Thursday, November 20, 2014

Israel is in a trap of its own making

Doubtless, it was a shock to many Israelis that the Spanish parliament recognized the state of Palestine – well sort of – on the day that two Palestinians attacked a synagogue in Jerusalem, killing four people. But even if the parliamentary resolution was a watered down version of an earlier proposal, Israeli officials should read the writing on the wall: They are losing the battle of narratives in their conflict with the Palestinians.

The Spanish move came only weeks after the Swedish government recognized a Palestinian state and the British parliament passed a motion urging the government to recognize a Palestinian state alongside Israel, to contribute to a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Seven European Union or Mediterranean countries have already recognized a Palestinian state, and the French parliament is expected to do so soon.

Most of the resolutions are non-binding and have only symbolic value. But Israeli anger at their passage suggests that officials in Israel grasp the underlying message: Israel is increasingly seen as the problem, not as a willing participant in a two-state solution with the Palestinians, so that parliaments throughout Europe feel justified in pushing it in this direction.

The Israeli response has been stupidly arrogant. The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, wrote on Facebook that the “Swedish government must understand that relations in the Middle East are a lot more complex than the self-assembly furniture of IKEA and that they have to act with responsibility and sensitivity.” Yet Israel itself has for decades failed to show any real understanding of, let alone responsibility for or sensitivity to, the deep changes in the Middle East, or the repercussions of its perennial crushing of Palestinian aspirations and abuse and degradation of the Palestinian people.

Most disturbing, successive Israeli governments have found no answer to the numerical challenge posed by a rising Palestinian population whose land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is being gradually reduced by Israeli actions. Before long Israelis will have to determine what to do with a rising Palestinian population in their midst. They cannot expel them, because of the international outcry and because Palestinians could be expected to fight back; they cannot expect the growing Palestinian population to supinely accept being banished to a nominal, fragmented mini-state surrounded by Israel; and they cannot absorb Palestinians, because Israeli Jews do not want to create a demographic time bomb that ultimately transforms them into a minority.

This reality has time and again been raised with Israeli officials, to no avail. The settlement project continues, preposterously defended by Israel as merely “expansions of current settlements.” Israel is systematically seeking to reduce the Arab population of East Jerusalem. And even relations with the Obama administration have been strained, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has made no effort to compromise on its settlement plans to facilitate an understanding with Palestinians.

Instead, the Israelis have focused on Palestinian violence or shortcomings to derail progress. They have also benefited from Arab anxieties toward Iran, an enemy Israel shares with many Arab countries, to move ahead with their agenda of annexation.

To a large extent Netanyahu sees a playing field to his advantage. He remains domestically strong and the tensions with Barack Obama are sustainable at a time when the U.S. president is reeling from a Republican drubbing in Congressional elections. Those Republicans are even less likely than their Democratic counterparts to raise the heat on Israel, so that Obama stands alone. Nor has the president, typically, sought to build up a constituency in favor of his position. Like virtually everything he has touched, Obama’s efforts to isolate Netanyahu have been haphazard, half-hearted and utterly ineffective.

The chaos in the Arab world has also helped Netanyahu. Few Israelis watching what is going on all around them today have any impetus to surrender Arab land, not when their withdrawal from Gaza led to successive wars between Israel and Hamas.

In this regard, the Palestinians botched the Gaza pullout. Since the territory was overrun by Hamas in 2007, it has served as much as a political battleground between Palestinian Islamists and Fatah as between Hamas and Israel. On many occasions it was Hamas that provoked a war with the Israelis in order to undermine Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, or to satisfy the regional designs of Iran and Syria.

But under Netanyahu, Hamas and Israel have also had a parallel interest in discrediting a two-state solution in which their leaders do not believe. Netanyahu, though he has had a Palestinian partner willing to adhere to the conditions of a two-state solution, has never missed an occasion to humiliate Abbas and make his position among Palestinians untenable. Netanyahu has continued to say that he believes in peace, but the reality is that his policies and conditions have made peace virtually impossible.

