Thursday, June 28, 2007

The dismantling of Resolution 1701

The dismantling of Resolution 1701
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, June 28, 2007

For those following events in South Lebanon, the deadly attack on Sunday against soldiers of the Spanish contingent of UNIFIL was expected. Among the United Nations troops, it was the Spaniards who had the reputation for most forcefully implementing their mandate. The undermining of UN Security Resolution 1701 has, plainly, started. However, before we assume that the South is on the verge of turning into a new Iraq, with foreign troops transformed into walking targets, a more subtle degradation of the resolution may be in the works.

There were probably two principal reasons, aside from the kill factor, for the car-bomb attack against the soldiers. The first was to make UNIFIL more timorous in its patrolling of the border area, in such a way that, with the removal of Lebanese Army units to fight in Nahr al-Bared, more room would be cleared up for Hizbullah to rebuild its military infrastructure south of the Litani River. That's not to say that Hizbullah detonated the device that killed the UN soldiers, but it's very difficult to accept that the party was unaware of what was about to take place. Hizbullah, for all its declarations of sympathy for UNIFIL, views the international force and the Lebanese Army as grave obstacles to the pursuit of "resistance" in the South. For an organization that could not survive without armed struggle, that recently saw its Hamas comrades establish an autonomous territory alongside Israel in Gaza, now is the time to act, in collaboration with Iran and Syria, to again make of South Lebanon a front line against Israel.

The attack was also a warning to the UN not to contemplate sending observers along the Syrian-Lebanese border to prevent the supply of weapons to Hizbullah. Syrian officials have consistently spoken against such a deployment, and even threatened to close the borders with Lebanon. However, it's not clear the Syrians can do so without Iraq and Jordan closing their crossing points with Syria. Amman and Baghdad have not publicly said they would retaliate in this way, but there were reports last week that they might, which supposedly prompted Damascus to leave the Masnaa crossing open. If the information is correct, then Syria's most effective way of blocking an observer mission might be to hit UNIFIL through its Palestinian proxies in Lebanon, showing what would happen if the force expanded out of the South.

Even an academic sympathetic to the Syrian regime saw its hand in what happened last weekend. On his blog, Joshua Landis wrote: "I think the bombing of the UNIFIL troops was an indication of the troubles that the UN can look forward to if it presses the Syrians or their ally Hizbullah."

The oddest statement, however, came from the Siniora government. Information Minister Ghazi Aridi noted that "[t]here is a link between the attack which targeted the Spanish contingent of UNIFIL and the fighting between the Lebanese Army and the terrorists of Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared." He went on to say, "Lebanon is the victim of a terrorist wave striking from the North to the South in which the latest target was the Spanish contingent. This attack was preceded by confessions from arrested terrorists about preparations against UNIFIL."

You have to wonder what Aridi was talking about. He and his political allies have been arguing, with considerable legitimacy, that Lebanon is today facing a Syrian effort to return to the country and torpedo the Hariri tribunal. In that case why fall back on a charade - a Syrian-created charade at that - that everything going wrong is the work of an obscure Salafist group facing annihilation in Nahr al-Bared? Once that fight is over and the bombings and killings continue, who will the Siniora government then blame? Indeed, who do we blame for the bombings and killings in 2005, when Fatah al-Islam wasn't even present in Lebanon?

Perhaps the Siniora government doesn't want to state the obvious: that what is going on in the South might involve Hizbullah more than it is prudent to admit at a moment of ambient sectarian tension. Maybe that's why Walid Jumblatt last week thanked Hizbullah for distancing itself from the rocket attack against Kiryat Shmona two Sundays ago. However, for the government to keep lines open is different than falling back on an absurd line of reasoning where it only discredits itself. By going along with the argument that an alleged Al-Qaeda group is the one targeting UNIFIL, the authorities are downplaying that what is taking place is the methodical dismantling of Resolution 1701. And that's not Al-Qaeda's priority; it is Iran's and Syria's priority, and Hizbullah's.

The killing of the soldiers is worrisome for other reasons. If the European contingents that form the backbone of UNIFIL become more timid in the South (and according to a senior March 14 politician, the Sunday bombing "scared" their governments), there is a risk that they will become gradually more dependent on Hizbullah, which has the most interest in neutralizing their mandate. Already, the word out among many journalists is that Hizbullah is protecting UNIFIL forces far more than UNIFIL is protecting the inhabitants of South Lebanon. If that view becomes generalized, if it reflects the reality of the situation in the border area, than we can start kissing Resolution 1701 goodbye.

Perhaps most disquieting is that if the UNIFIL mandate begins breaking apart, it will be Israel that looks for ways around Resolution 1701 to defend its northern border. This would suit Hizbullah and its Iranian and Syrian patrons just fine, since it's the Israelis who would take the blame for returning South Lebanon to where it was before the summer 2006 war.

