Friday, October 19, 2007

Recalling what 'realism' did to Iraq

For a long time and until 2003, the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya was a critical filter through which supporters of war in Iraq channeled their most potent arguments in favor of an invasion. Makiya's obsessive plea for the removal of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship on moral grounds, his credibility gained from publishing books on the foulest effects of the tyranny in Iraq, earned him considerable influence in American political and intellectual circles - if also malicious animosity from those opposed to the Bush administration's ambitions in the Middle East.

Now, the situation has been mostly reversed. Makiya is struggling to determine if he was initially right in backing an American war to overthrow the Baath regime, and his torment is being plundered by those making the case that war was a bad idea. In The New York Times Magazine two Sundays ago, Dexter Filkins wrote a profile of Makiya in a similar vein. One particular exchange caught by Filkins has Makiya capitulating even to his most depraved critics.

"People say to me, 'Kanan, this is ridiculous, democracy in Iraq, a complete pipe dream,'" Makiya said when I visited him one day. "That's realism."

He got up from his chair and walked to a window.

"You know, in a way, the realists are right, they are always right. Even when they are morally wrong."

Makiya was already expressing growing doubts early last year. For example, in April 2006 I interviewed him for Reason, and he admitted he had been wrong in a number of his assessments of Iraq. However, Makiya still expected that "in the long run history will judge this to have been a morally just war, one that will in time produce a better Iraq than the one ruled over by the Baath Party." He added that in the prewar period, "[t]o just leave the situation to fester, as the Arab world and Europe seemed to want to do, was in my opinion more immoral than regime change, however badly this was handled by the United States government and the new class of Iraqi politicians who today rule over Iraq."

Yet Makiya's conclusion that the realists were always right, while it afforded them no moral legitimacy, intentionally or not appeared to represent a step backward from opinions he had previously defended. The reason is that when it came to pre-2003 Iraq, the realists were not only morally wrong, they were politically wrong as well. It was the realists who in the late 1980s imagined that Saddam could be a force for stability in the Middle East - someone who might even consider entering into some negotiating process with Israel. It was the realists who looked the other way in 1988 when Saddam unleashed the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, which played so essential a role in convincing him that the West would tolerate his worst abuses. And it was the realists who were caught with their pants down before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, imagining that Saddam was only bluffing in his quarrel with the Kuwaitis.

Similarly, it was the realists during the Clinton years who, as Makiya observed, allowed the situation in Iraq to fester, so that the Iraqi population suffered terrible hardship under United Nations sanctions. Saddam further tightened his hold over his people during that time, while growing fat thanks to the corruptions of the oil-for-food program.

There is much to admire in forensic self-doubt, but in giving his ideological adversaries credit they don't deserve, Makiya is overdoing things. On the realists' watch, Iraq was no less the monumental catastrophe that it is today; it fact it was a catastrophe that largely made possible the catastrophe of today. The difference then was that Iraqis were bludgeoned into silence - stability being shorthand for mass intimidation.

In moments of self-doubt, Makiya should reread the second half of his brilliant "Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World," a withering denunciation of Arab intellectuals who, by action or omission, somehow sustained the Baathist regime and gave it legitimacy. As Makiya wrote: "I am aware of no community of Arab intellectuals, however small, that could make a meaningful political distinction between the interests of the suffering people of Iraq, who had just lost a whole generation in eight years of grueling warfare with Iran, and the tyrant, who was sacrificing them on the altar of yet another adventure."

In endorsing that artificial unity between leader and society, many Arab writers and commentators not only reinforced the intellectual scaffolding of the totalitarian Iraqi system, they also echoed an essentially realist approach to foreign policy that judges other societies from the vantage point of power relations - therefore views them mainly through the prism of the interests of their political elites and regimes. Makiya would do well to remember how that implicit alliance - between a class of complicit publicists and of ethically indifferent policymakers - has been instrumental in extending the lives of numerous dictatorships.

