Diplomat on Lebanon's Crisis

On Friday, Lebanon Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri announced the fifth postponement of a session among legislators that's needed in order to elect the country's next president. This latest delay will leave the country without a head of state for at least a week. Current President Emile Lahoud is scheduled to quit the presidential palace Friday at midnight, while Berri has targeted Nov. 30 as the next date to try and get bitterly opposed members from the pro-Western government and the Hizbullah-led opposition to agree on a consensus candidate. (The pro-Western government could attempt to elect a president with a simple majority in Parliament, but only at the risk of sparking street violence in a country with a nasty history of civil war.)

The labyrinthine saga of Lebanon's presidential woes has gripped political observers throughout the Middle East, who largely see the country as a pawn in the larger game of international chess currently taking place between Iran, which provides arms and money to Hizbullah, and the United States, which has lent both financial and moral support to Lebanon's government. Also paying close attention is U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman. A controversial and outspoken figure inside the country, he spoke to NEWSWEEK's Seth Colter Walls earlier this week about the density of issues facing Lebanon's political class, and whether a U.S. envoy can truly stay neutral when Hizbullah is involved in a political dispute. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What's the best possible outcome in Lebanon, given this controversy over the presidency?
Jeffrey Feltman:
The best option is that there is a president who is broadly accepted by the Lebanese. That's what we hope will happen. The current diplomatic push is meant to help create the atmosphere where that can happen according to the Lebanese Constitution. The international community is not playing the "name game." In the past, many countries have gotten involved in approving or vetoing certain candidates. But it's Lebanese who have to choose members of Parliament, who then choose the president. The diplomatic whirl you see is about promoting process, not a candidate. That's new in Lebanese history.

Prior to this controversy, Westerners never heard much about Lebanon's president—in contrast to Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah or pro-Western figures like Saad Hariri or Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. How does the president factor into Lebanon's politics?
First of all, Lebanon's president has considerable legal and moral weight in the Lebanese system. The president, by being Christian, and in working with the Shia speaker [in Parliament] and Sunni prime minister, provides balance in the system. The president ends up playing an important role in making that power-sharing work. I would say that part of the gridlock now within the Lebanese system is because the current president, Emile Lahoud, is so deeply beholden to the Syrian regime that he is not accepted by the majority of Lebanese as legitimately representing Lebanon's best interest.

After Syria left Lebanon in 2005, members of Parliament who had been there at the time of Lahoud's [three-year] mandate extension in 2004 signed a letter attesting that they had only done so because of pressure from Syria. So it became crystal clear that Lahoud's presence in [the presidential palace] beyond his first six-year turn was due to Syrian pressure.

Right now, the struggle between the narrow pro-Western majority in Parliament and the powerful Hizbullah-led opposition to elect the next president is widely viewed, in Lebanon and elsewhere, as reflective of an ongoing proxy war between Washington on the one hand, and Damascus and Tehran on the other. Is that a view you credit?
I think this election is about, "What kind of country does Lebanon want to be?" Do they want to be a country in which the sort of diversity of views is valued the way it has been, versus a Hizbullah-type regime. Hizbullah, right now, is doing things like building a telephone network—their own private telephone network. They're importing arms from Syria and Iran, the locations and amount of money [attached to which] are not known. Last year, they took the decision to kidnap Israeli soldiers ... All these things were done without public accountability or transparency. So the major decisions of war and peace are taken secretly. Foreign powers can export weapons. The state of Lebanon today is weak. The goal should be to strengthen that state. I don't think that's what Hizbullah seeks.

In the context of this election, though, in which Hizbullah is a principal party to the dispute, doesn't that mean you're taking sides?
To some extent, yes. But, look: Lebanon is not the U.S. We would not expect Lebanon to mirror our foreign policy. There's a long history with Syria. Lebanese tell us constantly, "Whatever your problems with Syria, we have to have a friendly relationship." That's fine, as long as it's a reciprocal relationship with respect and based on diplomatic reciprocity. We're not expecting Lebanon to take on our foreign-policy issues.

Some media in Lebanon accuse you of wanting precisely that—saying you go about from ministry to ministry giving instructions, and otherwise interfering.
Well, I don't know if you speak Arabic. But Al-Akhbar [a pro-Hizbullah paper] translates, in English, as "The News." Now: Al-Akhbar has no akhbar. [Laughs.]

That's a good line. But you also got into a public dust-up with a less partisan paper, As Safir, over a report concerning supposed U.S. desire to build a military base in Lebanon.
The As Safir thing was, frankly, an illustration of how sad journalistic standards are in a country that really does have freedom of the media. We have no intention of building a military base in Lebanon. That article was not meant to inform readers but to incite readers. We didn't respond right away, either. There's so much nonsense reported. I'm not complaining, that's part of the job of an ambassador in Lebanon and in this region....

Our policy is, basically, adopt and support an agenda that was proposed by Lebanese in 2005. They wanted Syrian operations closed. They wanted the Lebanese in charge, not the military. They wanted to see assassinations end. These are the foundation blocks of our policy in Lebanon. The people who criticize my role in Lebanon are those who are threatened by those foundations, which were laid by the people of Lebanon themselves. I have found myself associated with principles among the Lebanese people related to their own sovereignty, and that's fine with me. I think it's in our interest to support those policies in Lebanon. It reflects Washington's view of how we should be in Lebanon. I wouldn't be doing my job if I were not advocating these types of policies.

Given the mutual antagonism between Hizbullah and the United States, how does that complicate the job of ambassador during a crisis like this one?
Well, I don't know if I would frame it that way. Yes, we define Hizbullah as a terror organization. At the same time, I work in Lebanon. I cannot deny Hizbullah's effectiveness as a social organization. It has a well-oiled social and political machine. It has genuine support from a Shia population that felt marginalized and victimized for years. Hizbullah's popular support is real. We need to take this into our calculations....

Take Michel Aoun [Hizbullah 's chief Christian ally and only announced candidate for president]. He's a most interesting figure here. We have serious reservations about Aoun's providing a Christian facade for Hizbullah's attempts to undermine the Constitution. Again, Aoun has significant support from a portion of the Christian population. I suspect our views on reform and transparency coincide with Aoun's views. In short, I don't suspect all the alliances to be the same after the presidential election as they are today. Some of the people we are working most closely with on promoting an international tribunal to try those accused of Rafik Hariri's murder may not be comfortable with these other reforms. I'm probably making too many headlines, though. [Laughs.]

So you could see yourself welcoming Aoun's election, even though he is Hizbullah's preferred candidate?
We will support the president that the majority of Parliament members elect—as long as that president comes to power, not through intimidation and threats, but through the core principles of democracy. If that's how [Aoun] does, of course we will support him. The bottom line is that we have confidence that if the members of Parliament act freely, you are going to get a president that is committed to Lebanon's independence and international legitimacy.