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Will Saad Hariri's visit to Washington make an impact?

Lee Smith

On Wednesday, the Washington DC website the Washington Note posted a letter to President Bush that was signed by a number of former high-level US officials, including one-time National Security advisers Zbigniew Brzsensiki and Brent Scowcroft, and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton. The letter, in anticipation of the Bush administration’s Middle East conference to be held in Annapolis, Maryland next month, was essentially a reprise of the Iraq Study Group, which Hamilton co-chaired. In the letter, they suggested that the White House engage Hamas and Syria.

The letter came less than a week after MP Saad Hariri’s trip to Washington, where he held more than 30 high-level meetings with officials including the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, as well as with key senators and congressmen essentially every American decision-maker there is to see in what some still call, without irony, “the capital of the free world.” Hariri’s message was simple: Syria is killing our people is Washington going to do anything to help?

“If you are going to do something about it, let us know,” Hariri told a group of American journalists gathered in his Georgetown hotel suite last Friday. “If you are not going to do anything about it, let us know.”

It was the tail-end of the Washington leg of his US trip, and if Hariri was understandably tired in addition to his hectic agenda, he was also fasting the 37-year-old also seemed relaxed and happy. He joined reporters after finishing prayers in another room, threw his jacket over the back of chair, joked with an aide, took a seat in the middle of the room, and talked about Lebanon and its dangerous neighbor.

If there was some concern among senior Bush administration officials, it was that Hariri would seek to cushion Syria’s main asset in Lebanon, Hezbollah. But Hariri did not mention it. He spoke directly of the country’s most pressing problems. When asked about rumors coming out of Lebanon about a deal over UN Security Council Resolution 1559, Hariri replied, “It doesn’t matter what [parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri says about 1559 or what Saad al-Hariri says. It is a UN resolution, and the UN will decide when it has been implemented.”

Washington insiders noted that Hariri’s demeanor all week long showed how much more at ease he has become with the role he once seemed slightly uncomfortable filling. After all, with the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, Saad became one of Lebanon’s key figures; a Sunni leader whose ties to Saudi Arabia along with his father’s relationships in Europe served essentially as force multipliers. Without the courage of Walid Jumblatt and other March 14 leaders, especially those who have already paid with their lives, Lebanon would be in very bad shape; but without a Hariri, Lebanon might not have the attention of the rest of the international community. The fact is, Saad is his father’s son, but he showed Washington last week that he has unquestionably become his own man, too.

“We came to explain where we are,” Hariri told the reporters, “And we came to protect Lebanon from some of the destructive forces in the region.“  As if there was any doubt which particular force he was referring to, he spelled it out: “We told them: There is a killing machine in Syria.”

Lebanese figures around Washington, including some at the embassy, explained that there is still concern that Washington is looking to make a deal with Damascus, and publicity stunts like the Washington Note’s letter to the White House suggests this fear is not merely a symptom of Lebanese paranoia. Still, American officials are quick to dismiss these worries, explaining that it is in part Lebanon’s posture toward Syria that has earned the Siniora government so much credit.

“The irony is that Saad, or at least this government, is much more popular than his father’s government was,” said one congressional staffer experienced in Middle East issues. “He is exceedingly popular. His father did some good things for Lebanon, but he was tethered at the hip to Syria. Privately I doubt he ever was, but publicly he had no choice. But this Lebanese government has a great deal of stature, and as long as it is anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syria, the support will remain very high.”

However, if the White House and Congress are fully behind Lebanon, it is not clear why the State Department is so eager to get Syria to attend the Annapolis conference.

Similarly, there was a report last week that when the Israelis came to show the Bush administration evidence of North Korean nuclear materials in Syria, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued against an Israeli strike. She offered instead to reprimand Damascus publicly for their alleged nascent nuclear program. Unfortunately, the story is perfectly in line with the Secretary of State’s posture toward the Assad regime since she replaced Colin Powell: A March 14 figure is assassinated, and the State Department announces that it holds Syria accountable without doing anything about it.

So what can the US do to protect Lebanon, and what can the Lebanese do to make their case?

“First of all,” said Barry Rubin, author of the recent The Truth about Syria, “the US should say that if any more Lebanese politicians get killed, we will blame you and you will pay a price for it.”

That in itself would represent a steep change in American policy; to protect a US ally by threatening to avail itself of the same means Syria uses. A more significant problem, explained Rubin, who is a former congressional staffer, is that Lebanon has not done a great job making the case that it is an important US ally. “For whatever reason, Lebanon has not gotten word out and mobilized supporters,” said Rubin. “The Syrians, on the other hand, are handling their PR brilliantly. Look at all these people you have talking about engaging Syria. But you just don’t hear about Lebanon as an option. Therefore, people are tempted to say, ‘why don’t we engage with the Syrians?’ People say that the Syrians can help in Iraq, and that the Syrians can contribute on the Israeli front. Lebanon can’t offer anything on Iraq. So what can Lebanon do for the US and US interests? That case hasn’t been made. It does not appear as an independent variable.”

Rubin, like many friends of Lebanon around Washington, thinks it’s not enough to have visiting officials come to town from time to time to make their case, speak to officials and get the attention of a few prominent columnists. “If I were Lebanese, or Lebanese-American, I sure know what I would do. I’d write a manifesto on why the US should support Lebanon, put together a blue-ribbon panel to endorse it and launch a massive media campaign.”

Lebanon is under siege with, to quote Hariri, “a killing machine” at the controls. One way to start breaking the siege is to go to Washington with a steady, tireless campaign.  

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