Thursday, August 30, 2007

Should we worry about the Hariri camp?

Should we worry about the Hariri camp?
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Half of politics is being there; the other half is knowing what to do once you are there. Many of the better-known figures of the Future movement, including Saad Hariri, have neither been in Lebanon in recent weeks nor have they been particularly adept at advancing their agenda when they are. It's dawning on a number of groups in the majority that the Hariri camp may be the strongest yet also the most vulnerable component in the March 14 coalition, and that the repercussions of this paradox will determine what happens in Lebanon for years to come.

Let's start with vacation. That Hariri and his parliamentarians are entitled to one is obvious. That they feel their lives are threatened in Beirut is natural after the murder of Walid Eido. But spending several weeks out of the country at so sensitive a moment, much of that time at the opulent Hotel de Paris in Monaco, is foolish politics. Soldiers are still being killed in Nahr al-Bared, many of their families stalwarts of Hariri support in the Akkar; conditions in the country are uncertain, with people growing increasingly exasperated with basic tribulations such as power outages; and Lebanon's liberal future is being decided at this very moment, with Hariri and his parliamentary retinue nowhere to be seen. You don't build a durable political movement on poorly-timed absences.

There are several problems confronting what can broadly be called the Hariri movement. First, there is a personal disconnect between Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, reflecting a disconnect between the movement and the state. The government has seemed devoid of vigor in recent months, partly because of its ambiguous relationship with the majority, particularly the Hariri entourage. The symbiosis between the Hariri movement and state institutions, a cornerstone of Rafik Hariri's power, is today lacking. Saad Hariri should know that without a state project to buttress his efforts, these efforts will falter. The Hariri strategy always transcended patron-client relationships to encompass a national vision (albeit a flawed one at times), but Saad Hariri doesn't seem to be offering fresh ideas about how the state should develop. Most Sunnis support him, but without a long-term plan to consolidate that support by anchoring it in the state, the Hariris will lose ground to others.

This is evident in the North. What is being done to lay down a network of support in the Akkar, to ensure the region doesn't slip deeper into the marginalization that has long been its destiny? The Hariri camp doesn't seem to realize that the Akkar, because of the fighting in Nahr al-Bared, is going through a transformational experience. Young men and their families are paying a heavy price on behalf of the state. Will the state respond in kind? And if the state comes up short, will it not be up to Saad Hariri to fill the vacuum so as to secure his own political survival?

For the moment little decisive is being done on the ground. The issuing of scholarships, for example, has reportedly been suspended by the Hariris, which means that youths from the region are seeing their horizons contract. The people of the Akkar are also surveying what is happening elsewhere in the country - in fact just over the mountains in the Baalbek-Hermel district, where Hizbullah is growing ever more powerful militarily. There is a combustible mix there. If the Akkar Sunnis, like the equally poor Sunnis of Dinniyeh, are offered no improvement in their lives, they will become - even more so than today - vulnerable to mobilization by Sunni Islamist groups, some of them violent, who will play on a fear of Shiites. Without rural Sunni support, the Future movement would lose its vital force nationally, and its reservoir of mass backing.

Saad Hariri is also not around at an essential moment in Lebanese history: the lead-up to the most important presidential election Lebanon has ever had to face. In recent months, the Aounists have managed to limit Hariri's input into Christian politics, including the choice of a new president. They have done so by playing on Christian fear of Sunnis, confirming that Michel Aoun, despite his pretenses of being a national leader, is little more than a sectarian firestarter. Hariri, instead of fighting back by putting in motion a comprehensive opening to Christians, has maintained a low profile, ceding valuable ground to the opposition.

By not being around today Hariri is sending two messages, neither of them intentional, neither of which does him any good. The first is that he has no say on the presidency and therefore doesn't need to be in on the pre-election maneuvering; the second is that Hariri doesn't take seriously the September 25 deadline set by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to elect a new president. The first message implies that Hariri is not a player; the second makes it seem he is not interested in guaranteeing an election will take place on time, as soon as possible. Hariri cannot be effective if the public views him as unconcerned with the outcome of the presidency, though he is surely as concerned as any politician can possibly be.

A serious question arises more than two years after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Has Saad Hariri truly put his own mark on the Future Movement? Has he created a network of personal loyalties with which he can feel comfortable? There are those in March 14 who argue that his representatives in some areas of Lebanon are not up to the task. It is often unclear whether different members of the Hariri family are on the same political wavelength. What does it mean when a leading figure of the Hariri camp such as Bahije Tabbara openly declares his support, in an opposition newspaper like As-Safir, for a two-thirds quorum to elect the president, in contrast to the strategy adopted by March 14? It means that Saad Hariri does not control his parliamentary bloc, or that someone in the Hariri camp mistreated Tabbara, who felt he had to get one back.

