WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Amine Gemayel, a former Lebanese president, was received at the White House last week and granted a half-hour meeting in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and a number of other senior White House officials.
On the surface there is nothing extraordinary in the president of the United States meeting a former foreign dignitary. It happens, occasionally. But with all due respect to ex-President Gemayel, why would the White House want to meet with him? Gemayel has been largely absent from the Lebanese political scene since his term as president expired in 1988. He is hardly a mover or shaker of his country's politics.
When asked, a White House spokesman replied: "The president welcomed President Gemayel to the Oval Office yesterday (Thursday). The president expressed his condolences once again, on behalf of himself and the American people, on the assassination of Mr. Gemayel's son, Pierre Gemayel. The visit reflects the U.S. commitment to a sovereign and democratic Lebanon."
Indeed, the tragic assassination of Gemayel's son, the minister of industry, seems to have propelled Lebanon's former president back into the forefront of politics. But just how engaged is Gemayel likely to become in Lebanon's political scene? Is his visit to the White House an indication that the Bush administration might want to see him become president once again?
Amine Gemayel was not supposed to become president but was hastily elected to the Lebanese presidency in 1982 after his brother Bashir, then president-elect, was assassinated. Amine enjoyed the support of the international community, particularly the United States, France, Britain and Italy, who contributed troops to a multinational force meant to help prop up his government.
Although at the start of his mandate the political situation in Lebanon was relatively calm -- it came after the Israeli invasion and the subsequent departure of the bulk of Palestinian fighters from Lebanon -- conditions gradually deteriorated until they hit rock bottom, resulting in the resumption of the civil war, but on a larger scale.
Gemayel had inherited a difficult situation. The Israelis occupied a third of the country and the Syrians occupied about another third. The army he was trying to rebuild with the help of the French and Americans found itself dragged into the fighting after the precipitous departure of Israeli forces from the Chouf mountains. This latest round of violence also saw the engagement of the U.S. Marines in the fighting in support of Gemayel's government.
The devastating attacks on the Marines' and French paratroopers' barracks by suicide bombers on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, in which 241 U.S. military personnel and 58 French paras were killed, brought about an abrupt end to the multinational force's mission in Lebanon.
As Gemayel's term of office drew to a close, and with the Lebanese parliament still unable to name a successor, the country found itself on the brink of a constitutional crisis. Fifteen minutes before his term expired Gemayel appointed Gen. Michel Aoun to the post of prime minister. According to the Lebanese constitution, the prime minister takes on the role of acting president if the presidency is vacant -- something that was about to occur in 15 minutes. But according to the unwritten pact of 1943, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, just as the presidency is reserved to a Maronite Christian. Gemayel had acted in such a way to preserve the unwritten agreement in place since Lebanon's independence from France, that the president, and by implication anyone acting in that role, should be a Maronite Christian.
The appointment of a Christian to the position of prime minister, even if he was meant to hold that position for only 15 minutes, angered Lebanon's Muslim politicians and warlords. They rejected the Aoun government, instead recognizing a rival government led by Selim al-Hoss.
Gen. Aoun accepted the nomination, assumed the title of prime minister and moved into the presidential palace in Baabda. Aoun soon became engaged in one of the darkest chapters of Lebanon's 15-year civil war; the general-turned-politician first clashed with opposing forces in West Beirut, then launched the "War of Liberation," an attempt to get the Syrians out of Lebanon. Aoun's war of liberation accomplished little other than unleash the full wrath of Syria's heavy artillery on Beirut.
With his military offensives unsuccessful, Aoun eventually was forced to seek refuge in the French Embassy in Beirut and subsequently flee to Paris to live in exile for the next 15 years before returning to Lebanon when the Syrians, under heavy international pressure, were forced to withdraw their troops.
Former President Gemayel didn't linger in Lebanon either. He moved to the east coast of the United States where he took courses at Harvard.
So what is it that brought Gemayel to the White House? In Gemayel's own words, his visit to the U.S. had no official cachet -- he was not here representing the Lebanese government. "I am here as myself. I am not here representing any party," Gemayel told United Press International.
The interesting question then is why would the White House grant Gemayel a half-hour meeting when the former president is no longer "an official"? Unless the Bush administration would like to see Gemayel installed as president once more.
From Washington's perspective Gemayel would be a better candidate than the other two leading contenders; Gen. Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea. Aoun, once vehemently anti-Syrian, has "executed an unexplainable reversal," a French diplomat told UPI. Aoun joined the opposition, allying himself (albeit by a memo of understanding) to Hezbollah. And Geagea's past as a Christian militia leader does not leave him unblemished.
Gemayel, therefore, may be Washington's preferred candidate for the Lebanese presidency. It may simply be a coincidence, but since Lebanon's independence not one candidate made it to the presidential palace without Syria's consent. Gemayel knows this only too well.
(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)