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Vice President Joe Biden made a stop in Beirut on Friday, the second visit by a high-ranking U.S. government official in the run-up to Lebanon’s crucial June 7 parliamentary elections. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited late last month.
Biden is the first sitting vice president to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years, since then-Vice President George H.W. Bush visited the country after a massive car bomb destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing more than 240 servicemen.
The U.S. has for years accused the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah of staging the attack, and classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah denies responsibility for the attack, although the group does not condemn the bombing.
Now, the June 7 elections will determine whether a coalition that includes Hezbollah will take control of a Lebanese government that is divided between the U.S.-backed March 14 coalition and a coalition that includes the Syrian and Iranian backed Hezbollah.
The electorate is almost split evenly down the middle, with large swaths of the country’s parliamentary seats all but decided. Whichever coalition wins will have a narrow majority in parliament. But many analysts expect the Hezbollah coalition to win by a slim majority — which would pose problems for a U.S. policy that has staunchly backed the current parliamentary majority of March 14 during the last four years. Biden warned that the U.S. will be watching the elections closely.
“We will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates,” Biden said at a press conference with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, echoing similar statements by U.S. officials over the last few months.
But the Obama administration is taking steps to at least appear as if it’s not taking sides in the election, at least not as much as Bush administration officials had in backing March 14.
“I do not come here to back any particular party or any particular person,” Biden said during his visit with Suleiman, who is seen as a politically neutral figure. He also visited Hezbollah ally and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and March 14-affiliated Prime Minister Fouad Saniora. But the subtext of Biden’s statements made it clear who the Obama administration would rather see win the majority in Lebanon’s parliament.
Any Lebanese listening to Biden’s statements understood clearly that the United States still backs March 14, although it appears to be hedging its bets by cozying up to Suleiman. Hezbollah had no kind words for Biden’s visit.
"It appears that this visit is part of a U.S. bid to supervise the electoral campaign of a Lebanese party which feels threatened politically... in light of the expected outcome of the legislative vote," Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah told Agence France Press news agency.
The Associated Press’ Sam Ghattas wrote that the purpose of Biden’s visit could backfire.
“But by stepping into Lebanon's political fray, the United States risks deepening the rift between rival factions. If it does not win, an embittered Hezbollah could take a harder line against its opponents.”