Friday, August 21, 2015

What’s up, Doc? - Did Future even notice that Samir Geagea had left them?

It is remarkable how invisible was the reaction of the Future Movement when its Christian partner Samir Geagea signed a declaration of intent with the Free Patriotic Movement. How different from Hezbollah, which has determinedly kept Michel Aoun happy to ensure he does not abandon his alliance with the party.

Geagea’s decision to effectively jump ship on the remnants of March 14 was less dramatic than Walid Jumblatt’s in 2009, but no less significant. It showed that the Lebanese Forces leader sees little potential in his alliance with the main Lebanese Sunni organization. That does not mean Geagea’s relations with Future are over. Rather, he has expanded his political options.

Future may find that this will come back to haunt the Sunnis. The country is moving toward an overhaul of the constitution to replace the post-Taif political order with one weighed against Sunnis. And in this context Geagea’s treatment as a poor relative by the Future Movement, particularly since Saad Hariri’s departure from Lebanon in 2011, has been a grave mistake. The head of the Future Bloc, Fouad al-Siniora never visits the Lebanese Forces leader and is not well-attuned to the Christian mood. Nor, unlike Hassan Nasrallah, has he considered it vital to work hard to maintain a strategic partnership with Christians to protect his own community against the demands of the other main Muslim community.

Nasrallah’s speech last week was a clear indicator of what Hezbollah seeks to achieve. As the situation in Syria turns to the party’s disadvantage, Hezbollah and Lebanon’s Shiites will have to brace for a Sunni backlash and sense of empowerment. The only way Hezbollah can protect itself is to change the balance of representation in Taif to ensure a structural majority for Shiites and Christians. To win over Christian backing, Hezbollah may very well agree to go along with the idea of a highly decentralized administrative system, which has long been a core Christian demand.

Hezbollah’s ambition is why, for Nasrallah, gaining Christian support remains so essential. And it explains his keen defense of Michel Aoun last week, when the Hezbollah leader insisted the party would not allow the general to be isolated or “broken.”

As many have observed, the most likely way for Hezbollah to reinforce itself in the state is to alter the 50-50 Christian-Muslim balance in Taif and redistribute sectarian shares so that Sunnis, Shiites and Maronites each have roughly a third of representation in parliament and government. Shares of the smaller sects would be adjusted in this general framework.

In that way, Christians and Shiites would retain a permanent two-thirds majority over Sunnis, allowing Hezbollah to shield itself from within the state. Many Christians would be reassured, feeling this would protect them against a Sunni wave in the region, which they believe — rightly or wrongly — would lead to the marginalization of minorities.

Indeed, many Christians today favor a highly-decentralized system in Lebanon precisely because they have misgivings about their future in a Muslim-majority country. But it is also true that most feel more reassured by the Shiites — a minority in the region like them — than they do by the Sunnis, whom they associate, quite simplistically and undiscerningly, with higher levels of religious extremism.

In this complicated sectarian climate, Future would only gain by having Christian partners in order to better moderate Christian attitudes. That’s because fear will lead Christians to make decisions that may undermine the reflexes of sectarian compromise and power-sharing at the heart of the political system.  

One wonders whether some officials in the Future Movement have fully absorbed the meaning of the presidential vacuum. It goes far beyond Hezbollah’s wanting to bring Aoun to office and by now this should be perfectly obvious.

Hezbollah and Aoun are collaborating in an effort to change Taif and the post-Taif system. Each has his own reasons for doing so, but the larger objective is the same: to amend a political arrangement that both believe is to their disadvantage and to the advantage of the Sunni community. What matters here is not the reality of Taif’s uneven implementation, which has harmed all sides at times, but perceptions. And these Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah have successfully manipulated in pursuit of their aims.

There are senior officials in the Future Movement who are openly admitting that Taif is dead, so no one can plead ignorance. If so, it’s time for Future to give added weight and recognition to its Christian counterparts. Otherwise, before long we will see the likes of Geagea and the Gemayels opening a dialogue with Hezbollah, which has shown a greater inclination to take Christian anxieties seriously.

This situation reflects more than anything else the end of March 14. The coalition has had many deaths, but the breakdown of cross-confessional collaboration buries it once and for all. When Samir Geagea went his own way he was confirming such finality. The Lebanese Forces leader will henceforth take his own political path, and at no time was this more evident than last week when he and his followers said little about the anti-Sunni slogans of the Aounists.