The fate of the Hariri camp will determine the outcome of the independence struggle that began in 2005 and that has yet to reach any sort of finality today. Syria only lost its hold on Lebanon when the Sunni community turned against it after Rafik Hariri's assassination. But the impact of the crime will not be eternal. There is much work the Hariri camp must urgently engage in to firm up the consequences of that historic Sunni reversal. Otherwise, others will try to fill the void and their ambitions may be very different than Saad Hariri's. Lebanon could be distorted as a result, and with it a liberal Lebanon lost.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Spare the army fatal factional politics

Spare the army fatal factional politics
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 23, 2007

On Monday, the dean of Lebanese journalists, Ghassan Tueni, wrote a column in Al-Nahar that turns much else written on the same subject into annotation. The subject in question is the prospect that yet another military man might be elected president of Lebanon, this time Army Commander Michel Suleiman. Tueni's headline played on a slogan popularized after the start of the Nahr al-Bared fighting that was favorable to the army: "The order is yours to give." Tueni turned this around to say, "The order is yours to give, in war not in government."

Tueni's point was a simple one. The Lebanese are grateful for what the army has done in the past three months, and can only sympathize with the troops who have suffered a horrendous casualty rate. When considering that the armed forces have only some 2,000 or so well trained combat troops, the toll is far more onerous than many realize. However, the lives of the soldiers do not translate into a blank check to hand power over to the military establishment through the election of Suleiman. For too long the Arab world has been a victim of immoveable military regimes. As Tueni concluded, it is now up to Suleiman to focus not on the presidency, but on helping his army recover from a devastating battle.

In recent days a story has begun circulating that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is thinking of a plan to bring Suleiman in as interim president for two years - an idea similar to what Michel Murr proposed several weeks ago. Such an initiative would be rejected by March 14 and probably by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. But that misses the point. What Berri is probably thinking of, if he makes his proposal public, is to provoke a conflict between the army commander and the parliamentary majority. If that's the case, then both the Suleiman and March 14 should avoid a head-on collision at all costs. The majority has absolutely no interest in painting the army as a villain. That's one confrontation that March 14 will not win, and, worse, it will wreak havoc within the Sunni community, whose sons in the Akkar have been at the forefront of the army's efforts to crush Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared camp.

Suleiman's merits or demerits notwithstanding, the general is not finding it easy being a stealth candidate. He received a boost from Sfeir last week when the patriarch was persuaded by As-Safir to say the magic words: that he would not oppose a constitutional amendment if this could help save Lebanon. With respect to Suleiman specifically, Sfeir remarked: "If the army commander can save the country, then welcome to him."

By the following day the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, and the justice minister, Charles Rizk, had ascended to the patriarchal summer home in Diman to qualify what Sfeir had said. The patriarch, for all the respect he invites, has constrained March 14 in recent weeks, as has the Maronite church. A Maronite bishops' statement was critical of the Siniora government because it had signed an accord on the rights of the Muslim child and agreed to remove Good Friday as a holiday; Bishop Bishara Rai then accused the government of "Islamizing" the country; and Sfeir publicly insisted there needed

to be a two-thirds quorum for Parliament to elect a president, effectively endorsing the opposition's position, although he seemed to hedge on this in an interview published on Wednesday in the Kuwaiti newspaper As-Siyassa.

The patriarch's statement to As-Safir on an amendment, while it may have been a slip of the tongue, was more likely a reflection of Sfeir's state of mind. He does not trust March 14 much more than he does March 8 or Michel Aoun, and was likely sending a clear message: that it is preferable for the presidency to be filled, even by someone like Suleiman who is acceptable to March 8, than leaving the office vacant, which would mean the Maronites find themselves without their paramount representative.

If that's Sfeir's reasoning, it is worth mulling over, because the signs for now are that Lebanon will have no president at the end of November. Suleiman may become inevitable, whether the majority likes it or not. But if the patriarch sees the army commander as someone who can appeal to March 8, he should examine more closely whether he's acceptable to March 14. Samir Geagea spent 11 years in a cell at the Defense Ministry, so his enthusiasm for a dominion of officers cannot be high. The first time I met Walid Jumblatt in February 2005, military helicopters were patrolling over his palace at Mukhtara. In the past 15 years, while the army undoubtedly remains a nationalist institution, the reality is that the officer corps has been filled with individuals screened by Syria, Hizbullah, Emile Lahoud or Michel Murr, with many of the earlier holdovers being Aounists. For all the respect Suleiman imposed by remaining neutral during the Independence Intifada, more will be needed for the majority to consider altering the Constitution to bring him into office.

