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WikiLeaks: 2009-06-05: 09BEIRUT627: Lebanon: Opinion-Maker Reaction: President Obama's Speech Starts a New Discourse, But Action Also Needed

by WikiLeaks. 09BEIRUT627: June 05, 2009.

Posted: Monday, December 30, 2013 at 08:00 PM UT


Viewing cable 09BEIRUT627, LEBANON: OPINION-MAKER REACTION: "PRESIDENT

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Reference ID Created Classification Origin
09BEIRUT627 2009-06-05 14:39 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Beirut
VZCZCXRO1786
PP RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHLB #0627/01 1561439
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 051439Z JUN 09
FM AMEMBASSY BEIRUT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5049
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 3876
RHMCSUU/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 BEIRUT 000627 
 
SIPDIS 
 
DEPT FOR NEA/FO, NEA/ELA, NEA/PPD 
ALSO FOR IO A/S BRIMMER 
P FOR DRUSSELL, RRANGASWAMY 
USUN FOR WOLFF/GERMAIN/SCHEDLBAUER 
NSC FOR SHAPIRO, MCDERMOTT 
DOD/OSD FOR FLOURNOY/KAHL/DALTON 
DRL/NESA FOR WHITMAN 
OVP FOR HMUSTAFA 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/04/2019 
TAGS: PREL PGOV LE IS
SUBJECT: LEBANON: OPINION-MAKER REACTION:  "PRESIDENT 
OBAMA'S SPEECH STARTS A NEW DISCOURSE, BUT ACTION ALSO 
NEEDED" 
 
REF: A. BEIRUT 617 
     B. STATE 55334 
 
Classified By: Ambassador Michele J. Sison for reasons 1.4 
(b) and (d). 
 
SUMMARY 
------- 
 
1. (C) The Ambassador gathered a group of eight influential 
opinion-makers June 4 for a roundtable discussion following 
President Obama's speech from Cairo University.  The group 
agreed that the speech was "culturally sensitive" and a 
positive first step to engagement with the Arab world. 
However, several were disappointed that there was not more 
detail in the speech about an action plan to solve the 
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Immediate action was needed to 
inspire hope among the Palestinians and other Arab states, 
they said.  The reference linking Lebanon's Maronite 
community to Egypt's Coptic Christians was not well-received 
by our interlocutors, but the U.S. promise to recognize 
governments elected by "the will of the people," gained a 
positive reaction three days before Lebanon's June 7 
parliamentary elections.  Discussion participants were 
encouraged by the recognition of the importance of meeting 
economic needs, education, and women's empowerment, and 
called for more tools of "soft-power diplomacy," such as 
scholarships and cultural exchanges.  The speech was on the 
whole "impressive" participants said, but a clearer 
articulation of policy would have been more powerful, they 
argued.  End summary. 
 
2. (C) The Ambassador hosted a multi-confessional group of 
eight influential opinion-makers for a roundtable discussion 
three hours after President Obama delivered his speech from 
Cairo University on June 4.  Discussion participants included 
Future Party parliamentarian Moustafa Allouch (Sunni from 
Tripoli), political analyst Toufiq Hindi (Syriac-Catholic), 
former Ambassador to the U.S. Simon Karam (Maronite), 
political analyst and scholar at the American University of 
Beirut's Issam Fares Center Rami Khoury (Palestinian-American 
Christian), lawyer Mohammad Matar (Shia), former MEPI grantee 
and chairperson of the Women's Business Network Hanan Saab 
(Druze), Director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies 
Oussama Safa (Shia), and Director of political action NGO 
Hayya Bina (and MEPI-grantee) Lokman Slim (Shia).  The DCM 
and Poloffs also attended. 
 
SPEECH WAS "CULTURALLY SENSITIVE," 
BUT INCLUDED "DISTRACTIONS" 
---------------------------------- 
 
3. (C) Our roundtable participants -- a small, but 
confessionally and professionally diverse group -- 
universally praised President Obama's speech as a  "good, 
symbolic step" to engage with the Middle East.  The symbolism 
of speaking from Cairo University, in partnership with the 
oldest Islamic university in the world, Al-Azhar, sent a 
strong message to Arabs that the U.S. administration was 
serious about engagement, they said.  AUB academic Rami 
Khoury noted the "unprecedented" admission by an American 
president of the U.S. role in the overthrow of a 
democratically-elected Iranian government, calling it a sign 
of maturity and "historical contrition."  Think-tank head 
Oussama Safa agreed the title of the speech, "A New 
Beginning," captured the essence of the speech and praised it 
as the opening step to a new discourse with the region. 
 
4. (C) Ambassador noted the President's outreach to Muslims 
around the world in his Inaugural Address, Al Arabiya 
interview, Nowruz message and speech in Turkey.  Although the 
guests characterized the President's Cairo speech as 
"culturally sensitive," Muslims and non-Muslims alike at the 
discussion said they found the number of Quranic references 
"distracting."  Mohammad Matar, describing himself as a Shia 
"culturally," said that as a secularist the Islamic 
references did not resonate with him.  Lokman Slim noted that 
the Quranic verses quoted in the speech were "very good," but 
 
BEIRUT 00000627  002 OF 003 
 
 
he assessed the impact as "low" because there are verses for 
everything:  "even someone like Zarqawi (referencing the 
Al-Qaida operative) cites Quranic verses before a beheading," 
he said.  The speech was billed in the media as an "address 
to the Muslim world," but Christian Khoury argued that such a 
characterization played into the hands of extremist and 
terrorist groups.  The "psychedelic schizophrenia" of 
attempts by U.S. policymakers to differentiate between Islam 
and extremism missed the more important point, Khoury said, 
of addressing the rights of Muslims rather than Islam in 
America.  Druze businesswoman Hanan Saab disagreed slightly, 
and said the absence of the word "terrorism" from the speech 
showed a more "diplomatic" approach than in recent years. 
 
