Dr. Zunes is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. His most recent book, co-authored with Jacob Mundy, is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010).
Despite being a small country of four million, barely the size and population of Connecticut and nearly halfway around the world from Washington, Lebanon has been the focus of scores of Congressional resolutions in recent years. And, while Congress at times has been willing to take seriously its constitutional role of checking excessive executive power regarding dubious military intervention in some parts of the world, both the House and Senate have repeatedly — by overwhelming bipartisan majorities — adopted resolutions in relation to Lebanon reflecting right-wing militaristic perspectives. This has placed Congress at odds with virtually the entire international community, including America’s Western allies.
Of particular concern for Congress has been the emergence of Hezbollah (Party of God). This radical movement, based in the Shia Muslim population, was founded in the early 1980s in reaction to the Israeli occupation of the southern part of the country, home of the majority of the country’s Shia. Unlike the other major political parties that have historically dominated Lebanon’s political system, which are elite-based, led by generations of the same families and generally uninterested in the country’s poor majority, Hezbollah has embraced a populist — if somewhat reactionary — agenda and is now the largest single political party in the country. As a legacy of the complex system of confessional representation imposed by French colonialists to divide and rule, Lebanon’s Shia population — the largest and poorest of the country’s three major confessional communities — has less political power than Sunni Muslims or Maronite Christians. Decades of occupation and countless attacks on civilian population centers by the Israeli armed forces (IDF) have also led Hezbollah to emerge as one of the most militantly anti-Zionist political groups in the region and, by extension, among the most hostile toward Israel’s main backer, the United States.
For a number of years prior to the 2006 war, the Bush administration and the Israeli government had been planning for a major military assault on Lebanon in an effort to cripple Hezbollah.1 In apparent anticipation of the Israeli military offensive, the U.S. Congress began developing the rationale for such an operation by effectively demonizing the increasingly popular Shia party.
Just as Washington’s concerns about the alleged threat from Iraq grew in inverse correlation to that country’s actual military capabilities during the 1990s — culminating in the 2003 invasion long after Saddam Hussein had disarmed and dismantled the country’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs — the U.S. focus on Hezbollah likewise grew as that party largely put its terrorist past behind it. A 2002 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report noted, in its analysis of Hezbollah, that no major terrorist attacks had been attributed to the group since 1994.2 A State Department report on international terrorism also failed to note any acts of terrorism by Hezbollah since that time except for unsubstantiated claims that a Hezbollah member was a participant in a June 1996 attack on the U.S. Air Force dormitory at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.3 In the early 2000s, however, the Bush administration and Congress became more and more obsessed with Hezbollah. For example, not a single Congressional resolution mentioned Hezbollah during the 1980s, when it was kidnapping and murdering American citizens and engaging in other terrorist activities. In fact, no Congressional resolution mentioned Hezbollah by name until 1998, years after the group’s last act of terrorism was noted by the State Department and CRS. By 2005, however, there were more than two dozen resolutions condemning Hezbollah in that year alone.
For example, in March of 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution by an overwhelming 380-3 margin condemning “the continuous terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hezbollah.”4 (I contacted scores of Congressional offices in the weeks following this vote asking for specific examples of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah at any time during the previous decade; no one was able to cite any.) Adding to the hyperbole was the assertion that Hezbollah threatened not just Israel but the United States, despite their never having attacked or threatened to attack U.S. interests outside of Lebanon. Cited as evidence in the nearly unanimous March 2005 House resolution was testimony from former CIA director George Tenet in which he made accusations that Hezbollah is “an organization with the capability and worldwide presence [equal to] al-Qaida, equal if not far more [of a] capable organization .… They’re a notch above in many respects, … which puts them in a state-sponsored category with a potential for lethality that’s quite great.” That virtually the entire House was willing to cite Tenet as a credible authority so soon after his claims that Iraq possessed and maintained major stockpiles of “weapons of mass destruction” and maintained operational ties with al-Qaeda had been categorically proven false is but one indication of Congress’s desire to exaggerate the alleged threat from this populist Lebanese Islamist movement.
Other than a number of assassinations of political opponents in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s, it is debatable whether Hezbollah has ever launched a terrorist attack outside of Lebanon. The United States alleges as one of its stronger cases that Hezbollah was involved in two major bombings of Jewish targets in Argentina: the Israeli embassy in 1993 and a Jewish community center in 1994, both resulting in scores of fatalities. While a Hezbollah connection can certainly not be ruled out, lengthy investigations by Argentine officials, including testimony by hundreds of eyewitnesses and two lengthy trials, have provided no convincing evidence clearly implicating Hezbollah in the attacks. (Perhaps more likely suspects are extreme right-wing elements of the Argentine military, which have a notorious history of anti-Semitism.)