That reluctance is valid. Here is Lebanon, a rare Arab country which has not run to the barracks to resolve its every crisis, suddenly considering electing a second army commander in a decade. Meanwhile, a third military man, Michel Aoun, lurks in the background, insisting he's the redeemer that no one wants to acknowledge. The unfortunate fact is that Lahoud's politicization of the military very nearly ruined its credibility and effectiveness before 2005, and is a reason why the troops are so ill-prepared today for Nahr al-Bared. Nor do we need dispense much effort to show what a calamity Aoun's two years in power were. The general not only destroyed the armed forces, he destroyed the Christian community as well. That such a man should have the insolence to again want to "save" Lebanon is testimony to our capacity for amnesia.

Lebanon is not a laboratory for military rule, and should not become one. Michel Suleiman has not declared his candidacy, nor is he permitted to. But what would greatly help is for him to say plainly that he opposes the politicization of the army, and can prove it by refusing to accept the presidency even if it is offered to him on a silver platter. In the past nine months the military's neutrality is what has allowed Lebanon to contain the discord in the streets. If Suleiman were elected president, that neutrality would be lost. The army, through the president, would become a full-time political actor, and could be torn apart in the process.

In 1998, the Syrian regime sought to transform its way of doing business in Lebanon. Through Emile Lahoud's election it hoped to militarize rule in the country, so that Damascus could operate by way of a military hierarchy capable of marginalizing powerful politicians. The point was to centralize authority in Beirut, much as it is in Syria. The project was an abject failure, however, proving that the Syrian regime was always too contemptuous of its Lebanese possession to understand its inner workings. In the 2000 elections, Lahoud and the army suffered a withering defeat at the hands of the political class. The Lebanese can champion the army for a time, they can admire the bravery of its soldiers, but when push comes to shove, they prefer a traditional mode of diffuse leadership to centralization brought about by military muscle.

Suleiman is sensitive to this reality, and should remember this again when the presidential election period begins next month. The army never wins for long in Lebanon. The country is not Syria, Iraq or Egypt. That's why it would be best not to amend the Constitution, and why Suleiman should reject such an option on the grounds that the best way to reward the army is by keeping it outside the fatal reach of factional politics.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

If you pay, we'll be sure to look the other way

If you pay, we'll be sure to look the other way
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Saturday, August 18, 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy is as pro-American a president as France will ever have. But when he was received last Saturday at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, for an "informal" meeting with President George W. Bush, he was probably hoping this would not be interpreted gastronomically. The Bushes offered hamburgers and hot dogs rather than lobster or swordfish, leaving the slighted family fish supplier, Steve Kingston, to declare: "I hope it won't be taken badly in France."

In fact, detractors in France seemed far more disturbed by where Sarkozy was vacationing, namely the tony retreat of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, than by what he was putting into his mouth. The high price tag of the president's holiday was a consistent object of derision, but the reality was that many Frenchmen seemed even more uncomfortable with Sarkozy's plain message that things were back to normal with the United States - meaning the United States of the reviled George W. Bush.

If so, the critics might want to look again. On the US-French agenda were three Middle Eastern issues of common concern: Iran, Darfur and Lebanon. But while Bush and Sarkozy are closer than Bush and Jacques Chirac ever were, when it comes to the Middle East, Sarkozy's France is going the way other European states are in detaching itself from Washington and from the implications of the Bush administration's war on terror. That's not to say there invariably is disagreement. Rather, the European-American relationship with regard to the Arab world and Iran is drifting back to what we had before 9/11, when the pursuit of national interests trumped any declared common effort to advance democracy and human rights while isolating repressive regimes and "rogue nations."

Take the recent release by Libya of six foreign medics, most of them Bulgarians. This opened a Pandora's Box of recrimination when it was suggested that France, which played a principal role in the liberation, had overseen a more sinister quid pro quo: the medics in exchange for Libya's being allowed to buy weapons and a nuclear reactor from France. The French government insisted there had been no tradeoffs. Sarkozy was even more affirmative in denying a nuclear deal. However, Paris was forced to concede that a weapons deal had been agreed after the son of Libya's dictator Moammar Gadhafi broke the story to the French daily Le Monde.

But what Seif al-Islam Gadhafi disclosed suggested more than just arms sales, which are allowed now that Libya is no longer under an international sanctions regime. He told Le Monde: "First, the agreement [with France] involves joint military exercises; we will be buying Milan anti-tank missiles from France to the order of 100 million euros, I think. Then there is a project for the manufacture of arms, and for the maintenance and production of military equipment. You know it's the first arms supply deal between a Western country and Libya [since the sanctions ended]."

