President Bush has met with a group of American business leaders who are raising private funds to help the people of Lebanon. The president says they are working with U.S. government officials to strengthen the Lebanese economy and support Lebanon's young democratically elected government, following the conflict between Israel and Lebanese-based Hezbollah militants.
The president says the goal is to help the Lebanese economy not only recover from the recent crisis, but flourish.
He says it is a very important mission for the United States. He says American business leaders are working with the U.S. government to send a message to the Lebanese people.
"We care about you. We want you to live in a free society. We have got great hopes for you," he said. "We believe in your prime minister, Prime Minister Siniora. And we will back up all our words with actions."
The United States has committed $250 million for reconstruction in Lebanon. The business community is seeking to complement that aid package with its own initiative, much like the private assistance efforts that emerged after the Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
After a trip to Lebanon to meet with local leaders and assess needs the business leaders went to the White House to share their findings with the president. John Chambers of Cisco Systems, one of the largest high-tech firms in the United States, served as spokesman for the group.
He told reporters they see the need for a long-term commitment by the American business community. He said their private initiative will focus on helping small and medium-sized businesses in Lebanon, building information infrastructure, and encouraging private investment as a way to create jobs.
"This will be an ongoing program. This is not a single mission or a single transaction," he noted. "It is a commitment from us and this group for three to five years. It is an opportunity to make a difference in life. It is an opportunity that comes your way one time. It is an opportunity for the American people, and especially the American business leaders to send a message: 'We will stand by you, we will make a difference, and we will give this young democracy a chance to show a vision for the future."
Chambers said he was impressed with Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora, noting he is a businessman who understands the link between boosting the economy and building support for democracy. The Cisco Systems executive also said he was struck by the depth of the entrepreneurial spirit he found in Lebanon amidst the rubble of war. He called it amazing.