Not every country has failed to recognize Hezbollah’s evolution from its notorious earlier years during the country’s civil war in the aftermath of Israel’s 1982 invasion. The European Union, for example, cites Hezbollah’s external-security wing as a terrorist organization but does not include the organization as a whole among its list of terrorist groups. As a result, in yet another effort to push the U.S. foreign-policy agenda on other nations, the 2005 House resolution also “urges the European Union to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.” This may have been the first time the U.S. Congress has sought to directly challenge EU policy on a non-trade issue. More such efforts would follow.
The Europeans have had far more experience with terrorism, are much closer geographically to the Middle East, and historically have had stronger commercial, political and other ties to Lebanon than the United States and are therefore at least as capable as the U.S. Congress of assessing the orientation of Hezbollah. Furthermore, the EU has had no problem labeling al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad or Hamas as terrorist organizations. This suggests that it would have extended the same designation to Hezbollah if the facts warranted it. However, both Republican and Democratic House members, most of whom have little knowledge of the complexities of Lebanese politics but apparently feared European criticism of a U.S.-backed Israeli attack on Lebanon, arrogantly insisted that they knew better and had the right to tell the EU what to do.
Defending Israel’s War
In a May 23, 2006, summit in Washington between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, plans were approved for launching a war on Lebanon that summer.5 On July 12, following a Hezbollah rocket attack and assault on an Israeli patrol, Israel launched its long-planned massive military assault on Lebanon. The 34-day conflict resulted in the deaths of more than 1,300 people, primarily Lebanese civilians. Within days, the Senate, in a unanimous voice vote, passed a resolution unconditionally endorsing Israel’s ongoing attacks.6 Early the following week, the House followed suit, passing by an overwhelming 410-8 margin a resolution that praised President Bush for “fully supporting Israel” in the face of opposition from virtually the entire international community.7
Similarly, despite the resolution’s insistence that Israel was “in full compliance with Security Council Resolution 425,”8 requiring Israel to withdraw its occupation forces from Lebanon, its re-conquest of Lebanese territory had placed Israel once again in violation of that resolution and nine subsequent resolutions demanding the withdrawal of foreign forces. Furthermore, Israel had never fully complied with UNSC Resolution 425: It had repeatedly violated Lebanese air space well prior to the outbreak of fighting in July 2006 in violation of the Security Council mandate, actions that Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized as “provocative” and “at variance” with Israel’s fulfillment of the resolution’s demands for a withdrawal of ground troops from Lebanon.9
Related were the claims in the Congressional resolution that the Hezbollah attack on the Israeli border post and the capture of two soldiers were “completely unprovoked.” While clearly an illegal and provocative act, it was apparently in reaction to Israel’s ongoing detention of three Lebanese citizens seized inside Lebanon. Hezbollah had apparently hoped to work out some kind of swap, as both sides had successfully negotiated previously on several occasions. UN reports had documented numerous Israeli violations of the Lebanese border in the years and months leading up to the Hezbollah border raid.10 The seizure of the Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border was also apparently done in retaliation for the ongoing Israeli assaults on civilian population centers in the Gaza Strip.
The most difficult political issue facing Capitol Hill was the high number of civilian casualties from the Israeli assault, which took the lives of over 800 noncombatants by the time the ceasefire went into effect. To help cover up the ongoing atrocities by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the House version of the resolution supporting the war went on record saying that it “recognizes Israel’s longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss and welcomes Israel’s continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties.”11 Such a claim ran directly counter to reports by international journalists, human-rights organizations and the United Nations indicating that Israel had not been committed to “minimizing civilian loss” or preventing civilian casualties. For example, after several weeks of fighting, Human Rights Watch documented
…a systematic failure by the IDF to distinguish between combatants and civilians. Since the start of the conflict, Israeli forces have consistently launched artillery and air attacks with limited or dubious military gain but excessive civilian cost. In dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.12
Similarly, Amnesty International reported that Israeli forces “carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on a large scale,” including “those on civilian infrastructure” and “direct attacks on civilian objects.” Furthermore, they reported that “these attacks seem to have been aimed at inflicting a form of collective punishment on Lebanon’s people” and that, “based on the available evidence and the absence of an adequate or any explanation from the Israeli authorities for so many attacks by their forces causing civilian deaths and destruction, when no evidence of Hezbollah military activities was apparent, it seems clear that Israeli forces consistently failed to adopt necessary precautionary measures.”13
As such accounts of high civilian casualties and destruction of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure increased, Congress attempted to make the case that it was Lebanese, not the Israeli armed forces, who were responsible. For example, the Congressional resolution condemned Hezbollah “for cynically exploiting civilian populations as shields.”14 However, investigations by independent human-rights groups15 — as well as a subsequent study by the U.S. Army War College16 — found no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilian shields as protection from Israeli attacks. Human-rights groups did note that the Hezbollah militia — which, like most militias, is a volunteer force whose members live with their families — did occasionally store weapons in or near homes and had placed rocket launchers within populated areas. These are indeed violations of international humanitarian law because such practices put civilians at risk, but it is not considered as serious a breach as the use of human shields. In any case, the Fourth Geneva Convention notes that, even in a case where enemy combatants use human shields, this does not release the other party from taking all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian property.
