How Not to Win Votes for Team USA
Baabda Palace, Beirut
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Beirut with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman aboard a U.S. military helicopter at 11:50 am Friday morning. Biden was greeted at Beirut’s airport by Hezbollah supporter Fawsi Salloukh, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister and one of the key back channels for US-Hezbollah communications. At 12:14 pm Biden arrived at Baabda Palace and went straight to meet President Michel Suleiman. Biden’s Salloukh meeting is likely the extent of any dialogue between Biden and Hezbollah this trip. Biden’s first words, shouted to some journalists outside the Baabda Presidential Palace were, “I am happy to be in Libya…I mean Lebanon…this morning!”
If Biden was having a good morning, many Beirutis were not. Many woke up furious as they learned they will be on “lockdown” from 11 am to 6:30 pm for Vice President Joe Biden’s quick visit. It will be the 14th visit by a US official over the past six months to assure the people of Lebanon that the US will not interfere in the June 7 elections. In fact, US interference has now reached a near fever pitch just sixteen days before the voting.
Some Lebanese newspapers sarcastically reported Biden’s visit this morning. Even some pro-US backed March 14 papers like the Daily Star announced: “Biden to voice US determination ‘to assist Lebanon’: VP will ‘reject interference in polls’.”
What has upset many in Lebanon’s capital this spring morning is that the US Embassy has demanded “tight security” including the closure of Airport Road-Hafez Al-Assad Avenue, Camille Chamoun Avenue, Salim Salam Street, Ahmad Mukhtar Beyhum Street, Fouad Shehab Avenue, Beirut Port entrance, Charles Helou Avenue, Emile Lahoud Avenue, Sayyad Roundabout, Presidential Palace Road, Alfred Nakkache Street, Tahwita Highway, Wafiq Sinno Street, Mina al-Hosn Street, Paris Avenue, General Deguaulle Avenue, Ain al-Tineh, Hrawi Bridge, Saeb Salam Boulevard, Wegan Street, Al-Masaref Road, Grand Serail Road, Riad al-Solh Square, Mir Bashir Street, Cap Center, Al-Risala school bifurcation, Charles Malek Avenue, Kuliyat al-Qiyada wa al-Arkan bifurcation, Shafiq Wazan Street, Port Road, Mir Majid Erslan road, and Fakhreddine Street. These closures shut down all the main routes and much of Beirut’s commerce. The shutdowns will also prevent many from attending Friday noon prayers in more than 50 mosques.
“This is getting too ridiculous. Why don’t the Americans just run a TV ad telling us what they have repeated so many times? Nobody cares that Biden is coming here except that it affects our daily lives”, Abed, an AUB security guard fumed. “I had plans to go to the Bekaa for the weekend after my shift ends and now I can’t leave until tonight. For sure they won’t get my vote!”
During his rat-a-tat news conference with President Michel Sulieman, Biden asserted that that Lebanon must have a “fair, free and transparent elections” (1:40 pm), that Lebanese sovereignty cannot and will not be traded away (1:41 pm), that the U.S. looks forward to the shape and composition of the next Lebanese government which is for the Lebanese to decide (1:43 pm), that “I have every confidence that Lebanon is moving in the right direction (1:44 pm), that the Obama administration is committed to a comprehensive peace for the region that benefits all people in the region, including the Lebanese(1:46 pm), called for “a sovereign and democratic Lebanon to be stronger than it is today” (1:46 pm), that Washington is committed to ensuring the strength of the military institutions in Lebanon (1:47 pm), promised that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon “will bring justice to those financing, planning and carrying out” Hariri’s assassination and that ”I cannot imagine peace in the region without Lebanon (1:49pm).
It is hard not to feel empathy with US Ambassador Michele Sison who has had to put together the Vice President’s schedule. And one understands her anguish at being treated as a pesky little sister by some tribal Lebanese male politicians this week who inherited their positions via primogeniture while she earned hers the hard way at school and by competence (presumably her wonderful smile did not hurt).