At home Sarkozy was attacked by the Socialists for being so willing to transact with an autocrat like Gadhafi. But the president is likely to weather that storm. His party agreed to a parliamentary inquiry scheduled to begin in autumn, and most probably this will serve to push the dispute to the backburner. After all, the Bulgarian medics deal involved many more states than France. According to the head of Bulgaria's intelligence service, Kirtcho Kirov, some 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, participated in what truly looked like a bazaar of liberation. Kirov recalled that the person who put him in touch with his Libyan counterpart was Marc Allan, the former head of global operations for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service.

Why the UK? Because the British authorities hold a vital card in the game of bringing oil-rich Libya back into the international fold. He is Abdel-Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan former intelligence agent being held in Scotland for his alleged involvement in the Pan-Am bombing over the town of Lockerbie. In June, Britain's judiciary allowed him to appeal his sentence for a second time. For most observers Megrahi is a scapegoat, someone who went to prison so the international community would not have to go after the real culprit: Moammar Gadhafi. Megrahi's future release may be part of the tentacular medics deal, in exchange for which, presumably, the UK will also be invited into the lucrative Libyan market.

It hardly takes Libya to show that the UK is going its own way in the Middle East, or that the mood toward the United States is changing in London. Already, US forces are preparing for a possible British withdrawal from the southern Iraqi city of Basra early next year, amid signs that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wants out of the Iraq conflict.

The growing US-UK disconnect was also evident in the conclusions of a report by a select committee of the House of Commons addressing Middle Eastern matters. Among other things, the report criticized the British government's rejection of an early cease-fire during the summer war in Lebanon last year - a decision taken by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in accordance with Washington. The MPs also called for an opening of dialogue with "moderates" in Hamas, cast doubt on the success of the US "surge" in Iraq, and warned that the use of such terms as "war on terror" and "arc of extremism" provoked "resentment" and was "unhelpful and that such oversimplifications may lead to dangerous policy implications." The real target of these conclusions was, plainly, the Bush administration's policy on terrorism laid down after the 9/11 attacks.

An older nemesis of the administration, the Socialist government in Spain, is also taking a much freer line on Lebanese and Syrian affairs than the US would like. The Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, has repeatedly sought to engage Syria's dictatorship, despite open US skepticism. Moratinos' attitude has also disturbed the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority in Lebanon, with one parliamentarian describing his benign attitude toward Syria as "not reassuring." Recently, Moratinos traveled to Damascus to meet with Syria's leadership, even though there was a very high probability, confirmed by United Nations officials, that Syria played some sort of role, direct or indirect, in the bomb attack that killed six Spanish peacekeepers of the UN Interim Force in South Lebanon on June 24.

Still, it's not all bad between Washington and Europe - nor is the US itself particularly consistent when it comes to dealing with autocrats, as it continues to bolster the regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Most European states are on the same page as the US in opposing Iran's nuclear ambitions and its rising power in the Gulf. On the Palestinian front, European governments have sided with Washington on isolating Hamas. In Lebanon, France may soon adopt measures similar to two White House Executive Orders denying travel to or blocking the property of individuals deemed to be undermining Lebanon's sovereignty and democracy.

However, the more uniform rhetoric heard in the aftermath of 9/11 is now a memory. The Europeans are doing their own thing, and so is the US. What that means in practical terms is that it is once again acceptable to cajole despots if national interests mandate this. So whether your name is Gadhafi, Assad, Mubarak, or Abdullah, the moral of the story is: Enjoy the greater breathing space you now have to asphyxiate your own people.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Facing up to an army of presidents

If Syria is pushing Lebanon toward an election whose effect will be the elevation of the army commander, Michel Suleiman, to the presidency, then four events in the past week seem to confirm this scenario. The first was Michel Murr's ambiguous expression of support for Michel Aoun as president, issued last Thursday on the "Kalam an-Nass" program, which unambiguously revealed that Murr was really placing his money on Suleiman. The second was Suleiman's visit to Diman on Saturday to visit with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Despite Suleiman's denials, the meeting had everything to do with the presidency. The third was the chilling threat issued by alleged Fatah al-Islam militants, warning that they would launch a terror campaign throughout Lebanon. And the fourth was Suleiman's statement on Monday - in contrast with what Prime Minister Fouad Siniora declared several weeks ago - that Fatah al-Islam was "not affiliated with the Syrian intelligence services." This must have been music to the Assad regime's ears, a test well graded.

