Meet the Lebanese Press: US military “tourism”

A man smokes a water pipe outside a cafe in the Tariq al-Jadide neighborhood of Beirut. The densely populated Sunni neighborhood is considered to be a stronghold for March 14 leader Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, March 2008. (Matthew Cassel)


Supporters of Lebanon’s March 14 movement tend to complain about the damage to tourism caused by the current status quo in Lebanon. Many of them cheered recently when the wheels of fortune seemed to swing their way as the US destroyer USS Cole approached Lebanese shores.

But to many analysts, the arrival of the warship signaled to many yet another level of escalation towards an immanent break out of an all-out confrontation between Syria, Iran and Hizballah on one side and Israel and the US on the other. The destroyer may not have come with a specific mission other than a symbolic show of support for the March 14 movement that backfired as it undermined the group’s constant claim to protect Lebanese sovereignty. But attributing US military maneuvering to the desire for a symbolic gesture towards March 14 reveals a lack of understanding at best and conceit at most by those who make such claims. Amassing military power in the Mediterranean, if it continues, does and could seriously tilt things towards outright conflict and mobilizing these ships is likely to be linked to the further tying in of the regional crises.

Historically, US direct military interventions in Lebanon in the 1950s and later in the 1980s ended in disaster. A repeat of that history may be in the making. Meanwhile, the fallout of the continuing political row between Syria and Saudi Arabia despite last-ditch efforts at reconciliation may hold the key to any possible short-term resolution or prolongation of the deadlock. The upcoming summit in Damascus at the end of March may be the final opportunity for such a resolution or a signal that war is only a matter of time, at which time the “tourism” of the USS Cole will give way to what warships are normally designed for.

In As-Safir, Suleiman Takkiyyedeen scoffs at the notion that the destroyer came to maintain stability sees it as a clear indication of the flourishing of the American project. Nicolas Nassif of Al-Akhbar attempts to link the warship’s arrival with past developments while Rosana Boumounsef argues in An-Nahar that the real target of this message are Tehran and Damascus and Lebanon is simply the medium of that message.

As-Safir, 1 March 2008, Suleiman Takkiyyedeen, “America Toying with the Region”:

The United States showcases its power in Lebanese water. The destroyer Cole enters the regional waters to send a strong message to Lebanon and Syria. The US wants to accomplish its democratic mission in Lebanon under the umbrella of the largest rocket carrier.

The deployment of Cole, according to a high-profile US official, is to “preserve regional stability during these uncertain times” … But talk of regional stability sounds like a bad joke in the face of open wars and escalating conflicts.

This flexing of American power in Lebanon is a clear preparation for a large-scale “terrorist” act intended to trigger chaos and not to preserve stability.

It is clear that the US wants a war by proxy, and is aiming at sparking inter-Arab wars and civil strife. The American project in the region is not within the realm of the possible or the expected anymore. It is [already] in progress under different banners.

… The Arabs have been “tricked” by American “promises” when they facilitated the US occupation of Iraq, the same way they were “tricked” by the British during the Arab revolt in the early part of the past century. And they now consider Iraq a region of non-Arab influence and complain of what they consider regional interventions in the Lebanese file while ignoring the American project that is obsessed with Israel’s security.

The general trend [of political developments] in Arab countries is to turn them all into countries in the making that suffer from existential disturbances and chaos.

If chaos finds its way into Lebanon and later Syria, the regional order will require restructuring under US tutelage into a system of mini-states ruled by sect kings.

Al-Akhbar, 1 March 2008, Nicolas Nassif, “The American Surprise: A no-rush message that confused the loyalists and provoked the opposition”:

Lebanese political opinion was divided regarding the arrival of the US destroyer USS Cole across the Lebanese territorial waters without entering those waters … but it was no more than a mysterious surprise that did not point to any immanent objectives.

Arab diplomatic sources [argued that] the decision to send the destroyer to the Middle East was not a last minute one. Rather, it was the product of the intersection of several incidents that took place in Lebanon in the last few weeks that worried the American administration. These incidents include the 15 January explosion that targeted an American Embassy convoy in Beirut, the heightened tone of accusations traded by Hizballah and Israel in the wake of the assassination of Imad Moughniya on 13 February, and the possible eviction of American expatriates from Lebanon due to unforeseen developments.

… This arrival created the impression of an American re-involvement in the internal conflict between the loyalists [March 14] and the opposition and suggested that the destroyer is a stick that Washington is waving in the face of Damascus to facilitate a resolution of the Lebanese crisis and the election of a new president. And it is clear that many members of March 14 reveled secretly in this arrival but found themselves incapable of welcoming it openly or at least acting in a manner that permits them to have a stronger negotiating position vis-a-vis the opposition via the indirect pressure on Syria.

An-Nahar, 3 March 2008, Rosana Boumounsef, “Is the Iranian-Syrian dimension for the US measure [of sending Cole] hiding behind Lebanon?”:

Although the US joint Chief of Staff Michael Cole denied that sending the destroyer is targeting a certain country, namely Syria, or in relation to a specific situation, namely that of Lebanon … this decision, according to diplomatic observers in Lebanon, is necessarily a political statement against Syria and Iran and on the threshold of a security council resolution expected to approve punitive sanctions against Tehran. The decision [to send destroyer] also comes amid Hizballah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah’s warning of an “open war” against Israel in the wake of the killing of the [Hizballah] military and security official Imad Moughniya.

This is because the security of Israel, in light of threats of an “open war” despite Nasrallah’s toning down of his speech one week after Moughniya’s assassination, is matter of vital interest to the United States …

The gist of the American message [according to one reading] is that Washington is serious about Lebanon … Indeed that it is very serious although that this step [dispatching the USS Cole] has raised big questions such as whether this is laying the ground for an American strike in the region.

And while many say such a strike is unlikely, [they argue] that the dispatch is a show of force aimed as well as a warning to Syria against it launching any attack on Israel or deciding to retaliate for an American strike on Iran.

In the case, the main question surrounding the US action becomes: “How will it impact the course of events at the regional and international level, and not Lebanon directly?”

Meet the Lebanese Press is EI’s twice-monthly review of what is making the rounds in the Lebanese press and the pundits’ take on it.

Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese Canadian journalist.

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