Hillary Clinton popped over to Beirut yesterday to say hello to old friends, snap a few pictures, visit Rafiq Hariri’s tomb, and grab a quick falafel sandwich at Sahyoun’s. The aim of her visit was to reassure everyone that the United States is not planning to sell Lebanon down the river:
“There is nothing that we would do in any way that would undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty,” Clinton told a press conference in Baabda after meeting Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.
“So I want to reassure any Lebanese citizen that the United States will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon or the Lebanese people.”
Elbowing aside the dozing reporter from an-Nahar, I managed to catch Mrs. Clinton’s attention.
Hillary: Yes, you there. The tall dark and handsome fellow with the hand raised…
QN: Ahh, yes thank you Madame Secretary. Qifa Nabki, from qifanabki.com. I just had a question about what you mean when you say “never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon…”
Hillary: I’m glad you asked that, Qifa. Because I feel like this point really needs to be underlined.
QN: So there’s no chance of any kind of a return to the situation that obtained in the 90’s…
Hillary: Ancient history, my dear Qifa. Look, what could Syria possibly offer us that would make us give up Lebanon? Some kind of “grand bargain” which fundamentally changes the strategic balance in the region in Israel’s favor by flipping Syria away from Iran and disarming Hizbullah? Pshaaww… They’re going to have to do a lot better than that…
QN: Umm, ok. Thanks!
Isn’t it funny how the job of Secretary of State is often indistinguishable from that of a motivational speaker. Joshua Landis has a great post over at Syria Comment in which he addresses the paranoid complaints of some Syrians who were hoping for a little more love from the top U.S. diplomat. One friend reportedly wrote to him: “Clinton has finally made her move, and how predictable it is? Forget it. They will never give Syria what it wants. The status quo is back. Obama is no different from any previous president.”
I mean, grow up already. What did they expect Hillary to do, desecrate Hariri’s tomb and french kiss Wiam Wahhab on Syrian national television? I think it’s pretty clear that the U.S. posture toward Syria has already begun to change drastically, and things under Obama are a heck of a lot better than they were under Bush. If Bashar keeps playing his cards right, I believe that some sanctions will begin to be peeled away within the year.
But the broader point should be addressed, namely: what is likely to be the U.S. reaction to a March 8 victory in the Lebanese elections? I think that this is a complicated issue, and its very premise is flawed, as I’ve written here before. In general, I think Joshua is right when he argues:
“if the Lebanese defy the US and vote for March 8 anyway, the US can cut aid but continue to finesse the situation by allowing the French and British to step forward and engage the new Lebanese government. Britain has begun a direct dialogue with Hizbullah. France has stated that it can live with any outcome of the elections so long as powersharing is respected in the new government. Both Britain and France have made it clear that they are willing to accept Lebanon’s democratic results without a major tantrum if their prefered party doesn’t win.
The US manages to shut its eyes to Hizbullah’s presence in Lebanon’s government today. What is to stop it from doing this even if March 8 wins? Eye shutting will admittedly be harder to do if March 8 forms the next government; but March 8 has already made a number of suggestions about how pro-American elements can play a big role in any new government. This compromise could be used as a basis to assuage US anger and mollify any desire on the part of Washington to pick up its marbles and go home.”
Couldn’t agree more. As discussed recently, a March 8th win is really going to be all about the Free Patriotic Movement. No matter how Fox News spins it, the reality is that the onus has been placed entirely upon Michel Aoun’s Change & Reform bloc to pony up the seats to push the opposition over the top. And while there may be a congressional effort to introduce something like a Lebanon Accountability Act, I just can’t see a politically expedient reason to do it if the Syrians are adding value to Obama’s Mideast efforts.