Thursday, July 26, 2007

If the Metn votes, Aoun can be beaten

Michel Aoun has taken a risk in deciding to contest the Metn by-election against the former president, Amine Gemayel. Mediation may yet succeed in averting a destructive electoral contest. If Aoun agrees to this, he would be doing the right thing, because even if the general does come out on top - and his candidate is the favorite - some victories are better left not won.

Aoun is prone to getting sidetracked. Back when he was liberating Lebanon from the Syrian Army, he took time off to destroy the Lebanese Forces. The army and the militia ended up destroying each other, and the Syrians walked into the predominantly Christian areas on October 13, 1990. Not surprisingly, Damascus has been pushing for an election contest in the Metn, and has mobilized its client parties for that purpose. Whenever the Christians are divided, the Syrians are better able to help themselves to Lebanon's sovereignty. So little seems to change.

On paper, Aoun and his allies have more votes than Gemayel, assuming they mobilize their voting blocs to the limit. But that's not taking into consideration the large mass of floating Metn voters whose allegiances are unclear. It is those voters who elected Gabriel Murr against Myrna Murr and very long odds in 2002; and it is they who gave Aoun a landslide victory in 2005. However, Aoun is said to have lost support since then, and the election will be the first real test of his alliance with Hizbullah.

Aoun is vulnerable in victory. The general has argued that by choosing his candidate, Camille Khoury, voters would improve his own chances of becoming president, so that Christians would finally have a strong leader. But if the price of Aoun's triumph is a more divided Christian community - as will be the case after the by-election - then the general will have to prove that this is somehow good for Christians. Today Aoun can still claim to have unified the Metn in 2005; but a bruising by-election, unless he crushes Gemayel, which is unlikely, will show precisely the opposite. What will the ensuing rancor do for Aoun's desire to end "Christian marginalization"?

Then there is Aoun's justification for entering a candidate in the race. The general would have us believe that he put Khoury forward in order to officially challenge the by-election's constitutionality, because President Emile Lahoud did not sign off on it. So, Metn voters are grappling with the tortuous logic that Aoun is participating in the by-election because he feels it is illegal. That makes you wonder whether, if Khoury wins, Aoun will do the normal thing and relinquish his Metn seat. Of course the general will not, which is when many voters will see his argument for what it is: casuistry obscuring political avidity.

A third Aoun vulnerability is that it's not always advisable to beat a man whose son was assassinated. The general has always had little sympathy for the dead, particularly the March 14 dead. Then again, he forgot his own October 13 dead with alacrity. However, Metn voters have longer memories. Even presuming that Aoun's candidate wins, the resulting animosity in the district will be multiplied by a perception that the general callously took a murdered man's seat. Worse, many voters will assume that Aoun's decision to participate was payback for not being allowed to pay his respects to the Gemayel family after Pierre Gemayel was killed. Aoun was unfairly treated, but revenge hardly looks presidential.

For all these reasons, Aoun should reconsider his decision to contest the open Metn seat. It's a seat he doesn't need, which he allowed Pierre Gemayel to win during the 2005 elections, in a district the general can already pretend to control. But if Aoun goes ahead anyway, his rivals can beat him by highlighting the general's marked inconsistencies.

Gemayel and his allies should avoid a strategy that centers around accusing Aoun of doing Syria's bidding. The general won by a large margin in 2005, and even voters displeased with him today don't want it insinuated that they voted for a Syrian puppet. Gemayel can point out that Syria would benefit from Christian divisions, but mostly the former president should focus on parochial Christian concerns in his campaign. That's what Aoun did in 2005 and it's what he's doing today. Gemayel has enough sticks with which to hit Aoun. For example, when did Christian marginalization really begin, he might ask? Wasn't it on October 13, 1990?

Gemayel should also harp on a central concern of Metn voters: their strong sense of support for the state and its institutions. The district is relatively prosperous, with a high percentage of industries compared to the rest of the country. The relationship between the state and the Metn has always been closer than that between the state and other areas. That is why the Metn championed Aoun back in 1988-1990 against the Lebanese Forces militia. And it is why Michel Murr, with his unparalleled skill in manipulating the levers of the administration on behalf of his electorate, has so successfully protected his political base. Gemayel's Kataeb Party has also long identified itself as a mainstay of state power.

Within such a context, Gemayel can argue that Aoun's alliance with Hizbullah has weakened the state because it strengthened a political-military organization overseeing a parallel state of its own. Indeed, Gemayel might want to mention the recent statement of Aoun's ally, Muhammad Raad, who leads Hizbullah's parliamentary bloc. Raad warned that there would be no presidential election if there were no government of national unity formed first. If Aoun wants a strong president, then how can he justify his alliance with a party that places its own political demands ahead of constitutional deadlines? Indeed, how can Aoun justify to his voters that he and Hizbullah would prefer to leave a vacuum at the top of the state rather than budge an inch on a unity government that would resign anyway once a president is elected?

