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Lessons from American Diplomacy Toward Lebanon

David Hale

American diplomacy toward Lebanon oscillates between periods of engagement and neglect. While America is not to blame for Lebanon’s ills, steady, persistent, determined, and realistic American diplomacy to counter Iranian influence and bolster moderation would best serve US interests. 

America and its allies face new realities in the Middle East, requiring new concepts and approaches to resolving conflict and bringing stability to the region. Lebanon is a microcosm of the Middle East; the past conduct of American diplomacy there offers a wealth of information to help guide Washington through the current Middle East crisis.  

My just-released book, American Diplomacy Toward Lebanon, examines six case studies over the eighty-year history of American relations with an independent Lebanon. A pattern quickly emerges: pronounced oscillation between peaks of active engagement and valleys of neglect. From 1943-45, American diplomats worked mostly behind-the-scenes to ensure true self-determination and independence for the Lebanese, despite French colonialists. But since then, long periods of neglect followed by active crisis management became the norm.  

After these two episodes, the United States lost interest in Lebanon, yet the seeds of future crises were being nurtured there.

Engagement and retreat

In 1958, President Eisenhower sent 14,000 military personnel and one diplomat into the Lebanon theater to resolve a violent crisis pitting pro-Western elements against Arab nationalists backed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. American diplomacy, backed by our military strength and resolve, brought about political compromises among the Lebanese, enabling the country's fragile power-sharing formula to function again. The last marines left peacefully after a three-month deployment. After these two episodes, the United States lost interest in Lebanon, yet the seeds of future crises were being nurtured there.

In 1976, Syrian and Israeli leaders identified the PLO in Lebanon as a common enemy, but the Israelis worried that the Syrians might exploit their armed intervention in Lebanon to menace Israel. Another American envoy was dispatched and worked out unwritten "red lines" that kept the Syrians far from Israel's northern border, preventing an Israeli incursion.  A period of neglect ensued under President Carter, who told Anwar Sadat in 1978 that when it came to Lebanon, "American interest was aroused primarily in moments of crisis [so] we had not mounted a concerted effort to find a permanent solution to the continuing Lebanese tragedy."  

In 1982-84, America sent in marines again, numbering 1,400, to extricate Israel from the overreach of its invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut. The Israeli aim was to remove the PLO and Syrian armed presence there and elevate a Lebanese president amenable to normalization. The United States itself got pinned down as a victim and perceived actor in a conflict among Lebanese factions and regional states. The Marines—who had an unclear mandate—withdrew after the Hezbollah bombing of their barracks in 1983, leaving behind a vacuum.

In the 1990s, America abandoned Lebanon to Syria in a well-intended but fruitless search for Israeli Syrian peace. Syria and Iran used that decade to reinforce their influence in Lebanon. Their Hezbollah proxy evolved from a small, potent terrorist cell to the international menace, regional army, and power arbiter that it is today.  

A decade later, in 2004, America and France joined forces with popular opinion in Lebanon to compel Syrian troops to withdraw from that country after the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, a force for moderation and Lebanese independence. However, the Cedar Revolution was sidetracked by the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, a conflict brought to an end by the mediation of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. By 2008, Hezbollah arms buildup, chronic cronyism, corruption, foreign meddling, and gridlock between one vision oriented toward the West and the other toward Iran, turned Lebanon into a failed state. The marked discontent among youth and rejection of all the sectarian leaders—their slogan was "all means all"—was no surprise but posed no real challenge to entrenched interests.  

The obvious prescription is to avoid inflated expectations of what America can achieve but never abandon the playing field to the enemy.

New Realities

America is not to blame for Lebanon's ills, but the oscillations in US involvement weakened our friends and strengthened our foes. In most of these episodes, overly ambitious American policies and deployments crashed against the hard realities of Lebanon and the Middle East. Washington then would drop its efforts like a hot potato, only to reengage years later when the next crisis erupted. Yet, American leverage and influence had eroded during the periods of neglect. The obvious prescription is to avoid inflated expectations of what America can achieve but never abandon the playing field to the enemy. Steady engagement should replace the peaks and valleys.

We are seeing this phenomenon play out on the Israeli-Palestinian front today. During my 38-year career in the State Department, I witnessed eight initiatives to resolve this dispute with some variation of a two-state outcome. They petered out in 2014 when America tried but failed once again to bridge the gaps separating Israelis and Palestinians. During the next decade, Washington moved beyond the Palestinians, focusing instead under President Trump on the more attainable—and historic—goal of normalization between Israel and Arab states.  

Since October 7, Hamas' violence and Israel's response have compelled renewed focus on Israeli-Palestinian differences, but some policymakers seem to believe they can just pick up where they left off in 2014 and rush a negotiated two-state outcome into service. Yet, during the subsequent decade of American neglect, new realities emerged. These include Iran's more central role as a protagonist in the Levant and the evaporation of public support among both Israelis and Palestinians for the hallowed principles of past American initiatives.  

We should have the persistence and endurance to stay in the game and work actively so the next crisis can be managed more effectively or avoided altogether. 

Three lessons

Rather than revive failed initiatives from history, it is time to conceptualize new ideas to deal with the new realities.  We should also avoid the "just enough" method of crisis management, whereby an end to fighting signals American diplomacy to retreat. We should have the persistence and endurance to stay in the game and work actively so the next crisis can be managed more effectively or avoided altogether. I’ll say again, steady engagement should replace the peaks and valleys.

Another lesson from the American experience in Lebanon is the disconnect between America's optimistic vision and Middle Eastern realities. Americans like to think we live in a world conceived by John Locke, where rules, reason, and natural law prevail. But the Middle East is the land of Thomas Hobbes, where in the absence of an omnipotent Leviathan ruling a country, chaos and violence prevail. The people of the Middle East may yearn for the world of Locke, but they know they inhabit the one of Hobbes. The sooner American policymakers absorb that reality, the better.

A third lesson is that a strategy that focuses only on countering hostile proxies without addressing the malign patron—Iran—can never satisfactorily protect US interests. The Middle East is one inter-connected campaign theater. Our friends and foes know it, yet Washington—fearing a region-wide escalation—often shies away from dealing with that reality.  

After Hezbollah, the Iranian Syrian proxy killed 241 US marines in 1983, the Reagan Administration never retaliated. That the Iranians then accelerated proxy attacks on American diplomatic and military facilities and the kidnapping of American officials and civilians off the streets of Beirut should have been no surprise. Weakness and accommodation only foster violence; strength and deterrence nurture peace. That is the primary lesson drawn from eighty years of American diplomatic involvement in Lebanon.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

David Hale

David Hale

Global Fellow;
Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs; Former Ambassador to Pakistan, Lebanon, and Jordan
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