Photo: Haitham Moussawi/AFP/Getty Images
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at the International Airport in Beirut on February 15, 2018.Photo: Haitham Moussawi/AFP/Getty Images
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Rex Tillerson Babbles in Beirut While Middle East War Looms

Trump’s envoy tries to make a distinction between Hezbollah and Lebanon’s government where there is none

Tony Badran
February 20, 2018
Photo: Haitham Moussawi/AFP/Getty Images
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at the International Airport in Beirut on February 15, 2018.Photo: Haitham Moussawi/AFP/Getty Images

Sec. of State Rex Tillerson visited Lebanon last Thursday, and let’s just say it wasn’t exactly a shining moment for U.S. diplomacy. Tillerson was made to sit alone in a room with no American flag in sight and wait, as photographers took pictures and video, before Hezbollah’s chief allies in Lebanon’s government, President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law the foreign minister, finally came out to greet him. Images of the U.S. Secretary of State fidgeting in front of an empty chair were then broadcast across the Middle East to symbolize American impotence at a fateful moment for the region.

The televised humiliation of Tillerson was accompanied by even more explicit evidence of American policy confusion in the face of Iran’s take-over of the Lebanese state and fresh attacks from Syria across Israel’s borders. After Iran launched a drone into the Israeli sector of the Golan Heights, the Israeli Air Force attacked the T-4 air base in the Homs governorate, the site of the Iranian mobile command and control center that launched the drone. The decision to destroy the Iranian control center came following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Russia last month, during which Netanyahu again expressed Israel’s rejection of Iran’s efforts to establish a military presence in Syria, and reiterated his government’s resolve to act against it. According to the Israelis, the second wave of strikes launched against the Iranians in Syria was the broadest single aerial attack against Syria since 1982.

As the military confrontation between Iran and its regional proxies on one hand, and Israel on the other hand, heats up, Lebanon has emerged as the nerve center of the Iranian camp. On the eve of Tillerson’s visit, Lebanon hosted Akram al-Kaabi, the leader of an Iraqi militia which operates under the command of Iran’s Qods Force. From Beirut, al-Kaabi stated his group would fight Israel alongside Hezbollah in a future war. The presence of al-Kaabi in Lebanon—his terrorist comrade Qais al-Khazali had dropped by late last year—underscored Lebanon’s role as a hub for Iran’s regional terrorist assets.

Yet none of this apparently deterred the U.S. Secretary of State from traveling to Beirut like Alice in Wonderland in order to play-act a fantasy in which Lebanon is a valuable American ally in the fight against terrorism. Tillerson compounded the bad optics of his visit with ill-advised and contradictory comments that shone a spotlight on the combination of confusion, wishful thinking and abject denialism that appear to be shaping the Trump Administration’s Lebanon policy, even as the National Security Adviser sounds the alarm over the growing capabilities of Iran’s network of Hezbollah-style proxies.

Prior to heading to Beirut, Tillerson gave an interview to the American Arabic language station al-Hurra, in which he emphasized that Hezbollah was a terrorist organization, and that the United States expected cooperation from the “Lebanon Government to deal very clearly and firmly with those activities undertaken by Lebanese Hizballah that are unacceptable to the rest of the world.” However nonsensical the distinction U.S. policy maintains between Hezbollah and the “Lebanese government,” this particular line from Tillerson at least raised the potential of serious demands from the Lebanese to address the terrorist group running their country.

But then, while in Jordan, Tillerson undermined any potential hints of firmness by reading from an entirely different script—one that encapsulates the confused nonsense that is U.S. Lebanon policy. Hezbollah is “influenced by Iran,” Tillerson said. But, he added, “We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon”—which apparently makes being “influenced by Iran” and being a terrorist group OK. Tillerson also lauded the Lebanese “government” for issuing a meaningless and duplicitous statement “dissociating” itself from the conflicts in the region—conflicts in which Hezbollah is a principal driver, and for which Lebanon serves as a launching pad and training ground. Not once did Tillerson mention the need to disarm Hezbollah, or reference UNSCR 1559 and 1701, which demand it.

