Thursday, September 23, 2010

The US looks the other way as Lebanon slides towards chaos

So it was no surprise that many missed the visit to Beirut of the American special envoy for Middle East peace negotiations, George Mitchell. This was a fitting sign of Washington’s limitations in Lebanon.

The Obama administration has just appointed a new ambassador, Maura Connelly, one well experienced in regional affairs. Ms Connelly replaces a colleague never considered a powerhouse on the Lebanese scene, with some seeing in her a return to more assertive diplomacy. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the new ambassador served as a deputy to Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, himself the most assertive of ambassadors in Beirut when he served there around the time of the Hariri killing and afterward.

However, it will take more than a strong personality to reverse American difficulties in Lebanon. The country is hardly an administration priority, even less so when Barack Obama’s major preoccupations are domestic. Ms Connelly will struggle to place Lebanon higher up in Washington’s attentions. The task was made no easier when the Lebanese told Mr Mitchell that they would not now participate in direct peace talks with Israel.

Lebanon may not be important to Mr Obama, but to quote the title of a recent book on the country by journalist David Hirst, one should beware of small states (a phrase borrowed from Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist). Lebanon is the most likely venue for an Arab-Israeli war; it is a frontline in the conflict between the Arab world and Iran; the Lebanese state, over which Hizbollah has widespread control, is close to becoming the mere husk of a state, its sovereignty and independence fictitious; and, most worryingly, relations between Sunnis and Shiites in the country are worse than ever before, with chilling ramifications for the Middle East if they turn violent.

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