Muted reaction to mid-terms in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Reaction to the American mid-terms was muted in Beirut, a city still shell-shocked from the summer war with Israel and consumed by its own domestic political drama.
Much of Lebanon’s attention is focused not on American politics, but its own, which are dominated by roundtable talks taking place this week among the country’s powerful feudal lords who preside over their own sectarian fiefdoms.
“The Lebanese are reading the tea leaves as best they can,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Middle East Center for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Beirut. “The (anti-Syrian) March 14 movement is fearing the loss of U.S. power and the other side is relishing the loss of US power.”
The “other side” is the pro-Syrian coalition made up of Hezbollah and its allies, which include the Free Patriotic Movement led by Maronite Christian Michel Aoun and a number of smaller parties. The roundtable talks are aimed at banging out a compromise on expanding the current government, a Hezbollah demand following the July-August war and its self-proclaimed “Divine Victory.”
The United States “will continue to back the March 14 government and the Siniora government,” Salem said. “That won’t change because both Democrats and Republicans agree on that.”
All across downtown, the commercial heart of Beirut, most people met the news that voters had delivered a sharp rebuke to President Bush with either blank stares or shrugs, despite widespread dislike for the administration’s policies and what is seen as unquestioning support for Israel. But among the Lebanese and expats who kept an eye on the elections, there was a palpable sense of satisfaction that the GOP had lost.
“The Democrats won so the authority can change in the U.S.,” said one man puffing on a waterpipe who declined to give his name. “There should be changes. There is not one region in the world that is comfortable with current American policies.”
Another man, Gabriel Abou Daher, 32, a television producer for a Beirut advertising agency, said he had been following the elections “closely” and was pleased with the results.
“It’s a message to President Bush over his international policies,” he said. “Maybe he will take another look at them.”
As for Lebanon, however, he is not expecting anything different. “We have seen both parties have the same policy regarding Israel,” Abou Daher said.
Others thought the Democrats would be even more pro-Israel.
“I get some satisfaction from seeing Bush get slapped in the face, but I don’t take any comfort in it,” said Marc Sirois, a Canadian and the managing editor for the English-language Daily Star newspaper. “The Democrats are more dependent on the pro-Israeli lobby for campaign funds and to get out the vote than the Republicans are.”
He also cautioned that Bush still had two years left in his term and he still has all the powers of the commander in chief “to do whatever he wants.”
“The only thing they (Congress) could do is cut the purse strings in Iraq,” he said.