When I was U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, my phone calls with Mohammad Shatah, then foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, were frequent but brief. “You around?” he would ask, in a calm, low-key American accented voice. I’d say yes, recognizing his signal that I should drop by his office at the Grand Serail sometime that day. For security reasons, we never set an exact time.When I arrived to the grandiose marble office that never really seemed to suit him, Mohammad inevitably had a twinkle in his eye, again a signal: that he had some clever idea to try out, something that just might address one of the multiple crises that always seemed to be gripping Lebanon. A way by which the international community might more effectively respond to the reconstruction needs of Lebanon after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war. A proposal that might end a Cabinet boycott that began in November 2006. Something innovative to address Lebanon’s chronic electricity blackouts. He took time to warm up, to get beyond describing the problem to coming at last to his proposed approach. Mindful of my or his other appointments, I urged him to accelerate his delivery. But Mohammad would not be rushed: to understand his idea, I had to follow the intellectual journey he had traveled to develop his proposal.
Mohammad was a strategic thinker who seemed to take particular joy in devising implementation plans down to the smallest detail with the almost mathematical precision one would expect in a former IMF official. His proposals ranged from the occasionally outlandish to the deeply practical, but there was inevitably an underlying theme: that the Lebanese could and should be in charge of Lebanon, that outsiders (as well as those insiders equipped with arms and money provided by outsiders) should not be the ones to set the agenda for Lebanon. His patriotism for Lebanon made him an ideal emissary for crossing sectarian and political lines, which he often did quietly and effectively. Even at the height of March 14-March 8 tensions in 2006 and 2007, I remember March 8 politicians singling out Mohammad as the one March 14 politician who they claimed was willing to listen to them.When the March 8 forces tried to discredit Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri, they dubbed Siniora’s Cabinet “the Feltman government,” describing me as the puppet master. This greatly amused Mohammad. Looking back, I am struck by the irony of the contrast between that description and how the U.S.-Lebanese relationship really worked then. Lebanese influence on U.S. thinking was far greater than the reverse. U.S. broad policy goals focused on support for Lebanon’s independence and stability, but the details developed from conversations with wise and courageous Lebanese leaders like Mohammad Shatah.
In light of Mohammad’s assassination, one initiative in particular that bore his fingerprints stands out: the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, about to begin its deliberations in The Hague. Several brave Lebanese played critical roles in developing the proposal for the tribunal and then worked with the U.N. and others to make it a fact. Just recently, in fact, Prime Minister Najib Mikati made sure that Lebanon fulfilled parts of its obligations, by paying its share of the STL’s cost. Mohammad was one of the key Lebanese who worked behind the scenes in finding a way by which the international community could help Lebanon end the long, sad era of impunity for murder. The outrageous crime that ended Mohammad’s life is a stark reminder of the importance of the STL and why it deserves Lebanese and international support. Let us hope that the STL can help see that the Shatah family is the last Lebanese family that must mourn for loved ones assassinated for their political beliefs.
In my current position at the United Nations, my role as an international public servant differs considerably from my previous mandate as a U.S. official representing Washington’s interests. But Mohammad’s inspiring vision for a secure, prosperous and sovereign Lebanon is also the goal of the organization I am now honored to serve.
Mohammad was a decent man, in a beautiful but tragic country where politics is often played indecently. I will miss the twinkle in his eye and his laughter, his calm and logical presentations of sometimes radical ideas, and especially his friendship. I convey my condolences to his wife Nina, sons Rani and Omar, and to the people of Lebanon.
Jeffrey Feltman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon (2004-08), retired from the U.S. Foreign Service and is currently the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs.