Election 2008 The World is Watching

Video Dispatch

Lebanon: A Fate Tied to Washington

Lebanese share hopes and fears about Obama and McCain

BY Kate SeelyeAugust 25, 2008


Kate Seelye is a TV and radio reporter based in Beirut and a regular correspondent for FRONTLINE/World. She will also be reporting from Syria as part of "The World Is Watching" election coverage.

Ali Rizk is the Beirut bureau news director of one of Iran's latest media ventures, Press TV. It is a 24-hour channel that broadcasts news around the world in English -- from the perspective of the Islamic Republic.

Rizk, a Lebanese from the Western Bekaa Valley, runs a busy newsroom but he's eager to take the time to talk about the upcoming U.S. election. "You may be surprised to know that I support Obama," he tells me over the phone, when I call to make an appointment.

In person, the 28-year-old is cordial and open. He greets me in the style of a devout Muslim, placing his right hand to his chest. But Rizk doesn't hold back when talking about why he's rooting for Barack Obama.

"He's got charisma and appeal," enthuses Rizk. "He puts diplomacy first and foremost."

"If McCain comes to power, he might encourage a war against Iran or Hezbollah," Rizk says. "And nobody wants that."

Ali Rizk

Ali Rizk is the Beirut bureau news director of one of Iran's latest media ventures, Press TV.

The Obama-McCain race is being followed closely here in Lebanon, a country that often feels its fate is tied to decisions made by Washington. But while Obama's emphasis on diplomacy over bombs generates a lot of enthusiasm, he doesn't have a monopoly on popularity.

Earlier in the day, I sat across town with Dory Chamoun, leader of the National Liberal Party, a Christian organization. Dory's father, Camille Chamoun, was the Arab world's first leader to invite U.S. marines into his country to help squash a leftist threat to his presidency in 1958.

"I'd feel more comfortable with John McCain in the seat," Chamoun confides between sips of bitter Arabic coffee. "I think he'll be more sensitive to our needs here in Lebanon."

As Dory sees it, Lebanon is still trying to assert its independence after a 30-year Syrian occupation, which ended in April 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon blamed the killing on Syria and welcomed a U.S.-French-sponsored resolution demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

"I don't think McCain will change from Bush's policy toward Lebanon," Dory tells me. "And that's positive. There's not much to complain about when it comes to U.S. involvement in Lebanon these days."

Not only has the Bush administration been supportive of Lebanon's independence movement, it has also pushed hard for the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate Hariri's death, and the killings of other anti-Syrian officials. While most of the Arab world was comparing Bush to a war criminal, many in Lebanon were grateful to have the backing of the world's super power.

While most of the Arab world was comparing Bush to a war criminal, many in Lebanon were grateful to have the backing of the world's super power.

But much of that goodwill was squandered during the July 2006 war between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The Bush administration openly supported Israel's bombing of Lebanon, seeing it as a chance to defeat the heavily armed Hezbollah, and as one U.S. official who wished to remain anonymous put it," to wage a proxy war against Iran." But when Israel and the U.S. finally agreed to a ceasefire, 33 days later, Israeli troops left Lebanon, having failed their mission, and Hezbollah emerged looking victorious.

Alia Awada will never forget that war. The 44-year-old lives just blocks away from Hezbollah's former headquarters in southern Beirut. When U.S.-manufactured bunker busters started hitting targets close to her home, she fled with her five children. No one in her immediate family was hurt but she says she knows at least a dozen who were injured or killed.

With Al Jazeera playing on TV in the background of her cramped apartment, Awada tells me she's crazy about Obama, not because he has a Muslim middle name, but because he seems compassionate -- she likes his anti-poverty campaign. And he seems like a man of peace.

"I like the fact that he's going to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq," she tells me. "Iraq was a disaster both for Iraqis and Americans. I feel sorry for all those American families who lost their sons in that war. For what reason?"

Awada thinks Obama will stem the chaos in the region, which she blames on the Bush administration. "There might be big changes if he talks to Iran and Syria," she adds.

How Obama would handle these two countries are central questions here. Unlike the Bush administration, which has isolated Iran and Syria and branded them rogue states, Obama has said he'll start talks with Iran, without preconditions. That's good news for Lebanon's Shiites -- like Awada, many of them look to Iran for spiritual guidance.

