Sunday, December 30, 2007

A neocon Bush Middle East policy? Look again

A neocon Bush Middle East policy? Look again
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Saturday, December 29, 2007

Maybe 2008 will be the year when we are finally rid of that vacuous belief that "the neocons" are in control of the Bush administration's foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Habits are hard to break, particularly lazy ones, but if anyone bothered to look more closely, they would see that the United States has not really engaged in what we might call a neoconservative approach to the region since at least 2004, when the situation in Iraq took a sudden turn for the worse.

What are, or were, the highlights of a neocon approach to the Middle East and the world before 2003, when American forces invaded Iraq? Looking back at that most prominent post-9/11 neocon statement of purpose, the administration's National Security Strategy released in September 2002 (an assemblage of contradiction in which neocon ideas were recorded alongside classical liberal internationalist ones), they were roughly the following: a desire to maintain American paramountcy at the expense of the more traditional concept of a balance of power; greater reliance on the use of force and unilateralism in America's defense, through pre-emptive measures if necessary; and a more activist bent in spreading democracy, freedom and free markets throughout the world.

But the truth is that soon after the takeover of Iraq, the administration gradually began acting in the Middle East pretty much like its predecessors. It was compelled to rely on the multilateral institutions it had spurned in the run-up to the Iraq war, implicitly accepting that US military might was not enough to resolve all problems. As for its commitment to an agenda of democracy and freedom, while officially this was at the heart of American concerns after Bush's second inaugural address, in reality by then it was already in decline as a policy guide.

For example, in May 2003, the US was compelled to seek an international resolution to govern its military presence in Iraq. While the Security Council, in Resolution 1483, recognized the Coalition forces as a ruling authority, it labeled them an "occupying authority," with both the legal obligations under that status, and the stigma. The resolution was a compromise: the UN pragmatically acknowledged that it had to work with the US in Iraq, and used this to try shaping political outcomes in its favor; the Bush administration realized that it needed international cover, even if in September 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan again reminded Washington that its invasion had been "illegal."

Only days after the Security Council authorized the creation of a United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq on August 14, 2003, a bomb attack targeted UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing the organization's representative there, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and almost 20 other people. The US was then still trying to rule over Iraq on its own, with Paul Bremer as high commissioner. Yet it was immediately clear to the Bush administration that the attack had harmed American efforts to normalize the situation on the ground in Iraq. The subsequent dramatic drawdown of UN personnel denied the US a valuable partner in distributing much-needed aid to an impoverished Iraqi population, as well as an often useful mediator with Iraqi leaders who refused to meet with American officials.

By 2004, the US was resorting to the UN in other Middle Eastern crises as well. For example, the Security Council was the preferred route for US efforts in 2004 to push for a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon. Far from going it alone, the Bush administration, in collaboration with France, its bitterest foe over Iraq, sponsored Security Council Resolution 1559 to that end. The US didn't try to impose the resolution by force, even though American troops were on the Syrian border and had every reason to attack Syria because of the way it was infiltrating fighters and Al-Qaeda suicide bombers into Iraq. In fact, under even a loose interpretation of the National Security Strategy, the administration would have been justified in pre-emptively striking against the regime in Damascus for what it was doing to its eastern neighbor. But the US held back.

Whenever Lebanon circa 2005 is mentioned, images of a "popular revolution" come to mind. The mass demonstrations against Syria after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, were a powerful democratic moment for the country, and for the Arab world as a whole. The term "Cedar Revolution" was even coined by an American official looking for a serviceable tagline to compare what was happening in Beirut to democratic uprisings elsewhere in the world.

But the reality is that the Bush administration only latched onto the democracy imagery after the anti-Syrian rallies had started, then used these to bolster the argument that, together with the parliamentary elections in Iraq earlier that year, a democratic wave was sweeping Arab societies. Between the moment in September 2004 when the US backed the UN resolution demanding a Syrian pullout from Lebanon and the moment of Hariri's assassination in February 2005, Washington had no clue how to implement the resolution. Lebanon was not an American priority, Iraq was. The administration didn't even realize that Lebanese democracy was something

it could seize upon until the Lebanese took advantage of the American democratization mood (and military presence in Iraq) to buttress their own demands for a Syrian withdrawal.

In other words, for all the talk of a neocon cabal advancing Middle Eastern democracy, the administration was mostly unaware of the democratic potential in Lebanon until the Lebanese went into the streets. Only then did the US provide the vital push, with others, to force the Syrians out. The moral of the tale: that you didn't necessarily have to believe the American democracy message to profit from it, was one that Arab liberals elsewhere ignored. Most amusing, American indecision in the period before Hariri's murder resulted from Washington's adhering to the consensual internationalism it had dismissed before the Iraq war.

One can go on. Since 2006, the Bush administration has all but abandoned its democracy agenda to rally despotic Arab regimes against Iran. Containment is the new catchword and, no surprise, it is pretty much what the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations spent two decades applying to post-revolution Iran. The US has also returned to an old "realist" template in selling sophisticated new weaponry to the Arab Gulf monarchies to partly balance Tehran's power. Neocon aversion to Saudi Arabia, a focal point of post-9/11 disputation (even if it was never as significant as some imagined), has evaporated.

Similarly, the Bush administration now finds itself back in the oldest gig in town: the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. That a settlement is necessary goes without saying, but how unexpected that the most bureaucratically cautious operator in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, should have tied her fate to resolving what many regard today as an irresolvable conflict. In so doing, Rice has applied a lesson taught by her realist predecessors: that the key to normalcy in the Middle East is peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That may be true or not, but it was always rubbish to the neocons.

So maybe it's time to stop referring to the neocon policies of the Bush administration. The neocons are gone, many for so long that no one seems to remember their leaving. What we now have in Washington is a mishmash of old political realism and improvisation, topped with increasingly empty oratory on freedom and democracy. That should please quite a few of Bush's domestic critics. He's returned to the futile routine in the Middle East that they always urged him to.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Syria's impatience is leading to mistakes

Syria's impatience is leading to mistakes
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, December 27, 2007

A demoralizing aspect of much international political behavior, commentary, or policy counsel on Syria in the past two years has been the extent to which it has fed off amnesia. Almost nobody, it seems, recalls that the Syrian-Lebanese crisis took a nasty turn following a botched murder attempt in 2004 against Marwan Hamadeh, and reached a point of no return after the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The killings have continued, Syria's efforts to return to Lebanon have escalated, and yet fewer and fewer countries hold this against the Syrian regime anymore.

International relations are often determined by a short attention span that can morph into self-interested indifference; and by self-delusion. With the world's attention elsewhere on most days, Syria has slowly clawed its way back into Lebanon; and it has profited from the illusion that it is striving to be different, that it really wants to change its behavior on Lebanese sovereignty and toward Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah - when that behavior has been successful, so that Syria has no reason to change anything.

The Syrian regime's policies are an endless return to templates created by the late Hafez Assad. What are these? Absolute control over Lebanon, preferably military control, to give Syria regional relevance and leverage in war and peace over Israel; a taste for counterpoint in regional crises, whereby Syria will play both sides in order to place itself at the center of any resolution; a strategy of exporting conflict to ward away domestic threats to the Syrian regime; a desire to impose Syria as an obligatory regional partner of the United States; and a willingness to use violence.

Bashar Assad has been less adept than his father in balancing all these. The Syrian regime's too-frequent resort to violence since 2003, in Lebanon and elsewhere, has alienated Washington while convincing Syria's Lebanese foes that no reconciliation with Damascus is possible. Assad's alliance with Iran has damaged relations with the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. And Syria's export of violence remains an obstacle to any serious negotiations with Israel, and has badly backfired in Iraq, where the Sunnis have turned against Al-Qaeda.

While Syria continues to make strides in Lebanon, its clumsiness has created openings for those who want to prevent a Syrian return.

As a starter, Assad has played the French card all wrong. It may take more time for the Sarkozy administration to finally break free of its fondness for masochism and realize that Syria is uninterested in resolving the Lebanese presidential crisis in exchange for improved relations with Paris. The French have displayed astonishing amateurism in their dealings with Damascus in the past two months, reflecting a more general breakdown of their policy-making process. President Nicolas Sarkozy has put his most senior adviser, Claude Gueant, on the Syria case, though Gueant knows little about Syrian affairs. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has failed repeatedly to make any headway with the Assad regime on Lebanon, and finds himself isolated both from his president and from his own Foreign Ministry bureaucracy. Even Kouchner's main Middle East hand, Jean-Claude Cousseran, is not a Kouchner man, and retains ties to the French foreign intelligence service that he once headed.

This cacophony of voices, much like Sarkozy's reluctance to admit that his Syrian policy is dysfunctional, has delayed a full rapprochement with the Bush administration on Syria. However, unless Damascus gives the French something meatier on Lebanon in the coming months, the US and France will move decisively closer, particularly if Syria remains estranged from Saudi Arabia. Syrian hardball could revive the 2004 partnership that led to passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 (which the French effectively undercut during their recent talks with Syria). If so, Assad might come to regret his gratuitous humiliation of France.

A second mistake is that the Syrians have burned virtually all their Lebanese allies. Hizbullah is strong militarily, but outside the Shiite community its national appeal is at subterranean levels. The party is perceived by most Sunnis, Druze and Christians as a fifth column working on behalf of Iran and Syria. This has severed the broader connections with Lebanese society that Hizbullah worked for years to set up. Similarly, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is no longer viewed by the majority as credible. He has closed Parliament down on spurious grounds and made promises to Saad Hariri on the presidency that he was later forced by Syria to revoke. Berri is a mailbox for Hizbullah, but worse for the speaker, he probably can only survive politically by remaining so.

