Lebanon's new Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib is no stranger to stand-off

He refused to leave the Washington embassy for over a month in 1989

As Lebanon grapples with a crisis in its international relations to complement the various domestic challenges, it is perhaps fitting that a man who was at the centre of one of the country’s most bizarre diplomatic episodes has been appointed to run the Foreign Ministry.

Abdullah Bou Habib served as Lebanon’s ambassador to Washington between 1983 and 1990; a tumultuous period in Lebanon’s relations with the West. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan withdrew US Marines from the country in a move that ultimately changed the course of Lebanon’s civil war.

On Friday he was announced as part of Lebanon's first Cabinet in 13 months of a caretaker government.

He left Lebanon in the 1970s to pursue a PhD in economics at Vanderbilt University. After receiving his doctorate, he joined the World Bank working as an economist and senior loan officer across the Middle East and North Africa.

Mr Bou Habib’s political and diplomatic career in Lebanon has been in no small part down to close friendships with some of the most influential figures in the nation’s modern history.

He was a childhood friend of Amin and Bachir Gemayel – both of whom were elected president. Bachir was assassinated in 1982 before taking office, but his brother was seen as the natural successor and held the presidency from 1982-1988.

Amin appointed him ambassador to Washington, and for almost seven years, he was Beirut’s line to the White House. After his term ended in 1988, Lebanon jostled with two rival governments – Gen Michel Aoun at the head of one. Through the split, Mr Bou Habib stuck with Gen Aoun.

Yet Mr Bou Habib‘s posting in Washington ended with a bizarre stand-off that encapsulated the 15-year civil war that was drawing to an end. It was December 1989, and the Taif agreement – which would served as the basis for the war’s end – had been signed weeks earlier. Elias Hrawi had been elected as the new president, and the United States recognised him as the country’s legitimate head of state.

Yet Gen Aoun had other ideas. He was holed up with 20,000 troops in the Baabda palace, insisting he remained the legitimate ruler.

One of President Hrawi’s first moves had been to fire many of Gen Aoun’s appointees, including Mr Bou Habib. Yet the general told him to stay put. As an embassy representative said at the time, ″Aoun says Bou Habib is the legitimate ambassador because he, Aoun, is the legitimate ruler″.

Stay put he did, and a court battle ensued before secret service agents were eventually called to hand over control of the embassy to President Hrawi’s ambassador.

The later years of his career have been defined by a close relationship with Issam Fares, who served as deputy prime minister from 2000 to 2005. He headed up Mr Fares’ office, and then helped establish the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, a think tank based in Beirut.

Abdullah Bou Habib's policy vision

Speaking to the Washington Post in 1984, Mr Bou Habib berated foreign interference in Lebanon.

“How can you call this a civil war when you have so many foreigners?" he told the newspaper. “I think Lebanon had more invaders in history than any other country throughout history.”

“If we are going to kill each other, why [should] your hands also be full of blood? … It is not that we live on each other's blood at all … Either let us prove that we don't or you prove your point that we do. Leave us alone.”

Despite this, he often told journalists that he believed the US had the leverage to force the Syrians to leave Lebanon.

Nadim Shehadi, a former colleague and executive director of the Lebanese American University in New York, describes him as "a realist”.

“He’s a good, competent guy, he’s open minded, in the sense that many times we were on opposite sides of an argument, he does explain things very well. He [Bou Habib] is a good representative for Lebanon.”

Though the former colleague warns, whatever he wants to do, any policy action will likely be scuppered Lebanon’s stagnant political system.

“Foreign policy is not made by the foreign minister – his predecessor made a fool of himself by thinking it was.”

Updated: September 10th 2021, 6:17 PM
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