IMMEDIATE ACTION NEEDED 
ON ISRAEL-PALESTINE ISSUE 
------------------------- 
 
6. (C) Interlocutors present at the discussion and others we 
contacted by telephone (Ref A) had high expectations that 
President Obama would unveil a detailed plan to resolve the 
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Moustafa Allouch and Khoury -- 
a Sunni and a Christian, respectively  -- shared the view 
that most Arabs, irrespective of religion, shared the same 
grievances with the United States after years of feeling 
"slighted."  The Ambassador noted that the President had 
reaffirmed that the United States would be a full partner 
with all those who seek peace, and had called on all parties 
to fulfill the obligations agreed to under the Road Map.  In 
response, the guests emphasized that the Arab-U.S. 
relationship fifty years ago had been more "romantic," but 
declared the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 
had changed that. Safa cited obstacles to reaching a 
two-state solution, such as Iranian influence expanding in 
the region and an unwilling Israeli government, but argued 
that this remained the most important issue to address. 
Allouch agreed and said it was Iran which was manipulating 
the Arab-Israeli conflict to its own advantage.  He 
emphasized that for President Obama to be successful in his 
efforts to resolve the conflict, specific actions were needed 
"tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow," he said.  Toufiq 
Hindi called the speech "a good start," but urged swift 
action. 
 
7. (C) Lokman Slim praised President Obama for calling on 
Arab states to also take responsibility to achieve a 
solution.  To illustrate the importance of the point, he said 
two states would be unsustainable if one, Israel, was 
supported by its government, and the other, Palestine, did 
not have a "steady intravenous injection of Arab support." 
He surmised that without Arab support, an eventual Palestine 
would only become an extension of "Hamas-controlled Gaza." 
 
IRAN 
---- 
 
8. (C) Shia NGO-activist Lokman Slim added that President 
Obama's intended message to Iran was "unclear."  He believed 
that there was a message to the Iranian people, but was 
unable to capture the message to the Iranian government. 
Druze businesswoman Hanan Saab said that the speech showed a 
U.S. willingness to dialogue with Iran.  However, the message 
to have a world free of nuclear weapons was unrealistic, she 
said.  For his part, Syriac Christian Toufiq Hindi was 
pessimistic that Iran would ever engage in the Middle East 
peace process.  The Iranian regime was not "Persian," rather 
Persian Iran was under an Islamic power, he said, and Iranian 
Islamic influence extended to Afghanistan and Pakistan. 
 
ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: 
MARONITES AND COPTS SHOULD NOT BE LINKED 
---------------------------------------- 
 
9. (C) President Obama's only specific reference to Lebanon 
in the speech came when he discussed religious freedom and 
said, "The richness of religious diversity must be upheld -- 
whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in 
Egypt."  Most of our interlocutors, Maronite and otherwise, 
 
BEIRUT 00000627  003 OF 003 
 
 
objected to the linkage of the Maronites with the Coptic 
Christians in Egypt, describing the latter as a historically 
persecuted group (see also Ref A).  Saab said the reference 
was "distasteful" because the Maronites are an integral part 
of Lebanon's social fabric.  She believed it was 
inappropriate to single them out.  Maronite Simon Karam, on 
the other hand, did not support President Obama's statement, 
but was willing to "excuse" it, saying, "Nevermind, we 
Maronites, we will go along with it if President Obama 
succeeds in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue." 
 
MESSAGE ON DEMOCRACY 
WILL RESONATE IN LEBANON 
------------------------ 
 
10. (C) With the approach of the June 7 Lebanese 
parliamentary elections, discussion participants reasoned 
that President Obama's message about democracy and 
recognizing governments elected by "the will of the people" 
would resonate loudly in Lebanon.  Participants did not 
engage in a deep discussion of Lebanese politics or electoral 
outcomes, but expected the U.S. would continue its support 
for Lebanon despite the possibility that the Hizballah-led 
March 8 alliance would gain several seats in parliament, if 
not a clear majority.  Participants were in general wary of 
Hizballah and its Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement 
led by Michel Aoun, assuming power in a new government if 
they did not commit to upholding Lebanon's constitution and 
maintaining Lebanon's delicate confessional balance. 
 
MORE "SOFT POWER DIPLOMACY" 
--------------------------- 
 
11. (C) Hanan Saab and Moustafa Allouch were the most vocal 
in their support of President Obama's economic, education, 
and women's empowerment initiatives.  They called for more 
"soft-power diplomacy" to include scholarships and exchange 
programs.  Allouch recounted his personal story that he was 
"an enemy of America" until he visited the United States for 
the first time in 1990 and had a positive, personal 
experience there.  Saab said she was "pleasantly surprised" 
by President Obama's call on everyone to prepare to pass the 
torch to the younger generation. Oussama Safa highlighted the 
irony that where Arab governments have failed to meet the 
economic needs of their populations, Islamist groups, such as 
Hamas and Hizballah, have successfully filled the void. 
 
"IMPRESSIVE IN A PASSIVE WAY" 
----------------------------- 
 
12. (C) Drawing the session to a close, Ambassador noted the 
President's statement of shared interest in confronting 
extremism, focus on building on the Arab Peace Initiative, 
reaffirmation of U.S. commitment to seeking a world in which 
no nation holds nuclear weapons, and support for democracy 
and human rights.  The discussion participants concluded 
that, overall, President Obama's speech was a "good first 
step."  Summing up, Rami Khoury characterized the speech as 
"impressive in a passive way," but suggested that a clearer 
articulation of policy would have been more powerful. 
 
SISON

 



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