However, Makiya reflects only one side of the story. The intellectuals and commentators on the other side, for whom Iraq was always going to be a letdown, can take pleasure in seeing their predictions proven correct. However, many of them displayed less moral and political clarity than Makiya on what should have been done with Saddam; and remain as lost as he in determining what to do next in Iraq. In the debate over the war, intellectuals have become increasingly irrelevant in shaping policy outcomes. But why blame them? Even in Congress, those opposed to the administration's Iraq policy have offered no viable alternatives, as was plain last month after General David Petraeus' congressional testimony.

Ironically, the real debate over ideas when it comes to Iraq appears to be taking place in the one institution generally (and unfairly) considered a graveyard for lateral thinking: the US military. If there is a community of people that has tried to grasp the reality of Iraq in practical ways, in all its complexities, and that has climbed the steepest of learning curves in the past four years, it is the armed forces. That's not to say that soldiers are or should be a model for how all Americans approach Iraq; but in its quest to understand the conflict environment better, the military has had to immerse itself in the sociology of Iraq like no other. And because of that, its intense discussions of the war, by rarely descending into flagellation or self-flagellation, remain alive with opportunity. The topic remains Iraq, not parochial American disputation over Iraq.

In his book "Colossus," historian Niall Ferguson wrote that America's defeat in Vietnam showed that "[o]n balance, Americans preferred the irresponsibilities of weakness" to the "responsibilities of power." America will not achieve victory in the foreseeable future in Iraq, if it ever does. But embracing weakness would be irresponsible not only toward America itself but toward Iraqis as well. Members of the military have been trained to avoid the irresponsibilities of weakness. That is precisely why their conversations today are so much more interesting than those of the disoriented intellectuals on either side of the Iraq divide.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Dressing the Christians up in brown shirts

Maybe someone might convincingly explain why, whenever Western journalists and publicists talk about Lebanon's Christians, particularly the Maronites, they invariably resort to the word "fascism" in describing some aspect of their behavior. The latest example is an article by one Thanassis Cambanis in The New York Times of October 5.

Cambanis' article is an overwrought effort to show that Christians are arming, recruiting, and preparing to wage war, even among themselves. "[T]he country's once-dominant Christian community feels under siege and has begun re-establishing militias, training in the hills and stockpiling weapons." In fact, the evidence for these allegations is negligible, despite the fact that a squad of Aounist weekend warriors was recently arrested by the security forces. However, Cambanis' point was somewhat different. His tone suggested that a forbidding temper had descended on Christian Lebanon, something menacing, all tattoos, guns, and spray-painted symbols - the stuff of far-right skinheads and Serbian death squads; well why not come out and just say it: the stuff of fascism.

In a passage on the Marada movement and one of its leaders, Cambanis wrote: "Like many Christian movements, his party builds support around a bizarre iconography, reminiscent of early-20th-century European fascism; his party has adopted the symbol for 'pi' to express constancy, and another group has chosen the Greek letter 'omega,' for resistance."

The "omega" symbol is, of course, used by the Aounists. If my grasp of names is on target, and it's a pretty large target, Cambanis' ancestors were Greek. Quite why the intrepid Thanassis should determine, therefore, that the letters of his ancestors should provoke the same reaction as, let's say, a swastika, is never made clear. If you are prepared to use the term "fascism" against a group of people, you had better make sure not to make your case solely on the basis of their taste for "bizarre iconography."

I had the pleasure of dining with Cambanis last year, and he struck me then, much like he does now, as being a dilettante on an expense account. But his inaccurate, lazy, shallow article in the Times, which has raised hackles in Lebanon and abroad, is reflective of a greater problem when it comes to portraying the country's Christians. Perhaps Cambanis picked it up in the hotel lobby, or just from his fixer, but he is really little different from the herds of other Western journalists, even academics, in reaching for the decades-old cliche that whatever the Christians do is somehow colored by extreme, even violent, communal nationalism and bigotry.

So why can't Lebanese Christians ever seem to get a break from this tedious characterization? The common answer is that their main political organization after the 1930s, the Phalange, was influenced by European fascist movements, and that one of its later emanations, the paramilitary Lebanese Forces, reinforced the same tendencies. What are these? Loyalty to a dominant leader, an often parochial sense of nationalism, a centralized command structure, a willingness to employ force, a tendency to absorb the individual into a corporate identity, and so on. No doubt a few of these characteristics were or are present in a number of Christian parties, albeit in very haphazard and very undisciplined ways. However, they also happen to typify most other Lebanese political groups as well.

