What is the use of history if we do not learn from our mistakes?
This is the question that ex-general Michel Aoun would do well to ponder as he is being positioned on the Lebanese chessboard as a pawn for the Islamic Republic’s regional power struggle against the United States.
Earlier this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dispatched his Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki to Damascus with a single message: Tehran wants Aoun and no one else as the next President of Lebanon. Believing that he is pushing the US into retreat across the chessboard, from Afghanistan to Iraq and passing by the Caspian Basin and e Levant, Ahmadinejad hopes that a spectacular success in Lebanon would enhance his own prospects for winning a majority in the Iranian general election next spring.
Ahmadinejad believes that his predecessors as president had vastly overestimated the power of the United States and based their policies on efforts to win Washington’s acceptance. He, on the other hand, is aiming at total victory; especially at a time that what he regards as a moribund Bush administration is under almost daily attack inside the US itself.
Ahmadinejad’s tough message came at a time that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was gearing himself for a compromise in which his Lebanese clients and allies would abandon Aoun in favor of a “candidate of consensus” as suggested by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
In Ahmadinejad’s analysis, Syria, now a virtual client state of the Islamic Republic, is trying to keep the option of switching sides open. One way to block that option is to commit Syria to a direct and clear confrontation with the United States and its Arab allies over who should be Lebanon’s next president. The man most likely to provoke such confrontation is Aoun whose election would amount to a clear defeat with the current Lebanese majority headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and backed by the US and moderate Arab states.
“Our leadership wants Aoun, ” Mottaki is reported to have told the Syrian president after talks with Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’allim.
The idea is that Tehran not only wants to win in Lebanon but insists on inflicting the maximum humiliation on the American “Great Satan.”
But what should Aoun do?
The ex-general has already been there, done that and bought the T-shirt. In the late 1980s he became a pawn in another power struggle in Lebanon, at that time pitting Iraq baked by France against Syria backed by the Islamic Republic. I remember Francois Leotard, France’s Minister of Defence, praising Aoun as “a dedicated soldier defending Western civilization against barbarian mullahs of Tehran.”
By 1990 and after the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait, however, the label “barbarian” had been reassigned to Saddam Hussein, Aoun’s paymaster for almost a decade. Aoun had to scale down his declared ambition of liberating not only Damascus but also Tehran from their “oppressors” to focus on his attempt to secure a place of exile in France.
Suffering more than a decade of exile, the worst punishment for anyone with a minimum of patriotic sentiments, Aoun made no secret of his regret at having been drawn into a regional power struggle beyond his ken.
So, why is the ex-general letting himself be drawn into what looks like an almost exact repeat of the very same power struggle that led to his humiliation and exile?
One answer may be that Aoun thinks Ahmadinejad is stronger and wiser than Saddam Hussein and would not become involved in an open conflict with the United States. A clear Iranian win in Lebanon might force a weakened United States to scale down its regional ambitions and even revive the idea of a “Grand Bargain” with the mullahs under which the Islamic Republic will be assigned its own zone of influence in the Middle East. In such a case, Aoun could be secure in his position as President of Lebanon and trusted ally of Tehran’s clients in that country.
Another answer may lie in Aoun’s exaggerated estimation of his own genius for strategic double-crossing of friend and foe. He may think that, once he is settled at Babdaa Palace, the official residence of the Lebanese presidency, he would be able to distance himself from the Islamic Republic and move closer to the European Union and, why not, the US.
The way things are shaping up in Lebanon, the presidential election is assuming an importance far beyond its actual dimensions. It could end in four different ways.
First, Ahmadinejad wins by imposing Aoun.
Secondly, the US and its Arab allies succeed in imposing the choice of the pro-West majority.
Thirdly, the current parliament is prevented from electing anyone unless because it fails to come up with a quorum or because enough of the majority deputies are murdered to create a hung parliament.
Finally, the two rival camps, that is to say the majority and the Iran-backed opposition, agree on a consensus candidate and allow the system to continue functioning, albeit in a creaking manner.
It is obvious that only this last option could save Lebanon from becoming a battlefield for rival powers, yet again.
Aoun could help bring that option about. He could start by publicly ruling out his own candidacy, thus leaving Tehran with no obvious pawn to advance. By ruling out his own candidacy, Aoun will also strengthen Syria’s hand in negotiations with the Khomeinist regime in Tehran. President Assad, who is known to be averse to Aoun’s candidacy, would be able to insist on his favored policy of seeking a consensus candidate.
Aoun may have to anger Ahmadinejad. But he might reunite the Christian community, win kudos in Damascus and even improve his disastrous image in the West and among moderate Arab states. Apart from Ahmadinejad who thinks on a scale much gander than Aoun perceives, no one, not even President Assad, wants to risk a new civil war in Lebanon.
Ten years ago, speaking in exile, Aoun dreamt aloud of “another opportunity to serve Lebanon.” Well, history has offered him that opportunity. He could serve Lebanon by refusing to become an instrument of division and civil war used by a foreign power with ambitions hat have nothing to do with the interests of the Lebanese people.