Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s visit to the United States, where, on Monday, he will meet President Barak Obama, will in all probability turn out to be a non-event. Apart from the photo op, the two men will probably issue redundant statements: Obama on Washington’s support of Lebanon, Hariri on peace for Palestinians and Lebanon’s right of self-defense against Israel.
The Hariri camp will highlight the fact that this is the first time Hariri goes to Washington, where he will meet with Obama in the Oval Office. He will also preside over the Security Council in New York, a ceremonial honor conferred upon only a very few of Lebanon’s statesmen.
His opponents – mainly pro-Iran and Syria politicians and pundits – will reiterate their demands that Hariri, like President Michel Sleiman when he visited Washington last year, stay away from the United States. If anyone is to engage Washington, they say, it should be Tehran. If any other country is to befriend America, it should be Syria.
Lebanon has no nuclear issues to resolve with the US, Lebanon has no role in Arab peace talks with Israel (Syria handles these on Lebanon’s behalf) and even when it sits on the Security Council, Lebanon is expected to abide by Syrian and Iranian diktats as part of the Syrian-Saudi reconciliation. So if Iran talks to America, and Syria negotiates with Israel, what is Lebanon good for? The answer, according to Tehran, Damascus and their Lebanese protégés, is war.
And since Hariri is prohibited from talking peace like the Iranians or the Syrians, and since he is – like his father before him – a man opposed to war, then his visit will count for little.
The historic value of Hariri’s meeting with Barak Obama is proportional to the sovereignty that Hariri can practice in Beirut. The more Hariri can govern, the more his meeting with the world’s most-influential president wins significance. But can Hariri really lead Lebanon? The answer is no. Even though his coalition won parliamentary elections in 2009, he was unable to form a cabinet until he conceded to the Hezbollah-led March 8 opposition bloc.
Since then, Hezbollah’s iron grip on Lebanon has not allowed Hariri to practice any significant form of governance. Whether it is passing the budget or fixing the endless potholes in Lebanese roads, Hariri has been obstructed.
In fact, so weakened has he become that he can hardly do anything without being constantly attacked by the supporters of Syria in Lebanon, an offensive that started when his father first came to power in the early 1990s.
A weakened Hariri was forced to compromise. So much so that he had to visit half a dozen Middle Eastern capitals before making his trip to Washington.
The inconsequentiality of the Hariri trip to Washington is not the work of the United States. It is rather the making of the relentless offensive by his Syrian and Iranian-backed opponents in Lebanon.
Since May 2008, Hariri and his allies, formerly known as March 14, have used a policy of concessions, hoping that by doing so Damascus and Tehran would save them a shred of self-autonomy in Lebanon. What March 14 didn’t realize was that their rivals have never been interested in a compromise. Iran and Syria’s allies in Lebanon want total control of the country, and they feel they can get what they want.
In Washington, it is no secret that Obama has never been genuinely interested in Lebanon or its affairs. American support for Lebanese democracy and full sovereignty is one thing; going the extra yard to see it happen is another.
But while Obama – now emerging as a president who is restoring his country’s superpower reputation – is not interested in Lebanon, he certainly values its friendship and does not mind offering Lebanon support, provided there is someone in Beirut to receive such backing.
But in Beirut, there is Hezbollah, which has found a profitable business in keeping Lebanon on the edge, often in the interest of its regional patrons. The party also forced Hariri and his allies, at gunpoint, to relinquish their right to govern.
The vision that Tehran and Damascus have for the role Hariri plays has been outlined by Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah: Iran, Syria and Hezbollah handle matters of foreign policy and defense, while Hariri, like his father, sticks to construction. Even authority over construction will not be granted to Hariri unless he openly denounces the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and UN Resolution 1559, a blueprint that even former March 14 leader Walid Jumblatt has cheerfully endorsed.
This means that when Hariri meets Obama, there might be nothing extraordinary for journalists to report. The visit, like that of Sleiman before him, will prove to be nothing more than a ceremonial function, something that is increasingly becoming a staple of the Lebanese state.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a visiting fellow at Chatham House and a correspondent for Al-Rai newspaper.