Obama's Muslim Outreach Bears Fruit in Lebanon's Elections - Maybe Iran Too!

Michael Slackman, whose previous reporting focused on how much the Muslim world hated America, finds the Obama administration winning hearts and minds and even elections: "There were many domestic reasons voters handed an American-backed coalition a victory in Lebanese parliamentary elections on Sunday - but political analysts also attribute it in part to President Obama's campaign of outreach to the Arab and Muslim world."

Reporter Michael Slackman, a foreign correspondent who avoided calling Hamas a terrorist group in a February 2009 story explaining why Muslims hate America, granted the same favor to Hezbollah in "U.S.-Backed Alliance Wins in Lebanon."


An American-backed alliance has retained control of the Lebanese Parliament after a hotly contested election billed as a showdown between Tehran and Washington for influence in the Middle East.


The alliance, known as the March 14 coalition, won the majority in the 128-member parliament with 71 seats, compared with to 57 for the Hezbollah-led coalition, according to official results announced Monday by the government. The results represent a significant and unexpected defeat for Hezbollah and its allies, Iran and Syria. Most polls had showed a tight race, but one in which the Hezbollah-led group would win.


The winners celebrated in the streets, setting off fireworks and driving around in motorcades honking hours before the official results were even announced. The victory may have been aided by nearly unprecedented turnout. Preliminary results showed that about 55 percent of the 3.26 million registered voters cast ballots.


Though the Hezbollah-led challengers lost, Hezbollah itself - a Shiite political, social and military organization that is officially regarded by the United States and Israel as a terrorist group - will continue to be one of Lebanon's most powerful political forces. The biggest disappointment in this election well be for Michel Aoun, a retired general who aligned his party with Hezbollah. He appeared to preserve his bloc of seats but left the Christian constituency divided.


In a front-page follow-up Tuesday, Slackman, whose previous reporting from the region was based on the assumption that Bush alienated the Muslim world, actually gave Obama credit for the anti-Hezbollah vote in Lebanon, "In Beirut Vote, Hopeful Signs for U.S."


There were many domestic reasons voters handed an American-backed coalition a victory in Lebanese parliamentary elections on Sunday - but political analysts also attribute it in part to President Obama's campaign of outreach to the Arab and Muslim world.


Most analysts had predicted that the Hezbollah-led coalition, already a crucial power broker in the Lebanese government because of its support from Shiites who make up a large part of Lebanon's population, would win handily. In the end, though, the American-aligned coalition won 71 seats, while the Syria-Iranian aligned opposition, which includes Hezbollah, took only 57.


It is hard to draw firm conclusions from one election. But for the first time in a long time, being aligned with the United States did not lead to defeat in the Middle East. And since Lebanon has always been a critical testing ground, that could mark a possibly significant shift in regional dynamics with another major election, in Iran, on Friday.


With Mr. Obama's speech on relations with Muslims still fresh in Lebanese minds, analysts point to steps the administration has taken since assuming office.


Washington is now proposing talking to Hezbollah's patrons, Iran and Syria, rather than confronting them - a move that undermines the group's attempt to demonize the United States. The United States is also no longer pressing its allies in the Lebanese government to unilaterally disarm Hezbollah, which, given the party's considerable remaining clout, could have provoked a crisis.


Obama might even work miracles in Iran's elections taking place on Friday, and also make things "more difficult for Israel." Why would the Times consider making things "more difficult" for a staunch ally to be some unmitigated plus?


While President Ahmadinejad has grown unpopular for many reasons, including his troubled stewardship of the economy, political analysts said that President Obama had blunted the appeal of Mr. Ahmadinejad's confrontation with the West.


The results in Lebanon may also make it more difficult for Israel to capitalize on fears of Hezbollah dominance and shift the conversation away from the peace process with the Palestinians - a tactic that many analysts here attributed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


Slackman eventually conceded in paragraph 11 that Obama might not be the cause of all the encouraging news from the Middle East:


Nonetheless, there are many other factors at play that do not depend on the United States. The Lebanese election did little to change the balance of power in a country where Hezbollah is by far the strongest player. Christians, who played a moderating role and have traditionally tilted toward the United States, are not a political force elsewhere in the region. And it will probably be weeks, even months, before all sides can agree on the makeup of a new government, suggesting the paralysis that has often enveloped Lebanon's government may continue.


By contrast, while the Times was always eager to accuse Bush of alienating the Muslim world, when positive policy change did come about on issues Bush was involved in, as occurred in Libya for a while, the Times downplayed or denied any kind of positive Bush influence.