But the Israeli shift may come with an addendum: the next war in Lebanon, if there is one, could become a regional war. That's why the UN must do some serious thinking about how to respond to the Sunday bombing, beyond issuing verbal condemnations. And that's why it must press forward with controlling the Syrian-Lebanese border, even if there are electronic means to ensure that UN troops are not sitting ducks.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Iran's and Syria's plan: an interpretation

Iran's and Syria's plan: an interpretation
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, June 21, 2007

Many Lebanese, particularly in the majority camp, have been preoccupied with the court being set up to try suspects in the assassination of the late Rafik Hariri. The resignation of Serge Brammertz from the International Criminal Court to devote himself full-time to the upcoming Hariri trial suggests there is something there for them to look forward to. However, they miss the larger picture. The court has become just one utensil in a much broader conflict to determine the future of Lebanon and of the Levant, in the context of a regional power struggle between Iran, Syria and their allies Hizbullah and Hamas on the one side; and all those who would deny them the advantages they seek on the other.

In recent days, some have suggested that Hizbullah intends to do in Lebanon, or part of Lebanon, what Hamas did in Gaza. The reality may be worse, if more subtle. A statement on Sunday by Hizbullah's Nabil Qaouk could be read as notification that the party might defend what he termed "Lebanon's unity" by force - shorthand for a military coup. Qaouk's warning that foreign observers should not deploy on the Lebanese-Syrian border, his describing such a project as "Israeli," his presumption that he had the right to impose a new "red line" on the state, all suggest a new mood in Hizbullah, one that is dangerous.

Hizbullah's attitude is only convincingly explained in the framework of Iran and Syria implementing a project to reclaim Lebanon, but more importantly perhaps to eliminate international, particularly Western, involvement in the Levant. After having won in Gaza, Tehran and Damascus are now pushing forward in South Lebanon. Their joint objective, regardless of their different priorities on other matters, appears to be to remove the Siniora government, undermine United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, and create a situation where the international community would have to accept a Syrian return to Lebanon, which would, by extension, scuttle the Hariri tribunal.

How would such a project be carried out? Here's one interpretation. The priority is to emasculate the Siniora government, whether by taking control of its decisions or through the creation by Syria of a parallel government. In this context, the opposition's calls for a national unity government don't favor unity at all. Opposition parties will only enter a Cabinet they can control and bring down. We know that because they rejected the 19-10-1 formula proposed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which would have given them the means to block decisions they didn't like. But the opposition's insistence on a 19-11 division is valid only for torpedoing a government through the resignation of its 11 ministers. The aim is apparent: to bring to office a president sympathetic to Syria.

If its conditions for a unity government continue to be rejected by the majority, the opposition might create a parallel government or engineer a situation allowing President Emile Lahoud to remain in Baabda. There are surely problems in a second government, not least of which that Sunni representation is bound to be anemic. This could create a troubling sense that a Sunni-dominated Siniora government is facing off against a Shiite-dominated pro-Syrian government, which could backfire regionally against Hizbullah and Iran. There is also the fact that Michel Aoun's bloc might begin cracking if the general enters such a government.

What would the purpose of this second government be, beyond wreaking havoc in the country and putting pressure on Siniora's government? Simply, to neutralize the effectiveness of the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL in the South, by making their interlocutor in the state unclear. Many have overlooked that the Nahr al-Bared fighting might have been a stage in a process to render the army less effectual in South Lebanon. Several units have been pulled out of the South in the past six months - first to prevent sectarian clashes in Beirut after the opposition built its tent city in the Downtown area last December; then to engage in fighting in the North. This has given Hizbullah much more room to maneuver in the border area, while also opening space up for groups operated from Syria. Even if Hizbullah did not fire the rockets against Kiryat Shmona on Sunday - probably the work of pro-Syrian Palestinians - it almost certainly was aware of the attack, and did not oppose it.

Iran's, Syria's and Hizbullah's purpose in reopening a northern front against Israel, aside from reviving Hizbullah as a military force (which is essential for its own survival), is to empty Resolution 1701 of its content. Better still, if cross-border rocket attacks continue, it will be Israel, not Hizbullah, that will start casting doubt on the UN resolution's merits. Hizbullah's recent insistence that the Cabinet return to its 2005 policy statement as a condition to end the governmental crisis only showed the party's true intentions toward Resolution 1701. The policy statement defends the right of armed resistance, unlike the later UN resolution.

For Syria and Iran, as well as for Hizbullah, Resolution 1701 is the door through which the international community entered Lebanon in force, after Resolution 1559 and the Hariri tribunal. That's the reason Tehran and Damascus want to render UNIFIL powerless, even though there will remain useful idiots in Europe who think they can reach an understanding with the Syrian regime to protect UN forces. Syria has no interest in this, however, because it has likely taken a strategic decision with Iran to remove any vestige of international influence in Lebanon - as it did in Gaza - with the goal of reviving its domination over the country.

