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Cole Call

The U.S. Navy returns to Lebanon.

11:00 PM, Mar 3, 2008 • By DAVID KENNER
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SOMETHING OF A GHOST sped towards Lebanon's coastline late on Thursday night. The USS Cole, damaged by a suicide attack while at harbor in Yemen in October 2000, came to a halt outside of Lebanon's territorial waters, just over the horizon. Its arrival marks the latest development in Lebanon's long-running political drama, and the entrance of the United States military into an arena already crowded with rival forces.

The USS Cole appears at a particularly hopeless moment in Lebanese politics. A deadlock between the pro-Western government and the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led opposition, begun in November 2006, has crippled most of Lebanon's institutions. A Parliament session scheduled to elect Lebanon's next President, vacant since last November, failed for the 15th time. Ominously, the struggle threatened to spill over into the broader region. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, supporters of Lebanon's pro-government forces, signaled that they would boycott an Arab summit in Damascus due to Syria's support for Hezbollah and its allies. The presence of the Cole should be understood as a show of support for the Lebanese government, and an attempt to alter the political calculus in negotiations between the rival parties.

For many pro-government leaders, it has long been unclear whether the United States was willing to offer anything other than rhetorical support for their cause. In contrast, as the assassination of several anti-Syrian lawmakers attests, the Syrian regime has never had such qualms. Every government concession only resulted in increased demands from the opposition. By raising the possibility of military escalation, the United States strengthens the bargaining position of the pro-government majority.

The opposition's response to the presence of the USS Cole off Lebanon's shore was quick, and obvious. "This decision proves that it's the United States which is interfering in Lebanese affairs, and that this interference has taken on a military slant," said Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah, shortly after the arrival of the warship.

However, the government's reaction was more complicated. Nationalists in their own right, pro-government leaders are sensitive to the opposition's charge that they are merely Western puppets. While there was undoubtedly some level of private enthusiasm for the American move, politicians were more circumspect in their public statements. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's first statement about the action emphasized that the Cole had not actually entered Lebanese territorial waters, and that the Lebanese government "did not ask anyone to send warships."

As a display of force, a single destroyer is not one of the American military's more impressive exhibitions. Few analysts believe that this threat will intensify into direct intervention any time soon.

"As far as boots on the ground . . . I don't think it's in the cards," said David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Nevertheless, it accomplishes two things: it shows the US's ongoing commitment to Lebanese democracy, and it is another pressure point on Syria."

Two refueling ships are accompanying the Cole. There is also the chance that the Navy's Nassau battle group, which consists of six ships, among which are amphibious troop carriers, will join the Cole off the shores of Lebanon. If that is so, and if more ships join the burgeoning American presence, the analysts might have to rethink their skepticism.

However, the presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in South Lebanon, and off the coast, could discourage direct American action. If U.S. warships intervene, it would undermine UNIFIL's legitimacy to maintain the peace between Israel and Hezbollah in the South. "I do not think that you will see these ships anywhere close to the Lebanese shore," remarked Timor Goksel, a former UNIFIL spokesman. "I know the United Nations, and they will very quickly distance themselves from this move."

Still, there remains a number of ways that the situation could spiral out of control. If the Lebanese begin to identify this U.S. action with the UNIFIL presence, UNIFIL could be vulnerable in South Lebanon. UNIFIL forces have been targeted in the past. A roadside bomb hit a UNIFIL vehicle in June 2007, killing six UNIFIL soldiers, and another attack in January 2008 wounded two more.