BEIRUT — Over the past few years, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman has sledded into Lebanon bearing gifts during the Yuletide season more regularly than Santa Clause. Yet, as happened yesterday, he somehow manages to finish his gift giving and lift off to continue his rounds as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
No sooner had I arrived back in Lebanon than I heard the news that he was on his way—again to deliver holiday tidings to Lebanese officials.
I began thinking that one useful gift he could deliver to me personally would be to sign off on plans for this year’s US Embassy Christmas Party and invite moi. The US Embassy Christmas Party is a festive event from which Jeffrey barred this observer during part of his 2004-8 tenure as US Ambassador. Telling his then vice-consul in 2007, “Lamb can celebrate Christmas with those elements he associates with, plus he can’t carry a tune and he messes up, my favorite (Christmas) Carol” (which just like mine is “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem!”). So now each year I must sing along with Bing Crosby via a real spotty Internet connection, since Lebanon ranks 183rd out of 203 countries, just behind Afghanistan, in the world’s ranking of slowest internet.
Someone who knows Jeff fairly well reports that ever since the former Saad Hariri March 14th government—still commonly referred to as “Feltman’s Government,” in some Lebanese neighborhoods including mine—was forced into opposition last year, Feltman has been in a bit of a snit regarding Lebanon. His mood was not helped much this year when, as his bad luck would have it, the day before he arrived from Jordan, his arch nemesis, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah shocked Washington and Tel Aviv, while thrilling Resistance supporters in Lebanon and around the region, by appearing in person at this year’s Rayah Field Ashoura gathering, commemorating the 7th Century martyrdom at Karbala of Ibn Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
Plus the US Assistant Secretary learned he would not be granted a meeting with Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman as payback for Feltman snubbing Sulieman and his wife Wafaa during his last visit to Washington, for Sulieman being suspected of being too close to Hezbollah politically. In fairness to Feltman, he did make a point of telling the media that the US is interested in Sleiman’s view of the region’s developments. He added that he thinks Sleiman has a good point of view regarding the situation in Syria, and how best to protect Lebanon and he would welcome a chance to sit with Lebanon’s President. Sleiman didn’t bite and refused to meet with Jeff, whose snub in Washington also hurt the feelings of Sleiman’s gracious wife Wafaa who according to Serail gossip not only bought two new outfits for anticipated social events but reportedly ended up at one point having to settle for carry-out Chinese food from DC’s China town and got indigestion. And it was all Jeff’s fault.
In reality, Feltman is visiting Beirut to put new conditions on the Lebanese government after Lebanon paid its share of funds to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. His visit comes following months of criticism by Washington over Lebanon’s failure to agree on a plan to fund a U.N.-backed tribunal probing the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and repeated warnings to Lebanon about adhering to sanctions on neighboring Syria.
Feltman said in an interview published on December 6 that Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s decision to transfer Lebanon’s share of funds to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is in the interest of Lebanon. In fact, Feltman, like the March 14th team, was not at all happy with Lebanon transferring the STL funding, but was hoping that Lebanon’s government would not send the $32,000,000, being its 49% share of the STL budget, and that the government would be forced to resign.
A view Feltman partially shared with Hezbollah, but for different reasons.
Feltman’s pals at the US Treasury Department planned to grab and squeeze Lebanon where it hurts most: sanctions on Lebanon’s banking system, which is currently making a financial killing given banking ramifications of the crisis in Syria. Lebanon has traditionally been a refuge for Syrian money laundering. Today, the US is threatening Lebanese banks, and has sent Treasury officials to Beirut with instructions for Lebanese banks to scrutinize Syrian accounts like never before.
Just last month, Feltman threatened Prime Minister Miqati with Chapter 7 Security Council sanctions on Lebanon if it had failed to fund the STL. Feltman reportedly carried a list of those sanctions in his jacket pocket much like Philip Habib used to do when the Reagan administration made fake promises to the PLO, some of which Arafat fell for, to get the Palestinian forces to leave Beirut in the summer of 1982.
It seems that every Christmas season has its bleak aspects for most of us including for a self–claimed optimistic like Assistant Secretary Feltman. As recently as Halloween he was predicting major bad times for Hezbollah because as the claimed organizer of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (ST), he reportedly was quite confident that “the Terrorist government of Hezbollah will collapse over the STL funding issue” and Feltman’s March 14th team would be back running things.
