By Franklin Lamb in Beirut, Lebanon
Barack v. Hillary isn't the only Presidential election game in Washington these days. There is also the Samir v. Walid v. Michel (as in Geagea, Jumblatt and Suleiman) campaign underway as each seek through direct contact and surrogates, the US imprimatur in their quests to lead Lebanon.
This week it appears that Walid's support is dropping faster than Hilary's and Suleiman may end up like Fred Thompson ("failed to live up to expectations and not enough fire in the belly for the job") and Geagea is skyrocketing faster than Barack did in February.
Despite months of heaping praises on Head of the Lebanese Army General Michel Suleiman, the Bush Administration has pretty much decided to dump the General, for reasons noted below by US Congressional sources.
Following successful visits by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt over the winter, the Bush administration is currently hosting and vetting long-shot candidate Dr. Samir Farid Geagea. He is the leader of the Lebanese Forces (the successor to Bashir Gemayel's Kateib Phalange Militia founded by warlord Pierre Gemayel following his Berlin 'fascist epiphany' and declaration that "Lebanon needs some order like in Germany." Robert Fisk instructs us that Pierre was never really the same when he returned to Beirut following Hitler's near perfect showcase 1936 Berlin Olympics. Near perfect because Hitler did not plan on African-American James Cleveland Owens "Jesse" winning four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, long jump and the 4X 100m relay, a feat never equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Despite Geagea's public image problem he is looking more promising these days (a photo showing him with his black piercing eyes and moustache with Sharon's man during the Sabra-Shatila massacre, Elie Hobeika—a very evil looking duo if ever there was one—more realistic one imagines than DreamWorks studio could create, so scary in fact that during Halloween in Lebanon one can find this particularly haunting photo on certain Palestinian Camp utility poles to scare young children).
Why Geagea's rise and the Jumblatt and Suleiman slippage?
The Current Handicap:
I. General and Head of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Michel Suleiman
David Welch, who met with Geagea on March 12, and other administration officials, have reportedly given up on Lebanese Army Chief Michel Suleiman, not due so much to the now 16th postponement of his Presidential election but because Suleiman is becoming 'shop worn' plus an increasing 'buyers remorse'.
The Welch Club (a number of US neocons, Cheney, Saudi Arabia, Jordan) has lost confidence in him, according to Hill sources, and they no longer trust the General to do their bidding. Suleiman has remained dignified and has tried to walk a tight rope above 'the situation' in Lebanon including a pool of very hungry political crocodiles, as best he could. The General has respectfully met plebeians and patriarchs and sultans and salafists and has for months listened attentively and politely to the concerns of each while pledging "to put Lebanon first". That oft-heard statement is susceptible to various unsettling interpretations in Lebanon and has given pause to more than one faction. "He's too comfortable with Hezbollah and Syria", is what Congressional Staff Members on no fewer than 11 Congressional committees and subcommittees dealing with foreign policy, the Middle East, Appropriations, Armed services and Intelligence are being told as part of the 'talking points' flowing in and out of Congressional offices. Many in Congress think there will be no President of Lebanon until next year at the earliest—ten months away. Suleiman, some think, may decide to remain with his army where life is more stable.
II. Walid Jumblatt (Progressive Socialist Party—actually its neither progressive nor socialist and more a fraternity/tribe than a political party)
"Walid is over-qualified for the job", some in Washington say as they prepare to renege on earlier pledges to him. Think Georgia Congressman John Lewis' "I am 1000% for Hilary"---before he dumped her for Obama a couple of week ago).
Walid could maybe overcome the problem that his IQ is said to be 'off the charts', which itself makes Washington nervous, but he has other more serious problems.
One significant legal barrier for Jumblatt is the fact that the President of Lebanon currently must be a Maronite Christian—but given the right circumstances the 'National Pact' could theoretically be changed as the Lebanese Constitution Article 45 must be in order to allow General Suleiman to be chosen President since it requires a the two-year period out of the Army for the General before he could be President. But that feat would not be easy.
