Lebanon: First Dividend of Cairo Speech?

By Gorman Gorman

Jun 8, 2009 2:09pm

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports:
The Obama administration isn't about to claim credit for the election results in Lebanon from over the weekend — results that had the Western-backed coalition defeating Hezbollah and its allies. But there's a storyline developing around the election that Democrats are going to be happy to advance.Just days after President Obama gave a speech in a Muslim capital asking for a "new beginning" between the US and Muslims, issuing a challenge to confront violent extremism, the people of a Muslim nation voted for a moderate coalition — not for a group that the US considers a terrorist organization. "The election was the first major political test in the Middle East since President Barack Obama called last week for a ‘new beginning between the United States and Muslims,' " per the AP write-up of the election results certified today. "This was the first real victory by pro-American groups in the ideological battle that has defined this region in the last 10 years," Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut told Bloomberg News. Previously, "every time the U.S. tried to help somebody in the region, it hurt them and they lost." "Pro-western Victory is Triumph for Barack Obama," declared a headline in the London Telegraph. Ascribing the victory to Obama or his speech in Cairo seems a bit of a stretch; local considerations tend to dominate any country's elections.Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me in an interview that it was "unlikely" that Obama's speech had any "direct impact" on the Lebanese elections that occurred three days later."Everybody was really focused on local politics. Maybe marginally it made a difference, because everybody was really transfixed by this speech," Cook said. He added, however, that even while the elections don't change the status quo in Lebanon, the result is exactly what the Obama administration would have wanted, both for stability in Lebanon and in the broader Middle East.The results fit the broader Obama message: "President Obama creates a problem for extremist movements like Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and others, because he has been reaching out to the Muslim world, and has been talking on Israeli settlements," Cook said.To approach this from another perspective — a Hezbollah victory would have almost certainly been cast as a setback for Obama. In recent weeks, prominent conservative voices have warned that Obama policies are "emboldening America's enemies" (Sean Hannity), and amount to little more than "earnest words and furrowed brows" (Mitt Romney) and "hand-holding" (Liz Cheney). The White House late Sunday issued a triumphant statement from the president (though it made no mention the Cairo speech): "The high turnout and the candidates — too many of whom know personally the violence that has marred Lebanon — are the strongest indications yet of the Lebanese desire for security and prosperity. Once more, the people of Lebanon have demonstrated to the world their courage and the strength of their commitment to democracy," the statement said.Politically, the president's critics may have a bit less to celebrate.UPDATE: The National Security Network just issued an analysis of the election results and what they mean for the administration: "March 14′s victory offers an undeniable benefit to the Obama administration, as a Hezbollah-led parliament would have complicated the President’s Middle East agenda, in particular his efforts to advance the peace process. But March 14th’s success is not a cure-all. Lebanon now faces the complicated process of establishing a government, and the Obama administration must resist the impulse to declare victory and move on to other pressing affairs." UPDATE II: Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about whether the election results might have been connected to the president’s message at today’s White House briefing, per ABC’s Sunlen Miller.

Said Gibbs: “I will say this: I think the president was pretty clear in Cairo about the importance of elections. I think people can be heartened that turnout far exceeded the last election. Again, it — it — that those — there was a shared commitment to democracy in a sovereign and independent Lebanon. I think that's certainly important.”

“I think if you look at most predictions about the election leading up to the actual election having taken place, most people believed that the March 14 coalition was — was not going to be successful. I would say that I don't think the president was — was one of those people. And I think just as the president talked about in Cairo, the Lebanese people are more interested in a government that builds things up, rather than one whose main job is to tear things down.”

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