From Clinton to Kerry: Washington's strategic shift in the region

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US Secretary of State John Kerry takes part in a ceremony on June 7, 2014 in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, western France, in memory of the three US soldiers who died during liberation of the city on August 14, 1944. (Photo: AFP - Jean-Sebastien Evrard)

By: Jean Aziz

Published Sunday, June 8, 2014

No matter how much is said and written about John Kerry’s shift from policies previously adopted by his administration, and despite the rumored hysteria of some March 14 figures following the surprising American blow, it is still hard to understand the reality and depth of this shift unless we compare it to previous American behavior under similar circumstances.

To investigate, an observer has to revisit the last trip made by Kerry’s predecessor to the Lebanese capital, which leads us to Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beirut on April 26, 2009. Only then do we begin to realize the deep gap between the two US officials in terms of their respective visits’ timing, shape, and content.

Starting with the timing, Clinton arrived in Lebanon on a highly symbolic day for a segment of the population, on the fourth anniversary of the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. However, Kerry’s visit came on the first anniversary of the liberation of al-Qusayr village by Hezbollah fighters, a twist in the course of the battles along our borders.

Granted, Clinton probably did not intentionally choose April 26 and neither did Kerry for his June 5 visit. However, coincidences of history and dates are rarely without significance and meaning.

Clinton’s visit took place five weeks before the legislative elections, which were scheduled on June 7, 2009. She spoke at length about the elections, hinting that Washington favored one Lebanese party over the other, and indicated her preference for the victory of a specific party. Meanwhile, Kerry arrived to Beirut 10 days after the presidential vacuum, announcing that his country had no favorite candidate, and did not have any veto against anyone.

In terms of the shape of the visit, it is worth mentioning that five years and five weeks ago, Clinton restricted her official meetings in Lebanon to the Baabda Palace. She was acting as if she wanted to send an American message that suggests the existence of a unitary political system in Lebanon. This time, Kerry moved between official and unofficial headquarters, as if he finally realized the pluralist aspect of the country he was visiting. He seemed more aware and willing to preserve a strict balance as a prerequisite for the stability he sought, as did Clinton before him.

In addition, five years ago Clinton only left Baabda to visit the mausoleum of late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. However, Kerry didn’t seem interested in that sentimental stop, and apparently Prime Minister Tammam Salam didn’t insist on it, or probably didn’t even suggest it.

The main difference, however, lies in the content of the two visits. In a context closely linked to the aforementioned differences in the visits’ shape, Clinton spoke in 2009 at length about the international tribunal. In her press conference at the time, Clinton said, “I am also here to pledge our continuing support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. I will leave Baabda to pay a call of respect at the memorial of former Prime Minister Hariri. There needs to be an absolute end to the era of impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon. It cannot, must not, be used as a bargaining chip.” However, in 2014, Kerry omitted the subject completely although the tribunal had already started its work and will be resuming its sessions soon… or maybe due to that fact.

In the same framework of this American bias, in 2009, Clinton elaborated on her emotions and preferences. At the press conference, she even stated that “the guiding principles of the ‘Cedar Revolution’ that aims to attain sovereignty and freedom for the Lebanese people are core values that we respect and will honor and work to translate into a perpetual reality.”

In the record book at the Hariri mausoleum, she wrote “those who killed Rafik Hariri did not kill his dream of a free, sovereign and prosperous country and will never be able to do so. His life and heritage will always inspire people everywhere. God bless his memory, his family and his beloved country."

In 2014, Kerry didn’t seem very interested in what was left of the Cedar revolution or its victims as he was more concerned with the losses of the Damascus revolution and the means to limit the number of its victims.

In 2009, Clinton spoke about a president “seeking moderation with all parties.” In 2014, Kerry talked about a “strong president,” paving the way for a fundamental or rather a founding “ladder” between the president, the speaker of the house and the government.

In 2009, Clinton stressed that “the United Nations Security Council resolutions make clear that the Lebanese armed forces is the only legitimate armed force in Lebanon, the only force that is accountable to all of the Lebanese people,” explicitly mentioning resolution 1701 as an indication of Washington’s opposition to Hezbollah’s arms.

In 2014, Kerry ignored Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon, conferring it with both international legitimacy for its role in Syria, and a responsibility to find a solution to the crisis. This legitimacy and responsibility weren’t directly assigned to the party, but were mentioned within the framework of state duties, such as Iran, a regional power, and Russia, an international superpower.

Hence, the shift from Clinton in the second era of Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman or rather Ambassador Michele Sisson to Kerry in the era of Ambassador David Hale is now complete. Such a shift has its episodes and standpoints rooted in the unfolding events from Afghanistan to Damascus, and what lies between them.

Meanwhile, who can convince March 14 forces that there is no need for this hysteria in Kerry’s era, exactly like there was no need for political arrogance and victorious euphoria in Clinton’s era?

The life or death equation in this mosaic country does not change: we either live together based on the rules of sovereignty, balance and freedom, with no victorious party consolidated by outside countries and no defeated party with internal animosity… or we die together, as we wait for a passcode to cast our votes in a ballot box, assigned by people who have never voted, nor have ever read a single word or written a single word on a piece of paper.

Follow Jean Aziz on Twitter @JeanAziz1

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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