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Tony Badran

No need for compromise

Jean Kahwaji is Hezbollah's real first choice – and he might have American backing

Lebanese army chief General Jean Kahwaji, salutes his troops from the back of a truck during a military parade to mark Independence Day in downtown Beirut on November 22, 2008

On Wednesday, Lebanon's parliament once again failed to achieve the required quorum to hold the session to elect a new president. As the country now faces the likelihood of a presidential vacuum, Lebanese media outlets are feverishly divining which candidate best reflects possible understandings between the principal players in the region. In addition, everyone is trying to figure out which candidate has Washington’s support. It's true that the Lebanese are notoriously self-indulgent, believing that world capitals are just as preoccupied with their election as they are. But in this case, the Lebanese sense of a consequential shift underway in the regional balance of power, and in America's alignments in the Middle East, is not off the mark. In that regard, this presidential election in Lebanon will likely reflect the broader trend of a US-Iranian convergence in the Levant.

 

An unnamed US official validated this reading in comments to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai today. "The keys to decision making in Lebanon have become in Iran’s hands, through Hezbollah," the official said. This shift, the official added, will result in a period of stability for Lebanon, as Iran seeks to consolidate, not jeopardize, its gains. Put differently, the US official was formally ushering the Iranian era in Lebanon. Moreover, he was signaling the Obama administration's acquiescence to and recognition of this reality – a fact we have been witnessing in practice over the past year. Which presidential candidate, then, best reflects this new arrangement?

 

Some have claimed that Michel Aoun is the natural candidate for the US-Iran co-alignment. But this reading is off target. In reality, Aoun is not Hezbollah’s first choice, nor does he represent the convergence of Washington’s and Tehran’s interests in Lebanon. The figure that really fits that bill is Army Commander Jean Kahwaji. At the end of the day, following an increasingly inevitable vacuum, Kahwaji is the likeliest to reach the presidential palace in Baabda.

 

For Hezbollah, Kahwaji represents the most trustworthy option. Under Kahwaji, the synergy between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah reached new heights. The LAF served as a strike force on behalf of Hezbollah, or deployed alongside it in operations against targets the Shiite militia deemed a threat to its security. As such, Kahwaji has ensured that the LAF’s doctrine remained in line with Hezbollah’s agenda. As it happens, the emphasis on combating terrorism – that is, Sunni Islamist groups – is also in line with American priorities, which has won Kahwaji effusive praise from US Ambassador David Hale for pursuing “the right strategy.” In fact, as the unnamed official made clear to Al-Rai, Washington views this LAF-Hezbollah condominium, cemented under Kahwaji, as a guarantor of Lebanon’s stability.

 

Aside from Hezbollah’s support and Washington’s approval, perhaps Kahwaji's most important advantage is that, in part as a result of the folklore surrounding the LAF, he is effectively beyond reproach, despite his blatant alignment with Hezbollah. Already, Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, who has made clear his preference for a civilian candidate like former Minister Jean Obeid – who would be entirely in line with Hezbollah – nevertheless has had to clarify that he “does not object” to Kahwaji as a candidate. As such, while Aoun and other Christian leaders like the Lebanese Forces’ Samir Geagea can assail weaker compromise figures for not being representative, they will have to think twice before targeting Kahwaji. If anything, Aoun’s and Geagea’s candidacies, and their objective partnership against the election of a feeble compromise president, will work to Kahwaji's benefit.

 

It’s also possible that Kahwaji could take advantage of a security incident, real or orchestrated, to enhance his image as a strong defender of stability and the state – and as Washington's partner in the fight against terrorism. Curiously, chatter is surfacing about a possible flare up involving the Palestinian camps in the Sidon area. Should a security incident develop there, as the country enters a period of institutional vacuum, the profile of the LAF’s commander will rise, and the already-prevailing reluctance to criticize Kahwaji will only increase as everyone rallies around the LAF and its commander. Possible candidates like Obeid or Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, while entirely compliant to Hezbollah, will seem inadequate to handle the challenge of the moment. Ultimately, the names in circulation as possible compromise candidates – like Obeid and Salameh – would be acceptable to Hezbollah. But if Hezbollah can maneuver to get its first choice in, why settle for second best – especially if the US is on board?