Finally, Gemayel should play on Aoun's history of divisiveness. He divided the country when he was prime minister. He did it again when he returned to Beirut in 2005. He divided the Christians on January 23 of this year, when he blocked roads within and between Christian areas. His presidential strategy is based not on consensus but on blackmail. And even Aoun's closest Metn allies, Michel Murr and the Tashnaq Party, prefer to avoid an electoral contest, so that the decision to forge ahead with Khoury is entirely the general's responsibility. Gemayel must ask whether this is the kind of man Metn voters should be empowering.

Hopefully, it will not reach that stage. Self-interest, but also the interest of the Christians and the country as a whole, should make Aoun withdraw Camille Khoury from the Metn race. But if Aoun persists, then the next best thing to do is ensure that he will not view the results as permission to hold Lebanon hostage to his narrow political aspirations.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Switching off the Iraq war is not an American option

These have been traumatic weeks for the White House, as its strategy of holding the fort on Iraq is turning into the political equivalent of the Little Big Horn. Amid national war fatigue, congressional Democrats are pushing hard to impose a legislative deadline for military withdrawals. An initial assessment report imposed on the administration by Congress and published on July 12 showed, at best, mixed success on a series of key benchmarks to judge improvement in Iraq. Even Republican lawmakers are revolting, and two prominent senators, Richard Lugar and John Warner, last week advocated a realignment of American combat troops by as early as next year, even if their proposal did not set a deadline. Last week also, The Washington Post did little to help the Bush administration’s case when it published a story by Bob Woodward highlighting the CIA’s doubts about amelioration in Iraq. According to Woodward, CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Iraq Study Group last November that "the inability of the [Iraqi] government to govern seems irreversible," before affirming that he couldn’t "point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around." Later in the interview Hayden did qualify his pessimism somewhat by suggesting that a functional government in Iraq was not achievable "in the short term."

So alarming are the implications of an American debacle in Iraq, that the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, felt the urge to intervene last Monday and warn: "Great caution should be taken for the sake of [the] Iraqi people. The international community cannot and should not abandon them. Any abrupt withdrawal or decision may lead to a further deterioration of the situation in Iraq." An Iraqi tribal leader fighting Al-Qaeda who was recently interviewed by the BBC Arabic service said more or less the same thing. If the United States withdrew from Iraq, he warned, his men would find it difficult to defeat their adversaries.

That Iraq is an American mess is an understatement. However, like many messes, it is a metastasizing one. American politicians are panicking, and in so doing are making many more mistakes than they need to make - so that already we can spread the blame across the political spectrum.

President George W. Bush has the right instincts in believing that the only way to prevail in a place like Iraq is to make an open-ended commitment, with no talk of withdrawal. There are no quick fixes in Iraq, and no obvious slow ones either. But that’s hardly enough. Bush seems to have no real clue about what to do next and is going through the same flawed thought processes as those of Richard Nixon in 1969, when he sought to engineer "peace with honor" in Vietnam, while facing a public mostly focused on the "peace" part of the equation. Like Nixon, Bush is fiddling with the switches, even if he, correctly, sees any talk of withdrawal at home as weakening his bargaining hand in Iraq. The military is preparing a plan to cut troop levels in quieter northern Iraq by half in the next 12 to 18 months. Nixon did much the same thing during his first year in office, mainly to reduce domestic political resentment; but this did not alter his desire to pursue, even escalate, the Vietnamese conflict.

Bush has completely missed an essential rule of politics: Don’t leave a policy vacuum, because someone else is bound to fill it. Congress is now energetically filling it in Iraq, forcing the administration to do the same, but using a document that Bush never liked in the first place: the Iraq Study Group report, with its central idea of refocusing the American effort on training and supporting Iraq’s security forces. But as Bush knows well, and indeed as the benchmark assessment released last week confirmed, the situation of the security forces - meaning both the Iraqi Army and Interior Ministry units - "continues to show [only] slow progress."

Training and support are good ideas in the abstract, but their results in Iraq have been uneven, they take time, and, perhaps most important, many Iraqis are worried that the US is leaving. As the benchmark assessment underlined: "The increasing concern among Iraqi political leaders that the United States may not have a long-term commitment to Iraq has also served in recent months to reinforce hedging behavior and made the hardest political bargains even more difficult to close."