Syria's other allies, such as Omar Karami, Suleiman Franjieh, Wiam Wahhab, Abdel-Rahim Mrad, Elie Firzli, and Nasser Qandil, are much more a substantiation of Syrian shortcomings in Lebanon than of Syrian strengths. Proof of this is that Damascus wasn't able to establish a second government using them that would have been taken seriously by the outside world. As for Michel Aoun, Syrian Vice President Farouk Sharaa recently referred to him as a Syrian ally; but even if he isn't one, the general is so polarizing a figure in the context of Syria's counterattack against the 2005 Cedar Revolution that he remains unelectable.

A third mistake is that Syria has utterly failed in its Sunni policy. The Sunni community is the major obstacle to any Syrian return. It is extraordinary that Aoun and an embarrassing number of his followers should be so hostile to Sunnis today, when they spent years accusing the community of not being Lebanese enough. The Aounists won't accept that it was Syrian fear of Rafik Hariri's (therefore the Sunnis') anticipated gains in the 2005 elections that precipitated the former prime minister's assassination; it was mainly Sunni revulsion, locally and regionally, with Hariri's elimination that pushed the Syrians out of Lebanon; it was Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's diplomacy that ensured the deployment of the Lebanese Army to South Lebanon after the Israeli onslaught of 2006 - a step that earned him the loathing of Hizbullah; and it is the Sunnis whom the Syrians now need to silence by any means possible, particularly through pressure on Saudi Arabia, before they can contemplate a return to Beirut.

A fourth mistake is that Syria overplayed its hand by trying to block the Hariri tribunal inside Lebanon. That the former UN investigator, Serge Brammertz, named no names in his various reports on Hariri's assassination is worrisome. Without any names, the legal process could conceivably end up in limbo, even if the tribunal is set up. However, even if we assume the worst about Brammertz's intentions, which may be unfair, Syrian intransigence was instrumental in bringing about the tribunal's establishment under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Manipulation of the tribunal process is now more difficult for Damascus. The Syrians would like to see the tribunal go away, but are probably unable to accept even a deal that would incriminate lower-level officials in a way that could convincingly exonerate their regime. Regardless of whether there is reluctance at the UN to go after the Syrian leadership - and there is - the fact that the tribunal is now mainly in international hands could create momentum that Syria won't be able to control.

The Syrians will likely make their grand final push in Lebanon in 2008. If the Lebanese remain as divided as they are today, the Syrians might succeed. However, Syria's impatience is also, in large part, a recognition of its limitations. Lebanon is trying to break free and Damascus isn't used to that. Consequently, it will make more mistakes, and those Lebanese truly interested in an independent Lebanon should exploit these mistakes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Lebanon's pact: prelude to a postmortem

Lebanon's pact: prelude to a postmortem
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What is left of Lebanon's confessional democratic system as the country pursues its cold civil war? At no time in the recent past, even during the conflict years, has the system been so threatened, its foundations so fragile. With the Syrians knocking again at the door, there is a real danger that Lebanon as we know it could disappear, with nothing to replace it.

Lebanon's problems transcend constitutional issues, even if these are central to the country's current problems. In the past year, it is the opposition that has mostly emptied the Constitution of its meaning. The assumption that the Siniora government is unconstitutional because Shiite ministers have resigned from it - although the Constitution says no such thing - has been shorthand for imagining Lebanon as a confederation of sects. That's not how the political order was set up. No system could escape permanent stalemate if it were built on the principle that decisions had to derive from sectarian unanimity.

Michel Aoun applied the same logic when presenting his outlandish scheme to get a president elected several weeks ago. Aoun offered to appoint the president himself, while Saad Hariri was to appoint the prime minister. The idea was that the strongest Christian had the right to bring in the president, while the strongest Sunni could do the same to the prime minister. But such a vision would only transform Lebanon into a loose amalgam of sects somehow stuck in the same place, but never collaborating in a common enterprise. Aoun's abandonment of an election altogether, his view that sectarian leaders should simply name officeholders, revealed how easy it would be for a confederation of sects to descend into sectarian autocracy. Yet the only guarantee of Lebanese democracy, or what remains of it, is the reality of shared participation by all in the state, even if the state remains weak.

The parliamentary majority is hardly innocent either when it comes to chipping away at the foundations of Lebanese sectarian democracy. The abuse done to the Constitution to turn the army commander, Michel Suleiman, into a president will have disastrous repercussions, regardless of Suleiman's merits or demerits. From now on every army commander will consider himself a president in waiting, and will cite the higher interests of the state (just as March 14 has) to lobby for the post. Lebanon, once a country markedly different in the Arab neighborhood thanks to its preference for disposable, usually civilian presidents, now seems incapable of circumventing officers. Surely, the Maronites have better to offer. And if they don't, then this is a damning indictment of their present contribution to Lebanese democracy, which alone has ensured the community's survival.

Social contracts, whatever their value, are useful as formal stepping stones to something better (or worse). The 1943 National Pact, though challenged by politicians from all sides, survived long enough to hand off to the Taif Accord. The problem today, however, is that many in the Shiite community as well as not a few Christians, particularly Aoun's followers, have no liking for Taif. Unhappy Christians see the accord as the source of their marginalization, while unhappy Shiites see it as an obstacle to their greater representation. Both groups are entitled to question Taif's tenets within the framework of a constitutional reform process. But much more disturbingly, they have tended to question the validity of the accord altogether, allowing no possible springboard toward a Taif-II.

On top of that, and in defiance of the principles of sectarian equilibrium, the Shiite community is armed to the teeth - a situation blocking all talk of political reform. Hizbullah will argue that its weapons have never been turned against other Lebanese. This is both historically false and irrelevant. In a society governed by minority paranoia, everything is about perceptions. A gun in the closet is still a gun, and no one will discuss handing the Shiite community more power while the community is so strong militarily.

This creates a paradox: Hizbullah's weapons are the major obstacle to better integration of Shiites into post-Taif Lebanon. And the party has systematically exacerbated and exploited feelings of Shiite alienation to build up a communal wall in defense of its weapons.

Christians are in a more debilitating dilemma. They are so convinced of their terminal decline that they are actually accelerating the process. Most of what the Christians have done to fight irrelevance in the past two years, since the Syrian withdrawal, has been ruinous to their fortunes. In 2005, following the deplorable quadripartite electoral agreement between Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri, Hizbullah, and Amal, they put their faith in Aoun, even though the general, along with Samir Geagea, was responsible for the vicious inter-Christian war of 1990 that devastated the community. Christians, particularly Maronites, have also believed that their salvation would come from a new president. Yet the infighting over the presidency has been so divisive that Syria has taken advantage of this to gradually re-impose its hegemony over Lebanon.

For Christians to survive as a community, they must accept that the only way to do so is through reform of the confessional arrangement within the framework of Taif. This means abolishing sectarian quotas in Parliament before this becomes a demand Christians cannot deflect. The community can be compensated through establishment of a Senate on a 50-50 Christian-Muslim basis to deal, as Article 22 of the Constitution specifies, with "major national issues." The presidency, rather than being a safeguard of Christian advantages, now embodies Christian failings. Replace it with a rotating system in which the communities can serve in different senior posts in the state, so that a sense of common purpose is created.

Unless Christians grasp the necessity of deconfessionalizing Parliament, they may find themselves facing a new reality where the Sunni, Shiite and Christian communities are each represented by a third of parliamentary seats. The disadvantages are obvious: Christians would be the ones surrendering the most power; but more significantly national solidarity would be lost. A great deal would be decided on the basis of a two-thirds majority - in other words, by those two communities able to impose their will on the third. The result would be the perpetual estrangement of the loser. What kind of system can long last that is based on resentment?

Resentment is Lebanon's life force these days. The country is in need of overhauling its political relationships, and yet domestic hatreds and Syria's efforts to return with its army make this impossible. Without a new national pact, no pact at all is likely. And that only makes Lebanon unlikely.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A rivalry transcending a nuclear Iran

It's not often that one has the stomach to call on political realists - all too frequently purveyors of foreign policy stalemate and pals of despots worldwide. However, realism was called for last week when American intelligence agencies released a National Intelligence Estimate claiming that Iran had halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Even halfhearted assessments of the national interest would have produced more insightful responses to the NIE than the ones that we got.

With everyone focusing on the nuclear issue, few noticed that regardless of whether Iran produces atomic weapons or not, its acrimonious rivalry with the United States in the Middle East is bound to escalate. Given that the US went to war in 1991 to prevent Iraq from imposing its hegemony in the Gulf area, does it make sense to assume that Washington would readily allow a threatening Iran to do what the Iraqis failed to?

There were two types of reactions to the NIE, both inadequate for dealing with the real stakes in American-Iranian hostility throughout the Middle East. The first focused on the fact that President George W. Bush as well as Vice President Dick Cheney had in recent months amplified their war rhetoric against Iran, even though Bush was told last August by the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, that Iran's nuclear program "may be suspended." This seemed to contradict an earlier statement by the president that McConnell had told him no such thing.

The second reaction was rather different. With the nuclear threat allegedly on hold, politicians and commentators suddenly began advising the administration to engage Iran in some sort of discussion. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called on Bush to do what President Ronald Reagan had done with the Soviet Union and push for "a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran." Republican Senator Chuck Hagel asked the administration to show the same flexibility toward Iran that it had shown toward North Korea. Rand Beers, who served as national security adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign, observed: "Simply put, we have an imminent need for a real dialogue with Iran, not a military confrontation."

It was certainly unsettling that Bush and Cheney were talking about a war with Iran when they knew, or should have known, that their stated justification for war was no longer valid. However, the rush toward advocating dialogue and flexibility was equally incomprehensible.

