Monday, April 23, 2007

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.

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