Thursday, April 26, 2007

Two openings March 14 might consider

Two openings March 14 might consider
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 26, 2007

It's never easy to discern movement in the midst of glacial stalemate, but the ice has definitely budged in the past 10 days in Lebanon. The Hariri tribunal is almost certain to be established, whether through Lebanese institutions or through the United Nations Security Council; and the heat is building up on the opposition to agree to a presidential election amid a widening consensus that Emile Lahoud, whatever else happens, will not remain in office beyond the end of his term.

Many more difficulties lie ahead, but the visit to Beirut last week of Nicolas Michel, the UN's chief legal adviser, was a decisive step in the establishment of the tribunal. Michel sent as explicit a message as the opposition and Syria will ever receive that the tribunal is coming, whatever their displeasure. However, it was Russia's deputy foreign minister, Alexander Sultanov, who lowered the knife on Syria by indicating that Moscow would not veto recourse to Chapter 7 in the event the tribunal remained blocked in Lebanon.

Sultanov's message to Syrian President Bashar Assad probably went like this: Accept the tribunal through the Lebanese constitutional process, since you can then influence what happens; but once it reaches the UN, there's little we can do to help you. There are no signs, however, that Assad intends to change direction.

Hizbullah and other opposition groups have sounded apocalyptic when mentioning the possible domestic impact of a Chapter 7 tribunal. One Hizbullah parliamentarian took the gold by predicting it might lead to civil war. Precisely why the passage of a tribunal over which all Lebanese allegedly agree should lead to war remains a mystery.

But Hizbullah, for all its frustration with the majority, has very little latitude, or desire, to provoke a conflict that would lead to sectarian meltdown. That's why the party has mainly directed its vitriol against a Druze, Walid Jumblatt, and a Maronite, Samir Geagea, not against Saad Hariri and the Sunni community that is most insistent about the need to see the tribunal formed. A Sunni-Shiite clash is a red line that Iran will not cross.

Similarly, Hizbullah has indicated that its focus is now on early legislative elections to replace what it considers an illegitimate Parliament. This implies the presidential election might not be held on time, since Parliament elects the president. The party's logic is confusing. If a new president takes office, then constitutionally the current Siniora government will fall, an objective the opposition has spent over four months trying to achieve.

On the other hand, if the opposition blocks the election, then it will be blamed for carrying the country into a political vacuum. A scheme being floated by the opposition is for Lahoud to name an interim government headed by Michel Aoun. However, not only would this be unconstitutional, Aoun has reportedly said he would not accept such a poisoned apple unless he were guaranteed the presidency.

Hizbullah remains militarily powerful, but its political inflexibility is proving disastrous. The party and the Amal movement can thank Syrian intransigence for that. Because Assad refuses to concede anything on the Hariri tribunal, we may be nearing the time when Hizbullah and Amal have to tell the Syrians they've done all they can on Syria's behalf, but that they now need to shore up their declining domestic position.

In order to maintain the initiative, but also to block any outside effort to sow domestic conflict over the Hariri tribunal, March 14 needs to do more. It should open up in two directions: toward the Shiite community, over Hizbullah's head; and toward Aoun, who has been oddly silent in recent weeks, perhaps in recognition of the fact that his vision for Lebanon and that of his transitory ally, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, are irreconcilable - at least if Nasrallah's April 8 speech is the benchmark.

With respect to the Shiites, the majority might want to think of putting on the table a quid pro quo: a timetable to discuss constitutional reforms and a redistribution of political power among all communities, in particular the Shiites, in exchange for Hizbullah's willingness to accept a timetable for its disarmament. Since the majority is calling for Hizbullah's disarmament under Taif, it can also discuss what Taif focused on: political reform.

The idea would be to compel Hizbullah to explain to its own community why retaining its weapons is preferable to the Shiites' gaining a larger share of political representation through peaceful means. At the same time, creating a schedule for Hizbullah's disarmament need not mean insisting on a short deadline. As in the Northern Ireland peace process through which the IRA surrendered its weapons, it can take years.

At the same time, the majority can do more to break Aoun away from Hizbullah and from the smaller pro-Syrian groups, with whom he has no affinity. The main hurdle is Aoun's stubborn insistence that he alone must become president. This might not change.

However, the majority can tell the general publicly that while it will never accept him in Baabda, it will agree to a candidate that he names in cooperation with other major Maronite representatives, such as Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and Geagea. Needless to say, Aoun, because he controls the balance in Parliament for a two-thirds majority, would have much more say in the matter than Sfeir or Geagea, and could substantially shape the president's agenda.

Admittedly, that's not as easy as it sounds. With most Maronite politicians fantasizing over the presidency, there will be growing cracks within the majority over who succeeds Lahoud. But the value of giving Aoun a choice role in the selection process is that it would minimize dejection among the general's supporters if he is not elected.

While Aoun's popularity among Christians has declined, it is not insignificant; nor is it in the interest of March 14 to allow the community to succumb to the despondency that defined it during the 1990s. If Aoun were given the means to advance his program through a candidate that he and other Christian representatives could choose, he would have less leeway to argue that he is personally indispensable for a Christian revival.

These two steps - putting on the table political reform that would advantage Shiites in parallel with Hizbullah's disarmament, and building bridges to Michel Aoun - could help the majority consolidate the gains it has recently made. Now is the time for March 14 to press ahead, but also to show the opposition that it can only lose by perpetuating deadlock.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Duck Soup: What a satirical weekly can tell us about France’s elections

As France prepares to vote in the first round of its presidential election on April 22, an indispensable guide to a campaign mostly low on drama but high in potential meaning has been the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine. With its slogan "The freedom of the press wears itself out only when it is not used," the newspaper has been an obstinate investigator of the notoriously mendacious French political elite. Why a similar such newspaper does not exist in the United States merits examination.