In this context, even an illegitimate parallel government to that of Fouad Siniora could prove useful in the long term. Look what the Soviet Union did in Poland during World War II. It created the so-called Lublin Committee, which initially had far less clout than the London-based Polish government in exile. However, when the balance on the ground in Poland shifted, it was Moscow's puppets who were recognized as the power in Warsaw.

The Syrians and Iranians may be thinking along the same lines in Lebanon. Create a parallel government; erode UNIFIL's effectiveness while compelling the Lebanese Army to manage Syrian-created security brushfires; press your advantage against the drained Americans, the spineless Europeans, and the debilitated Arabs; and then, when the international community and Arab states are truly lost, strike using Hizbullah and drive your coup toward its logical conclusion: a new Pax-Syria in Lebanon, supported by Iran.

Such an ambitious project could fail, as so many others do in Lebanon. The real question is whether the country can avert civil war. Has Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, forgotten that at the funeral of Walid Eido, many of the Sunni mourners provocatively shouted "USA! USA!"? Has the party forgotten that after the fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in Tariq Jedideh in January, there was talk of sectarian war? These are disquieting trends, and while Nasrallah may have no latitude to challenge the orders of Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei - as party members frequently remind us - that only says we may soon be paying the price for the conceit of an Iranian leadership with negligible knowledge of inter-Lebanese relations.

Several measures can dent Iran's and Syria's plans. The first is for the Lebanese Army to make a statement that it opposes the setting up of a parallel government, but also that it can no longer protect Lahoud when his mandate ends, for constitutional reasons. This is not as easy as it sounds, because there are conflicting loyalties in the officer corps. However, the army has never been as united as it is today, thanks to Nahr al-Bared. There would be nothing unseemly for army commander Michel Suleiman to warn that a parallel government or yet another extension for Lahoud would only lead Lebanon into the unknown, and that the armed forces might not be able to manage the consequences. That statement would probably not check Syria, but it could induce those vacillating Lebanese politicians to reconsider participating in the scheme.

Second, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir should take a much firmer position against Christian participation in a parallel government. He's already declared his opposition to such a move, but now it's time to name names. Michel Aoun is vulnerable, and while it may be hopeless to expect anything from a man now playing Syria's game, a direct warning to the general from Bkirki, even if it angers pro-Aoun bishops, could considerably impair his preparations to enter such a government. Sfeir can back this up with the influence he enjoys over several Aounist parliamentarians, and can play on Michel Murr's reluctance to stand athwart of Maronite public opinion, and of the Gemayels, in the Metn.

Third, the Saudis and the Egyptians have to display more nerve. Iran and Syria humiliated them both by demolishing the Mecca agreement in Gaza. What have the Arab states done in return? Almost nothing, though Egypt has said it would cut its ties with Hamas unless Gaza was returned to the Palestinian Authority. Iran's expanding power poses existential threats to the regimes in Riyadh and Cairo. More efforts are needed to impose a consensus that isolates Iran and puts Syria on the defensive. The Saudis have a range of tools they can use in Lebanon, including helping Fatah financially in the refugee camps, giving the Lebanese Army better weaponry, and working more actively in the Arab world to suffocate establishment of a parallel Lebanese government.

And fourth, the UN must draw the consequences of its own reports that

Syria is sending weapons across the Lebanese border - a direct violation of Resolution 1701. Some UN members with troops in the South have to stop trying to cut deals with Damascus to protect their own troops. What is happening today threatens UNIFIL in its entirety. Iran and Syria never accepted Resolution 1701, so efforts to offer Syria "incentives" miss the point that Syria intends to win back, with Iran, the whole Lebanese pot once international forces are intimidated. The Italians in particular must be less timorous. Foreign Minister Massimo d'Alema won't get from Syrian President Bashar Assad what the Saudis and the Americans couldn't. Whether the UN likes it or not, it is at the center of a regional battle, and its forces cannot afford to be as craven as they were in Srebrenica.

In the coming months, the trick will be to abort the reckless Syrian and Iranian adventure, while also avoiding a descent into sectarian carnage. This is achievable, but only if everyone realizes what is at stake.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why rush a national-unity government?

Why rush a national-unity government?
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Negotiations to create a new national-unity government have hit a brick wall, and that's a relief. The opposition's conditions for agreeing to re-enter the government were too onerous and too vague and would have undermined much that was achieved in the past year. However, the Europeans, particularly those countries with troops in South Lebanon, are worried about the prospect of two rival governments being established at the end of summer, once President Emile Lahoud's term ends.

