Sunday, December 30, 2007

A neocon Bush Middle East policy? Look again

A neocon Bush Middle East policy? Look again
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Saturday, December 29, 2007

Maybe 2008 will be the year when we are finally rid of that vacuous belief that "the neocons" are in control of the Bush administration's foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Habits are hard to break, particularly lazy ones, but if anyone bothered to look more closely, they would see that the United States has not really engaged in what we might call a neoconservative approach to the region since at least 2004, when the situation in Iraq took a sudden turn for the worse.

What are, or were, the highlights of a neocon approach to the Middle East and the world before 2003, when American forces invaded Iraq? Looking back at that most prominent post-9/11 neocon statement of purpose, the administration's National Security Strategy released in September 2002 (an assemblage of contradiction in which neocon ideas were recorded alongside classical liberal internationalist ones), they were roughly the following: a desire to maintain American paramountcy at the expense of the more traditional concept of a balance of power; greater reliance on the use of force and unilateralism in America's defense, through pre-emptive measures if necessary; and a more activist bent in spreading democracy, freedom and free markets throughout the world.

But the truth is that soon after the takeover of Iraq, the administration gradually began acting in the Middle East pretty much like its predecessors. It was compelled to rely on the multilateral institutions it had spurned in the run-up to the Iraq war, implicitly accepting that US military might was not enough to resolve all problems. As for its commitment to an agenda of democracy and freedom, while officially this was at the heart of American concerns after Bush's second inaugural address, in reality by then it was already in decline as a policy guide.

For example, in May 2003, the US was compelled to seek an international resolution to govern its military presence in Iraq. While the Security Council, in Resolution 1483, recognized the Coalition forces as a ruling authority, it labeled them an "occupying authority," with both the legal obligations under that status, and the stigma. The resolution was a compromise: the UN pragmatically acknowledged that it had to work with the US in Iraq, and used this to try shaping political outcomes in its favor; the Bush administration realized that it needed international cover, even if in September 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan again reminded Washington that its invasion had been "illegal."

Only days after the Security Council authorized the creation of a United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq on August 14, 2003, a bomb attack targeted UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing the organization's representative there, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and almost 20 other people. The US was then still trying to rule over Iraq on its own, with Paul Bremer as high commissioner. Yet it was immediately clear to the Bush administration that the attack had harmed American efforts to normalize the situation on the ground in Iraq. The subsequent dramatic drawdown of UN personnel denied the US a valuable partner in distributing much-needed aid to an impoverished Iraqi population, as well as an often useful mediator with Iraqi leaders who refused to meet with American officials.

By 2004, the US was resorting to the UN in other Middle Eastern crises as well. For example, the Security Council was the preferred route for US efforts in 2004 to push for a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon. Far from going it alone, the Bush administration, in collaboration with France, its bitterest foe over Iraq, sponsored Security Council Resolution 1559 to that end. The US didn't try to impose the resolution by force, even though American troops were on the Syrian border and had every reason to attack Syria because of the way it was infiltrating fighters and Al-Qaeda suicide bombers into Iraq. In fact, under even a loose interpretation of the National Security Strategy, the administration would have been justified in pre-emptively striking against the regime in Damascus for what it was doing to its eastern neighbor. But the US held back.

Whenever Lebanon circa 2005 is mentioned, images of a "popular revolution" come to mind. The mass demonstrations against Syria after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, were a powerful democratic moment for the country, and for the Arab world as a whole. The term "Cedar Revolution" was even coined by an American official looking for a serviceable tagline to compare what was happening in Beirut to democratic uprisings elsewhere in the world.

But the reality is that the Bush administration only latched onto the democracy imagery after the anti-Syrian rallies had started, then used these to bolster the argument that, together with the parliamentary elections in Iraq earlier that year, a democratic wave was sweeping Arab societies. Between the moment in September 2004 when the US backed the UN resolution demanding a Syrian pullout from Lebanon and the moment of Hariri's assassination in February 2005, Washington had no clue how to implement the resolution. Lebanon was not an American priority, Iraq was. The administration didn't even realize that Lebanese democracy was something

it could seize upon until the Lebanese took advantage of the American democratization mood (and military presence in Iraq) to buttress their own demands for a Syrian withdrawal.