So faced with that disappointment, since Hezbollah is still very much the main pillar of the Lebanese government, what was Feltman to do? He could do what he always does and that is make the boring rounds of the same Lebanese officials with US Ambassador Connelly in tow. He saw Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who genuinely likes Jeffrey and organized a lunch for him, and Parliament Speaker, Nabi Berri. Both were outed early this year by Wikileaks as being quite comfortable with Jeff’s view of the political situation in Lebanon, both having raised eyebrows earlier this year by seemingly dissing Hezbollah and appearing to root for Israel during its 2006 aggression. Jumblatt admitted Wikileaks was accurate in the cables it leaked, while Berri denied the truth of the cables concerning him. This year, both Jumblatt and Berri were reportedly quite shy about revealing some of their personal views to Feltman, as they worried that their confidential statements may appear in print if Wikileaks somehow manages to stay in business.
To further fill in his schedule this year, Jeffrey held a news conference and again announced that the US favored the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon and was opposed to any outside interference. Many yawned at that statement. Then he promised to support the Lebanese army. More yawns again since Lebanon has heard all this so many times before with zero results, and as one fellow wrote the Beirut Daily Star, “the US can keep their 1960 model M-16’s and Huey rusting tanks! We don’t want them.”
Finally, Jeff presented the gift that he must have thought Lebanon would really like this season. He announced that the US would help Lebanon protect its borders from foreign intervention. But every school kid here knows the US does not mean protection from Israel, but only from Syria, so the Lebanese reaction was once again less than appreciative.
Jeff’s Lebanese hosts, again this year, were far too polite, as was the local media, to ask the Assistant Secretary about his 2008 Christmas gift to Lebanon when he promised former Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, that he would personally see to it that Israel returns Sheba Farms and Ghajar village to Lebanon by Christmas 2008. Lebanon is still waiting to receive that promised holiday gift.
Feltman, seemingly exasperated, returned to the “Hezbollah is a terrorist organization!” bromide in an attempt to connect with the Lebanese public. “Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that participated in the elections,” Feltman told the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on December 6. “But when they dislike the status quo, they impose their will through force and violence.”
Surely, Assistant secretary Feltman knows better than to beat the dead horse claim that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. He must be aware that the State Department relies on Section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989 for their definition of “terrorism” and listing those who qualify as Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
According to the US State Department, terrorism is the “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents”.
The listed organization must engage in terrorist activity, as defined in section 212 (a)(3)(B) of the INA (8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(3)(B)), or terrorism, as defined in section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989 (22 U.S.C. § 2656f(d)(2)), or retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism.
The organization’s terrorist activity or terrorism must also threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States. Admittedly, the US government has had difficulty coordinating its various branches in creating a single definition given that a 1998 Army Report counted 109 different definitions of terrorism.
Feltman understands the current definition and that the US government’s definition is unique to subnational groups, whereas Hezbollah is not a subnational group within the US government definition, but rather is part of the Lebanese government. Furthermore, both the party and the Lebanese Cabinet claim that its militia is part of Lebanon’s national defense.
Several examinations, of which Feltman is presumably aware, within and outside US government agencies, have virtually all found that accusations by the US Treasury and the State Department against Hezbollah were not supported by US law or by the facts as uncovered.
A few examples:
The October 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks was found not to have been done by Hezbollah, according to a CIA investigation by agent Robert Baer. The same, according to Baer, with the US Embassy bombing of April 17, 1983.
The 1992 blowing up of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina was found not to have been done by Hezbollah. With respect to the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in Buenos Aires the CIA found only “very weak evidence.”
With respect to the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in 1985 and the killing of a U.S. Navy Diver, over two decades ago, even before Hezbollah was fully formed, the CIA has pointed the finger at Islamic Jihad, not Hezbollah.
No probative evidence has been uncovered that Hezbollah, rather than various militia groups throughout Beirut and Lebanon, as Hezbollah claims, carried out the kidnappings of Western hostages in the 1980’s.
Some have used the term “kidnapping” to describe Hezbollah’s capture of Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006. This is a misuse of the term kidnapping. Even Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has denied that this capture of enemy combatants was terrorism.
Concerning accusations that Hezbollah was involved in the training of Iraqi Shi’a Militants since 2004 in constructing IED’s, used for allegedly attacking US and Coalition forces in Iraq, there has never been proof presented that the militias involved were even classified as terrorist organizations. Rather they were legitimately involved in repelling foreign military occupiers who not only are not non-combatants but who were slaughtering the civilian population of Iraq. Moreover, Hezbollah has denied the allegations. Even if there was some involvement by Hezbollah trained individuals, yet unproven, this does not prove that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization except by proxy through its assistance of other groups accused of terrorism. This rationale would result in classifying the entire Lebanese government as a state sponsor of terrorism, in the same category as Iran, Venezuela, and Syria, since Hezbollah is a legal member, indeed a pillar, of Lebanon’s government.
In failing to dampen holiday spirits much in Lebanon this year as he makes his rounds by relying on the outdated idea that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and that the sky is falling, Jeffrey Feltman gets stuck in a chimney so to speak. We’ll have to wait to learn what Yuletide presents the Assistant Secretary brings Lebanon next year.