Friday, April 03, 2009

Sison Outlines U.S. Policies and Alliances, Future Relations with Hizbullah‏

April 3,2009    
In an Interview with Naharnet, Sison Outlines U.S. Policies and Alliances, Future Relations with Hizbullah
U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison responded to questions by Naharnet on issues related to Washington's visions, upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections and how the U.S would deal with the next government. The interview also tackled U.S. alliances in Lebanon, the future of U.S. ties with Hizbullah and other topics. The following is the full text of the interview:
Q-What is the reason behind the U.S. Ambassador's decision to change her media policy and start giving interviews more often? Did the U.S. feel that the Lebanese public began losing trust in U.S. policy?

A- Not at all. I tell you when I got here last year in February, even in my first few days a number of Lebanese people said: So what is the U.S. doing? You know, we hear the U.S. supports Lebanon, but tell us what is the U.S. doing? So it seemed to me because we had gone very dramatically in the support – economic support, security support – from about $40 million in 2004 to about one billion dollars by the time I had arrived here that we really needed to do a lot of show and tell, a lot of travel to projects, a lot of events with the army and the police because this is the actions, these are the deeds of the U.S., this is how the support is made evident… We had our elections in the United States in November and we had a new president come in January, and our new president came with a number of new initiatives, a very strong statement on how we were going to move forward on Middle East peace, the nomination of Senator Mitchell, reaffirmed commitment to the two-state solution, the speech outreached on March 20th to the Iranian people, new initiatives on Afghanistan and Pakistan; this is a time when many people here in Lebanon are now asking for more details on what does the U.S. policy mean for the region. What does the U.S. policy mean for Lebanon. So I think it's a good time to chat with our friends in the media and try to detail some of these new initiatives with our new Obama administration.

Q-Do you feel the Lebanese people are afraid of the new policy?

A- I think Lebanese that I talked to, whether these are political leaders, community leaders, teachers, students that we're working with, businessmen – they want to know what it means for Lebanon. There is a lot of focus here in Lebanon on the upcoming June 7th parliamentary elections, so they suggest the position of regional events, the new U.S. administration and the upcoming elections here have led to - many in Lebanon – wanting more information, more analysis.

Q-Have your allies in the March 14 forces lost confidence in President Barack Obama's new approach, prompting you to reach out in order to convince these allies that there is no change in U.S. policy in support for Lebanon?

A- I think those who watch our actions and our work have already seen that within a very short few weeks after taking office, President Obama from the White House put out a very strong statement of support for Lebanon's sovereignty and democracy, in February, with the statement of support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. A very strong statement of support also came out from the new secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. So the statements from Washington have been very strong. I think the actions have also been strong. As you may have noticed we had a very important visit by the Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces Gen. Jean Qahwaji to Washington recently. We will have the Defense Minister, Elias Murr, visiting Washington very soon as well. The regional focus is also going to involve Lebanon. Of course Lebanon is an important part of this Middle East region, and we were just talking about Senator Mitchell's new role here as a Special Envoy for the Middle East and although the mandate for Senator Mitchell is very clearly a comprehensive peace for the region and he's been focusing very much on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Lebanon, being an important part of the region, Lebanon will be playing a key role in any long-term solution for Middle East peace. So there are, I think, many aspects where you see the White House, the State Department, the Embassy putting a very positive focus on Lebanon whether it's the support for the institutions of the state, the increase in assistance to the army – there have been several announcements of military equipment and training, even in the last couple of months since the new Obama administration took over, you saw the invitation of Gen. Jean Qahwaji. Tomorrow (today Thursday) there will be another Internal Security Forces graduation at the Werwar Academy because of course support not only the army but the police, as another important institution of the state. So, you've heard also statements of support, not only for the Special tribunal from Washington, but also continued statements of support for all of the U.N. Security Council resolutions- 1701 and 1559 - from our new president. So I think anyone watching or listening to the statements should feel very secure in the knowledge that the United States is fully committed to Lebanon's sovereignty. I've said it before and I'll say it again: There will be no deals at Lebanon's expense. There will no deal-making with regard to the Special Tribunal, because that's a question that many people have asked me over the past few weeks.