It’s a fact that Hezbollah is out-maneuvering Future on the Christian front. Christians err if they believe that taking sides in the inter-Muslim rivalry will benefit them, but that won’t stop them from trying. For Christians, true security lies in protecting themselves behind a wall of Sunni and Shiite moderation, in a society where all communities interact and coexist as equals.

But that’s not what is happening on the ground. Instead of encouraging Christians in this direction, the moderate Sunnis of the Future Movement are allowing Hezbollah to take the initiative and advance its own divisive agenda. The Lebanese political system has always relied on mutual sensibility. That is missing today, and it’s a shame that Future suffers more from this failing than Hezbollah.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Michel Aoun, leave the government! - It makes no sense to continue collaborating with ISIS

In the realm of political cretinism, the followers of Michel Aoun have been pioneers. Yet the spectacle on Thursday was beyond anything we had seen before. The sheer sordidness of their political messaging made many Lebanese wonder whether the Aounists are entitled to any regard whatsoever.

Consider this image of the former telecommunications minister, yes minister, Nicolas Sehnaoui, holding up a sign with the cartoon of a monkey wearing a blue tie — the blue tie of the Future Movement — with the following text: “Hi I’m ISIS, ISIS Can Also Wear a Tie.” Next to Sehnaoui stands another bright bulb, holding up a sign showing a bald man from behind, clearly meant to represent Tammam Salam, with the phrase: “Not All Extremists Have Beards, They Can Also Be Bald.”

Sehnaoui’s performance shows that class is no prerequisite for a ministerial appointment. You have to pause and ask: Are these people serious? Do they truly believe their contemptible accusation that Salam is an extremist? Or that the Future Movement is another form of ISIS? If the Aounists answer yes, then it’s high time that they pull out of the government and spare us all the consequences of their irresponsibility.

However, it’s funny that not so long ago Michel Aoun was running doggedly after Saad Hariri to gain his approval for an Aoun presidency. Presumably, he would have also expected the former prime minister’s green light to bring with it a favorable vote in parliament from Tammam Salam, his ally in Beirut.

So are we to understand that the general was consciously courting extremists then? Are we to conclude that Aoun will do anything, even celebrate his 80th birthday with Hariri, to be elected, all the time aware that his Sunni interlocutors are disciples of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri? If so, Aoun is a hypocrite, or perhaps he was misled. If the latter, then his only option, now that he’s seen the light, is to withdraw his ministers and retreat to his borrowed residence.  

The thing is that Aoun will not pull out of the government, because he knows that if he does nothing will happen. His exit will not provoke a similar reaction from his principal allies — Hezbollah, Nabih Berri, or even Suleiman Franjieh. Aoun will be on his own, the government will likely function better, to everyone’s relief, and the general will ruin any remote chance he has of becoming president. That’s why the mendacious Aoun would remain in government even with the real ISIS.

In their frustration, the Aounists have become merely vulgar. But their vulgarity has consequences, because if Sunnis see their most moderate leaders described as extremists, this can only have dire repercussions for Sunni-Christian relations. It must be said: the crudeness of the Aounists makes one ashamed to be from the same community as Aoun and his ilk.

Time has caught up with Aoun and is quickly overtaking him. The general has dreamed of the presidency for decades, and he knows he will never see it. He has an insatiable family to satisfy but his nepotism has surpassed his ability to fulfill his promises.

Aoun’s patent favoritism toward Gebran Bassil has forced him to satisfy another son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz. However, Aoun’s mismanagement of the security nominations means Roukoz’s ambitions will be thwarted. The person most pleased with this, in our Rabieh version of Dallas, is Bassil, who won’t have to worry about a potential rival for Aounist affections down the road as he prepares for September elections in the Free Patriotic Movement. That’s assuming elections take place, amid rumors that internal FPM surveys show Bassil’s main rival for the presidency, Alain Aoun, winning. What a delicious irony if the elections are postponed in light of that information, given Aoun’s anger with the decision to delay parliamentary elections.

