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As Lebanon teeters, so does a U.S. ambition

Times Staff Writer

When elections lifted reformers to power in Lebanon early last year, Bush administration officials hailed it as a showcase example of the “Arab spring” they saw sweeping through the region.

Now, with the Lebanese government teetering on collapse, U.S. officials are braced for another -- and some say final -- blow to the administration’s campaign for its vision of reform in the Middle East.

The assassination Tuesday of Pierre Gemayel, a Cabinet minister and scion of one of the countries’ leading Maronite Catholic families, has renewed fears of civil war and raised suspicion that Syria is again asserting itself in the affairs of its restive neighbor.

“You’re now seeing the last strand” of failed U.S. policy endeavors, said Nathan Brown, a specialist in Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former United Nations consultant.

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Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution,” which gave power to anti-Syria forces, was heralded along with the 2005 elections in Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian territories as part of a new movement that was going to be “as important as the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Brown said.

But the changes that followed have dashed U.S. hopes in country after country, he said.

Palestinian voters have since granted power to the militant group Hamas, which the administration has yet to recognize. Egypt’s reforms have stalled. And in Iraq, the government has proved unable to run the country amid increasing violence and rising U.S. casualties. Many Iraqis say they would prefer a return to authoritarian rule.

President Bush on Wednesday condemned Syria and Iran as fomenting instability in Lebanon, and officials promised that the United States would do what it could to support its allies in the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

But U.S. officials acknowledged that they had limited influence to deal with the crisis, which could damage U.S. interests in multiple ways.

Analysts see the Lebanon situation as another sign that American clout is shrinking in the Middle East.

A collapse of the Lebanese government would mark a further expansion in the influence of Hezbollah -- and of Syria and Iran, which back the Shiite Muslim militant group -- many of the analysts said.

It would be a setback to the U.S. goal of uniting the country around a stronger central government, and to hopes that an expanded Lebanese army could protect Israel from Hezbollah attacks.

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It also would end the Bush administration’s goal of making Lebanon a democratic model for the region.

U.S. officials have been trying to help the Lebanese government resist pressure from Hezbollah, which wants to replace Siniora’s team with a “unity” government that would give Shiites more say and block many of Siniora’s initiatives and goals.

Such a government presumably would halt international efforts to create a tribunal to bring to justice the killers of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister who was slain in February 2005. U.S. and U.N. investigators have implicated top Syrian officials in the assassination. Damascus has been trying to stop the creation of the tribunal, which was approved last week by Lebanon.

Six Shiite Cabinet ministers have walked out of the government. With the slaying of Gemayel, who served as the industry minister, the government will be legally unable to continue if one more minister resigns or dies.

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Bush in his last inaugural address pledged to support the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. A U.S. official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject, said a government collapse in Lebanon would be “a huge setback for the democracy effort, for the United States and for Israel, and a huge gain for the Syrians and Iran.... We’re teetering on the edge.”

Though Hezbollah’s claims of success in the 34-day war with Israel this summer were exaggerated, he said, taking over the government would be a major achievement for the militant group, which probably would seek to undo the effects of a U.N. resolution that sought to pacify the country with an expanded international military presence.

Many members of the Cabinet, facing the threat of violence, are “running scared and looking to make deals,” the official said. In the maneuvering for influence, the American side is at a disadvantage, he said.

While visiting Iranian officials are passing out cash in Lebanon to build relationships, U.S. officials have no inducements other than slow-moving programs to help rebuild the country with grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. official said.

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David Schenker, a former top Pentagon advisor on the Middle East, said U.S. influence in Lebanon was not boosted by the war, in which Washington backed Israel during its bombardment.

“We’re not really persona grata after the war,” said Schenker, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Concern over events in Lebanon has grown in Washington. The administration registered its alarm this month in a statement saying there was “mounting evidence” that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah were collaborating to overthrow the Siniora government.

In contrast, U.S. officials were euphoric in March 2005, when demonstrations by more than 1 million Lebanese protesting Hariri’s assassination forced the departure of Syrian troops after 29 years of deployment in the country.

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Bush declared that “a thaw has begun.” In the Middle East, he said, “authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future. It is the last gasp of a discredited past.”

Despite that optimism, the last year has brought the White House little but disappointment in Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Lebanon.

Edward S. Walker Jr., a former assistant secretary of State, said the administration’s Middle East campaign has become, unwittingly, “a campaign to spread the influence of Shia Islam. That’s what’s been happening.”

Some analysts argue that, rather than the democratic ascendancy Bush foresaw in early 2005, Lebanon represents a trend that will bring instability and spell a sharp decline in U.S. influence in the region.

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That trend is marked by the rise in influence of Hezbollah and Iran, the increase in the influence of fundamentalist Islam, the growth of sectarian militias, higher oil prices and the stagnation of efforts to find an Israeli-Palestinian peace, said Richard N. Haass, a top State Department official during Bush’s first term and now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

In this new and unstable era, the challenge will be to contain the dangers of the Middle East, Haass recently told a group of reporters.

“I think we’ve got to be more realistic about the promotion of democracy,” he said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com


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