 

The Obama administration views the current order, undergirded by the Hezbollah-LAF synergy, as a stabilizing arrangement. If having Kahwaji at the helm is the way to perpetuate this arrangement in the coming period, the US administration will back it. As such, more than any alternative, a Kahwaji presidency would most truly reflect the US-Iranian convergence in Lebanon.

 

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Unassailable. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

"Possible candidates like Obeid or Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, while entirely compliant to Hezbollah, will seem inadequate to handle the challenge of the moment."

  • jrocks

    hah, good times ahead!

    May 13, 2014

  • keti.raicheva

    Direction of Terrorists Criminals Hezbollah must going in Prison! Direction of Hezbollah kidnapped and maked Torture to my Bulgarian Husband Talal Mohamed Khalil on period 25.11.2012- 28.01.2013y. Terrorists Hezbollah forced Talal to sign FALSE CONFESSIONS! On time of Torture Talal get three Heart attacks and two Brain Hits!! After Torture Hezbollah gived my husband to Prison Roumieh in Beirut. Talal stay one year and six Months INNOCENT, VERY ILL IN PRISON. On the 16.05.2014y. Talal will be on the front Military Lebanese Court in Beirut. Terrorists Criminals Hezbollah killed Bulgarian Citizens in Bulgaria, Burgas on 18.07.2012y. We Bulgarian Citizens want JUST COURT PROCESS FOR TALAL MOHAMED KHALIL! Talal is 63 years old, very ill in Prison! Lebanese State Institutions MUST SAVE HUMAN RIGHTS TO ALL PRISONERS IN LEBANON! DIRECTION OF HEZBOLLAH TO THE PRISON !!! FREEDOM FOR TALAL MOHAMED KHALIL ! WE CONTINUE MAKE PROTESTS ON THE FRONT LEBANESE EMBASSY IN BULGARIA AND GERMANY!!! GROUP OF EUROPEAN CITIZENS May 10, 2014 Reply

    May 11, 2014

  • Snake Oil Baron

    If Washington takes any steps to promote a pro-Hezbollah candidate it will be the final proof that they support the Syrian genocide and the Iranian-Baathist alliance perpetrating it. It will represent, in my eyes, a declaration of war against all who oppose totalitarianism.

    May 10, 2014

  • Beiruti

    And the Aouni complain that M14 Christians are just lap dogs for the Sunni-led M14 coalition; that their Christian Deputies are elected based on non-Christian voters. But they say this all the while by pursuing presidential tactics aimed at allowing foreign capitals decide, not who sits in Parliament, but who sits in Baabda Palace. The leader of this party and its followers must suffer from cognitive dissonance, but have learned to live with the mental condition.

    May 8, 2014

  • Beiruti

    It is a good analysis by Mr. Badran. However, his opinion is informed by his view that the Obama Administration has overthrown the old regional alliance with the Sunni States in favor of a US-Iranian arrangement. The Saudis may yet have a say in the matter. The fact that Badran is discussing regional players and the pursuit of their interests in Lebanon is testament to the fact that the next Lebanese president will, after all, not be "made in Lebanon". This is becoming more and more likely as the FPM Deputies exercise their declared "right" to boycott electoral sessions of Parliament. Aoun has seen that he cannot be the "made in Lebanon" consensus candidate, so he has done what other politicians have done, and looked outside for help. He has regionalized the election process so as to allow Iran to play in the game. Its a big mistake as Lebanese national interests are sacrificed and Hezbollah's hand is strengthened in Lebanon, much as Hezbollah had calculated when its Deputies cast blank ballots at the first electoral session. The Maronites may yet head this off by coming up with making an agreement among themselves, otherwise, Iran and/or KSA will select the Lebanese President.

    May 8, 2014