Interview With Hisham Melhem of An-Nahar
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, recently, we have seen increased American focus on Lebanon, including your call to Prime Minister Hariri, additional funds for the STL, and stepped up criticism of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. Is this driven mainly by the visit of Iranian president Ahmadinejad as some Lebanese are alleging, or caused by concern that Lebanon could unravel?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you for the question. First, let me say that America’s support for a sovereign, independent, and stable Lebanon is rock solid and unwavering. We are committed to a strong partnership with Lebanon and to Lebanon’s future, and we stay in close contact with Lebanon’s leaders and consult with them regularly. That is also why the United States will continue to speak out against those who would undermine Lebanon’s stability and its sovereignty.
We will continue to encourage actors within Lebanon and across the region to act responsibly and in the best interests of the Lebanese people. When a party makes inflammatory statements or violates international norms, we feel it is important to say, publicly, what we believe to be true: responsible actors on the international stage should work to help resolve conflicts, not reignite them. They need to uphold their commitments and responsibilities, not seek to evade them. And responsible actors in Lebanon need to pursue their political agendas through peaceful means, not via intimidation or threats.
Of course, the President and I also respect the leadership demonstrated by President Suleiman and Prime Minister Hariri, especially during this challenging period. And I have reaffirmed this recently in conversations I have had with both the President and the Prime Minister.
QUESTION: What can the U.S. do in practical terms to help the Lebanese government fend off the campaign waged by Hezbollah and Syria to undermine and discredit the STL as an Israeli-American plot, now that Hezbollah is using "the multitudes" against the STL's investigators as we have seen recently.
SECRETARY CLINTON: The recent assault on Tribunal investigators, which you alluded to, should be of grave concern to all Lebanon’s friends and supporters. Strong statements were made at the UN and elsewhere condemning any actions that attempt to frustrate or undermine the Tribunal and its work. Intimidation and interference should not be tolerated.
The problem in Lebanon is not the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The problem is that some are threatening violence in order to try to stop justice. The Special Tribunal is an independent judicial entity, established in response to a terrible time in Lebanon’s history by an agreement between the Lebanese government and the United Nations, and brought into force by a UN Security Council Resolution with wide international support. Its work is legitimate and necessary.
We should not lose sight of the fact that the Tribunal symbolizes something larger than the investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. It represents a chance for Lebanon to begin moving beyond its long history of political violence. Tragically, Lebanese of all communities and confessions have been plagued for years by violence and threats. And yet very few have ever been held accountable for their crimes. This history is a major source of instability and the tension that people in Lebanon feel today. They deserve a return to the rule of law and justice for all – these are crucial building blocks for stability and peace in Lebanon.
QUESTION: There is concern in Lebanon and the region, that if the STL issued indictments against some Hezbollah operatives or leaders, that Hezbollah would resort to force as it did in 2008 to create new facts on the ground. What would the US do in this case?
SECRETARY CLINTON: First, it bears repeating that no one knows what the Special Tribunal is going to do, who it might indict, or when it might choose to move forward. This is an independent process. Hezbollah should know that resorting once again to violence in Lebanon runs completely counter to the interests of the Lebanese people, the interests of the region, and of the United States. They should also know that if the goal of violence is to stop the tribunal, it won’t work. And more importantly, there is simply no justification or excuse for more political violence. That is the position of the United States and it will not change.
QUESTION: There is concern in Lebanon that the country could pay a steep price if it became an arena for renewed regional and international conflicts, and that the U.S. may not appreciate fully the inherent danger in such a situation.
SECRETARY CLINTON: We know this is not the first time Lebanon has faced real challenges and rising tensions. The Lebanese people have shed too many tears and buried too many loved ones. They deserve lasting peace and an end to political violence once and for all. The United States is committed to that goal, and we will continue supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces to ensure they have the capacity to protect Lebanon’s security from threats both internal and external. We also work hard to avoid actions or statements that would raise temperatures higher or inflame tensions further.
Lebanon has many friends, in addition to the United States, who are strong supporters of its sovereignty and security. We are in frequent contact with our friends and allies about how we can work together to support the Lebanese people and their elected government.
President Suleiman, of course, came to power after the Doha Agreement of 2008, and as his election showed, he has widespread support in Lebanon. He is in a position to help unify Lebanon and maintain the country’s peace and stability.