Suleiman's presidential ambitions are no longer a secret. On Monday, the former minister Albert Mansour made a statement to this newspaper that the army commander had told him he would accept heading a transitional government if Lebanon's politicians didn't agree over a candidate, provided all sides accepted Suleiman's nomination. More intriguing, Mansour added that if the army commander presided over such a government, this would mean he could dispense with a constitutional amendment necessary for active senior state officials to stand for office.

This is worrying, because if Albert Mansour said what he did, then he almost certainly had a Syrian green light to do so. Far from desiring a vacuum, Syria apparently is seeking to use the threat of a vacuum to push its favorite through. Suleiman is not necessarily the only nominee, but he does seem to be the most likely one, because it's the army that Syria wants to see win out. Michel Murr's recent assertion that only the army can maintain security in Lebanon today, combined with Fatah al-Islam's threats, means the security situation might have to deteriorate first for Suleiman to become more palatable to the parliamentary majority.

That's not to suggest the army commander would be part of such a ploy. Nor is it to suggest that Suleiman would be rejected outright by the majority. The fact that on Saturday Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem backed France's initiative in Lebanon was revealing. It indicated that Damascus is focused on bringing European pressure to bear on the majority to accept its candidate of choice. The tactic may well work. France, Spain and Italy, pillars of UNIFIL all, are determined not to allow a void at the top of the state, and if Suleiman is their way to avert that outcome, the March 14 coalition will find it hard to say no.

The trick for the majority will be to avoid an unconstitutional transfer of authority to a military government led by Suleiman. Such a step would not go smoothly. It would only divide the Lebanese further and cripple Suleiman politically, and with him the army. So the majority must focus on two things: ensuring that a truly democratic election takes place on time and preparing for Suleiman if his candidacy gains momentum because of outside pressure. The army commander has behaved astutely in recent years, his performance during the 2005 Independence Intifada was exemplary, but it will take more to convince the Lebanese that they should embrace another officer as president. Lebanon always distinguished itself from other Arab countries by not chronically resorting to military men in times of strife. Yet now, with Emile Lahoud, Michel Aoun, and Michel Suleiman in play, we find ourselves dodging berets.

If Suleiman cannot take power against the will of the majority, as the general himself recognized, then the March 14 coalition has considerable leverage to shape his policies or those of other presidential contenders. Here are some conditions the majority should impose, if only to consolidate the gains made in 2005 when Syria withdrew from Lebanon.

The first is to insist that any new president publicly abide by the decisions of the national dialogue sessions of 2006, especially full and unconditional support for the Hariri tribunal, and make these a centerpiece of his or her inaugural address and the Cabinet statement. The president would also have to commit to resolving those issues the dialogue participants failed to agree over, particularly Hizbullah's arms. March 14 might ask for a written declaration of purpose, though the document could remain secret to avoid embarrassing the president. It would only be brought out if he or she failed to abide by its terms.

A second condition is that Suleiman's successor as army commander be approved by the parliamentary majority. The commander is appointed by the Council of Ministers, which emanates from Parliament, so it is legitimate for the majority to be afforded a final say over who Lebanon's senior military officer will be. A mechanism will have to be found so that opposition groups have an input into the selection process, but the majority must have the last word on whoever is chosen.

A third condition, and Saad Hariri would have to sign off on it, is that Fouad Siniora be reappointed as prime minister, but only if he proves he is not Suleiman's man as some are beginning to fear. This is important for several reasons. First, Siniora has the experience needed to go through what would undoubtedly be a critical transformation period. Second, Hariri needs to maintain a cushion of deniability between himself and the government at a time of deep polarization, to avoid being discredited if the public mood turns sharply against the government. And third, Siniora is the person best placed to defend the legislative legacy of the current government, which the opposition is still trying to reverse.

In parallel, the majority will have to try to take advantage of Michel Aoun's frustration with being shunted aside as president. Realizing that his political ambitions are about to be wrecked, the general may yet be willing to turn into a kingmaker and come to an agreement with the majority over a candidate with whom both sides feel more content. This bargaining should take place while the majority negotiates with the candidates Syria puts forward, turning March 14 into an arbiter.

The obstacles are immense. If the Syrians don't get their way, they will react brutally. Many Lebanese, and the army itself, won't take kindly to measures portraying Suleiman in a bad light. And Aoun is unlikely to do the smart thing and change direction, even if his allies abandon him on the presidency. But bearing in mind that Syria may be the least pleased with a vacuum - because the Hariri tribunal will advance anyway - the majority may be the one with time on its side. That's why it should act like a majority, be forceful on its priorities, and ensure that 2005 was not just a fantasy.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A victory on the path to oblivion

So, Michel Aoun’s candidate won. If the general knew any better, he would realize that Camille Khoury’s victory doomed any chance he had of becoming president of Lebanon. That’s because Aoun went into the election seeking to fulfill three aims, all of which have fallen through.

