Lebanon: Bush's Democracy Campaign

As Lebanon's Parliament battles over who it will choose as the nation's next president, U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman has made it clear which side America is not on. In op-eds, TV appearances and meetings with top officials, he described the current pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, as an embodiment of the state's chronic weakness. He urged legislators to pick a leader who would disarm Hizbullah, the Iran- and Syria-backed Party of God. He did not explicitly endorse a candidate of the pro-Western majority, but his campaign still has raised eyebrows. The leftist Beirut newspaper As Safir voiced the opinion of many Lebanese, complaining that never in the history of diplomacy "has a foreign ambassador given himself such license to interfere."

Not only in Lebanon is the aggressive Bush-administration campaign to promote democracy provoking a backlash. To be sure, the protests do not always come from democrats. But countries that used to blame internal dissent on CIA meddling now blame democratic opposition on the State Department, which guides much of the billions in the U.S. budget for promoting democracy. Russian President Vladimir Putin last week bashed those "who still slink through foreign embassies" to gain support for fighting the Kremlin. In Ukraine and Georgia, where Washington has lauded the efforts of Western-leaning democrats, the pro-Russian side has charged brute meddling. And Iran has tossed American and U.S.-backed democracy activists in jail for allegedly pushing "soft revolutions" on the Ukraine model.

Feltman is not the first U.S. ambassador to engage in vocal campaigning. He told NEWSWEEK that intense criticism is normal for U.S. ambassadors in the Middle East, and that his comments supported no party, only the democratic process. In Bolivia two years ago and in Nicaragua last year, U.S. ambassadors warned voters that electing leftist presidents could lead Washington to cut off aid. The Organization of American States later publicly criticized U.S. interference in the Nicaragua vote.

Ambassadorial activism springs naturally from a forceful campaign to promote democracy, but does it work? The Bolivians and Nicaraguans chose leftists anyway. In Lebanon, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah exploited public suspicion of U.S. meddling, describing the pro-Western regime as "Feltman's government." With Parliament deadlocked over the choice of Lahoud's successor, it's not clear who will be the next president. But it is clear that high U.S. pressure has not helped.