Hizbullah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri have insisted that the current government must be expanded. This means it would basically remain the same as the one established before the Shiite ministers and Yacoub Sarraf resigned last year. The aim of this maneuver is to ensure that any new government has as its reference the Cabinet statement approved in 2005. Acceptance of that statement, which defended armed resistance against Israel, would effectively undermine Lebanon's later endorsement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which Prime Minister Fouad Siniora now says supersedes the Cabinet statement. Siniora's strong card is that Hizbullah's ministers voted in favor of Resolution 1701, even though the party has, since, qualified its approval.

France and Italy, who have large contingents in UNIFIL, are worried. If there is no domestic reconciliation, they fear, their forces in the South will be caught between the Siniora government and a rival government in which Hizbullah would be represented. For logistical reasons, UNIFIL would have to deal with both, creating an impossible situation when it comes to recognizing the legality of only one. The problem is that pushing too hard on a government of national unity that accepts Hizbullah's and Berri's conditions would only undermine the mandate under which the improved UNIFIL force was deployed. Worse, this would come at a time when Hizbullah is building up a military infrastructure north of the Litani River, and is believed to be doing so again inside the UNIFIL zone.

France is looking for a way out of the deadlock by sponsoring a conference at the end of June in St. Cloud, near Paris, between the Lebanese factions. Expectations have already been lowered to subterranean levels, but the gathering may be a useful first step in an eventual reconciliation. More interesting is that heightened French involvement in the details of Lebanon's imbroglio fits in nicely, perhaps too nicely, with what the head of the Iranian national security council, Ali Larijani, told Le Figaro a few weeks ago: that France and Iran could collaborate in resolving the Lebanese deadlock. The French may be taken for a ride, but any new government evidently needs time for sensibility to dissolve into sense.

The Europeans might look closely at something Walid Jumblatt said last weekend. He remarked that the Syrians had provoked the Nahr al-Bared conflict after concluding that they would be unable to form an alternative government to Siniora's. There have been reports that the creation of a second government is not getting traction in the opposition. Suleiman Franjieh is supposedly unconvinced, and Michel Aoun wants to be president, not prime minister, even if he has used the threat of a parallel government to improve his presidential chances. A sign of the difficulty of the Aoun option is that the talk is no longer of a Christian leading the government, as it was several weeks ago, but of a Sunni Muslim. The most likely candidate is said to be former Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Mrad.

Mrad is that rare politician who openly said he was miserable when the Syrian Army left Lebanon. If he is the best the Syrians can get as prime minister, then Jumblatt is right to believe their plan is going nowhere. Omar Karami, Salim al-Hoss, and Najib Mikati, three much more credible choices, have shown no readiness to climb into the hot seat themselves, because they know that a parallel government would have no legitimacy. As for Hizbullah, with most Lebanese behind the army and by extension behind the imposition of the state's authority over all the national territory, the party would be mad to enter into such a scheme.

So Jumblatt's point is well taken: If Syria and the opposition cannot form an alternative government, then maybe the Europeans shouldn't panic so quickly; and maybe it would be best not to come to an agreement on a new Cabinet now. Instead, call the opposition's bluff, stick to the Siniora team, place the onus of torpedoing the presidential election squarely on the opposition parties, and wait for Hizbullah to become more flexible.

A key question is what about Michel Aoun? His muscular backing for the army is no big surprise. The general's main base of support remains in the officer corps, which is precisely why he's now willing to point the finger at Syria when he stubbornly refused to do so after every single one of the dozens of bombings that took place after 2005, as well as the murders of politicians and journalists. Perhaps Aoun also took it personally that the recent bombing in Zouk Mosbeh occurred in his own constituency.

To expect a divorce between Aoun and Hizbullah is unrealistic. If anything, the general has more incentive to avoid one. Not only does he still need the party in his bid for the presidency (and Hizbullah is said to have taken the decision to formally back him as candidate), he now has more leverage to negotiate with it. After Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's poorly received comment on Nahr al-Bared being a "red line," Hizbullah needs to regain its standing with the army and inside a Lebanese society outraged by the sudden appearance of Fatah al-Islam from across the Syrian border. Aoun can use the party's discomfort to his advantage.

Aoun wants to ride the wave of what may turn into the army's sense of entitlement after the Nahr al-Bared fighting ends. This development would be disturbing but not surprising, with everyone on the army's side and that support sealed in soldiers' blood. Casualties will rise in the near future as the military implements a plan expected to last at least ten more days. The terrible human cost notwithstanding, the army can only gain credibility nationally, and Aoun probably expects this to improve his own presidential odds. Hence his strategy to place himself to the right of the army, and the majority's efforts to do the same thing.

This complicates matters tremendously. There might not be any second government created by Syria, but will there be a presidential election? Who, Michel Aoun or army commander Michel Suleiman, will gain the most from an army victory, if that victory comes soon? Syria's most powerful weapon is to block everything and bargain from a position of strength. But things tend to backfire with this Syrian regime. The tribunal is moving briskly forward and now the Lebanese Army and intelligence services, hitherto neutral and more open to Syrian wishes, are deeply hostile to those groups that Damascus might use to destabilize Lebanon.