Tillerson’s approach to the terror army that controls the Lebanese state is the inevitable endgame of a paradoxical policy predicated on pretending that the “Lebanese government” and Hezbollah are two distinct, even antagonistic entities. We support the “Lebanese government” and its “institutions,” the logic goes, because this will somehow, sometime in the indeterminate future, magically “undermine” Hezbollah. How? By “undermining” the terror group’s “narrative,” defenders of such nonsense usually explain. The suggestion that Hezbollah is a Twitter account that can be deterred by “sick burns” rather than an Iranian trained-and-financed army that has negated the legitimate political institutions of the Lebanese state through force while it brutally murders and ethnically cleanse people in Syria and keeps 150,000 missiles targeted at Israel is too ridiculous to engage with here. But that doesn’t keep it from being a pillar of U.S. government policy.

The reality on the ground in Lebanon is even worse. Hezbollah is not only a part of the Lebanese government, it controls it—along with all of the country’s illustrious “institutions,” including the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). By supporting “Lebanon,” or “Lebanese state institutions,” the United States is in fact supporting a government dominated by a U.S.-designated terrorist group. If a group of used car salesmen in Texas tried shipping $120 million of advanced U.S. military equipment to Hezbollah, they would be arrested and thrown in prison for providing material aid to a terrorist group. But when the U.S. government provides that equipment to an army that Hezbollah controls, that’s more than OK—in fact, it’s our entire Lebanon policy.

Behind the incoherence of this policy there is nothing clever—only more incoherence and fantasy. After Tillerson’s comments drew criticism, the State Department rushed in to do damage control, which of course only amplified the logical contradictions of the original statements, which perfectly accord with the policy documents from which they were taken. First, U.S. Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein tried to walk back what Tillerson said. Only he didn’t so much correct the Secretary’s words as to restate them, with barely a rearrangement of the word-order. Lebanon “would be better off without Hezbollah’s terrorism and malign influence,” Goldstein told journalists. But, he added, “We will continue our efforts at strengthening those institutions that bolster Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability.”

Right. That is to say, Hezbollah is a terrorist group, which is part of the Lebanese government. Naturally it would be better if this weren’t the case. But it is. And so, we will continue to support the Lebanese government, which is run by a terrorist group. Ta-daa!

Now in Beirut, Tillerson tried to correct his earlier comments by underscoring that the United States considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist group and makes no distinction between purported military and political “wings.” He added, “It is unacceptable for a militia like Hizballah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese Government. The only legitimate defender of the Lebanese state is the Lebanese Armed Forces.”

What does any of this mean? Well, nothing, of course. Let’s start with the word “unacceptable.” If it is indeed “unacceptable” to the United States for Hezbollah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese government, then what cost are we imposing on the “Lebanese government,” which continues to let Hezbollah do whatever it wants? But then again, Hezbollah is in fact part of the Lebanese government, and works hand in hand with its armed forces, which we finance. So in what way is Hezbollah operating “outside the authority” of the government, when it is the government? And if it is not, then what is the Lebanese Armed Forces—the illustrious “defender of the Lebanese state” on which we spend $120 million a year—doing to stop it?

The truth here is simple. Lebanon is another name for Hezbollah. Its “government” is a front for Iran, which gives Hezbollah its orders. How complicated is that?

But apparently these realities are too scary or complicated or unpleasant for the United States to acknowledge, when given the alternative of sending Rex Tillerson to Beirut to be humiliated by Hezbollah and the “Lebanese government.” The U.S. Secretary of the State told the Lebanese that there could be no talk of “stability” and “security” without addressing Hezbollah and its arsenal, which bring “unwanted and unhelpful scrutiny” to Lebanon (why such scrutiny is unwanted or unhelpful is unclear, but let’s leave that additional piece of incoherence alone for now). Yet in the same breath, Tillerson reiterated America’s unwavering commitment to preserving Lebanon’s stability. Enough already.

