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Bush administration disappointed after backing change in Lebanon

WASHINGTON—When Syrian troops left Lebanon in April 2005, ending a 29-year occupation, the Bush administration was quick to call their departure and the events that followed a victory in its campaign for democracy in the Middle East.

"Any who doubt the appeal of freedom in the Middle East can look to Lebanon," President Bush said in March 2005, as anti-Syrian protesters crowded Beirut's streets and squares in what became known as the Cedar Revolution, after Lebanon's national symbol.

With Lebanon now convulsed by its worst violence since the 1975-1990 civil war, that assessment, like much of the Bush administration's rhetoric about spreading democracy in the Middle East, appears to have been too rosy.

The United States, in tandem with France, pushed hard for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, where Syria had served as a stabilizing but corrupt and oppressive force. But the administration paid much less attention to what came next.

The criticism that the Bush administration failed to think through its policies is similar to that leveled against it in Iraq, where the White House and the Pentagon failed to plan for the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, and in the Palestinian territories, where the administration pushed for elections that brought the terrorist group Hamas into government.

"Just getting Syria out (of Lebanon) was a narrowly focused policy," said Daniel Benjamin, a top counter-terrorism official in the Clinton administration who's now at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"There was a lot of merit in that," Benjamin said. "But we only went half the distance."

"We did nothing, we did absolutely nothing" to bolster the weak Lebanese government after the Syrian withdrawal, said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the comments contradict official policy.

The official acknowledged that such assistance would have to have been channeled discretely, given the wide suspicion of U.S. motives in the Islamic world.

"You certainly didn't want an American thumbprint on everything. . . . But there were ways to do it," the official said.

In Lebanon, the United States lacks direct leverage to deal with Hezbollah, the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia and political party that sparked the crisis on July 12 by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and firing rockets into Israel.

Washington doesn't talk to Hezbollah, which it considers a terrorist group, nor does it have diplomatic relations with Iran, Hezbollah's chief sponsor and arms supplier.

Syria also has influence over Hezbollah, but its forces are now out of Lebanon and, in any case, the Bush administration has cut off high-level contact with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's strategy for dealing with Hezbollah is to bolster the reach of Lebanon's central government, which currently has no power in southern Lebanon. Once a robust U.N. peacekeeping force is in place, Rice hopes, the government will be able to disarm Hezbollah.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Hezbollah, which has seen its popularity rise as it's resisted Israel's counterattacks, will go along and whether a U.N. force can be assembled and deployed if it doesn't.

Rice, asked recently whether the United States had failed to follow through after Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon, defended the administration's performance. But she seemed to acknowledge that more should have been done to bolster the wobbly coalition government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"Perhaps it has needed more energy than it has been given," Rice told reporters during her recent Middle East trip.

The United States and France joined ranks in demanding that Assad remove his troops from Lebanon after the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, which Syria is suspected of helping arrange.

A U.N. Security Council resolution enacted the previous September called for all foreign forces to leave Lebanon and for militias, including Hezbollah, to be disarmed.

After the last Syrian troops withdrew on April 26, 2005, Rice and other U.S. officials continued to urge that the second demand be met. There was discussion at the time, as there is now, about sending an enhanced U.N. peacekeeping force to Lebanon.

No action was taken, however, and Israeli officials issued dire warnings about Hezbollah's buildup of rockets aimed at northern Israel.

U.S. officials and Middle Eastern diplomats said that France resisted efforts to take on Hezbollah more directly, in part out of fear that a confrontation could cause Siniora's government to implode.

The Americans "did try," said one diplomat. "The French made it very clear they didn't want to touch Hezbollah."

David G. Newton, a retired U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Yemen, said that while more could have been done last year to support the Siniora government, the fact is that "Hezbollah is strongly entrenched."

Lebanon's Shiites, who make up as much as 40 percent of the population, were never fully behind the Cedar Revolution, said Newton, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

"From the beginning, the idea that everything was going to work out in Lebanon," he said, is "another example of hype about democracy."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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