Less and less is the international community willing to go along with this charade. But more important, Israelis themselves have to face the fact that without a mutually acceptable solution to the Palestinian problem, they can only expect years of instability ahead, and almost certainly greater radicalization on both sides. Abbas’ expiration date is rapidly nearing and you can be sure that whoever comes afterward will be far less amenable to reaching a negotiated solution with Israel. Nor can Israeli Jews assume that all will remain well and unchanged with their Arab Israeli countrymen, particularly at a time when the government is demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Israel is facing a dilemma of significant proportions, and its skill at batting away any and all protests against its policies only makes matters worse. It simply offers no realistic endgame with the Palestinians, and everyone knows this. Until most Israelis agree, they can be sure that their future holds only more violence.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hariri tribunal needs to recapture lost momentum

Last week, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is trying suspects for the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, allowed prosecutors to present evidence on the deteriorating relationship between Mr Hariri and the Syrian regime in 2004-2005.

Defence lawyers described the decision as a major expansion in the Hariri trial. That’s not surprising. Until now those indicted have been five members of Hizbollah, all accused of participating in the crime at the operational level. The initial indictment prepared by Daniel Bellemare, the Canadian former prosecutor of the special tribunal, made no mention of Syria.

This was damaging to the prosecution, because in his indictment Mr Bellemare offered no motive for the killing. There was an assumption in Lebanon that Syria got rid of Hariri because he intended to challenge them in the parliamentary elections of summer 2005, and would probably have won a majority. The tribunal’s decision now allows the prosecution to reinforce its case by bringing in the Syrian angle.

The United Nations investigation of the Hariri assassination went through several permutations of uneven quality. Initially, the UN named an Irish deputy police commissioner, Peter Fitzgerald, to prepare a preliminary report on what happened. On the basis of his findings it then appointed an independent commission to look into the crime more deeply.

Mr Fitzgerald did not directly accuse Syria, but he came as close as he could to doing so. He wrote that security in Lebanon was in Syria’s hands, and that the murder had taken “considerable finance, military precision in its execution, [and] substantial logistical support”. In other words it resulted from a conspiracy that the Syrian and Lebanese security services could hardly have helped noticing. On top of this, he accused pro-Syrian Lebanese officials of trying to cover up the crime scene.

The ensuing UN independent commission was first headed by Detlev Mehlis, a German judge. Like Mr Fitzgerald, he focused on Syrian involvement and interviewed several Syrian intelligence officials in Vienna. It was Mr Mehlis’s view that Syria was behind the assassination, and when he left his post in December 2005, he sought to take Bashar Al Assad’s witness statement, a decision that provoked Syrian anger.

Mr Mehlis was followed by a Belgian judge, Serge Brammertz, who did little to advance the investigation. This was confirmed to me by two senior Lebanese officials and a former UN investigator. Mr Brammertz’s progress reports prompted Mr Mehlis to later tell me that the investigation “had lost all momentum” since the Belgian had taken over.

Indeed, Mr Brammertz appeared to abandon the path of Syrian involvement. He never took Mr Al Assad’s statement, nor did he arrest anyone. Mr Mehlis had been on the verge of arresting Rustom Ghazaleh, who headed Syria’s intelligence apparatus in Lebanon, before deciding to leave this to his successor.

There were also serious doubts about Mr Brammertz’s handling of telecommunications data showing Hizbollah’s involvement in the assassination. A 2010 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary echoed this, revealing that a report prepared by a Lebanese police investigator used telecommunications analysis to point the finger at Hizbollah. The report was misplaced by UN investigators, then rediscovered. Today it serves as the basis for the indictment of the Hizbollah members.

To many, Mr Brammertz was a careerist who grasped that the UN did not want to rock the boat with the Hariri investigation.

However, Mr Brammertz did one thing useful. In a report he provided a hypothesis for the Hariri killing, writing, “there is a layer of perpetrators between those who initially commissioned the crime and the actual perpetrators on the day of the crime, namely those who enabled the crime to occur.”

Thursday, October 9, 2014

U.S. diffidence in Syria means failure

President Barack Obama’s attitude toward the Syrian conflict is the equivalent of wanting to win the lottery without buying a ticket. Obama has used his aircraft to bombard ISIS in Syria, but the president does not want to do anything yet, or allow his allies to do anything, that may affect military outcomes there.