A dialogue over what? No one seemed particularly clear on that point. Suddenly, it seemed, the problem was not power politics and the thrusts and parries of the US-Iranian quarrel, but the Bush administration's stubborn refusal to be conciliatory. During the 1980s, in the midst of the debate over nuclear missiles in Europe, French President Francois Mitterrand famously declared: "The pacifists are in the West but the missiles are in the East." Of course there were missiles in the West then, just as there are those in Washington now who still favor war against Iran; but it's also undeniable that those wanting to open up to Iran are mostly on the American side, while Iran's leaders continue to relentlessly pursue strategic advantage in their own neighborhood.

The Iranians are playing three-dimensional chess in the Middle East, while the US is playing with its hankie. American policy in the region suffers from a lack of ideas. The administration's disorientation after the release of the NIE showed that in the absence of a war option (and an unpersuasive war option at that), the US remains unsure what to do about Iran. But the Democrats are equally at sea. Even an administration critic, Flynt Leverett, had to admit recently that "regrettably, opposition Democrats are not defining a genuine alternative. Beyond criticism of President Bush's 'saber rattling,' Democratic presidential candidates offer, for the most part, only vacuous rhetoric about 'engaging' Iran."

For example, what is the US doing about Iran's alliance with Syria, and their joint patronage of Hamas and Hizbullah? Hamas is dead set on wrecking American efforts to bring about a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and several months ago the movement mounted a successful coup against the Fatah movement in Gaza. The Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, lives in Damascus, is a frequent visitor to Tehran, and although Syria will send sporadic signals that it is displeased with the Islamist group, this is chaff designed to keep alive the illusion that Syria and Iran are on different wavelengths. Nothing will divide Syria from Iran when the relationship brings so many foreign supplicants to Damascus with offers of concessions to President Bashar Assad, if only he would consider abandoning Iran. Assad takes the concessions, offers none of his own, and yet the visitors still keep coming.

Iran and Syria are, similarly, putting on a "good cop, bad cop" routine in Lebanon. Damascus is steadily re-imposing its hegemony over its smaller neighbor, neutralizing or assassinating those who oppose a Syrian return. Iran is backing Syria up because Hizbullah will benefit. The Shiite group knows that the stabilization of Lebanon under a sovereign government would force it to surrender its weapons; and without weapons Hizbullah would cease to be Hizbullah. Iran needs the party and its arms to sustain its influence in the Levant, as well as to preserve a deterrence capability at Israel's doorstep. Damascus, in turn, needs Hizbullah to intimidate Syria's Lebanese foes. The Iranians are proving almost as instrumental as the Syrians in reversing the gains of the 2005 Cedar Revolution.

The US, meanwhile, continues to back Lebanon's anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. However, it is increasingly doing so from a distance. The Bush administration has spent much less money than Iran in Lebanon, and has not pressed its wealthier Arab allies to make up for the deficit. In fact it has been remarkably silent as one such ally, Qatar, has played an essential role in bolstering the Assad regime and Hizbullah. Worse, in the run-up to the ongoing crisis over choosing a new Lebanese president, Bush endorsed what would prove to be a disastrous French diplomatic initiative to facilitate an election. The initiative, in practical terms, invited the Syrians back into Lebanese presidential politics, undermining Washington's and Paris' declared aim of defending Lebanese sovereignty.

The Bush administration has also been catatonic in Congress. For example it has done nothing to press for passage of the Syria Accountability and Liberation Act, legislation that would substantially strengthen and widen US sanctions against Syria. The law is blocked in the House Foreign Affairs Committee because of disagreement over wording between the ranking Democrat and Republican members. The reasons for this are mainly domestic and electoral. Yet thanks to parochial politicking, the US government has been denied a valuable stick with which to defend its interests in the Middle East.

So, how does a dialogue look now? Iran would gladly draw the US into a lengthy discussion of everything and nothing, and use this empty gabfest as a smokescreen to advance its agenda. But diplomacy is not an end in itself; to be meaningful it has to achieve specific aims and be based on confidence that both sides seek a mutually advantageous deal. Nothing suggests the Iranians have reached that stage yet.

That's because Iran believes it is winning in the region. The US seems unable to deploy the same array of foreign policy instruments as the Iranians, even if it is vastly more powerful; America's principal Arab allies are anemic, their mostly geriatric regimes illegitimate; and America's attention span abroad often seems so limited that an adversary's favored tactic is to just wait until its officials lose interest and head for the lecture circuit. The Iranians are right: they are winning; at least for the time being.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Syria prepares its grand comeback

To better understand the assassination of General Francois Hajj on Wednesday morning in Baabda, one has to view it against the backdrop of the statement by Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa a day earlier. At a conference of Syria's National Progressive Front, Sharaa declared that "Syria's friends in Lebanon represent a true force on the ground, and no one in Lebanon is able to harm Syria and Lebanon."

One of the things most disturbing to the Syrians about the decision of the March 14 coalition to support army commander Michel Suleiman was that this was apparently preceded by commitments on both sides. One such commitment appeared to have been agreement on a new army commander, or a list of potential army commanders. Hajj, despite the opposition's effort to paint his killing as a blow against Michel Aoun, was actually Suleiman's man and was reportedly one of those on the list.

The message, therefore, was that for Suleiman to become president, he has to, first, renounce all previous commitments reached with March 14 and enter into new arrangements with the "true force on the ground."

The Syrians are accelerating their return to Lebanon, and the disastrous French initiative on the presidency only confirmed to them that the international community would readily engage Syria on Lebanon. As for the United States, it has been comatose - caught between the constraints of the Annapolis process (if a process it is) and the need to reduce pressure on Iran after the release last week of a National Intelligence Estimate affirming that Tehran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The French and the Americans have been neutralized in Lebanon, and while this can be reversed, Sharaa's remarks showed the extent of Syrian confidence.

Things are more complicated with regard to the Arab states. Saudi-Syrian hostility continues unabated, and a paramount Syrian objective in imposing a Lebanese presidential vacuum is to gain leverage for Syria's triumphal re-entry into the Arab fold. The intended date is next March, when the Arab League summit is to be held in Damascus. The Assad regime would like the gathering to consecrate its return to regional prominence, and Lebanon is Syria's hostage to bring that about.

For the moment leading Arab states aren't playing ball. At a press conference on Tuesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit shot down reports that a mini-summit was to be held soon between Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Palestinians. He also downplayed prospects for a regional peace summit in Moscow next year, which the Syrians hope will place the Golan Heights issue back on the table.

But will the Arabs stick to their guns? Syria humiliated the Saudis and Egyptians by undermining their separate efforts to sponsor an inter-Palestinian settlement. Damascus is now blocking Suleiman's arrival in Lebanon, although both Egypt and Saudi Arabia approve of the general. Less clear, however, are the calculations of King Abdullah of Jordan. His apparent engagement of the Assad regime suggests he is willing to be more flexible on a Syrian role in Lebanon if this can help calm the Palestinian front, thereby buying Jordan a measure of domestic stability.

Whichever way you cut it, Lebanon is in for many more months of anxiety. However, the imbroglio over the presidency makes you wonder whether the Syrians have a clear-cut presidential strategy. Syria has impeded the election of a bevy of allies, likely friends, or fellow travelers who were acceptable to March 14, including Robert Ghanem, Michel Edde, and Suleiman. Their treatment of Suleiman in particular reveals that they don't quite trust the Lebanese Army, and that they certainly don't want a new army commander who might reverse pervasive Syrian infiltration of the senior officer corps.

Creating a vacuum is not a strategy; it is a tactic designed to bring someone to power on Syria's terms. Damascus wants exclusivity in the next Lebanese president, but without its armed forces in the country to impose this, a new officeholder might prove too independent. That's why we should doubt Sharaa when he says, as he did on Tuesday, that Syria does not intend to return to Lebanon "militarily or in a security capacity." But it's also why, in believing that they cannot dominate the Lebanese without an armed presence, the Syrians might be overreaching. The Syrian move into Lebanon in 1976 required a regional and international consensus, as well as an Israeli green light, and was formalized by the Arab League. That's unlikely to happen again today. In forcing the issue, doesn't the Assad regime risk provoking a powerful local, regional and international backlash that might ultimately scuttle its plans?

Then again, a direr scenario is just as plausible. What remains of the Cedar Revolution is under mortal threat, with March 14 increasingly disoriented and without imagination. The coalition's Christian policy is a shambles, allowing Michel Aoun to continue conning many of his coreligionists into believing that he best represents their interests, even as he perpetuates the presidential vacuum to undermine Suleiman. Amid such chaos, no wonder the Syrians feel they are but a step away from reversing the losses of 2005. And so repulsive are the divisions within Lebanese society that we must seriously worry that the West and the Arab states will soon quietly agree to subcontract Lebanon to Syria again.

That's what the Syrians are hoping. They are convinced that the logic of the gun will prevail. When a substantial proportion of Lebanese society is either actively or objectively working on Syria's behalf, it's difficult to blame them. Yesterday was the second anniversary of Gebran Tueni's assassination. It is dawning upon us, certainly too late, that he and all the other murder victims of the past two years probably went in vain. That's no surprise when so many Lebanese are taking their country in vain.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Destroying Lebanon for a great sinecure

In late 1994, I interviewed Michel Aoun at his borrowed residence at La Haute-Maison just outside Paris. At the end of our conversation I asked the general why he had not organized his supporters in Lebanon, since the Aounist movement at the time was a disoriented amalgam of people whose principle activity was to be harassed by the authorities. Aoun's answer was remarkable: "Why, so that they all end up with the Syrians?"

Aoun eventually did organize his followers, and he did so rather well. However, his response in those early days of exile provided a window into the man's deeper impulses: Though his supporters were being slapped around for championing him, Aoun's main concern was maintaining authority. That was reasonable, but less so was the fact that the general justified this attitude by casting doubt on the loyalty of the Aounists. Given that they are recklessly following him down the road to communal perdition today, perhaps we can suggest that Aoun apologize to all those people whose devotion he doubted while in France.