In response to these reports, the House of Representatives passed, by a nearly unanimous voice vote, a resolution the following April claiming that “throughout the summer of 2006 conflict with the State of Israel, Hezbollah forces utilized human shields to protect themselves from counterattacks by Israeli forces.” In defense of the Bush administration’s controversial backing of Israel’s 35-day assault on Lebanon, the Democratic-led House cited the president’s claim that “Hezbollah terrorists used Lebanese civilians as human shields, sacrificing the innocent in an effort to protect themselves from Israeli response,” and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s assertion that “Hezbollah and its sponsors have brought devastation upon the people of Lebanon, … exploiting them as human shields.” In an effort to make the case that it was Lebanese, not the IDF, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese civilians, the resolution goes so far as to claim that “the majority of civilian casualties of that conflict might have been avoided and civilian lives saved had Hezbollah not employed this tactic.”17
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), in a debate on the House floor on April 25, insisted, “The key reason that civilian areas were destroyed was the cynical strategy of Hezbollah guerrillas to stage their attacks from the middle of towns and residential areas” and that “the loss of civilian life in Lebanon was due solely to Hezbollah’s cruel and uncivilized use of civilian areas as military bases.” Notably, the Democrats — as of that January the majority party — named Ackerman chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on the Middle East.
Another embarrassment facing Washington was to try to justify Israeli attacks on Lebanon as a whole, including the northern part of the country many miles from Hezbollah activity, as well as the airport, sea ports, power stations, communications centers, fuel depots, Lebanese army posts and other government facilities unrelated to the Hezbollah militia. As a result, there was a concerted effort in Washington to link the moderate pro-Western Lebanese government — which just months earlier President Bush had referred to as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East — with the illegal actions of Hezbollah as a means of defending Israel’s war against the nation as a whole. For example, the July 2006 Congressional resolution criticized the government of Lebanon for not forcibly disarming the militia but “allowing Hezbollah instead to amass 13,000 rockets.”18 However, in a January 2006 UN Security Council meeting in which a report was presented on the implementation of Resolution 1559, the United States and the other members approved a statement that “notes with concern the report’s suggestion that there have been movements of arms . . . into Lebanese territory and, in this context, commends the Government of Lebanon for undertaking measures against such movements.”19 In other words, the Lebanese government did not “allow” Hezbollah to amass new weaponry. The problem was that their small and weak security forces, weakened further by Israeli attacks, were simply unable to prevent it.
Similarly, Congress went on record declaring that Lebanon was in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 for failing to “disband” Hezbollah and allowing the party to be “integrated…into the Lebanese government.”20 In reality, UNSC Resolution 1559 does not call for Hezbollah or any other Lebanese political party to be disbanded, only for their armed militias to be disbanded, which the weak Lebanese armed forces were unable to do. The only degree to which Hezbollah had been “integrated…into the Lebanese government” was that Hezbollah member Mohammed Fneish had been named to the power and hydraulic-resources ministry, one of 24 cabinet posts. Representatives of all Lebanese parties that receive more than a handful of seats in parliamentary elections traditionally get at least one seat in the cabinet.
Since most Americans are uncomfortable with their government’s supporting wars of aggression, Congress repeatedly tried to present Israel’s war on Lebanon as a legitimate act of self-defense. For example, dismissing the broad consensus of international legal scholars to the contrary, the Congressional resolution insisted that the war was a manifestation of “Israel’s right to take appropriate action to defend itself, including to conduct operations both in Israel and in the territory of nations that pose a threat to it, which is in accordance with international law, including Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.”21
A reading of the UN Charter, however, reveals that Article 33 requires all parties to “first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.”22 Israel had refused to do this. More critically, Article 51 does allow countries the right to resist an armed attack and, arguably, to engage in hot pursuit in the case of a seizure of hostages, but it does not give a country the right to use a relatively minor border incident provoked by a non-state actor as an excuse to launch a full-scale war against an entire country. Article 51 also states that self-defense against such attacks is justified only “until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”23 This may explain why the Bush administration, with the support of Congress, blocked the UN Security Council from imposing a ceasefire or taking any other action.