The Aounists are all over the place these days, but the effort to insult Hariri and Salam was beyond the pale. Sehnaoui and his comrades have scraped the bottom of the barrel — no mean feat when they have spent the better part of a decade several rungs lower. Aoun destroyed the Christians once in his political career, and is on track to do so again, supported by a gaggle of imbeciles who, demanding their legitimate rights in the political system, on a daily basis invite only scorn.   

Friday, August 7, 2015

Bedlam in Washington

The Obama administration’s way of making foreign policy decisions has come under scrutiny lately as it adopts new, seemingly paradoxical, policies in the Middle East.

From the start, President Barack Obama concentrated foreign policy matters in the White House. This has led to a bloated National Security Council, which the Washington Post argues “has come to symbolize an overbearing and paranoid White House that insists on controlling even the smallest policy details, often at the expense of timely and effective decisions.”

After the first term, a number of former foreign policy officials criticized this. In The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr, an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, complained that two groups benefited from the over-centralization of policy, both with limited foreign policy experience: the president’s domestic political advisers, who based their decisions on how foreign policy issues would play at home; and the military and intelligence agencies, which promised “swift and dynamic, as well as media-attracting, action…”

However, very little appears to have changed since Nasr published his book in 2013. Indeed, things may have gotten worse as the United States’ incomprehensible behavior in Syria can attest. The administration’s actions in the Middle East have been so confusing that the repercussions are bound to be long-lasting. Today, two of Washington’s most prominent regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, deeply mistrust America.

A powerful National Security Council need not mean an incoherent foreign policy. Under Richard Nixon, the NSC was headed by Henry Kissinger, with whom the president shared a worldview. And Kissinger kept tight control over his institution, gave it direction, and, thanks to Nixon’s interest in foreign affairs, could rely on the president not to make all his decisions primarily through a prism of domestic political calculation.  

Today a very different reality exists. The national security advisor, Susan Rice, does not seem to have imposed a clear political vision on her institution, nor has she been able, it seems, to overcome the influence of Obama’s domestic policy advisors. She took office in June 2013, and events in Syria since that time have repeatedly exposed her shortcomings.

The role of the national security advisor is to coordinate the decisions and actions of the different bureaucracies that have a say in foreign policy. The national security advisor must also have the capacity, thanks to his or her proximity to the president, to devise a broader strategy and cohesive policies that are in lockstep with the president’s priorities, and, above all, that fit in with one another in a consistent way.

In Syria we have seen the precise opposite of this. Everything the administration said it would not do there, it has ended up doing; and everything it has said it would do, it has not done, or has done without any conviction.

Last year Obama resolutely played down the idea of extending the battle against ISIS to Syria, preferring to focus on Iraq. At the same time the United States continued to oppose the establishment by Turkey of a safety zone in Syria. But today, the president has reached an agreement with Turkey that allows for such a zone, and that also permits coalition aircraft to use the Incirlik air base to be launched against ISIS in Syria. Washington has gone further, saying it would use its aircraft to defend “moderate” armed groups against extremist foes.

The fate of the ‘moderates’ is a good example of the administration’s lack of seriousness in Syria. For a long time the administration vowed to arm and train moderate groups, and requested $500 million to do so. Yet in July, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reported that only 60 rebels had been vetted and trained to date. Soon thereafter several ‘moderates,’ including their leader, were kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. That is what prompted Washington to say that it would deploy aircraft to protect its allies.

All this would be laughable if the administration’s actions and omissions did not mean more lives lost. This was evident in August 2013, when President Bashar al-Assad’s forces fired chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, killing up to 1,700 people. At the time Obama described a chemical attack as a “red line,” vowing to retaliate militarily if one took place.

Instead, at the last minute Obama changed his mind, agreeing to a Russian scheme to remove the chemical weapons from Syria. Nor was Secretary of State John Kerry consulted. He looked out of the loop when Obama’s decision came even as Kerry was advocating a military response before Congress.

This was Rice’s first major test and she failed, as the White House and State Department seemed to be on very different wavelengths. During Nixon’s first term the secretary of state then, William Rogers, was marginalized by Kissinger. Rice has not quite been able to do so to Kerry, who played a central role in negotiating the recent nuclear accord with Iran. Yet the secretary of state must be suffering: he and his staff were only told late in the game about negotiations with Cuba by NSC officials, and the Iran deal must have been gratifying payback.

