Saturday, February 24, 2007

Learning nothing and forgetting nothing

Earlier this week, two statements neatly summarized the crisis in Lebanon. The first came from the EU’s representative in Beirut, Patrick Laurent; the second from Syria’s official Al-Thawra daily. Both reaffirmed in their own separate ways that the Syrian regime, since its army was forced out of Lebanon in 2005, has chosen to behave like the exiled Bourbons: learning nothing and forgetting nothing.

In an exchange with journalists, Laurent had this to say about Syrian behavior in Lebanon, and about European efforts to "engage" President Bashar Assad: "We tried everything, as did many others, employing both gentle means and pressure," but nothing seemed to work. As if confirming Laurent’s doubts, Al-Thawra, in an editorial Tuesday, called for talks between Damascus and the US covering Lebanon, Palestine, the Golan Heights, and Iraq. "Syria insists on a serious and profound dialogue on all subjects without exception," the newspaper asserted.

Precisely where this extraordinary statement came from was unclear. Syria is a declining power, capable only of spreading instability in its neighborhood to ward off irrelevance. However, this game, which the late President Hafez al-Assad played to perfection, no longer works. By allying itself with an Iran that Saudi Arabia regards as an existential threat, Syria is in no position to make demands of the Arab states, let alone of the United States. The Syrians recently tried to take control of the Iraqi Baath Party, and failed. They tried to midwife a Fatah-Hamas deal in Damascus, and failed again. Assad has even managed to alienate Egypt, by thwarting its peace efforts on the Palestinian front and by ensuring that Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa’s mediation in Lebanon would go nowhere. And in Lebanon, Assad has so angered the Sunni community that the prospect of a Syrian military return seems fanciful.

Most alarming from a Lebanese perspective, the Al-Thawra article showed that Syria has yet to grasp that the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1559 in 2004. In insisting on Syria’s having a say in Lebanon’s future, the newspaper disregarded that the resolution specifically asked Damascus to end its interference in Lebanese affairs.

Assad may have come out of his summit in Tehran last week invigorated by a sense that the Iranians need him in their confrontation with the Bush administration. It was always naive to assume that Iran would pressure Assad on the Hariri tribunal at a time when the nuclear issue was on the verge of reaching a climax at the UN - with more steps possibly coming at the Security Council to impose new sanctions on Tehran.

However, it is precisely because of this that Syria should be careful. Iran’s ultimate guarantee against an American attack isn’t the comradeship of Damascus, but a broad Arab consensus behind the benefits of a dialogue with Iran and the undesirability of an American military response to the nuclear standoff. Iran views its talks with the Saudis as the best means to avoid a war, but also to hinder approval of new UN sanctions and avert a Sunni-Shiite conflict that would cripple Iranian initiatives in the Middle East. In this context, Assad could emerge as a burdensome ally.

The Bush administration is more subtle than it has been given credit for. It authorized the Saudi-Iranian dialogue, realizing that this reflected the central Sunni-Shiite fault line dividing the Middle East. There are some in Washington who would love to bomb Iran, but there is no domestic traction for war, leaving room for diplomacy. This is where the Saudi-Iranian talks fit in. That Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the US, was named point man on the Saudi side surely reassured the Bush administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney.

As the Syrians look on, what is going through their minds? Their agenda can be reduced to a single item: undermining the Hariri tribunal. Neither in Iraq nor in the Palestinian areas is Assad indispensable. In Lebanon, Syria presumably faces Iranian "red lines" limiting the kind of intimidation it can employ, which is why the Syrian-Iranian compromise is for more stalemate, punctuated by controlled Hizbullah escalations. The latest scheme is for a civil-disobedience campaign. Yet this may end up backfiring like other opposition efforts did. Shiites would suffer as much as anyone from obstruction of the country’s public administration.