QUESTION: Where is the policy of engaging Syria heading? After almost 20 months, Syria's behavior and policies in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq have not been altered, and its alliance with Iran is as strong as ever. It seems that the Syrians believe that there are no disincentives or consequences for them to desist.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Syria’s behavior has not met our hopes and expectations over the past 20 months – and Syria’s actions have not met its international obligations. Syria can still choose another path and we hope that it does.
Let me be clear – we are not engaging for engagement’s sake. We are engaging to advance our interests and to find areas where cooperation can promote mutual interests. Our engagement with Syria will never come at Lebanon’s expense. Nor will it come at the expense of holding Syria accountable for its behavior.
We have had some useful conversations – for example, Special Envoy George Mitchell has engaged with Syria on the Middle East peace progress, and my Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman has had good consultations with Syrian officials about Iraq. And our engagement has enabled us to present Syria’s leaders, and the Syrian people, with a more balanced and optimistic vision for the region’s future than the messages of war and destruction carried by Iran and Hezbollah.
But we have also had some very difficult discussions with Damascus about its actions in Lebanon and elsewhere. Syria lives with consequences of pursuing policies that are outside established international norms – which is largely why the region’s economic development of the past decade has left Syria behind. So again, as I said, the choice is up to Syria – and we hope that it chooses to embrace its responsibilities.
QUESTION: What is the status of your contacts with Congress, regarding lifting the hold on supplying U.S weapons to the Lebanese Armed Forces? Do you expect the “lame duck” Congress will do that, and are you concern that the Republican House will continue the hold?
SECRETARY CLINTON: It has been our longstanding policy to support the Lebanese Armed Forces. The LAF helps to ensure stability and protect the people of Lebanon. It is a truly national institution and a strong symbol of national unity, which includes members of all of Lebanon’s diverse faiths and communities. It is representative and accountable. We look forward to continuing to work with Congress to maintain this support, which we believe is in the best interests of the Lebanese people and contributes to stability in Lebanon and in the region.
QUESTION: The U.S. and Syria have been exchanging accusations of meddling in domestic Lebanese affairs, but Syria's friends in Lebanon always claim that the U.S talks the talk but it does not walk the walk, and that its allies in Lebanon cannot be sure it will not enter into bargains, including with Syria at their expense.
SECRETARY CLINTON: America’s support for a sovereign, independent Lebanon is a key element of our policy in the region. It is non-negotiable. It is not something we are prepared to bargain with or exchange. It is as simple as that. We have been clear about this commitment and transparent in our relations with the Lebanese government. That stands in stark contrast to others, including certain internal actors in Lebanon, whose actions are neither transparent nor accountable to the proper national authorities.
We will continue our policy of supporting the independence of the Lebanese state and strengthening Lebanese institutions, and we will raise our concerns about Syrian interference in Lebanon during our continuing discussions with Damascus.
QUESTION: To what extent could Syria's behavior in Lebanon influence America's efforts to revive the Syrian-Israeli track? Can Syria expect to re-engage in peace negotiations without altering its posture vis-à-vis Iran, and or Hezbollah in Lebanon?
SECRETARY CLINTON: The Obama administration is deeply committed to achieving comprehensive regional peace in the Middle East, including peace between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon and the full normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbors. That is also the vision of the Arab Peace Initiative, which was announced in Beirut. The United States firmly believes that the various tracks are mutually reinforcing. Syria itself has said that it wants to have its territorial expectations met through a peace deal with Israel. So we are going to keep working to get there.
More broadly, we welcome Lebanon and Syria having a positive, normal bilateral relationship. When Syria and Lebanon have had bad relations, there have been negative consequences not just for Lebanon but for the wider region. But a positive and constructive bilateral relationship is built on mutual interests and mutual respect, on international norms, and must be based on the idea you don't interfere in the sovereignty of the other country.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about persistent media reports regarding continued Syrian provisions of missiles, including scuds to Hezbollah, and joint training on these missiles in Syria?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Reports of the transfer of increasingly sophisticated weapons from Syria to Hezbollah is of serious concern to the United States and to the international community. It threatens regional security. It threatens Lebanon’s security. It destabilizes the region in a way that serves no one’s interests. Let’s not forget that Hezbollah, in 2008, did just what it swore it would never do: turn its weapons against the Lebanese people—the very people it swore to defend—and that’s something that should never be encouraged, enabled, or repeated.
We have been warning everyone, including Syria, about the dangers of miscalculation and the dangers associated with the transfer of sophisticated technologies and weaponry.