TIME MAGAZINE – MIDDLE EAST BLOG
US Gunboat Diplomacy in Lebanon Again
Andrew Lee Butters
You would think by now that the Bush Administration would realize that the days of gunboat diplomacy -- when the US could influence the course of international events with a display of military muscle -- are on the wane. The Iraq war showed everyone in the Middle East both the vast superiority of American weaponry, and the limits of war as an extension of politics. And yet, the White House has just sent an American warship, the USS Cole, to patrol off the coast of Lebanon as a "show of support for regional stability", according to news reports citing an anonymous US official.
In reality, the Cole is a show of support to Administrations allies in Lebanon and Israel, and a warning to Syria, Iran, and the Lebanese militia Hizballah to stop meddling in Lebanon's political crisis. It's perhaps also a warning for Hizballah to think twice about retaliating against Israel for the assassination of its operations chief, who was killed by a bomb in Damascus earlier this month.
But the arrival of the Cole is also a display of the limits of American power. Unpleasant though it may be, the campaign against the American-supported Lebanese government is a broad-based popular movement that is led by Hizballah, but which also includes several other groups who resent Lebanon's corrupt political elite and their masters in the West. A gunboat isn't much good for crowd control.
Nor would it be much use in the shadow war of terror attacks against Lebanon's pro-American politicians. Perhaps in the wake of another assassination, the Cole could launch missile strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, which the US blames for these attacks. But does the US public really want to get directly involved in yet another regional conflict with no end in sight? To list just one of the many way in which such a struggle could get ugly, there are thousands of American civilians in Lebanon (including myself) who would make easy kidnapping targets.
This may sound wildly paranoid, but it has happened before. When the US sent troops to Lebanon in the 1980's to help extricate Israel from its disastrous invasion, the US got sucked into the Lebanese Civil war, with spectacularly deadly results. After an American battleship, the USS New Jersey, launched a barrage against pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon, which responded by blowing up the US Marine Corps barracks, and taking a whole series of foreigners captive, an episode that so paralyzed the Reagan administration that it illegally sold weapons to Iran in hopes of gaining their release. Does no one in the Bush White House remember the Iran Contra Scandal?