Kerry in Lebanon: the American spectator

There was hardly anything tangible in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Beirut

Joyce Karam
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Except for the $51 million in aid to help with the Syrian refugee crisis suffocating Lebanon, there was hardly anything tangible in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Beirut. America’s first diplomat looked more of a spectator and less of a problem solver, with glossy rhetoric unaccompanied with tools or strategy to deal with the Presidential stalemate and the Syrian crisis.

The visit that lasted five hours is the first for a U.S. secretary of state to Lebanon since five years ago. Washington opted to wait for cabinet formation in March and for the presidential deliberations to end in the Parliament on May 25 before dispatching Kerry. But while the visit was intended to reassert U.S. influence, and help end the presidential void, Kerry looked more like an observer of an increasingly complex regional and domestic situation and where the U.S. influence is quickly diminishing.


Rhetoric vs. reality

In his press conference, Kerry had a lot to say on the presidential elections in Lebanon, calling for a swift vote in the parliament that has failed so far to avoid and end the vacuum in the presidency following the departure of former President Michel Suleiman two weeks ago. The U.S. secretary of state also called for a “fully empowered” president saying “we want a Lebanon that is free from outside pressure and outside interference, and we hope that in the days ahead, rapidly it will be possible for a president to be elected by the parliament and provided to the people of Lebanon.”

Kerry looked more like an observer of an increasingly complex regional and domestic situation and where the U.S. influence is quickly diminishing

Joyce Karam

The above statement, which sounds great on paper, is at odds with all aspects of reality inside Lebanon today. As things stand, the presidential stalemate is only getting more convoluted, and no indications of a breakthrough are on the horizon. Communications between local actors has slowed down, and the picture regionally has only gotten more stagnated. Locally, the channel between Michel Aoun and Saad Hariri lost lot most of its momentum following the Paris meetings last month, and Aoun has introduced parliamentary elections as part of a negotiated roadmap for the presidency thus only extending the vacuum.

Regionally, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif canceled his visit to Saudi Arabia, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has just inaugurated himself for a third term. Such atmospherics do not promote confidence inside Beirut, and do not drive the Lebanese parliamentarians any closer to a consensus name to take the presidency. Many link the end of the stalemate to a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, or a Hariri-Aoun deal, yet neither is in sight.

Kerry’s expectations of a “fully empowered” president and “free from outside pressure” in Lebanon is also far from the current reality or the one in recent history. Today, the elections are more debated in outside capitals than in Beirut, and the divisions are making it almost impossible for a “strong” president to go to office. More likely than not, the next inhabitant of Baabda Palace will be someone who is consensual or a puppeteer that many sides can claim as their own.

Hezbollah and Syria

On Syria, the U.S. secretary of state surprised many in the press when calling on Hezbollah, a non-state armed actor, to “engage in the legitimate effort to bring this [Syrian] war to an end.” Kerry speaking from the Grand Serail, the same building in downtown Beirut that Hezbollah blockaded in May, 2008 said “I call on them – Iran, Russia, and I call on Hezbollah, based right here in Lebanon – to engage in the legitimate effort to bring this war to an end.”

While a U.S. official clarified the comments to Al Arabiya News, saying that Kerry “ was reiterating our longstanding position that those who have influence with the Syrian regime need to use this influence to move the regime toward a negotiated political solution,” his statement turned heads in some quarters of Beirut. It was perceived as granting legitimacy to Hezbollah, elevating its role to that of Russia and Iran, and lending credibility to its armed presence in Syria.

Kerry went on to call the elections in Syria, where Assad was declared winner, as “meaningless “ and “a great big zero.” Yet, to the Syrian government and its allies, the elections are vindication for Assad that he has the political cover to govern for another seven years. While Kerry is bound by the White House calculus to pin his hopes on a political solution, both Assad and Hezbollah have theirs on the realities on the ground. It’s the advantages that the Syrian regime made in the last year, as the White House was trying to persuade the Kremlin to abandon Assad, that made Assad’s voting circumstances possible.

Kerry’s Beirut visit, albeit short, is a rude awakening to many in the region on the U.S. decline of influence in the Middle East. Washington is reacting and adjusting to events rather than shaping them, whether the country is Egypt, Syria, Libya, Palestinian territories or Lebanon. It is a reality that makes any rhetoric unaccompanied with strategy very irrelevant.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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