So where does this egregious incoherence come from? The answer is from trying to combine the regional policy inclinations of President Trump with those of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Yet where Trump and his generals have publicly trumpeted the need to stand up to Iran, Obama was pursuing an explicitly pro-Iranian policy—which gave Obama’s Lebanon policy the advantage of coherence. Obama’s pro-Iran position translated in Lebanon into U.S. intelligence-sharing with Hezbollah via the LAF. When the group’s involvement in Syria brought blowback in the form of car bombs in its strongholds and against the Iranian embassy in Beirut, the United States helped the LAF protect itself, and protect Hezbollah, in the name of preserving Lebanon’s “stability and security.” Aiding the LAF made sense, because U.S. policy was in fact aimed at securing what Obama called Iran’s “equities” in Syria, by providing a security umbrella for Iran’s position in Lebanon, which it used as a base for its Syrian adventure. The point of Obama’s Lebanon policy was to strengthen Iran’s position there.

Selling the Trump Administration on Obama’s pro-Iranian Lebanon policy might seem like a long shot, given Trump’s stated opposition to the Iran Deal and statements by tough-guy generals about the need to “counter” Iranian regional influence. In practice, however, it has proven surprisingly easy, in part because Hezbollah and the Lebanese “government” are running the con together.

And just as both parties want the United States to deepen its investment in the LAF in order to turn it into a constraint, if not deterrent, against Israel, they have seized on another American diplomatic mistake: offering to help mediate with Israel over maritime and land borders. Incredibly, from Beirut, Tillerson urged Israel to be constructive in these discussions. The United States, he signaled, was interested in “lowering tensions” on the border and in ensuring “Lebanon’s southern border remains calm”—as if the reason for such tensions was a newly-revived maritime dispute, rather than the large Iranian-controlled terror army that Hezbollah has positioned at Israel’s doorstep on Lebanese soil, with the support of Lebanon’s government and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Enter Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. No sooner had Tillerson left Lebanon than the terror group’s chief moved to press his advantage. The United States wants “calm” on the border with Israel? Let them get the Israelis to offer more concessions. “If the Americans come and say you must be responsive so that I restrain Israel from you,” Nasrallah addressed the Lebanese government in a speech on Friday, “tell the Americans they must accept (Lebanon‘s) demands so that we [i.e., the Lebanese government] hold Hezbollah back from Israel.”

With this, Nasrallah once again laid bare the con that his group and the “Lebanese government” are running together on the Americans. Hezbollah and the “government” ran the same play during their joint operations against Sunni militants on the border with Syria last summer. America was an easy mark then, and now appears to have come back for more. All of this was predictable from the minute the administration made the ill-advised decision to send a cabinet level official to be humiliated in what is little more than an Iranian satrapy.

What’s more, the larger strategic framework for this policy invests the United States in securing an Iranian realm on Israel’s border at a time of rising tensions being driven by Iran’s apparent perception of American confusion. The Israeli government has been trying to prevent a large scale war with Hezbollah and Iran in Syria and Lebanon. Simultaneously, it continues to target Iranian assets in Syria and prevent any upgrade to their capabilities there.

Israel’s tactical Syria-focused approach to the growing threat on its borders has kept the peace so far, but it has come at a cost. For one, it does not address the broader strategic factor of Iran’s growing position in Syria, and it leaves Iran’s other regional headquarters in Lebanon untouched. Also, it sets a pace that is more suitable to Iran’s interests. The Iranians can absorb tactical strikes so long as they are able to consolidate their strategic position in Syria and Lebanon. Not only have the Iranians been able to fly a drone into Israel, but also, their allies and assets have made gains on the ground near the northern Golan and in Mount Hermon. As Iran’s position strengthens, and as Israel’s military and political hand weakens, the Israelis will soon be left with little choice other than to launch a devastating war.

To avoid that outcome, the United States needs to adjust its policy—and fast. Rather than leave Israel to navigate around the Russians and go after Iran’s assets in Syria and Lebanon on its own, it should endorse Israel’s red lines regarding Iran in Syria, and amplify its campaign against Iranian assets. In addition, it should revise its Lebanon policy and end its investment in the Hezbollah-controlled order there.


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Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.