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Lebanon: Key Battleground for Middle East Policy.

Lebanon has historically prided itself on maintaining good relations both with its Arab neighbors and with the Western world. During the cold war, Lebanon navigated carefully between the two superpowers, although its political elite identified more closely with the United States. Lebanon's relations with the United States have been close over the years. Lebanon, from the standpoint of U.S. foreign policy, represents special opportunities and challenges.

Before the 1975 civil war, this small country enjoyed a free political climate that allowed Palestinian and Lebanese leftist parties and factions to operate freely and openly. The U.S. found this relatively open political climate threatening and sought to curtail radical influences in Lebanon and any possibility that they could spread elsewhere in the Arab world. The Lebanese government, meanwhile, allowed the U.S. (and other interested outside parties) to use Lebanon as a base for intelligence and propaganda operations.

American concerns about developments in Lebanon were clearly illustrated in 1958, when President Dwight Eisenhower dispatched the U.S. Marines to the country, ostensibly to maintain law and order but actually to prevent an array of leftist and Arab nationalist forces from threatening the rule of a very unpopular president. Although the Marines did not engage in battle and were quickly withdrawn, their presence sent a clear signal about U.S. support for the right-wing leadership in the country, led by the Maronite Christian establishment.

The system of sectarian representation established in the 1926 constitution artificially maintained domination by the Maronites and conservative elites of other religious communities. The U.S. government wanted to prevent a democratic redistribution of power in Lebanon because Muslim public opinion adamantly opposed U.S. economic and political interests in the region. The U.S. continued to play an important role in Lebanese affairs up until the mid-1970s.

Initially, the U.S. supported (both militarily and through the provision of intelligence) the right-wing coalition in the 1975 civil war, which was also supported by Israel. The U.S. also tacitly supported the Arab League-backed Syrian intervention in 1976, designed to halt a military victory by leftist and Muslim forces supported by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Washington eventually lost faith in the ability of the right-wing coalition to achieve control of Lebanon and began advocating political reforms and a redistribution of power to assuage the Muslim majority.

Throughout the 1970s, the U.S. largely supported Israeli attacks against Lebanon, ostensibly launched against Palestinian guerrilla bases, though Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were the primary victims. The Reagan administration supported Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, blocking United Nations efforts to end the fighting and increasing military assistance to Israeli forces even as civilian casualties escalated into the tens of thousands. Under Israeli guns, the Lebanese parliament elected Bachir Gemayal, leader of the fascist Phalangist militia, as the new president. He was assassinated soon afterward and was succeeded by his brother Amin. U.S. troops moved into Beirut to help in the evacuation of Palestinian forces, but the Americans exited prior to an Israeli-facilitated Phalangist massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Amin Gemayel opened a new chapter in Lebanese-American relations, with the U.S. quickly recognizing a golden opportunity to impose a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel based largely on U.S. and Israeli terms. The May 1983 U.S.-brokered peace agreement collapsed, however, in the face of widespread opposition among most Lebanese.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces returned, not as peacekeepers but as supporters of the rightist government, bombing and shelling Lebanese towns supportive of leftist and Islamic opponents of the Phalangist regime. Not surprisingly, some Lebanese retaliated: the U.S. embassy was bombed twice, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was destroyed with hundreds of soldiers inside, and several Americans were kidnapped and held hostage. A 1985 car bombing--organized by the CIA in an attempt to assassinate an anti-American Islamic cleric--resulted in scores of deaths in a Beirut suburb.

By early 1984, Reagan announced a "redeployment" of American troops in recognition of U.S. political and military failure in Lebanon. This was followed by years of neglect of Lebanon until the end of the civil war in 1989, when the U.S. gradually reentered the country. The American embassy is currently functioning in a peaceful environment.

Key Points

* U.S. involvement with Lebanon has extended over several decades. The Middle East was a key battleground during the cold war era, the legacy of which continues to this day.

* The U.S. sent combat troops into Lebanon in 1958 and again in 1982 to support unpopular right-wing presidents.

* The U.S. has largely supported Israeli attacks against Lebanon, furthering Lebanese resentment of the U.S. role in the region.

As'ad AbuKhalil is an associate professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, and a research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
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Author:AbuKhalil, As'ad
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
Words:813
Previous Article:Toward a New Foreign Policy.
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