Founded in 1915 by Maurice and Jeanne Marechal, Le Canard Enchaine got its name through both parody and pun—fitting for a newspaper that lampoons at will and most of whose headlines play with words. When politician George Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Homme Libre (The Free Man) was closed down, he renamed it L’Homme Enchaine (The Man in Chains). The Marechals riffed on that title in naming their own newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, literally "The Duck in Chains," bearing in mind that in French slang, a "canard" means a newspaper.

French political culture has always tended to be more freewheeling than that in most other Western countries (though a special place should perhaps be reserved for Italy). For example, major politicians of all persuasions have at one time or other been indicted or accused of illegal party financing, even of taking bribes, including President Jacques Chirac. A politician innocent of extra-marital affairs is the object of high mockery, and it is with considerable disbelief that the French still contemplate the reportedly irreproachable Charles de Gaulle. And betrayal is so accepted a norm of political life, that few are those politicians without a knife in their back and another in their hand.

None of this is particularly unique to France, but Le Canard Enchaine has played a paradoxical role in addressing issues of political immorality. It has highlighted the worse offenses of French politicians, but it has also, and unintentionally, helped institutionalize their behavior by showing that everybody does it. The newspaper acts as a safety valve of sorts, because it hits out in all directions against France’s schools of scandal.

Take the newspaper’s report in its February 28 issue that presidential front runner Nicolas Sarkozy had, as mayor of Neuilly, saved the equivalent of around $360,000 in his purchase and remodeling of a duplex apartment on the luxurious Ile de Jatte, in his own constituency. He managed to do so because the company developing the apartment building allegedly sold him the property at below-market price and made costly changes to the Sarkozy residence for free. It so happens that the company, Groupe Lasserre, is a major developer in Neuilly. The implication was obvious: Lasserre did Sarkozy a favor because it needed the mayor’s support for its other Neuilly investments.

This was pretty damaging stuff, and Sarkozy’s unimpressive official response was promptly shredded to pieces by the Canard. But did the candidate suffer any lasting damage? Apparently not, as he still remains the favorite to win in the first round of the election, against the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, the centrist Francois Bayrou, the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, and a gaggle of lesser lights.

One reason why the impact of the story may have been subdued is that in its next issue, the Canard had a troubling report on Royal. According to the newspaper, she and her partner, Socialist Party boss Francois Hollande, underestimated by a factor of three the value of a vacation home they own in the south of France for tax purposes. The story wrapped around a cartoon of a bikinied Royal, sitting poolside at the home, an issue of the Canard in hand, asking Hollande, who is preparing to dive in with a ducky floater around his waste: "Francois, why are they all after my two-room home?"

And just to make sure no one got off untarnished, two weeks later the newspaper had a similar story on Le Pen, showing how he, too, had probably wildly underestimated the tax value of his properties and revenues. Aside from showing that French politicians can be as sane as the rest of us when it comes to evading income and property tax, the pieces both harmed the candidates and neutralized that harm by making everyone look just as bad. Anyway, which Frenchman, once the initial envy had washed away, could begrudge someone fleecing the state?

Its investigative gifts aside, the Canard’s real attraction is its wicked humor. The newspaper’s shambling, faux early 20th-century layout (it is always eight pages long) helps in that regard, projecting an image of splendid apathy when it comes to modern form. Adding to that is the decision of the editors to avoid putting the publication online for now, as they insist that "our job is to inform and entertain our readers, with newsprint and ink."

Most of the Canard’s puns are untranslatable, but those that are are pretty good. Sarkozy’s decision to throw out management at the France 3 public television station if he wins the election brought in this headline: Sarkozy wants a "menage a France 3," with "menage" roughly meaning an "overhaul" in French. A story on a school linked to Opus Dei that engaged in illegal labor practices earned the headline, "The Da Vinci Code of Work." Or what about the cartoon of Bayrou, whom the paper has dubbed "the horse whisperer" because of his passion for rural life, telling his horse: "If I’m not in the second round, I’ll vote for..." Bayrou’s supporters, if the candidate doesn’t make it through himself, might hold a key swing vote in the second round between the top two vote-getters, so the horse would seem to be a nose ahead on the rest of us.

You have to wonder why a similar national publication doesn’t exist in the U.S. The popularity of The Onion, or the fact that a magazine like Spy managed to have considerable influence during the 1980s, suggest that Americans aren’t all that satire-resistant. Satirical political journalism is as old as the republic itself, and publicists, writers, and journalists such as Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Russell Baker, and Art Buchwald have always used wittiness to make serious political points. The blogosphere, with its indifference to hierarchy and its distaste for filtering commentary, has taken that a step further. But satire and humor are not necessarily the same thing. There is a subversiveness to satire that has seemed to jar with the increasing tendency of Americans in general, and the mainstream media in particular, to take their politics very straight. To place chronicles of corruption, hypocrisy, and vice in the pages of essentially humorous publications would only detract from the profound indignation we’re expected to feel whenever crimes or misdemeanors are exposed. The U.S. may be as corrupt as anybody, but public office is routinely being peddled as something that must be morally righteous, even if few things are more annoying than listening to politicians pretending to believe that canard.

Maybe America is more satire resistant than it used to be, or maybe the theory has no legs. Still, few are the satirical pins available to deflate those monuments of hot air that American elected officials have become. The mainstream media seem everywhere caught in chains of solemnity.

The blogosphere’s foreign informant

What is it about the blogosphere that can transform perfectly credible academics into unethical hit men? The object of my inquiry is one Joshua Landis, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma who hosts a widely read, once respectable Weblog called Syria Comment.

I make no pretense of maintaining the high road here. My question is prompted by Landis’ putting up a post on his blog last week that made serious and unsubstantiated allegations about me. Nor is this the first or second time this happens. Landis was so pleased with his text that he e-mailed it to various correspondents for dissemination. On Sunday, Landis asked for my permission to post a rebuttal I had sent him. I agreed. But when I next checked his site, he was telling readers he wanted "passions to cool" before posting his response to my unposted comments. I mentioned his promise unkept; he offered an unpersuasive excuse, saying my rejoinder would go up on Wednesday. That calculated delay made any rebuttal meaningless, so I asked him to forget about it.