In other words, for all the talk of a neocon cabal advancing Middle Eastern democracy, the administration was mostly unaware of the democratic potential in Lebanon until the Lebanese went into the streets. Only then did the US provide the vital push, with others, to force the Syrians out. The moral of the tale: that you didn't necessarily have to believe the American democracy message to profit from it, was one that Arab liberals elsewhere ignored. Most amusing, American indecision in the period before Hariri's murder resulted from Washington's adhering to the consensual internationalism it had dismissed before the Iraq war.

One can go on. Since 2006, the Bush administration has all but abandoned its democracy agenda to rally despotic Arab regimes against Iran. Containment is the new catchword and, no surprise, it is pretty much what the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations spent two decades applying to post-revolution Iran. The US has also returned to an old "realist" template in selling sophisticated new weaponry to the Arab Gulf monarchies to partly balance Tehran's power. Neocon aversion to Saudi Arabia, a focal point of post-9/11 disputation (even if it was never as significant as some imagined), has evaporated.

Similarly, the Bush administration now finds itself back in the oldest gig in town: the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. That a settlement is necessary goes without saying, but how unexpected that the most bureaucratically cautious operator in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, should have tied her fate to resolving what many regard today as an irresolvable conflict. In so doing, Rice has applied a lesson taught by her realist predecessors: that the key to normalcy in the Middle East is peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That may be true or not, but it was always rubbish to the neocons.

So maybe it's time to stop referring to the neocon policies of the Bush administration. The neocons are gone, many for so long that no one seems to remember their leaving. What we now have in Washington is a mishmash of old political realism and improvisation, topped with increasingly empty oratory on freedom and democracy. That should please quite a few of Bush's domestic critics. He's returned to the futile routine in the Middle East that they always urged him to.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Syria's impatience is leading to mistakes

Syria's impatience is leading to mistakes
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, December 27, 2007

A demoralizing aspect of much international political behavior, commentary, or policy counsel on Syria in the past two years has been the extent to which it has fed off amnesia. Almost nobody, it seems, recalls that the Syrian-Lebanese crisis took a nasty turn following a botched murder attempt in 2004 against Marwan Hamadeh, and reached a point of no return after the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The killings have continued, Syria's efforts to return to Lebanon have escalated, and yet fewer and fewer countries hold this against the Syrian regime anymore.

International relations are often determined by a short attention span that can morph into self-interested indifference; and by self-delusion. With the world's attention elsewhere on most days, Syria has slowly clawed its way back into Lebanon; and it has profited from the illusion that it is striving to be different, that it really wants to change its behavior on Lebanese sovereignty and toward Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah - when that behavior has been successful, so that Syria has no reason to change anything.

The Syrian regime's policies are an endless return to templates created by the late Hafez Assad. What are these? Absolute control over Lebanon, preferably military control, to give Syria regional relevance and leverage in war and peace over Israel; a taste for counterpoint in regional crises, whereby Syria will play both sides in order to place itself at the center of any resolution; a strategy of exporting conflict to ward away domestic threats to the Syrian regime; a desire to impose Syria as an obligatory regional partner of the United States; and a willingness to use violence.

Bashar Assad has been less adept than his father in balancing all these. The Syrian regime's too-frequent resort to violence since 2003, in Lebanon and elsewhere, has alienated Washington while convincing Syria's Lebanese foes that no reconciliation with Damascus is possible. Assad's alliance with Iran has damaged relations with the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. And Syria's export of violence remains an obstacle to any serious negotiations with Israel, and has badly backfired in Iraq, where the Sunnis have turned against Al-Qaeda.

While Syria continues to make strides in Lebanon, its clumsiness has created openings for those who want to prevent a Syrian return.

As a starter, Assad has played the French card all wrong. It may take more time for the Sarkozy administration to finally break free of its fondness for masochism and realize that Syria is uninterested in resolving the Lebanese presidential crisis in exchange for improved relations with Paris. The French have displayed astonishing amateurism in their dealings with Damascus in the past two months, reflecting a more general breakdown of their policy-making process. President Nicolas Sarkozy has put his most senior adviser, Claude Gueant, on the Syria case, though Gueant knows little about Syrian affairs. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has failed repeatedly to make any headway with the Assad regime on Lebanon, and finds himself isolated both from his president and from his own Foreign Ministry bureaucracy. Even Kouchner's main Middle East hand, Jean-Claude Cousseran, is not a Kouchner man, and retains ties to the French foreign intelligence service that he once headed.

