Lebanon collapse would be blow to U.S.

November 23, 2006|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

Now, with the Lebanese government teetering on the verge of 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 Christian 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, said Nathan Brown, a specialist in Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.N. consultant.

Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution," which gave power to anti-Syrian forces, was heralded along with 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 instead, elections in the Palestinian territories 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 govern amid rising violence and increasing U.S. casualties. Many Iraqis say they would prefer a return to authoritarian rule.

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

But U.S. officials acknowledged that they have limited influence on the crisis that could damage U.S. interests in multiple ways. Analysts see Lebanon's crisis as another sign of American clout shrinking in the Middle East.

A government collapse would mark a further expansion in the influence of Hezbollah and of Syria and Iran, which back the Shiite militant group, many of them said. It would be a setback to the U.S. ambitions of uniting the fractured country around a stronger central government and also to hopes that an expanded Lebanese army can protect Israel from Hezbollah attacks in Lebanon's south.

And it would end Bush's goal of making Lebanon a democratic model for the region.

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

Such a government presumably would halt efforts to set up an international tribunal to bring to justice the killers of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister who was killed in February 2005. U.S. and United Nations investigators have implicated top officials of Syria's government in the killing. Damascus has been trying to stop the planned tribunal, which was approved last week by the current Lebanese government.

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

Bush, in his last inaugural address, pledged to support the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. One U.S. official, who asked to remain unidentified 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."

While he said Hezbollah's claims of success in last summer's 34-day war with Israel were exaggerated, a government takeover in Lebanon would be a success for the militant group because it likely would 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.

While visiting Iranian officials are passing out cash in the country 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.

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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