Having been denied a timely chance to respond on his site, I do so here. Why should a row matter? It matters to me because in the polarized Lebanese atmosphere, fabricated accusations can be irresponsible, even dangerous. The theme of Landis’ post is that Lebanon’s Shiites, since they are under-represented in Parliament, are comparable to black slaves in America. For some reason Landis makes me the embodiment of those Lebanese denying Shiites their rights. This is troubling for being visibly personal in intent, given how inconsequential I am in the matter of Shiite power; but also because I’ve repeatedly argued that the Taif agreement needs overhauling so Shiites receive a greater stake in the system. I wrote last summer that "Taif was designed to build a post-war state. It should be re-tooled to bring the Shiite community back into the Lebanese fold."

Landis builds his case on false pretences. He writes that I believe "the Shiite Crescent is the true enemy of the West and liberty in the region." I responded that he might want to supply a quote, since I rarely use the term "Shiite Crescent," negatively or positively, find the idea simplistic, and have written so. Landis states that I back disarmament of "the Shiites" in South Lebanon by international forces. I again requested a quote. None was forthcoming, possibly because I’ve argued that such a step would be disastrous. In June 2005 I wrote here that "no one wants to see [Hizbullah] disarmed by force, nor is that a sensible option ... [And] no one in Washington or Paris, let alone at United Nations headquarters, is contemplating going down such a reckless path."

Most disturbing, Landis writes: "Young once said to me that if Taif were rewritten and Christians were allocated less than their present 50 percent share of Parliamentary seats, he might be forced to leave Lebanon." Landis made this up, and I can confirm that through the four other people present at the dinner where the subject was broached. I wouldn’t make such a statement because I disagree with it.

Here is what I wrote in The Daily Star in August 2005, in a piece on how Taif might be used advantageously to reform Lebanon’s political system: "What is expected, first, of Christians, is to collectively initiate a process realistically assessing where they stand now ... In that sense, the Taif agreement ... offers guidelines to a system gradually moving away from political confessionalism: administrative decentralization, but also the elimination of a 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims in Parliament, and the creation of a Senate - probably evenly divided between the religious communities - to deal with major national issues."

Landis confused our conversation with an exchange published on his blog, in which I plainly made reference to how I thought Christians in general might respond to elimination of the 50-50 ratio. I never mentioned how I myself would react - an issue pertinent here because Landis’ reference to my being "forced to leave" implies that I somehow fear paying a personal price if Muslims are granted a greater share of power. In fact, a peaceful transfer of power through the removal of the 50-50 quota in Parliament, provided there are institutional guarantees to reassure Christians, is the only long-term hope for the Christian community.

These illustrations, and others, are typical of Landis’ style. He chronically puts harmful words into the mouths of others, with no evidence for his sleights of hand. But when such behavior drifts into articles in respected publications, it becomes a different matter altogether, pointing to a far more worrisome abandonment of academic integrity.

Take a piece on the Syrian opposition that Landis co-authored in the Winter 2007 issue of The Washington Quarterly. In it he asserted that the Damascus Declaration, an October 2005 document signed by Syrian opposition figures calling for democratic change, "grew out of a clandestine trip to Morocco only a few months earlier by intellectual Michel Kilo to meet with [the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddin] Bayanuni to discuss a new initiative to unite forces."

This item was quite damaging to Kilo, who had been languishing in Adra prison for having purportedly colluded with Syria’s enemies. Where did Landis get this information? In reading the article you see that the authors have footnoted an article by Andrew Tabler, which I happen to have read. But as an astute reader reminded me, Tabler only wrote that "two unnamed members" of the Syrian civil society movement had met with Bayanouni. There is no mention of Kilo at all in the piece, because Tabler could not confirm his presence in Morocco. One of two things happened: Either Landis read Tabler as carelessly as he reads everything else he quotes, which still doesn’t explain how Kilo’s name slipped in; or, knowing the impact of what he was saying, Landis mentioned Kilo intentionally, effectively justifying his arrest, then dishonestly attributed this to Tabler.

I’m increasingly inclined to believe the latter. My theory, and take it for what it’s worth, is that Landis’ ambition is to be the premier mediator with and interpreter of Syria in American academic and policy-making circles - a latter-day Patrick Seale. In this context, and again this is just a coagulating hypothesis, Landis has frequently used his blog to prove his worth to the Syrians - perhaps to enjoy better access. He has also maligned those offering perspectives different than his own. In the post where he went after me, Landis harshly attacked the An-Nahar Washington correspondent, Hisham Melhem, as well. My conviction is that Landis felt he had to discredit us both, mainly because we fear that Lebanon will pay if the US engages Syria. As he once, revealingly, put it to me: "Your anti-Syrian line is the most coherent and best packaged." I would dispute the term "anti-Syrian" and find his use of the word "packaged" peculiar. Perhaps I’m just not partial to Syria’s leadership.

Is court scribe really a role an academic should aspire to? And what does it say about Landis that he has consistently promoted the idea that the United States should sign off on renewed Syrian control over Lebanon in exchange for a deal with Damascus in Iraq? What kind of esteem does a scholar invite by wanting to return a recently emancipated, fairly democratic country to its former subjugation by a foreign dictatorship?

Consider Landis’ oblique, but very clear message in a PBS interview last November. It merits being quoted in full: "Syria is demanding a number of things. They’re demanding the Golan Heights back that was occupied in 1967 by Israel. They want influence in Lebanon, and they don’t want Iraq to fall apart ... And, you know, the United States and Syria have dealt together for two decades. And the US in ’91, when it first went to war against Iraq in the Gulf, had Syria on its side, because in a sense it said, ’You can keep Lebanon in your sphere of influence.’ And Syria said, ’Yes,’ they kept Lebanon in their sphere of influence. And what happened to Lebanon during that period? It repaired itself in the Civil War. It grew. [Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri ... rebuilt Lebanon. It was pro-Western. Because of Syrian influence ... in Lebanon [it] does not mean that the country turns into ... a small Iran on the Mediterranean. It means that Syrian interests are taken into concern, and it doesn’t mean the end." Hariri might dispute the last observation. Then again, at a Brookings Institution conference Landis once famously remarked that the late prime minister had "died."

