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C. David Welch - U.S. Policy Toward Lebanon

U.S. Policy Toward Lebanon

C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
Address to the Business Council for International Understanding (BCIU),
Regional Business Conference With NEA Ambassadors
New York City
October 17, 2006

(As prepared for delivery )

First, I would like to thank the Business Council for International Understanding for inviting me to join you on the final day of your 2006 Regional Business Conference. I am very pleased and honored to be here today . . . .and also very pleased to know the whereabouts of my Bureau's Ambassadors! Given the very challenging situations in their countries, I'm sure meeting with businessmen and women in Los Angeles and Chicago was a welcome and stimulating diversion from their normal crises. And not too much of a hardship for themÂ…

It has been quite a summer. I spent much of it in the region shuttling between capitals. I also spent a lot of time with the Ambassadors who are here with us today -- and they are fine representatives of our country.

You've asked that I give an overview of the U.S. government's perspective on Lebanon's reconstruction and insight into where we are today. I will gladly do that. I would also like to share with you where we hope to go -- and why the U.S. is convinced that assisting Lebanon regain her footing economically and politically is vital to the future stability and freedom of Lebanon, and to the political course of the entire region.

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Lebanon is one of the Middle East's most diverse nations. Historically a haven for tribes and religious groups escaping repression and persecution in other parts of the Middle East, Lebanon is home to Christians, Muslims, and Druze.

Since 1943, when Lebanon received its independence from France, these distinct communities cohabitated, with political power divided in a unique formula among the Christians, Shia, and Sunni. It is clear that Lebanon's democratic strength derives from its vibrant political culture and civil society. On this basis, Lebanon developed a thriving economy and provided business services for other countries in the region.

Prior to the outbreak of this summer's conflict, Lebanon was in the midst of dramatic change. The Lebanese intended to use the summer of 2006 to showcase Lebanon's triumph over instability and adversity as record-breaking numbers of Arab tourists and the Lebanese diaspora arrived to enjoy the country's beautiful hotels and resorts, exciting nightlife, quaint mountain villages, and cool Mediterranean climate.

Then, on July 12, Hizballah terrorists crossed into Israeli territory, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing others. The entire world watched the conflict that ensued.

The U.S. was faced with a difficult decision. The toll that the conflict was taking on Lebanon was impossible to ignore, and many in the international community called early on for an immediate cease-fire. We understood that a cease-fire which did not address the root causes of the conflict would only result in a return to the cycle of violence. The U.S. made the decision to launch an intense diplomatic effort to establish the basis for a lasting peace.

Secretary Rice spent an enormous amount of time seeking acceptance by all parties of the elements for such a lasting peace, and she led impressive diplomatic negotiations with our colleagues in the region, in Europe, and at the UN. I spent about three weeks shuttling between Beirut and Jerusalem, working with the parties on the ground.

The war stopped when UNSCR 1701 was passed, a diplomatic achievement that offered a solid, real, and sustainable basis for a ceasefire. UNSCR 1701 called for a cessation of hostilities while providing the essential tools for the Lebanese government to establish its full sovereignty throughout the country. UNSCR 1701 also enumerated the political principles for a lasting peace.

It is essential that all of UNSCR 1701's provisions be fully implemented. This is the challenge: to assist the Government of Lebanon to build and strengthen its democratic institutions and promote economic growth while creating a new dynamic in the region for greater stability and peace. Our goal is to assist the government of Lebanon to assert its sovereignty throughout the country, to secure its borders, and to eventually disarm all militias.

We are making great progress toward that goal. With the passage of UNSCR 1701, the international community established important new instruments for Lebanon's security. UNSCR 1701 imposed an international embargo on the shipment of arms to Lebanon that have not been approved by the government, and authorized a robust new mandate for the international force -- UNIFIL -- to support the Lebanese forces in deploying to the south. This is the first major UN peacekeeping operation in the Middle East since 1982 when the UN established the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai. The new UNIFIL is comprised of highly capable military forces from some key European countries. It also has a new maritime element.

The Lebanese army has completed a historic deployment southwards. For almost 40 years it had not been present in any significant way in the southernmost part of the country.

UNIFIL is also taking their new mandate very seriously. As of last weekend, UNIFIL has or nearly 6000 troops on the ground and has completed the first phase of a three-stage deployment.

We are seeing good progress in the implementation of UNSCR 1701. Its success is very important for U.S. foreign policy in the region and for the credibility of UN peacekeeping. The United States, and much of the international community, is committed to assisting Lebanon in reasserting itself as a sovereign, democratic, prosperous, and peaceful country. However, there are still challenges ahead.