Walid's fatal step for serious consideration to lead Lebanon was his comment last week that the Jerusalem attack on the Jewish Religious Institution, which killed 8 students, was a predictable reaction to the Israeli terrorism in Gaza. In Washington that is roughly the equivalent of "Client #9" doing Miss Kristen. That verbal act by Jumblatt sunk him and the previously admiring Israel lobby dropped him like a bad habit.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is now aiding the Geagea effort while Walid, long a favorite at the Bush White House especially with Cheney, has been losing ground faster than 'front runner' Rudy Giuliani imploded.
As if all this were not enough, as one Congressional Staffer reported to the Hill Rag last month "we have an 'M Problem with both Geagea and Jumblatt in our efforts to get Lebanon a suitable President. With Geagea it's M for Murder, as in four murder convictions (!) but with Jumblatt its M for Mental. Who would you choose?"
The buzz in Washington is that with Jumblatt, according to the same Hill Staffer, "you never know where he is coming from or when the Druze leader may show up wide-eyed from smoking something and talking crazy Voodoo or Zen shit, or whatever".
A staffer on the House Judiciary Committee explained that Jumblatt "flip flops more than Romney did and next week he may do another deal with Syria and decide Nasrallah is his channeled long lost brother from a previous life and send his militia to train with Hezbollah for Christ's sake! I am not joking. During his last visit to Washington one of his aids actually asked if Jumblatt could meet Shirley MacLaine!"
III. Dr. Samir Farid Geagea
By any stretch of the imagination, 30 months ago Samir Geagea was not anyone's (except perhaps his own) candidate for the Presidency of Lebanon.
For 11 years until his July 26, 2005 release, he had been in a 6' X 8' dank cell, serving multiple death sentences converted to life with hard labor. It was a hard time. Unlike Nelson Mandela during his 27 years in prison, Geagea was not permitted to send or receive mail, to read books or periodicals containing political information about Lebanon, watch television or listen to the radio. He was handcuffed and blindfolded whenever taken out of his cell for exercise or brief visits with relatives and lawyers under the watchful eye of monitors. His guards were forbidden to converse with him beyond simple commands.
Geagea's imprisonment was because he was convicted of murdering 6 people – only a small portion of his long list of war crimes according to his enemies.
His convictions included:
-The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Mr. Rachid Karami
-The assassination of a former leading figure in the Lebanese Forces militia, Elias Zayek
-The assassination of Christian leader Dany Chamoun with his wife and two young children (ages 5 and 7)
-The assassination attempt against Deputy Prime Minister/Minister of the Interior Michel Murr
-Geagea was released as a result of Amnesty legislation that also freed some Al Qaeda types.
Some in Lebanon feel he should never have been freed but his many supporters, including 170,000 who signed a Petition for his release, disagree.
They argue that all the legal files and proceedings brought against him and the Lebanese Forces are without foundation. They proclaimed during his incarceration on the Lebanese Forces website: "Samir Geagea is today, the only political prisoner in Lebanon. His crime is that of exercising his democratic rights. Samir Geagea, current leader of the Lebanese Forces. The only person in the history of our country who was given a choice to either leave Lebanon and never come back or to go to prison. ... They [the Syrian-controlled Lebanese government including the Courts and most of the Judges at the time of Geagea's convictions] thought they could accuse him and everyone would believe their lies. They thought wrong and here is the world condemning them, the Australian courts condemned them for fabricating evidence; the United Nations Human Rights Committees condemned them; and all those people who value the rule of law condemned them. Samir Geagea is an example of a man who is unselfishly devoted to a significant cause. He is a true model for all who believe in a just and reconciled Lebanon".
Many consider Geagea a true Lebanese Patriot and many of his quotes are distributed around Christian areas:
-"I would prefer to remain in prison for another 20 years than bargain my beliefs for freedom." - November 2004, speaking to a delegation from the Human Rights Committee of the Lebanese Parliament
- "I have spent 11 horrific years in solitary confinement in a 6-square-meter dungeon three floors underground without sunlight or fresh air. But I endured my hardships because I was merely living my convictions." - 26 July 2005, on his release.
