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Hillary Does Beirut

The 165-Minute Swoop-In

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Beirut

On June 17, 2008, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice set a remarkable American and World Record for the shortest visit   to Lebanon ever recorded by a serving US Secretary of State. The objective was to express love, affection, and non-interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.  Some wags in Beirut will tell you it was George Bush’s’ Secretary of State’s greatest single achievement. History will judge, but Ms. Rice was definitely in and out of Lebanon ten months ago in a slim envelope of time, totaling  275 minutes!

On Sunday, April 26, 2009, that record was shattered.  With the authority of a Shack O’Neal slam dunk in sudden death overtime in a NBA playoff,  current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to the awe of her advance team and bedazzled entourage, shaved no fewer than 110 minutes off Condi’s Record.  Let the word go forth, that as of today, the new record for an American administration expressing eternal love to Lebanon is: 165 minutes flat –touchdown to wheels up!

Both ladies arrived, as others had before them, with identical objectives.  It to shore up the US backed ‘ruling team’ amid disturbing signs that Lebanon’s population wants change they can believe in.
 Each had the same itinerary, a quick visit with smiles and sweet words for the much admired Lebanese President, Michel Suleiman,  followed by a dash downtown to  Martyr’s Square (one of several such Squares in Lebanon) to lay a wreath on the shrine of murdered former Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. This was followed by a breathtaking breakneck speed dash to the airport through the Hezbollah area (!) of South Beirut called Dahiyeh, with, this time, bright Hezbollah billboards featuring the Party’s just released campaign posters. Presumably the new Secretary of State had one translated: “Our Lebanon, Their Lebanon (rejected in favor of) One Lebanon” to the airport.

In fairness to Ms. Rice,  she should be granted a handicap because she did meet with some local March 14 leaders, whereas Ms. Clinton saw no one. Clinton beat former Secretary Rice bad when the stopwatch results were announced.

For Hillary Clinton, it was a quick and, on the surface at least, smooth and politically symbolic, as it coincided with the fourth anniversary of the pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The coming election is all about symbolism.

The 165-minute Timeline

10:45 am  Beirut time, on this beautiful Sunday spring morning, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s plane touched down in Beirut.

11:25 am Madam Secretary was in Baabda Palace for a photo op with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman with her Deputy, Jeffrey Feltman and US Ambassador Michele Sison in tow. The Secretary of State reportedly told the President that the US supports “voices of moderation” and will supply more arms.

12:32pm Clinton explains to  the media at a news conference at Baabda Palace that there must be no “foreign interference” in the Lebanese election. She added that “We believe these elections are crucial for an independent and sovereign Lebanon”.  At least two journalists present sniggered at her solemn declaration and received a scowl from beefy Secret Service security. The Secretary did not seem to notice, and continued, “Our ongoing support for the Lebanese Armed Forces remains a pillar of our bilateral cooperation."

A senior State Department official (  Jeffrey Feltman)  later  cautioned that Ms. Clinton’s pledge should not be taken as a guarantee that the United States would continue the military assistance that it has provided in the past. Rather, he explained the Obama administration would have to take a look at the composition of the next Lebanese government and make decisions about its aid in that light.

Finally, Secretary Clinton said the United States will continue to "protect the Lebanese borders." It was left unclear if this included the daily Israeli invasions of Lebanese airspace and Israel’s “at will” land border crossings, criticized regularly by UNIFIL and the UN in New York but practically never mentioned in Washington these days.

12:38pm:    Secretary Clinton: “Washington will not reach any deal with Syria at Lebanon’s expense.”  Clinton seemed not to hear a reporter’s question about the collapsing security situation in Iraq and the killing of nearly 150 people in the past 48 hours except to assure those present that the killings “do not reflect any divergence from the security progress that has been made."  That comment seemed to lead to some head scratching from a few in the media gathering.

12:53pm Clinton arrives in Down Town Beirut to visit the tomb of Rafic Hariri and was met by MP Saad Hariri, leader of the US-Saudi-Egyptian June election slate. She laid a wreath on the resting place of, and election symbol for, the US-backed March 14 candidates, the much admired assassinated Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The Clinton ‘endorsement’ was immediately and repeatedly broadcast by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement March 14 Campaign, on Future (Hariri) TV, LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, MTV (Murr TV) and their other media allies.

Despite being under the unseen protection of Hezbollah security at Beirut’s airport, from the moment of touch-down to lift-off, there was zero chance Secretary Clinton would be meeting with anyone from the Party of God or, Hamas.  In fact, just to make sure that no one would accuse her of interfering with the internal affairs of Lebanon  and the coming election (which many here believe was the only reason she dropped out of the sky) Secretary Clinton declined to meet with other participants in the elections (except US Team leader, Saad Hariri). The exclusions included former Bush-Cheney favorite, Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt.

Where’s Walid?