Iran and Syria can agree over raising the heat in Lebanon to squeeze the Saudis. But beyond that the situation becomes more complicated. The Iranians want an advantageous deal in Lebanon, but not a civil war. They also don’t want to break with the Saudis, because there will be more friction with the US and the Arab world in the coming months. An Arab League summit is to be held in Saudi Arabia in March, and there is nothing Iranian leaders would like less than for the predominantly Sunni Arab states to use that event to warn against the "Persian peril." This explains why the Syrians are so eager to act now in Lebanon, to ensure they can get something on the tribunal before eventual progress in the Saudi-Iranian relationship pushes their aims to the backburner. A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement would make it much tougher for Assad to kill the tribunal, whose passage the Saudi leadership considers non-negotiable.

Assad senses that the window of opportunity is closing. His last card is a Lebanese civil war, but it’s not one that Iran and Hizbullah seem willing to play. However, the tribunal won’t disappear. At best, if Syria aborts formal Lebanese endorsement of the institution, this will make the move toward Chapter VII of the UN Charter more likely. Only when Assad truly accepts Resolution 1559 and embraces Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, will he persuade anyone that his regime is worth saving.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Who will blink first, the US or Iran?

Recently, from his perch at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, Germany’s former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, wrote a commentary warning of the dangers in an American military attack against Iran. His views are significant in that they are shared by many Bush administration critics in the United States and Europe.

With the US Navy building up its offensive capability in and around the Gulf, and President George W. Bush ratcheting up the pressure on Iranians inside Iraq, Fischer concluded: "Basically, there are two possibilities, one positive and one negative. Unfortunately, the positive outcome appears to be the less likely one. If the threat of force ... aims at preparing the ground for serious negotiations with Iran, there can and should be no objection. If, on the other hand, it represents an attempt to prepare the American public for a war against Iran ... the outcome would be an unmitigated disaster."

Fischer is adamant that a war against Iran will plunge the Middle East into an "abyss." It would strengthen the Iranian clergy, put Iranian democrats on the defensive, and ensure that the "the dream of ’regime change’ in Tehran would not come true." He insists that there is still time to secure "a long-term freeze of Iran’s nuclear program," mainly because the country’s level of nuclear development does not call for immediate military action. The US must pursue diplomacy, but this requires an American willingness to talk to Tehran, which "is afraid of regional and international isolation." Iran can be changed from within, Fischer believes, "So why the current threats against Iran?"

Much of what Fischer argues is convincing. The chances that a US military attack would be successful in totally destroying Iran’s nuclear capability are not high. The Iranian backlash in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East could end up causing much greater headaches for the United States than the already trying situation existing today. Regional sectarian polarization between Sunnis and Shiites would rise if Iran were to strike back against America’s Arab allies; Islamists might seize the initiative on both sides of the divide, which would only further damage US effectiveness in the region. Domestically, Bush would have to convince a deeply skeptical Congress and public that bombing Iran is worthwhile. Given the present mood in Washington, this is unlikely.

But there are two problems in Fischer’s analysis and that of other administration critics. First, Iran is plainly intending to build a nuclear device, and in the face of this the international community has repeatedly vacillated. Fischer’s anxieties, which he wears on his sleeve, create a sense that he would prefer to let Iran have an atomic weapon than allow the US to prevent this from happening. That’s because his case is all carrots and no sticks. Fischer accepts that brinkmanship can produce good results, by paving the way toward serious negotiations; but he so undermines the argument in favor of using force, that that psychological merits of employing brinkmanship come to nothing.

Yet sticks can work. There was an exception to international dithering on Iran last December, when the United Nations Security Council passed a sanctions resolution against Tehran. Later this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency will review whether Iran has complied. Though it was watered down, the resolution supposedly took the Iranian leadership by surprise. In a report highlighted by the French daily Le Monde, the foreign affairs committee of the Iranian Parliament warned of the dangers of sanctions, which could force Iran "to modify its national priorities and devote a major part of its resources to preventing an important social upheaval, which may cause a deterioration of the standard of living for a significant portion of the population." President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been severely criticized by other members of Iran’s leadership for having so polarized relations with the international community, that Security Council members were able to find common ground. His authority has been weakened, and recently he and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, disagreed publicly over the president’s prerogatives on nuclear matters.