This attitude has been highlighted in American-Turkish differences over Kobani, or Ain al-Arab. The Turks seek to create safety zones inside Syria, which would include no-fly zones. But the Obama administration fears this would decisively shift the balance of power against the Assad regime and bring about its sudden collapse, which may benefit the jihadists.

The Assad regime is indeed living on borrowed time. It has been taking heavy losses in recent months, which are unsustainable, and it does not have enough manpower to regain and control significant territory. President Bashar Assad’s sole option is to try to survive, another way of saying he cannot win.

In this context, the Turks have been telling the Americans that the anti-ISIS campaign must, above all, lead to Assad’s removal. Obama is resisting pushing in such a direction, even though this contradicts the logic he has used in Iraq. There, he has affirmed that only a more inclusive political system, one that integrates the disgruntled Sunnis, can bring about an ISIS defeat.

Why does he refuse to acknowledge a similar argument for Syria? Unless the ultimate objective is to get rid of Assad and impose a more inclusive political system, none of the rebels, moderate or otherwise, will have much motive to fight ISIS.

This is obvious to the Turks, and everyone else, but the Obama administration still clings to the illusion that one can become half pregnant. Obama’s caution in Syria is perhaps understandable, but now that he has outlined a strategy to deal with ISIS, he cannot afford to hesitate midpassage. And yet all we see is an unwillingness to accept the inevitable.

If Washington’s view is that the only way for the anti-ISIS offensive to work is if there are troops on the ground, it should accept that those with troops may have agendas different than that of the United States. Obama’s priority is ISIS, but in the region the countries are struggling with much more than that, including a massive and potentially volatile refugee population, economic uncertainty, the presence of foreign armed groups in their midst and along their borders, and much more.

To assume that such countries will embrace an effort principally to weaken ISIS while nothing is done to affect the dynamics of the Syrian conflict, which has created all the problems that they are now facing, is the height of self-centered conceit. If Obama ever thought that was possible, he needs to hire foreign policy advisers who will tell him the truth.

Nor is doing nothing a solution. Even people close to the Syrian regime are quietly saying Assad will not last. If America is discouraging Turkey from intervening because it fears the sudden downfall of the regime, that downfall is likely to come anyway. And the U.S. had better prepare for it now to avoid picking up the broken pieces if the jihadists take Damascus.

That is why the outlines of a political solution are necessary. There are those who point out that such a solution comes too late. It may, but the international community cannot afford not to have a political plan to guide a transition in Syria, one that creates a context for its air attacks against ISIS. More important, such a plan would show the United States is serious about resolving the crisis in Syria, which would give it greater leverage to rally “moderate” opposition groups to its side.

The principles of such a political plan are well known. They must involve Assad’s departure; a commitment to protect the Alawite community, perhaps by deploying a joint Arab military force; a fundamental reform of the army and security services; repatriation of Syrian refugees in secure conditions; outside commitment to rebuild the Syrian economy; the elimination of terrorist threats; and agreement on a new political structure for Syria – whether federalism or some other arrangement.

These are all fine principles, each of which poses great challenges. But the West and the Arab world need a road map in Syria. Ideally, they could discuss this with Iran and Russia to try to arrive at a managed transition.

But neither Moscow nor Tehran is willing to give up on Assad just yet, particularly not when the international coalition is pounding ISIS. Yet the Russians, like the Iranians, can also increasingly see that the man they have supported, and in whom they have invested considerable political and financial capital, is losing.

Hence, the need for the West to have a plan it can eventually submit to Iran and Russia for when the balance of power shifts decisively against Assad. At some stage Syria will require a postwar arrangement, and building a consensus around a plan can be very helpful. Recall that in Lebanon ideas for reform first raised in 1976 were revived more than a decade later and made a part of the Taif Accord. Most important, by accepting such an approach, Obama will show that his campaign against ISIS is part of a broader package to normalize the situation in Syria.

The Americans must accept that for three years they neglected Syria and allowed the situation to deteriorate to the point where they have to intervene today. Against this backdrop, having narrow objectives there makes little sense. Syria may be a problem from hell, as some commentators have written, but allowing it to remain in order to focus on ISIS is absurd. ISIS grew because the situation in Syria was so bad. Obama gains nothing by curing the symptom while ignoring the illness.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Flawed as it may be, Lebanon can serve as a model

A cliché about Lebanon is that its strength lies in its weakness. For Lebanese living constantly in an unstable country, such a statement sounds vacuous. However, it also happens to be true.