This week, Geagea had successful meetings with US National Security Advisor Steven Hadley who told Geagea that America was strongly committed to helping the Lebanese build an independent state, as the An-Nahar daily quoted a White House source as saying on Tuesday.
"The US is still strongly committed to help the Lebanese people fulfill their dream of building a free, independent and prosperous state," Hadley told Geagea during their discussion of the kind of military aid Lebanon needs. Geagea also met with Assistant to Vice President Cheney for National Security Affairs John Hannah and US Secretary of State Rice and one of her undersecretaries David Welch.
According to An-Nahar's correspondent in Washington, the unusually high level Geagea meetings "reflect US appraisal of him as a major March 14 movement leader". And they wanted to discuss with him ways to help the Lebanese government achieve such goals and US worries of "continuous efforts" by Syria and Hezbollah to "undermine" Premier Fouad Siniora's Cabinet.
Geagea has the 'correct' position on key issues and shares Bush administration views on practically every question. Regarding Shebaa Farms (a phony issue his delegation is claiming), disarming the Resistance (the sooner the better), the Hariri Tribunal (full steam ahead) the Damascus Arab League Conference (not until Lebanon has a President), shipping Lebanon's Palestinians out of Lebanon (ASAP-ABI--As Soon As Possible-Anywhere But Israel!) and not to be naturalized in Lebanon. Finally, but not least, Geagea, just like the former leader of his militia, the murdered Bashir Gemayel, is thought to be Israel's choice to lead Lebanon.
Geagea's people are still testing the water in Washington as they hope to meet President Bush in the coming days. Publicly Geagea's delegation still praises General Suleiman but without enthusiasm: "Our choice cannot be other than the primary choice, which is the Lebanese state and its institutions. As for the means to build this state and run it, the March 14 Forces will declare any decision we make at the appropriate time," Geagea's group told the Washington Press Corp on March 11.
Geagea is stressing in Washington that the Lebanese crisis "remains in the hands of the Lebanese, despite the fact that some factions are linked to other (foreign) powers….we are not looking for a western settlement to our cause. We have the settlement. We are looking for backing from all states of the world. We will ask for support even from China."
Geagea's dramatic rehabilitation in Bush administration eyes raised some eyebrows of its own in the House Judiciary Committee (subcommittee on Criminal Justice) when staff members and fans of Amy Winehouse, the British singer complained that she was denied a US Visa after Geagea got his (following years of being denied one). They demanded to know how an otherwise wholesome, drug troubled entertainer in rehab could fairly be denied a visa to come and receive a near record 5 Grammys, when Geagea got a visa in spite of clear and 'iron clad' US regulations forbidding it. But things quieted down and in the end Amy was also OK because Hollywood pressure squeezed the State Department and low and behold the US Embassy in London called her with the good news. But Amy declined it with a polite 'thanks but no thanks' having already made arrangements to appear at the Award's ceremony via satellite.
Geagea's Washington admirers point out that unlike other warlords in Lebanon, Geagea is said to have "an almost puritanical disdain for material concern", as noted by historian Theodor Hanf in his voluminous study of the Lebanese war.
Washington Post correspondent Jonathan C. Randal, who is scathingly critical of Maronite militia leaders in his book on the war, described Geagea as "well-read, thoughtful, and possessed of a revolutionary soul."
When asked to summarize the reason for the apparent Bush administration switch, a legislative aid on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East opined with sarcasm:
"There are two politicians in Lebanon who generally speak the truth and can be counted on to keep their word and not sell out. Hassan Nasrallah and Samir Geagea. As you know Nasrallah is not currently the Bush administration candidate."
Another added during the same conference call: "Cheney's people like Geagea because he's been tested. Nobody had the balls to defy Syria in the 1980s and early 90s. Even his pal Hobeika sold out. Geagea survived a brutal incarceration and before being jailed earned the respect of his people. Again, like Nasrallah, he is first of all a Lebanese Patriot. Geagea can't be bought. He is not afraid of Syria, Iran or anyone else. He will play ball with Israel. Lebanon could do a lot worse with what is likely heading its way".
-Dr. Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: email@example.com