The reason is that, quite separately, the American Ambassador and this observer have been working hard the past few days on similar projects of setting up appointments for a visiting American delegation. We both know only too well the time constraints, last minute schedule changes, frustrations, unexpected ‘pop up’ events which sometimes mess up best-laid plans during fast- moving back to back briefings.
“My” delegation, which departed this morning for Washington (Al Hamdulila) after 18 days in the Middle East meeting officials from Egypt to Gaza to Beirut via Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria was from a remarkable advocacy group in Washington DC, the Council for the National Interest (CNI).
“Her” delegation, Vice-President Joe Biden and entourage, arrived this morning after days of schedule preparation for a Condi-Hilary style ‘fly-in’.
Because CNI is well known in the Middle East, and actually sometimes sought after during its twice yearly “political pilgrimages” for dialogue, by both the Majority and the Hezbollah-led Opposition, my job is somewhat easier than Michelle Sison’s, even though she has a huge staff to assist her. I rely on connected friends to assist. We have many well informed people to choose from and the quality of the discussions are usually excellent with the likes of Hezbollah’s Naim Qassim, Nawaf Ammar, or Ibrahim Mousawi, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, Sheik Abed al Karem Obeid (15 years in Israeli prisons), Michel Aoun, former President Lahoud, and many others from the Opposition who Michele can’t touch since they either remain on the US Political Terrorism list or, in Lahoud’s and Aoun’s case, the US unofficial persona non grata list.
We in Beirut try to give CNI a balanced program from the Majority and the Opposition and as red blooded Americans we would never, never, ever forget to include a visit to the American Embassy for a briefing with our Ambassador. That would probably be unpatriotic. Michele did a good job on Wednesday briefing “My” delegation, taking time away from working on “Her” delegation. All of us appreciated her cooperation and American values of fair play.
So what do we do with Joe?
Michele’s got it tough fixing a worthwhile schedule in Lebanon. During her short tenure here, she has had no fewer than a dozen ‘drop ins’. Her problem is much like the one which confronted the late Saudi King’s 7th, 8th and 9th wives on their wedding nights. The Ambassador knows what she is supposed to do but she is not sure how to make it special for Joe.
This is because Michele cannot ‘book’ many of the most intelligent, interesting (except Walid Jumblatt who is sui generis), or many of those likely to have key roles in Lebanon after the coming election. Michele is severely limited since her strict orders from Foggy Bottom preclude dialogue with so many in Lebanon and the wider Middle East.
One example for illustrative purposes. The American delegation (cnionline.org) met with Hizbullah’s brilliant International Relations Officer Ammar Moussawi who served in Parliament for eight years. We were followed the next day by the European Union Ambassador Patrick Laurent (representing 27 European countries). The two sides stressed the need to hold the parliamentary elections in a calm and secure political atmosphere and discussed many other issues which aided mutual understanding and no doubt increased respect between Europe and Hezbollah. Neither Sison nor Biden can have such meetings but are mired in the ’same ol same ol’ “winning team” cast of characters, visit after visit after visit. According to US Embassy staffers, it gets real boring. “We know beforehand what everyone will say, what every question will be, and what every answer will be. Some of us don’t know why we even do this. There is no substance to most of these visits”, according to a good fellow in the Embassy Consular section.
“My” delegation was treated to a rare insight into “Her” delegation’s schedule on Wednesday May 20, 2009 at exactly 7 pm. The CNI members were all sitting with Walid Jumblatt and patting two of his big beautiful orange gentle dogs and a cute puppy on his patio. We formed a small circle of lawn chairs at Walid’s Beirut Clemenceau neighborhood home which he told us he bought 15 years ago.
The phone rings. Being polite Americans we try hard not to eavesdrop but when Walid rolls his eyes (with a facial expression that telegraphs to us: “why do my friends get me involved in these things when all I really want to do is finish reading that article in Foreign Affairs” from which Walid was taking notes when we arrived. Walid speaks English to the person on the other end of the phone so we can’t help over hearing: “Please, no… let’s do it at your place, that will be better.”