Given his  multiple invitations from Washington over the past two years, Druze and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt would normally be assumed to spend plenty of time with a visiting US Secretary of State as a US loyalist.  Now it not so clear what he is up to. His perhaps self-leaked sharp criticisms last week of the US backed majority upset Washington has caused political ripples across Lebanon.
Currently viewed with dismay by some at the State Department, Jumblatt is acting as if he might jump ship and join the Hezbollah-led opposition, or some are suggesting he appears at least to be hedging his bets so he can be an ally of the June election winners.  Others, including, a pro-March 14th Sunni Muslim English teacher from the Aisha Bakkar section of Hamra, Ghada Jilani, sighed, “that is just Jumblatt being Jumblatt, in his role as Lebanon’s quintessential Compleat Politician.  That man is always able to sniff out the latest political trend!” 

In defense of Walid Jumblatt, it should be noted that he is Kamel Jumblatt’s son, and his assassinated father was one of Lebanon’s most charismatic and inspiring leaders who was aligned with progressive forces, including the PLO and Lebanon’s Communist Party, during the early years of the Civil War until his murder on March 16, 1977.
Walid was weaned on his extremely literate father’s (Kamel authored more than 1200 articles and editorials) theories of secularism, socialism, Arabism and abolition of the Lebanese sectarian system and the alliance Kamal tried to forge of Sunni, Shia and leftist Christians into a national opposition movement.

This writer has noticed that middle aged men, and certainly himself, at times lapse into deep and emotional appreciation of their fathers and mothers.  Jumblatt may be moving toward or revisiting his martyred father’s views, after years of self analysis and dabbling with various political philosophies, local Lebanese tribal traditions and substances.

1:30 pm Clinton was up and away. Her aircraft faded in the azure sky over the calm, pellucid Mediterranean Sea and wondered to what extent her “Hello-Goodbye gotta go check on Bill!” visit would influence the fast approaching election.

On her flight back to Washington, Hilary Clinton presumably has in her Lebanon Briefing Book a current snapshot of the June election.

According to the US State Department Lebanese Election Unit, if the election were held today the Hezbollah-led opposition would capture 69 of the 128 seats in Parliament, a nightmare for Washington and Tel Aviv since the Opposition could then pretty much call the shots in Parliament.

The LEU is not assuaged by Hezbollah’s assertions that it wants a unity government no matter who wins, nor its repeated signals that the Hezbollah-led opposition wants to work with the current US-team, win or lose, to bring good government and sound fiscal policies to Lebanon.
State Department staff most likely revealed to the Secretary Clinton the following details based on a State Department analysis of the fast approaching June 7 election.  These current predictions are shared by some observers in Lebanon including political analyst Ibrahime Al-Amine, writing in Beirut’s Al Akbar daily newspaper on April 24, 2009.
Hezbollah’s  eleven (11)  announced candidates will likely  all win since their districts are heavily Shia; Hezbollah’s alliance with Christians and others needs to add seven seats to the 58 seats  the Opposition currently holds  in order to achieve the critical one-half plus one (65)  Deputy seats.

The LEU believes 30 seats are  too close to call at the moment  (mainly Christian seats due to pro Resistance sentiments among many Christians hence their power base fractured) and  Clinton has been told that as  these districts  go so goes Lebanon’s political direction for the next four years.

The Opposition’s 58 seats in the 128 seat Lebanese Chamber of Deputies (Majles al-Nouwwab) will likely increase by seven (7) seats giving it solid control of the government with all that means for Lebanese becoming a “Resistance State”, incorporating Hezbollah arms into the Lebanese Armed Forces and moving Lebanon from US-Israeli domination to better relations with all States in the region.

So why did Hillary Clinton come to Beirut?

“For sure Clinton’s visit will benefit the ruling team”, explained Lebanese Human Rights Ambassador Ali Khalil sarcastically. “That was the whole idea. You know non-interference with Lebanon’s independence, sovereignty and freedom to choose.”

The  motivation and purpose of the Clinton visit seems fairly clear. Recently she and others in Washington have voiced concerns over "a possible Hezbollah victory in the June legislative polls" and underlined the need for efforts to boost the command of the current government. Her objective in visiting Lebanon was to weaken Hezbollah, and, in the words opf the Palestine Chronicle, “shore up Egypt’s President Mubarak who personally ordered desperate, terrified and wounded Palestinians sealed inside a Gaza pogrom during last December’s Israeli slaughter, and whose attacks on Hezbollah are eroding the patience of Egypt’s population for his repressive regime.”

On April 24, 2009, a wide-eyed Clinton told a skeptical Congress that the recent arrests in Egypt, somehow linked to an alleged Hezbollah cell,  "served as a wakeup call" for the Egyptian authorities.  Suddenly the Mubarak regime became aware of "the increasing alliance between Hezbollah and Hamas and their connection to organizations inside Egypt seeking to destabilize the government," she explained, while adding that the “United States serves best its own interests by supporting and funding" the Lebanese government in order to "prevent fundamentalism from making more infiltrations”.

Hezbollah’s response to Clinton’s visit

Hezbollah criticized Clinton’s visit as interference in Lebanese affairs. "The policy of the United States is one of interference," the Party’s spokesman, Dr. Ibrahim al-Mousawi told Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV. “This interference is not in the interest of the countries they interfere in but are meant to serve the American interests in the region."

Lebanon’s Election Day: 42 days and counting.

FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon.  He can be reached at fplamb@sabrashatila.org