Yesterday, the Future Movement suddenly declared its intention to support a constitutional amendment to bring in the army commander Michel Suleiman as president. This came after the French reportedly inquired about the general, and the Russians allegedly expressed sympathy for him. Even the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, waffled on Monday when asked about a constitutional amendment to bring the general to power, noting that "all options are being studied."

Aoun will swallow poison before saying yes to Suleiman. It's difficult to believe that Geagea really relishes the idea of bringing to power his warden for nine years. And Walid Jumblatt has already told Suleiman he would not vote in favor of a constitutional amendment, even if he has also indicated he would be willing to accept anybody to avoid a vacuum. But will this be enough to stop the army commander? Hizbullah may be as lost as anyone in gauging what comes next. Having declared its support for Aoun, it knows that shifting its support to Suleiman may mean a divorce with Aoun. Is that one of the main objectives in the Hariri camp's backing for the army commander? Perhaps, but even so, it's difficult to imagine that Hizbullah will oppose Suleiman if Syria backs him.

The Maronite community has split down the middle in the race between its politicians for an office that is fast turning into the sinecure of the Lebanese republic. Whichever way you cut it, the Maronites, and Lebanon's Christians in general, need to overhaul their thinking when it comes to their national political role. Each presidential election, it seems, is further destroying what remains of Christian influence. That's why its time to seriously open a debate within the community on whether Christians actually benefit from the presidency anymore.

Such a debate will be delayed by two things. First, the priority today is, and must be, the consolidation of a Lebanon independent from Syria. Will a President Suleiman, if he is the anointed one, bring this about? Or on the contrary, is he Syria's choice as many people seem to believe? It's a paradox that the Christians, who were always at the forefront of opposition to Syria, are now, through their infighting, the main reason why the Assad regime is finding it so easy to manipulate Lebanese politics for a comeback (even if the 2005 electoral deal between Walid Jumblatt, Hizbullah, Saad Hariri, and Nabih Berri gave the current opposition the oxygen it needed to collect itself and prepare a counterattack). The fact that Suleiman's agenda is so ambiguous, particularly on Syria, is a result of the Christians having lost their bearings on Lebanon's independence.

Second, no discussion over the Christians' future can occur while Hizbullah holds weapons. That's because no national debate on political reform can take place under those conditions. Which community will agree to make concessions when only one community has guns and rockets?

More troubling, however, is the fact that Hizbullah and the Aounists have repeatedly cast doubt on the Taif Accord - when they've paid attention to it at all. For disgruntled Christians to join Hizbullah in an anti-Taif alignment would be a tragedy. Taif is the only legitimate framework for political reform in Lebanon today, and the only protection Christians have if Sunnis and Shiites ever consider a review of communal prerogatives. On the other hand, if Sunnis and Shiites confront each other over such prerogatives, they might find it necessary, in an effort to avert open conflict between themselves, to arrive at an arrangement at the expense of the weaker parties: the Christians and almost certainly the Druze as well.

Since Suleiman is the man of the hour, it might be useful to ask what he thinks of Taif. If he becomes president, the likelihood is that he will draw to him many of the supporters that Michel Aoun had depended upon. Will he reconcile them with Taif? A Suleiman presidency would surely represent Aoun's political elimination. But Aoun's fate is immaterial; the real question is whether Suleiman will help solidify a free Lebanon, one in which the Christian community would be less weighed down by Aoun's sectarian paranoia. Or will Michel Suleiman try to do what Emile Lahoud failed to do and stabilize Lebanon under a new form of Pax Syriana?

Maybe then Michel Aoun would think twice before accusing his followers of wanting to "end up with the Syrians." He tried to play the Syrian game, and may have just lost. For the second time in two decades he drove the Christians into the ground. Now someone else may have the opportunity to save the community, or repeat the same mistake that Aoun did.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Score this round for March 14

Lebanon is looking into the abyss; it is in the throes of a political crisis that everyone has announced might bring on catastrophe. March 14 is on its final feet, wracked by division. If you think all this is true then here’s a less apocalyptic account of what has just happened on the presidency.

March 14 has won this round. Senior leaders of the majority coalition had peddled the idea that a presidential vacuum was what Syria desired the most. As one politician put it to me last week, Syria fooled several gullible French envoys to ensure that no president would be elected, thus leaving a hole at the top that Damascus hoped to exploit to make the security situation more volatile. Indeed, when the official Syrian daily Tishrin last week threatened chaos in Lebanon because of the election, you knew the Assad regime was itching to raise the heat through the instability card.

However, that’s only half the story. The fact that a presidential election did not happen may have been precisely what the majority, or certain leaders in the majority, intended - and justifiably so. They understood that Syria’s priority was not a vacuum, but getting elected a president who would advance its interests. There never was an incentive for March 14 to hand the keys of Baabda over to a weak president, then surrender veto power to the opposition in a new government while Nabih Berri remained speaker of Parliament. The apparent divisions in the anti-Syrian coalition, between a Walid Jumblatt backing Michel Edde, a Saad Hariri backing Robert Ghanem, and a Samir Geagea enthused with neither, were likely not as sharp as they looked. Jumblatt didn’t want Edde. He used him to create a bogus crisis with Hariri (who was perhaps complicit) to help block the reckless French initiative and turn the tables on Syria.

Here is what March 14 has gained. Fouad Siniora remains prime minister of a government without a president to hinder its activities and that the opposition cannot readily remove by force. Why? Because if it were to try doing so, this might lead to a destructive Sunni-Shiite clash that both Hizbullah and the Hariri camp want to avoid. Sunnis and Shiites cannot afford to come to blows over a Christian presidency.

Second, if the opposition were to resort to violence against the Siniora government, not only would this provoke an angry response in the mostly Sunni Arab world, the March 14 majority would be galvanized enough, and would receive the international backing it requires, to elect a president by an absolute majority. As one European diplomat put it: Whichever side fires first in the standoff is bound to be the loser.

March 14 can also rejoice that Emile Lahoud has finally gone, leaving behind a wet firecracker as his last act. Too many people mistakenly interpreted his farewell announcement Friday as a declaration of a state of emergency. It was nothing of the sort. Lahoud’s statement was without effect, and was quickly nullified by the army’s reaction, suggesting that the former president was already calculating that he or his family might pay a price for a reckless decision to leave bedlam behind him. Hizbullah urged him to form a second government, but in the end Lahoud got cold feet, no longer protected by his presidential immunity.

A third gain of March 14 is that, absent a presidential election, a conflict-ridden negotiation over the formation of a new government has been momentarily delayed. None of the majority’s leaders were keen to give up the one branch of government they still control in favor of a protracted dispute over a new government, which would have provoked far more hostility than exists today - at least until they could get a president they consider reliable. There seems to be no middle ground today between Hizbullah and Michel Aoun on the one hand, and the March 14 coalition on the other. A new government would be a pretext for greater discord. That may explain why even the opposition parties, particularly Hizbullah, allowed the Friday deadline to pass without incident: It could be that everybody had an interest in calming the situation before the next phase.

So Lahoud is gone, Siniora is still in, and the opposition has few serious options to alter the stalemate without risking war. Is that so a bad result for the majority coalition? Not if the time gained can be put to good use, because the victory is only tactical. From the March 14 perspective, that time might allow the Hariri tribunal to be set up so that, if the latter gains momentum, it would provide the majority with a context required to gain leverage for the election of a new president closer to its ambitions.

More likely, the majority is banking on the outcome of the Annapolis conference tomorrow. There has been much talk in Beirut that the United States is rewarding Syria by inviting it to the conference. This is too shortsighted a reading. A Syria compelled to make peace is a Syria that must redefine its relationship with Hizbullah. Annapolis may become a trap for Damascus: If there is progress on its track with Israel, Syria might be locked into a process from which one can derive concessions on Lebanon. If, conversely, Syria does nothing to help Annapolis succeed, it will find itself more targeted than ever in the region. Some reports suggest that Jordan’s King Abdullah recently warned President Bashar Assad that the peace conference was his last chance to break out of his isolation.

One thing is certain: The dynamics of the Lebanese presidential election have changed. The status quo is now to the disadvantage of the opposition. Very soon opposition groups will be the ones demanding a presidential election to be rid of Siniora. Once they do so they will be in a position of vulnerability, since March 14 still controls the parliamentary majority and will be inviting the opposition blocs to come down to Parliament for an open vote. At the least, March 14 has greater latitude today to agree to a compromise candidate it feels more comfortable with.

But there is a problem in the argument: The Syrians will not allow such a scenario to be played out if their pre-Annapolis flexibility leads them nowhere. Iranian intentions are also unclear, and quite worrisome. How long can Siniora remain in office before Hizbullah and the Aounists begin raising the heat? Violence, whether assassinations or demonstrations, can intervene to alter the calculations on all sides.

There is also the fact that an indefinite period without a president will rile up the Christians. Whether it is Michel Aoun or Michel Suleiman who takes advantage of this anger is irrelevant: Hariri and Jumblatt have to be careful not to discredit the Christians in their own coalition by leaving the presidency vacant for too long.

Whatever the outcome, March 14 had the last laugh last week, when French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and the other French emissaries offered Syria normalization in exchange for facilitating the Lebanese presidential election. It all came to naught and French diplomacy got burned, so that President Nicolas Sarkozy will now think twice before trusting Assad. The fact is that Syria, until now, has not been able to impose its man as president. Hizbullah’s followers may have to spend another chilly winter in their tents under the gaze of the detested Siniora. Score this round for March 14, then brace for a reaction.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Place the Hariri trial on a fast track

Place the Hariri trial on a fast track
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Those of us who welcomed the naming of Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister of France are wearing a hair shirt in penance. We deserve no better for having believed in a man with a scaffolding of recklessness to prop up a towering ego. Before his latest return to Lebanon - we've lost track of how many - he said this: "I realized that arriving at the last minute would be insufficient and that Lebanon merits more, even if this comes at the expense of my personal rest and my family life."