Last year, the Lebanese people inspired the world when they went out into the streets to demand independence from Syrian dominance. They drove the Syrian forces from the country and re-established full sovereignty.

Over recent weeks, we have seen a significant upturn in political rhetoric that appears to be an effort to undermine the current democratically elected government of Lebanon. This rhetoric is coming from both domestic Lebanese actors and regional actors. For the sake of the Lebanese people, we must support the democratically elected government as it resists attacks from political opportunists who would undermine the country for their own personal gain. We must also ensure that regional actors, like Syria, are not able to reassert their influence and undermine the sovereignty of Lebanon.

Ultimately, the nation-wide disarmament of Hizballah will be one of the greatest challenges to moving forward. We recognize that this will only occur through internal Lebanese dialogue. This will take time, but the process must continue in order to reinforce the confidence of the International community. Allowing groups to participate in the political process, while maintaining armed militias, is in direct opposition to the idea of democracy and stability.

Lebanon's reconstruction is essential from an economic perspective as well. The U.S. has a great economic interest in the region, and we cannot ignore this reality. In this post 9-11 era, oil prices have reached record highs, and have boosted the flow of capitol throughout the Middle East. The U.S. has five free trade agreements with Middle Eastern countries. This is an enormously high number in comparison to other regions of the world, and reflects the U.S. commitment to the Middle East.

This summer's conflict came at a time when Lebanon was anticipating a record tourist season and an economy predicted to reach 6% growth. While the conflict was brief, lasting just over a month, at its end more than 900,000 people had been displaced just in Lebanon. Many of their homes, businesses, and communities were destroyed and now growth is projected to be negative 5%.

However, reconstruction is underway. The majority of displaced people have now returned to their homes in the South. Employees are returning to their workplaces, and fuel and other critical shortages have ended. The Israeli blockade has been lifted enabling the resumption of tourism, trade and manufacturing. The government of Lebanon has taken a leading role, and the international community is behind them in an impressive way.

An international conference for initial recovery held in Stockholm in August generated pledges of over $900 million. This was twice the amount that had been targeted.

The U.S. and the rest of the international community are continuing to examine additional ways that we can support Lebanon's reconstruction. At the Government of Lebanon's request, France announced yesterday, October 16, that it would host an international donor's conference to discuss reconstruction in Lebanon in January. Arab economic and finance ministers are meeting today in Beirut to drum up additional economic aid for Lebanon's reconstruction.Â

As part of this reconstruction, PM Siniora and his government have expressed a commitment to much needed economic reform that will further spark the Lebanese economy.

I am confident that Lebanon will be successful in its reconstruction efforts. The Lebanese people are known for their business savvy. Their neighbors have long admired their ability to create enterprise in the midst of chaos. We will assist Lebanon and revive financial connections between the emerging democracies in the region.

I know that U.S. business will continue to take an interest in Lebanon. Already, four distinguished private sector leaders are working together to raise awareness and funds to partner with Lebanese communities to rebuild their country, providing critically needed resources to assist in the reconstruction effort in Lebanon. They are Craig Barrett, Chairman of Intel Corporation, John Chambers, President and CEO, Cisco Systems, Inc., Yousif Ghafari, Chairman of GHAFARI, Inc., and Dr. Ray Irani, Chairman, President and CEO of Occidental Petroleum Corporation.

Once again, while this conflict brought much destruction and heartache, its resolution has provided us with opportunities that extend beyond Lebanon. The Middle East stands at a critical crossroads, with profound implications for America's national security. While there is a trend towards democracy, there is also resistance to it. We must continue to engage now to ensure that the loudest voices are not those that would like to wipe the slate clean and start over with an exclusionary, intolerant world view. We must continue to go on the offensive against radicals and extremists who exploit conflicts to undermine a non-violent and liberal order.

While making progress in Iraq and in the Arab-Israeli conflict remain core concerns, the determination of the international community and friends in the region to improve the economic and political situation in the broader Middle East remains the only way to create conditions for real change and lasting stability. To the degree that we and they are successful, the ambitions of radicals and extremists will fail. Increasing the scope of political freedom, reducing high rates of unemployment, creating opportunities for personal economic improvement, and raising the standard of living will help address the "root causes" of terrorism and reduce the appeal of extremist political movements.

Yes, there remain real challenges. We are under no illusions. But I remain optimistic. The U.S. will continue its efforts to support moderate governments like the democratically elected government of Lebanon in their efforts to meet the needs of their people and to encourage genuine freedom to take root. Our approach will be comprehensive and it will seize opportunities when only dangers seem present.

Thank you once again for inviting me to speak to you today and for your support for Lebanon and the region. I look forward to answering your questions and discussing this further with you.

Released on October 17, 2006


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