“Life to the free is full of misery when one is forced to count a foe as friend.”
In a purported “show of support for regional stability” the United States dispatched the USS Cole from Malta to the eastern Mediterranean waters just off the coast of Lebanon this week. According to the Navy, two additional ships will soon follow including one amphibious assault vessel. Although the Cole will remain far enough at sea so as to not be visible from the shore (for now), its presence has already run counter to its stated objective.
As the political deadlock surrounding the legitimacy of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government drags on as does the stalemate over nominating a president-the vote to do so now postponed for the 15th time-tensions between the opposition and government have risen unabated. Add to this the recent assassination of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah, the threatened boycott of an upcoming Arab League summit in Syria by Saudi Arabia over the Lebanon crisis, the rapid escalation of violence and carnage in Gaza by Israel, and you have all the constituent elements in place for the eruption of a wider conflict.
So will the presence of U.S. warships lurking on the edge of Lebanon’s waters bring “stability” to this deteriorating Middle East picture?
Their illusionary purpose was quickly rebuffed by opposition MP Hussein Hajj Hasan:
“We don’t succumb to threats and military intimidation practiced by the United States to implement its hegemony over Lebanon.”
Retired Lebanese Army General Wehbe Katisha also recognized the true mission of the warships, stating, “Wars begin by an exchange of messages. The American decision is the first message to its opponents in the region saying ‘we are here.'”
First among these opponents is Syria and its perceived obstruction in preventing a political solution from being reached in Lebanon. Although the ruling March 14 Coalition likewise points an accusing finger at Damascus, this has become a tired refrain. The coalition led by Prime Minister Siniora, Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, as previously discussed, encouraged the Israelis to extend the July 2006 war until such time as Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah could be killed and Hezbollah destroyed. After this failure and with the blessing of the U.S., Hariri Inc. hired and sought to unleash the al-Qaeda-inspired militants of Fatah al-Islam on Hezbollah and their Shia supporters. The deal backfired however and fighting ensued in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp between the militants and the Army, resulting in the deaths of over 160 soldiers.
The opposition movement in Lebanon is therefore the only entity standing between the government and the surrender of the country to U.S. and Israeli interests. The opposition’s primary demand is a one-third allocation of cabinet ministers, giving them veto power and providing the necessary mechanism to check the actions of the prime minister.
So there is no need for a show of force to send any message to Syria. The standoff in Lebanon is internal and would not be taking place if the March 14 Coalition leaders conducted themselves in a manner in which they placed the well-being of their country and all citizens above their own interests.
The second purpose of these warships might be to “keep watch” over Lebanon (re: Hezbollah) should Israel decide on a full-scale invasion of Gaza. A report in Ha’aretz revealed that Israel has requested U.S. assistance in operational matters should it decide to do so. One can muse over the relation and timing of an impending assault there and the sudden arrival of U.S. forces.
Although Prime Minister Siniora denied making any request for them, one cannot imagine him objecting too strongly over their presence. Since the USS Cole is far enough away from the shores of Lebanon and Bush still relishing in the conjecture and speculation his actions have caused, for the moment, this gunboat diplomacy may be more appropriately termed showboat diplomacy. Should this change and the U.S. once again decide to enter into a reckless military adventure in Lebanon, among its many consequences would likely be the precipitation of civil war.
As Siniora looks over the sea trying to steal a glimpse of those who have come to his aid, the prime minister would be well-advised to heed the words of the great Arab poet al-Mutanabbi and recognize the only cargo these ships can deliver to him and his country is disaster.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.