While the US State Department says the Cole and other warships are being sent to the eastern Mediterranean to support regional stability amid Lebanon's political crisis, the move seems to have embarrassed the besieged Western-backed administration of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and provided ammunition for the pro-Syrian opposition, led by the militant Shiite Hezbollah, to accuse the government of being a US pawn.
"It has done Hezbollah a huge favor," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "It's a sign of political bankruptcy on the part of the US. They have failed to achieve anything in Lebanon; all they have left is military muscle-flexing." Analysts here are divided over whether the USS Cole's presence is intended as warning for Hizbullah or Syria. But it has reminded Lebanese of the last time the US sought to intervene militarily in Lebanon, an involvement that had disastrous consequences.
In September 1983, midway through Lebanon's 16-year civil war, US warships shelled the Druze-dominated Chouf mountains south of Beirut in support of the Lebanese Army, then battling pro-Syrian militias. The shelling further convinced those Lebanese who were opposed to the then US-backed Lebanese government that Washington was not a neutral peacekeeper in Lebanon.
In October 1983, the US Marine barracks in Beirut was destroyed by a suicide bomber, killing 241 US servicemen. Two months later, the USS New Jersey, a World War II-era battleship, fired on Syrian troops and allied militia positions in what was the heaviest shore bombardment since the Korean War.
Many Lebanese still recall the "flying Volkswagens," the name given to the huge shells that struck the Chouf. The sporadic barrage, which lasted nearly two months, killed the top Syrian general in Lebanon.
In early February 1984, pro-Syrian militias took over West Beirut, spurring President Reagan to order a Marines evacuation. The Marines left by the end of the month, ending what then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger called a "particularly miserable assignment."
The alleged architect of the Marine barracks strike, Imad Mughnieh, was assassinated last month in a Damascus car bombing. Hezbollah, which blames Israel for the attack, has sworn to avenge the death of Mr. Mughnieh, who was post-humously identified by the group as its top military commander. Israel is taking the threat seriously and has placed its embassies on alert and reinforced its troops along Israel's border with Lebanon.
"To have an American warship here is highly symbolic, given that Imad Mughnieh is accused of the 1983 bombing," Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb says.
Some analysts say that if Hezbollah deals a heavy retaliatory blow to Israel, it could force Israel to launch another offensive against the Shiite group. Both Israel and Hezbollah have been preparing for another possible war following the 2006 conflict between the two foes.
The symbolism of the USS Cole is not just related to America's past in Lebanon, but also to its "war on terror." The USS Cole was badly damaged in an Al Qaeda suicide attack in Yemen in 2000, leaving 17 sailors dead, one of several pre-9/11 Al Qaeda attacks. It redeployed to the Middle East in June 2007 for the first time since the bombing. But now few analysts expect it to have much impact in Lebanon.
"These sort of gestures do not work around here," says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut and former United Nations official in Lebanon. "Last time they shelled the Druze mountains. What are they going to shell this time? Dahiyeh?" he added, referring to the Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut.
Pentagon officials have said that the USS Cole, which is accompanied by two refueling ships, could soon be joined by some of the six-ship Nassau strike group, consisting of troop carriers, three more guided missile destroyers, and a submarine. Military analysts say it will be the largest American naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean in many years. The ships will not sail into Lebanese territorial waters, which extend 12 miles from the coastline.
"It's the start of a new campaign to change Syrian behavior," says Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with Lebanon's As Safir newspaper. "It's just the first signal from Washington that the Bush administration is fed up with Syrian behavior in Lebanon, Iraq, and the region. I think the Syrian regime will realize in the near future that it cannot continue challenging the whole world."
Syria, however, shows little sign of being cowed by the warship. Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister said that the arrival of the USS Cole "shows that the United States is striving to undermine all political solutions in the Lebanese crisis."
Lebanon has been without a president since November, due to a deadlock between rival political factions. The crisis has defied regional and international mediation and has fostered a deterioration in relations between Damascus and some of its Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, a strong backer of the Lebanese government.
Last week, Saudi Arabia transferred its ambassador in Damascus to Qatar and urged its citizens to leave Lebanon because of the risk of violence. Saudi King Abdullah also has hinted that he will not attend the Arab League summit hosted by Damascus at the end of the month. A Saudi boycott of the annual event could encourage other Arab heads of state to stay away, embarrassing Syria and straining even further its already brittle ties with the Gulf kingdom.
Analysts view the moves by Saudi Arabia, coupled with US warships off Lebanon, as part of a coordinated campaign by Washington and Riyadh to squeeze Syria. But many also see these developments as further undermining the confidence in national stability among Lebanese, many of whom say their fate rests in the outcome of a regional power fight.
"Doesn't anybody think about this poor country?" asks Mr. Goksel, criticizing Saudi departures and the USS Cole deployment. "They are punishing Lebanese, scaring them, and panicking them."