Thursday, December 4, 2008

Michel Aoun's minority package tour

You have to hand it to Michel Aoun, he never goes half-way. Here was everyone else staying in Syria for a few hours, two days at the most, and here is Aoun opting for the full four-night, five-day holiday package tour, including visits to religious sites, open buffets, Damascus by night, and an audience with the dictator, all for the low price of his mortal soul.

There will be much dispute over Aoun's choices as he "reconciles" with his old Syrian enemy - his partisans applauding the general, his adversaries finding fault. But a more obvious question is what does Aoun gain from this trip that he didn't have before embarking on the road to Damascus? And what does he lose? - assuming that many Lebanese, perhaps most, still believe that Syria was behind the killing of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, as well as of dozens of others beginning in 2005.

To the first question, the easy explanation, an electoral one, is unconvincing on its own. If Aoun's gambit is that he has to become friendly with Syria to be assured that his candidates will be given more room on electoral lists in predominantly Shiite constituencies, as well as Jezzine, then he has already forfeited enough politically to achieve that. Rather, the general's deeper ambition (if "depth" can in any way reasonably be applied here) is to become the primary mediator between the Christians and Syria's regime. Aoun's immediate aim is to displace President Michel Sleiman from that role, but more generally to breathe life into a contentious notion associated with his principal Maronite political ally, Suleiman Franjieh, but also with Aoun's own son-in-law, Gebran Bassil: namely that Christians, in order to protect their community, have a long-term advantage in entering into a strategic regional alliance of minorities with the Shiites and Syria's ruling Alawites.

If there are any doubts about this, the symbolism of Aoun's visit is there to dispel them. The point of the general's planed excursions to Christian shrines in Damascus is to show that Christians thrive under Bashar Assad.

To the second question - what does Aoun have to lose by so flamboyantly settling his differences with a regime accused of systematic murder in the past three years? - the answer is: quite a lot. Through this gesture, the general has taken his followers farther than ever in their divorce from the Lebanese sectarian consensus. Aoun has repeatedly sold his alliance with Hizbullah as a successful effort to preserve that consensus following the 2005 Independence Intifada. That would only be true had Aoun remained a bridge between Sunnis and Shiites. Instead he took sides, and is now thumbing his nose at the Sunni community once more by effectively absolving the Syrian regime of guilt in the Hariri murder; or worse, making it plain that he cares little about that guilt.

But it's the Christians who will ultimately have the most forceful say on Aoun's Damascus trip. And whichever way you cut it, most Christians do not share the general's views on an alliance of minorities, nor are they particularly eager to embrace the Assad regime, preferring a colder relationship of mutual respect. Aoun is under the impression that he can continue to manipulate Christian misgivings about the Sunnis to his advantage. However, those misgivings only have meaning in the context of domestic Lebanese affairs. Once the Christians see the general wanting to take the community into a regional confrontation with the Sunni Arab world, once they realize that Aoun's method for doing so is a partnership with a deeply mistrusted Syrian leadership and with Iran, their reaction will likely be one of suspicion, if only from a perspective of self-interest.

Self-interest counts for a lot, but there is also the matter of principle. It sends a very different message when Lebanese officials, mandated by the government, meet with their Syrian counterparts, and when a parliamentarian like Michel Aoun does so. That's not to say that Aoun had no right to visit Damascus, only that by doing so outside the confines of formal state-to-state relations - the desirable framework for ties between Lebanon and Syria - he injects a form of unilateralism into his act that demonstrates he will ignore Syrian behavior in Lebanon, regardless of how it violates Lebanese sovereignty and United Nations resolutions. That's why Aoun's defending his visit as representing a new page in Syrian-Lebanese relations is so manifestly vain. Aoun claims to be representing all of Lebanon when he only truly represents himself.

Why should that matter? Because it would have been useful, just this once, for the Lebanese to be united around their victims. Aoun's political career since his return to Lebanon has centered on a perpetual struggle against the legacy of Rafik Hariri, whom the general never forgave for having, in death, served as a mobilizing force against the Syrian presence. By transforming his stay in Syria into a grand tour, part political summit, part pilgrimage, by offering so large a dispensation to Bashar Assad and demanding nothing in exchange (except for what Assad will toss him by way of making the trip more palatable in Lebanon), Aoun has betrayed the memory of even those who sided with him in his darker moments: the soldiers who died for him on October 13, 1990, after Aoun had fled to the French Embassy and refused to issue them with an order to surrender; Gebran Tueni, who had his differences with the general, but always defended Aoun's partisans when they were arrested and mistreated by the Lebanese security services; Samir Kassir, who had engaged Aounist students at St. Joseph University and encouraged them in their fight against Syrian hegemony; Antoine Ghanem and Pierre Gemayel, who had, like Aoun, endured years of marginalization at Syrian hands.

Egoism is sometimes a quality of great men. Aoun would agree after placing himself at the same altitude as Charles de Gaulle reconciling France with Konrad Adenauer's West Germany. But his is an egoism without a trace of greatness, without vision or a center of gravity. Aoun took the package tour of Syria, the one the budget tourists choose. He won't come away from the experience with his reputation enhanced.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you should redo you calculation in the middle east there is no sunni majority.