One can cite copious contradictions in his posts, as the calculations change. Sometimes Landis will write that Syria is "doing the complete job of guarding [the Iraqi] border"; at other times, he will observe: "By refusing to deal with Syria, the US guaranteed that [Bashar] Assad would not police mujaheddin going in and out of [Iraq] and would work to undermine the US in Iraq." Sometimes Landis will tell the Council on Foreign Relations that the "Christians in Lebanon are talking about how Israel would be a much better partner than Syria and that they should make peace with Israel"; elsewhere he will affirm that the most popular Christian leader is Michel Aoun, who is close to Hizbullah, and will refer to the "Maronite-Shiite alliance that really frustrated the Sunnis."

I’ve long been a believer in the revolutionary potential of blogs, and was a regular visitor to Landis’ site when he used it as a platform to popularize his academic research. But something happened along the way. From an egghead unknown to the public, Landis morphed into a slapdash cyber-pundit, a pamphleteer, a willing agent of influence. Now he always seems to be hawking something. The thing is, his overall value has dived.

The posting of Joshua Landis was posted on March 10, 2007 and is published on and copied below:

The isolation of Syria appears to be breaking as Damascus seeks deals with the Saudis and the Lebanese, writes Nicholas Blanford. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will travel to Syria soon, marking a resumption of high-level contacts between Damascus and the Europeans. The prospect of a thaw with Syria has caused howls of protest from Lebanon's obstructionists who continue to believe that America's plan for changing the Middle East is working. They call on the US to ratchet up military and economic pressure on Iran and Syria in the benighted belief that reform of the Greater Middle East is on the horizon. Michael Young insists in the Daily Star that Syria is on the verge of breaking. He believes Syria will change its policies and fall in line with the US. This is the identical line that Junblatt and Raghida Dergham have been trumpeting.

The biggest assets of the obstructionists is US Ambassador Feltman, who has been working assiduously to keep a deal from being struck in Lebanon. He refuses to allow the Syrians satisfaction on their demand that the establishment of the International tribunal be delayed until after a Lebanon deal is clinched. His fear is that if the Lebanese opposition gets a 19+11 cabinet sharing formula before the Lebanese government signs over permission for an international tribunal, it will never get established. To avoid such a prospect, the US is willing to sacrifice Lebanon's future and any prospects of economic growth for the country. Stagnation and paralysis will continue to be the order of the day in Lebanon. With a deal, all the participants gain. Feltman has a most unusual arrangement with Secretary Rice; he has a weekly video conference with the Secretary - access of the like only the Ambassador to Iraq can boast. Colonel Pat Lang writes:

"Everyone was happy, even giddy about the prospect of a typically muddled but non-violent solution to the impasse in Lebanon. Today the leaders say "not so fast." What happened overnight? Was it Feltman that happened? Was it Rice? Was it our unending malicious meddling in other people's business?"

Michael Young is particularly outraged because his good friend David Ignatius recommended negotiating with Syria and Iran. Ignatius writes that a senior Bush administration official explained: "We think our Iraq strategy is consistent with Baker-Hamilton. We want to get to the same place, but not on the same time-line." Ignatius proposes that Baker be appointed to begin negotiations with Syria and Israel because the administration's hard line tactics have failed. Ignatius does not believe that Iran and Syria are about to crack.

Martin Kramer supports Michael Young in his belief that the Shiite Crescent is the true enemy of the West and liberty in the region, but his animus is directed at the Iranian end of the crescent, which most directly threatens Israel, and not the Syrian end. In a MERIA article, A New Middle East: Islamism and Terrorism, he argues that only by destroying Iran's nuclear ambitions and arrogant attempts to exploit the Palestinian and Lebanese problems can the West bring peace to the region.

The only problem with this analysis is that it is has led to a long list of failures and the needless death of thousands of Iraqis and Americans. Michael Young recommended the invasion of Iraq in 2003, claiming that the "consociational" Lebanese model of government that has served his country so well would bring peace and happiness to Iraq and quickly be replicated throughout the Middle East. It has taken the West four long years of watching Iraq descend into ferocious civil war to come to grips with the short comings of this analysis. In 2006, Young advocated keeping the incompetent Lahoud as president of Lebanon rather than giving Michel Aoun a chance at elections. (Aoun was the most popular candidate in Lebanon at the time.) This obstructionism led directly to the summer war between Lebanon and Israel. With no prospects of a non-violent adjustment to Lebanon's lopsided power-sharing formula, Hizbullah and its opposition allies fell back on the old formula of "resistance" and demonstrations. When war broke out, Young began excitedly prognosticating that Israel could break Hizbullah and international forces disarm it. He insisted the Shiite party did not represent authentic Lebanese demands, being merely a creature of Iran and Syria. Again, Young's dreams didn't materialize. Instead, the inconclusive war led to paralysis in Lebanon as Hizbullah and the Siniora government stand face to face, each unwilling to bow to the demands of the other. Rather that admit that he has misjudged the opposition or the ability of American and Israeli power to reshape the hearts and minds of Middle Easterners, Young continues to insist that Syria and Hizbullah will buckle if only the US will inflict a bit more pain on them.

Rather than come to grips with the real flaws of Lebanon's democracy, Michael Young, like many other Lebanese, believes that the use of force by foreign powers can preserve the skewed status quo in Lebanon. He wants international forces to disarm the Shiites in the South, and the US to inflict more pain on Syria. The Lebanese obstructionist solution is to import violence into Lebanon and the region. They refuse to allow a "typically muddled but non-violent solution to the impasse." Importing foreign armies to keep the Shiites in their place will only lead to further war and extremism on both sides.