Ahmadinejad could end up a victim of his overconfidence. His line has been that the US is a paper tiger. It talks tough on Iran, but otherwise is too bogged down in Iraq to pose a danger to Tehran. That rationale has encouraged the president to raise the stakes with Washington, probably tacked on to a calculation that if there were a standoff with the Americans, Ahmadinejad would gain at home. Yet this has divided Iran’s leaders over what policy to pursue. That’s why displaying apprehension, like Fischer does, is the wrong stratagem to adopt with the Iranians. If you’re playing a game of chicken, don’t blink.

A second problem that Fischer and Bush administration detractors need to sort out is what negotiations with Iran would involve. The critics insist the administration should talk, but without explaining what it should talk about, whether the US is in the best position to initiate such a dialogue today, or even whether Iran will take the exchange seriously.

The US may be better off waiting until several factors kick in before talking - particularly if the building of a nuclear weapon is not imminent. Iran will soon face more economic hardship from the steady lowering of oil prices due to Saudi excess production. The Bush administration’s surge option in Baghdad and in Anbar Province has the potential to strengthen its hand if it can improve security in Iraq. In Lebanon, Iran’s ally Hizbullah has seen its margin of maneuver reduced by an angry Sunni counter-reaction to its efforts to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. And throughout the Arab world, Iran is perceived as more of an enemy than ever before. These developments, and others, suggest that the Bush administration might be better off waiting for Iran to float a compromise package first, rather than panicking and doing so itself - handing Iranian hard-liners proof that Washington cannot afford a confrontation.

A US war against Iran is a bad idea. But the essence of brinkmanship is to create the impression that war is a good idea - in fact a smashing one. Bush is stubborn enough, and infuriated enough by Iraq, that the Iranians can’t be quite sure of what he will do next. The US can turn this to its advantage. Yet, until now, it’s also true that the administration has dealt with Iran within the context of an international consensus, through the UN and in accord with its Arab allies - everything it avoided doing before invading Iraq. So, when critics like Fischer cannot acknowledge this change, when they justify using force to open the door to bargaining, then virtually reject, without evidence, that the US might be playing a subtle mind game, you do wonder what their point is: to resolve a crisis that Iran created, or just to knock Bush down a peg?

Friday, February 2, 2007

When Don Quixote takes to the streets

So today is a "day of change," to quote Suleiman Franjieh. He could be right. That’s because, as of tomorrow, Hizbullah may have much greater latitude to maneuver without considering the interests of its Christian allies - Michel Aoun and Franjieh himself. Both men are eager to be the opposition’s cannon fodder, and will emerge from the fracas with their reputation tarnished further. Not for the first time, Aoun is helping ensure that Christians will end up marginalized.

The Saudis and the Iranians are in the process of putting together a package deal to end the Lebanese crisis. Neither wants a Sunni-Shiite war in the streets of Beirut, yet somehow Aoun has failed to grasp the implications of this. He remains entirely focused on the fact that their arrangement might undermine his ambition to become president. The Saudi-Iranian project remains very much alive, despite Aoun’s warning on Sunday that Lebanon should not seek a solution from the outside. As usual, the general is moving against the grain of regional and international developments; as usual he is gearing himself up for a fall.

Both Hizbullah and Amal are giving Aoun enough rope to hang himself with. In his interview with Al-Manar on Friday, Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, set as a new opposition condition the holding of early parliamentary elections, before a presidential election. Aoun couldn’t have been foolish enough to believe that Nasrallah was serious. Or could he? Nasrallah knows the demand has no chance of being met, but the condition was apparently added to block something he was unhappy with in the Saudi-Iranian draft. Indeed, by Saturday unidentified sources, certainly from the opposition, were leaking to Al-Hayat that the main obstacle to a resolution of the stalemate was Michel Aoun.