For a long time, to many people in the Arab world, Lebanon’s weakness was its sectarian political system. Sectarianism guaranteed a divided society, undermined the notion of a unifying statehood, and left the country at the mercy of sectarian politicians. This, the argument went, was archaic, so it seemed natural in 1975 that Lebanon should enter into a civil war.

Indeed, but what critics never looked at was that Lebanon emerged from its war as one country – not two, three or four. That was partly due to the fact that Syria imposed its hegemony during the conflict, preventing a breakup. But there was more to it than that: the country had reflexes to manage its sectarian differences and institutionalise pluralism. Therefore when the state broke down, there were mechanisms to pursue reconciliation.

What we have seen in the Arab world – particularly in Syria and Iraq, two countries with sectarian makeups similar to Lebanon’s – is something different. Under the regimes of Hafez Al Assad, followed by his son Bashar, and Saddam Hussein, sectarianism was buried under a veneer of Baathist Arab nationalism.

So prevalent was the nationalist mythology that few people in either country would venture to discuss sectarianism. Many years ago, I travelled to Damascus to interview people for a report I was writing on Lebanese-Syrian relations. Virtually all my interlocutors were careful to steer away from any discussion of sectarianism in Syria, saying only that this was Lebanon’s curse.

The alleged Arab nationalist systems in Syria and Iraq, however, were dominated by minorities – Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq – whose rule was upheld by vast apparatuses of repression.

The forced removal of the old order in Iraq and Syria, whether by foreign military intervention or domestic revolt, undermined the instruments of repression. Yet there were no formal or informal institutions to fill the vacuum and help regulate sectarian or ethnic relations afterward. That is why the breakdowns in both countries were so sweeping and catastrophic.

Lebanon is far from being out of the woods, as the destructive sectarian impulse sweeps the Middle East. However, in its favour the country does have in place institutions to alleviate its sectarian tensions. This may not be enough to contain rising Sunni-Shia hostility in the country, but it can delay the worst, allowing for solutions to diffuse crises.

Paying a heavy price today are the region’s religious and ethnic minorities. Iraq’s and Syria’s Christian communities are not likely to reconstitute themselves again. Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime is collapsing. Once that happens Alawites, too, will slowly disappear from Syria, especially after the crimes they perpetrated there.

The Shia will hold out, even if they lose ground, but at what cost in terms of death and devastation? In Iraq, relying on Shia solidarity, as the Iranians have advised, will only make matters worse. What is required is a new social contract with the Sunnis to reach a compromise over power-sharing that is respected.

The Lebanese showed foresight in embracing a sectarian-based political system at independence. It was France, the Mandatory power in Lebanon after the First World War, that helped them do so. They built on sectarian institutions and traditions already introduced at the time of Ottoman rule, and that had been pushed partly by the Ottomans and partly by the European powers.

However, sectarian political systems tend to impose elaborate mechanisms that, if disregarded, exacerbate sectarian relations. The reason for this is that interactions between sects tend to rub up against existential sensitivities. When the rules are not acknowledged by one sect, the other sects very quickly feel this may pose a potential threat to their existence.

In Lebanon, Hizbollah has systematically ignored the rules of sectarian compromise in the past decade. The party’s attacks against the Sunni community and Sunni political figures in the years 2005-2008, coupled with its entry into the Syrian civil war on behalf of Mr Al Assad’s regime and Iran, greatly angered Lebanon’s Sunnis, persuading some to take up arms.

Today, Hizbollah must adopt the rules of sectarian compromise quickly, because the strains with the country’s Sunnis have reached disturbing levels. By and large Lebanese Sunnis are moderate, but the reality is that in times of conflict, it is the extremists who gain and eliminate alternative approaches.

Had Lebanon not had institutions in place to reduce tensions – a preference for national-unity governments, a distribution of the top three posts in the state among members of the three main sects, Sunnis, Shia and Maronite Christians, as well as a predilection for taking national decisions based on consensus – it might have been far deeper in civil conflict than it is today.