The Democrats are in no better a moral posture. Seeing Bush trapped, they are hammering him, hoping this will carry them to victory in next year’s presidential and congressional elections. The Republicans sense a looming rout, which is why they, too, are hitting Bush harder than ever. However, the Democrats have no more an effective plan for Iraq than the administration does, and would be just as vulnerable to the misfortunes following from a withdrawal as the Republicans. It may be justifiable to condemn an administration that has been unable to point to an Iraqi upturn for four years, but acrimony only makes the situation worse for everyone, because Iraq is not about partisan American politics.

With the outcome of the military "surge" uncertain and Republican members of Congress fearing for their political future, the administration is being manhandled into looking for alternatives. London’s Sunday Telegraph has reported that Bush would consider a so-called "Plan C" in Iraq - essentially a modified version of the surge. The idea would be to bring about "a slow withdrawal of troops after March next year - just nine months after the surge was fully operational - with 30,000 sent home by September next year." Political cover for this withdrawal would be provided by the report submitted next September by Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and the ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, on the surge’s success. If Petraeus and Crocker see progress, this would "justify a handover, in some areas, to Iraqi control in the spring - sooner than critics of the surge had expected." So everything in Iraq has become a fallback plan. But you don’t win wars on Plan Cs.

Meanwhile American military planners are surveying possible scenarios in the event of a US pullout. One definitive conclusion everyone has reached is that nothing is definite. Predictions vary between seeing the situation in Iraq deteriorating into a regional cataclysm and, as one retired Marine involved in war-gaming a withdrawal put it, an outcome that is not "apocalyptic" but "very ugly." In that context, it might be useful for US decision-makers to start looking more closely at Iraq itself, rather than just at Washington. There are definite signs of advancement in parts of the country, and some American commanders are insisting that now would be the worst time to exit. Success may be just around the corner.

Skeptics will respond that the same language was used in Vietnam. Victory was always around the corner; but never was. However, Iraq and Vietnam are very different places. The way to win an insurgency is, often, by lowering oneself into the minutiae of a place. It takes great patience, unity at home, and an obligation not to lose one’s head. None of these are present today in the US. No one can deny that Iraq has turned into a fiasco, but you don’t deal with a fiasco by just trying to switch it off.

A minefield ahead for Bernard Kouchner

A minefield ahead for Bernard Kouchner
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 19, 2007

July 14 was the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in France. A day later, last Sunday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner did a good impersonation by almost storming off the stage in anger at a pushy Lebanese journalist. The Celle-Saint-Cloud gathering was a lot about atmospherics, however its usefulness might be supplanted by its dangers if Kouchner and his boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, are not careful.

No one can deny the short-term advantages of the meeting at La Celle-Saint-Cloud. It was an opportunity for representatives of the divided Lebanese political class to meet, even though those present were not party or movement leaders. It began a process that might be further exploited down the road by all sides. And it handed some form of diplomatic momentum to France, which continues to support United Nations resolutions designed to protect Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, while also remaining a resolute backer of the Hariri tribunal.

But is that enough? The reason Kouchner was handed his platform was that both Iran and Syria saw an opening to begin breaking France off from the United States in addressing Lebanese issues. The genesis of this proposal came last May, when the head of Iran's national

security council, Ali Larijani, told the French daily Le Figaro that given the election of Sarkozy, who was "not emotionally implicated with one side" in the Lebanese political spectrum, France and Iran should cooperate in stabilizing Lebanon. That Syria signed off on its allies' traveling to Paris was a sign that Damascus and Tehran are together in using the French card. Moreover, the invitation to Hizbullah was gratifying from a country whose president has called the party a "terrorist organization."

The French are no fools. They have seen Syria shooting down all European, Arab, or international initiatives to sponsor reconciliation in Lebanon on terms it disapproves of. Ominously, the visit to Damascus on Wednesday by French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran suggests Syrian obstructionism may be paying off. In an exchange last April whose minutes were leaked to the French daily Le Monde, President Bashar Assad made it amply clear to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that Lebanon was only ever stable when Syria dominated the country. Last week, in the build-up to the conference in France, Syria's official daily Al-Thawra argued that any resolution to the Lebanese deadlock passed through Damascus. Kouchner knows that Syrian and Iranian acquiescence in Saint-Cloud was a concerted effort to advance their agendas in Lebanon, not a sudden yearning for concord in Beirut.

Still, in a statement once Saint-Cloud had ended, Kouchner hinted that Syria and Iran were on different wavelengths in Lebanon. That may be true in the long term, and the foreign minister may have been sowing some divisiveness of his own, but there are no signs that the two countries have anything but common objectives today: to defend Hizbullah and its weapons; to put the international community on the defensive by eroding UN Security Council resolutions, particularly Resolutions 1559 and 1701; and to guarantee that the next Lebanese president is someone they can trust and who will help them achieve the first two objectives.