Furthermore, the insistence of Congress that Israel’s actions were “in accordance to international law” is countered by widespread accounts of illegal Israeli actions in the course of the conflict. For example, Amnesty International concluded, after extensive research and analysis that included a review of Israeli interpretations of the laws of war, “Israeli forces committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including war crimes.”24 The International Red Cross, long recognized as the guardian of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war, declared that Israel had violated the principle of proportionality in the conventions as well as the prohibition against collective punishment. Similarly, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour — a former Canadian Supreme Court justice who served as a prosecutor in the international war-crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia — noted how the armed forces of both Hezbollah and the Israeli government had been engaging in war crimes. 25 And Jan Egeland, head of UN relief operations, referred to the “disproportional response” by Israel to Hezbollah’s provocations as “a violation of international humanitarian law.”26
Though lobbyists from the powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) certainly played a role in the lopsided passage of these resolutions, they were not the only special interest involved. In insisting that the large number of civilian casualties in Lebanon were a result of Hezbollah’s using the civilian population as human shields, Congress was attempting to make the case that, contrary to the findings of reputable human-rights groups, UN agencies and others, Israel’s actions were not illegal. Otherwise, under U.S. arms-control laws, the United States would be forced to restrict some of the lucrative weapons exports to Israel by the politically powerful arms industry.
Furthermore, in establishing a bipartisan consensus that it is legitimate for U.S. allies to run roughshod over international legal norms, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress put themselves on record that, in the name of “fighting terrorism,” U.S. allies — and, by extension, the United States as well — can essentially ignore international law and inflict unlimited damage on the civilian infrastructure of a small and largely defenseless country, even a pro-Western democracy like Lebanon. In addition, by challenging the credibility of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in their reports on Israeli violations of international humanitarian law in Lebanon, their reports on U.S. violations of international humanitarian law in Iraq and Afghanistan would be less likely to be taken seriously by the American public. Furthermore, depicting Arab militias as sinister terrorists who use innocent civilians as shields makes it possible for foreign countries relying heavily on air power to deny any legal or moral responsibility for the large numbers of civilian deaths that result, even though the death toll from such air strikes greatly surpasses the numbers of civilians killed by the so-called “terrorists.”
BLAMING IRAN AND SYRIA
As with U.S.-backed interventions in Vietnam, El Salvador and elsewhere, there was a concerted effort to depict Israel’s war on Lebanon, not as an act of foreign aggression, but as the defense of a nation’s sovereignty against rebel forces that were the proxy of a foreign power. For example the Congressional resolution reiterated President Bush’s assertion that the welfare of the Lebanese people was being “held hostage to the interests of the Syrian and Iranian regimes.”27
This was part of a concerted Congressional effort to exaggerate the control Iran and Syria had over Hezbollah. For example, the Congressional resolution claimed that “Hezbollah’s strength derives significantly from the direct financial, military and political support it receives from Syria and Iran.” It even claimed that “Iranian Revolutionary Guards continue to operate in southern Lebanon,” not only “providing support to Hezbollah,” but even “reportedly controlling its operational activities.”28 Apparently the intent of Congress was to convince the American public that these two governments targeted by the Bush administration had so much control over Hezbollah that they could stop whatever Hezbollah was doing. For example, the Congressional resolution “demands the Governments of Iran and Syria to direct … Hezbollah to immediately and unconditionally release Israeli soldiers which they hold captive.”29
As the pro-Western government of Lebanese Prime Minster Fuad Siniora insisted, and as events of that summer confirmed, the major threat to Lebanon’s security and the most serious affront to its sovereignty was clearly the U.S.-backed Israeli government, not Hezbollah. And Hezbollah’s political and military activities, like those of other Lebanese political parties, are based primarily upon what the movement’s leadership — however wrongly and cynically — believe is in the best interest of advancing their political agenda, not that of the Syrian and Iranian governments (whose interests in Lebanon are often at variance with each other as well). It is illogical to assume that a populist political party with such an ambitious electoral and social agenda as Hezbollah would instruct its militia to risk provoking a devastating war simply to please a foreign backer.