Tough times lie ahead, and Lebanon's crises are nowhere near their end. The Syrians are reinforcing the military positions of their Palestinian clients in the Bekaa Valley, inside Lebanese territory. However, the structures of Syrian power in the country have never been so brittle, with violence the only weapon Syria can deploy. And for once the Lebanese and their military and security forces are as one against such violence.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Left, Right, and Wrong: Desperately searching for a libertarian foreign policy

In his 2007 essay What’s Left?, Nick Cohen wonders how it is that many on the political left have lost their souls, at least on the defining matter of human rights. Why is it that a left faced with the collapse of socialism and the triumph of market economies, which at one time stood against fascism in defense of the individual, should now find itself excusing parties and regimes of the far-right, "as long as they are anti-Western"?

The question is well posed, but it would be useful to bring our own libertarian brethren into the discussion. Why is it that libertarians, for whom the benchmark of political, economic and social behavior is the individual, and American libertarians in particular, find so little to say about the defense of the individual in foreign affairs? Why is it that those who have reminded us of this lacuna, those who first imposed the human rights and democracy agenda on foreign policy thinking, are mainly figures of the left? Not surprisingly, given the rightward drift described by Cohen, some of these gadflies have since turned into exiles of the left.

One such exile, Christopher Hitchens, told Reason’s Rhys Southan what he saw as a problem in the libertarian critique: "I threw in my lot with the left because on all manner of pressing topics—the Vietnam atrocity, nuclear weapons, racism, oligarchy—there didn’t seem to be any distinctive libertarian view. I must say that this still seems to me to be the case, at least where issues of internationalism are concerned. What is the libertarian take, for example, on Bosnia or Palestine?"

This came after Hitchens had ended a two-decade-old relationship with the left-wing The Nation because, as he angrily wrote, the magazine was "becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that [then-U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden." For Hitchens, like Cohen, the petty hatreds of the left, American or British, had thrown hitherto valued priorities out of whack.

Another exile of the left had similar misgivings. In an interview I conducted for Reason with the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya, he had this to say about the notion of breaking Iraq up into sectarian or ethnic entities: "I fear attempting to carve [Iraq] will only plunge [its] people ... into greater paroxysms of violence. And nothing is worth that in my opinion. I judge everything in relation to one overriding criterion, namely how many fewer Iraqi lives a particular course of action will cost. That is the be-all and end-all of politics as far as I am concerned these days."

That was simply put, but also very much expressed a thought at the heart of the libertarian ideal: that one is free to pursue ones own choices, as long as these don’t encroach on the rights and freedoms of others. Building a workable corpus of foreign policy thinking around this single idea would represent a monumental challenge. However, and let’s be blunt here, in the absence of a serious critique on how to address deficiencies in freedom overseas, libertarians, "realists", and those on the political left ceded vital terrain to the neoconservatives around President George W. Bush in the post-9/11 period. Only the neocons, it seemed, had an explanation for why 19 young men from the Middle East had decided to kill thousands of innocent civilians for no apparent reason. The neocons claimed that a major problem was the dearth of democracy in the Arab world, which had turned frustrated youths into mass murderers.

One might dispute the neocons’ interpretation, and condemn its outcome, but the fact is that when decision-makers in Washington were looking for insights into what had happened and tried to do so, like most Americans, by explaining the individual motivations of the hijackers, libertarians, political realists, and much of the left had little to say. Instead, many libertarians and liberal leftists turned to examining the domestic abuses of the Bush administration, while realists either opportunistically latched onto Bush’s policies or ridiculed the idea of Arab democracy—a way of saying Arabs merited repression. In several cases, those deriding Arab democracy were former policy-makers who, when in office, had helped ensure the United States would disregard democracy promotion.

However, the neocons were not especially original. Their diagnosis of the Arab malady as being an absence of democracy, their denunciation of American support for Arab absolutists, was a refrain heard throughout the Cold War years, and it largely came from a left not yet enamored of Arab tyrants viewed as worthy foes of Western "neocolonialism." Once again, however, we have to wonder why those most taken with individual rights, at least in theory, were nowhere to be seen in this conversation.

Recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed a liberal internationalist, but also a scion of the old 1960s left, to be his foreign minister. The elevation of Bernard Kouchner was odd for two reasons. First, the other person on Sarkozy’s short-list for the post was Hubert Vedrine, also a socialist, who is in every way Kouchner’s opposite. Vedrine, a former foreign minister, is smelted in the style of traditional French foreign affairs, someone who finds dictators distasteful, but who in the name of sovereignty and a vague sense of Gallic fatalism, remains tolerant of their crimes and stalemates: a practitioner of an amoral art rather than a devotee of moral crusades. Here is a man who, in indignantly denouncing American unilateralism and "arrogance," showed an affinity for the time-honored concept of a balance of power between states. Click on his Wikipedia entry and you will see him in a most natural pose, chatting pleasantly with Tunisia’s autocrat, President Ben Ali.

