Who is Washington’s Candidate for the Next Christian President of Lebanon?
WASHINGTON—The arcane political system of Lebanon stands as an oddity in a Middle East dominated by identity politics, both in its formal allocation of first and second tier political and administrative positions to members of the country’s 19 religious communities, and in reserving the lead executive position, that of the president of the Republic, to a Christian Maronite. Originally a legacy of a tumultuous history, the Christian presidency is often recast as a manifestation of Lebanon’s desire to embody pluralism, irrespective of any statistical underpinnings, but also as a recognition that this small nation is home to the only expression of Christian sovereign politics in a Muslim-dominated region.
Yet, for more than two decades, the heavy hand of the Syrian regime has denied Lebanon the possibility to elect a genuinely independent president capable of steering this diminutive, albeit disproportionately important, country toward fulfilling its potential as a catalyst for peace and stability. Damascus and its local Lebanese allies are optimistic that the confusion and complacency displayed by Washington toward the Syrian crisis will translate into acquiescence toward their current maneuvers to insure that the next occupant of the Lebanese presidency will remain a tamed vassal of the Syria-Iran axis.
Two serious contenders are currently leading the pack of aspirants to the position of next president of Lebanon: Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun. Each enjoys commanding support on his side of the political divide. Since 2005, Lebanese politics have been irrevocably split between two camps, with names derived from seminal demonstrations in that fatal year: March 8 and March 14. The March 8 coalition, of which Michel Aoun is the candidate, is dominated by the Iranian-created and -supported paramilitary force of Hezbollah, and is thus intrinsically linked to Tehran and Damascus, and continuously engaging in anti-United States, anti-West, and anti-Israel rhetoric.
March 14, a pro-democracy coalition friendly to the West, has proven less capable of counterbalancing the power of its rival, and instead suffered a series of targeted assassinations against its leaders, while being pressured, by friend and foe, to accept successive concessions to avoid an all-out confrontation with Hezbollah and the plethora of other militias in its orbit. In the March 14 camp, Samir Geagea may have been the leader most resistant to Hezbollah’s bullying insistence that Lebanon bear the price of the actions this Shi‘i paramilitary force has taken on behalf of its Iranian and Syrian sponsors.
This has raised Geagea’s stature in the March 14 constituency but, by antagonizing Hezbollah’s public, also virtually insured his ineligibility for the position of president — one determined by a vote in the Parliament but also subject to the ambiguous constitutional clause of needing to satisfy the “national entente.” Michel Aoun, an unabashed apologist for Hezbollah’s actions — from its triggering of the devastating conflict with Israel in 2006, through its violent takeover of the capital in 2008, to its current military involvement on the side of regime in Syria — is in turn categorically rejected in the anti-Hezbollah camp, and would also fail to satisfy the “national entente” test.
Yet, a strategy is shaping up to polish Aoun’s image as a “compromise” candidate, by promoting a less prominent, more controversial candidate as the March 8 initial choice for president. Multiple reports from Beirut suggest that the U.S. embassy is weighing in on these efforts in favor of Michel Aoun, presumably with the intent of “peeling” him from the Hezbollah camp and thus creating a new majority in Lebanon detached the Syria-Iran alliance. Such a line of action, if confirmed, is reminiscent of another futile attempt, by both the Bush and Obama administrations, to court Damascus with the hope of luring it away from Tehran — despite clear evidence that the Syrian-Iranian alliance was too deep to disentangle.
Washington’s efforts in the past merely netted more time for Damascus to strengthen its positions. It is abjectly unrealistic to expect a reversal of Aoun’s stands toward Hezbollah and its patrons — stands that have been bolstered by economic and personal ties — were he to assume the presidency in Lebanon. Neither can any moderating effect on Hezbollah — for which the decision-making resides well outside of Lebanon — be expected. Lebanon has been historically influenced in its successive choices for president by the preferences of a select group of international actors. To describe the presidential elections as an “internal Lebanese matter” may be an appropriate soundbite, but does not match reality.
Washington has been, and will remain, an important “voter.” Its alleged choice of Michel Aoun may well be a product of the imaginative Hezbollah psy ops machine. Still, Washington ought to distance itself of even the appearance of endorsing Aoun, a demagogue who frequently engages in illiberal, undemocratic, and outright uncivil discourse, and call for the election of a president who adheres in words and deeds to democracy, civility, and the rule of law — values shared, in principle, by both Lebanon and the United States.
Hassan Mneimneh is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.