Friday, February 3, 2012

Our shadow president

If one thing could be said of Nassib Lahoud, it’s that the fact that he was time and again viewed as a natural choice to become Lebanon’s president virtually guaranteed his never being elected to the office.

Lahoud’s death this week had a poignant feel about it. His health had deteriorated in recent years, during which period he was largely absent from politics. His last real plunge into the electoral pit came in 2005, when he lost in the Metn thanks in no small part to a slanderous campaign by the Aounists. They sought to portray Lahoud as a Syrian pawn during the period when Michel Aoun still headed a military government fighting Syria. That was before Aoun himself became a Syrian pawn fighting heartily on Syria’s behalf.

In the last two decades, Lahoud’s fate mirrored that of the presidency, and of the Maronites in general. With the president’s power substantially reduced by Taif, and Maronites in numerical and moral decline, the non-Maronite political class came to have a greater say over who was elected head of state. And even after the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005, the final nod on that front came from Damascus.

Both dynamics ensured that towering mediocrities would ascend to Baabda. Leading politicians, frustrated Maronites among them, even when they disagreed over much else, could agree that they did not want a president with a strong personality, and above all credibility, to hinder their agendas and bite into their interests. The Syrians, similarly, had no intention of promoting someone who might give them headaches, from a community traditionally hostile to Syria. 

That was Nassib Lahoud’s quandary, and it was one reason why March 14, when the coalition decided to name a candidate to succeed Emile Lahoud in 2007, in fact named two: Nassib, but also Boutros Harb. In so doing, the former majority effectively undermined both candidacies, paving the way for the eventual endorsement of the army commander, Michel Sleiman, someone far more in step with the substandard exigencies of the political leadership.

Lahoud’s integrity notwithstanding, he was no naïf. In 1992, he re-entered parliament on a list headed by Michel al-Murr, even though a majority of Christian voters boycotted the elections. His calculation was that Christians, realizing their error, would come around. He may not have liked Murr, but he reckoned that both had helped legitimize President Elias Hrawi’s authority against that of Michel Aoun, so it made no sense to be overly delicate about the partnership.

He was right on both counts. Lahoud could play the electoral patronage game as well as anyone, albeit within morally acceptable boundaries. He made no bones about wanting to be president, and that necessitated dealing with the Syrians—even the requisite visit to Damascus on occasion. Lahoud was careful, shrewd, cool-headed and single-minded in the pursuit of his objectives. This could impose occasional compromises. But the man also remained by and large true to his principles, so that when you look back upon his career, there remains a solid core there, unseen in most of Lahoud’s foes.

It was often held against Nassib Lahoud that he was a favorite of the intelligentsia, but not of most other Lebanese. This had a vulgar, populist ring to it and was terribly condescending about what the Lebanese merit when it comes to their leaders. It also happened to be wrong. Lahoud was no demagogue, that’s true, but many in Lebanon would have embraced him as a worthy embodiment of their state and as a symbol of the nation’s unity. Class matters in a president, and Lahoud had plenty of it, to go with the brains.

The last time I saw Nassib was in December 2008, at a conference organized in Washington, DC. I was to moderate a panel with Lebanese politicians from both sides of the political divide, and he took me aside to warn that I had better keep tight control over the proceedings, otherwise they might prove embarrassing. In the end, he was right again. The politicians, paying no heed to me, went at each other, showing their profound divisions to an American audience in search of something rather more uplifting to take with them.

On that same trip I met an American diplomat, who told me something else about Nassib. At the State Department there are multiple levels of employees working on Lebanese and Middle Eastern issues. Whereas Lebanese politicians always sought out senior officials, the diplomat explained, Nassib had also readily met with lower-ranking staff members. They were not the ones who made the big choices, but they generated the paper and wrote the background reports upon which senior staff relied to take their decisions. Nassib understood the value of these individuals, in that way showing that he grasped how American policy is made.

The 2005 election was a bitter experience for Lahoud, and it was a discouraging symptom of what had happened to the Maronites. The Aounists’ defamation of him was built on a foundation of envy and spite, and sinister glee in cutting down one so reputable. Yet the community’s future, if it is to be successful, cannot rest on such base sentiments. This makes us regret Nassib Lahoud all the more.

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