Then we got the idea that whoever was on the line was insisting—even bugging Walid– to host an event of some kind. That’s all we knew at that point. Again, Walid says, “no, it will be better at your place. Please can’t we do it there and there will be fewer political complications”.
Walid closes the phone and continues his discussion of why the “land swapping” proposal of Netanyahu is a scam and should be rejected immediately by the Palestinians. He also criticizes some Druze in Palestine who serve as border guards and in the Israeli army. As leader of the Druze in Lebanon he is not happy about his people working for the occupation of Palestine and according to an aide of his considers them as “uncle toms”.
Walid, like all Lebanese politicians who briefed CNI this week, spoke genuinely emotional words about the plight of the 400,000 plus Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. He described the needless destruction at Nahr al Bared Refugee Camp two summers ago, the sub-human conditions in Lebanon’s 12 camps, the essential, full and non-negotiable Right of Return, the worthless Arab ‘leaders’ selling out Nasserism and the Palestinians, ‘the regional plots’ against the Refugees and his own father’s 25 year effort to end Lebanon’s Confessional system.
Walid also tried to answer one guests questions about why Lebanon brings in more than half a million foreign workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Syria, Egypt and other countries for jobs most Lebanese do not want (including underage sex workers from Russia and Eastern Europe and Asia who are given special considerations by Lebanese General Security). Lebanon gives them all civil rights, work permits, social security, educational opportunities but continues to deny any of these same basic civil rights to Palestinian Refugees. By Lebanese law.
We were a bit rough on Walid but he can take it. Walid demurs and acknowledges it’s a tough question to answer. Finally he does one of his signature shoulder shrugs, leans forward in his chair, turns up his palms, drops his jaw and opens wide his big Druze eyes.
When he receives follow-up questions and we zero in and squeeze him at bit more with statistics and enumeration of some of the heinous Lebanese laws, he appears surprised that we know a little about the subject. Still, he offers no convincing answer other than “local Lebanese sensitiveness”. When we continue to press him, Walid blurted out the probable truth: “No confessional leaders like the Palestinians in Lebanon.”
The phone rings again. Walid holds his small mobile phone in his right hand and extends his arm and moves his hand back and forward until he can focus on the number of the caller. He grimaces before answering and if this observer read his lips correctly he mouthed a four letter expletive. “No, its not a good idea Michele. I don’t want to do this. Better to meet at your place”. He repeats ‘your place’, apparently not wanting to identify what ‘your place’ meant on his no doubt multi-tapped phone line.
Walid hangs up.
Clearly exasperated, he explains to his guests, “That was your ambassador wanting me to fix a meeting with Biden. They should do it at your Embassy!” He explains how Biden’s visit to Lebanon was all the brain-child of pro-US Deputy Nayla Moawad (she has given up her safe seat to her son Michel as a birthday present for the June election) to have Biden come to Lebanon. Walid clearly communicates that he would rather not have any part of the latest ‘drop in’ (as events turned out, Walid rejected the charms of Michele who he calls ‘little sister’ and Nayla Moawad will have to host Joe at her home since the visit was her bright idea in the first place).
Has Joe dumped Zionism?
Quite by chance, on “my” delegation was Vice President’s Biden’s ophthalmologist from Wilmington, Delaware, a nice fellow with a dynamite Palestinian wife named “Mike”, a nickname for her real Arabic name which she never bothered to mention). Joe’s eye doctor explained to Walid Jumblatt that Biden had changed from his “I’m a Zionist” campaign assurances to AIPAC.
“Well,” Walid replies skeptically, “I have met with Biden before. Why is he coming and can your government not understands that such visits are not helpful to the Majority but only help Hezbollah?”
