Lebanon: US watching presidential elections closely, no favored candidate yet

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Slowly, international attention is beginning to turn to the Lebanese presidential elections, as if it was waiting for the post to be vacant to display enthusiasm. Ambassadors are urging the election of a president before the constitutional deadline [on May 25]. They are watching the different actors without directly intervening or favoring a specific candidate. They have not concealed their fear of a void and hope that it is not too late.

As in the past, the US does not want to have a president who is allied with a regime it has been working to undermine for the past three years or more.

Recent returnees from Washington spoke about the US stance regarding the Lebanese presidential elections. Armed with accounts of their contacts with senior officials and staff of the US State Department, they reached the following conclusions.

First, the US administration does not want to interfere directly and does not have a preferred candidate. A few officials mentioned the names of some they hoped would not become president, but indicated that they will not be vetoed by the US. They include two unnamed potential candidates with close relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. As in the past, the US does not want to have a president who is allied with a regime it has been working to undermine for the past three years or more.

Second, Washington is not in favor of changing the constitution, whether to extend President Michel Suleiman’s term or to elect someone whose election requires a constitutional amendment. US officials claim they support constitutional and national institutions, from the top of the pyramid of the presidency to all low-ranking official departments.

Third, the US administration took a firm position against receiving any candidates, their close associates, or even those who publicly declared their support. Not one potential Lebanese candidate has been able to change their minds and Washington has not shown signs of support to any candidate. As we near the constitutional deadline to elect a new president, Washington has been serious about giving the impression that it does not want intervene in the elections. The US administration has not sponsored a particular candidate or sent a negative message to others by welcoming their adversaries.

Fourth, Washington has clung to its position as reiterated time and time again by its ambassador in Beirut, David Hill, who is insisting the presidential elections be held within the constitutional limits. On the other hand, he expressed concerns about the parliament’s failure to elect a successor to Suleiman. This could create friction between the different sides, which would gradually escalate into street confrontations, along the lines of the post-Emile Lahoud period and the Doha settlement, following the sectarian confrontations of May 7, 2008.

Fifth, after reassessing the experience of having an army commander in the presidency, the US administration concluded that his election did not place the army in power. Thus, he was unable to carry out his role effectively. The experience of electing Lahoud and Suleiman, both former army commanders, showed that they lost their influence once they no longer had any in the military establishment when a new army chief was chosen.

In 1998 and in 2008 respectively, Washington supported their elections and merely expressed reservations about the extension of Lahoud’s term in 2004. Its motives included its belief that the army would remain under the president’s command and could be easily deployed to prevent internal conflict. However, security incidents in the past three years, some of which had been quite serious, trapped the army between political rivalries and divisions. It was unable to intervene or impose security, except on rare occasions. This is a result of the army command’s autonomous reprioritization of its tasks, on certain occasions, and its assessment of the situation independently from the president, on other occasions.
The experience of electing Lahoud and Suleiman, both former army commanders, showed that they lost their influence once they no longer had any in the military establishment when a new army chief was chosen.

Sixth, the US State Department entrusted the presidential elections to its Beirut ambassador, due to the profusion of other regional issues, which are more important than Lebanon, including its presidential elections. The state of affairs in Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Gulf, Yemen, and Egypt does not leave US officials and experts with time to consider the Lebanese dossier or to discuss it at the time being. They need more time to reassess their policies, identify their options, and take the necessary steps related to US interests in the region. Lebanon’s affairs would be managed from Beirut and followed up in Washington, contrary to traditional diplomacy.

Another observation drew the attention of those returning from Washington. Their US counterparts, officials and staff at the State Department and the US Congress, repeatedly asked questions about the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, emphasizing the humanitarian dimension. However, the political and security implications were discussed, in light of the unforeseen number of refugees in the country.

Seventh, maintaining Lebanon’s stability is an essential goal and the task was given to Hill, who used a different and sometimes opposite approach than that of his predecessor Moira Connolly. He was open to all Lebanese sides and visited them constantly to listen to what they had to say. This includes political factions in March 8 except Hezbollah, in compliance with US law that prevents contacts with the party.

Hill was also tasked with two missions. The first was to Saudi Arabia in February, to help in forming the Tammam Salam government, and the second, in March, to assist in the hard task of making the ministerial statement come to fruition. On March 14, at midnight, Hill made consecutive phone calls to Lebanese officials in Baabda during the Salam government meeting to draft the ministerial statement. In the past few days, he revisited Riyadh regarding the Lebanese parliament’s failure to elect a president.

No one could handle Lebanese affairs in the State Department’s Near East bureau better than Hill, while other experts are busy with other matters. Hill is now familiar with Lebanon, its officials, and circumstances after two and a half decades and after getting appointed three times to the country. In the early 1990s, he served as a political advisor. He was deputy ambassador between 1999 and 2001 and finally became ambassador. He knew Lebanon during the Syrian era and after its withdrawal.

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