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In Sunday’s elections in Lebanon, Hezbollah and its allies gained more than half the seats in Parliament. After a result like that, an old canard in Washington is likely to resurface with full force: the idea that U.S. policy in Lebanon is a disaster. Don’t buy it. In fact, of all the investments the United States has made in the Middle East over the past decade, Lebanon has generated the greatest returns.
It’s important to know what the United States is trying to do and what it is up against in Lebanon. The United States is competing fiercely with Iran for influence over Lebanon’s political identity and strategic orientation. Lebanon matters to the United States and the world because it is a rather unique place in the Middle East: a free, tolerant, and pluralistic society where Muslims and Christians live in peace. It also has a democratic system of government that, although imperfect, could inspire other mixed societies in the region seeking to end their domestic conflicts. If the United States loses the struggle for Lebanon, it will also be denied a major point of access to the Mediterranean — where Russia has established a strategic presence — and Iran will have an uncontested outpost at Israel’s northern border.
Critics argue that U.S. policy in Lebanon has already failed, because Washington has not been able to declaw Hezbollah or dissociate it from Iran. But that was never a realistic goal, or at least one the United States could pursue without causing another civil war in Lebanon and possibly a military confrontation with Iran, both of which would be ruinous outcomes for the Middle East and U.S. interests more broadly.
Washington’s ultimate objective in Lebanon should be to help the country tackle its various domestic challenges on its own and fend off unwanted external interference. This, of course, is a long-term project that requires patience. For a while, Iran had the upper hand in Lebanon, mostly because of its consistent patronage of Hezbollah but also because the United States abandoned Lebanon when Lebanese allies needed Washington the most — in the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
Washington has learned from past errors, but it still has a long way to go. Its two-pronged strategy is to prop up the Lebanese state and to put pressure on Hezbollah. Sometimes, the two go hand in hand.