Jacques Chirac still has some weeks left in office, but as of this Sunday, when France votes in the first round of its presidential election, the president will begin emptying the closets at the Elysee Palace. Chirac’s final act, however, may be to see through a major endeavor of his in recent months: ensuring that a tribunal is formed to sentence those responsible for the assassination of his late friend, Rafik Hariri
By next week we should know better whether the tribunal will be created under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter. Much will depend on the impressions that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov and UN Under Secretary General for Legal Affairs Nicolas Michel take home with them after their visits to the region this week. Chirac’s departure is accelerating what happens in New York, partly because he has good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and could help reassure the Kremlin; partly because the transfer of power to a new French president could delay the tribunal approval process, which senior UN officials, the United States, and France don’t want to see happen. Whoever replaces Chirac as president, those in Beirut who regard France as a vital ally in frustrating Syria’s designs to regain power in Lebanon, will have to brace themselves for less attention in Paris. In a press conference on Monday, after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the presidential front-runner, Nicolas Sarkozy, pointedly noted: “Lebanon is very important to me, [but] there is more than just Lebanon. March 14 has benefited from the anomaly of Chirac’s personalization of his Lebanon policy thanks to his intimacy with the Hariri family. But the implications for Lebanon’s future may be more dangerous than we realize. Chirac’s support for Hariri was apparently a key factor in French efforts in 2004 to be more intrusive in Lebanon. The defining moment came in June of that year, when the French president met with his American counterpart George W. Bush to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings. Though the Americans and French had clashed bitterly over the Iraq invasion, Lebanon emerged as an issue over which the two sides could agree. Bush was keen to put pressure on Syria because of Syrian actions in Iraq. Chirac, who by then had lost all faith in Syrian President Bashar Assad, appeared to be preparing the way for the upcoming presidential election in Lebanon, an essential moment for Hariri to reaffirm his influence after years of facing animosity from President Emile Lahoud, Lebanon’s security services, and Syria. Following his meeting with Bush in Paris, Chirac had declared: “We have expressed renewed conviction and belief that Lebanon has to be ensured that its independence and sovereignty are guaranteed. Bush, in turn, affirmed: “The United States and France . agree that the people of Lebanon should be free to determine their own future, without foreign interference or domination. The culmination of these early rumblings of consensus would come in September, when the Security Council passed Resolution 1559. Among other things, it demanded a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, after Assad had intimidated Hariri and Lebanon’s Parliament into voting in favor of an extension for Lahoud. This was a remarkable turnaround when compared to Chirac’s position in 1996, when the president addressed the Lebanese Parliament. He told the assembled parliamentarians that France hoped 1996 would be a year when Syria and Lebanon would each reach a settlement with Israel. Chirac went on to observe that: “It’s through a just and lasting peace that your country will regain its sovereignty over all its territory, according to United Nations resolutions. At the time, Hariri was a main pillar of the Syrian order in Lebanon, so the French president basically reminded the Lebanese that Syria would only withdraw its forces once peace had been negotiated with Israel – which still occupied much of South Lebanon. Resolution 1559 reversed the open-endedness of Chirac’s earlier message. It was good to have Chirac in office during 2005 and 2006, when Lebanon needed regional and international assistance to get rid of the Syrians, put the Hariri investigation on track, and set up a UN framework to help normalize the country, particularly after the summer war last year. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing in diplomacy can often lead to too much of a bad thing. Domestic politics are often conducted in partisan counterpoint, so that, for example, the Bush administration’s isolation of Syria prompted a foolish Democratic opening to Assad when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Damascus recently. Similarly, Chirac’s closeness to the Hariri family will almost certainly ensure that a new French administration swings the pendulum in the opposite direction, to compensate for the perceived excesses of the current president. This is worrisome. It may be too late for Chirac, but Bush needs to better anchor his policy institutionally toward Syria, so it can endure once he leaves office. Policy abhors a vacuum. That’s why Bush must define a more systematic approach to containing Syria, which he can justify in the context of a broader Middle East strategy that gains bipartisan support in Washington. Instead, what we have is a deep rift between Republicans and Democrats over Iraq, which is threatening to undermine the administration’s line on other important regional issues in which it has successfully worked within an Arab and international consensus. This includes ending Syria’s efforts to reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon. As for March 14, it should make a priority of pressing its friends in the West to develop a Lebanon policy that lasts beyond the leaders in place. That means talking to those likely to be in power next, and showing that Lebanon means more than justice for Rafik Hariri or tranquility along the border with Israel. Both are important objectives, even critical ones, but the Lebanese have too often suffered from international indifference not to see the advantages of building sympathy that is more lasting. Michael Youngis opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.