The saga of the Syrian Scuds sent to Hezbollah, or perhaps not sent, continues, though for now mainly in the corridors of Washington.
The latest on the matter has come from Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. She pointed out, in a statement to AFP on Wednesday, “I believe there is a likelihood that there are Scuds that Hezbollah has in Lebanon. A high likelihood.” Feinstein added that “[t]he rockets and missiles in Lebanon are substantially increased and better technologically than they were, and this is a real point of danger for Israel.”
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also on Wednesday, that the Obama administration would have “really, really serious” concerns if Syria transferred Scuds to Hezbollah. Feltman also brought the subject of the weapons up in conversations with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, and with Mohammad Chatah, a political advisor to Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
“If these reports turn out to be true,” Feltman said, “we’re going to have to review the full range of tools that are available for us in order to make Syria reverse what would be an incendiary, provocative action.”
Feltman’s call to Chatah had more than a little hint of warning in it. Hariri declared recently in Italy that the Scud allegations against Syria and Hezbollah were similar to the false claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the US invasion of 2003. That did not go down well in Washington. Feltman has indicated that Lebanon’s only real protection against Israel is UN Security Council Resolution 1701, and the Americans must have interpreted the prime minister’s remarks as covering for two of the parties undermining the resolution.
The problem is that Washington is of several minds over what to do about Syria. Feltman’s warning was sharp, and the State Department has taken a tougher position on Syria than others in the US capital. Earlier this week, for instance, Syria’s deputy chief of mission was called in to discuss the arms transfers to Hezbollah. However, Feltman, who honed his distrust of Syrian ways as ambassador to Lebanon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, is also convinced that the United States gains by sending an ambassador back to Damascus.
The mood in Congress is mixed as well. There are those like John Kerry, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who support engagement of Syria. But there are others, in both the Senate and House, who want to take a harder line with the Assad regime. Some advocate tightening sanctions and delaying sending Robert Ford, the new US ambassador in Damascus, to his posting.
Not for the first time when the Middle East is involved, the debate has become mainly an insular one. It’s about Washington and who can impose the Syria agenda (and by extension other related agendas affecting Iran and Hezbollah). That’s not to say that someone like Feltman doesn’t mean it when he says that the consequences of Syrian actions may be dire; but ultimately the foreign policy bureaucracy has less of a say on high-profile topics than those calculating in strictly political terms, whether at the White House or on Capitol Hill.
For a variety of reasons, domestic dynamics seem to be gaining ground in the American outlook on the Middle East. President Barack Obama is more vulnerable than ever since taking office, principally for two reasons: domestically, he has not fulfilled his promise of being a consensual president, and the discord over the health care bill embodied this shortcoming. Obama may have made history, but Democrats are bracing for the backlash next November. They also realize that polling is showing increasing public displeasure with big government, a mainstay of Obama’s political program.
In foreign affairs, the president has also come up short. His high hopes for success in the Middle East have been dashed. Many Arabs welcome the tension in US-Israeli relations, but the net effect is that Palestinian-Israeli negotiations remain stalled. Engagement of Syria and Iran has failed, while the administration is still unsure about how to deny Iran nuclear weapons. In Afghanistan the US faces an uphill struggle, with its main ally, President Hamid Karzai, regarded by many American officials as part of the problem. The withdrawal from Iraq is going forward, but Iraq is no longer high in American preoccupations, offering Obama diminishing marginal election returns.
Everyone is calculating in the shadow of these dynamics, and how they will affect Obama’s power. But because there is no broad accord, and because the president has not provided clear guidance on resolving Mideastern problems, there is confusion in Washington. And where there is confusion there is policy bedlam, with everyone trying to fill the vacuum. That explains why the Syrians feel they can relax for now, and why the Iranians see no reason yet to fear an American riposte.
Lebanon should be worried about American uncertainty. When there is doubt in Washington, it usually means the Israelis have wide latitude to do what they see fit here. With much of the Lebanese political class openly or objectively siding with Hezbollah, rather than shaping an American approach to Lebanon that might reinforce its sovereignty, we can guess the calamitous effect of that abdication.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. His book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster), has just been published.