Kouchner, in contrast, is a former communist, a doctor who became a guru of international humanitarian intervention. Here is someone who always expressed intolerance for France’s baroque compromises with thugs, a backer of foreign interference in Bosnia to save the Muslims, when France always tended to favor the Serbs. Kouchner returned to the Balkans in 1999-2000, as head of the United Nations mission in Kosovo. His method in his early years of prominence was not to improve the world through revolution, but through medical and humanitarian assistance. In 1971 he helped create Doctors Without Borders, which was destined to be, in the words of Paul Berman, "a more political Red Cross", with socially conscious doctors who "instead of carrying AK-47s ... carried medical bags, in order to serve the poor and the oppressed."

Kouchner’s position on the war in Iraq was more ambiguous. Though he wrote in the February 4, 2003 issue of Le Monde that he was both against war and against Saddam, he threw in a critical caveat: "[W]e do not want the suffering of the Iraqi people to continue." If war was the only means to alleviate that suffering, then it really made little sense to oppose war.

The second reason Sarkozy’s choice was so odd was that Kouchner perhaps best embodied France’s 1968 legacy that the new president hoped to bury through his electoral victory. This was the legacy of the May 1968 demonstrations that supposedly overhauled what the left saw as the smugness of postwar bourgeois France. Oddly enough, it was Kouchner’s revolutionary dislike of that status quo, the one supposedly represented by Charles de Gaulle, which seemed to appeal to Sarkozy’s own dislike of the French status quo hardened by his predecessor Jacques Chirac.

Bu one can also hope that Kouchner’s appointment is more than that: confirmation that even in a place like France, with its venerable history of diplomatic hardnosedness, foreign policy is being refocused on the individual, on human and political rights, on the advancement of democratic values. It would be silly to declare victory; the indifference generated by state-centered realpolitik will remain with us. But the most urgent task is for those who would place the individual at the center of social or political action, to find something useful to say when it affects victims abroad whose individuality is battered on a daily basis.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Winning over the Palestinian card

Winning over the Palestinian card
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, June 07, 2007

It is a coincidence, but a useful one, that on the 40th anniversary of an Arab-Israeli war that prompted the Palestinian national movement to break free from the stifling embrace of the Arab states, that effort is repeating itself in Lebanon, albeit with uncertain success. There is much the Lebanese state can do to sustain the effort, to its own advantage.

For decades, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, a primary aim of the Palestinian national movement was to defend what was known as the "freedom of Palestinian decision-making." Arafat took over a Palestinian Liberation Organization that, under Ahmad al-Shuqairi, was little more than an Egyptian plaything. Even earlier, Arafat and his comrades had to bat away persistent Syrian efforts to take over control of Al-Assifa, the armed branch of the national movement. By 1977, with the Syrian Army having imposed itself in Lebanon, the Palestinians would once again have to maneuver around Syrian priorities, though Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace negotiations with Israel would momentarily oblige the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Syria to overcome their differences.

Then came the summer of 1982, and Ariel Sharon's push to remove the PLO from Lebanon. We often forget, however, that it was not the Israelis who ultimately chased Arafat out of the country, but Syrian President Hafiz Assad, in 1983. The repercussions of that conflict, which was also centered in the North, are still being felt today, with Fatah al-Islam alleging that it broke off from Fatah al-Intifada, which Assad had created at the time to be a Syrian-controlled counterweight to Arafat. In subsequent years the mainstream Fatah was largely marginalized by the Syrians in the northern refugee camps, and in the Bekaa. If the Lebanese Army captures Nahr al-Bared and hands it over to the PLO, it would represent a striking, though probably not a decisive, riposte by the PLO and Fatah against Syria's sway over Lebanon's Palestinian population, after more than two decades of their being on the defensive.

Though this situation invites optimism, one can't help but wonder whether Abbas Zaki, the PLO representative in Lebanon, didn't go overboard last Sunday, when he promised that Palestinian armed "manifestations" would "disappear within six months, and that the issue would not be addressed through military means." Given that the PLO, particularly its largest component in Fatah, was unable to do much in Nahr al-Bared and continues to be challenged in Ain al-Hilweh, setting such a tight timetable seemed ambitious. The Syrians still benefit from the de facto alliance between the pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Hizbullah; they still can manipulate Islamist groups in Ain al-Hilweh; they still have weight in most of the camps; and, most importantly, they have much say in what Hamas does. If things remain as they are today, there is little the Lebanese government can do to implement the decision of the national dialogue last year to disarm Palestinian groups outside the camps.