You know, we see as allies in the steps forward for Lebanon all who espouse moderate views, all who value Lebanon's democracy, all who value Lebanon's sovereignty, all who wish for prosperity and stability and security in Lebanon. That stands not only for March 14th but for a number of independent voices as well. We will be observing, soon, all of us here, the upcoming elections in June and there will be candidates it seems running from a number of political parties but also some who are standing under their own name as independents. So I would say that anyone who has a democratic, moderate stance who supports Lebanon's sovereignty would be someone we would be very interested in engaging with.

Q-Do you think you can find such people among March 8 coalition?

A- You know we take of a lot of time and a lot of care within the embassy and in also programming our visitors to meet a wide spectrum of Lebanese society, a wide spectrum of Lebanese political life. The question of who we meet with is always quite interesting because perhaps the focus is often on the visitor who comes for a day or two, or the ambassador. But those who live and work here I think certainly see that whether it be from the political parties, the business community, the media, we seek to meet with the widest range possible for the diversity of views.

Q-U.S. envoys visiting Lebanon have not been meeting with members of the opposition, particularly Gen. Michel Aoun and Hizbullah. If the opposition wins the elections, will the U.S. boycott a Hizbullah-led government?

A- By U.S. law, by our foreign terrorist organizations law (FTO), we are actually precluded from dealing directly with Hizbullah. So, no, our visitors and our embassy do not engage with Hizbullah.

Q-What if Hizbullah wins the elections?

A- We anticipate that the shape of the U.S. relationship, the shape of the U.S. assistance program, will be evaluated in the context of the new government's policies and statements. This is a normal thing. No one has a crystal ball at this point. I think we are eight weeks away from the elections. So I won't hazard a guess for the 128 seats what the margin will be or won't be. I think day by day, even those who keep score here are having trouble keeping up with all of the developments. It's a very interesting time politically here. We have said it before but I'll say it again: We have a long standing policy in effect. Hizbullah has actually been on the FTO list since 1997. So we do not meet with Hizbullah. Now, should Hizbullah renounce terrorism; should Hizbullah renounce terrorism both in Lebanon and abroad and submit to the rule of authority, the rule of law and the authority of the state and the authority of the state institutions -- the army -- as the sole bearer of weapon. Then, that would give room for reconsideration of this status. But that's by our law.

Q-The U.S. stresses that the elections will be held without foreign interference. What guarantees do you have that such interference will not take place? And what would your reaction be if it took place?

A-The upcoming elections are going to be an opportunity for Lebanon to continue reinforcing Lebanese democracy. There will be a number of domestic election monitors, domestic observers as well as international observers. And we expect that the National Democratic Institute, the Carter Center, the European Union, the Arab League; perhaps other groups coming from European and Arab countries, maybe even some other U.S. visitors will be here. Now of course it's the U.S. firm belief that it is up to the Lebanese to make their choices and each of the 128 districts to make their choices for what kind of government, the shape and composition of the next government. But I do think that the presence of both domestic and international election monitors, election observers, can do a lot to inspire confidence in the electoral process, to inspire confidence in the outcome so when you ask about the question of outside interference I think that Lebanon's friends and Lebanese themselves as domestic observers can do much through these actions of election monitoring and observation to give confidence to the Lebanese people that these elections will be free, transparent, free from intimidation or violence.

Q- If the U.S. were to accept the results of the elections in Lebanon, why didn't it accept the results in Gaza when elections brought Hamas to power? Both Hamas and Hizbullah don't recognize the state of Israel.

A-Now again, both Hamas and Hizbullah appear on that list of FTO, foreign terrorist organizations. This is U.S. legal status.

Q-You encountered some problems during one of your visits to the south last year. You experienced what it is like to be in an area where the dominating political viewpoint differs from your own. Considering that trip and how you were treated, how is it possible to have impartial elections in areas that are off limits to certain political groups and their viewpoints?

A-I think it's very much in the interest of the Lebanese people to have impartial elections, as a state, and this is what all Lebanon's friends want for Lebanon.

Q- Is it possible to have such free elections?