Then there is the Hariri tribunal. Hizbullah officials, notably the head of the party's parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad, have said they consider "null and void" the Siniora government's decisions taken after the resignation of the Shiite ministers. One decision surely to be targeted is the government's endorsement of the Hariri tribunal, which provoked the resignations in the first place. Hizbullah and Syria's other allies may no longer be able to cripple the tribunal at the UN, but they can do so as ministers in a government in which they have veto power. The tribunal may be a reality on paper, but it is not a physical reality yet. Lebanon must still approve its share of financing for the institution, and agreement must still be reached on a location for deliberations. That's not mentioning that Lebanese judges remain vulnerable to political pressure.

The French, like many others, must take all this into consideration when pushing for a government of national reconciliation. Both Syria and Iran are on the same page in wanting to bring about such a government in order to strengthen their hold over the Lebanese system. Reconciliation efforts, by their very nature, whether they are French or Arab, will mean compelling the majority to grant veto power to the opposition. Yet what has the opposition surrendered until now? Virtually nothing. In Saint-Cloud it once again refused to hold presidential elections before the formation of a new government, and it still rejects any formula that would not allow it to bring the government down through mass resignations.

In other words, Kouchner hit up against the same obstacles that Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa did during his recent visit to Beirut. Hizbullah and Amal have no margin whatsoever to negotiate a solution that the majority might consider minimally acceptable. If Kouchner imagines that his visit to Beirut later this month will help break a deadlock he couldn't break in Saint-Cloud, then he will be very disappointed. France is being allowed a small space to maneuver, but not one that would allow it to modify fundamental Syrian and Iranian aims.

What can Kouchner do to avoid being hoodwinked? Playing on Syrian and Iranian differences won't work. The two countries have perfected a good cop-bad cop routine. But France can perhaps position itself in such a way where it has the final word among the Europe countries on Syrian and Iranian intentions in Lebanon. In other words, it can agree to stand or fall by its efforts to determine the seriousness of Damascus and Tehran when it comes to finding a solution acceptable to all the Lebanese parties; with clear recognition in Brussels, particularly from the European Union's chief foreign policy official, Javier Solana, that France's judgment will be authoritative. For this to work, Kouchner should set benchmarks for success and a specific timeframe to try achieving a more detailed common agreement over principles. If nothing gives, then he should publicly declare who prevented a resolution to the crisis.

This will be an admission of failure, but if the EU is on board, then at least it could rebuild some of the international consensus on Lebanon that has become shakier in the face of European timorousness in facing Syria and Iran. That inter-Lebanese amity is necessary to this process goes without saying, and Kouchner, rightly, sought to build bridges for precisely that purpose. But up to now there are no signs that Syria's and Iran's Lebanese allies have leeway to do anything but restate positions engendering stalemate. Lebanon is heading for a perilous vacuum on the presidency, and Kouchner and the EU should not fear blaming the guilty for this and going back to the Security Council, evidence in hand.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Une guerre pour rien?

Il est révélateur que, un an après la guerre de l’été 2006, nous ne savons toujours pas si nous devons célébrer la "divine victoire" du Hezbollah ou pleurer la destruction de notre pays et de son économie par Israël. Cette incohérence reflète le décalage qui sépare le Hezbollah du reste de la société libanaise. Mais cette guerre a suscité tant de mensonges qu’il n’est pas étonnant qu’elle donne lieu à des interprétations contradictoires. D’ailleurs, deux des mythes les plus tenaces de l’année dernière méritent d’être à nouveau explorés.

Le premier mythe est l’unanimité du Liban pour soutenir le Hezbollah face à Israël. Or, le Hezbollah n’a jamais fait l’unanimité. Cela semble si évident aujourd’hui, à travers la crise politique qui déchire le pays, qu’on oublie à quel point il était contestable et dangereux d’affirmer une chose pareille au milieu des combats, quand nulle voix n’avait le droit de s’élever au-dessus du fracas de la bataille.

Le second mythe a été colporté par le journaliste américain Seymour Hersh dans The New Yorker, à savoir que le Liban a servi de champ d’entraînement pour une campagne américaine contre les installations nucléaires iraniennes. Cette interprétation servait plusieurs objectifs, le plus important d’entre eux étant d’inscrire le conflit libanais dans le cadre d’un complot américano-israélien pour modifier l’équilibre des forces dans la région. Il y avait une part de vérité là-dedans : une fois la guerre lancée, Washington y a vu une occasion en or pour affaiblir le Hezbollah, et par extension l’Iran et la Syrie. Mais rien ne prouvait à l’époque, et rien ne prouve aujourd’hui, que l’attaque lancée par Israël était programmée.

