Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's rejection in Rome of an "immediate" cease-fire appeared to many to be another example of unbalanced US support for Israel, whose current war is taking its toll on Lebanon as a whole, not only Hezbollah. It may look, that is, like US policy is, "Israel first, Lebanon second."
The United States, of course, considers its policy to be in the best interests of both Israel and Lebanon. But the US stance should also be seen as "US First," that is, as a policy driven fundamentally by what the White House considers US interests.
Consider a remarkable statement made by Vice President Dick Cheney — probably the most influential Mideast policymaker in the United States — to the press on March 16, 2003, three days before the US war in Iraq began. Cheney justified the war as partly a response to the killing of American Marines in Lebanon in 1983:
"I think the impression has grown in that part of the world. I think Osama bin Laden believes this, and I think Saddam Hussein did, at least up until Sept. 11, that they could strike the United States with impunity, and we had situations in '83 when the Marine barracks was blown up in Beirut. There was no effective US response. In '93 the World Trade Center in New York was hit, with no effective response. In '96 Khobar Towers, in '98 the east Africa Embassy bombings, in 2000 the USS Cole was hit, and each time there was almost no credible response from the United States to those attacks. Everything changed on Sept. 11."
American Marines landed in Lebanon in August 1982 as part of a multinational force that was to evacuate Palestinian fighters cornered by Israel in Beirut. Israel had invaded Lebanon in June to eliminate the PLO, which had engaged Israel militarily in the south for nearly a decade, and to back a government sympathetic to Israel. The evacuation arranged by a special envoy of President Ronald Reagan went smoothly, but subsequent events unraveled the fragile conditions.
The United States and France became involved in the fighting on the side of the Lebanese government, and were then attacked by its opponents, some of whom were inspired by the overthrow of the US-backed monarchy in Iran four years earlier. On Oct. 23, in what one historian calls "the most professional massacre ever perpetrated in Lebanon," militants car-bombed the French and US barracks almost simultaneously, killing more than 300.
Reagan described the attacks as "bestial," and Vice President Bush, touring the site, said the United States "would not be cowed by terrorists." The United States continues to hold Hezbollah and Iran responsible for these attacks.
Since the second week of July, then, the Israelis have been doing work the White House probably thinks should have been done long ago — the missing "effective response," in the vice president's words. Israel's war on Hezbollah is "an extension of the war on terrorism," says US Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. This is how the Bush administration considers the war in Iraq. The stated aims of this US war strategy are to eliminate the terrorists, and produce conditions for freedom and democracy in the region. Besides the fact its opponents don't want to be cowed either, one problem with this strategy in Lebanon is conditions have changed since 1983. Then, powerful Lebanese factions initially welcomed the Israelis, and were pleased to see the PLO go. Now, especially in the south, many view Hezbollah as a legitimate Lebanese political movement, one that helped "free" Lebanon by fighting off the Israelis in the 1990s. They don't appear to support wiping it out the idiom of the "war on terrorism."
Speaking in Jerusalem prior to the Rome summit, Rice confidently stated, "We will prevail." These words suggest more a war posture than a diplomatic one. The Bush administration is releasing humanitarian aid to Lebanon, but its stronger support, in the form of its risky rejection of an immediate cease-fire, is for the war on Hezbollah — the missing "US response" powerful figures in the White House may have been wanting since 1983.
Andrew Davison is associate professor of political science at Vassar College where he teaches courses in political theory and Middle East politics. His most recent book is "Conquering Hearts and Minds: The American War Ideology in the Persian/Arabian Gulf, 1990-2003" (2005).
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