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Outreach Isn’t Magic

Barack Obama, we know, is a big believer in the power of his words. And there is no doubt he is a persuasive speaker; he wouldn’t have become president otherwise. But is he so influential that by delivering a speech in Cairo he can change the outcome of the elections in Lebanon? That’s what a lot of commentators are claiming.

See, for example, this Cynthia Tucker column: “Obama changed Lebanese minds.” Or this New York Timesnews analysis“: “There were many domestic reasons voters handed an American-backed coalition a victory in Lebanese parliamentary elections on Sunday — but political analysts also attribute it in part to President Obama’s campaign of outreach to the Arab and Muslim world.”

Really? Just by reaching out to the Muslim voters, Obama can make Lebanese voters reject Hezbollah and its allies and vote instead for the pro-Western March 14 coalition? That interpretation seems a bit implausible to me, but just to be sure I queried a couple of Lebanese friends who are both involved in the March 14th movement. One of them wrote back: “Obama’s speech had no effect on the results of the elections, other factors were at play but certainly not Obama’s speech.” Another emailed me:

In fact few of the candidates had the time to follow up on Obama’s speech. Notwithstanding that it was highly covered in the press here in Beirut. Take for example my friend Samy Gemayel who was running for elections and is now an MP, I asked him in one of our talking-points sessions (on Friday 5th ) if he heard Obama’s talk of ‘…religious diversity from the Copts of Egypt to the Maronites of Lebanon…’ and his response was negative. I guess you can multiply this among other candidates who were just too busy being on the ground doing last-minute campaigning.

That is not to say that the posture of the Obama administration was irrelevant to the outcome. Kudos to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden for visiting Beirut and reaffirming their support for Lebanese independence. The Obama administration, as Michael Totten noted, has made clear that it will not sell out Lebanon to reach a deal with Syria or Hezbollah. The Obama administration deserves credit for that stance, which is a continuation of the previous Bush policy which made possible the 2005 Cedar Revolution that forced Syrian troops out of the country.

American support perhaps emboldened some Christian voters to vote for anti-Syrian, anti-Hezbollah candidates. Certainly they rejected the blandishments of Michel Aoun, the Christian candidate who aligned himself with Hezbollah. But it seems like a stretch to claim that Obama’s soothing words in Cairo produced an immediate reaction in Lebanon. Not that that will stop the president’s supporters from claiming magical powers for his rhetoric.


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