country. MP Mohammad Raad told a funeral gathering in Sujod that: "We will not carry out any operation outside our Lebanese territories, but we will not accept after today that the Israeli enemy stages any assault against our land," adding that “they will pay the price for any possible attack on Lebanon, and will receive the proper response."

As for the Western attempts to open dialogue with Hezbollah, Raad said "Hezbollah welcomes this gesture,” but "it is a mistake if we assume the United States will abandon Israel for the sake of the Arabs…The United States’ project is with Israel, and the US foreign policy will not change."

Earlier Feltman had stated that there was no difference between Hezbollah military and political wing and wondered how the UK could possibly speak only with Hezbollah’s Political wing since its leadership must be one for the whole Party. When asked about this point one Hezbollah member, who teachers at a high school in Haret Hreik advised:

“I think I can help American officials understand the difference. The military wing of Hezbollah, by which I mean, military resistance to Israel, is just about 5% of what makes up Hezbollah. But that is all that westerners mainly know about from their biased media. The political, social, economic, educational and medical wing of Hezbollah makes up the nearly 95%. Explained impolitely, the military wing is the wing that kicked Israel’s ass out of Lebanon and will keep it out until the political wing can help the Lebanese army do the job and, inshallah (God willing) achieve Middle East peace by returning the true owners to Palestine.”

Browbeating, threats, puffed promises, lack of respect, consistently advancing an Israeli agenda has tuned off many Lebanese from American overtures.

Increasingly people in Lebanon are wondering if Iran would make a better long term alley.

– Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: fplamb@sabrashatila.org.

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