This cacophony of voices, much like Sarkozy's reluctance to admit that his Syrian policy is dysfunctional, has delayed a full rapprochement with the Bush administration on Syria. However, unless Damascus gives the French something meatier on Lebanon in the coming months, the US and France will move decisively closer, particularly if Syria remains estranged from Saudi Arabia. Syrian hardball could revive the 2004 partnership that led to passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 (which the French effectively undercut during their recent talks with Syria). If so, Assad might come to regret his gratuitous humiliation of France.

A second mistake is that the Syrians have burned virtually all their Lebanese allies. Hizbullah is strong militarily, but outside the Shiite community its national appeal is at subterranean levels. The party is perceived by most Sunnis, Druze and Christians as a fifth column working on behalf of Iran and Syria. This has severed the broader connections with Lebanese society that Hizbullah worked for years to set up. Similarly, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is no longer viewed by the majority as credible. He has closed Parliament down on spurious grounds and made promises to Saad Hariri on the presidency that he was later forced by Syria to revoke. Berri is a mailbox for Hizbullah, but worse for the speaker, he probably can only survive politically by remaining so.

Syria's other allies, such as Omar Karami, Suleiman Franjieh, Wiam Wahhab, Abdel-Rahim Mrad, Elie Firzli, and Nasser Qandil, are much more a substantiation of Syrian shortcomings in Lebanon than of Syrian strengths. Proof of this is that Damascus wasn't able to establish a second government using them that would have been taken seriously by the outside world. As for Michel Aoun, Syrian Vice President Farouk Sharaa recently referred to him as a Syrian ally; but even if he isn't one, the general is so polarizing a figure in the context of Syria's counterattack against the 2005 Cedar Revolution that he remains unelectable.

A third mistake is that Syria has utterly failed in its Sunni policy. The Sunni community is the major obstacle to any Syrian return. It is extraordinary that Aoun and an embarrassing number of his followers should be so hostile to Sunnis today, when they spent years accusing the community of not being Lebanese enough. The Aounists won't accept that it was Syrian fear of Rafik Hariri's (therefore the Sunnis') anticipated gains in the 2005 elections that precipitated the former prime minister's assassination; it was mainly Sunni revulsion, locally and regionally, with Hariri's elimination that pushed the Syrians out of Lebanon; it was Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's diplomacy that ensured the deployment of the Lebanese Army to South Lebanon after the Israeli onslaught of 2006 - a step that earned him the loathing of Hizbullah; and it is the Sunnis whom the Syrians now need to silence by any means possible, particularly through pressure on Saudi Arabia, before they can contemplate a return to Beirut.

A fourth mistake is that Syria overplayed its hand by trying to block the Hariri tribunal inside Lebanon. That the former UN investigator, Serge Brammertz, named no names in his various reports on Hariri's assassination is worrisome. Without any names, the legal process could conceivably end up in limbo, even if the tribunal is set up. However, even if we assume the worst about Brammertz's intentions, which may be unfair, Syrian intransigence was instrumental in bringing about the tribunal's establishment under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Manipulation of the tribunal process is now more difficult for Damascus. The Syrians would like to see the tribunal go away, but are probably unable to accept even a deal that would incriminate lower-level officials in a way that could convincingly exonerate their regime. Regardless of whether there is reluctance at the UN to go after the Syrian leadership - and there is - the fact that the tribunal is now mainly in international hands could create momentum that Syria won't be able to control.

The Syrians will likely make their grand final push in Lebanon in 2008. If the Lebanese remain as divided as they are today, the Syrians might succeed. However, Syria's impatience is also, in large part, a recognition of its limitations. Lebanon is trying to break free and Damascus isn't used to that. Consequently, it will make more mistakes, and those Lebanese truly interested in an independent Lebanon should exploit these mistakes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Lebanon's pact: prelude to a postmortem

Lebanon's pact: prelude to a postmortem
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What is left of Lebanon's confessional democratic system as the country pursues its cold civil war? At no time in the recent past, even during the conflict years, has the system been so threatened, its foundations so fragile. With the Syrians knocking again at the door, there is a real danger that Lebanon as we know it could disappear, with nothing to replace it.