Les articles de presse israéliens et les premières conclusions de la commission Winograd [présidée par l’ancien juge Eliahou Winograd, elle est chargée d’enquêter sur les ratés de la guerre israélienne au Liban] ont souligné que la confusion qui a caractérisé la réaction du gouvernement israélien semblait démentir que l’attaque ait été programmée. Le Premier ministre Ehoud Olmert a accusé son armée de ne pas lui avoir communiqué de plans d’urgence et l’armée a accusé le Premier ministre de ne pas lui avoir fourni de directives politiques. Même pendant les combats, il était manifeste pour les personnes présentes au Liban qu’Israël ne savait pas très bien ce qu’il faisait. Son aviation semblait engagée dans un processus de destruction brutal et continuel, mais sans objectifs politiques apparents.

Hassan Nasrallah a contribué à démentir le mythe du complot israélo-américain, ne serait-ce qu’en faisant marche arrière après l’avoir proclamé. Le secrétaire général du Hezbollah a d’abord affirmé qu’en enlevant des soldats israéliens son parti voulait empêcher Israël de lancer une attaque prévue pour octobre 2006. Or ces propos contredisaient ceux qu’il avait prononcés sur New TV fin août, où il avait reconnu : "Nous n’avions pas imaginé une seconde que la capture [des soldats israéliens] provoquerait une guerre de cette ampleur. Si vous me demandez : ’Si vous aviez su le 11 juillet […] que cette opération déboucherait sur une guerre comme celle-ci, l’auriez-vous faite ?’, je vous dirais : ’Non, absolument pas.’"

On peut peut-être ajouter un troisième mythe aux deux précédents. Celui-ci est plus récent et tient plus de la divination que du mensonge. Certains affirment qu’Israël ne peut accepter sa défaite au Liban et attaquera à nouveau. La guerre du Liban n’est pas de celles que les généraux israéliens oublieront de sitôt. Mais cette affirmation est troublante, non seulement parce qu’elle laisse entendre que la guerre est inévitable – même si on peut en éviter une en réglant les questions de frontières par la négociation –, mais aussi parce qu’elle donne au Hezbollah un prétexte pour garder son armement. Israël attaquera-t-il à nouveau le Liban ou non ? Qui sait ? Mais cette probabilité augmentera si le sud du Liban se transforme à nouveau en camp retranché du Hezbollah.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mostly, a divine victory for disinformation

Mostly, a divine victory for disinformation
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 12, 2007

It says something that one year after the summer 2006 war, we're not sure whether to celebrate Hizbullah's "divine victory" or bemoan Israel's destruction of our country and its economy. That disconnect reflects the larger disconnect between Hizbullah and the rest of Lebanese society. But then the war was such a fount of falsehoods that its conflicting interpretations are not surprising. Two of the more enduring myths from last year merit revisiting, as well as a more recent addition.

The first myth was that of Lebanese unanimity in the face of Israel. Soon after the war began, a spectacular bit of disinformation surfaced when the Beirut Center for Research published a poll that allegedly showed overwhelming support for "the Resistance" - shorthand for Hizbullah. The head of the center is Abdo Saad, and his daughter, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, summarized the poll's results in an interview with the American radio and television program Democracy Now:

"Basically, 87 percent of all Lebanese support Hezbollah's resistance against Israel today. And that includes 80 percent of all Christian respondents, 80 percent of all Druze respondents, and 89 percent of all Sunnis. And this, of course, is non-Shiite groups, so those which have supported the March 14 pro-American - the March 14, sorry, alliance, which is seen as being pro-American, pro-French, anti-Syrian."

These numbers were truly remarkable; so remarkable indeed that rare were the foreign media outlets that did not, early in the war, diligently cite them. Unfortunately, rare, too, were the correspondents who could read Arabic and the question the Beirut Center for Research had put to its respondents. It was a simple one, to the point: "Do you support the Resistance's opposition to the Israeli aggression against Lebanon?"

More loaded a question would have required a firearms license, its answer obvious in advance, particularly when Lebanon was being bombed. Naturally, most of those asked said they approved opposing Israel, but what those preparing the poll got across, intentionally or unintentionally, was that this could be read as support for Hizbullah per se. The jump was unjustified, but it was one many journalists, who missed the artfulness of the question, happened to make. Under the circumstances, it was astonishing that 13 percent of people said they did not support resisting Israel.

Ironically, the person most responsible for discrediting the poll's results was Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. In an interview with Al-Jazeera a week after the war began, he declared, rather chillingly: "If we succeed in achieving the victory ... we will never forget all those who supported us at this stage ... As for those who sinned against us ... those who made mistakes, those who let us down and those who conspired against us ... this will be left for a day to settle accounts. We might be tolerant with them, and we might not.''

If Nasrallah had retribution on his mind only days after the start of the conflict, this hardly squared with an 87 percent approval rating for Hizbullah among the Lebanese public.