No sooner than this observer returned to his apartment exhausted from three days of back-to-back briefings than the phone rang. It was from Issam, a friend and neighbor of Jumblatt’s from Ain Kani in the Chouf. Issam said Walid enjoyed the CNI visit and he invited me to brunch on Sunday and a tour of the Mukhtara area in the Chouf. I took the opportunity while on the phone to confirm what I thought Walid meant about Biden coming to Lebanon and his apparent preference that he not show up. Issam did confirm Walid’s thinking which in fact is common knowledge in Lebanon, as follows:
Michele is increasingly confined to the Embassy, as is her staff. One of the reasons is all these US officials coming to Lebanon to explain that the US is not interfering in their June 7 election whereas every 8 year old here knows the opposite is true. Lebanese are very sophisticated politically and increasingly feel they are being ‘played’. Recently, every time it is announced that the American Ambassador is making a stop somewhere outside Hariri areas, the likelihood increases that Michele will be met with Lebanese shaking their shoes at her a la the Iraqi journalist and Bush. This happened last week in South Lebanon and Michele was forced again to cancel a visit.
To ruin her day more, yesterday morning Michele was accused by Hezbollah MP Mohammed Raad of playing a key role in the formation of March 14 coalition’s electoral tickets. Since every communication to and from the US Embassy is monitored by Hezbollah, the Embassy did not reply to media inquires, while technicians from Washington continue (since May 2008) to attempt to ‘fix the Embassy bugging problem’.
According to Hezbollah’s Raad: “The majority team has trouble in forming its lists. It cannot form them unless U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison interferes in the process of choosing” candidates, he told a gathering in Nabatiyeh on Thursday May 21. “This is what is happening in Kesrouan, Beirut 1, Zahle, Jbeil and what happened in Metn,” he said.
Issam continued to explain that the Lebanese are no longer much impressed with US officials coming and reciting, sometimes word for word, the pro-Israel, anti-Resistance mantra of “free and independent, democratic Lebanon, without armed militias” et cetera. If Hezbollah wins the election, one reason will be these “demeaning visits”, Issam concludes.
It’s not about the Bomb
“The Bush administration fought the battle of capabilities with Iran and lost. No countries but Israel and US puppets are terribly worried about Iran getting a nuclear device. In fact probably a majority in the Middle East would welcome an Iranian nuclear deterrent to Israel’s serial aggressions”, Issam stated.
Walid Jumblatt explained to CNI, “When, not if, Iran acquires a nuclear bomb, Iran won’t use it. Only the Americans did that during World War II”.
Again, Issam elaborated:
The reason Israel is trying to scare the American public is to draw the focus away from Israeli crimes in Gaza and Occupied Palestine. What Israel knows is that once it is stalemated by Iran a whole world of anti-Zionists and human rights supporters will rise up and join the growing rejection of Apartheid Israel. Many will join the Resistance. Not just in Palestine but worldwide. Including in America where it may be fierce and Zionism will likely fracture and crumble and some of the more rabid Zionists may be asked to declare, like Israeli Foreign Minister Liberman did to Arabs in Israel, where their loyalties really are. We believe here that the American public lives in fear that Zionists will accuse them of anti-Semitism and try to ruin their lives if they speak their real feelings and that support for Israel, while still wide in America is getting very thin. We appreciate regular American delegations coming here because we get to see real American and they are good decent people. From Lebanon it appears that pressure is building inside America to confront the Israel lobby even though 76 US Senators signed a pro-Israel, anti-Iran letter this week to your President. It this true from your understanding? Will the American people finally put America first?
Meanwhile, after meeting with Defense Minister Murr to photo-op some more military equipment for the Lebanese army, ‘smokin Joe’ Biden will blast ‘up and outa’ Lebanon en route to Washington.
The Levant’s ‘fateful’ election: 16 days and counting. It’s getting interesting here in Lebanon. May the best team win.
FRANKLIN LAMB works with the Sabra-Shatila Foundation in Beirut. He is reachable at email@example.com.