Jean Kahwaji is Hezbollah's real first choice – and he might have American backing
May 10, 2014
On Wednesday, Lebanon's parliament once again failed to achieve the required quorum to hold the session to elect a new president. As the country now faces the likelihood of a presidential vacuum, Lebanese media outlets are feverishly divining which candidate best reflects possible understandings between the principal players in the region. In addition, everyone is trying to figure out which candidate has Washington’s support. It's true that the Lebanese are notoriously self-indulgent, believing that world capitals are just as preoccupied with their election as they are. But in this case, the Lebanese sense of a consequential shift underway in the regional balance of power, and in America's alignments in the Middle East, is not off the mark. In that regard, this presidential election in Lebanon will likely reflect the broader trend of a US-Iranian convergence in the Levant.
An unnamed US official validated this reading in comments to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai today. "The keys to decision making in Lebanon have become in Iran’s hands, through Hezbollah," the official said. This shift, the official added, will result in a period of stability for Lebanon, as Iran seeks to consolidate, not jeopardize, its gains. Put differently, the US official was formally ushering the Iranian era in Lebanon. Moreover, he was signaling the Obama administration's acquiescence to and recognition of this reality – a fact we have been witnessing in practice over the past year. Which presidential candidate, then, best reflects this new arrangement?
Some have claimed that Michel Aoun is the natural candidate for the US-Iran co-alignment. But this reading is off target. In reality, Aoun is not Hezbollah’s first choice, nor does he represent the convergence of Washington’s and Tehran’s interests in Lebanon. The figure that really fits that bill is Army Commander Jean Kahwaji. At the end of the day, following an increasingly inevitable vacuum, Kahwaji is the likeliest to reach the presidential palace in Baabda.
For Hezbollah, Kahwaji represents the most trustworthy option. Under Kahwaji, the synergy between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah reached new heights. The LAF served as a strike force on behalf of Hezbollah, or deployed alongside it in operations against targets the Shiite militia deemed a threat to its security. As such, Kahwaji has ensured that the LAF’s doctrine remained in line with Hezbollah’s agenda. As it happens, the emphasis on combating terrorism – that is, Sunni Islamist groups – is also in line with American priorities, which has won Kahwaji effusive praise from US Ambassador David Hale for pursuing "the right strategy." In fact, as the unnamed official made clear to Al-Rai, Washington views this LAF-Hezbollah condominium, cemented under Kahwaji, as a guarantor of Lebanon’s stability.
Aside from Hezbollah’s support and Washington’s approval, perhaps Kahwaji's most important advantage is that, in part as a result of the folklore surrounding the LAF, he is effectively beyond reproach, despite his blatant alignment with Hezbollah. Already, Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, who has made clear his preference for a civilian candidate like former Minister Jean Obeid – who would be entirely in line with Hezbollah – nevertheless has had to clarify that he "does not object" to Kahwaji as a candidate. As such, while Aoun and other Christian leaders like the Lebanese Forces’ Samir Geagea can assail weaker compromise figures for not being representative, they will have to think twice before targeting Kahwaji. If anything, Aoun’s and Geagea’s candidacies, and their objective partnership against the election of a feeble compromise president, will work to Kahwaji's benefit.
It’s also possible that Kahwaji could take advantage of a security incident, real or orchestrated, to enhance his image as a strong defender of stability and the state – and as Washington's partner in the fight against terrorism. Curiously, chatter is surfacing about a possible flare up involving the Palestinian camps in the Sidon area. Should a security incident develop there, as the country enters a period of institutional vacuum, the profile of the LAF’s commander will rise, and the already-prevailing reluctance to criticize Kahwaji will only increase as everyone rallies around the LAF and its commander. Possible candidates like Obeid or Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, while entirely compliant to Hezbollah, will seem inadequate to handle the challenge of the moment. Ultimately, the names in circulation as possible compromise candidates – like Obeid and Salameh – would be acceptable to Hezbollah. But if Hezbollah can maneuver to get its first choice in, why settle for second best – especially if the US is on board?
The Obama administration views the current order, undergirded by the Hezbollah-LAF synergy, as a stabilizing arrangement. If having Kahwaji at the helm is the way to perpetuate this arrangement in the coming period, the US administration will back it. As such, more than any alternative, a Kahwaji presidency would most truly reflect the US-Iranian convergence in Lebanon.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.