Super Kouchner to the rescue, and defying France's 35-hour working week on top of it! If only the minister were here to rescue Lebanon from a mess that he and his boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy, have been so instrumental in helping create (bizarrely, with Washington's bland acquiescence). On Monday, Kouchner held back from blaming the Syrians for blocking the French initiative on the presidency, but his government has made two critical mistakes in recent weeks in its dealings with Damascus, which Lebanon will pay dearly for.

The first was to formally bring Syria back into the Lebanese presidential election process, when United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 (which France co-sponsored) was designed to do the exact opposite. France pleaded with Syria to be flexible on the presidency, offering normalized relations in exchange. Syrian President Bashar Assad saw a golden opportunity to jack up his price on the panicking French, and we are where we are today, with Syria not only looking to capitalize on French eagerness, but also working to use that eagerness as leverage to bring in one of their favorites as Lebanese president.

The second mistake remains to be confirmed, but if confirmed it would be very dangerous. According to sources in Paris, when Sarkozy's envoys, Claude Gueant and Jean-David Levitte, met with Syrian officials, including Assad, in Damascus two weeks ago, they reportedly agreed that the Hariri tribunal was one of the issues that could be discussed if Syria fulfilled what was required of it in Lebanon. One version of the story is that the French made no specific commitments on the tribunal, merely affirming that if Syria satisfied certain conditions in Lebanon, including allowing a presidential election and other concessions that were less clear, then the matter of the tribunal would not be off the table. A second version was that the sides were more specific when it came to the tribunal.

The first version may be the more accurate one. By upping the ante on the French initiative, the Syrians have implied that any discussion of the tribunal, and doubtless much else, remained too vague to earn France a Lebanon deal. Nor would Sarkozy risk making commitments on an international tribunal over which he has little real power. However, even if this minimal interpretation of what the French allegedly said is true, it would be alarming, showing Assad that all Syria needs to do is pursue its destabilization of Lebanon to make the international community fold. If the thought of accepting a bargain on the tribunal is taken seriously, even though Syria has conceded nothing on Lebanese sovereignty and independence, then expect a return of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon.

What of the Hariri investigation and tribunal, which will be soon be headed by one Daniel Bellemare? The appointment is welcome but not reassuring. Bellemare has never managed a major international terrorist investigation and you have to wonder whether the UN could not find better than a former Canadian assistant deputy attorney general to handle so highly complex a political crime. That said, Bellemare deserves the benefit of the doubt and might surprise, given that Serge Brammertz passed through the Hariri investigation like a submarine, leaving little behind but an array of dry "technical" reports that, until now, have failed to name names. Why Brammertz agreed this month to become prosecutor of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when he should have prosecuted the case he has spent two years investigating may remain a mystery. However, it does make you wonder what the Belgian is all about.

For some time Brammertz has had his critics, while many journalists - present company included - have defended his discretion. It's time to give belated credit to the critics to ensure that Bellemare, whom Brammertz recommended, won't hesitate to name names soon. Rafik Hariri's elimination involved a wide array of means, both local and international, as Brammertz has argued many times. The investigator has implicitly pointed the finger at Syria on dozens of occasions in his reports, not least in his description of the motives for the assassination. Yet he has never mentioned specific states or individuals. But people somewhere did commit the crime and they need to be arrested. This elusiveness cannot continue without grave damage being done to the UN's credibility.

The international lawyer and presidential candidate Chibli Mallat probably put it best in a column written for this newspaper: "After two years of reports, the Lebanese and Syrian publics, and the world, are entitled to know more. Either the investigator has no evidence of the involvement of the Syrian leadership and its Lebanese allies - in which case [former UN investigator Detlev] Mehlis and the initial UN investigator of the case, Peter Fitzgerald, were wrong, and Brammertz should say so publicly ... or Brammertz thinks the conclusions of his predecessors were correct, and he must say so publicly."

However, even more withering is the assessment of a former official involved in the Hariri investigation. Describing the results of the two Brammertz years as "meager," the official noted that "apparently out of lack of professionalism" the current Hariri investigation team has actually fallen much behind what the previous Mehlis commission found. The official is equally critical of the UN (as well as the Lebanese judicial system and media) for "tolerating" Brammertz for so long and fears that there is a lack of international will to see the Hariri case through, as well as a more general absence of international interest in Lebanon.

So severe a verdict hardly implies that Syria is out of the woods. But it is a needed warning shot. The Brammertz reports, while bureaucratically safe, have all pointed at a single overriding culprit. The Belgian may not have wanted to take risks, but Bellemare will find that unavoidable if he prosecutes the case. Mehlis and Fitzgerald made it clear whom they thought were behind Hariri's murder, and nothing in Brammertz's reports has contradicted their findings. If anything, the information from the UN commission in the past two years has confirmed previous assumptions.

That's why the UN must ensure that Bellemare has what it takes to carry the Hariri trial to a satisfactory conclusion. The tribunal's legal framework is such that it can begin operating while the investigation continues, in the event the latter is still not over. There is no need to wait for the investigation to end before handing down formal accusations. No one will stop the tribunal, but it can be delayed and has been; its effectiveness can be watered down and has been; its judges and staff can be swayed or threatened. Hopefully, when it's all over, the international community will not have spent hundreds of millions of dollars just to get something like the Lockerbie deal that exonerated Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

However, it's difficult to relax when a central player in the final chapter of that international whitewash was Nicolas Sarkozy. Even though Syria has been trashing France's Lebanon plan, Sarkozy called Assad on Tuesday and is still sending his men to Damascus to chat up the Syrian president. Assad is fast learning just how boneless his Western counterparts can be when negotiating with Arab dictators.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Recalling what 'realism' did to Iraq

For a long time and until 2003, the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya was a critical filter through which supporters of war in Iraq channeled their most potent arguments in favor of an invasion. Makiya's obsessive plea for the removal of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship on moral grounds, his credibility gained from publishing books on the foulest effects of the tyranny in Iraq, earned him considerable influence in American political and intellectual circles - if also malicious animosity from those opposed to the Bush administration's ambitions in the Middle East.

Now, the situation has been mostly reversed. Makiya is struggling to determine if he was initially right in backing an American war to overthrow the Baath regime, and his torment is being plundered by those making the case that war was a bad idea. In The New York Times Magazine two Sundays ago, Dexter Filkins wrote a profile of Makiya in a similar vein. One particular exchange caught by Filkins has Makiya capitulating even to his most depraved critics.

"People say to me, 'Kanan, this is ridiculous, democracy in Iraq, a complete pipe dream,'" Makiya said when I visited him one day. "That's realism."

He got up from his chair and walked to a window.

"You know, in a way, the realists are right, they are always right. Even when they are morally wrong."

Makiya was already expressing growing doubts early last year. For example, in April 2006 I interviewed him for Reason, and he admitted he had been wrong in a number of his assessments of Iraq. However, Makiya still expected that "in the long run history will judge this to have been a morally just war, one that will in time produce a better Iraq than the one ruled over by the Baath Party." He added that in the prewar period, "[t]o just leave the situation to fester, as the Arab world and Europe seemed to want to do, was in my opinion more immoral than regime change, however badly this was handled by the United States government and the new class of Iraqi politicians who today rule over Iraq."

Yet Makiya's conclusion that the realists were always right, while it afforded them no moral legitimacy, intentionally or not appeared to represent a step backward from opinions he had previously defended. The reason is that when it came to pre-2003 Iraq, the realists were not only morally wrong, they were politically wrong as well. It was the realists who in the late 1980s imagined that Saddam could be a force for stability in the Middle East - someone who might even consider entering into some negotiating process with Israel. It was the realists who looked the other way in 1988 when Saddam unleashed the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, which played so essential a role in convincing him that the West would tolerate his worst abuses. And it was the realists who were caught with their pants down before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, imagining that Saddam was only bluffing in his quarrel with the Kuwaitis.

Similarly, it was the realists during the Clinton years who, as Makiya observed, allowed the situation in Iraq to fester, so that the Iraqi population suffered terrible hardship under United Nations sanctions. Saddam further tightened his hold over his people during that time, while growing fat thanks to the corruptions of the oil-for-food program.

There is much to admire in forensic self-doubt, but in giving his ideological adversaries credit they don't deserve, Makiya is overdoing things. On the realists' watch, Iraq was no less the monumental catastrophe that it is today; it fact it was a catastrophe that largely made possible the catastrophe of today. The difference then was that Iraqis were bludgeoned into silence - stability being shorthand for mass intimidation.

In moments of self-doubt, Makiya should reread the second half of his brilliant "Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World," a withering denunciation of Arab intellectuals who, by action or omission, somehow sustained the Baathist regime and gave it legitimacy. As Makiya wrote: "I am aware of no community of Arab intellectuals, however small, that could make a meaningful political distinction between the interests of the suffering people of Iraq, who had just lost a whole generation in eight years of grueling warfare with Iran, and the tyrant, who was sacrificing them on the altar of yet another adventure."

In endorsing that artificial unity between leader and society, many Arab writers and commentators not only reinforced the intellectual scaffolding of the totalitarian Iraqi system, they also echoed an essentially realist approach to foreign policy that judges other societies from the vantage point of power relations - therefore views them mainly through the prism of the interests of their political elites and regimes. Makiya would do well to remember how that implicit alliance - between a class of complicit publicists and of ethically indifferent policymakers - has been instrumental in extending the lives of numerous dictatorships.