But solely blaming Rice and her staff is too kind. The person most responsible for the foreign policy muddle is Obama himself. The president has often praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, on the Lincoln administration and the strong, clashing personalities who served the president.

This was Obama’s way of saying he sought to lead an administration of forceful individuals, no matter what their disagreements. This shows the president’s tolerance for confusion, and his hubris. Abraham Lincoln always had a clear sense of direction. No one would confuse Obama with Lincoln.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Iran in a bubble - What the American debate over the nuclear deal misses

As the American Congress prepares to vote on the recent nuclear deal with Iran, the silly season has set in. Worse, next year is an election year, so there are no limits to what candidates are willing to say to enhance their chances.

The prize for most ludicrous observation goes to Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who told Breitbart last weekend: “It is so naive that [President Barack Obama] would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven. This is the most idiotic thing, this Iran deal. It should be rejected by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and by the American people.”

The comment provoked hilarity among people who felt that Huckabee’s Holocaust reference was over the top. It was, not only because the comparison was ridiculous, but because the Americans’ fear for Israel is at odds with the reality of the power balance in the Middle East. It also highlights their indifference toward how the nuclear deal might affect Arab states, which will face its consequences far more than will Israel.

But the Arabs don’t have much of a voice in Washington, so their efforts to derail the deal are unlikely to bear much fruit. Instead, they are hoping that Israel’s allies can do it for them. While it remains unclear whether a vote against the deal could override a presidential veto, polling suggests Americans are less opposed to the Iran deal than opponents are admitting.

For example, a Public Policy Polling survey indicates that 54% of those polled support the deal, while 38% oppose it. The poll also shows there are no potential negative repercussions for those in Congress approving the deal, with 62% of respondents saying that if their representatives vote in favor, they will either be more likely to vote for them or it won’t make a difference in their future voting.

J Street, the liberal Jewish group that supports a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, asked GBA Strategies to conduct a poll on the attitude of American Jews toward the nuclear accord. According to the survey results, Jews support the deal by a wide margin of 60% to 40%.

Polling can be tricky and other polls have shown more ambiguous results. But the real problem is that the nuclear deal has now been sucked into the American bubble — its value judged entirely on the basis of how it plays out in the internal contest of American disputation, where arguments both for and against are frequently unrelated to realities on the ground.

While Israel opposes the agreement, it is likely to feel less of an impact than the Arab countries, where Iran is already exerting major political influence today. That’s not to say Israel will not have to adapt to an Iran empowered by the lifting of sanctions, but Israel is a nuclear state, with a counter-strike capability of its own located on its submarines and far more nuclear weapons than Iran can ever hope to build in the foreseeable future.

The real threat lies elsewhere. The lifting of sanctions will release funds permitting Tehran to pursue its regional agenda with much greater ease. That means there will be more money to fund the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which now appears to have formally adopted a policy of partition in Syria, as the speech of the Syrian president made clear last weekend. Syria’s war will only drag on, amid widespread apathy in America.

It means that Iran will continue to back Hezbollah operations in Lebanon, allowing it to further reinforce a parallel structure to that of the state while pursuing its battles around the region.

It means Iran will continue to reinforce Shiite militias in Iraq that have behaved independently of the government in Baghdad, blocking the emergence of a sovereign Iraqi state.

All this is off the radar in the United States. And only a few commentators have raised a related issue bringing together anxieties about Israel and what the nuclear deal means for Iran’s regional power. That is whether the administration has fundamentally shifted in its outlook on regional alliances. In other words, would improved ties with Tehran mean that the United States will accept Iran as a major partner in the region, one with which it can jointly address major crises?

Certainly there is some justification for such a worry among Washington’s tradition regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. As Tony Badran, who has covered the topic extensively, recently wrote on this site: “Obama wants to integrate Iran into a regional concert system presumably based on ‘equilibrium.’ However, this would be akin to establishing equilibrium in Europe at the height of Napoleon’s power.”

The point is well taken. If Obama, as a foreign policy ‘realist,’ is indeed interested in a new balance in the Middle East, then he must ensure that there is a balance in the first place to which he can then hold the Iranians. However, there is none, and handing Iran the financial means and political cover to challenge any new balance makes the proposition irrelevant.

