In beautiful 5000 year old Baalbec, named by the Phoenicians after their Sun God, Baal, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, one can enjoy, amidst the detailed ruins of the Temples of Bacchus and Jupiter perhaps the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture at its apogee. In this cradle of resistance to tyranny, with its Shia majority, and some argue the birthplace of Hezbollah, one is reminded that in Lebanon history has always repeated itself.
The Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Turks, the French and now the US and Israel. While Lebanon is an ancient place, it has almost always been controlled by someone other than the local inhabitants.
As next months crucial Lebanese Presidential election looms, seen widely here as a contest which may well determine whether US/Israel dominance and interference is terminated sooner rather than later, one is reminded that it was 25 years ago, nearly to this day, that another crucial Lebanese election was held on virtually the same fundamental issues by a similarly deeply split populace.
On the one side, now as then, are indigenous forces that identify with their Arab roots and that seek to assert an indigenous identity and a more nationalist ideology, and on the other side are forces that prefer close ties to the US and France as well as international alliances. Among these are some who are prepared to accept a peace treaty with Israel even before the achievement of a just solution to the Question of Palestine including the full Right of Return plus Full, Fair and Equitable compensation for Lebanon’s 430,000 Palestinians.
Lebanon ‘s current President, Emile Lahoud, extended in office by Syrian diktat in 2004, is scheduled to leave office in November. The parliament is scheduled to convene to elect a president on September 25. A quorum of two-thirds is necessary for the election to proceed. A simple majority vote is necessary to elect a president, once (and if) a quorum has assembled.
While many of the issues from 1982 are the same, so are many of the players such as Nabeh Berri, Salim al-Hoss, Samir Geagea, Walid Jumblatt, Amin Gemayel, Michel Aoun, the Christian and Muslim religious leaders, ambitious Generals, and the list goes on.
So too, is the nearly identical role and posture of the US administration.
On August 23, 1982 US administration Larry Speakes made the following statement on behalf of President Reagan:
The United States will continue to work closely with the Government of Lebanon on the complex and difficult task ahead. We believe that the Lebanese Presidential election holds out the possibility to continue the process of strengthening the central government of Lebanon, consistent with our policies, which the President is committed to do.
That same day, many Lebanese Deputies were paid more than 1 million dollars each, according to journalist Jonathan Randal, with the US Ambassador picking up the tab. Four aged Deputies were carried into the Parliamentary Presidential selection room to vote, two of whom weren’t sure, according to eye witnesses, where they were and what was happening. In that election, the Reagan administration backed the friend of its friend Israel, Bachir Gemayel, the 34 year old commander of the 24,000 strong Lebanese Forces militia, who had the habit of taking cash and arms from Israel while smoozing the US Embassy with suggestions that Lebanon should be the 51st American State.
This election, exactly one quarter century later, Bachir’s order brother Amin was the Welch Club choice until Amin ignominiously lost the Metn Seat in the August 5, 2007 by-election to the pro-Hezbollah Christian Camille Khoury.
Now the Bush Administration favorite is General Michel Suleiman, head of the Lebanese armed forces who for 13 weeks has been claiming that the army’s defeat of the Fatah al-Islam salafist jihadists at the Palestinian Refugee Camp at Nahr al Bared is only a few days away.
On Wednesday August 29, Feltman appeared with Sulieman at a military parade and praised his leadership in the battle against ‘terrorists’ at Nahr al Bared. Feltman also reminded the media that the 100 new Humvees Washington gave the army will be increased to 285 and military aid will rise from $700,000 three years ago to $270 million this year. Suleiman and the crown smiled.
If Suleiman fails to get enough support from the 128 member Parliament, the Bush administration will accept Nassib Lahoud or whoever Saad Hariri and his the March 14th anti-Syrian, anti-Hezbollah coalition decides to nominate. This, even though the French paper Le Figaro reported on August 26 that Serge Brammertz, the chief investigator into the assassination case of Former PM Rafic Hariri will soon charge Saad with bribing a witness in order to implicate Syria in his fathers death.
With us or against us?
Twenty-five years after Speakes spoke, the US position has not changed much. On August 23, 2007, Undersecretary of State for Near East Affairs, David Welch announced to the Lebanese on behalf of President Bush:
“First, we support the election of a president for Lebanon from the team that supports our policies in the region. (March 14-Hariri and Siniora) We are prepared to accept a president from outside that team but on the condition that he should announce clearly that he is willing to cooperate with us and not to resist our policy in Lebanon and the region and that he should possess a clear attitude towards Hezbollah (oppose) and the future of the relations with Syria.”
Lebanon’s 1982 political atmosphere before a scheduled Presidential election was, in some ways similar to today. Both followed a devastating Israeli invasion designed to provoke internecine conflict. Which Maronite Christian would be elected to the post as required by the 18 sect Confessional system which was mandated by the departing French colonial power in 1943? This imposed quasi feudal power sharing arrangement, known here as ‘the National Pact’ while antiquated, fundamentally undemocratic, and likely to be replaced before its 70th anniversary, must be complied with next month under Lebanese law.
For its part, the Hezbollah led Opposition claims that the ‘National Pact’ consensus in Lebanon on which power is based was no longer existent, and therefore: “we demand the formation of a national unity government with a blocking one third minority.” This argument gained the support of a large portion of the Lebanese people, according to diplomats in Beirut who claim that Paris will from now on take this matter into consideration, as French Ambassador Bernard Emié, who last week, just before the end of his tenure, made a “courtesy” visit to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, whom Paris, at US/Israel urging, had boycotted since 2004
Lebanon’s Confessional arrangement is based on a 1932 census which set the Shia population of Lebanon at only 16% by labeling almost all Muslims that were counted as Sunni, whereas the actual Shia percentage today is thought to be no less than 57%. The National Pact has been the cause of much civil strife in Lebanon which began in 1958 when the US Marines landed on Beirut’s beaches with orders to prop up then President Camille Chamoun who was facing increasing fellow Christian and Sunni Muslim opposition.
One political officer at the US Embassy in Beirut feels that the Bush administration is stuck to a Lebanese ‘tar baby’. They can’t pull lose. Given that its credibility is the lowest in US history in this region, whichever candidate they publicly back will probably lose. While Feltman’s and Rice’s manta these days is that the Bush Administration,” has no dog it this fight”, few here believe that. Whoever the March 14 Hariri group puts forward will have the backing of the US and his candidacy will likely be fatally flawed as Bush administration failures are mounting in Lebanon.
A losing streak in Lebanon
Among the failures presumably causing angst at the Lebanon Desk in Foggy Bottom:
The Bush Administration pushed Israel to attack Lebanon last year and worked to prolong the destruction of Lebanon and blocked a ceasefire, hoping the population of Lebanon would turn against Hezbollah. The result was that their efforts increased Lebanon’s support for the Opposition and engendered increased ill will against any US presence in Lebanon including an Embassy.
The Bush administration has also:
* tried and failed to get the Lebanese Armed Forces to confront Hezbollah;
* tried and failed to organize a ‘Northern Sunni Army’ with its own airbase at Kleit;
* tried and failed to get Al Qaeda affiliates such as Fatah al Islam, and Jund al Sham to ignite a Lebanese Sunni-Shia conflict as they have done in Iraq. Consequently on August 27 the disenchanted Bush administration put Fatah al Islam on their rapidly expanding ‘Terrorism list’ which as of this morning numbers 49.
* toyed with the idea of aiding the new Shia political party led by the south Lebanon Assad clan as an alternative to Amal and Hezbollah. Assad, while coming from a feudal family and decidedly ambivalent about losing his family’s feudal birthright of leading a large segment of the Tyre area Shia population to Imam Musa Sadr’s Amal and now Hezbollah, told the Bush administration: ‘ Thanks but No Thanks”.
* funded and armed Samir Geagea, Walid Jumblatt et al. hoping they could provoke dissension and weaken the Hezbollah led opposition and perhaps provoke a Civil War. Specifically, Hezbollah’s website charges that it is pro-government forces preparing for civil war by distributing guns in the Mount Lebanon region, north of Beirut specifically in Chuweifat, Batlou-Barouk and Aley. Each person getting a weapon and ammunition has signed a receipt.
* placed the construction unit, Jihad al Bina the one organization in Lebanon with near universal support among all the Confessions, and which is today spearheading the reconstruction in South Lebanon of thousands of homes destroyed by US weapons and has distributed millions of dollars in aid to homeless families to rebuild their lives, on their “terrorism list”. The international ridicule the Bush administration brought on itself for this blatantly political act has further diminished US standing in Lebanon while the Israel lobby in Washington pushes for inclusion on the list, of several hospitals, clinics, the Madhi boy scouts, book stores, a nursing school, food and water distribution units, and a prosthesis center. All obviously part of ‘terrorist’ endeavors.
