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Clinton visits, much remains the same

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton passed just below my office the other day.  The police had blocked off the streets, leaving a crowd of backed-up cars on the highway as Lebanese tried to come into Beirut on the sunny Sunday morning. About 15 minutes later, a 15-car convoy full of armored Chevrolet Suburbans with blacked out windows came barreling through, Iraq Blackwater style. Five minutes later came another convoy, sirens wailing, Lebanese army soldiers hanging from their trucks’ windows, as yet another diplomatic (decoy?) convoy raced past.

Clinton was on her way to visit Lebanese President Michele Suleiman in the Beirut suburb of Baabda. After her meeting, she raced back down to Beirut to visit the grave of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in a car bomb attack in Beirut in 2005, an event that ushered in a new era of American involvement in Lebanon.

The American involvement has seen more than a $1 billion in U.S. funding delivered to Lebanon over the last three years, 40 percent of it in military aid.  President Barack Obama’s administration appears to be on the path to continue the aid (with some comments about reconsidering funding if the Hezbollah led opposition wins), along with the backing of the “Cedar Revolution’s” March 14 movement in Lebanon’s June 7 parliamentary elections. 

The Obama administration’s efforts to engage Syria and Iran have created room to maneuver in Lebanon. The street tensions have been defused from one year ago, when Hezbollah took over parts of Beirut to show the U.S.-backed March 14 coalition who was boss. That’s when Hezbollah called America’s bluff. Despite aid and kind words, the U.S. had nothing with which to back up their allies on Beirut’s streets. Blood was spilled.

Now, Lebanon teeters on the brink of normalcy. Tourist numbers are up. The banks are faring extraordinarily well in the financial crisis.  And everyone here is waiting to see who will win the elections. Many Lebanese expect that no matter who wins, much will remain the same.  The same old patronage politics, the same corruption, the same electricity cuts, the same water shortages; all can be blamed just as squarely on the U.S.-backed ruling coalition as much as on the Hezbollah led opposition.

Many Lebanese see themselves as pawns in the regional dynamics of Iranian and U.S. tensions, Israeli and Syrian negotiations (or not), and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In just about any Beiruti taxi, the driver will tell you Obama is much better than President George W. Bush. Still, they scoff at any suggestion that America can be an honest broker.  

Perhaps that role will take more time and energy.  But barreling through the streets and making partisan visits, along with subtle threats about withdrawing U.S. aid should America's foes win the election, seem to signal to the Lebanese that much about U.S. policy in Lebanon remains unchanged.