The small numbers of Iranian Revolutionary Guards who had been operating in southern Lebanon apparently returned to Iran years ago. While they played a critical role in the initial setup of Hezbollah’s armed militia in the early to mid-1980s following Israel’s invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon, their presence by 2006 was quite small. They were certainly not “controlling Hezbollah’s operational activities.” Similarly, Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon more than a year before the outbreak of fighting. Syria historically has been closer to Amal, a rival Shiite party, and its tactical alliance with Hezbollah has fallen well short of outright control. Thus, neither the Iranian nor Syrian governments at that time had the power to “direct” or to “get” Hezbollah to do anything it didn’t want to. The report to the UN Security Council on the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1559 in January 2006 noted that Syria had complied with provisions for the withdrawal of its forces from Lebanon and did not note any ongoing presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as Congress claimed.30 Indeed, given the Bush administration’s acceptance of this report at the time, it does not appear that there was much controversy over this assessment. Therefore, the decision by Congress to overstate the leverage that Iran and Syria have over the movement — like similar exaggerations of Soviet and Cuban leverage over leftist revolutionaries in Central America during the 1980s — appears to be based on a desire to promote the broader U.S. policies of isolating and eventually ousting these regimes.
Indeed, statements by the Bush administration and Congress that governments that “have provided continued support” for Hezbollah “share responsibility for the hostage taking and attacks against Israel and, as such, should be held accountable for their actions”31 appear to have been designed to provide justification for possible future Israeli or U.S. military action against Syria and Iran.
There has been little U.S. acknowledgement that Hezbollah’s strength derives primarily from popular support within the Shia Muslim minority in Lebanon. The Shias have suffered from heightened poverty and displacement as a result of the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon between 1978 and 2000, the U.S.-backed Israeli bombardment of Shiapopulated areas of the country beginning in the 1970s, and the U.S.-backed neoliberal economic policies of the Lebanese government that have decimated the traditional economy. As a result of the violence and misguided economic policies, hundreds of thousands of Shias have been forced to leave their rural villages in the south for the vast shantytowns on the southern outskirts of Beirut, where many found support through a broad network of Hezbollah-sponsored social services. Many became backers of Hezbollah’s populist, albeit extremist, political organization. In the wake of the forced departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the destruction of the secular leftist Lebanese National Movement by successive interventions from Syria, Israel and the United States during the 1980s, the radical Islamist Hezbollah rose to fill the vacuum. In other words, “Hezbollah’s strength” was very much an outgrowth of U.S. and Israeli policy. Indeed, the group did not even exist until a full four years after Israel began its occupation of southern Lebanon in 1978.
The overwhelming bipartisan support for Israel’s war on Lebanon was not as much a reflection of the power of the “pro-Israel lobby” or fear that opposing the war could damage one’s political career. Indeed, every one of the 15 House members who voted against or abstained in the July 2006 resolution supporting the war were re-elected that November, virtually all by a larger percentage of votes than in 2004.32 The actual motivation for the bipartisan support for Israel’s war, then, appears to have been to further undermine the post-World War II international legal norms that restrict American unilateralism in the region. For example, by radically reinterpreting Article 51 of the UN Charter and discrediting reports by human-rights groups and UN agencies of systematic war crimes — as was done in the Congressional resolutions passed by such overwhelming majorities — it makes it easier for the United States to engage in wars of aggression and violations of international humanitarian law in the future.
INTRUDING INTO LEBANESE POLITICS
Congress has not only taken the initiative in defending Israeli attacks in Lebanon, it has intervened in internal Lebanese politics as well. A prime example of this came in response to a brief spasm of violence between armed Lebanese factions in May of 2008, when the House passed a strongly worded resolution claiming that “the terrorist group Hezbollah, in response to the justifiable exercise of authority by the sovereign, democratically elected Government of Lebanon, initiated an unjustifiable insurrection.” House Resolution 1194 — sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Democrats’ chief foreign-policy spokesman in the House — also called on the Bush administration “to immediately take all appropriate actions to support and strengthen the legitimate Government of Lebanon under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.” This wording was interpreted by many as a license for future U.S. military action.
What actually happened during the second week of May that year was not as simple as the resolution claimed, however. The fighting was not between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state, but between various militias allied with some of the parties of the country’s two major rival coalitions. The Lebanese army remained neutral throughout the two days of fighting, and Hezbollah and its allied forces quickly and voluntarily handed over to the army areas of Beirut they had briefly seized. The uprising took place during a general strike to protest the Siniora cabinet’s refusal to raise the minimum wage and increase fuel subsidies in the face of rising prices for food and other basic commodities. The tense atmosphere was exacerbated by the politicized firing of a popular brigadier general in charge of security at the Beirut Airport and efforts to close down Hezbollah’s telecommunication network, which had played an important role in mobilizing defenses and relief operations during the massive Israeli bombing campaign against Lebanon in 2006. The Bush administration had been strongly encouraging the prime minister to enact such policies. According to resolution cosponsor Rep. Ackerman, however, the conflict was simply a matter of the people of Lebanon being “in the throes of having their duly elected government taken away from them by terrorist organizations and rogue regimes.”33
Lebanon’s “duly elected government” at that time consisted of a slim majority made up of the March 14th Alliance, a broad coalition consisting of 17 parties dominated by center-right parties led by Sunni Muslims, a center-left party led by Druze, and far-right parties led by Christian Maronites. The opposition March 8th Alliance consisted of 41 parties, led by the radical Shia Hezbollah, the more moderate Shia Amal, the centrist Maronite-led Free Patriotic Movement, as well as various leftist and Arab-nationalist parties. Despite this complex amalgam of movements, the House resolution insisted that Hezbollah had provoked “sectarian warfare” in the conflict, ignoring the fact that there were Muslims and Christians on both sides. One of the major combatants among the anti-Siniora forces, for example, was the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), a Lebanese movement led by Greek Orthodox Christians.