Obama has failed to explain how he views the future of Iran in the Middle East, and America’s response to this, given the president’s strenuous efforts to disengage from the region. Those are the most important questions Congress must clarify.

But Congress has a problem. The tribulations of the Middle East are of little interest to its members, and even less to their voters. What happens in Aleppo, Beirut or Diyali might as well take place on the moon for all they care. But that is the discussion Americans should be having, and that Obama seeks to avoid. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Israel would gain from the Arab Peace Initiative

US president Barack Obama has shown an inclination for addressing unresolved conflicts. He re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba after decades of hostility and has just concluded a nuclear accord with Iran despite years of enmity. But Mr Obama has not embarked on what he described as a priority during his first election campaign: a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In a speech in 2008 to AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobby in America, Mr Obama vowed: “As president, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security. And I won’t wait until the waning days of my presidency. I will take an active role, and make a personal commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration.”

Mr Obama didn’t fulfil his promise, even if, initially, he did seek a freeze in Israeli settlement activity. However, his efforts led nowhere, and soon, the US president appeared to lose interest in mediating between Palestinians and Israelis. That is why we are as far today from an agreement as we have ever been.

With so much ink being spilled on the Iranian nuclear deal, both by supporters and opponents, the Palestinian issue has fallen by the wayside. While for a long time it was afforded exaggerated importance as being at the heart of most regional considerations, simply ignoring the Palestinians may be a recipe for disaster.

The deadlock in Palestinian-Israeli relations helped trigger an intifada in 2000-2005 and rounds of violence in Gaza in recent years. Meanwhile, the Israelis’ main Palestinian interlocutor, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, has seen his credibility wane as talks with Israel have lost any meaning and he has been viewed by his people as incapable of ameliorating their dire situation.

This has suited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu just fine, as he has no real intention of engaging in serious negotiations with the Palestinians, let alone surrendering land. Facilitating Mr Netanyahu’s obstructionism has been the regional situation. With wars raging throughout the Arab world, especially in neighbouring Syria, the Israeli prime minister has felt no pressure whatsoever to halt settlement-building.

There is even a view in Israel that the recent nuclear deal with Iran has helped the country politically, by bringing about a de facto rapprochement with Arab states equally displeased with what was negotiated with Tehran.

Perhaps, but if Israelis truly believe that this is more than a transitory reflection of parallel interests, then they are living an illusion. The Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf, appear highly unlikely to take relations with Israel to a higher level, partly because their standing is tied in to their support for the Palestinian cause; partly because of what occurred in 2002.

Thirteen years ago, the Arab states, meeting at a summit in Beirut, offered what would become known as the Arab Peace Initiative. In the Saudi-led initiative they urged Israel to accept a comprehensive peace settlement based on international legality in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel within its 1967 borders. The government of prime minister Ariel Sharon ignored this unprecedented proposal.

As far as the Arab states are concerned, Israel is useful only as a counterweight to Iran and even then, the probability of its playing such a role is remote. With the nuclear deal signed, Israel’s capacity to attack Iran or block progress in Washington has diminished, and so too has Arab interest in Israel.

For Israel to seriously expect improved ties with the Arab states, particularly in the Gulf, it will take much more than shared antagonism toward Iran; it will require that the Israelis finally approve the Arab Peace Initiative. But with Mr Netanyahu as intransigent as was Mr Sharon, the prospects for better Arab-Israeli relations remain virtually nil.

What the Arab states appear to realise much better than the Israelis is that as the likelihood of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement dims further, a future Palestinian leadership may become far less flexible than the one today. The Arab states fear that as polarisation increases, it could facilitate the emergence of more extreme groups aiming to take over the reins in Palestine.

The Israeli focus on Hamas is misplaced. The movement has lost much momentum in recent years, not least because of Egyptian opposition. Partly to compensate for this, Khaled Meshaal and other top Hamas leaders met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman last week. It is not inconceivable that a group such as ISIL, which has declared war on both the Egyptian state and Hamas, could eventually seek to exploit Palestinian discontent.

That is not to say that Palestinians would go along with this, but the Israeli gift for closing any and all doors to a resolution has only increased the volatility of the Palestinian condition, whose emotional power has not diminished. Mr Obama will soon be gone, but the absence of a horizon for peace in Palestine will remain with us, as will its inevitably dangerous repercussions.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

All fall down - Why did Michael Hayden get Lebanon so wrong?