"Iran is a very important country. America should not ignore it," she tells me.

Tehran's allies in Lebanon have been concerned about rumors of a possible U.S.-Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. If that were to happen, it's assumed Hezbollah would direct some of its 30,000 missiles against neighboring Israel. It's not a scenario that Awada relishes, especially since her neighborhood would once again be a target of retaliatory attacks.

There's anxiety among pro-Western politicians here about how Obama will handle Syria. Ever since Syrian troops were forced out, Lebanon has been wracked by assassinations, bombings and violence which many believe have been instigated by a Syria still determined to maintain influence in Lebanon.

Lebanese politician Nayla Moawad has received death threats following her outspoken criticism of Syria. She thinks it would be a mistake for the United States to bring Syria's Assad regime in from the cold.

Dergham Dergham

Internet cafe owner Dergham Dergham says that on issues that matter to Arabs, like finding a just solution to the Palestinian problem, Obama and McCain are the same: "Both have to kiss up to the pro-Israeli lobby."

"We need the U.S. to continue pressure on Syria to ensure Lebanon's sovereignty," she tells me over the phone from her hometown in northern Lebanon.

Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut doesn't want Syria to regain control over Lebanon, either, but he thinks it's highly unlikely and that engaging Syria in peace talks -- a strategy advocated by Obama's advisors -- could have positive results.

"If Syria makes peace with Israel, that means Lebanon will also be able to make peace. Both countries will benefit. And that will affect Hezbollah."

Salem adds that a Middle East peace settlement will deprive Hezbollah of its rationale for arming itself and force the group to integrate into Lebanese political life.

One hears the words "different" and "change" a lot when talk turns to Obama around here. There is a sense in Lebanon that the candidate symbolizes a seismic shift in American politics -- mainly because of his race and background -- and that's appreciated in a country where many are fed up with the same warlords who have been running Lebanon since the 1970s.

But I also meet Lebanese who don't think either candidate will make a difference. Dergham Dergham runs an Internet café in a Beirut suburb. The 42-year-old tells me that when it comes to real issues that matter to Arabs -- like finding a just solution to the Palestinian problem -- Obama and McCain share the same policies.

"Their support of Israel is the same," says Dergham. "Both have to kiss up to the pro-Israeli lobby."

Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri says he's disillusioned by Obama's flip flopping on several matters, like the question of Jerusalem's status.

And then there are those, like my friend Ziad Doueiri, director of the popular Lebanese film, West Beirut, who are sitting on the fence. Doueiri says he's disillusioned by Obama's flip flopping on several matters, like the question of Jerusalem's status. But he's not crazy about McCain either.

"I like it when McCain says let's kick Hezbollah's ass," Doueiri tells me. "But I'm also ambivalent about his politics. If McCain puts more pressure on Hezbollah, liberals like myself will pay the price. We'll be accused of being in cahoots with America. I don't think another war is the solution."

Doueiri worked in California as a camera assistant and operator on several of Quentin Tarantino's films and returned to Beirut about eight years ago to pursue his film career. Like many Lebanese, life since 9/11 has been tough. He's had projects canceled because of the chaotic political situation and has struggled to meet script deadlines among the wars, car bombings and civil insurrection at home.

"I'm backing whoever I think is going to be better for Lebanon," says Doueiri. By that he means whichever candidate supports a free, open and prosperous Lebanon. But he still isn't sure who that will be.

I see fatigue in Doueiri's face and I relate to it. We both moved from Los Angeles to Beirut around the same time. We both hoped this small city on the Mediterranean would be a productive base from which to craft our stories.

In my case, I was interested in reporting on Arab arts, culture and society. I wanted to talk about an Arab world that Americans had never seen on the news -- the kind of Arab world that I was exposed to growing up in the region, the daughter of an American diplomat. More often than not I remember my parents' Arab friends speaking with great admiration about the United States. But then 9/11 happened and I ended up reporting on terrorism, wars and rising anti-Americanism.

Doueiri and I often ask each other what we're still doing here. He could move back to LA -- he has an American passport. I myself have come very close to leaving because of the political instability. But we stay. He says it's because he feels so attached to Lebanon, despite the problems. I think I stay because I see around the corner the end of an era -- the Bush era -- and I naively hope that no matter which candidate wins, the Middle East will be a less tumultuous place to call home.