By the same token, it is difficult to imagine normalisation in Syria and Iraq without the introduction of some kind of system that ingrains sectarian and ethnic compromise in political life. It may not make for the most efficient systems, but it will make for ones where sectarian coexistence can succeed.

Lebanon is hardly an ideal model for the Middle East. But in a region where sectarianism was never neutralised, only hidden away under layers of intimidation, it is a more appropriate model than any other. The country may still succumb to sectarian conflict, but that it hasn’t done so until now is itself worthy of mention.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Exit stage left - Ziad Rahbani plans an improbable exile

The announcement by musician and playwright Ziad al-Rahbani that he intended to “emigrate” to Russia because political horizons in Lebanon had narrowed was rich in contradiction.

Recently, there was some question whether Rahbani suspected that Hezbollah was behind an effort to disrupt a concert he gave in Tyre. In an interview with Al-Jadeed, Rahbani also began criticizing the party’s behavior, saying, “We can no longer defend Hezbollah all the time. Hezbollah takes from us, but gives nothing in return. What we do with [the party] it doesn’t do with us, to the extent that it doesn’t mention my name at all.”

Doubtless, Rahbani’s departure for Russia will not be permanent. It’s difficult to imagine him lasting very long in the endless Arctic nights, or getting much recognition in a country that is drawn to Vladimir Putin’s brand of xenophobia.

Come to think of it, it’s very hard to imagine Rahbani discovering political horizons in Putin’s Russia that are wider than in Lebanon. Even the artist’s attraction to communism is unlikely to mean much in a country that has preserved only a chauvinist form of nationalism from the communist era, grafted onto an oligarchic and corrupt capitalist economic system headed by a man who systematically creates new enemies to remain in power.  

You wonder, then, if the motive is less ideological than cultural, a consequence of how Russia is perceived, perhaps mythically, in the Lebanese Greek Orthodox imagination. Then again, even culturally, can Rahbani long delight in a country governed by a hooligan, blessed by a materialistic and fatuous clergy as influential as the materialistic, fatuous clergy is in Lebanon?

Rahbani’s disenchantment with Hezbollah is hardly surprising. But it took him rather a long time to notice the party’s authoritarian core, its suffocation of any alternative paths in the Shiite community, and its habitual resort to intimidation, or worse, with opponents. Last December Rahbani publicly declared that his mother, the singer Fairuz, admired Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, an announcement that provoked a furor.

But Rahbani is not leaving Lebanon and Hezbollah for more open climes. The behavior of the authorities in Putin’s Russia is not very different than that of Hezbollah. For all his contradictions, Rahbani may soon realize that it is much easier to put on a play in Lebanon that welcomes the arrival of a dictator, as he did with Bikhsous al-Karameh wal Shaab al-Aaneed (With Respect to Dignity and the Stubborn People), than it is to put on a play in Russia that would welcome the arrival of democracy.

Notwithstanding Rahbani’s fine ability to pick apart the idiosyncrasies and pathologies in Lebanese society, Lebanon remains – despite its dysfunctional nature, its self-destructiveness, the incompetence of its leadership, and the deep frustrations it engenders – an outpost of pluralism and liberty in a region where this has almost disappeared.

Rahbani is living proof of this. Before and during the civil war he wrote a series of biting, brilliant plays that have become standards in Lebanon’s cultural consciousness. All were in some ways critical of the country and society, but Rahbani’s humor made them perfectly tolerable and greatly enjoyable. He showed us that the Lebanese could laugh at themselves and that was enough.

Yet once Hezbollah came onto the scene the laughing stopped, except to the extent that when Rahbani declared his backing for Hezbollah, many of us laughed, so improbable was the match. That Rahbani and Fairuz, artists of immense talent and imagination, should beat to the same rhythm as an authoritarian, sectarian, secretive party that gains its life-force from perpetual conflict and a cult of martyrdom remains a genuine oddity.

Rahbani is hardly the first person from the political left to have developed sympathies for Hezbollah. It’s reassuring that he’s finally seen through the impossibility of that marriage. You can only presume that one day the Shiite community, with its own innate pluralism, will go in a similar direction, once the sectarian wars that Hezbollah has been fueling begin to die down and the exhausted Shiites have time to take stock.