The resolution also oversimplifies the complicated dimensions of the conflict by putting the onus for the violence exclusively on Hezbollah. For example, the resolution accuses Hezbollah of sacking and burning the buildings housing the television studios and newspaper of a pro-government party, when in fact it was SSNP partisans who did so. Similarly, the resolution also blames Hezbollah for “fomenting riots” and “blocking roads,” when these were actions by trade unionists and others as part of a general strike for greater economic justice, an agenda supported by those from across the political and sectarian divide. Such rioting and the barricading of major thoroughfares have occurred in dozens of other countries in similar situations, in which governments, under pressure from the United States and international financial institutions, have attempted to impose structural adjustment programs and similar unpopular neoliberal economic policies.
Though the military actions by the militias of Hezbollah and its allies were clearly illegitimate, the hyperbolic language of the resolution went to rather absurd extremes. For example, the resolution referred to Hezbollah’s armed mobilization, in which its forces briefly controlled a number of neighborhoods in West Beirut, as an “illegal occupation of territory under the sovereignty of the Government of Lebanon.” This may be the first time that Congress has referred to a short-lived control of some urban neighborhoods by the militia of a domestic political movement as an “illegal occupation.” By contrast, not once in Israel’s 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon between 1978 and 2000 — which took place in defiance of no less than ten UN Security Council resolutions — did Congress ever go on record condemning Israel’s actions or even referring to it as the illegal occupation that it was.
The resolution also claimed that “more than 80 Lebanese citizens have been murdered” as a result of Hezbollah’s actions. However, independent reports indicate that the majority of those killed were armed combatants (thereby raising questions regarding the use of the term “murder”) and that the vast majority of the killings took place outside the capital in fighting between other factions after Hezbollah ended its offensive in West Beirut.34 Furthermore, these same reports demonstrate that Hezbollah was far more disciplined than some of the other militias in avoiding civilian targets. The resolution also reiterated the call by Congress on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. By contrast, there have been no such calls in Congress for other Lebanese parties — such as the Phalangists and the Lebanese Forces, whose militias have been responsible for at least as many civilian deaths as Hezbollah, but which are part of Siniora’s pro-Western coalition — to also be labeled terrorist organizations.
The resolution also claimed that Hezbollah’s goal in the uprising was not about the plight of the country’s poor (and disproportionately Shia) majority or a reaction to perceived discriminatory policies by the U.S.-backed prime minister, but that it was actually an effort “to render Lebanon subservient to Iranian foreign policy.” The resolution also insisted that the diverse group of opposition parties “continue to pursue an agenda favoring foreign interests over the will of the majority of Lebanese.” This not only once again exaggerated the degree of Iranian control but ignored the heavy influence by France and the United States over the March 14th Alliance, which is probably no less than that of Iran over the March 8th Alliance. The resolution went so far as to call upon the UN Security Council to “prohibit all air traffic between Iran and Lebanon and between Iran and Syria” on the grounds that it might be used to bring in arms to the Hezbollah militia. This placed a large bipartisan majority in Congress on record calling for the disruption of legitimate commercial activities between two neighboring foreign countries due to the possibility that a few of the thousands of annual flights may include contraband armaments. This demand is particularly ironic, given that the U.S. government, with the support of most of these same members of Congress, transports tens of billions of dollars worth of armaments to governments in the greater Middle East region every year, and at that time was also arming private militias in Iraq and separatist guerrillas in Iran.
The timing of the resolution, which was passed on May 22, a full two weeks after the fighting had ended, appeared to some observers to have been part of a U.S. effort to undermine the sensitive talks between Lebanon’s various political factions then being hosted by the Arab League in Qatar. In passing a resolution endorsing one side and condemning the other and threatening the use of “all appropriate actions” in support of one of the two sides, the House was apparently hoping to harden the negotiating positions of the pro-U.S. March 14th Alliance in order to cause the talks to fail. Fortunately, despite this apparent effort to undermine a settlement, Arab League negotiators were eventually able to get Lebanon’s two major political alliances to agree to a power-sharing agreement.