What is wrong with the "consociational" system that is held up as the epitome of Lebanese democracy and power-sharing? Quite simply, it treats Shiites like slaves. In pre-civil war America, black slaves were counted as half a white person. In Lebanon they are accorded the same political weight. Although Shiites are estimated to make up some 40% of the population, the Taif Accords, Lebanon's constitutional arrangement, permit the Shiites only 22% of the seats in parliament.

The defenders of Taif will scoff at this analogy between Lebanese Shiites and American slaves. They will say, "But we don't treat Shiites as slaves. They can vote and they are allocated the third most powerful political office in the land: the President of the Parliament. All true, I admit, but this doesn't obscure the simple fact that Shiites are accorded only half the political worth of other human beings in Lebanon.

Hizbollah and its opposition allies have repeatedly stated that they have no intention of challenging the Taif Accords. Instead they ask for a greater number of cabinet posts. They make these diminutive demands in order not to appear as revolutionaries. They do not want to threaten the Sunnis, who have most to lose from a more equitable power-sharing formula. What the obstructionists fear, however, is that if the governing coalition makes one concession, it will lead to others. It is a slippery slop. If they concede more cabinet positions to the Shiites today, the sons of Hussein will call for a proper census and a reconsideration of Taif tomorrow.

In a recent PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer during which I debated opposite the al-Arabiya reporter Hisham Milhem, I was left speechless when he insisted that the "Shiites wanted to turn Beirut into a Tehran on the Mediterranean." I was not prepared for such super-heated rhetoric. The only way to counter such fear mongering, however, is to shoot back that Beirut today is Mecca on the Mediterranean. Yes, Club Mec. Or, perhaps a cross between the Vatican and Mecca on the Med. Sunnis and Christians enjoy the lion's share of power. The mellifluous and jolly sounding term "consociationalism" cannot hide the ugly fact that Lebanon is a religious state, in which Sunnis and Christians are privileged, politically and economically.

Undoing the mutual fear and resentment which divide the opposition from the governing coalition will not be easy, but obstructing the kind of deal that the Saudis and Egyptians are trying to broker is not the answer. It will invite further violence. Young rightly fears for Lebanon's sovereignty, but only concord among Lebanese can act as proof against foreign influence. Young is one of the smartest hawks in the Lebanese firmament and he has written thoughtfully on the need for a more equitable power-sharing in Lebanon. Now is the time to do it.

At the same time, Michael Young once said to me that if Taif were rewritten and Christians were allocated less than their present 50% share of Parliamentary seats, he might be forced to leave Lebanon. That is a sad comment on the state of Lebanon's consociational system and the prospects for a political deal in the immediate future.

If the United States is sincere about promoting democracy in the most democratic state in the Arab East, burnishing its reputation for justice, and promoting freedom, it cannot stand on the side of counting Shiites as slaves. If any nation in the Middle East has a chance to point the way toward a more tolerant and democratic future, it is Lebanon.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Prepare for less attention in Paris
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Jacques Chirac still has some weeks left in office, but as of this Sunday, when France votes in the first round of its presidential election, the president will begin emptying the closets at the Elysee Palace. Chirac's final act, however, may be to see through a major endeavor of his in recent months: ensuring that a tribunal is formed to sentence those responsible for the assassination of his late friend, Rafik Hariri.

By next week we should know better whether the tribunal will be created under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter. Much will depend on the impressions that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov and UN Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs Nicolas Michel take home with them after their visits to the region this week. Chirac's departure is accelerating what happens in New York, partly because he has good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and could help reassure the Kremlin; partly because the transfer of power to a new French president could delay the tribunal approval process, which senior UN officials, the United States, and France don't want to see happen.

Whoever replaces Chirac as president, those in Beirut who regard France as a vital ally in frustrating Syria's designs to regain power in Lebanon will have to brace themselves for less attention in Paris. In a press conference on Monday, after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the presidential front-runner, Nicolas Sarkozy, pointedly noted: "Lebanon is very important to me, [but] there is more than just Lebanon." March 14 has benefited from the anomaly of Chirac's personalization of his Lebanon policy thanks to his intimacy with the Hariri family. But the implications for Lebanon's future may be more dangerous than we realize.

Chirac's support for Hariri was apparently a key factor behind French efforts in 2004 to be more intrusive in Lebanon. The defining moment came in June of that year, when the French president met with his American counterpart, George W. Bush, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings. Though the Americans and French had clashed bitterly over the Iraq invasion, Lebanon emerged as an issue over which the two sides could agree. Bush was keen to put pressure on Syria because of Syrian actions in Iraq. Chirac, who by then had lost all faith in Syrian President Bashar Assad, appeared to be preparing for the upcoming presidential election in Lebanon, an essential moment for Hariri to reassert his influence after years of facing animosity from President Emile Lahoud, Lebanon's security services, and Syria.

Following his meeting with Bush in Paris, Chirac had declared: "We have expressed renewed conviction and belief that Lebanon has to be ensured that its independence and sovereignty are guaranteed." Bush, in turn, affirmed: "The United States and France ... agree that the people of Lebanon should be free to determine their own future, without foreign interference or domination." The culmination of these early rumblings of consensus would come in September, when the Security Council passed Resolution 1559. Among other things, it demanded a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, after Assad had intimidated Hariri and Lebanon's Parliament into voting in favor of an extension for Lahoud.

This was a remarkable turnaround when compared to Chirac's position in 1996, when the president addressed the Lebanese Parliament. He told the assembled parliamentarians that France hoped 1996 could be a year when Syria and Lebanon would each reach a settlement with Israel. Chirac went on to observe that "it's through a just and lasting peace that your country will regain its sovereignty over all its territory, according to United Nations resolutions." At the time, Hariri was a main pillar of the Syrian order in Lebanon, so the French president basically reminded the Lebanese that Syria would only withdraw its forces once peace had been negotiated with Israel - which still occupied much of South Lebanon. Resolution 1559 did away with the open-endedness of Chirac's earlier message.