However, Makiya reflects only one side of the story. The intellectuals and commentators on the other side, for whom Iraq was always going to be a letdown, can take pleasure in seeing their predictions proven correct. However, many of them displayed less moral and political clarity than Makiya on what should have been done with Saddam; and remain as lost as he in determining what to do next in Iraq. In the debate over the war, intellectuals have become increasingly irrelevant in shaping policy outcomes. But why blame them? Even in Congress, those opposed to the administration's Iraq policy have offered no viable alternatives, as was plain last month after General David Petraeus' congressional testimony.

Ironically, the real debate over ideas when it comes to Iraq appears to be taking place in the one institution generally (and unfairly) considered a graveyard for lateral thinking: the US military. If there is a community of people that has tried to grasp the reality of Iraq in practical ways, in all its complexities, and that has climbed the steepest of learning curves in the past four years, it is the armed forces. That's not to say that soldiers are or should be a model for how all Americans approach Iraq; but in its quest to understand the conflict environment better, the military has had to immerse itself in the sociology of Iraq like no other. And because of that, its intense discussions of the war, by rarely descending into flagellation or self-flagellation, remain alive with opportunity. The topic remains Iraq, not parochial American disputation over Iraq.

In his book "Colossus," historian Niall Ferguson wrote that America's defeat in Vietnam showed that "[o]n balance, Americans preferred the irresponsibilities of weakness" to the "responsibilities of power." America will not achieve victory in the foreseeable future in Iraq, if it ever does. But embracing weakness would be irresponsible not only toward America itself but toward Iraqis as well. Members of the military have been trained to avoid the irresponsibilities of weakness. That is precisely why their conversations today are so much more interesting than those of the disoriented intellectuals on either side of the Iraq divide.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Dressing the Christians up in brown shirts

Maybe someone might convincingly explain why, whenever Western journalists and publicists talk about Lebanon's Christians, particularly the Maronites, they invariably resort to the word "fascism" in describing some aspect of their behavior. The latest example is an article by one Thanassis Cambanis in The New York Times of October 5.

Cambanis' article is an overwrought effort to show that Christians are arming, recruiting, and preparing to wage war, even among themselves. "[T]he country's once-dominant Christian community feels under siege and has begun re-establishing militias, training in the hills and stockpiling weapons." In fact, the evidence for these allegations is negligible, despite the fact that a squad of Aounist weekend warriors was recently arrested by the security forces. However, Cambanis' point was somewhat different. His tone suggested that a forbidding temper had descended on Christian Lebanon, something menacing, all tattoos, guns, and spray-painted symbols - the stuff of far-right skinheads and Serbian death squads; well why not come out and just say it: the stuff of fascism.

In a passage on the Marada movement and one of its leaders, Cambanis wrote: "Like many Christian movements, his party builds support around a bizarre iconography, reminiscent of early-20th-century European fascism; his party has adopted the symbol for 'pi' to express constancy, and another group has chosen the Greek letter 'omega,' for resistance."

The "omega" symbol is, of course, used by the Aounists. If my grasp of names is on target, and it's a pretty large target, Cambanis' ancestors were Greek. Quite why the intrepid Thanassis should determine, therefore, that the letters of his ancestors should provoke the same reaction as, let's say, a swastika, is never made clear. If you are prepared to use the term "fascism" against a group of people, you had better make sure not to make your case solely on the basis of their taste for "bizarre iconography."

I had the pleasure of dining with Cambanis last year, and he struck me then, much like he does now, as being a dilettante on an expense account. But his inaccurate, lazy, shallow article in the Times, which has raised hackles in Lebanon and abroad, is reflective of a greater problem when it comes to portraying the country's Christians. Perhaps Cambanis picked it up in the hotel lobby, or just from his fixer, but he is really little different from the herds of other Western journalists, even academics, in reaching for the decades-old cliche that whatever the Christians do is somehow colored by extreme, even violent, communal nationalism and bigotry.

So why can't Lebanese Christians ever seem to get a break from this tedious characterization? The common answer is that their main political organization after the 1930s, the Phalange, was influenced by European fascist movements, and that one of its later emanations, the paramilitary Lebanese Forces, reinforced the same tendencies. What are these? Loyalty to a dominant leader, an often parochial sense of nationalism, a centralized command structure, a willingness to employ force, a tendency to absorb the individual into a corporate identity, and so on. No doubt a few of these characteristics were or are present in a number of Christian parties, albeit in very haphazard and very undisciplined ways. However, they also happen to typify most other Lebanese political groups as well.

There is one party, however, that fulfills all of these conditions to a tee: Hizbullah. And yet never will foreign journalists or observers refer to Hizbullah as "fascist" - nor would that be an accurate depiction of a far more multifaceted organization. To the anti-globalization left Hizbullah is a heroic vanguard against the United States and Israel; to many Western liberals it is a social service serving a deprived community. The thing is, the Muslim Hizbullah is regarded in Western consciousness as a "truer" product of Arab society than Christian parties, who have had to fight against a sense (sometimes self-inflicted, but mostly not) that they are interlopers. This has earned the party a reprieve from the "fascism" label.

Indeed, much the same dispensation applies to the Baath in Syria (and previously in Iraq), the Sudanese junta, and the madcap order installed in Libya by Moammar Gadhafi. In remarkable ways these absolutist, suffocating, centralized, exclusionary systems are viewed as bona fide emanations of "Arabness," even though the Baath's founders, for example, openly regarded German Nazism as a main source of inspiration.

Lebanon's Christians have also had to fight the remnants of an older foreign antipathy: that of Western Protestants who came to Lebanon in the 19th century to establish educational institutions in the country. For many Protestants, who became a foremost funnel for early Western awareness of Lebanon, there was something fundamentally odious in the Eastern Christians' approach to their religion. What wasn't oriental superstition in it was retrograde Catholicism, with its proclivity for gold, high ceremony, louche clergymen, and sparse spirituality. There seemed little room for reason among all that byzantine ornamentation; and when the Protestant missionaries proved unable to convert Muslims to the true faith, their favored prey became the eastern Christians, particularly the Maronites - provoking mutual antagonism that survives to this day.

That Protestant antipathy metastasized throughout the 20th century, taking different forms having little or no relation with religion. American publicists and academics of the Middle East in particular, like the missionaries deployed throughout the region, tended to take a positive attitude toward Arab nationalism after the 1950s. This was, after all, progress, a legitimate impulse toward self-emancipation; it was also a rejection of European colonialism and therefore something meriting sympathy. The Palestinians too, defeated by Israel after 1948, had staked out the moral high ground, and Westerners interacting with the Arab world, lacking a great deal else, never lacked in moral righteousness.

Yet most Lebanese Christians seemed to have no place amid this virtuous advocacy. The Christians seemed to be stubbornly resisting the Middle East's future. By proclaiming their communal rights, they were undermining an Arab nationalist ideology that promised to banish ancient communal identities; by arming against the Palestinians during the early 1970s, they were only further harming the Arab world's acknowledged victims; by being so different than those around them, they were bucking the trend, ruining the good vibes that Westerners dedicated to the Arab world's glorious destiny were so keen to impose. Lebanese Christians were a foreign body disrupting regional harmony, a fifth column, a reminder of how the colonial West had wanted Arabs to be. Therefore, it was perfectly reasonable to describe them alone as having fascist tendencies.

It is hard to credit Michel Aoun with anything constructive during the past two years. But do credit him with one thing: He has thrown a giant rock into the puddle of Western received wisdom on Lebanon's Christians. Things were simpler when Christians were just right-wing chauvinists who hated Muslims. Now, however, those who get animated when Hizbullah is mentioned have developed an interest in its bizarre Christian ally. Rewrite the manuals! Burn the guidebooks! Fire the fixers! The Christians are fascists, but by God some are more fascist than others.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Corner Syria at the Annapolis conference

Bashar Assad, never a man to accept conditions, is nevertheless imposing some of his own on the United States. In an interview with the BBC earlier this week, the Syrian president said he would only attend a conference on Middle East peace scheduled for November in Annapolis, Maryland, if the issue of the Golan Heights were discussed. "It should be about comprehensive peace, and Syria is part of this comprehensive peace. Without that, we shouldn't go, we wouldn't go," Assad said.

Assad's position is understandable. The idea of inviting Syria to the conference as a member of an Arab League committee dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was never going to float in Damascus. On the other hand, Washington was never going to regard as a priority Syria's interest in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which governs the status of the occupied Golan Heights, when Assad's regime is briskly undermining UN resolutions on Lebanon and other regional conflicts. However, from Lebanon's perspective, and despite Syria's destructiveness in the country, is there an advantage in seeing Assad locked into a negotiation process with Israel?

The question may be badly posed.

Ultimately, if the November conference turns into a success, it might be impossible to prevent Syria from elbowing its way onto the table. There are several reasons for this, not least that Israel might have an incentive in resurrecting its Syrian track in order to play it off against the Palestinian track, as it did throughout the 1990s. The fact that Syria might be interested far more in a negotiating process than in a peace settlement would only interest the Israelis more.

It is equally likely that the Saudis, whose relations with Syria have descended to subterranean levels, would nonetheless encourage a Syrian track. This makes sense because King Abdullah's peace plan will not go very far if Syria and Hamas, instead of being in the room, are actively working to scuttle it from the outside. The Saudis also realize that if Syria is a full participant, this will make it much more difficult for other Arab states to oppose negotiations. Saudi Arabia would therefore gain latitude to make possible dramatic moves of its own in its dealings with Israel.

More generally, there are those who believe that unless Syria is offered something serious, it will continue to try imposing its writ on Lebanon. There is skepticism, even cynicism, in Beirut when it comes to such an argument. After all, the Syrians throughout the 1990s viewed their talks with Israel as just another opportunity to further tighten their hold over the Lebanese. The late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, implicitly recognized that link when he famously remarked that he preferred Syrian soldiers in Lebanon than on the Golan Heights. The reality at the time, however, was that the international community readily pushed the Lebanese track to the backburner, awaiting a resolution, first, of the Syrian-Israeli conflict. In other words Syrian President Hafez Assad, until the Syrian-Israeli track broke down in March 2000, was on the verge of having his soldiers deployed both on the Golan and in Lebanon.