Aoun’s first objective was to score a victory that would compel Hizbullah to endorse him as president, something the party had carefully avoided doing. His second was to show that he remained the most powerful Maronite politician around. And Aoun’s third goal was to come across as the unavoidable president by proving himself a figure of national import. Yet so narrow was Khoury’s triumph that Hizbullah can continue to waffle on Aoun. So severe was Aoun’s rejection by Maronites that the general can no longer really claim to speak for his own community. And so polarizing was his decision to enter the by-election, so sour his rhetoric against his Christian rivals, but also the Sunni and Druze communities, that no one can seriously describe Aoun as a unifier, which is what the Lebanese are looking for in any new leader.

The Syrian leadership is pleased with the results. Aoun neither won nor lost; Gemayel didn’t win; the Christians are more divided than ever; Hizbullah’s margin of maneuver on the presidency is as wide as before; the balance in Parliament is unchanged; the option of holding by-elections as a weapon against political assassination was proven to be as profitable for the opposition as for the majority; and we may all be heading in the direction of a Syrian gambit on the presidency, where we will either have to embrace Syria’s candidate or accept a political void.

As the Syrians watch the United States and Iran negotiating, as they survey the progress in the Hariri tribunal (despite recent efforts by some states, under the stewardship of Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, to delay its formation), they are caught in a race for time. The Syrians threaten Lebanon with a vacuum, but a vacuum might be to Damascus’ disadvantage. It won’t stop the tribunal and the American-Iranian dialogue from going forward. What the Syrian regime needs above all is not so much a vacuum in Beirut, but a president and government it can manipulate in order to shape events in the coming months, before the tribunal is formed and before the regional situation possibly shifts to Syria’s disadvantage. That’s why there are some March 14 figures who prefer to hold off on a presidential election for the time being.

Aoun failed to grasp that the Metn by-election was always intended to undermine his presidential bid. The general was not going to come out of the battle looking better than he did in 2005. Now he looks much worse. He took the seat of a murdered man in the name of declaring the by-election illegitimate; he branded his campaign a fight against the traditional political families, when far better men than Aoun have failed to eliminate such families, let alone one like the Gemayels that is popular among Christians; and Aoun won on the basis of an Armenian vote which, though thoroughly legitimate, was the result of the parochial calculations of the Tashnag party rather than any yearning to make Aoun president.

Tashnag committed what could become a historic mistake. The party may have partly been playing hardball with Saad Hariri, in order to get the Armenians two seats back in Beirut in the 2009 elections. But what their support for Khoury effectively did was trash two principles the Armenians always adhered to in the past: siding with the Lebanese state, whatever the cost; and maintaining good relations with a majority of Christians. Now Tashnag finds itself on the side of the Syrian-backed opposition, propping up a man who will surely never be president, and doing so against the current of Christian public opinion in the Metn. On top of that, the party has turned Amin Gemayel into an angry enemy. All for what? To get the unknown Camille Khoury into Parliament, in an election process whose legitimacy Aoun didn’t even recognize?

And what of Aoun himself? The general’s aura is now bright only to those still part of his obtuse cult. Take away the calculating Armenians, the naturalized Lebanese bussed in from Syria to vote for Hassan Nasrallah (before realizing that he wasn’t a candidate), and the pro-Syrian parties in the Metn, and what you have left is a situation where only about a third of Metn voters see their salvation in the general. That’s not negligible, but it’s also far from the numbers that make one a valid political messiah.

As the election confirmed once more, Aoun is a casualty of his deepest hatreds. The man is built on a scaffolding of resentment. Ultimately it was his humiliation at the hands of the Gemayels, the fact that he was not allowed to present his condolences to the family after Pierre Gemayel’s assassination, that seemed to motivate him to push Khoury into the race. Aoun is someone who feels as threatened by the dead as by the living. He could never forgive Rafik Hariri for having been so spectacularly killed, when all Aoun could show for himself was a sprint to the French Embassy on October 13, 1990; he could never bring himself to say anything nice about Gebran Tueni when it was Gebran’s turn to be eliminated; and throughout the Metn campaign, Aoun’s contempt for how Pierre’s death was being used against him provoked thinly-veiled contempt for the victim himself.