A- Again, having the elections held transparently, free from intimidation and violence. This is important that these elections are carried out without this type of interference. It's important so that the next Lebanese government has a clear mandate to govern. Now, we spoke a minute ago about election observation and elections aren't just a technical process, with ballot boxes and paper ballots. There is a lot of technical detail that is very important to carry out elections properly, but elections are much more than that. They are a right; it is the right of the Lebanese citizen, of any citizen, it is a fundamental human right to exercise this power of the ballot, this power of the vote. By supporting both domestic and international election observation, the friends of Lebanon hope that there will be democratic progress, that there will be peaceful and open campaigning, and that there will peaceful vote and results tabulation. You mentioned a visit many months ago. I'll say that it was an interesting day on that particular visit because on that day, I was able to visit five terrific projects in that location – a municipality, a high school, a youth center, a library. But there was one stop that certain people didn't like; one stop where certain people did not like the idea of a diversity of opinion. You know it's this diversity of opinion I think that is so precious in democracy. So hopefully with the domestic and international election observation that will help make an impartial and accurate appraisal of the electoral environment and both to respect for the outcome both to respect for the process.

Q-Is holding impartial elections dependent on non-interference by external powers? With regard to Hizbullah's arms and the areas that fall under its control, do you believe Lebanon can have free and fair elections in light of the presence of these weapons?

A-I say that we do have concerns that Hizbullah continues to receive weapons from Syria and Iran and this is a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. So in that regard Hizbullah does remain a danger not only to Lebanon but to the region. Again, having said that, I believe that the Lebanese people very sincerely, very strongly desire peaceful elections; elections that bring about 128 MPs going to the parliament to carry out the important work of the state. So once again I do think that the presence of these observers – international and domestic – should help promote confidence in the electoral process and in the outcome.

Q-In the last elections in 2005, the March 14 coalition won the majority of parliamentary seats but it couldn't rule the country because of Hizbullah's armed capabilities. Do you think that the situation will be different in the future if March 14 wins the next elections?

A-Again, I mentioned that the shape and composition of the government is something for the Lebanese to decide. This is Lebanon's moment upcoming on June 7, and so all the friends of Lebanon, including the United States, sincerely support that idea, that this is Lebanon's choice. Now you mentioned Hizbullah arms in that question, so I want to tie that into some of what we are doing to strengthen the institutions of the state. The U.N. Security Council resolutions, the international community, has already come together to support Lebanon in the notion that it should be the state that maintains security; it should be the state that is the sole bearer of weapons. The U.S. government responded very quickly to the adoption of 1701 in 2006 and we responded quickly because we truly believe that it's the government of Lebanon and not any militia that has to exercise sovereignty throughout the country. So this is why we are providing the LAF with substantial training, substantial equipment and welcoming the very senior-most leaders of the LAF and the ministry of defense in Washington.

Q-Does the U.S. military assistance to the Lebanese army in any way match Iranian military aid to Hizbullah?

A-The composition of the military assistance we provide to the LAF and the police assistance that we provide to the internal Security Forces is developed jointly with both the LAF and the ISF. Our focus on the LAF here because we are talking about sovereignty and the control of Lebanon's borders and the ability to prevent another Nahr al-Bared type of situation developing. So the equipment assistance that has been provided so far has been very robust, has been very strong. We've delivered Humvees, trucks, body armor, ammunition, made it possible to put more of the Lebanese Armed Forces, armored personnel carriers on the streets and helicopters in the air. Also we have announced a delivery of M-60 tanks, of small unmanned aerial vehicles, and close air support to help the Lebanese Armed Forces counter terror capabilities and ability to control borders and provide security for the Lebanese people. So I do believe that not just the United States, but other friends of Lebanon are working in a very coordinated way to be able to bolster and to strengthen the army and the police so that Lebanese themselves are in charge.

Q-Weapons are still flowing into Lebanon from Syria. You did enough to stop the flow of insurgents from Syria into Iraq. Why don't you make a similar effort to stop arms smuggling into Lebanon? What is the point of having a maritime taskforce monitor the Lebanese coast if arms continue to enter Lebanon through the Syrian border?

A-I think you'll be glad to know that there is an active donor coordination, mechanism and an active and dynamic conversation ongoing right now with the government of Lebanon on this very question. As you know, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 among other issues calls upon the government of Lebanon to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry into Lebanon without its consent. We are working closely with a group of international donors to support the government of Lebanon's national border strategy and operational plan for border control. And so this is support for what will one day be a common border force for the Lebanese Armed Forces, the Internal Security Forces, General Security and Customs. So there is an active program that is coordinated amongst the donors: Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, the European Union, and the United States This is the group of donors that is sitting with the government of Lebanon to support a national border strategy and an operational plan. And so this plan that incorporates technical assistance, upgrading of equipment and facilities, communications, training the future common border force officers, establishing a command and control system. So this is, right now, a very much a high priority not only for the government but for the donors and we are one of those donors.