With that in mind, the government needs to reach for new ideas. If more political authority is to be given to the mainstream PLO groups, then it has to be through a change in Lebanese policy on the refugees. This is hardly a mystery, as both Hizbullah and March 14 ministers realized last year that the official Lebanese stance on the refugees was untenable. To deny them their basic civil rights, particularly the right to own property and to work in most professions, is not only inhuman, it is stupid: People kept in perpetual poverty turn more readily toward militant Islam, or are easily manipulated by armed factions offering patronage. The confrontation between the majority and opposition over the "Palestinian card" is an essential facet of the ongoing struggle between the majority and Syria. That is one reason why President Emile Lahoud has accused the Hariri camp of looking to settle the Palestinian refugees permanently in Lebanon. Under his definition, any improvement of the Palestinians' lot can be sold as permanent settlement. As the president has implicitly presented the issue, it is a case of Sunnis wanting to ensure that Lebanon naturalizes more Sunnis. However, the crux of the matter is that if the Lebanese government and the PLO impose their writ in the camps, if the Palestinians become happier and relatively more prosperous, then Syria will lose a vital pressure point in the system, but also the legitimacy and spoiler role it has sought by playing in the most momentous game of all in the region: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Syrians still hold the Hamas card, but have to be careful there. No one, least of all Hamas, wants to see the Palestinian camps turn into the Gaza Strip. The movement was not particularly helpful in helping find a resolution to the Nahr al-Bared quandary, and you knew an army operation was coming when Hamas representative Oussama Hamdan refused to accompany Abbas Zaki to the Beddawi camp on the eve of the assault. However, Hamas showed more decisiveness in pacifying Ain al-Hilweh. Hamdan also knows that, regardless of the alliance with Syria, he probably could not safeguard what he spent years building in Lebanon were he to fall on the wrong side of a process agreed between Zaki and the Lebanese government to improve living conditions for refugees.

Once the fighting in Nahr al-Bared ends, hopefully soon, the army and the PLO will have more capital to move forward on a negotiated solution to the Palestinian armed presence outside the camps. Since this aim was endorsed by the national dialogue, and will almost certainly enjoy PLO cover, it is achievable. The wild card will be Hizbullah, which doesn't want to see anyone in Lebanon disarmed, particularly the PFLP-GC, as this might remove an obstacle to its own eventual disarmament. That's why the government must overcome such resistance by creating a Palestinian consensus that collaborating with the state will mean a better life for refugees. Give the Palestinians their rights, and they'll pay you back.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Syria's Useful Idiots

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council voted to set up a tribunal that will try suspects in the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Syria is the leading suspect in the case, so the establishment of the tribunal serves as a step toward creating a stable Lebanon. It also poses a clarifying question to the United States: What will engaging Syria mean for building a liberal future for Lebanon?

At the moment, it is clear that Syria hasn't stopped meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs. The Security Council only created its tribunal after efforts to establish a similar tribunal within Lebanon were stymied by Syrian allies. Indeed, to understand what is at stake in the Lebanese crisis today, flip through the report released last April by the U.N. commission investigating the Hariri assassination.

The commission, led by Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, now assumes that Hariri's assassination was tied to his political activities, particularly his preparations for the summer 2005 legislative elections. This sets up a key passage in the report: "[A] working hypothesis is that the initial decision to kill Hariri was taken before the later attempts at rapprochement got underway and most likely before early January 2005. This leads to a possible situation in the last weeks before his murder in which two tracks, not necessarily linked, were running in parallel. On one track, Hariri was engaged in rapprochement initiatives and on the other, preparations for his assassination were underway."

For anyone who followed Lebanese politics at the time, this deceptively anodyne passage says a lot. Hariri was hoping to score a victory against Syria and its Lebanese allies during the elections, after Syria had extended the mandate of his bitter rival, President Emile Lahoud. The Syrians felt that such a victory would jeopardize their position in Lebanon and, although there was mediation to patch up Hariri's differences with the Syrians, the plot to eliminate him continued. It is plain from Mr. Brammertz's phrasing that those who were planning the former prime minister's elimination are the same ones with whom the intermediaries were trying to reconcile him.

Mr. Brammertz is building a case that, from the information provided to date, can only point the finger at Syria and its Lebanese supplicants. The Hariri tribunal, now that it has been formally established, poses an existential threat to the Syrian regime, and it is in Lebanon that the Syrians have and will continue to hit back to save themselves.

The outbreak of violence in northern Lebanon between the Lebanese army and a group calling itself Fatah al-Islam is the latest stage in such an endeavor. In a BBC interview last week, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora openly linked Fatah al-Islam to Syrian intelligence. The group has claimed to be an al Qaeda affiliate, but observers in Lebanon, including Palestinian sources usually critical of the Siniora government, qualify this, saying that Fatah al-Islam is acting on Syria's behalf. The daily Al-Hayat has reported that the group's weapons come from caches belonging to Palestinian organizations under Syrian control, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Fatah al-Intifada, from which Fatah al-Islam allegedly broke off.

