Lebanon: Some Things That Money Can't Buy


The US's attempt to "democratise" the Middle East - or, to put it bluntly, to create puppet regimes - has had two spectacular failures recently.

In Iraq this democracy has created sectarian chaos, while in Palestine the US-backed elections produced a victory for the Islamic movement Hamas - not exactly what George Bush had in mind when he mapped out his grand plan for democracy in the region.

But the US administration thinks that Lebanon could be the silver lining of some very dark clouds. Last month George Bush stated in a meeting with Lebanese prime minister Faud Siniora that "there is no question in my mind that Lebanon can serve as a great example for what is possible in the broader Middle East".

Lebanon's "cedar revolution" is being touted as the shining example of regime change on the cheap. Since the mass protest drove out the Syrians last year, Lebanon has seen an ascending flow of US interference. It varies from direct political manipulation and media campaigns to discreet funding of civil movements through "NGOs".

A few months after the protests I received a call from a friend telling me that a US NGO called Freedom House wanted to meet "Lebanese activists". Being a well known activist on the left and one of the organisers of the anti-war movement, I was intrigued by the purpose of the meeting. A few of us were invited to an expensive British restaurant in one of Beirut's trendy neighbourhoods.

An American-Lebanese woman representing Freedom House was accompanied by a "retired revolutionary" from Ukraine. The guy was eager to get us on board, and boasted of the joys of being "US-funded" - he added that after Ukraine's Orange Revolution he even had the opportunity to "meet George Bush." He obviously thought that was enough to close the deal.

After some questioning about the intentions of Freedom House it became clear they wanted to "fund youth movements to help the process of democratisation". At that point we told them that if they really wanted democracy to thrive in Lebanon they should leave the country immediately. Undeterred, they returned a few months later wanting to fund "transparency workshops and projects". Again we refused.

That the US is wanting to finance Lebanese leftists might seem odd, but it is part of a pattern of political interference that emerged since the invasion of Iraq. During the "cedar revolution" US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman invited many of the leaders of the anti-Syrian movement to dinner parties. The US embassy also had a direct hand in fomenting the anti-Syrian protests.

The New York Post reported how, at the height of last year's protests, "the CIA and European intelligence services were quietly giving money and logistical support to organisers of the anti-Syrian protests to ramp up pressure on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad... The secret program is similar to previous support of pro-democracy movements in Georgia and Ukraine, which also led to peaceful demonstrations."

Included in this support were the billboard sized electronic "Freedom Clock" for "Freedom Square" in order to mark the "countdown to freedom" - all supplied by the Pulse of Freedom organisation, funded by the NGO Spirit of America.

Now the country is awash with dubious NGOs. Among them is the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon, headed by Ziad Abdel Nour. The son of wealthy right wing Lebanese MP, Nour let the cat out of the bag when he declared, "We have absolutely no problem with heavy US involvement in Lebanon. On an economic level, military level, political level, security level... whatever it is. Israel is the 51st state of the United States. Let Lebanon be the 52nd state. And if the Arabs don't like it, tough luck."

Earlier this year we got a sense of our role as the 52nd state. The Chicago Tribune reported that US army officers were in the country to assess the capabilities of the Lebanese military to confront Hezbollah, the resistance movement that drove the Israelis out of south Lebanon.

As well as trying to tempt the left into its orbit and bankroll the many genuine civil movements, there is a whiff of arrogance about the US in Lebanon. Embassy staff and their hangers-on regularly colonise the cafes and restaurants in downtown Beirut. It seems no expense will be spared to wine and dine their way to regime change.

Yet the US has a problem. The sparkle has gone out of the "cedar revolution" and, far from delivering stability and prosperity, the country is sinking into economic malaise. The slogan that marked the revolution, "We have had enough of your lies, now leave", is still being chanted, but now its is not aimed at the Syrians but at the US-backed politicians that run the country. You can't buy that.