On top of that, today Aoun’s and Franjieh’s followers will reportedly be alone in the trenches. While Shiite areas will go on strike, sources in Amal and Hizbullah have said that neither of the parties is committed to blocking roads in and around beirut - unlike the Christian groups. A Sunni-Shiite confrontation will thus be averted, while Aoun and Franjieh march on, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, two soldiers in pursuit of Christian irrelevance.

Nasrallah will let Aoun fall into the ravine, mainly because the general has become a burden. At the same time, Hizbullah will prop Aoun up until he reaches the edge. Nasrallah doesn’t want a messy divorce with the Aounists, who can still be very useful against the majority. If Aoun is ridiculed today, if his calls for a strike fail, if his only tactic is to bully people into not going to work, then soon Nasrallah might be able to tell the general: "Look, I tried, to the extent that I was willing to back your demand for early elections. But your influence is limited and I really must avoid allowing my differences with the Sunnis to get out of hand."

Most disappointing has been the performance of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. Now more than ever he must take a sturdier position on those Christians in opposition. Instead, he remains blandly impartial. In his Sunday homily, Sfeir directed condemnation against both the majority and the opposition, in particular against their "tenacity" at a time when Lebanon was sinking fast. That was understandable, but also unfair just before the majority-led government prepared to bring Lebanon billions of dollars in foreign financing. The patriarch was probably reluctant to add insult to Aoun’s and Franjieh’s almost certain injury today. Yet it is within his mandate, even his duty, to warn the Maronite community of the dangers ahead. And when two leaders are taking the lead in a mad adventure that is sure to bomb, and when Maronites in general can expect to feel the harmful backlash of that decision, Sfeir cannot evade taking a clearer stance.

Aoun’s dream of becoming president lies shattered. This showed in a speech on Sunday, in which he denounced "Harirism." It was always about Harirism with him, about his loathing for those who collaborated with Syria to build up Lebanon on the ruins of Aoun’s 1988-1990 fiasco. That same coalition would later push the Syrians out. The general cannot stomach that he has been twice deprived: of the merit he deserved for first fighting the Syrians; and of the political capital that should have accrued to him once they departed. You can sympathize, but not enough to follow a frustrated man down the path to communal and national perdition.

Beirut and the sad autumn of the Arabs

In March 2005, Samir Kassir wrote a column titled, "Beirut, the springtime of the Arabs." Martyrs Square was then awash with people protesting Rafik Hariri’s murder, and Samir felt confident enough to affirm: "Today, Beirut declares that death is not the only path open to the Arabs." Of the grim outfit ruling in Damascus, he noted, "Beirut’s renaissance is by far more important than maintaining a regime that leaves only desolation in its wake."

Yet in the space of only two months, since early December last, the Lebanese capital has been transformed into a new Arab autumn. Sunnis and Shiites are increasingly wary of living in the same neighborhoods, while Christians are beginning to look to crossing points between the eastern and western halves of Beirut as barriers against instability from "the other side." Beirut’s renaissance remains desirable, the impact of sectarian conflict on our city would have calamitous regional consequences, multiplied by its occurring in the Arab world’s laboratory of modernity (another Kassir formulation); but no one has been able to alter the behavior of those purveyors of desolation of whom Kassir wrote, and who, in the end, liquidated him and vandalized his optimism.

There are countless ways to explain the ongoing Lebanese crisis, but the most essential one, it seems to me, is that it is a battle over the destiny of Beirut. Will the city ever return to being that shambling, ill-disciplined showcase of modernity that it has always said it was, a laboratory of bastardized Arab liberalism (but liberalism nonetheless)? Or will it fall back into the lap of a decaying Baath regime in Damascus, in league with an ambitious Iran, whose local allies deploy a language of death and the austere habits of those movements created by a security apparat?