By the same token, the language of unity against Israel was equally insincere in the mouths of members of the parliamentary majority - the "pro-American" March 14 alliance, to borrow from Saad-Ghorayeb's verbal slip. While no one could deny there was humanitarian solidarity at the local level between Lebanese, one that transcended politics, the majority's fear was that Hizbullah would either win the war or lose it so badly that it would turn its anger against the interior once the fighting had ended.

There never was any unanimity behind Hizbullah. This seems so obvious today in the shadow of the current political crisis, that we forget how risky and controversial it was to say such a thing in the midst of the fighting, when no voice was entitled to rise above the voice of battle.

A second myth, peddled most forcefully by American journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, but whose implications were picked up by many critics of the Siniora government, was that the Lebanese war was a practice run for a US military campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities. This appraisal served several purposes, most importantly that it situated the Lebanese conflict in the context of a larger American and Israeli plot to change power relations in the region. There was some truth there: once the war kicked off, Washington saw a golden opportunity to weaken Hizbullah, and by extension Iran and Syria. However, there was little evidence then, or today, to indicate that Israel had launched a pre-planned attack.

If anything, Israeli press reports soon after the war, but also the first release of the Winograd commission's findings, emphasized that Israel's government was guilty of a confused response that seemed to belie a pre-planned attack. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused his military of not having provided him with adequate contingency plans, and the military accused the prime minister of failing to provide political guidance. In light of this, it is increasingly difficult to interpret Israeli actions as part of a systematic military project directed against Iran, prepared in close collaboration with Washington.

Even during the fighting it seemed apparent to those inside Lebanon that the Israelis didn't know very well what they were doing. Their air force seemed to be engaged in a mindless, brutal, persistent process of devastation, but with no specific or clear political aims underlining it.

Nasrallah, again, helped discredit this particular myth, if only by affirming its general tropes and then stepping back and contradicting himself. The secretary general first injected determinism into the Israeli attack by affirming that Hizbullah, by kidnapping Israeli soldiers, had pre-empted an Israeli assault planned for October 2006. Yet this jarred with his statement made on New TV in late August, when he admitted: "We did not think, even with one percent likelihood, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, had I known on July 11 ... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I have done it? I would say 'no, absolutely not.'"

If the war was coming anyway and Hizbullah did well to pre-empt the Israelis, then why did Nasrallah need to apologize for capturing the Israeli soldiers? And if the war was part of a US-Israeli conspiracy to eliminate Hizbullah and prepare for the bombing of Iran, then surely Nasrallah should have guessed that the violence would reach the magnitude it did.

One might add a third myth, this one recent and more a topic of divination than a case of mendacity. It is the statement that because Israel cannot accept defeat in Lebanon, it is bound to attack the country again in the future. The Lebanese war was not one that Israel's generals will soon forget. However, such a statement is disturbing not only because it suggests that war is inevitable, though one can be avoided if border issues are managed through negotiations; but also because it gives Hizbullah an excuse to retain its weaponry. Will Israel attack Lebanon again or won't it? Who knows; but the chances of that happening are likely to increase if South Lebanon is again turned into an armed redoubt by Hizbullah.

However, we won't need to worry if Israel does decide to resume the killing. The polls will be there to show that almost 90 percent of Lebanese are on Hizbullah's side. It will be just divine.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

When Dictators Dictate: Why do Arab thugs always get away with murder?

In his remarkable book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Simon Sebag Montefiore does a service by focusing on the intimacies of power. In his detailed, highly readable account of Joseph Stalin’s entourage, Montefiore shows how power is often a byproduct of informal interaction, a thing of the dinner table, the hunting expedition, the boudoir.

But Montefiore also poses another question, one more specific to the Soviet leader. Why is it that the experienced, ruthless, conceited men and women around Stalin could so easily fall under his ruinous power, to the extent that some remained loyal even after the murder or imprisonment of members of their families? The answer is deceptively simple: There was no sovereign rule of law to mediate the relation. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Stalin himself became the law, replacing the hard but more egalitarian conventions of the Communist Party. The absolute leader destroyed a system and replaced it with his own absolute ego.

Observing that the absence of the rule of law leads to the abuse of power is trite. However, this can be applied to state systems, and helps explain why destabilizing dictatorships can so easily impose their will on other sometimes more powerful states around them. The Arab state system is a prime example of this condition. Looking back several decades, and up to this day, a recurrent pattern in the Middle East and North Africa is that of the most thuggish regimes managing to get away with murder, even though their reckless behavior endangers the interests of other regimes.