The Washington think tank and consulting community gives significant relevance for the American capital. It can also be something of a bubble, where the reality of a particular region (the Middle East, for instance), can at times be distorted by a lens the effects of which are exacerbated by distance.

A case in point is a phrase of Gen. Michael Hayden, a member of the Chertoff Group consultancy, to the French daily Le Figaro. A former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, Hayden has vast experience. That is why one particular comment he made was jarring.

In response to a question about whether the influence of the United States was being diluted in the Middle East, Hayden responded that it was very difficult today for Washington to have a policy there. “Let’s face it: Iraq no longer exists, nor Syria. Lebanon is nearly undone, Libya too probably.”

This translation from French is perhaps inaccurate, but Hayden’s meaning is clear. Lebanon is listed among those states in the region that have collapsed, so that even Libya’s grim fate, in Hayden’s words, appears to be more open to question.

It’s difficult to argue that Lebanon is a healthy country, but it hardly qualifies for inclusion in a list with Syria, Iraq and Libya. If anything, the country, though dancing on a volcano, is an oasis of relative stability, even if this can change at any moment.

For as long as American policy-makers have given any attention at all to Lebanon, they have regarded it as a hopelessly divided place. In Diplomat Among Warriors, the American envoy to Lebanon in 1958, Robert Murphy, wrote: “Lebanon disputes were not limited to major political differences and division between Christians and Muslims. There also was factional strife within political parties and between religious sects.” Murphy could have been writing about the Lebanese reality today.

In 1982, the Reagan administration committed to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion that summer. American and European forces deployed to the country to help the Lebanese government re-impose its authority after a seven-year civil war. Very quickly the multinational peacekeeping mission became mired in a regional struggle over Lebanon, with Syria and Iran on one side and the United States and its allies on the other, each side using Lebanese proxies to advance its interests.

Amid the rising violence in Lebanon, bomb attacks targeted the American Embassy in Beirut and Awkar in 1983 and 1984, while a truck-bomb attack killed 241 American servicemen at the Marine barracks near Beirut airport, and another led to the death of 55 French paratroopers.

By February 1984 the Reagan administration had decided that Lebanon was a losing venture, and began pulling its forces out of the country. For two decades Lebanon was firmly banished from the American consciousness, bestowed with pariah status.

Hayden’s throwaway comment seemed to emanate from that deep well of wariness. But given the circumstances Lebanon is facing today, not only is the country not coming undone (or whichever English word Hayden used), it is doing rather well — surely better, I suspect, than the United States would do facing an inflow of refugees equivalent to a quarter of its population.  

One of the stranger aspects of Lebanese society is that what many regard as its fatal flaws, namely its chronic unruliness and social divisions, often happen to be advantageous. Even if we can ridicule the idea that “Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness,” rifts and factionalism have become a default setting nationally. That means that the Lebanese, so accustomed to chaos, are frequently better equipped at managing disorder than well-organized countries where stability prevails.

And for all its many problems, Lebanon’s disorder reflects an inherent pluralism that is far less restrictive than what characterizes most other Arab states. Lebanon may be a highly imperfect democracy, but its sectarian system and the fact that its society is stronger than the state create spaces of liberty allowing individuals to more or less live their lives freely.

American policy-makers, like political scientists, may not see anything inspiring in this dysfunctional, unsettling place, so unlike America and where prediction is difficult. Perhaps that’s because an essential aim of the think tanks and consultancies is to forecast trends for policy makers. That’s why even when Lebanon keeps its head above the waves, as it has done since 2011, informed observers in Washington lazily insist on seeing a place drowning alongside the rest of the region.

That’s not to say that Lebanon is out of the woods. The dragon is at the door and many developments, not least the presence of a massive Syrian refugee community unlikely to return home soon, if ever, are profoundly worrisome. Find a confident Lebanese today, and you will have discovered a pink elephant. But Lebanon is not Iraq and it certainly is not Syria or Libya. It is a country that has retained some steadiness, even a culture of compromise and pluralistic politics, against all odds.      