To fully understand these contrasting visions for Beirut, we should also admit to their shortcomings. Take only the most dramatic way the city has been used in the ongoing political confrontation between the parliamentary majority and its adversaries. It would be convenient to interpret the descent of the mainly Shiite opposition to the Downtown since early December solely as the desecration of an island of wealth by angry masses of poor. In some respects, that’s what it is. There has been unwarranted hatred in the standoff, a sense that urban prosperity is something to be ashamed of, to be punished. As if the way to distribute justice and equality were by turning a pot of gold into a lump of coal.

However, though we can reproach opposition sympathizers for their obvious delectation in trashing the Solidere area, it’s also true that Beirut is paying for its past faults. A city that cannot properly integrate its different communities is one bound to suffer. A vast majority of Beirut’s Shiites never had much of a say in Beirut’s sundry identities. Shiites were largely excluded from the mostly Sunni Arab nationalist plotline of the 1950s and ’60s; the so-called "Palestinian revolution" of the 1970s visited nothing but misery on Shiites in the South and Beirut; and the postwar Hariri reconstruction plan, while in theory designed to benefit all, was little focused on creating a social safety net, one that could have helped pry the community away from its reliance on Hizbullah aid.

For many Shiites, the movement to Beirut has been devoid of an underlining narrative that any intellectual would find invigorating. It’s been largely a tale of wretchedness, of escaping the violence of the South or scraping up a better living. In Beirut proper, the Shiite advance into those areas of the capital straddling the old "green line" was the result, principally, of war and displacement. That is why we will continue to see Beirut’s original inhabitants treating Shiites as being in the city but not of it - a sad leitmotif heard last week after the Thursday clashes. In this particular case it is Beirut that is to blame, through its imposition of too selective a prevailing spirit - not those outsiders drawn to it.

A great difficulty, too, is that Hizbullah has turned itself into the sole mediator between Beirut and the Shiite community. The autonomy of the southern suburbs can surely be blamed on the unbalanced way the city has developed; but Hizbullah has also found it convenient to separate the area from the rest of the capital. This isolation has allowed the party to better exercise control, to block the dissemination of subversive ideas that any modern city tosses up, to avoid the sort of integration into Beirut, indeed into Lebanon, that threatens to make Hizbullah redundant. If Beirut is to ever truly become the springtime of the Arabs, Shiites need to break the filter that Hizbullah is placing between them and their own city.

That won’t be easy. After the rioting last week, several disturbing messages were sent to the Shiites: that access to Beirut from Shiite population centers in South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley could be easily cut off; that Shiites inside Beirut might be trapped between Sunni and Christian quarters; and that in the event of war, Beirut’s southern suburbs would find themselves under the guns of their foes. That is what the city is disintegrating into: a conversation on comparative military positioning.

Even language has been corrupted. For a place that once prided itself on literary output, a glance at news shows or newspapers will show the chronic use of shoddy, loathsome terminology: the opposition is referred to as "the coup-plotting forces" in outlets controlled by the majority; majority parties are refereed to as "the militias of the state" by Hizbullah and the Aounists. The airwaves and broadsheets are filled daily with threats. Media have become instruments of war and mobilization, sources of division - even in terms of who watches which TV channels. So much for the unifying nature of modern communications; so much for Beirut’s ability to inject liberalism even into the most recalcitrant of its sons.

And yet liberalism is precisely where Beirut’s salvation will come from. It will come once Shiites are truly accepted as part of the city, but also when they accept the city in all its anarchic permutations - not as the representation of a mortal adversary to be violated. For Beirut to have any meaning, it must remain free, disobedient, disorderly, able to take in any strange idea and grind it down into food the city can digest. Perhaps most importantly, Beirut should be spared the intrusions of God, because religion, so utterly suffocating in its Lebanese manifestations, can only suffocate what makes Beirut interesting and different.

There are many in the Middle East who would prefer to see Beirut destroyed rather than emancipated. They should be careful. Beirut may be dumb prey, but like any city that also doubles as a powerful idea, it tends to take down those conceited enough to imagine that they can kill it.