Take Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi in the 1970s and 1980s, or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 1990s. For a long time Qaddafi backed Palestinian groups like that of Abu Nidal, which assassinated members of mainstream Palestinian factions. He would also routinely use terrorism to blackmail Arab regimes, even as the Libyan leader financed conflicts throughout the Arab world. Qaddafi sent his goons to kidnap Libyan opposition figures in places like Cairo, embarrassing the Egyptian government, and was responsible for the abduction and murder of Lebanon’s preeminent Shiite leader, Imam Musa al-Sadr. Until Qaddafi shifted his attention to African affairs in the 1990s and cut a baroque deal with the West over the Lockerbie affair, he was a spectacular nuisance in the Middle East. He rarely even bothered to attend Arab League summits, and when he did so he usually made a spectacle of himself.

Saddam’s story is even better known. The Iraqi leader, a noted admirer of Stalin, began a destructive war with Iran in 1980, which almost undermined the equilibrium in the Gulf. Nevertheless, Arab anxieties of an Iranian victory compelled most regimes in the region, except Syria, to put their faith in the Iraqi leader, whom they funded massively. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a step too far for Saddam, and the Arab world rallied against him. However, once the war ended, the Arab regimes began a process of reintegrating Iraq into their regional order. It wasn’t smooth, the United States remained a major obstacle, but there was a much greater fear in Arab capitals of what might happen to the Sunni-dominated arrangement in Iraq if Saddam lost power, than any determination to be rid of this elephant in a crystal factory.

In both cases, Qaddafi and Saddam not only managed to survive politically, despite everything they also remained members of the Arab club. There was an important message here. The Arab state system, for all its ability to impose stalemate and resist change, was surprisingly weak when it came to imposing order and stability. It was weak because there were no effectual inter-Arab institutions to bolster it, thin legitimacy propping up autocratic regimes, weak civil societies, few individual rights, and little democracy; in a nutshell no rule of law. Because the rule of law was mostly absent, the more irresponsible states had considerable latitude to pursue policies harming everyone, without risking retribution.

Today, the Arab state system faces a new challenge: Bashar Assad’s Syria. Since he was forced to withdraw his soldiers from Lebanon in 2005, the Syrian president has fought to retain his relevance by playing on several fronts. He has continued to allow al-Qaeda militants into Iraq through Syria’s borders so they can carry out suicide attacks thwarting Iraqi normalization; he has consolidated Syria’s relations with an Iran that is on the verge of undermining the balance of power in the Gulf; he has supported, with Iran, an assertive, rising Hamas against the Palestinian Authority; and in Lebanon he has continued to back Hezbollah while trying to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which represents a parliamentary majority hostile to Syria.

Most of the Sunni-led Arab states are alarmed. They worry that Assad’s behavior in Iraq might bring about a full-scale Sunni-Shiite confrontation that could swallow up the region. The alliance with Shiite Iran is of particular concern, since it poses a direct threat to regimes in the Gulf that have suppressed their Shiite minorities. The actions of Hamas and Hezbollah, by complicating prospects for a negotiated settlement with Israel, have obliged most Arab states to contemplate more decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Their regimes may not be able to survive this if the outcome is a general revitalization of militancy in the region, particularly Islamist militancy, that would target them first.

As for Lebanon, a Sunni-Shiite conflict can be unleashed at any moment by Syria, and could spread to the region. However, there is a difference there, because standing against Assad’s logic of violence is a rare instance where the rule of law is likely to be applied in the Arab world. A mixed Lebanese-international court is currently being set up to try suspects in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Senior Syrian officials are most likely behind the crime, and in early June the tribunal, whose establishment was blocked in Beirut by Syria’s allies, was set up under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

Last April 24, before the tribunal was approved by the Security Council, Assad met in Damascus with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The minutes of the meeting were leaked, plainly by the U.N., to the French daily Le Monde. In an exchange astonishing for its brute frankness, the idiom of the gun faced off against the idiom of international law. After Ban told Assad that Syria had "an important role" to play in ending political divisions in Lebanon and called on him to support creation of the Hariri tribunal, this is what the Syrian leader answered: In Lebanon, divisions and confessionalism have been deeply anchored for more than 300 years. Lebanese society is very fragile. [The country’s] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability.

Assad then issued what Ban could plainly see was a threat: "[This instability] will worsen if the special [Hariri] tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea ... This would have serious consequences beyond Lebanon."

With the Hariri tribunal now a reality, will Assad fulfill that threat? Can he? Don’t expect Arab states to contain the Syrian leader, even though his actions might bring all their houses down. But for a brief instance, law and accountability might stand a chance against intimidation and bullying. This is worth pondering whenever someone looks at the Middle East and declares that it was the Americans who brought chaos to the region. They hardly did the region any favors, but the Arab state system was always too flimsy anyway to sustain steadiness for very long.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Some common sense from Javier Solana

Some common sense from Javier Solana
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 05, 2007

After the attack against a Spanish patrol two Sundays ago, Spain's military began cooperating with Hizbullah in the investigation to determine who had killed its soldiers. This was based on an odd belief that the party is keen to safeguard the United Nations force. On Monday, the Defense Ministry in Madrid announced that the bombing was carried out by a "terrorist cell composed of non-Lebanese," with some newspapers describing them as Salafists. Spain's prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero, known to his countrymen as "Bambi," hinted that Syria might even be brought in to help uncover the truth about what had happened.