Wave a red rag at Aoun and he will charge. Place that rag at the edge of an abyss, and the general will go over the side. Aoun won his Metn seat but he’s well on his way down. His parliamentary bloc still allows him to be kingmaker, never king. But Aoun wants to be king, only king. So Lebanon will continue to pay for his vindictive, destructive egotism until those opposed to Lebanon’s independence toss him away, his work done.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Back to an old template in the Gulf

The United States plans to sell Gulf countries at least $20 billion worth of military hardware in the coming years, and will sign 10-year military aid packages with Egypt and Israel, valued together at $43 billion. According to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Washington is "working with these states to give a chance to the forces of moderation and reform."

Oddly, two Fridays ago The New York Times published a story roundly criticizing the Saudis for their "counterproductive" attitude in Iraq. Senior US officials were quoted as saying that the kingdom had tried to discredit Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki by handing American officials forged documents depicting Maliki as an agent of Iran and an ally of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Times revealed that "the Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni groups in Iraq. Of an estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters who enter Iraq each month, American military and intelligence officials say that nearly half are coming from Saudi Arabia and that the Saudis have not done enough to stem the flow." US officials also noted that "the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia and that about 40 percent of all foreign fighters are Saudi."

Why this story came out just before the announcement of the arms deals was unclear, though you could guess. By criticizing Riyadh publicly for the first time, and in such a blunt way, the Bush administration pre-empted, and therefore effectively neutralized, Saudi Arabia’s critics in Washington who might seek to block the military transactions. But the Times article was also a straight warning to the Saudis that the US was losing patience with the kingdom’s behavior in Iraq, though the impact must have been dulled by revelations a day later that the Gulf states were central to the US strategy of containing expanding Iranian power.

But perhaps most significantly, the leaks were designed to remind the Saudis that the Bush administration’s failure in Iraq would only harm the kingdom itself, which might then find itself caught up in a regional sectarian conflagration devouring everyone. The subdued Saudi reaction to the American censure, the fact, too, that Riyadh knew the announcement of the arms deal was imminent, very likely meant the Saudis were expecting the administration’s broadside beforehand.

The US has dusted off an old template in the Persian Gulf, but with two twists. We’re back to the days when the Gulf kingdoms and emirates were avid consumers of hi-tech American weaponry, in the context of a broader quid pro quo where the US took on the burden of security in the Gulf region in exchange for Saudi intervention to stabilize the oil markets. The two twists are that stable oil prices today can only really come by way of thwarting Iranian hegemony in the Gulf; and second, doing so means that the US must replace Iraq as a regional counterweight to Iran.

Reverting to this policy is more astute than it looks. The US approach to the Gulf throughout the Cold War years and up until 9/11 enjoyed bipartisan support. The large weapons contracts pleased members of Congress representing constituencies with defense-related industries; stable and low oil prices were good for everyone; and the American presence in the Persian Gulf was always an acceptable way of projecting US power, without usually having to worry about casualties.

In reviving that general framework, one justified today through the containment of a threatening Iran, the administration is redefining its military deployment in Iraq very differently. The priority is no longer promoting Iraqi and Middle Eastern democracy; it is ensuring that US interests in the Middle East are preserved. We’re back to the basics of foreign policy "realism." As Condoleezza Rice declared on Monday: "There isn’t a doubt, I think, that Iran constitutes the single most important, single-country challenge to US interests in the Middle East and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see."

If Iran is accepted as the arch enemy, then withdrawing from Iraq suddenly looks like a bad idea, particularly when influential critics of the conduct of the Iraq war like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack are writing that the US is "finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms." By anchoring Iraq policy in a consensus that previously existed vis-ˆ-vis Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, by buttressing this with lucrative defense contracts, and by gaining Israeli acquiescence for the sales, the administration has made it more difficult for Congress to impose its will on President George W. Bush when it comes to the Iraqi conflict.

For the moment Congress is being coy. Sen. Joseph Biden and Rep. Tom Lantos, who head the congressional committees that will consider the arms deals, are waiting for September to commit themselves. September also happens to be when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker must submit their report on the progress of the US military "surge" in Iraq. Biden and Lantos may use debate over the weapons contracts as a bargaining chip with the administration to define future Iraq policy, depending on what Petraeus and Crocker conclude.

But you have to wonder if Bush has not already won that round. Congress has been unable to impose an alternative Iraq strategy, and now the administration is trying to take advantage of that void. If we are to believe the administration in its new approach, the US military in Iraq is now part of a regional security architecture. By approving the defense packages, Congress would be partly endorsing this Bush vision for the region. Maybe the president is not quite as dead as his detractors think.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Is Michel Aoun walking into a trap?

