Continuity on Lebanon expected with new US president

Regardless of whether Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama becomes president of the United States, the change in US policy toward Lebanon will be minimal, according to analysts in Beirut, dpa reported.

Differences on other Middle Eastern issues aside, it is expected that the two US senators will follow the same policies on Lebanon. Under either, Washington will continue to back Lebanese state sovereignty, call for the country's independence from former power broker Syria and push for Hezbollah's disarmament, analysts say.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, said the new US administration may open up toward Syria or "engage in Syrian- Israeli peace talks.

"But it will never accept a compromise on Lebanon's sovereignty. Both Republicans and Democrats have a firm pro-Lebanon position."

Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, said McCain "will represent a continuation of the Bush policy" in the Middle East, although with a potential movement from "neoconservative to conservative Republican policy."

Obama, whom Safa labeled a non-establishment, independent Democrat, could enable "a greater potential for creative policymaking and a potential for drastic changes in Lebanon."

Safa said that both McCain and Obama will follow an "international law line." But, it wasn't clear how the next US president would address repeated violations of UN resolution 1701, which ended 33 days of war between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006.

"1701 is being violated," said Safa, referring to near-daily Israeli air incursions of Lebanese airspace despite UN complaints.

Analysts agreed, however, that the new US administration will continue to call for the disarmament of Hezbollah, a main requirement of Resolution 1701.

"Regardless of who is elected, the stance regarding Hezbollah is unlikely to change," said Shafik Masri, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "Washington has a mental obsession with Hezbollah."

While agreeing that US policy toward Hezbollah was unlikely to change, Safa noted the rift in European opinion between those who see the group as "completely terrorist" and those who see it as "violent, but legitimate."

Masri cited American concern for Israel as an impediment to substantive policy changes regarding Hezbollah, Lebanon and the entire Middle East. "The attitude toward the Middle East will not see drastic change so long as American policy remains subject to Israeli security," he said.

In May, when Hezbollah seized large parts of the capital Beirut and the country was on the brink of another civil war, Obama said in a statement: "This effort to undermine Lebanon's elected government needs to stop, and all those who have influence with Hezbollah must press them to stand down immediately.

"We must support the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions that reinforce Lebanon's sovereignty, especially resolution 1701 banning the provision of arms to Hezbollah, which is violated by Iran and Syria."

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post in March, McCain accused Hamas - the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip - and Lebanon's Hezbollah of threatening the interests of the US and the West in general.

"If Hamas, Hezbollah succeed here, they are going to succeed everywhere," he said. "They are dedicated to the extinction of everything that the US, Israel and the West believe and stand for."

Analysts agreed that McCain and Obama would offer unequivocal support for the international tribunal due to try the assassins of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, although Salem questioned how each candidate might react to the investigation's results.

He commented that Lebanon had gained a certain status in US policy. "America wants to see an independent, sovereign Lebanon," he said. "The question is how to get there."

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