Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Engagement Fallout: Lebanon Surrenders

This past weekend, one of the genuine triumphs of American foreign policy in the past decade was officially reversed. When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harriri went to Damascus to pay tribute to his country’s Syrian overlord, the 2005 Cedar Revolution was buried. Less than five years ago, American pressure, which encouraged those forces in Lebanon that longed to be free, helped bring about the withdrawal of the Syrian troops that had occupied that country since the 1970s. Syria had overreached when it sponsored the assassination of Harriri’s father, Rafik, who preceded him as prime minister. That, combined with the increased influence in the region of the United States in the wake of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, had convinced the Syrians that they must retreat.

But although the Syrian army has not returned, it now doesn’t have to. Hezbollah, the potent terrorist force that serves as a proxy for both Iran and Syria, has effectively strangled any hope of Lebanon’s escaping the grasp of those rogue regimes. Syria’s influence is once more unchallenged in Beirut. Rather than witnessing an international tribunal arraigning Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his underlings for the murder of his father, as well as the transformation of Lebanon into a genuine Arab democracy, Saad Harriri has been compelled to swallow the humiliation of fawning on his father’s murderer.

What changed? According to the New York Times, the failure of Harriri to maintain his country’s independence is due to one major difference between 2005 and 2009: “since then, the United States and the West have chosen to engage with Syria, not isolate it.” As a result, those who thought they had the West’s backing for resisting the thugs of Damascus have been forced to swallow their pride and swear loyalty to Assad in order to save their lives.

All of which means that we can chalk up another defeat for the United States that can be put at the feet of Barack Obama’s fetish for diplomacy for its own sake. Like the opposition in Iran, the pro-independence Lebanese have been left in the lurch while Washington fecklessly pursues deals with dictators who have no intention of playing ball. And why should they, given the administration’s distaste for confrontations and its inability to rally international support for action on behalf of either a nuclear-free Iran or a free Lebanon?

It is worth recalling that back in the fall of 2008, when Joe Biden and Sarah Palin met for the vice-presidential nominees’ debate, Biden committed a gaffe when he claimed that Hezbollah had already been kicked out of Lebanon. Palin didn’t pick up on this blooper, and Biden escaped the derision he deserved for a passage in which he claimed that the best solution for Lebanon was a NATO intervention (had Palin committed such a blunder, she would never have heard the end of it). Biden probably meant Syria when he said Hezbollah, and his intention was to claim that Bush’s policies had failed in Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s revival. But as much as it should be conceded that Bush failed to sufficiently follow up on the Cedar Revolution, we now see what a year of the Obama-Biden administration has achieved in the region.

Their blind belief in engagement, as well as increased pressure on Israel, has emboldened both Syria and Iran. Those wishing to see what kind of difference Obama has made in the Middle East need only regard the wince-inducing spectacle of Saad Harriri bowing to Assad. The consequences of American engagement are not a pretty sight.