Meanwhile, a more subtle battle is taking place over interpretation of what is happening in Lebanon. This is especially important because there are those in Washington who still insist that something can be gained from dealing with Syria. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thought so in April when she visited Damascus, did the Gertrude Bell tour of the Hamadiyyeh souq, and capped it all with a visit to President Bashar Assad, all for precisely nothing in return.

The Iraq Study Group also thought Syria could be a useful partner in Iraq, even as all the signs suggest that Damascus has little real influence there and is sowing dissension to compensate. That's why understanding what is going on in Lebanon is vital for a sense of what can be gained from Syria elsewhere. Yet something is amiss when the most obvious truths are those the pundits won't consider.

For example, what did the former CIA agent Robert Baer mean in Time magazine, when he wrote that the Lebanese government should "know better" than to believe that Fatah al-Islam is a Syrian creation, because "at the end of the day Fatah Islam is the Syrian regime's mortal enemy"? Mr. Baer's point was that a Lebanese civil war might undermine Syrian stability, but also that Sunni Islamists oppose the minority Alawite Syrian regime. He reminded us that "the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood used northern Lebanon as a rear base to seize the Syrian city of Hama in 1982."

It is Mr. Baer who should know better. Syria has fueled a sectarian war in neighboring Iraq by funneling Sunni al Qaeda fighters into the country, without worrying about what this might mean for its own stability. Syria's vulnerabilities have not prevented it from hosting Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Syria's anxieties notwithstanding, throughout its years in Lebanon it developed ties with many Sunni Islamist groups and recently welcomed to Damascus a prominent Lebanese Islamist it has co-opted, Fathi Yakan.

The point is that Syria will have no qualms about provoking sectarian discord in Lebanon to ward away the menace of the Hariri tribunal.

And what are we to make of the journalist Seymour Hersh, now considered an authority on Lebanese Sunni Islamist groups on the basis of a flawed article he wrote for the New Yorker last March? In that article, and in a recent CNN interview, he indirectly suggested that Fatah al-Islam had received weapons not from Syria but from the Siniora government.

The only source Mr. Hersh cited in his article for the Fatah al-Islam story was Alistair Crooke, a former MI6 agent who co-directs Conflicts Forum, an institution advocating dialogue with Islamist movements. Mr. Crooke did not have direct knowledge of what he was claiming, as he "was told" that weapons and money were offered to the group, "presumably to take on Hezbollah."

Mr. Hersh is wading into very muddy waters with very simple ideas. The relationship of the Lebanese government and the Hariri camp with Sunni Islamists is byzantine, but there is no evidence to date that the government or the Hariris had any strategy to use al Qaeda against Hezbollah. In fact most Lebanese Sunni Islamists are not linked to al Qaeda. And Mr. Hersh has provided no proof that Fatah al-Islam received government assistance. Still, the Syrian regime's media has repeatedly used Mr. Hersh's charges to discredit the Lebanese government.

Then there are those with little patience for Lebanes independence. Arguing that Syria is worth more to the U.S. than Lebanon, they advocate Washington's ceding Lebanon to Syria as a price for constructive dialogue. For example, Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council staffer now at the New America Foundation, recently told National Public Radio, where he appears regularly, that the Bush administration had "romanticized" the 2005 "Cedar Revolution." This was his way of implying that the latter was worth discarding. For Mr. Leverett and others, a Lebanon free of Syria is inherently unstable, even as they disregard Syrian responsibility for that instability.

In a March 2005 op-ed in the New York Times, as Lebanese took to the streets demanding a Syrian pullout, Mr. Leverett urged the U.S. to abandon efforts to establish a "pro-Western government" in Beirut. Instead, he proposed that "the most promising (if gradual) course for promoting reform in Syria is to engage and empower [President] Assad, not to isolate and overthrow him."

This makes for restorative reading today, as Mr. Assad's regime pursues its destabilization of Lebanon, Iraq and Palestinian areas, ignores domestic reform and continues to detain thousands of political opponents in its prisons.

There is nothing wrong with keeping an open mind on Syria. However, an "open mind" can be shorthand for blindness or bad faith. Given the evidence, it makes no sense to dismiss Syrian involvement in the Lebanese crisis, or to blame the crisis on an al Qaeda affiliate allegedly financed by the Lebanese government. Nor does it make sense to assume that Lebanon is a burden that the U.S. should jettison in favor of a stabilizing Syria, considering the fact that al Qaeda materialized from across the Syrian border. We're asked to believe that a group, said to be financed by the Siniora government, picked a fight with that very government, and somehow innocently did so just as the U.N. prepared to establish a tribunal the Syrians fear.

When Syria is systematically exporting instability throughout the region, you have to wonder whether its regime can be a credible partner to the U.S.