If Syria's entry into the Annapolis process - assuming there is such a process - is inevitable, then Lebanon and its friends must ensure that what Syria gains on the Golan it surrenders in Lebanon. One way to do so is to use the November conference as leverage to secure formal Syrian approval of all UN resolutions and statements relating to Lebanese matters, particularly Resolutions 1559 and 1701, as well as statements calling on Damascus to delineate its border with Lebanon in the Shebaa Farms area. Lebanon should be invited as a full participant at the conference. It should use the event to reaffirm its respect for UN resolutions and possibly to put a mechanism in motion to update the 1949 Armistice Agreement, whose implementation was part of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's seven-point plan endorsed by the government last year.

How would Syria respond to delineating the Shebaa border? In late September, the Syrians told Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos that they were willing to transfer the Shebaa Farms to UN custody. Moratinos, who has been overly alert to Syrian anxieties despite the attack that killed six troops of the Spanish contingent in South Lebanon last June, recently sent a letter to this effect to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The seriousness of the offer bears scrutiny. As is often the case, it was not the Syrians making the announcement but someone speaking in their name, affording Assad deniability. That said, bringing up the Syrian offer in the context of the November conference could put Damascus on the spot, forcing it to reveal its true intentions.

They're not difficult to deduce. Syria had always described the farms as Lebanese. Moratinos' letter suggests Damascus believes they belong to Syria. The practical result of this is that any delineation of borders still requires a Lebanese-Syrian agreement, which the Syrians refuse to discuss while Shebaa remains occupied. The Syrians sold Moratinos a bogus concession, so the Shebaa deadlock continues. Yet it is still possible that a Syrian track with Israel would force Syria to inject some clarity into the Lebanese track, particularly on the Shebaa Farms.

All this will not prevent Syria from pursuing its destabilization of Lebanon and trying to reassert its hegemony over the country. Indeed, if a negotiating process buys the Syrian regime breathing space and international goodwill, this may have terrible consequences for Lebanon and for the Hariri tribunal. However, if Syrian participation in the Annapolis meeting cannot be avoided, if Syria uses the gathering to jumpstart talks with Israel, then Lebanon and those who want to see UN resolutions pertaining to Lebanese issues implemented have to be prepared. And that means showing Syria that its track with Israel can only move forward once Damascus complies with the Lebanon resolutions.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A majority that refuses to act like one

The two-month period to elect a new president has begun, and not surprisingly it started with a deal. On Tuesday, Parliament was called into session to find a successor to Emile Lahoud. Instead, the speaker, Nabih Berri, bought an extra month to haggle over a consensus candidate. That may be what many Lebanese want, but the result will not be stability.

The deal was roughly this, according to parliamentarians present in the assembly room: Berri rescheduled the parliamentary session until October 23, but not on the grounds that a two-thirds quorum was absent. In exchange, March 14 removed from Deputy Parliament Speaker Farid Makari's public statement a paragraph maintaining its right to vote for a president by an absolute majority of at least 65 parliamentarians. In that way the majority avoided recognizing the opposition's insistence on a two-thirds quorum in all rounds of voting for president. Berri, in turn, locked majority leader Saad Hariri into weeks of negotiations that risk breaking the unity and momentum of March 14 - a vital ingredient in the coalition's efforts to bring in a new president without the opposition's acquiescence.

The tactical differences between Hariri and Walid Jumblatt on the presidency are now out in the open, and this is beginning to seriously hamper the strategy of March 14. However, it is not just Jumblatt and his allies who were displeased with the implications of the Hariri-Berri arrangement. Other parliamentarians aligned with neither politician were equally disturbed that the majority had missed an occasion to elect a president on its own, which would have affirmed its status as a majority.

To be realistic, however, there was no way that March 14 was going to elect a president on Tuesday. Hariri has been under great Saudi pressure to compromise, while Jumblatt knows that a president brought in by March 14 would need to have a prior guarantee of Saudi, American, and European recognition to be politically viable. That recognition may yet come if Syria and the opposition continue to hinder the election process, but it does not exist today. Hariri simply had no latitude to avoid Berri's trap of setting a timeframe to find a consensus candidate.

That said, March 14 cannot afford a consensus president, since such a person is bound to be critically weak. Hariri reportedly intends to be the next prime minister. This will lead to the creation of an unwieldy "political" Cabinet in which all major political forces are represented, and in which the opposition's right of veto power has already been recognized. That veto power, together with Berri's control over parliamentary procedure and the ongoing effort by Syria to brutally change the numbers in Parliament, will give the opposition effective control over policy. An anemic president will be in no position to alter this situation, leading to deepening polarization. The majority will have surrendered executive power in the government in exchange for a nonentity as head of state.

The real fight in the coming months will be over who dominates the government. The presidency is important, but many politicians seem to have forgotten what the crisis during the last 10 months has been all about: the opposition's demand to block Cabinet decisions. Nor have enough people in March 14 sufficiently grasped the significance of what has for months been a Syrian and opposition stipulation: that Fouad Siniora is unacceptable as prime minister of a new government.

The majority has made a serious tactical error in not picking up on that condition - either to reject it outright or accept it in return for an exorbitant concession. Instead, Siniora has found himself with little overt backing among the majority - because this might be perceived as an effort to thwart Hariri's prime ministerial ambitions - so he has unnecessarily been sold cheap. Worse, opposition groups will make Hariri sweat before he heads a new government, though they ardently want him to take the post. They know that once in office he would have to accept daily compromises merely to hold his government together, making him less effective on a wide range of key issues, from government support for the Hariri tribunal to implementation of United Nations resolutions.

What can the majority do to break out of its glass box? First, it must come to an agreement on a single presidential candidate who, to borrow from Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, is to March 14 what Berri is to March 8. In other words, the majority's candidate, whoever that person might be, should be open to all sides, but make it a priority to firm up the achievements of the 2005 Independence Intifada. March 14 must then announce that this candidate will be elected by an absolute majority on October 23, unless it can agree with the opposition beforehand on another candidate who has the same general political orientation and objectives.

The current strategy of the majority of having two candidates in hand - Boutros Harb for a consensus, let's say, and Nassib Lahoud for the confrontation - is not working. In fact, the tactic is dividing March 14, as every Maronite in sight contrives to gain the upper hand. The majority is a majority and has every right to announce whom it intends to elect. The opposition can ask for reassurances that this person will take its interests into consideration, but it shouldn't be granted the authority to shoot down all those it doesn't like. After all, what is the value of a majority in the shadow of a minority's right to brandish a perpetual veto?

A second step March 14 must take is to insist that Fouad Siniora is its candidate as prime minister of any new government. This would demonstrate the majority's commitment to a government made up mainly of technocrats, not political heavyweights. It could justify this on the grounds that Lebanon is today in need of expertise, particularly social and economic expertise, not the divisiveness a political Cabinet will generate.

And third, in the coming weeks the parliamentary majority must rally Arab and international support behind its strategy of electing a candidate on October 23 by an absolute majority; that is if it cannot arrive at a compromise with Berri on someone else who might better please the opposition while also fulfilling the majority's conditions of securing Lebanese sovereignty and independence, upholding the Hariri tribunal, and implementing UN resolutions. Saudi endorsement of the majority's candidate will go a long way toward containing a Hizbullah counter-reaction, since the party will want to avoid Sunni-Shiite clashes.

Opposition parties have hijacked the presidential election process and are trying to deny the majority its democratic right to act like a majority. In the face of such brazenness, March 14 has to deploy some audacity of its own. Parliamentarians are being picked off one by one. Tiptoeing around a bogus consensus is futile when the problem has become existential.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Showdown In Lebanon

COMMENTARY Wall Street Journal

Showdown In Lebanon


September 21, 2007

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- On Wednesday Antoine Ghanem became the fourth anti-Syrian member of the Lebanese parliament to be assassinated in two years. He was the latest victim of a protracted political crisis in Lebanon that both preceded and was exacerbated by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.

Soon after that murder, international pressure and a mass uprising dubbed "the Cedar Revolution" put an end to Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon. But Syrian President Bashar Assad never reconciled himself to the forced departure. Now Syria is trying to use the upcoming Lebanese presidential election to reimpose its hegemony over its smaller neighbor.

Next week Lebanon will enter the constitutional period, during which its parliament must choose a new president. The election might allow the Lebanese to finally be rid of Syria's peon, President Emile Lahoud, whose mandate was forcibly extended by Damascus three years ago. However, there is a real danger that it will be the final nail in the coffin of the Cedar Revolution.

The outcome will also help determine whether Syria can win an important round in a regional struggle pitting its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas against a loose coalition of forces including the United States, the mainstream Sunni Arab regimes, and European states. Amid heightening polarization throughout the Middle East, a Syrian victory in Lebanon could also exacerbate simmering tensions elsewhere.

In fact, the election might conceivably not take place at all. Mr. Assad realizes that any successor to Mr. Lahoud who seeks to consolidate Lebanon's sovereignty would be a barrier to the revival of Syrian supremacy. Damascus's Lebanese allies, most significantly Hezbollah, agree.

Hezbollah, which presides over a semi-autonomous territory with a private army of its own, knows that only renewed Syrian sway over Lebanon would allow it to continue its struggle against Israel and the U.S. Iran backs Syria, both to keep alive Tehran's deterrence capability against Israel (thanks to the thousands of rockets it has supplied Hezbollah in south Lebanon), and because Syria is a vital partner in allowing Iran to expand its reach across the Middle East.