* continues to interfere in Lebanon’s elections by running their candidate, the discredited Amin Gemayel for Parliament and grooming him to become Lebanon’s next President. They failed on both counts.
* following the 2005 electoral gains by Hezbollah they purchased 20 acres for a new Embassy and ‘listening base’ in Babbda in order to keep tabs on Hezbollah for its allies including Israel, and, after its plan became public, the State Department quickly withdrew the project as ‘unfeasible’. The property is now on the market.
Bush’s clear vision
The Bush Administration plans for Lebanon and the Middle East could not be clearer and the coming Lebanese Presidential election is expected to help implement them It seeks nothing less than, against the interests of the American people and the international community, to replace the regional Arab system with a new Middle East. Specifically, it wants to replace the nation states with cantons and federations organized along ethnic and sectarian lines.
The new Middle East order is be led by the US and controlled by Israel. This Bush project is no longer an idea from the Rand Corporation and Ziocon ‘think thanks’ but rather is being implemented by force following its occupation of Afghanistan. The invasion and occupation of Iraq and US interference in Lebanon threatens the national security of all Arab countries as well as Iran and the US itself. Iraq was followed by Palestine, Lebanon and Sudan. Hostile statements by US officials have increased as have threats to conduct other campaigns such as attacking Iran.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese Constitution requires a 2/3 vote of Members of Parliament (called Deputies as in France) to create a quorum to elect the President. Getting 2/3’s of the 128 members of Parliament to assemble will be very difficult this year given the split between Hezbollah and the US backed Siniora government
Moreover, Article 45 requires that no Class A civil servant such as the head of the army Michel Suleiman, the current US choice, can stand for the office before he has given up that post for 24 months. David Welch, as he made clear last week in Paris, reportedly during a shouting match with French officials in Paris, sees no problem with either impediment.
Welch, according to local media reports, has advised Lebanese officials that the best course is to just change the Lebanese Constitution and repeal Art. 45 and put Suleiman in as President.
When US Ambassador Feltman returned to Beirut this week from Washington he agreed and proposed that the Siniora faction simply rewrite the Constitution and lower the percentage needed for the Welch Club to elect the new President.
Michel Aoun, Hezbollah ally and leader of the overwhelming majority of Lebanon’s Christians, vows that “US efforts to gut the Lebanese Constitution will not happen.” He has garnered his allies to prevent alteration of the Constitution.
According to one insider, the March 14 forces, led by Saad Hariri, have ready a Bush Administration approved contingency plan should the national opposition succeed in blocking the Parliamentary session to elect a new president. The plan is to gather February 14 members of parliament in the Chouf region (Mount Lebanon) and to elect a president at the Beit el-Dine historical palace, the summer headquarters of the president. The summer headquarters would then be the permanent presidential palace in case current President Emile Lahoud refused to hand over the Baabda Palace, or in case Lahoud decided to form a second government, which could happen.
The Chouf region, where the rump Parliament would meet, is controlled by MP Walid Jumblatt, a key March 14 loyalist, and with his new US weapons Jumblatt is thought capable of providing security. If this idea is implemented, a security zone would be established in the Beit el-Dine region to secure March 14 MPs and other MPs willing to take part in elections. There have been earlier reports that Bush administration officials were studying the idea of holding the presidential election at the UN headquarters in New York.
It is crucial that as Election Day arrives, the political stalemate end so the Lebanese government can turn its attention to the formidable dangers and problems that confront Lebanon. The Bush administration views Lebanon very simplistically in black and white terms, as though its allies in the Siniora government were innately “good” while Aoun, Hezbollah and an increasing variant of other groups were “evil”.
This fixation prevents the Bush Administration from engaging with anyone other than those who agree with its views. That position of course rules out the Lebanese opposition, Syria, Iran and a growing percentage of the Lebanese Christian community.
What is needed now is a dialogue between Lebanon’s government and opposition. The US needs to end its interference and stop blocking that dialogue. Otherwise, if the presidential election fails, we have a small hint in this month’s Metn election of how Lebanon may become even more dangerously divided in next month election