It was good to have Chirac in office during 2005 and 2006, when Lebanon needed regional and international assistance to get rid of the Syrians, put the Hariri investigation on track, and set up a UN framework to help normalize the country, particularly after the summer war last year. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing in diplomacy can often lead to too much of a bad thing. Domestic politics are often conducted in partisan counterpoint, so that, for example, the Bush administration's isolation of Syria prompted a foolish Democratic opening to Assad when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Damascus recently. Similarly, Chirac's closeness to the Hariri family will almost certainly ensure that a new French administration swings the pendulum in the opposite direction, to compensate for the perceived excesses of the current president.

This is worrisome. It may be too late for Chirac, but Bush needs to better anchor his policy institutionally toward Syria, so it can endure once he leaves office. Policy abhors a vacuum. That's why Bush must define a more systematic approach to containing Syria, which he can justify in the context of a broader Middle East strategy that gains bipartisan support in Washington. Instead, what we now have is a deep rift between Republicans and Democrats over Iraq, which is threatening to undermine the administration's line on other important regional issues in which it has successfully worked within an Arab and international consensus. This includes ending Syria's efforts to reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon.

As for March 14, it should make a priority of pressing its friends in the West to develop a Lebanon policy that lasts beyond the leaders in place. That means talking to those likely to be in power next, and showing that Lebanon means more than justice for Rafik Hariri or tranquility along the border with Israel. Both are important objectives, even critical ones, but the Lebanese have too often suffered from international indifference not to see the advantages of building sympathy that is more lasting.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A divorce that Nasrallah cannot afford

A divorce that Nasrallah cannot afford
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's speech on Sunday formalized Hizbullah's divorce from the rest of Lebanese society, confirming there is a fundamental rift between the party and a majority of Lebanese over a vision for Lebanon. But the rhetoric was also something more prosaic. It echoed a statement last week by former Minister Wiam Wahab, one of Syria's licensed local spokesmen, that negotiations over the distribution of portfolios in the government had become "stupid," and that a more fundamental change in the political system was now needed.

Both points Nasrallah combined in a key passage of his address. Lebanon was passing through a "fateful and important period" of its history, he argued, and "the issue is not one of [an] 11-19 [distribution of ministers in the government] or 17-13; it is much deeper than that." The real issue was one of control, with the parliamentary majority seeking to impose its writ on the whole country with international, particularly American, encouragement. The only way Lebanon could emerge from its crisis was through new elections or a referendum. The Hariri tribunal would only be endorsed once the opposition introduced changes into the text, and would have to be approved by the government in a session presided over by President Emile Lahoud. The tribunal itself might be formed only after the United Nations investigation of Rafik Hariri's assassination was completed (though, Nasrallah insisted, the judgment had already been written). And Nasrallah described the four generals who are suspects in the assassination as "political prisoners" who had to be released.

While the majority and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora are taking the Security Council route to establish the Hariri tribunal under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, Hizbullah's secretary general merely reiterated Syria's line on the Lebanese deadlock. He reaffirmed that the party's conflict with its adversaries is an existential one and, rashly, made Shiites the first line of defense in protecting Hariri's killers.

Nasrallah ruled out a civil war, and his threat that the opposition would be willing to stick to its position for two more years, until Parliament's mandate ended, suggested he is not looking for an imminent escalation. Instead, the opposition's tactic is to wear the system down through inertia, even if economic disaster is the result. Nasrallah's aim is to gain time for his Syrian allies, push the international community and the Arab world to exasperation or hesitation, so they will approve of a revitalized Syrian role in Lebanon, and, by so doing, guarantee that Hizbullah will be able to remain a military organization as well as a political one.

Nasrallah was right. Lebanon's destiny is indeed being determined today. Will the country once again become that freewheeling liberal outpost open to both East and West that it was before 1975, and which Hariri tried to recreate? Or will it become the pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian garrison state of which Nasrallah dreams, one that would allow his party to retain its weapons and secure a future as the militant vanguard of a society whose obsession would be self-defense against proliferating foes?

Nasrallah claims that he has a majority of Lebanese on his side. That's untrue since even Hizbullah's main allies in the Aounist movement don't share the secretary general's austere designs for Lebanon, at least if their political program is to be believed. One has to wonder what Michel Aoun thought of Nasrallah's statements. Does it take much more for him to realize that, in the unlikely event he were ever to become president, the primary obstacle to implementing his own ideal of the Lebanese state would be Hizbullah's ideal of the Lebanese state?

In this context, what about Speaker Nabih Berri? He has tried unsuccessfully to maneuver between Nasrallah's increasingly unyielding conditions, the majority's growing impatience with Berri's refusal to convene Parliament, and Syria's intransigence on the tribunal. Last week Berri proposed a massive airlift of Lebanon's politicians to Saudi Arabia so they could be reconciled under the kingdom's auspices. His rationale seems to have been that because King Abdullah could not abide failure, such a gathering would induce the Saudis to pressure the majority into being more conciliatory toward Berri's plans.

This wasn't the first time that Berri had imagined a Saudi solution. Several weeks ago, the speaker sent a document to the kingdom in which he made suggestions on resolving the current crisis. He reportedly accepted that the tribunal should be approved first, before agreement on a new government. The opposition would make amendments to the tribunal's statutes, but this would be done promptly, without emptying the tribunal of its clout. Then a government would be formed on a 19-11 basis, with a promise that opposition ministers would not resign before the end of Emile Lahoud's term in order to bring the government down and impose an opposition candidate as president. This government would then approve the tribunal, as would Lahoud, resolving the crisis.

