Friday, March 2, 2012

Aoun-goals, day after day

Keeping up with Michel Aoun’s contradictions is a full-time job. On Tuesday, the general said he objected to the fact that Lebanon’s new history books omitted mention of October 13, 1990, when Syrian warplanes bombed Aoun out of the presidential palace at Baabda,

Yet recall that Gaby Layoun, the culture minister named by the Change and Reform Bloc (and Aoun’s nephew by marriage), has defended the exclusion of the Independence Intifada of 2005 from the history books. You have to wonder what Aoun’s sense of priorities is. The protests that year were a splendid moment for the Aounists. They were in the vanguard of the demonstrations after Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the culmination of years of valiant struggle against Syria amid reprehensible indifference from many Lebanese.

Instead of highlighting that triumph, however, Aoun prefers the manuals to evoke the whimper that he has the temerity to imagine is an illustration of his military fortitude. What can possibly be worth remembering from that sordid day? Aoun’s craven abandonment of his wife and daughters and flight to the French Embassy? That the general was told by countless emissaries on the eve of his ouster that the Syrians intended to attack the next day, and that he dismissed all the warnings? That his stubbornness led to the pointless death of many of his soldiers, whom he refused to order to surrender even when all was lost, as he settled into the safety of France’s mission?

Rather quickly we took the modest measure of our patriotic changer and reformer. Aoun is thorough when it comes to making mistakes. Despite the large number of ministers he controls, few are the fights the general has managed to win. Every day, it seems, brings a new October 13, as Aoun’s political program is exposed as no more than a vulgar grab for Christian supremacy—catch-up for all those years when he and his entourage were denied the pickings of office.

The Charbel Nahhas embarrassment was only one in a long line of embarrassments. Aoun cried loudest against financing for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, only to quiet down when Hezbollah let the moneys through. He has positioned himself as the prime defender of the Christians, while leaving no stone unturned to undermine the authority of the chief Christian representative, President Michel Sleiman, who holds the office Aoun still craves in old age.

And ever the enemy of nepotism and patronage politics, the general has insisted that he decide on the bulk of Christian administrative appointments, even as he has named more family members to the government and to his own movement than any other politician.

Aoun’s big problem is that he is caught between the interests of Hezbollah, Syria and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and his ambitions have rarely been considered important enough by these three actors for his blackmail to succeed. Hezbollah’s priority today is to ensure that the government remains in place, and the party knows that on certain matters Mikati would prefer to resign than to cede ground. Paying Lebanon’s fees to the Special Tribunal was a case in point. So, Hezbollah has been flexible with the prime minister, at the same time striving to calm relations between Sunnis and Shia.

Because Aoun cannot topple the government, he has been without leverage against the efforts of Mikati, Sleiman and Walid Jumblatt to block his appetites when it comes to naming his favorites to public positions. Hezbollah has steered well clear of such disputes, leaving Aoun out on a limb. This was equally true when Charbel Nahhas refused to sign the transportation allowance. Aoun found himself trapped between two unpalatable choices: compromising with Mikati or getting rid of a minister regarded by the Aounist base as a man of integrity and precisely the kind of figure whom the Change and Reform Bloc should be promoting in government.

Instead, those rising the highest in the Aounist firmament are individuals close to the general with metastasizing prosperity. You will not persuade Aounists that their movement is as mendacious as any other in Lebanon, as drawn to the corruptions of the system as those whom Michel Aoun denounces daily. But then what has Aoun’s legacy actually been? No politician has had as sizable a share of cabinet posts as the general, with so scant a return on investment.

Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, cautioned last week, “We must work hard in order [for the government] to achieve something. Now is not the time for the toppling of governments, nor [is it] the time for political tension in Lebanon.” It didn’t take much perspicacity to grasp that these words were directed principally at the Aounists, who have obstructed the government’s progress and generated political tensions more than any other.

It was difficult not to see irony in Nasrallah’s comment, given that he spent 18 months trying to topple a government between 2006 and 2008, bringing Lebanon to the brink of civil war. But in this case the Hezbollah leader had a point. If the Mikati government fails, the country will enter into a dangerous political void. Everybody will lose.

Will Aoun get the message? Alas, he never quite seems to. Maybe the general is right: We should bring up October 13, 1990, in our history texts. What better way to assess Michel Aoun?

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