Barely a day passes in Beirut without fierce criticism of US foreign policy by Lebanese parties supporting Syrian opposition groups. Following the settlement reached over Syria’s chemical weapons and the start of serious nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran, some politicians who back former Prime Minister Saad Hariri speak about “America's secret diplomacy with the Iranian regime” since 2010. It is in that year that Washington is accused of concluding a deal to ensure Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's nomination in Baghdad — under the guidance of Iranian influence in a deal that also included the overthrow of Hariri's government in Beirut — in return for securing the safe withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. There are also concerns that the discussions regarding the US withdrawal from Afghanistan next year will lead to similar dealing between Washington and Tehran.
In a country like Lebanon, where freedom of the press can be fickle, and where former Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss famously stated that “in Beirut, there is a lot of freedom and a little democracy,” it may be quite natural to read such statements about Washington's foreign policy. Several remarkable and surprising aspects are worth examining and analyzing in this context.
First, those issuing the criticism are politically affiliated with the camp of Hariri. Some say that these statements genuinely reflect the Sunni Beiruti mood in particular and Saudi orientation as far as Lebanon is concerned in general, which means that the criticism of the United States is from a traditional friend and ally.
Second, such criticism represents a "coup" against the rhetoric that had been used by this same camp for years. This Saudi-Lebanese camp had long talked about its close ties to the West, in particular to Washington. It also expressed its confidence in the strong and sustained animosity between the West and Tehran remaining that way. Even at the local, Lebanese level, this camp has continued to assert over the last three years that the overthrow of the Hariri government in Beirut — on June 13, 2011, shortly after the Hariri had met with President Barack Obama in the White House — was a blow dealt by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah to it and its Saudi and US allies at the regional and international levels. This camp charges that it was carried out by force through a demonstration of the Hezbollah gunmen known as the “black shirts.” At the same time, however, it also alleged that Hariri had been overthrown as a result of a US-Iranian deal.
Only in light of these paradoxes can one understand the essence of Sunni-Lebanese and Saudi rhetoric toward Washington. This criticism is far from being objective. It is rather an expression of disappointment, bitterness, abandonment, betrayal and treachery at the hands of a friend and an ally. Regardless of the validity of this expression of feelings, the accuracy of its content or the extent of its realism, it is important to address it, especially considering that it is not the first time that a Lebanese camp has felt such disappointment toward the West and especially Washington.
The United States has undertaken three interventionist experiments in Beirut. Those Lebanese directly involved in them ended up three times disappointed. The first intervention occurred in 1958, when the Marines arrived on Lebanon's shores during the era of the Eisenhower Doctrine and the Abdel Nasser doctrine, in the midst of armed conflict between Christians and Muslims. A few weeks later, a US-Egyptian settlement emerged in Beirut. The army chief was elected president of the republic, Lebanon was placed under the umbrella of the foreign policy of Cairo, and Christians experienced their first disappointment in the United States. Until this day, Christians continue to rummage through the archives searching for an explanation for the deal.
The second intervention occurred in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and its army reached Beirut. The Marines landed again, accompanied by French and Italian troops. The situation continued to degenerate. President-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, and the barracks of the Marines at the Beirut airport and of the French paratroopers were bombed. Afterward, both parties returned to their respective countries, and the Land of the Cedars was left to deal with the “Syrian mandate.” This was the Christians’ second disappointment in the United States, which was reinforced in 1990, when Christians felt that Washington had abandoned them completely to Hafez al-Assad in return for the Syrian leader's assistance in the US war to liberate Kuwait after its invasion by Iraq. Syrian tanks invaded Lebanon amid Western silence that quickly turned into support for the system that resulted from the Syrians' invasion.
The third direct US intervention in Lebanon began in late 2004, when Washington sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1559, providing for the withdrawal of the Syrian army, the election of a new president and the removal of any illegal weapons in Lebanon. This third experiment remains ongoing, experiencing ups and downs along the way. It drove the Syrian army out of Lebanon, but failed to immediately elect a president.
This third experiment shifted from an attempted compromise with Damascus in 2007 to an effort beginning in 2011 to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. In light of recent developments, the third US intervention seems to be drawing to a close, especially with the emergence of US-Russian agreement that began with the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons and was capped with a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Such agreement could someday encompass all regional issues.
Thus, the winding down of the third intervention seems at odds with the accounts, stakes and interests of the Lebanese-Sunni-Saudi camp, just like Washington's withdrawal in 1958 and 1983 contravened the dreams of its allies at the time.
Following the Christians' two bouts of disappointment with the United States, the Sunnis are now experiencing their first. This is supposed to prompt the Lebanese to reconsider the conspiracy theories that they often believe in and scrutinize internal factors contributing to the current situation, especially their share of responsibility for the predicament and crises with which they are dealing. There is a popular saying that “the third time’s a charm.” Will it prove to be case here, or will the Lebanese prove the theory of Raymond Aron, according to which history does not repeat itself, except when people fail to understand it the first time?