All one can say to Ziad al-Rahbani is stick around. Lebanon may not be Nirvana, but at least you have the country’s number, and it can always benefit from your wicked wit. Give us another jazz album, if you have nothing to do. Fight Hezbollah with Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, not with Vladimir Putin. Rest assured, at least we will continue to mention your name.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

An embarrassment with a portfolio

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has been ridiculed in recent days for his embarrassing performance at a meeting he held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates.

A video of the incident has been circulating, so there is not much to add. A smirking Bassil is repeatedly seen calling out to an assistant, asking “Rami, where is Caroline?” He then makes a hand gesture indicating that the woman, Caroline Ziadeh, the deputy permanent representative of Lebanon at the U.N., is attractive. The scene then cuts to Ziadeh, who is seen sitting down and straightening her skirt with an expression suggesting she is not happy.

On Wednesday, Bassil held a press conference to explain the incident. Yet he only dug his hole deeper by saying, “Yes she is an elegant woman, and Iwas in competition with the Emirati foreign minister, each of us praising our country’s women.”

The incident was humiliating for Ziadeh, but above all it was humiliating for Lebanon, which Bassil represents before the world. That the post once held by Charles Malek and Fouad Boutros should now be in such hands is a disgrace. But it is not surprising.

After all, Lebanese officialdom became agitated earlier this year when skier Jackie Chamoun had the misfortune of showing her breasts in the film of a photo-shoot for a calendar. She did not pose nude in the calendar itself, nor was her nudity on film meant to be seen by the public. Yet Chamoun issued a cringing apology and Sports and Youth Minister Faisal Karami asked Lebanon’s Olympic Committee to initiate the “necessary inquiries” into the incident.

I doubt anyone will make the necessary inquiries into Bassil’s performance. Yet that idea would not seem so strange in countries where such issues are taken seriously. The minister is hierarchically Ziadeh’s superior, someone in a position to advance her career or interrupt it. That this individual should be seen commenting on the physical attributes of his envoy, and in front of a ministerial counterpart no less, is remarkable. No one is suggesting Bassil has taken advantage of his position, but in many countries even the potential for that to happen is never dismissed as irrelevant.

But Lebanon is a country where there have been obstacles to passing laws curbing domestic violence, so don’t expect there to be any momentum to tighten legislation to end sexual harassment in the workplace. Again, no one is accusing Bassil of this, but given his actions, clearly he is not someone whose priority is to create a work environment in which proper behavior is respected.

When it comes to relations between the sexes at work, an argument can be made that the West has gone too far. Not every wink and nod needs to signify sexually harassment, and not every salacious story has to be brought up with one’s lawyer. It is frequently better for problems to be resolved within the work environment when possible, with the law available when it becomes impossible.

In Lebanon the margin women have to respond against harassment is much narrower than in the West. Don’t expect the courts to become a vanguard for action in this regard, or Lebanese society to take a strong stand against sexual harassment, especially when it involves an employee accusing a boss. I would wager that in most such cases it is the employee who is dispensable, not the boss, and that it is far easier for a company to resolve a problem by dismissing a subordinate.

In one noted case last April, a woman, Hoda Sankari, secretly filmed the governor of north Lebanon and acting governor of Beirut, Nassif Qaloush, implying that her contract with the governorate had not been renewed because she had not slept with him. The video was shown on primetime news and forced Qaloush to resign in May.

Since then Sankari has said she would file a lawsuit against Qaloush, who no longer enjoys immunity from prosecution as a grade-one civil servant. Yet no disciplinary action was taken against the former governor by the Interior Ministry, despite the evidence. Sankari reminded us there is a swath of top-level civil servants who are legally protected if they ever decide to take advantage of their employees.

With Bassil, it was different. The minister suggested that Ziadeh was worth bringing into the room not because she is a professional diplomat whose presence was required, but because she has a nice body. It was his sheer vulgarity that was striking, the lack of respect for her competence, from a man whose job it is to show Lebanon’s best face. You dare not wonder what the Emirati minister thought.