Then on Monday, another Spaniard, the European Union's chief foreign policy official, Javier Solana, came to the rescue with some common sense. In an important statement, Solana declared that "[w]hat happened in Gaza cannot be seen separately from what happened in Lebanon." He noted that there "are new groups in the Palestinian camps, and the fact that UNIFIL has been attacked for the first time cannot be taken separately." The car-bomb attack against the Spanish contingent was provoked by "forces we don't know," but Solana also underlined that it "would be naive not to see this as part of a global approach."

Solana's most revealing statement pointed a finger at Iran and Syria, when he unmistakably suggested that the "forces we don't know" could have been run out of Tehran and Damascus: "Somebody I know well - Ali Larijani - has said 'we are supporting Hamas'... All this is connected. It didn't happen by accident or miracle, it was probably planned ... It would be difficult to understand without seeing other important regional players behind it," he added, referring to "other forces" in Iran and Syria.

Perhaps Bambi will now think twice about Syrian participation in the investigation of the attack against UNIFIL. And if he doesn't, he should examine an extraordinary document published by the French daily Le Monde last Saturday: the minutes of a meeting between Syrian President Bashar Assad and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on April 24 at the presidential palace in Damascus. The article mostly flew under the radar of the Lebanese media, although its key passage had been leaked to An-Nahar in April and was never denied by the Syrians. The version in Le Monde largely confirmed the An-Nahar account, and it merits being quoted extensively. The language of the exchange was not specified.

In their discussion of Lebanon, Ban told Assad that Syria had "an important role" to play to end Lebanese divisions. The secretary general also called on Syria to support the Hariri tribunal, which had not yet been established under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Assad responded: "In Lebanon, divisions and confessionalism have been deeply anchored for more than 300 years. Lebanese society is very fragile. [The country's] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability."

The Syrian president then issued what Ban could plainly see was a threat: "[This instability] will worsen if the special [Hariri] tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea ... This would have serious consequences beyond Lebanon."

Not to be outdone by his boss, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was highly critical of the US ambassador in Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman. The document quotes Moallem as saying to Ban: "Feltman should leave [Lebanon]; I'm prepared to pay for his vacation to Hawaii." That statement, too, could be interpreted as a threat. As a finale, Assad told the secretary general as they were about to part: "We're in the eye of the cyclone. You will, therefore, need to stay in contact with us."

The minutes were intentionally leaked by the UN, and the timing was no coincidence. An educated guess would suggest the leak took place after the rocket attack against northern Israel in June, and the subsequent killing of the peacekeepers. The point was, evidently, to affirm what Solana did in his statement on Monday: that Syria is destabilizing Lebanon and the region in order to negotiate with the UN and the international community from a position of strength.

The exchange also proved that Assad, though he has denied Syrian involvement in Rafik Hariri's assassination, was very worried about the tribunal. And if there were any doubts about whether the Syrian leader wants to send his forces back in to Lebanon, his reference to Lebanese stability during the years of Syrian rule (even if the country was actually a mess between 1976 and 1990) surely dissipated them. Assad was blunt: If you want stability to return to the country then Syria must return to the country.

Repeated enough times, this kind of language will lose Assad even his most gullible friends in Europe. The cult of "engagement" of Syria is being battered by the fact that most European powers are realizing, to their dismay, that Damascus will not accept any of the quid pro quos that engagement requires. Instead, what they are all hearing, from Brussels to Berlin, is the Syrian language of the gun. Not even the most boneless of European officials could long sustain a discussion with Assad that is based on sundry warnings and intimidation, the practical impact of which is to terminate Lebanon's independence. And that a foreign minister should have exposed himself so recklessly in the presence of a UN delegation by assailing an ambassador in Beirut showed how dangerously belligerent and insular the mood in Damascus is becoming.

The implications of Solana's statements are clear. We are caught in a process of perhaps irresolvable confrontation - with Iran, Syria, and their allies in Hizbullah and Hamas on the one side; and the UN, the United States, Europe, the Arab states, and their allies on the other. Few Europeans relish being in so monolithic a standoff, and they are right. But unless something gives, unless Iran redefines its relationship with the West and the Arabs on the nuclear issue and its policies in the Middle East, stalemate will persist. Then we will see who has stronger knees: an international community that cannot afford to be browbeaten, or a Syria and Iran that must sooner or later prove they can build better than they can destroy.