Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

The United States and Lebanon: A Meddlesome History

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

The United States and Lebanon: A Meddlesome History

Article excerpt

While the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon one year ago was certainly a positive development, claims by the Bush administration and its supporters that the United States deserves credit are badly misplaced. On the first anniversary of the ousting of Syrian forces by a popular nonviolent movement, it is important to recognize that American calls in recent years for greater Lebanese freedom and sovereignty from Syrian domination have been viewed by most Lebanese as crass opportunism. Indeed, few Americans are aware that for decades the United States pursued policies which seriously undermined Lebanon's freedom and sovereignty.

Due to such misunderstanding, a brief review of the history of the U.S. role in Lebanon is in order:

The First U.S. Incursion

In 1926, France carved Lebanon out of Syria--which it had seized from the Ottoman Turks at the end of World War I--for the very purpose of creating a pro-Western enclave in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1943, France granted the country independence, leaving behind a unique governing system where the most powerful position of president would always go to a Maronite Christian and the second most powerful position, that of prime minister, would always go to a Sunni Muslim. The post of National Assembly speaker would go to a Shiite Muslim and on down through the country's smaller ethnic communities such as Druzes, Orthodox Christians, and others. Seats in the National Assembly would be apportioned based upon religious affiliation according to a 1932 French census. This was designed to keep Lebanon under the domination of the Maronite Christians, the country's largest single religious group, who were far more pro-Western and less prone to support radical Arab nationalists than most Lebanese and other Arabs. Indeed, Lebanon's very existence as a separate state was predicated on Maronite domination.

One part of maintaining this balance of power was limiting the Lebanese president to one six-year term. In 1958, a crisis was sparked by efforts to push through constitutional changes that would allow the pro-Western president Camille Chamoun to seek re-election. Though Chamoun backed down, Arab nationalist forces threatened to topple the archaic neocolonial electoral system imposed by the French. The United States responded by sending Marines briefly into Lebanon to suppress the incipient rebellion.

Palestinian Refugees and the Outbreak of Civil War

Internal cleavages in Lebanon were compounded by the presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who had been driven from their homes during Israel's war of independence in 1948 and were denied Lebanese citizenship of any representation in the political system. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)--which essentially served as the Palestinians' government-in-exile but was denied recognition by the United States--had taken advantage of the relatively weak central government in Beirut to establish Lebanon as its principal military, administrative, and diplomatic base of operations after being forced out of the Kingdom of Jordan by the Hashemite monarchy in that country's 1970-71 civil war.

Despite these tensions, the Republic of Lebanon--without a monarch or military dictator--enjoyed more political freedom than any other Arab country. The Lebanese capital of Beirut became a popular destination for American and European tourists and investors and became known as "the Paris of the Orient."

At the same time, the confessional representation system effectively kept elites from various Lebanese clans in control of the country and, while relatively prosperous compared to other non-oil producing states in the region, the government's laissez-faire economic policies exacerbated the huge gap between the country's rich and poor. By the 1970s, as a result of demographic changes, the Maronites had long since lost their status as the largest religious community while Shiite Muslims--who were allocated the least political power of the three major religious communities--had become the largest as well as the poorest. …

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