There are also opportunities in this election for Syria's adversaries. The anti-Syrian Lebanese parliamentary majority, as well as the Bush administration and its more reliable European allies, believe that any new president must secure the gains made in 2005, when Lebanon recovered its independence. Their priority is to prevent the election of someone who might turn back the clock. The problem is that this anti-Syrian majority sits with Syria's friends in the parliament, which elects the president. They must come to a mutually satisfactory agreement or Lebanon will find itself even more dangerously divided than it already is.

This election is not just about a president; it is also, for many of those involved, about existential issues. Hezbollah, a revolutionary, military party that feeds off conflict (or "resistance") to survive, has no place in a liberated, liberal, cosmopolitan country at peace with the world. Similarly, Syria's most prominent enemies -- the Sunni leader Saad Hariri, the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and the Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea -- all risk political and even physical elimination if Syria triumphs. Damascus, if it cannot impose its man or a cipher whose flimsiness would allow Syria to gain ground, will encourage its allies to create a political vacuum as leverage to subsequently push a favorite into office.

Syria is also waging an existential fight. The tribunal to convict those responsible for the assassination of Hariri has been approved under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, and several weeks ago the Dutch government agreed to locate the court in the Netherlands (the exact location as yet undecided). For Mr. Assad, whose regime is a prime suspect in the Hariri murder, the signs are ominous. By again bringing Lebanon under his authority, the Syrian president doubtless feels he can hamper the court's proceedings, perhaps until more favorable circumstances allow him to negotiate a deal similar to the one that got Libya's top leadership off the hook for the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, as well as that of a UTA French airliner in 1989.

In this context, diplomatic sources in Beirut note that the Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, and some European states, including the Vatican, had sought to delay formation of the tribunal. However, the progress on situating the tribunal suggests this effort failed.

That is why Mr. Assad might, after all, be more interested in holding a presidential election now, so Syrian allies in Beirut can gum up the tribunal's machinery before it's too late. In this scenario, Damascus would want a weak consensus candidate who stands somewhere in the middle. However, the nub of Syria's strategy could be to ensure that its comrades in Beirut, in collaboration with the Christian politician Michel Aoun, gain veto power in the government that will be formed after the election. That veto power -- plus a limp president and Syria's control over parliamentary procedure through the pro-Syrian parliament speaker -- would give Damascus substantial influence in Beirut, including over administrative decisions relating to the tribunal and to the implementation of the U.N. resolutions to disarm Hezbollah and maintain tranquility in the southern border area.

If Syria does prefer a president to a vacuum, this vulnerability must be exploited in coming weeks by those who want Lebanon fully freed of Syrian domination. Mr. Assad will play hardball, but he faces some heat. An Israeli air raid against Syria earlier this month, though reported to be directed against some sort of nuclear facility, may conceivably have been interpreted by Syria as an effort to intimidate it before Lebanon's election. In recent weeks, moreover, Saudi-Syrian hostility has escalated to unheard-of levels. Both King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt are fearful of Syria's close ties with Iran. For these two countries, a hegemonic, Islamist, Shiite Iran threatens their regional power and their Sunni-led regimes. This Sunni-Shiite rivalry happens to be playing itself out in Lebanon, where the results could have serious consequences for the Saudis and Egyptians.

The U.S. also knows the hazards of the Lebanese presidential election, and the Bush administration will not sign off on a president it regards as pro-Syrian. The difficult situation in Iraq, like Saudi- Syrian tensions, will probably make the administration tougher in opposing candidates it doesn't like. However, the European states -- France, Spain and Italy -- making up the bulk of the U.N. force in South Lebanon, worry that a void in Beirut might harm their soldiers. All have made it amply clear to Syria that it must change its ways in Lebanon, but they remain vulnerable on the ground, amid suspicion that Syria played a role, direct or indirect, in an attack last June that killed six troops of the Spanish U.N. contingent.

All sides, even Syria, would like to avoid a Lebanese vacuum at the end of November when Mr. Lahoud's time will be up -- if they can achieve their goals. The danger is that in the quest for compromise we might be heading toward a lowest common denominator on the presidency, thus giving Syria and its allies precisely what they want: a weak, ineffective president followed by a decisive advantage in any new government. That would only aggravate the current polarization in the country. Lebanon has the startling potential of becoming either the Middle East's salvation, or its nightmare. What happens here will have serious repercussions for what happens in the region as a whole.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Turning 'consensus' into a mortal threat

Turning 'consensus' into a mortal threat
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Slowly but surely, the idea of a consensus president to succeed Emile Lahoud is gaining ground. Slowly but surely the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, in the name of his "strategic alliance" with Syria, is helping Damascus revive its supremacy over Lebanese affairs. And slowly but surely, as Antoine Ghanem's assassination yesterday showed, preparations for that moment are coming with a grizzly price tag.

The hard-liners in the March 14 coalition, most prominently Walid Jumblatt, but also the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, are unhappy with the idea of a consensus president. This is putting considerable stress on the coalition, since Saad Hariri appears to be more amenable to Berri's project. Divided, March 14 will be much less able to defend against a presidential plan favored by Syria, therefore by the opposition. A consensus presidency appears to be precisely that, and, worse, has the merit of being appealing domestically, regionally, and internationally. After all, it is difficult to fault the idea of "compromise."

But what does compromise, or rather consensus, mean in the case of the Lebanese presidency? Jumblatt is not wrong in warning that a consensus candidate is bound to be a weak president. Why? Because the opposition will not sign off on someone who consolidates the gains of 2005 and enforces the agenda of March 14; but it also cannot impose a candidate of its own; therefore it will give a green light only to someone unable to harm its interests. If March 14 is so keen to avoid a vacuum imposed by Syria and enters into the logic of compromise, then the coalition, too, will be compelled to approve someone who does not threaten its interests. What will emerge is a president without teeth; water rather than wine.

As Berri hinted when he was interviewed by Marcel Ghanem on the "Kalam al-Nass" program last week, the next battle will be over the government. After a nonentity is elected, the opposition will have much leeway to work on strengthening its hand elsewhere. It will demand veto power in a new government (which is why Hizbullah will not abandon its alliance with Michel Aoun), and is likely to succeed in this because the spirit of conciliation will sweep everything before it. Once March 14 agrees to compromise over the election of a president, it will have no choice but to do the same for the Cabinet. And if it is true that Saad Hariri will be named prime minister, then expect the next government to be political rather than technocratic. That means it will be polarized and utterly unable to pursue a systematic agenda.

This will have alarming consequences. If the opposition is given veto power over government decisions and controls Parliament through Berri, then the majority will have lost the vital advantage it enjoyed through its hold over the Cabinet. March 14 would have sacrificed executive authority in order to gain a weak president. That's a trade the Syrians and their allies can happily live with. All in the name of arriving at a consensus.

Jumblatt has already indicated that he would not vote in favor of a consensus candidate. But Jumblatt's margin of maneuver is largely determined by two things: where the United States stands and where Saudi Arabia stands. The

Saudi-Syrian rift has allowed the Druze leader to raise the ante in recent weeks. According to unconfirmed reports, the Saudis recently asked Syria to endorse Nassib Lahoud as president. The Syrian refusal allegedly led to the last-minute Saudi cancellation of a visit to the kingdom by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

However, will the Saudis stand tough? Ultimately, they may conclude that a consensus candidate is better than a political vacuum, which would only escalate Sunni-Shiite tensions. The kingdom's ambassador in Beirut, Abdul Aziz Khoja, has been especially sympathetic to Berri's endeavors. The Saudis, sensing the wind turning, may conceivably favor compromise.

What of the US? The Bush administration is still taking a tough line on the presidency: The new tenant of Baabda should not be someone who turns the clock back to where it was before 2005, when Syria ruled in Beirut. For the Americans, a Syrian return would also bolster Iran and Hizbullah. What it really would do, however, and one doesn't need the Americans to deduce this, is undermine United Nations Security Council resolutions on Lebanon, which have created a de facto international trusteeship over the country. What future would there be for Resolution 1701 in a country where the majority is paralyzed and Syria regains the upper hand? Or for Resolution 1559, which aims to prevent this?

Indeed, what would happen to the Hariri tribunal? The notion that the tribunal is a fait accompli must be seriously qualified. If March 14 falls into the opposition's headlock, the work of the tribunal can be impeded. Everything from its financing to the behavior of Lebanese judges would be affected. Worse, what is to prevent the leaking of judicial information to the Syrians on the prosecution's case? If it is true that Hariri seeks to head a new Cabinet, achieving this will severely hamper his ability to push the tribunal forward, because his job as prime minister will demand accepting myriad compromises merely to hold his unwieldy team together.

It's too early to assume that this scenario will play itself out. Hariri has no interest in alienating Jumblatt and Geagea on behalf of Nabih Berri. Nor are the forces working against such a project negligible. Someone like Michel Aoun, for example, sees few advantages in agreeing to a consensus candidate, since this would terminate his presidential bid. Indeed, convincing Aoun may prove a major obstacle for Hizbullah and Berri. Jumblatt and Geagea find themselves on the same wavelength as Aoun in resisting a presidential compromise, albeit for diametrically opposing reasons. As odd as it might seem, this might create an alliance of circumstance down the road if the consensus plan gains momentum.

The wild cards in this presidential ballet are the Europeans. Their fear of a void in Beirut is understandable, given the UNIFIL commitments. The Europeans seem to be heading toward backing a consensus candidate, regardless of whether Syria respects Lebanese sovereignty. Both the Saudis and the Americans, whatever their better instincts, might find themselves forced to follow the European lead if the alternative (one encouraged by the Syrian regime) is a dangerous split in Lebanon.

If a weak president is elected and the opposition gains veto power in the Cabinet, the Lebanese should start worrying. It would only be a matter of time before Lebanon finds itself where it was before Rafik Hariri's assassination. An axe would have been taken to the Cedar Revolution, much as it was yesterday to Antoine Ghanem.