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Warning Shots

Lee Smith

Early last month US President George W. Bush signed into effect the Executive Order, “Blocking Property of Persons Undermining the Sovereignty of Lebanon or Its Democratic Processes and Institutions.” The document, say sources on the ground in Beirut, has some Lebanese political figures panicked for their future financial well-being. “Good,” one US administration official told NOW Lebanon. “It was meant to.”

There are a number of Lebanon’s political leaders and officials who reportedly have funds, assets and business concerns in the US, including Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, whose family is said to have extensive American holdings. However, both Lebanese and American political circles agree that the most obvious target of the Executive Order was Michel Aoun’s parliamentary bloc and financial backers in the US.

“It was a warning shot across Aoun’s bow,” says David Schenker, a senior fellow in Arab politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was previously the top policy aide for the Levant at the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “It is a clarifying statement from the White House,” Schenker says. “Washington wanted to signal their displeasure with Aoun’s role in Lebanon and that there was a price to be paid for trucking with Syria and Hezbollah”

FPM supporters in Washington got the message loud and clear. Tony Haddad of the Lebanese-American Council for Democracy called it an intimidation tactic that will most likely fail to enhance Lebanon’s democratic institutions. “It will curtail the activities of the Aoun supporters we want to encourage and make more room for the anti-American activists among them.”

But if that’s the case, then the Executive Order served its purpose – to make people take sides. One Washington source with ties to the March 14 group explains that to date, Lebanese-Americans and Lebanese with interests in the US have felt they could play it both ways. “They could be treated as friends in Washington, and then work with Syrian allies in Lebanon, because that is how they get power there,” he says. “So they laughed at the US. Now the administration says, you are either a friend of the US and support our interests in the region – and the democratically elected government of Lebanon is a US interest – and play a constructive role in Lebanon or you’re no longer welcome in Washington.”

Tony Badran, sometime NOW Lebanon contributor and a fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, agrees. “The Executive Order is directed at all the people who say, I am with the US – and really act like they are with Hezbollah,” says Badran. “They are saying, I am your best friend and will sabotage your interests in Lebanon and the region. They can’t get away with that anymore.”

Still, some are not sure what effect this might really have on Lebanon’s political process. “Is the White House actually going to be able to take away someone’s money?” asks Schenker, familiar with the grinding machinery of Washington bureaucracy. “Why won’t they just move their money to Europe?”

It is more than just money at stake, however. Lebanese across the political spectrum, including one prominent figure whose name has been mentioned as a possible Prime Minister in a parallel, pro-Syrian government, have business concerns in the US that might not be so easy to liquidate at a moment’s notice. And at any rate, the Executive Order stipulates that, “because of the ability to transfer funds or other assets … there need be no prior notice of a listing or determination.” In other words, March 8 and FPM figures might lose their shirts so fast their heads will spin.

“This is not just a statement from the president,” says Badran. “The Executive Order can lead to real actions and it has a lot of people rattled.”

In the past, Executive Orders for country programs were issued with an annex – that is, a list of people whose assets were liable to be confiscated. For instance, the Executive Order from June 2006 “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus” names, among others, the President of Belarus, the Ministers of Justice and Internal Affairs and the National Security Adviser.

The point of the Executive Order dealing with Lebanon, says one former administration official who did not have clearance to go on the record, was to get it out sooner rather than later, before the presidential elections. “It was intended to have a deterrent effect, especially for people sitting on the fence and who might be tempted to go the other way.”

Nonetheless, a list of names is being assembled by the US Department of Treasury, which may be made public within the next couple of months. “The fact is,” says the official, “the Executive Order serves a purpose even if no one gets designated.”

The Bush administration is finding the Executive Order to be a useful tool in advancing its strategic interests throughout the region. Two weeks prior to the Lebanon document, the White House released a similar EO for Iraq.

But the Lebanon EO in particular is an index of the growing sense around Washington that Lebanon is much more than just a venue for the international community to fight the Iranian project for the region, or a mythical crossroads of civilizations.

After the Lebanese army’s victory over Fatah al-Islam fighters, American Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman called Lebanon one of the US’s “strategic international partners.” And now Washington analysts are describing the possibility of Lebanon becoming a part of new security architectures to fight the war on terror, a 21st century NATO for a different kind of enemy.

Lebanese figures around Washington welcome the recognition and are eager to keep Washington’s attention focused on Beirut long past the upcoming elections. “ Lebanon means something else to the US, in addition to its geo-strategic role,” says Badran. “The Lebanese are taking refuge in and demanding only the application of international law. Through its insistence on avoiding violence at all cost despite immense pressures, Lebanon is everything we say the Middle East should look like.”

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