Lebanon News

Connelly says still early to judge Cabinet

Connelly: “There is a lot of governing that has to happen here.” (Photo by Azkair/The Daily Star)

AWKAR, Lebanon: The U.S. ambassador said Thursday it was still too early to judge the performance of Lebanon’s weeks-old government, but she hoped that Prime Minister Najib Mikati has the skills to move the country forward. Maura Connelly said the United States has not seen evidence suggesting that the new government will carry out Hezbollah’s agenda.

“If the new government does carry out Hezbollah’s agenda in key areas then that will lead up to the conclusion that there is a Hezbollah domination in the decision making process,” Connelly said.

“As I said we have not seen the evidence that would confirm that.”

Speaking to The Daily Star from her office at the U.S. Embassy – a large compound with a panoramic view overlooking the Mediterranean Sea – Connelly said her country will base its assessment of the new Cabinet on its ability to observe international obligations, particularly those related to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The U.N.-backed court, which is probing the 2005 assassination of statesman Rafik Hariri, released an indictment in July pointing the finger at four members of Hezbollah as the main suspects.

Connelly said at this stage, where Lebanon has initiated the search to arrest the suspects, it was still “premature” to judge the Cabinet’s performance completely on that obligation.

“Obviously they [the Lebanese government] have taken the appropriate actions in terms of receiving warrants from the tribunal and acting on them but I’m not in a position to make a judgment on how effectively they are trying to implement those arrest warrants,” the diplomat said.

She added that in view of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with the STL, Lebanon was obliged to make every effort to apprehend those four suspects.

But Connelly refused to predict whether tension might occur in the country, in the event that the STL’s Pre-Trial Judge Daniel Fransen chooses to reveal contents of the indictment.

She recalled that when she assumed her post back in September 2010, the country was living on a knife’s edge in anticipation of the Netherlands-based court’s indictment

“We were told that as soon as the indictments will be released all hell will break loose but it didn’t happen,” said the ambassador. “So I am a bit worried at this point of making predictions … It depends very much on what the conditions are on the day the event occurs.”

In addition to committing to agreements signed with the tribunal and other international obligations, Connelly said Mikati’s ability to mobilize his Cabinet to make decisions on an array of pending issues was a marker of success.

She said Lebanon was in serious need of a move forward, adding that if Mikati has the skills to make business move forward that would be a good thing for Lebanon.

“There is a lot of governing that has to happen here,” said the U.S. Foreign Service veteran. “Lebanon is an intensely political environment but it seems to me ever since I arrived here that the politics don’t necessarily translate into the business of governance as much as it ought to.”

Another challenge facing Lebanon, according to Connelly, is the ability of the Mikati Cabinet to avoid repercussions in Lebanon of the unrest in Syria. “Lebanon feels anything that happens in Syria,” she said. “The important thing really is for Lebanon to be prepared for these things, to think ahead as to what might occur as a result of events in Syria.”

However, Connelly argues that one has to be “careful” about making assumptions that Syria is necessarily going to fall into sectarian chaos or that Lebanon’s biggest neighbor will necessarily experience prolonged and intense violence.

Asked about the U.S. administration’s inconsistent policies with regard to uprisings happening in the Arab world, Connelly said the Egypt paradigm or the Tunisian paradigm does not work in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain or any other country which is experiencing this kind of upheaval.

She explained the U.S. administration should “get an A” for recognizing that there isn’t a unified paradigm applicable to all Arab countries witnessing unrest, adding that a number of factors shape her country’s policy choices.

But Connelly, who served as the U.S. charge d’affaires in Damascus between 2008 and 2010, said the Syrian president cannot keep on “fooling all the people all the time.”

“For four months now we have been encouraging [President Bashar] Assad to move forward on the reform program and we don’t see a reaction of any [kind] on the reform program. But we do see an energized and brutal effort to suppress the voice of the opposition,” she said.

The U.S. ambassador, however, refrains from commenting on the widely circulated scenario that the Iranian-Syrian axis, which includes Hezbollah, might launch an attack on Israel in the event the Assad regime in Syria is significantly weakened.

Connelly said that efforts should be exerted to de-escalate any kind of tension in south Lebanon. “That’s what you have to keep doing on a daily basis, that’s what UNIFIL is there for, and they are certainly very good at it,” she added.

Connelly also reiterated the U.S. condemnation of attacks on UNIFIL. “There is absolutely no reason to attack UNIFIL troops, attacking them, whatever the motivations of the attackers is not in Lebanon’s interest.”

Connelly said the dispute between Lebanon and Israel over their maritime border must not lead to a conflict, adding that her country will not interfere in the row between Lebanon and Israel concerning their Exclusive Economic Zones.

“The important thing is for Lebanon is to exploit the revenue potential of the areas that haven’t been disputed and then proceed with the regular arbitration mechanisms to resolve the question of where that line [is],” she added.

Touching on the heavily criticized aid packages the U.S. provides to the Lebanese Armed Forces, Connelly defended her country saying Washington was providing the “building blocks” for the Lebanese Army to be an effective institution “that carries a symbolic role which is truly representative of the nation.”

“So while the general public might think that the army is better off with fancier guns than they had before,” she explains, “armies work on training, practice and developing doctrine.”

Connelly said the army leadership has placed “very high value” on aid provided by the U.S., and did not rule out the possibility of the Lebanese military receiving more sophisticated weaponry in the future.

However, she stressed that the Congress has the ability to block the assistance in any fashion in the event it receives proof it is being transferred to Hezbollah.

“We do our best to demonstrate that it is in effect not going to Hezbollah and in that respect we have mechanisms in choosing certifications,” said Connelly, while adding that the Lebanese Army has a “100 percent ‘A’ record on this.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 05, 2011, on page 1.

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