With Lebanon, Washington Shows ‘Soft’ Side of Power

Times Staff Writers

Over dinner in Brussels last month, President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac hashed out a strategy to force a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon that included keeping pressure on Damascus and accepting a political role for the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, diplomats said.

The new cooperation between Bush and Chirac and the almost daily contact that U.S. and French officials have maintained during the crisis contrasted with the bitter rift that emerged between the two countries over Iraq two years ago.

In crafting a policy on Lebanon, the Bush administration has adopted a more measured approach, departing from the more rigid style that characterized its diplomacy during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.


As a result, the U.S. has enlisted more allies in its campaign to free Lebanon of Damascus’ grip. It has also shown greater flexibility as it grapples with the task of how best to strengthen Lebanon’s democratic process once Syrian forces are gone.

Foreign diplomats and many U.S. critics of Bush’s handling of foreign affairs have praised his actions during the crisis in Lebanon that followed the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“The change is from a diplomacy of statements to a discreet, active diplomacy in the traditional sense,” said a European diplomat who declined to be identified. “It’s the use of America’s soft power rather than its military power.”

One example of the administration’s flexibility is the president’s response to questions about the future of Hezbollah, which advocates the destruction of America’s longtime ally, Israel, and is on a U.S. list of terrorist groups.

Twice last week, Bush raised eyebrows by hinting that the United States would not object if Hezbollah emerged as a political force in a free and democratic Lebanon. Still, the president emphasized that administration policy toward the group had not changed.

Israeli officials are particularly concerned about the stability of Lebanon after a Syrian withdrawal. They want the Lebanese army to move into southern Lebanon and secure control of the area. Hezbollah continues to launch sporadic guerrilla attacks against Israeli army positions in disputed territory near Israel’s northern frontier with Lebanon.

So far, Israel has not reacted publicly to Bush’s remarks.

Bush administration officials say their energies are focused on maintaining international pressure on Syria to follow through with its pledge to end its military presence in Lebanon. They are also working to prevent a re-emergence of the religious tensions that ripped Lebanon apart in a bitter civil war during the 1970s and 1980s and to avoid any delay in parliamentary elections planned for late spring.

More than 4,000 of the 14,000 Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon have returned home as a result of Lebanese and international pressure triggered by Hariri’s death. U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen indicated last week that Syrian President Bashar Assad would remove the remainder before the elections.

Both European and U.S. officials expressed concern that pro-Syria elements might try to delay the balloting for parliament to give Damascus time to reassert its control. However, these officials acknowledge that persuading Lebanon’s many political parties to cooperate in the push for immediate elections could be difficult.

Officials in U.S., European and Arab nations said they saw a need for U.N. election monitors invited by the Lebanese government -- to ensure that any balloting was fair and free from Syrian intimidation.

However, none of the officials expressed enthusiasm for Western-led peacekeeping forces to maintain Lebanon’s stability.

“The Lebanese have had enough of the French, enough of European intervention, enough of the Syrian presence,” a Middle Eastern diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I don’t believe the Lebanese would welcome any foreign peacekeeping forces.”

This month, a senior U.S. official suggested that conditions in the country after Syria’s departure could be stable enough that no such force would be required. A second official echoed that sentiment more recently -- although before a Beirut car bombing Saturday that wounded 11 people in a Christian neighborhood and another explosion today that killed two people in Kaslik, a Christian north of the capital. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Comments from U.S. officials indicate that their approach to Lebanon is predicated on several factors, including:

* A belief that the trauma of a 15-year civil war has reduced the desire of the country’s religious factions to resume fighting. This view was reinforced by the peaceful nature of large pro- and anti-Syria demonstrations in Beirut during the last two weeks, although the bombings underscore how fragile conditions remain.

* Lebanon’s aversion to foreign military forces. In the last quarter of a century, there has been a string of failures in Western or pro-Western military interventions in Lebanon. Perhaps chief among them was the ill-fated deployment of U.S. Marines in the early 1980s that ended within a few months of a suicide bombing of a barracks near Beirut that killed 241 Americans.

* A realization that any deployment of Western forces in Lebanon would further strain the resources of those North Atlantic Treaty Organization armies already stretched by commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan or both.

* A consensus among allies on the goals for Lebanon’s future. Unlike its approach to Iraq, the Bush administration shares its position on Lebanon with longtime allies, including France and Saudi Arabia. Paris and Washington first cooperated on Lebanon last summer to co-sponsor U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding that Syrian troops leave the country. That goal also enjoys what envoy Roed-Larsen described as a “unique, remarkable and broad consensus” within the Security Council.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. is working quietly to preserve Lebanon’s stability. Last week, Bush and State Department officials met with the country’s Maronite Christian patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir. A senior administration official said the discussions explored how to convince Lebanon’s Muslim leaders that Western-style democracy for their country would no longer be a code word for Christian-dominated governments.

“We talked about how to reassure the Muslim groups that the way forward is a democratic system that genuinely reflects the gender, ethnic and religious diversity of Lebanon,” the U.S. official said.

Bush’s response to questions about the future of Hezbollah has been interpreted as a signal that it too can be a part of such a system, although administration officials also say the realities of Lebanese politics would seem to offer few other options.

Hezbollah, which maintains the largest military contingent in the country next to the Lebanese army, is also a formidable political force.

“There’s not a lot of talk about disarming Hezbollah because no one can do it,” a senior U.S. official said.

Those familiar with Lebanese politics suggest that Hezbollah could win more than 20% of the vote in a free election and claim many more than the 12 seats it currently holds in Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament.

Diplomats credit Chirac with persuading Bush to defer decisions on the status of Hezbollah until after the Syrian withdrawal.

But in keeping with Bush’s emphasis on democracy in the Middle East, administration officials have emphasized that the Lebanese people must determine their political future, hinting that the U.S. would accept whatever government emerges, including one dominated by Shiite Muslims or Hezbollah.

“They are going to let the cards fall where they may and deal with the new government,” said Edward Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco who specializes in Syria and Lebanon at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Rather than provoke a potentially bloody confrontation to disarm Hezbollah, administration officials say that a new, more open political environment inside Lebanon could generate its own disarmament pressures on an organization whose following stems largely from the group’s history of defending the country’s Shiite population and its attacks on Israel.

With the Israelis gone from southern Lebanon, new Palestinian leaders calling for an end to violence against Israel and Lebanon’s historically oppressed Shiite minority no longer in need of protection, the militant organization would be hard-pressed to justify its large militia, administration officials argue. They also point to the Jan. 30 electoral triumph of Shiites in Iraq as proof that the United States is prepared to work with a popularly elected Shiite-led government.

“There are a lot of ‘ifs’ and a lot of things have to fall together, but the reality is that the reasons for their existence are being stripped away,” a U.S. official said.