But what many Lebanese thought was that Bassil had behaved in a nauseating way. Ziadeh has reached a level of qualification in her job that can serve as a model for young Lebanese. But after watching the video, how many of them would want to follow in her footsteps and work for ministers who get away with behaving so boorishly?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Even in admitting failure, Obama is disingenuous

On Sunday, President Barack Obama admitted that the United States had underestimated the rise of ISIL. Agreeing with the director of national intelligence, Mr Obama observed: “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”

For Mr Obama to shift the burden of responsibility onto Mr Clapper was disingenuous. From the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011, numerous people warned that if the breakdown there was allowed to continue unabated, it could spread, creating blowback that could ultimately target the United States.

Indeed, the initial American reluctance to get involved in Syria was due to a fear that this might tip the balance in favour of Islamist groups fighting Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Early on there was an understanding in Washington of the nexus between violence in Syria and the fact that the growing sectarianism in the country might attract foreign jihadists.

Is that surprising? The link was well grasped by Mr Al Assad’s intelligence services, which falsely labelled the opposition “Islamist terrorists”, then tried to create that reality. By crushing peaceful demonstrations, the regime knew it would push the opposition to arm, drawing foreign jihadists and allowing the regime to portray itself as a victim of terrorism.

Mr Obama acknowledged that ISIL had exploited the vacuum in Syria, stating: “Over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swathes of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.”

Blaming America for that void is unfair, but it is not unfair to insist that America should have foreseen the consequences. Mr Obama came to office promising a rules-based international system. That promise collapsed in Syria, which did not mean Mr Obama had a licence to do nothing. Time and again his unwillingness to involve America in another Middle East conflict hit up against the rationale for doing so to uphold a rules-based order.

This was most flagrant in August last year, when Mr Al Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, killing perhaps as many as 1,700 people. Mr Obama prepared to retaliate, though when he was offered a way out by Russia, he took it, allowing Mr Al Assad to get away, literally, with murder. This hardly reinforced international norms of behaviour.

The president’s refusal to act in Syria was bolstered by an isolationist mood in the United States. For instance, earlier this year a Politico poll asked Americans about, among other things, their country’s involvement in Syria. Only 15 per cent supported more involvement; 42 per cent sought less involvement; and 26 per cent supported the current level of involvement.

These attitudes changed radically when two Americans were decapitated by ISIL. But conducting foreign policy by opinion polls is never a good idea. The public, unlike an administration, rarely has all the information needed for making sound judgements.

When ISIL last year was seizing larger expanses of territory in eastern Syria and seeking to cut off the Syrian opposition’s access to Turkey, the administration was in a good position to assess where this was going. After all, it involved the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which America had fought years earlier.

The reality is that Mr Obama’s Syria policy has been irresponsible and hypocritical, but in no way has it been based on a misunderstanding of the Syrian situation. His administration stood aside and did as little as possible to stop a great crime of the decade, couching its position in high principles that Mr Obama had no intention of implementing.

The president’s reference to his administration’s “underestimation” of the ISIL threat was embarrassing. What Mr Obama should have said is that he was responsible for a massive failure in policy. Senior administration officials – including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, defence secretary Leon Panetta, CIA director David Petraeus and joint chiefs of staff chairman General Martin Dempsey – had advocated arming the less-dangerous rebels, but Mr Obama rejected their views.

Now the president intends to arm the rebels. It may be too late either to defeat Mr Al Assad or prevail against ISIL. Mr Obama had hoped to kick that can into early next year, but ISIL’s murder of two Americans forced him to act now. As some have observed, this, not the death of nearly 200,000 Syrians, turned the tide. No wonder the Syrian opposition mistrusts America.

Mr Obama might respond that the US is being unfairly blamed when the rest of the world, too, did nothing about Syria. True, but only America anchors the international system and claims to uphold the values that have been systematically undermined in Syria for more than three years.

Mr Obama would agree. As he told an interviewer with the CBS network this week: “America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don’t call Beijing. They don’t call Moscow. They call us. That’s the deal.”

It’s good that the president has finally acted, even if the outcome is unclear. Had he done so sooner ISIL might not have become so strong. Some will welcome Mr Obama’s honesty about Syria, but it is tinged with more than a little dishonesty.