Editor’s note: Following is the full interview with US State Department’s Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, conducted by George Salibi from New TV in Lebanon on October 27, 2006.
Q: Good evening, Mr. Welch.
Mr. Welch: Good evening to you.
Q: [Inaudible] This week, President Bush reiterated his support for the government of Prime Minister Siniora. But in light of the political divisions in Lebanon and in light of the presence of a group of Lebanese [inaudible] for the war in Lebanon. [inaudible] – the presence of President Bush is harmful for the government of Prime Minister Siniora because it provokes a certain group of Lebanese.
Mr. Welch: President Bush, during his press conference, was reflecting American concerns about the situation across the region and in particular the unfortunate interference by certain countries in the affairs of neighboring states. I believe this represents a deep-seated concern not just in the United States but more broadly in the international community and in the region.
In the case of Lebanon, you know, there have been various actions by the Security Council to express concern in particular about Syrian interference in the political affairs of Lebanon. This is a very real and dangerous issue. And the United States believes it’s entirely appropriate to speak out – and again, as I point out, we’re not the only ones. There have been previous actions by the Security Council reflecting the very same concern.
Q: Mr. Welch, when President Bush said that helping the Siniora government in Lebanon is a priority for the US administration, what do you mean by helping the government? How are you helping the Lebanese government?
Mr. Welch: Well, first of all, our priority is to help the people of Lebanon. Through the government, we hope to be able to help economic and political reform take deep root in the country of Lebanon. There has been a long and difficult history in recent years in Lebanon, your nation, and Americans have always stood by Lebanon. In the last few months, of course, there was a tremendous disruption because after July 12 and the actions by Hizbullah against Israel, there was the outbreak of conflict. This brought a lot of harm to Lebanese.
So we participated with many others in the international system to try and support the people of Lebanon, led by their government under Prime Minister Siniora. We feel that the government’s actions to respond to this crisis have been good ones, and I think Prime Minster Siniora has been able to gather a lot of international support.
Just last week, for example, Lebanon and France agreed on the holding of a conference at the beginning of next year, which will focus on the reconstruction and support for economic reform in Lebanon. That is an example of the kind of willingness on the part of people across the globe to help Lebanon pick itself up in front of all the challenges it faces and the destructions caused by the actions of one party and the interference of its neighbors.
Q: Mr. Welch, why don’t you help Siniora’s government by exerting pressure on Israel to respect international resolutions like Resolution 1701 and implement the previous international resolutions and return also what’s left of the occupied Lebanese lands and resolve the Lebanese problems? Wouldn’t this be the best help and the best achievement of the US government?
Mr. Welch: Well, let’s put these matters in perspective. Israel has not been in any part of Lebanon since the year 2000, when it withdrew. It withdrew from Southern Lebanon in the year 2000, and that withdrawal was confirmed by the United Nations.
So there is a disagreement as to whether a certain part of Lebanon – Shebaa – is actually Lebanese or Syrian territory. The way to resolve that is for Lebanon and Syria to agree on the delineation and then the demarcation of the border in that area, so that everybody will understand whether it’s Lebanese or Syrian. And then that matter can be addressed, depending on what the outcome is.
Really, what happened, though, on July 12 is what changed the situation. Hizbullah attacked across the border – not in the Shebaa Farms area, by the way, in another area – and this intervention into Israel brought about the conflict. In the resolution that was passed to bring a cessation of hostilities, Resolution 1701, the matter of the prisoners is addressed, and we expect that the secretary general will be following up on that matter.
I believe that Resolution 1701 is being implemented fully and faithfully by Israel. And I also think it’s being implemented fully and faithfully by Lebanon. We want to see it observed in all its parts, and I think that will be very important for security and not just for Israel but also for the people of Lebanon.
Q: Mr. Welch, there are a lot of Lebanese who are hostile to the American administration, and they consider that this administration is a partner of Israel in the war and invasion of Lebanon. They consider that you want to take Lebanon, as the Americans see it, and this is not satisfying a lot of Lebanese. You believe in democracy and democracy states that you cannot enforce anything by force as long as there is a party that does not accept that. What is your comment on this?
Mr. Welch: Well, there may be those fears on the part of some Lebanese, and I’m sorry that they may feel that way. However, I believe it’s entirely appropriate if somebody wishes to object to the policy of the United States. We believe in an open and free debate, as long as it’s a non-violent one. So people can differ with our policies; that is fine, and I welcome the chance to discuss them with you and your audience.
Let me point out something. The United States was not in Lebanon, does not occupy any part of Lebanon, and certainly, unlike one of Lebanon’s neighbors, has diplomatic relations with Lebanon. It doesn’t have any troops in Lebanon, unlike the case for Syria, which only withdrew its troops after several decades in Lebanon just last year.
So we don’t have that kind of imposition on Lebanon. I think most people in Lebanon regard themselves as healthy participants in the international community of which the United States is one also. I think they see themselves as looking outward from their country, not trying to be in any sphere, but trying to protect themselves of course from certain of their neighbors who try to impose themselves on the popular will in Lebanon.
Q: But, Mr. Welch, some consider that the American administration is interfering in the Lebanese affairs by supporting a certain party and not another party, and to ask Syria not to interfere while you are interfering in Lebanon. What is your opinion on this?
Mr. Welch: Well, let me point out that it was only after Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon that Lebanon had the first fully free parliamentary election in many years. The United States did not pick the winners or choose the losers in that election; the people of Lebanon did. They elected a majority in Parliament but then formed a government. That is the situation; we didn’t have anything to do with that.
Regrettably, that is not the case with respect to Lebanon’s neighbors, Syria, which chose to exercise an extra-constitutional influence to determine the extension in office of one of the most important offices in Lebanon, that of the presidency. Now, there is political interference.
Q: Mr. Welch, Mr. Hisham Melhem, in An-Nahar newspaper, cited a high-level US official saying that the US administration is concerned about what Syria wants to do in Lebanon, and the campaign is preparing against Siniora’s government with the help of Lebanese parties. Do you have any information on this matter in the US Department of State, and if yes, what is this information? And why are you accusing Lebanese groups of this? Why are General Aoun, for example, and Hizbullah and other parties accused of this – why you do not have clear information on this matter? Do you have some clear information on this matter?
Mr. Welch: Well, just a few days ago President Bush mentioned his concern about the involvement of Syria and Iran in the affairs of other countries, and specifically mentioned his concern with respect to Lebanon. This is a very real and serious matter. The president of the United States would not say such things unless they were based on fact. And the history recently in Lebanon unfortunately I have to say is ample testimony to the interference of others in the affairs of Lebanon.
The direction of democracy between the political leadership in Lebanon should be towards the people. That is, heads of political parties should look toward what the voters in Lebanon want, not what the people in Damascus or Tehran would see as appropriate for Lebanon.
I think the Lebanese can manage their own affairs without the influence of outsiders and with no need for their interference. Unfortunately, some political figures in Lebanon have for their own interests undertaken such relationships with both Damascus and Tehran. And this is meant great harm to the interests and the future of Lebanon.