Q-Do you think Syria would accept to cooperate with these countries?

A-The United Nations has set up two teams to look at the Lebanese-Syrian border issue –LIBAT1 and LIBAT2. So those recommendations which were issued in public reports are to be adopted by both countries involved. So this is incumbent not only upon Lebanon but of course also upon Syria to do what is needed.

Q-The U.S. continues to call for the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 but mainly stresses the need to disarm Hizbullah. How will the U.S. deal with the presence of Palestinian arms inside and outside the refugee camps in Lebanon?

A-The issue of arms, again, falls under 1701. So, writ large, we look forward to the full implementation of UN Security Resolution 1701 and look forward to progress in the delineation of the Syrian-Lebanese border because that is also key here; the activation of a joint border commission will also be very helpful in this regard. This demarcation of Lebanon's borders and promoting the normal and regularized relations between Lebanon and Syria. Diplomatically, it's important for Lebanon's sovereignty, I believe. We've seen that Hizbullah's arms have been subject of considerable internal discussion here in Lebanon. President Suleiman has called together the round table of the national dialogue a number of times, and there has been a lot of discussion on the formulation of a national defense strategy and the question of how to incorporate Hizbullah's military capabilities into the Lebanese Army, for example. So, that is happening as an internal Lebanese discussion. The U.S. is focusing on support for the Lebanese Army, support for the Lebanese Internal Security Forces because it's our strong belief that by supporting these key institutions of the state and strengthening the goal of the state and ensuring Lebanon's sovereignty and preserving Lebanon's sovereignty, that's the best and most helpful thing we can do as a friend of Lebanon.

Q-Don't you think that Palestinian arms are related to the situation in Palestine, especially in Gaza?

A-With President Obama having come in, in January, with a very strong vision for a comprehensive Middle East peace. We're no longer talking about a peace process; we're talking about Middle East peace. He has sent Senator George Mitchell to the region. He has sent Secretary Hillary Clinton to the region. He has made a number of strong statements on where we are to go as the United States in moving ahead. With the formation, yesterday, of the new Israeli government; this has been noted again in Washington as an opportunity for us to outline again our vision for a two-state solution and to be able as the United States to outline our desire to work with all parties concerned for this comprehensive regional peace.

Q- New Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman refused to accept the Annapolis conference. What do you think about it?

A-Well, we are going to be meeting with the new government, and in those discussions explain in detail what the U.S. policies are and to tell our support again for the two state solution, and to outline how we would see a way forward. We look forward to working not only with the new Israeli government but with all governments in the region, including Lebanon's government to advance the cause of a durable and a lasting peace, and durable and lasting stability in the Middle East, this is critical, and President Obama has very clearly stated his strong desire and strong intention to move the parties, all concerned parties, in the direction of a comprehensive peace and a two-state solution.

Q-Knowing that the stability of the Iranian and the Syrian regimes in the past 30 years has helped Tehran maintain the same policy of spreading the Islamic Revolution, and Damascus exert efforts to control Lebanese and Palestinian decision-making…
Don't you think that the continuous changes of U.S. policies due to changes of administrations could be considered as a disadvantage for U.S. strategy and goals in the Middle East?

A-President Obama has come in with a big mandate from the American people and he has set out some new approaches and as we saw on March 20th, when President Obama made his statement on the occasion of Nauruz and he spoke directly to the Iranian people and he outlined his commitment to diplomacy, to address the many issues before us in this region both connected with Iran and elsewhere and in pursuing constructive ties between the United States and others in the region. He outlined that honest engagement grounded in mutual respect would be the key to his approach, to America's approach. We've got a number of differences, policy differences with Syria and with Iran, this is no secret, but the United States does believe that honest engagement grounded in mutual respect can lead to a path forward.

Q-Do you think they are using this approach for more maneuvers?

A-I'm going to go back to the words of our President: We're seeking engagement that is honest; we're seeking engagement that is grounded in mutual respect. There are choices to be made on the part of those that the United States is now seeking to engage with. So President Obama has set out a new approach and we now await the choices of those we are seeking to engage with.


taken by Chamoun Daher

Source: Naharnet

Tell the whole story with photos, right from your Messenger window. Learn how!