The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Abdel-Aziz Khoja, liked the idea, which might explain why he was full of praise for Berri recently, after the speaker made a speech harshly criticizing the majority. However, the majority was displeased with the implications of Berri's proposals, particularly its setting precedents that might negate the Siniora government's past actions, and made this known in Riyadh. The Saudis sensed the complications in accepting Berri's scheme, which is perhaps why they showed so little enthusiasm for the speaker's offer last week. Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt shot Berri's idea down by insisting that a Saudi reconciliation should only be icing on a prior inter-Lebanese settlement. Nasrallah's address on Sunday raised the stakes by showing this was not about to happen. It was also his way of warning that a Chapter 7 tribunal might generate sectarian discord inside Lebanon, an argument that raises powerful doubts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The UN is where all major matters Lebanese are likely to be decided in the coming months. The Chapter 7 tribunal bazaar has been opened. Ultimately, the outcome will in all probability be decided at the level of heads of state, not foreign ministers. Nasrallah has gambled on behalf of his Syrian allies, but if the tribunal is approved, does Hizbullah really want to be out on a limb in confronting the international community and Lebanon's Sunnis, who want justice in the Hariri case? The party seems to have forgotten that it needs to rebuild a Lebanese consensus to protect itself down the road. As things stand, however, Nasrallah is making that impossible.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

When a dilettante takes on Hizbullah

When a dilettante takes on Hizbullah
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, April 05, 2007

We can thank the US speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, for having informed Syrian President Bashar Assad, from Beirut, that "the road to solving Lebanon's problems passes through Damascus." Now, of course, all we need to do is remind Pelosi that the spirit and letter of successive United Nations Security Council resolutions, as well as Saudi and Egyptian efforts in recent weeks, have been destined to ensure precisely the opposite: that Syria end its meddling in Lebanese affairs.

Pelosi embarked on a fool's errand to Damascus this week, and among the issues she said she would raise with Assad - when she wasn't on the Lady Hester Stanhope tour in the capital of imprisoned dissidents Aref Dalila, Michel Kilo, and Anwar Bunni - is "the role of Syria in supporting Hamas and Hizbullah." What the speaker doesn't seem to have realized is that if Syria is made an obligatory passage in American efforts to address the Lebanese crisis, then Hizbullah will only gain. Once Assad is re-anointed gatekeeper in Lebanon, he will have no incentive to concede anything, least of all to dilettantes like Pelosi, on an organization that would be Syria's enforcer in Beirut if it could re-impose its hegemony over its smaller neighbor.

Inasmuch as it is possible to evoke sympathy in such cases, one can sympathize with Hizbullah. In 2000, the party lost much of its reason to exist as a military force when the Israelis withdrew from Southern Lebanon. The manufacturing of the Shebaa Farms pretext, thanks to the diligent efforts of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, bought Hizbullah an extension, a handy fig leaf allowing it to keep its weapons. Last summer, however, the party's initiation of a war devastating to Lebanon, followed by its efforts to lead a coup against the majority, demolished any lingering cross-sectarian support that Hizbullah had enjoyed.

Hizbullah's weapons are no longer regarded as weapons of resistance by most Lebanese, but as weapons of sectarian discord. The party's effort to torpedo the Hariri tribunal has created a perception that it is siding with Rafik Hariri's murderers - little helped by Hizbullah secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's public statements of solidarity with the Syrian regime. But perhaps most worrying for Hizbullah's leadership is its knowledge that the party cannot return to where it was before July 12, 2006, when the war with Israel began - at least without pushing the Lebanese political system perilously closer to war. For one thing is absolutely clear: Without some sort of Syrian return to Lebanon, and even then, Hizbullah has no future as simultaneously a political and military party.

For years, pundits and analysts have spoken of Hizbullah's "integration into Lebanese society." Their underlying premise was that the party somehow desired this. Optimists pointed to Hizbullah's participation in successive parliamentary elections as an example of its willingness to "assimilate." The naivete deployed was remarkable. It rarely occurred to the experts that Hizbullah did not start as, nor truly is, a social services organization. It is an Iranian-financed military and security enterprise overseeing a vast and competent patronage system designed to win Shiite backing, allowing Hizbullah to retain its weapons. It never occurred to the experts that Hizbullah's objective in participating in the political system was not to jettison its military identity, but rather to safeguard it within the confines of Lebanese institutions it could thereafter influence. And it never occurred to the experts that Hizbullah was not interested in integration at all, at least on terms that would require surrendering its autonomy, even if it readily exploited its stake in the state as an additional means of patronage, much like other Lebanese political actors.

These conditions no longer apply in Lebanon. With the society divided, Hizbullah cannot impose its conditions as it once did. This, Nasrallah knows. At the same time, the party's officials are too astute not to recognize that a return of Syrian domination, while it might buy Hizbullah a new lease on life, is more likely to lead to a Sunni-Shiite war, its end result, in all probability, being the collapse of Assad's regime, which would not be able to resist sectarian discord coming from Lebanon. That leaves a third option: Hizbullah's embrace of the Lebanese system through an agreement to disarm and transform itself from a Leninist political-military party into solely a political one deferring to democratic rules.

None of these choices appeals to Hizbullah. This is why it is trying to avoid a decision by taking over effective control of the government, to better determine who will be elected president once Emile Lahoud's term ends. Hizbullah's demand for 11 ministers out of 30 must be understood in this context, as an instrument to bring the government down, or threaten to, and use this as leverage to choose a friendly president. If the party and Syria can influence the presidency, and given the fact that they already rule over Parliament through Berri, this would allow them to hold Lebanon hostage in the coming years and rebuild the political and military infrastructure that was the basis of their intimidation.

That's why both Syria and Hizbullah were especially alarmed with statements from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's entourage last week, that the UN was working on defining the Shebaa Farms border, whether Syria agreed with this or not. If the international organization sets final boundaries and persuades Israel to withdraw, Hizbullah will have even less of an excuse to hold on to its arms. More worrying for the Syrians, this would sever any remaining linkage between a resolution of Lebanon's territorial dispute with Israel and Syria's. Syria would no longer be able to link the military neutralization of the Lebanese-Syrian border area to an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights.