There is one party, however, that fulfills all of these conditions to a tee: Hizbullah. And yet never will foreign journalists or observers refer to Hizbullah as "fascist" - nor would that be an accurate depiction of a far more multifaceted organization. To the anti-globalization left Hizbullah is a heroic vanguard against the United States and Israel; to many Western liberals it is a social service serving a deprived community. The thing is, the Muslim Hizbullah is regarded in Western consciousness as a "truer" product of Arab society than Christian parties, who have had to fight against a sense (sometimes self-inflicted, but mostly not) that they are interlopers. This has earned the party a reprieve from the "fascism" label.

Indeed, much the same dispensation applies to the Baath in Syria (and previously in Iraq), the Sudanese junta, and the madcap order installed in Libya by Moammar Gadhafi. In remarkable ways these absolutist, suffocating, centralized, exclusionary systems are viewed as bona fide emanations of "Arabness," even though the Baath's founders, for example, openly regarded German Nazism as a main source of inspiration.

Lebanon's Christians have also had to fight the remnants of an older foreign antipathy: that of Western Protestants who came to Lebanon in the 19th century to establish educational institutions in the country. For many Protestants, who became a foremost funnel for early Western awareness of Lebanon, there was something fundamentally odious in the Eastern Christians' approach to their religion. What wasn't oriental superstition in it was retrograde Catholicism, with its proclivity for gold, high ceremony, louche clergymen, and sparse spirituality. There seemed little room for reason among all that byzantine ornamentation; and when the Protestant missionaries proved unable to convert Muslims to the true faith, their favored prey became the eastern Christians, particularly the Maronites - provoking mutual antagonism that survives to this day.

That Protestant antipathy metastasized throughout the 20th century, taking different forms having little or no relation with religion. American publicists and academics of the Middle East in particular, like the missionaries deployed throughout the region, tended to take a positive attitude toward Arab nationalism after the 1950s. This was, after all, progress, a legitimate impulse toward self-emancipation; it was also a rejection of European colonialism and therefore something meriting sympathy. The Palestinians too, defeated by Israel after 1948, had staked out the moral high ground, and Westerners interacting with the Arab world, lacking a great deal else, never lacked in moral righteousness.

Yet most Lebanese Christians seemed to have no place amid this virtuous advocacy. The Christians seemed to be stubbornly resisting the Middle East's future. By proclaiming their communal rights, they were undermining an Arab nationalist ideology that promised to banish ancient communal identities; by arming against the Palestinians during the early 1970s, they were only further harming the Arab world's acknowledged victims; by being so different than those around them, they were bucking the trend, ruining the good vibes that Westerners dedicated to the Arab world's glorious destiny were so keen to impose. Lebanese Christians were a foreign body disrupting regional harmony, a fifth column, a reminder of how the colonial West had wanted Arabs to be. Therefore, it was perfectly reasonable to describe them alone as having fascist tendencies.

It is hard to credit Michel Aoun with anything constructive during the past two years. But do credit him with one thing: He has thrown a giant rock into the puddle of Western received wisdom on Lebanon's Christians. Things were simpler when Christians were just right-wing chauvinists who hated Muslims. Now, however, those who get animated when Hizbullah is mentioned have developed an interest in its bizarre Christian ally. Rewrite the manuals! Burn the guidebooks! Fire the fixers! The Christians are fascists, but by God some are more fascist than others.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Corner Syria at the Annapolis conference

Bashar Assad, never a man to accept conditions, is nevertheless imposing some of his own on the United States. In an interview with the BBC earlier this week, the Syrian president said he would only attend a conference on Middle East peace scheduled for November in Annapolis, Maryland, if the issue of the Golan Heights were discussed. "It should be about comprehensive peace, and Syria is part of this comprehensive peace. Without that, we shouldn't go, we wouldn't go," Assad said.

