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A complex, love-hate relationship grows out of Lebanese familiarity with America.
known as a cruising spot for gay men. Several Starbucks locations are packed from morning until night, although recently the American coffee chain has been targeted by protestors. In January, demonstrators picketed a Starbucks in Beirut to protest the CEO’s alleged support for Israel’s Gaza invasion.
Lebanon has been intensely critical of Israel for its punishing offensive in Gaza, and Lebanese see the Palestinian battering as similar to the destructive campaign Israel carried out against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. Much of the Arab world considers those Israeli offensives — in Lebanon and Gaza — as unjust and disproportionate, inflicting collective punishment on a civilian population. As Israel sees it, both conflicts represent the difficulty in countering its enemies Hezbollah and Hamas, which intentionally carry out attacks from inside civilian populations.
U.S. policy has been consistently supportive of Israel even when civilians suffer under Israel's campaigns.
Earlier in January, protestors at a Hezbollah rally in southern Beirut chanted “death to America” while a university professor named Yussef complained of U.S. support for Israel in Gaza. “It’s as if America existed just for the well-being of Israel,” he said.
Like many in Lebanon, Yussef’s opinion of U.S. foreign policy is low.
That wasn’t always the case. After the United States helped put pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005, effectively ending a nearly 30-year occupation, the U.S. had a 40 percent approval rating here, according to polling organization Gallup.
But U.S. support for Israel during its war with Hezbollah in 2006 caused public opinion of the U.S. to nosedive, and one in four Lebanese recently polled by Gallup said they blamed America directly for the war. Now, the Lebanese approval rating of U.S. leadership stands at 25 percent — still higher than the regional median of 15 percent.
Gilbert Doumit says this is partly explained by Lebanese having a multifaceted view of the U.S. “People who have a problem with the U.S. today, it’s political,” Doumit said. “They have no problem going to work or study in the U.S.," but, he explains, they have no respect for America's policy in the region.
Doumit hopes U.S. President Barack Obama follows through on his promises to “listen more” and “seek a new way forward” with the Muslim world. Since 2006, the U.S. has given Lebanon more than $400 million in aid. But for Doumit, finding a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians should be Obama’s priority.
“If the Palestinian issue will not be solved in a just way, we can play around, we can do peace building, conflict resolution, economic development in (Lebanon), we can do whatever you want,” he said. “As long as the Palestinians are not given a piece of Palestine, there will always be conflict here.”
The complexity of Lebanon's relationship with America comes through in just about every conversation here.
At Cafe Prague, a chic bar and restaurant, 47-year-old luxury brand manager Dina Zehr said she had lived in New York for 14 years and found Americans to be nice but "naive."
"They're worried with basic stuff: their home and their mortgage. They're much less sophisticated than Europeans," she said. "Europeans are better traveled, they read party newspapers, and discuss them. Americans don't."
At the same time, Zehr said she admired many aspects of the U.S., including the opportunities it offered. The U.S. has the "most-advanced meritocratic system that exists in the world," she said — a place where "you are accountable for what you do — even the president. If he lies, you get Watergate; he's accountable. Here in Lebanon, that's out of the question."
One of those to benefit from the opportunities in the U.S. is Jawad Trad, a 26-year-old medical student at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. A Lebanese Shiite, he now has American citizenship. He dislikes U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding the Middle East, but loves the life he's found in the U.S.
"You can start from zero and make something out of yourself," said Trad, on vacation in his home country. "Here, they crush your dreams. They don't like you to be better than them."
Like people in much of the world, Lebanese seem excited by the new U.S. administration. But they are not holding their breath that it will bring a profound shift in policy in the region.
Bettina Mahfoud, 42, an advertising executive, said that while Obama was a "dream coming true" for the U.S., she wondered, "will it solve anything for us? No."
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