Is Michel Aoun walking into a trap?
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 02, 2007

All the signs are that the voting will go ahead in the Metn by-election this coming Sunday. However, partisans of both Michel Aoun and Amin Gemayel should be very careful. An Aoun victory would indeed be a setback for those who oppose Syrian efforts to return to Lebanon; but the election could potentially be a trap for Aoun, its practical outcome the general's political ruin and the destruction of Christian unity.

Whatever one thinks of Aoun, he has been a victim of two cutting blows coming from Damascus, and there is some question as to how we should read them. The first was the publication on a Syrian regime Web site, Champress, of alleged statements Aoun made in Berlin in which the general expressed sympathy for Syria. It turned out that Aoun did not utter the words in question, even if a compilation of his past remarks would show that he has said things not so very different.

The second blow was the announcement on Sunday by Ali Qanso, the head of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, that the party would back Aoun in the election. For anyone who knows the mood in the Metn and the antipathy felt for Syria and its utensils, Qanso's expression of comradeship could only harm Aoun in the eyes of many voters.

What's going on here? One interpretation could be that Syria is trying so maladroitly to appear like it is sinking Aoun, that the general will actually benefit from a contrary reaction of public compassion. That's possible. But another theory seems more credible, namely that Syria is looking to weaken Aoun, just as its main intention is to push the Christians into a destructive internecine crisis. Why? Perhaps to advance an alternative presidential contender at the right time, and to ensure that the Christians are so divided after the Metn election that they will be unable to agree on a different consensus candidate for the presidency.

An obvious question poses itself. If you are Michel Murr and the Tashnaq Party, doesn't recent Syrian behavior send a message that neither bloc will be penalized much for failing to fully support Aoun on Sunday? If Aoun is being set up for a fall, then Murr and the Armenians, by giving the general some votes, but not enough to win, may be there to implement that fall, even as they preserve their own interests. Murr will have saved his good ties with the Gemayels; the Armenians will have avoided a confrontation with March 14 and Saad Hariri, perhaps allowing them to negotiate a return of their candidates in Beirut in the next election; and both will have given Aoun enough votes so that he cannot blame them for his defeat.

Make sense? Let's take the speculation a bit further. If Aoun is to be eliminated, who do the Syrians really have in mind for the presidency? It's difficult to say, but if we go back to 1998, we might recall that Damascus, in turning Emile Lahoud into a president, was also advancing a broader political program: the militarization of the Lebanese regime. Part of the logic was that only the army and the security forces could contain the traditional political class - people like Rafik Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, and others. It's difficult to imagine that the Syrians have given up on that reasoning.

Let's also recall that recently Michel Murr floated the idea of bringing the army commander Michel Suleiman in as interim president for two years. Why would Murr do that, given that he is purportedly an ally of Michel Aoun, who sees Suleiman as a mortal rival? Could it be that Murr sensed something and that Syria's emerging candidate for the presidency is the army commander, now regarded by many Lebanese as something of a national champion? That doesn't mean that Suleiman is Syria's man - he has lost far too many soldiers fighting a Syrian-inspired project in Nahr al-Bared. However, it is defensible to have presidential ambitions, and none of the presidential candidates today, even those of March 14, would seriously contemplate being elected against Syria. The army commander's recent threat to resign if a second government were formed by the opposition suggested he was placing himself above the fray. As for his statement to the troops on Tuesday in Nahr al-Bared that the "salvation of the country will come from you," few things could have been clearer.

So as the Christians fight it out, Syria is figuratively taking us back to 1988, when Amin Gemayel left office. They start out with an unworkable demand - at the time the election of Suleiman Franjieh as president, today Aoun's candidacy. When unhappy Christians rally to block the option, the Syrians offer two other choices just as advantageous to them: Mikhail al-Daher or chaos, to paraphrase what the American envoy Richard Murphy supposedly told the Lebanese in encouraging Daher's election. Very soon, Suleiman will look like a superlative choice amid the ambient discord - both to the Lebanese and to an international community anxious about a vacuum at the top of the state. And if the Christians hinder that project, then what will follow is chaos.

The Metn by-election has already confirmed that Christians are more divided than ever before. In that sense, Aoun made a big mistake by pushing Camille Khoury into the ring in the first place. After all, what advantage was it for the general to highlight Christian differences when he could have affirmed that most Christians supported him on the basis of the 2005 elections? Whether Aoun and Gemayel compromise at the last moment is almost irrelevant at this stage. Avoiding a battle will lessen the damage, but already the Christians are at each other's throats, and the Syrians can only welcome this with their usual sense of humor.