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U.S.: Bush Announces Lebanon Aid Package

President Bush at his August 21 briefing (epa) WASHINGTON, August 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush used his August 21 press conference to demonstrate Washington's commitment to helping Lebanon rebuild and recover from the 34-day war between Israel and Hizballah.

Bush said the $230 million aid package to Lebanon represented the United States' role in helping the Lebanese people realize their "choice to live in freedom."

He added an urgent call for the international community to act quickly to deploy a promised UN peacekeeping force to the Lebanese border with Israel.
"No sum of money is instantly going to remake or rehabilitate the United
States' image in Lebanon across the board, or in the region, across the
board." -- analyst

"An international force requires international commitment," Bush said. "Previous [UN] resolutions have failed in Lebanon because they were not implemented by the international community and, in this case, did not prevent Hizballah and their sponsors from instigating violence."

Bush tied that need to the larger war on terror and singled out Syria and Iran for blame, as he has before, for interfering in a sovereign nation's affairs.

Iran and Syria are "working to thwart the efforts of the Lebanese people to break free from foreign domination and build their own democratic future," he said. "The terrorists and their sponsors are not going to succeed. The Lebanese people have made it clear that they want to live in freedom, and now it is up to their friends and allies to help them do so."

The U.S. aid package includes 25,000 tons of wheat and $42 million for Lebanon's army. It also includes money to help clean up the devastation caused by a 15,000-ton oil spill off the country's coast, caused by Israeli bombers last month.

The Lebanese government has put the cost of war repairs at $3.6 billion.

Competing With Hizballah

But the Bush administration's decision to help Lebanon's postwar cleanup effort comes several days after Hizballah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, announced a major rebuilding and assistance campaign.

Hundreds of Hizballah volunteers have been working in devastated areas, using bulldozers to clean up debris, and giving homeless Lebanese lump sums of cash to rent apartments and buy new furniture.

Hizballah's commander in south Lebanon, Nabil Kaouk, recently said the group's goal was to "bring south Lebanon back to its real life and to rebuild it better than it was before the war.''

By all accounts, the campaign has been a wild success at keeping Lebanese public opinion in Hizballah's favor.

John Calabrese, a scholar at Washington D.C.'s Middle East Institute and professor of U.S. foreign policy, says the United States is well aware that it has lost ground to Hizballah in "the race for hearts and minds."

Changing Regional Perception Of U.S.

He says that now it is trying to make up for lost time, especially with Hizballah's traditional beneficiaries, impoverished Lebanese Shi'a.

"Certainly, the United States is aware of its record low approval rating throughout the region, and I have no doubt that part of their motivation] -- if only secondarily -- is to try to address the concerns of people throughout the region who see the United States more perhaps inclined to use military power -- or to [support] the use of military power by its allies -- rather than to address the human security needs of ordinary people in the region," Calabrese says.

Hizballah has been quick to offer its assistance (epa)

Calabrese says the U.S. assistance is partly motivated by a desire to help ease the humanitarian crisis, but is also a necessary show of generosity to a deeply skeptical population.

"This is the first step. I think it's sort of indispensable," he says. "It's crucially important that the United States engage in this matter, if for no other reason than to prevent further deterioration of our image and position in Lebanon and in the wider region."

And yet, he questions whether it will be effective in achieving U.S. public-image goals. The Bush administration, he says, has a considerable way to go before things improve.

"Given what preexisting perceptions of the United States' policy were in the region, and specifically with respect to Lebanon, I think that the United States is playing catch-up, and it has a whole range of emotions and preconceptions about our motivations that it has to strive and struggle to overcome," Calabrese says. "And no sum of money is instantly going to remake or rehabilitate the United States' image in Lebanon across the board, or in the region, across the board."

Another Proxy Battle With Iran?

Hussein Haj Hassan, a Hizballah member of the Lebanese parliament, recently admitted that "a big part" of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Hizballah is distributing comes from Iran.

Iran has long provided funds for both wings of Hizballah -- its military and social services -- and now finds itself bankrolling the reconstruction effort.

Calabrese says Iran has opened its treasury for some of the same reasons the United States is writing checks: to appear benevolent to the needy, and to further its foreign-policy goals. There is also a rivalry there, he adds.

"Iran is engaged in a battle, not only for hearts and minds, but is engaged in a kind of battle -- for regional influence, not just with Israel, but with the United States, and is engaged in a multilayered, multi-issued political confrontation with the United States," Calabrese notes. "So this is another arena in which Iran can, and does, see itself as sort of locked in a kind of rivalry with the United States.

Calabrese says most Lebanese have suffered so badly at the hands of Israeli's military that they won't care where aid comes from, as long as it comes.

But, he adds, if the money is held up in Congress or not distributed quickly, the whole effort will backfire. In that case, people will be even more unforgiving of the United States than they were before.

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