Lebanon: U.S. Backs Free Elections, Only to See Allies Lose


August 10, 2007
Memo From Dubai


U .S. Backs Free Elections, Only to See Allies Lose


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Aug. 9 – Lebanon’s political spin masters have
been trying in recent days to explain the results of last Sunday’s pivotal
by-election, which saw a relatively unknown candidate from the opposition
narrowly beat a former president, Amin Gemayel.
There has been talk of the Christian vote and the Armenian vote, of history
and betrayal, as each side sought to claim victory. There is one
explanation, however, that has become common wisdom in the region: Mr.
Gemayel’s doom seems to have been sealed by his support from the Bush
administration and the implied agendas behind its backing.
"It’s the kiss of death," said Turki al-Rasheed, a Saudi reformer who
watched last Sunday’s elections closely. "The minute you are counted on or
backed by the Americans, kiss it goodbye, you will never win."
The paradox of American policy in the Middle East – promoting democracy on
the assumption it will bring countries closer to the West – is that almost
everywhere there are free elections, the American-backed side tends to lose.
Lebanon’s voters in the Metn district, in other words, appeared to have
joined the Palestinians, who voted for Hamas; the Iraqis, who voted for a
government sympathetic to Iran; and the Egyptians, who have voted in growing
numbers in recent elections for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. "No
politician can afford to identify with the West because poll after poll
shows people don’t believe in the U.S. agenda," said Mustafa Hamarneh, until
recently the director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University
of Jordan. Mr. Hamarneh is running for a seat in Jordan’s Parliament in
November, but he says he has made a point of keeping his campaign focused
locally, and on bread-and-butter issues. "If somebody goes after you as
pro-American he can hurt you," he said.
In part, regional analysts say, candidates are tainted by the baggage of
American foreign policy – from its backing of Israel to the violence in
Iraq. But more important, they say, American support is often applied to one
faction instead of to institutions, causing further division rather than
bringing stability.
"The Americans think that supporting democracy should create positive
reactions," said Nicola Nassif, a columnist with the left-leaning Lebanese
daily Al Akhbar. "No one can be against democracy, sovereignty, independence
and freedom. But not if it upsets the internal power balance, not if it
empowers one party against the other, especially in a country where
supporting one group can lead to violence and even civil wars."
Arab liberals who have embraced America continue to see their influence fade
in the region, as more conservative and Islamist forces continue to rise,
Mr. Rasheed said. Voters invariably frown on strength coming from abroad, he
said; the only legitimate sources of strength any Arab politician can turn
to is based on either tribal power or religious ties.
"Last Sunday we saw that even if you are a former president running for a
seat in Parliament, in a small area where everybody knows you, you can’t
make it either with American support," Mr. Rasheed said.
For much of the past year, Lebanon has been caught in a major confrontation
between the American-backed March 14th movement, which helped force Syria
out of Lebanon in 2005 and won a parliamentary majority that year, and the
Iranian- and Syrian-backed opposition movement led by Hezbollah and Gen.
Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.
Sunday’s vote was widely seen as a bellwether for the country’s political
leanings in that confrontation.
Lebanon’s Christians are generally more sympathetic to the United States
than are other Arabs. But the tension between Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s
American-backed faction against an Iranian-backed one was palpable in last
Sunday’s election.
And despite an expected sympathy vote – Mr. Gemayel was running to fill the
seat vacated by the assassination of his son Pierre – and the former
president’s name recognition, Lebanese Christians in the mountainous Metn
region, along with a smattering of Shiites and others who live there, voted
for the more unlikely team: one allied to Hezbollah, seemingly sympathetic
to Iran and Syria, and most of all, in opposition to America.
"Our problem with March 14th is not that they are aligned with the U.S., but
it is their policies," says Alain Aoun, a nephew of General Aoun, who says
American support has magnified tensions while emboldening the ruling
majority to resist compromises. "We call on the U.S. to learn from this
experience; they should not take part in any internal conflict or take
sides. They should support all Lebanese."
The problem is not necessarily the support itself, Mr. Nassif said, but that
it invariably skews conflicts, worsening rather than easing sectarian and
ethnic tensions.
"When the U.S. interferes in favor of one party, their interference leads to
an explosion," he said. "The U.S. openly says it supports the Siniora
government, but it should say we support the Lebanese government."
There was, however, one American intervention that did work in Lebanon, Mr.
Nassif notes.
"In 1958 when the U.S. interfered militarily in Lebanon, it said it was to
help Lebanon regain stability," he said, speaking of President Dwight D.
Eisenhower’s decision to deploy 14,000 men to shore up the government of
President Camille Chamoun and open the way for his successor, Gen. Fuad
Chehab. The intervention is credited with preventing the Syrian and Egyptian
governments from destabilizing the country.
"Chehab was soon after elected, and no one protested their presence here; a
few months later they withdrew," Mr. Nassif said of the American forces. "In
1982, they interfered militarily again and it ended in a disaster. They
supported Israel and Gemayel against the Palestinians, who were supported by
Lebanese parties."
Mr. Nassif added, "Since then, every time the Americans interfere, it ends
in a war or in their expulsion."
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.