Lebanon's problems transcend constitutional issues, even if these are central to the country's current problems. In the past year, it is the opposition that has mostly emptied the Constitution of its meaning. The assumption that the Siniora government is unconstitutional because Shiite ministers have resigned from it - although the Constitution says no such thing - has been shorthand for imagining Lebanon as a confederation of sects. That's not how the political order was set up. No system could escape permanent stalemate if it were built on the principle that decisions had to derive from sectarian unanimity.

Michel Aoun applied the same logic when presenting his outlandish scheme to get a president elected several weeks ago. Aoun offered to appoint the president himself, while Saad Hariri was to appoint the prime minister. The idea was that the strongest Christian had the right to bring in the president, while the strongest Sunni could do the same to the prime minister. But such a vision would only transform Lebanon into a loose amalgam of sects somehow stuck in the same place, but never collaborating in a common enterprise. Aoun's abandonment of an election altogether, his view that sectarian leaders should simply name officeholders, revealed how easy it would be for a confederation of sects to descend into sectarian autocracy. Yet the only guarantee of Lebanese democracy, or what remains of it, is the reality of shared participation by all in the state, even if the state remains weak.

The parliamentary majority is hardly innocent either when it comes to chipping away at the foundations of Lebanese sectarian democracy. The abuse done to the Constitution to turn the army commander, Michel Suleiman, into a president will have disastrous repercussions, regardless of Suleiman's merits or demerits. From now on every army commander will consider himself a president in waiting, and will cite the higher interests of the state (just as March 14 has) to lobby for the post. Lebanon, once a country markedly different in the Arab neighborhood thanks to its preference for disposable, usually civilian presidents, now seems incapable of circumventing officers. Surely, the Maronites have better to offer. And if they don't, then this is a damning indictment of their present contribution to Lebanese democracy, which alone has ensured the community's survival.

Social contracts, whatever their value, are useful as formal stepping stones to something better (or worse). The 1943 National Pact, though challenged by politicians from all sides, survived long enough to hand off to the Taif Accord. The problem today, however, is that many in the Shiite community as well as not a few Christians, particularly Aoun's followers, have no liking for Taif. Unhappy Christians see the accord as the source of their marginalization, while unhappy Shiites see it as an obstacle to their greater representation. Both groups are entitled to question Taif's tenets within the framework of a constitutional reform process. But much more disturbingly, they have tended to question the validity of the accord altogether, allowing no possible springboard toward a Taif-II.

On top of that, and in defiance of the principles of sectarian equilibrium, the Shiite community is armed to the teeth - a situation blocking all talk of political reform. Hizbullah will argue that its weapons have never been turned against other Lebanese. This is both historically false and irrelevant. In a society governed by minority paranoia, everything is about perceptions. A gun in the closet is still a gun, and no one will discuss handing the Shiite community more power while the community is so strong militarily.

This creates a paradox: Hizbullah's weapons are the major obstacle to better integration of Shiites into post-Taif Lebanon. And the party has systematically exacerbated and exploited feelings of Shiite alienation to build up a communal wall in defense of its weapons.

Christians are in a more debilitating dilemma. They are so convinced of their terminal decline that they are actually accelerating the process. Most of what the Christians have done to fight irrelevance in the past two years, since the Syrian withdrawal, has been ruinous to their fortunes. In 2005, following the deplorable quadripartite electoral agreement between Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri, Hizbullah, and Amal, they put their faith in Aoun, even though the general, along with Samir Geagea, was responsible for the vicious inter-Christian war of 1990 that devastated the community. Christians, particularly Maronites, have also believed that their salvation would come from a new president. Yet the infighting over the presidency has been so divisive that Syria has taken advantage of this to gradually re-impose its hegemony over Lebanon.

For Christians to survive as a community, they must accept that the only way to do so is through reform of the confessional arrangement within the framework of Taif. This means abolishing sectarian quotas in Parliament before this becomes a demand Christians cannot deflect. The community can be compensated through establishment of a Senate on a 50-50 Christian-Muslim basis to deal, as Article 22 of the Constitution specifies, with "major national issues." The presidency, rather than being a safeguard of Christian advantages, now embodies Christian failings. Replace it with a rotating system in which the communities can serve in different senior posts in the state, so that a sense of common purpose is created.

