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Clinton in Beirut, hints at post-June 7 US policy towards Lebanon?

April 27, 2009

Yesterday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a surprise visit to Lebanon following her visit to Iraq.  The New York Times reports the following:

While Mrs. Clinton said the choice of a government was up to the Lebanese people, the United States, which classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, clearly hopes to bolster the electoral prospects of the existing majority, a coalition of Sunni Muslim and Christian parties.

“It won’t surprise you to hear that I think moderation is important in the affairs of states,” Mrs. Clinton said after meeting the president, Michel Suleiman, a former chief of the armed forces who stays above the political fray.

“We want to see a strong, independent, free and sovereign Lebanon,” she said, noting that President Obama had sent Mr. Suleiman a letter expressing those sentiments. “This election will be, obviously, an important milestone.”

Beyond the elections, Mrs. Clinton pledged not to undermine Lebanon in pursuing a peace deal with Syria, which supports Hezbollah and has long sought to influence Lebanon’s affairs. The Obama administration dispatched two emissaries to Damascus, Syria’s capital, last month to reopen diplomatic channels.

The NY Times clearly interprets this as a move to help bolster March 14 in the elections.  However, as-Safir reads into the fact that Secretary of State Clinton only met with President Suleiman, and not Prime Minister Siniora or March 14 leaders (except for a 10 minute talk with Saad Hariri at Rafiq Hariri’s grave), as evidence that perhaps the Obama administration has a different approach than its predecessor.  as-Safir mentions that former Secretary of State Rice typically met with Siniora and an array of March 14 leaders when it Lebanon.  Still, it is possible that this is merely a function of scheduling constraints. 

Nevertheless, the important question is what will be the status of US aid to Lebanon (over 1 billion US dollars since the 2006 war) should March 8 win a majority of seats in Parliament on June 7.  Buried at the end of the NY Times piece is the following:

Still, if Lebanon ends up with a government more heavily influenced by Hezbollah as a result of the election, the Obama administration will re-evaluate its commitments, said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to upstage Mrs. Clinton.

While this is only hearsay, “re-evaluate its commitments” may very well mean substantial cuts in funding, particularly to the $400 million of military assistance Lebanon has recently received.  It is hard to imagine that US Congress will continue to approve military aid to a state who’s government is dominated by a political faction that includes Hezbollah.

However, as-Safir reports:

وقالت مصادر اطلعت على فحوى مباحثات كلينتون لـ»السفير» ان كلينتون نقلت تأييد أوباما للمسيرة التي يقودها الرئيس سليمان، بحكمة وروية لإعادة لبنان الى الخريطة السياسية الشرق اوسطية»، وأكدت استمرار برنامج دعم الجيش اللبناني، وفق روزنامة خاصة ومحددة. 

Sources informed on the contents of Clinton’s messages said to as-Safir that Clinton conveyed Obama’s support for the path that President Suleiman leads with the authority and view of returning Lebanon to the political map of the Middle East.  And it confirmed the continuation of the program of supporting the Lebanese army according to the specified timetable.

Perhaps the Obama administration is bracing for a March 14 loss in June and seeking to establish President Suleiman as the prime US interlocutor in Lebanon.  Also in the as-Safir piece, Clinton reportedly asked Suleiman whether or not he will have a bloc in the next Parliament.  This seems to hint that the Obama administration would prefer not to cut off aid to Lebanon in the event of a March 8 win in June.  It is possible that the Obama administration would seek to work with Suleiman, March 14, and independents to temper the political program of a March 8 government and not cut off aid a la the Hamas win in January 2006.

Along these lines the Associated Press reports:

Hezbollah officials say they have received assurances that the West does not envisage imposing the same sort of boycott as it slapped on the Palestinians when a Hamas-led government took power in March 2006.
“The ambassador of a key European country… informed us that the US will deal with any government, even though they are hoping the (Western-backed parliamentary) majority wins the vote,” Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Qassem told AFP earlier this month.

Again, like much of the information above, this ought to be taken for what it’s worth. 

Nevertheless, there seems to be a ambiguous Lebanon policy for the Obama administration.  Such a nuanced approach may prove to be beneficial in the long run, but anything less than stalwart support for March 14 until the June 7 elections likely works against the stated US preference for their allies to retain power.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

William deB. Mills 04.27.09 at 14:44

The desire to fine-tune policy to maximize influence over a specific actor must be balanced against the message that the world will get. Yes, perhaps a highly intrusive U.S. policy in favor of one side in the Lebanese election might give that side some advantage (although it might also irritate Lebanese patriots). Nevertheless, it would also, in the current context of a new U.S. administration trying to lay out its own policy line toward the Muslim world, send a very clear message to everyone else.

For the Obama Administration to adopt the approach of openly undermining democratic elections or sabotaging an elected government would send a very clear message that Obama could be expected to reject change on much bigger regional issues, such as whether or not to push for a truly viable Palestinian state and whether or not to move toward accommodation of Iran.

Heavy-handed treatment of Lebanon by Washington is likely to come at significant cost.

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