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‘Presidents Are Known by their Kitchens’

‘Presidents Are Known by their Kitchens’

Monday, 3 May, 2021 - 07:30
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Jean Obeid was a journalist before turning into a professional politician. The journalist remained even as the official took on the role of lawmaker, foreign minister and mender of bridges.

I recalled Obeid, may God rest his soul, as I read through the letters that were exchanged between President Saddam Hussein and the Iranian leadership before and after the invasion of Kuwait. The letters were included in Abdul Halim Khaddam’s memoirs, intriguing excerpts of which are being published by Asharq Al-Awsat.

One day, Obeid said that knowing decision-makers is not enough to draw a clear picture of them or the country. Dialogue with the person who has the first and final say is generally difficult and press freedom is not something you encounter in our region. He said: “Presidents are known by their kitchens.” He explained that he did not mean actual food, rather the entourage of aides surrounding a president and the limits of their role in shaping and guiding decisions. He added that the Lebanese presidential palace never knew a better “kitchen” than that of Suleiman Franjieh.

Obeid said that Saddam Hussein would not have taken the suicidal decision to invade Kuwait had he boasted a serious kitchen. He remarked that Tariq Aziz was a smart man, but he was restricted by the absolute subservience and fear of prompting any differences. This definitely prevented him from sounding the alarm over Saddam’s rapid rise to power.

It is difficult to anticipate positive roles from men brought in by a president to his kitchen strictly due to their loyalty and due to his conviction that he is the one and only head chef. Their role has been limited to hailing decisions he takes. Saddam did not have a kitchen of aides. This was demonstrated in how the defense minister and army commander were informed of the invasion of Kuwait hours after it happened.

If the president can mobilize an army to a neighboring country without consulting the defense minister, then would he consult Izzat al-Douri, Taha Yassin Ramadan, Barzan al-Tikriti and Hussein Kamel? A skilled chef respects the recipe and knows that messing them up the ingredients would ruin the meal. Saddam believed he was strong enough to impose new rules in cooking policies and decisions.

Obeid believed that Hafez Assad was a skilled cook in politics because he had enough patience and ability to predict internal, regional and international ingredients. Assad Sr. was the undisputed decision-maker and his office was the destination of all diplomatic, intelligence and partisan reports. He used to take decisions after assessing the information from the reports.

Assad’s intelligence lay in his keenness on giving the impression that he was surrounded by a group of skilled and completely loyal chefs. He was deliberate in implying that some men during his term played major roles, such as Abdul Halim Khaddam, Hikmat al-Shihabi and others. In reality, however, he used to lend these men his power and he was not bothered by speaking about their roles because he knew the limit of their power and was aware of their absolute loyalty.

Giving the impression that chefs are surrounding the president allowed him to avoid becoming the primary target of criticism and gave him the ability to sacrifice some chefs when the need arose.

Obeid said that had Bashar Assad had a good kitchen, he would not have had to go through extending the term of President Emile Lahoud and defy international will. “I am not saying this because my name was on the table (as a presidential candidate). Bashar could have named his friend Suleiman Franjieh and the world would have went along with that.”

In Lebanon, Obeid admired the Fouad Chehab kitchen that included wise men and people of experience, military and civilian alike. He brought them together under a national vision that sought to guide Lebanon towards the age of institutions. Obeid said the Chehab experience was unique, not just because his integrity, but because of his true openness towards Lebanon and his respected pragmatism in his foreign relations.

Obeid recalled that al-Solh once said that a thousand semi-Chehabists do not make one Chehabist and that a thousand semi-philosophers do not make one philosopher. He said that Chehab tasked Takieddin el-Solh with writing his speeches. This gives you an idea of his style and way of approaching the nation.

Obeid added that Lebanon’s later experiences with generals were in no way close to the Chehab experience. He described them as neither military nor civilian figures and neither patient nor skilled chefs. He remarked that President Elias Sarkis followed in Chehab’s footsteps and formed a kitchen that was comprised of wise and effective figures who were of the Chehab cloth, as well as the cloth of Johnny Abdo, Farouk Abi Al-Lama and Karim Pakradouni.

Obeid said the joint Lebanese-Syrian kitchen was not successful as demonstrated in how those relations ended up. The truth is that Lebanese-Syrian relations are much more complex than to be kept in the hands of an officer residing in Anjar. Cooking is not a skill for which military officials are known for even if they pick it up as a hobby. Of course, we as Lebanese are partly to blame for the failure of the joint kitchen. Several Syrian officials have also fallen in the trap of siding in Lebanese divisions. Sometimes, it seemed that the Lebanese also – inadvertently – became involved in the unspoken tensions within Syria. Amid an atmosphere of snitching and intelligence reports, cooking turns into a form of entrapment and is laced with poison. And this is indeed what happened.

In recent decades, the Arab kitchen as a whole was not in its best shape. Other regional kitchens have taken precedence and have prepared some difficult and painful meals to their Arab neighbors. The truth is that the kitchen of Arab solidarity is not even working. It needs to have its spirit and skills revived. Insistence on using outdated rhetoric in cooking up relations will spoil the meal because it ignores the fact that the world has changed and that we are living in an age when bridges are built with numbers, not delusions.

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