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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lebanon: Background and U.S. Relations

Casey L. Addis
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs

Lebanon is a religiously diverse country transitioning toward independence and democratic consolidation after a ruinous civil war and the subsequent Syrian and Israeli occupations. The United States and Lebanon have historically enjoyed a good relationship due in part to cultural and religious ties; the democratic character of the state; a large, Lebanese-American community in the United States; and the pro-western orientation of Lebanon, particularly during the cold war. Current policy priorities of the United States include strengthening the weak democratic institutions of the state, limiting the influence of Iran, Syria, and others in Lebanon's political process, and countering threats from Hezbollah and other militant groups in Lebanon. 

Following Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, the Bush Administration requested and Congress appropriated a significant increase in U.S. assistance to Lebanon. Since 2006, U.S. assistance to Lebanon has topped $1 billion total over three years, including for the first time U.S. security assistance for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Internal Security Forces (ISF) of Lebanon. 

Several key issues in U.S.-Lebanon relations could potentially affect future U.S. assistance to Lebanon. The scope and influence of foreign actors, primarily Syria and Iran; unresolved territorial disputes; concerns about extremist groups operating in Lebanon; and the strength and character of the LAF are among the challenges facing the Lebanese government and U.S. objectives in Lebanon. 

On November 9, 2009, five months after the parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Hariri announced that consensus had been reached and a cabinet had been formed. Since then, Hariri has faced the challenging task of governing in an environment where sectarian tensions, political jockeying, and external actors penetrate deeply and often paralyze the day-to-day functions of government. The United States has thrown its support behind the Hariri government in an effort to build the capacity of state institutions in an attempt to counter those destabilizing forces. 

Current U.S. policy toward Lebanon centers on containing Iran's sphere of influence while maintaining security and stability in the Levant. As regional actors like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria continue to compete for influence in the region, Lebanon has become the staging ground for a proxy war that exacerbates historic sectarian tensions and holds hostage the functions of state institutions. The extent to which Prime Minister Hariri's government, bolstered by U.S. support, can overcome these challenges and move toward fully functioning state institutions also depends on the ability of the LAF and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to keep the peace along Lebanon's southern border with Israel and the willingness of Lebanon's neighbors to limit activities that undermine the Hariri government. 

This report provides an overview of Lebanese politics, recent events in Lebanon, and current issues in U.S.-Lebanon relations.

Date of Report: August 3, 2010
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: R40054
Price: $29.95

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