THE coincidence yesterday afternoon of President Bush's speech to the National Defense University in Washington DC and the Hezbollah rally in Beirut could not have been more dramatic. Did Mr Bush know that his remarks on Syria and on freedom and democracy in Lebanon would be cross-referenced in the TV news bulletins with the Hezbollah rally? Did he rewrite his references to Lebanon when he learned that Hezbollah would put at least 200'000 and possibly 500'000 supporters on the Beirut streets, far outnumbering any of the other rallies of recent days? It seems unlikely. His message, as delivered, to the people of Lebanon was this: “The future is in your hands. The United States is on your side; Europe is on your side; the momentum of freedom is on your side.” Words of this kind suggest that President Bush, like other US Presidents before him, does not really understand the complexity of the Lebanon issue. For him, the objective is to get Syria out of Lebanon to help relieve pressure on Israel, but he apparently fails to understand that Syria is there because Lebanon was ruined by a 15-year civil war that lasted until 1990. Lebanon is a deeply divided country, by religion and ethnicity, and the risk of Western interference is that it will exacerbate those internal tensions once again. Yesterday's Hezbollah rally was not that of an extreme militant movement backed by Syria but lacking political credibility; Hezbollah is the largest party in Lebanon's Parliament. The question for President Bush is whether he would be “on the side” of a Lebanese government formed by Hezbollah, or with its strong presence, after the forthcoming elections.

Evidently, President Bush does not do irony. In another part of yesterday's speech he said that Iraq's election later this year must take place “without external influence”.


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