Perhaps Pelosi and other foreign officials will understand this simple equation one day, after again failing to persuade Assad to sell Hizbullah out. Unfortunately, foreign bigwigs come to town, their domestic calculations in hand; then they leave, and we're left picking up the pieces.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Khalilzad: Afghan, Levantine, realist and neocon

Khalilzad: Afghan, Levantine, realist and neocon
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Monday, April 02, 2007

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the American University of Beirut was hardly the likeliest of places to find a budding neoconservative - even less so a budding neoconservative and his future wife. Yet that's where Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing US ambassador to Iraq who will soon take up as US ambassador to the United Nations, did his undergraduate work, and where he met his wife, Cheryl Benard. In those years AUB was in the throes of Third World fervor and enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause. A university yearbook from the early 1970s had a drawing of a Palestinian militant on its cover, his head covered with a keffiyeh.

Describing Khalilzad as a "neoconservative" may be simplistic. In an interview published on Monday to mark Khalilzad's departure from Iraq, The New York Times used the term unhesitatingly. But then one remembers what Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, had to say about the man with whom he worked closely in supporting the Afghan mujahideen between 1979 and 1980: "He is a broad-minded pragmatist and an insightful strategist."

To be branded "pragmatic" by a hardened political realist such as Brzezinski demonstrates that Khalilzad is difficult to pin down with reductionist labels. If anything, his path in recent years has underlined how well he has grasped the impossibility of being an unyielding neocon amid the complexities of the Middle East. That's why it seems fair to wonder whether Khalilzad, who first studied politics in Beirut, where hard truths and sharp angles dissolve in the warm Levant air, is living proof that, when hit by reality, there is no such thing as an ideologically inflexible neoconservative.

It is not hard to see why the foreign-born allies of American neocons have often been those whose causes benefited from greater American combativeness and interventionism. Their agendas and merits, or demerits, notwithstanding, whether we are talking about the Iraqi Ahmad Chalabi, the Syrian Farid Ghadry, or the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition in Lebanon, all these groups or individuals have sided with the neocons and their more traditional confederates in the Bush administration mainly to take advantage of Washington's willingness after 9/11 to challenge the debilitating status quo in their own countries.

In many ways that's how Khalilzad, too, began his career. While teaching political science at Columbia University in the late 1970s, he worked with Brzezinski on US strategy toward his native Afghanistan, which Soviet forces had just invaded. Though he was not, strictly speaking, a political exile, it seems defensible to assume that Khalilzad's Afghan side is what primarily shaped his political perspective early on, rather than his embrace of an America-centered view of power and international relations. At the same time, it would be a mistake to forget that he had, by then, worked closely with Alfred Wohlstetter, a University of Chicago strategist, who was also a guru to Paul Wolfowitz. Wohlstetter was a skeptic on nuclear arms control, and persuaded many young neocons of the need for the United States to remain militarily superior to the USSR.

Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s, Khalilzad drifted in and out of government, working mostly on Afghan and Middle Eastern issues, before serving between 1990 and 1992 at the Pentagon as deputy undersecretary for policy planning. It was in that role, as an assistant to Wolfowitz, that Khalilzad played a major part in drafting a document whose ideas would return to shape policy under President George W. Bush. When then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney asked for an overhaul of American defense thinking in light of the deep changes taking place worldwide, Wolfowitz was tasked with preparing a Defense Planning Guidance. The document's most controversial assertion was that the US should strive to be the sole superpower, and fight off all foreign challengers. This was later watered down, though it would reappear in a more muscular formulation in the National Security Strategy of 2002: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." Wolfowitz was nominally in charge of the document, but he never saw the final draft, according to James Mann, in his book "Rise of the Vulcans." The main author was Khalilzad, who was working under the orders of I. Lewis Libby.

Khalilzad would remain active in the anterooms of foreign affairs during the 1990s, from his perch at the Rand Corporation and as a signatory of the January 26, 1998, "Project for the New American Century" letter urging President Bill Clinton to remove Saddam Hussein from power. When Bush was elected in 2000, Khalilzad was through with warming the bench. After a short stint at Donald Rumseld's Pentagon, he was appointed senior director for Southwest Asia, Near East, and North African affairs under Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council.

Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia with extensive experience in Iraqi Kurdistan, would later tell Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker: "Khalilzad was absolutely part of the neocon cabal that brought the war to Iraq." In June 2005, Khalilzad left Afghanistan, where he had been ambassador since 2003, to take over the embassy in Baghdad. Yet far from bringing ideological severity to his new post, he waded in with the litheness of an Arab merchant. This would allow Galbraith to also observe, echoing Brzezinski: "I credit him with bringing the first dose of realism I've seen in this administration since they came to Iraq."

Throughout his ambassadorship, Khalilzad was an informal, and inveterate, backroom arm bender. His main achievement was persuading the Iraqis to ratify their Constitution. He also sought to enhance Sunni participation in the political process - a decision that angered the Shiite groups that had come to dominate the Iraqi government. This juggling act was skillful, but ultimately Khalilzad has left behind a country even more unstable than when he first moved into the Green Zone. And what will linger in people's minds is that the former ambassador backhandedly confirmed that the US has very few options left in Iraq. Khalilzad did so by admitting to the Times that he had spoken with the enemy: "There were discussions with the representatives of various [Iraqi insurgent] groups in the aftermath of the elections, and during the formation of the government before the Samarra incident, and some discussions afterwards as well."

During that time, Bush administration officials were saying there could be no negotiations with the insurgents, who were killing American soldiers on a daily basis. Yet through his admission, Khalilzad legitimized a more adaptable approach to events in Iraq - ceding his successor, Ryan Crocker, a wider margin of maneuver that he will be happy to have.

Khalilzad will be replacing a more austere neocon, John Bolton, at the UN. Bolton may have been one tough bastard, but he could be the personification of practicality when haggling over resolutions with the other permanent members of the Security Council, particularly on Middle Eastern matters. Maybe there are no neocons in the slippery trenches of international diplomacy. If so, Khalilzad is our Exhibit One.