Lebanon is worth nothing in Washington. It’s a sideshow of a sideshow of a sideshow. But the country at least merits more than to become someone’s throwaway remark, especially that of a man who was once perhaps the best-informed official in America. C’mon General Hayden, get our facts right.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The clock can no longer be turned back in Syria

A remarkable omission from discussions on the Middle East these days is the notion of democratisation. That is strange for two reasons: a decade ago the topic was at the centre of deliberations over the region, especially in the US, and in 2011, the Arab uprisings began with calls for democracy.

The mood change was predictable in June 2009, when Barack Obama made his much-publicised speech in Cairo. Democracy was one of the four points Mr Obama raised in the address, though he did so briefly and non-committally.

Most noticeable was the president’s reference to the “controversy” surrounding democracy in Iraq. Betraying his thoughts on the subject, namely that the Bush administration used democratisation to justify a war he opposed, Mr Obama added: “No system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by any other.”

For a long time this association between democracy and war tarnished all talk of democratisation. A natural extension of the condemnation of the Bush administration was criticism of democracy promotion – viewed as an excuse to pursue an agenda of US expansionism.

Oddly enough, when the 2011 Arab uprisings occurred, almost nobody seriously revived the debate over democratisation, except to say that what was taking place went against what Mr Bush had advocated. Rather than change coming from outside, the Arabs were showing that real change came from within.

Today, however, the descent of several Arab states into cycles of violence – from Syria to Iraq, and from Libya to Yemen – show that a democracy debate is necessary. Yet the heart of the conversation should no longer be whether democracy is desirable, but rather to determine what kinds of open systems work best in each particular national context, because social realities vary.

Multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic states, such as Iraq or Syria, are less likely to put in place a one-person, one-vote system that focuses on the individual over the community. There are countless possible alternatives to such an arrangement, but these must have a basis in a country’s complex make-up.

Lebanon was an early model for a divided society that tried to manage its differences through a consensual, sectarian power-sharing arrangement. Ideas that have circulated in Lebanon – sometimes implemented, sometimes not – may have relevance for other Arab states. This can include reserving specific posts for certain sects, administrative decentralisation, separate personal status laws for different communities, and more.

Democracy in mixed Arab societies may also have to contain elements favouring pluralism over individual liberty. Liberty is undoubtedly at the heart of democracy, but in many conservative Arab societies resistance to some aspects of personal liberty may translate into opposition to the very idea of democracy itself. That is why a balance has to be struck between freedom of the individual and of the community, in the expectation that the latter will enhance the former.

A wider discussion is now necessary over new political arrangements governing Arab states, of which democracy is but a part. Syria, Iraq, even Yemen are all undergoing fundamental changes and a radical transformation in communal relations.

In Syria, the state has effectively broken down into separate entities, a development accelerated by the Al Assad regime and backed by Iran. Their establishment of a de facto Alawite-dominated statelet between the coast and Damascus, which includes most of Syria’s population, facilitates Bashar Al Assad’s and Tehran’s control over what is described as “vital Syria”.

Whatever happens in Syria, the country is unlikely to go back to what it was: a united, multi-confessional country that buried its rifts under an ersatz layer of Arab nationalism. Yet sooner or later the country’s nightmare will end and Syrians will have to define what political order best suits their society.

Alternatively, what may follow is partition, but even there some sort of understanding will have to be worked out between the country’s separate components. And an essential factor in this will be whether Syria’s entities can interact in ways that preserve the interests of minorities. This may not be democracy per se, but a debate over democracy will lead precisely to the questions Syrians will have to address in the future.

The worst thing that can happen to the idea of democratisation is that it remains politicised as it was after President George W Bush used it to validate his campaign in Iraq. Since that time Mr Bush’s foes have erred in throwing the baby out with the bathwater: in denouncing Mr Bush they have denied any legitimacy to a sensible examination of Arab democracy.

With the focus today on ISIL and violence throughout the region, this trend has only been reinforced. Nowhere, it seems, is democracy less likely to flourish than in the Middle East.

But deadlock and suffering also often impose innovative thinking. For the states of the region to return to the repression of the past while also remaining secure does not appear feasible. Nor will fragmentation bring long-term stability. The democracy debate will inevitably return as Arab societies search for arrangements that are both permanent and peaceful.