Though there was more than enough blame to go around on all sides for Lebanon’s longstanding political impasse as well as this outbreak of violence, the Congressional resolution put the blame entirely on one side. The resolution correctly observed that “United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701 call for the disbanding and disarming of all militias in Lebanon” but that “Hezbollah has contemptuously dismissed the requirements of the United Nations Security Council by refusing to disarm.” However, there is nothing in the resolution regarding militias allied with the U.S.-backed prime minister, which are also required to disarm. Siniora’s Future Movement militia, which Hezbollah fighters battled on the streets of West Beirut, has emerged since the passage of these UN resolutions without any apparent disapproval from Washington. The resolution also condemned Hezbollah for attacking buildings of rival parties. There were, however, no criticisms of the other side for similar actions, such as when pro-government gunmen attacked and seized the SSNP and Baath party offices in Tripoli and stormed SSNP offices in Halba, killing more than a dozen party activists.
The Democratic-controlled Congress, like the Bush administration, chose to depict the complex cleavages of Lebanese politics simply as a matter of good versus evil. “We have a situation here where a democratic, freedom-loving, sovereign people are insisting on the results of their own self-determined election that they came to through democratic processes and are doing that in the face of outside interference in the form of armed opposition, murders, assassinations that are being sponsored by Hezbollah, financed by the Iranian and Syrian regimes,” Ackerman said.35
In Lebanon, as in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, the United States has had a history of switching sides regarding who is seen as the bad guys and who is seen as the good guys. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States backed right-wing, predominantly Maronite, militias against the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist party. During the 1982-84 U.S. intervention in Lebanon, U.S. forces fought the Socialists directly, including launching heavy air and sea bombardments against Druze villages in the Shouf Mountains. Subsequently, however, Washington supported the Socialists, with the 2008 House resolution specifically defending the group. Similarly, the United States supported the Shia Amal militia in 1985-86 when it was fighting armed Palestinian groups, as well as in 1988, when Amal was fighting Hezbollah forces. Now, the United States is strongly opposed to Amal, essentially acting as if they were one with Hezbollah. The United States supported Damascus’s initial military intervention in Lebanon back in 1976 and supported the bloody Syrian-instigated coup in late 1990 that consolidated Syria’s political control of the country. Subsequently, however, the United States became a leading critic of Syria’s domineering role in the country’s government, which continued until a nonviolent popular uprising during the spring of 2005 forced a Syrian withdrawal. In 2007, as part of a U.S. policy to support hard-line Sunni fundamentalist groups as a counterweight to the growth of radical Shia movements in Iraq and Lebanon, Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri provided amnesty and released radical Salafi militants from jail.36 As such militants began causing problems in the northern city of Tripoli from a base in a Palestinian refugee camp, however, the United States then backed a bloody Lebanese army crackdown.
One of the most bizarre switches in U.S. allegiances involves former Lebanese Army General Michel Aoun, a Maronite, and his Free Patriotic Movement, the most popular Christian-led political group in the country. As an ally to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1990, the United States gave a green light to the Syrians to have interim Prime Minister Aoun overthrown in a violent coup. Not long afterward, however, the United States switched sides to back Aoun in his struggle against the Syrians and their supporters. As recently as 2003, Aoun was feted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies — a neoconservative group with close ties with the Bush administration that includes among its leaders Newt Gingrich, James Woolsey, the late Jack Kemp and Richard Perle, as well as Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Joseph Lieberman — which declared him a champion of freedom and democracy. Aoun won similar praise from some of the very members of Congress who supported the 2008 resolution when he testified that year before the House International Relations Committee. Soon after his return from exile, however, Aoun became one of the most outspoken opponents of the U.S.-backed political leaders and parties that came to dominate the Lebanese government, and he and his movement joined with Hezbollah in the March 8th Alliance. Not surprisingly, he quickly felt the wrath of the Bush administration and Congress.
One might think that, with a history like this, Congress would hesitate before going on record in support of specific factions in Lebanon’s confusing and violent political environment. However, over 95 percent of House members apparently viewed the matter otherwise.
Hezbollah’s provocative military action in May 2008, which violated its pledge to use its militia only in defense of the country from Israel and not against its fellow Lebanese, certainly hurt its standing among the country’s non-Shia majority, many of whom now see Hezbollah more as advancing their own parochial interests than serving the role they had previously embraced as a national resistance movement against foreign occupation forces. Washington’s support for Israel’s military attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon and this latest resolution backing rival armed factions, however, does little to encourage Hezbollah to disarm or promote efforts to advance nonviolent conflict resolution and national reconciliation.
Though the current coalition government in Lebanon at this writing appears stable, Lebanon as a whole remains volatile. There are ongoing reports of another possible Israeli military offensive — and a brief border clash in August 2010 between Israeli and Lebanese armed forces left one Israeli and three Lebanese (including a journalist) dead. In response, Congress immediately suspended this year’s $100 million in U.S. aid to Lebanon. This essentially put Capitol Hill on record that, while the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese civilians should not require a suspension or reduction of military aid to Israel, the death of one Israeli soldier was egregious enough to suspend all military aid to Lebanon.
More fundamentally, the dismissive attitudes in Congress regarding the rights of Lebanese civilians and the sovereignty of their country — not to mention the blithe dismissal of any analysis contradicting Washington’s assumptions regarding Lebanon’s complex political landscape — epitomize the very kinds of policies that have enabled the emergence of extremist organizations like Hezbollah.
1 Seymour Hersh, “Watching Lebanon,” The New Yorker, August 21, 2010.
2 Congressional Research Service, “Terrorism: Near Eastern Groups and State Sponsors, 2002,” February 13, 2002.
3 U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism: 2005.
4 U.S. House of Representatives, House Resolution 101, 109th Congress, March 14, 2005.
5 Hersh, op. cit.
6 U.S. Senate, Senate Resolution 534, 109th Congress, July 18, 2006.
7 U.S. House of Representatives, House Resolution 921, 109th Congress, July 20, 2006.
9 Nicholas Blanford, “UN Report on South Warns of ‘Potential for Escalation’ But Annan Says Area Is ‘Generally Quiet,’” Daily Star, July 25, 2010.
10 Cited in Anders Strindberg, “Hizbullah’s Attacks Stem from Israeli Incursions into Lebanon,” Christian Science Monitor, August 1, 2006; George Monbiot, “Israel Responded to an Unprovoked Attack by Hizbullah, Right? Wrong,” Guardian, August 8, 2006.
11 H. Res. 921, op. cit.
12 Human Rights Watch, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks against Civilians in Lebanon,” August 2006, Volume 18, No. 3(E). Human Rights Watch also documented violations of international humanitarian law by Hezbollah in its indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilian areas in Israel.
13 Amnesty International, Israel/Lebanon: Out of All Proportion — Civilians Bear the Brunt of the War, November 21, 2006.
14 H. Res. 921, op. cit.
15 See, for example, Human Rights Watch, op. cit.
16 Stephen D. Biddle and Jeffery A. Friedman, “The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy,” Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, September 25, 2008
17 U.S. House of Representatives, House Resolution 125, 110th Congress, April 25, 2007.
18 H. Res. 921, op. cit.
19 Department of Public Information, News and Media Division, United Nations (New York), 5352nd Meetingof the Security Council, “Security Council Notes Significant Progress in Lebanon, Including Withdrawal of Foreign Forces, Holding of Parliamentary Elections in 2005,” SC/8616, January 23, 2006.
20 H. Res. 921, op. cit.
22 UN Charter, Article 33.
23 Ibid, Article 51.
24 Amnesty International, op. cit.
25 Warren Hoge, “Attacks Qualify as War Crimes, Officials Say,” The New York Times, July 20, 2006.
26 BBC News, “UN Appalled by Beirut Devastation,” July 23, 2006.
27 Office of the White House Press Secretary, “Statement on Condemnation of Hizballah Kidnapping of Two Israeli Soldiers,” July 12, 2006.
28 H. Res. 921, op. cit.
30 Department of Public Information, News and Media Division, United Nations (New York), 5352nd Meeting of the Security Council, “Security Council Notes Significant Progress in Lebanon, Including Withdrawal of Foreign Forces, Holding of Parliamentary Elections in 2005,” SC/8616, January 23, 2006.
31 H. Res. 921, op. cit.
32 The partial exceptions were Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the lone Republican to not support the resolution, who was unopposed in his re-election bid in 2004 but had a Democratic challenger in 2006, and Rep Jim McDermott of Washington, who had a third-party challenger in 2006 who was not on the ballot two years earlier. In both cases, they won with more than three-quarters of the popular vote.
33 C-SPAN video library, “Reaffirming Support for the Government of Lebanon under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora,” May 20, 2008.
34 See, for example, International Crisis Group, “Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward,” Middle East Briefing No. 23, May 15, 2008.
35 C-SPAN, op. cit.
36 Seymour Hersh, “The Redirection,” The New Yorker, March 5, 2007.