Assad's position is understandable. The idea of inviting Syria to the conference as a member of an Arab League committee dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was never going to float in Damascus. On the other hand, Washington was never going to regard as a priority Syria's interest in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which governs the status of the occupied Golan Heights, when Assad's regime is briskly undermining UN resolutions on Lebanon and other regional conflicts. However, from Lebanon's perspective, and despite Syria's destructiveness in the country, is there an advantage in seeing Assad locked into a negotiation process with Israel?

The question may be badly posed.

Ultimately, if the November conference turns into a success, it might be impossible to prevent Syria from elbowing its way onto the table. There are several reasons for this, not least that Israel might have an incentive in resurrecting its Syrian track in order to play it off against the Palestinian track, as it did throughout the 1990s. The fact that Syria might be interested far more in a negotiating process than in a peace settlement would only interest the Israelis more.

It is equally likely that the Saudis, whose relations with Syria have descended to subterranean levels, would nonetheless encourage a Syrian track. This makes sense because King Abdullah's peace plan will not go very far if Syria and Hamas, instead of being in the room, are actively working to scuttle it from the outside. The Saudis also realize that if Syria is a full participant, this will make it much more difficult for other Arab states to oppose negotiations. Saudi Arabia would therefore gain latitude to make possible dramatic moves of its own in its dealings with Israel.

More generally, there are those who believe that unless Syria is offered something serious, it will continue to try imposing its writ on Lebanon. There is skepticism, even cynicism, in Beirut when it comes to such an argument. After all, the Syrians throughout the 1990s viewed their talks with Israel as just another opportunity to further tighten their hold over the Lebanese. The late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, implicitly recognized that link when he famously remarked that he preferred Syrian soldiers in Lebanon than on the Golan Heights. The reality at the time, however, was that the international community readily pushed the Lebanese track to the backburner, awaiting a resolution, first, of the Syrian-Israeli conflict. In other words Syrian President Hafez Assad, until the Syrian-Israeli track broke down in March 2000, was on the verge of having his soldiers deployed both on the Golan and in Lebanon.

If Syria's entry into the Annapolis process - assuming there is such a process - is inevitable, then Lebanon and its friends must ensure that what Syria gains on the Golan it surrenders in Lebanon. One way to do so is to use the November conference as leverage to secure formal Syrian approval of all UN resolutions and statements relating to Lebanese matters, particularly Resolutions 1559 and 1701, as well as statements calling on Damascus to delineate its border with Lebanon in the Shebaa Farms area. Lebanon should be invited as a full participant at the conference. It should use the event to reaffirm its respect for UN resolutions and possibly to put a mechanism in motion to update the 1949 Armistice Agreement, whose implementation was part of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's seven-point plan endorsed by the government last year.

How would Syria respond to delineating the Shebaa border? In late September, the Syrians told Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos that they were willing to transfer the Shebaa Farms to UN custody. Moratinos, who has been overly alert to Syrian anxieties despite the attack that killed six troops of the Spanish contingent in South Lebanon last June, recently sent a letter to this effect to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The seriousness of the offer bears scrutiny. As is often the case, it was not the Syrians making the announcement but someone speaking in their name, affording Assad deniability. That said, bringing up the Syrian offer in the context of the November conference could put Damascus on the spot, forcing it to reveal its true intentions.

They're not difficult to deduce. Syria had always described the farms as Lebanese. Moratinos' letter suggests Damascus believes they belong to Syria. The practical result of this is that any delineation of borders still requires a Lebanese-Syrian agreement, which the Syrians refuse to discuss while Shebaa remains occupied. The Syrians sold Moratinos a bogus concession, so the Shebaa deadlock continues. Yet it is still possible that a Syrian track with Israel would force Syria to inject some clarity into the Lebanese track, particularly on the Shebaa Farms.

All this will not prevent Syria from pursuing its destabilization of Lebanon and trying to reassert its hegemony over the country. Indeed, if a negotiating process buys the Syrian regime breathing space and international goodwill, this may have terrible consequences for Lebanon and for the Hariri tribunal. However, if Syrian participation in the Annapolis meeting cannot be avoided, if Syria uses the gathering to jumpstart talks with Israel, then Lebanon and those who want to see UN resolutions pertaining to Lebanese issues implemented have to be prepared. And that means showing Syria that its track with Israel can only move forward once Damascus complies with the Lebanon resolutions.