Unless Christians grasp the necessity of deconfessionalizing Parliament, they may find themselves facing a new reality where the Sunni, Shiite and Christian communities are each represented by a third of parliamentary seats. The disadvantages are obvious: Christians would be the ones surrendering the most power; but more significantly national solidarity would be lost. A great deal would be decided on the basis of a two-thirds majority - in other words, by those two communities able to impose their will on the third. The result would be the perpetual estrangement of the loser. What kind of system can long last that is based on resentment?

Resentment is Lebanon's life force these days. The country is in need of overhauling its political relationships, and yet domestic hatreds and Syria's efforts to return with its army make this impossible. Without a new national pact, no pact at all is likely. And that only makes Lebanon unlikely.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A rivalry transcending a nuclear Iran

It's not often that one has the stomach to call on political realists - all too frequently purveyors of foreign policy stalemate and pals of despots worldwide. However, realism was called for last week when American intelligence agencies released a National Intelligence Estimate claiming that Iran had halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Even halfhearted assessments of the national interest would have produced more insightful responses to the NIE than the ones that we got.

With everyone focusing on the nuclear issue, few noticed that regardless of whether Iran produces atomic weapons or not, its acrimonious rivalry with the United States in the Middle East is bound to escalate. Given that the US went to war in 1991 to prevent Iraq from imposing its hegemony in the Gulf area, does it make sense to assume that Washington would readily allow a threatening Iran to do what the Iraqis failed to?

There were two types of reactions to the NIE, both inadequate for dealing with the real stakes in American-Iranian hostility throughout the Middle East. The first focused on the fact that President George W. Bush as well as Vice President Dick Cheney had in recent months amplified their war rhetoric against Iran, even though Bush was told last August by the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, that Iran's nuclear program "may be suspended." This seemed to contradict an earlier statement by the president that McConnell had told him no such thing.

The second reaction was rather different. With the nuclear threat allegedly on hold, politicians and commentators suddenly began advising the administration to engage Iran in some sort of discussion. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called on Bush to do what President Ronald Reagan had done with the Soviet Union and push for "a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran." Republican Senator Chuck Hagel asked the administration to show the same flexibility toward Iran that it had shown toward North Korea. Rand Beers, who served as national security adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign, observed: "Simply put, we have an imminent need for a real dialogue with Iran, not a military confrontation."

It was certainly unsettling that Bush and Cheney were talking about a war with Iran when they knew, or should have known, that their stated justification for war was no longer valid. However, the rush toward advocating dialogue and flexibility was equally incomprehensible.

A dialogue over what? No one seemed particularly clear on that point. Suddenly, it seemed, the problem was not power politics and the thrusts and parries of the US-Iranian quarrel, but the Bush administration's stubborn refusal to be conciliatory. During the 1980s, in the midst of the debate over nuclear missiles in Europe, French President Francois Mitterrand famously declared: "The pacifists are in the West but the missiles are in the East." Of course there were missiles in the West then, just as there are those in Washington now who still favor war against Iran; but it's also undeniable that those wanting to open up to Iran are mostly on the American side, while Iran's leaders continue to relentlessly pursue strategic advantage in their own neighborhood.

The Iranians are playing three-dimensional chess in the Middle East, while the US is playing with its hankie. American policy in the region suffers from a lack of ideas. The administration's disorientation after the release of the NIE showed that in the absence of a war option (and an unpersuasive war option at that), the US remains unsure what to do about Iran. But the Democrats are equally at sea. Even an administration critic, Flynt Leverett, had to admit recently that "regrettably, opposition Democrats are not defining a genuine alternative. Beyond criticism of President Bush's 'saber rattling,' Democratic presidential candidates offer, for the most part, only vacuous rhetoric about 'engaging' Iran."

For example, what is the US doing about Iran's alliance with Syria, and their joint patronage of Hamas and Hizbullah? Hamas is dead set on wrecking American efforts to bring about a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and several months ago the movement mounted a successful coup against the Fatah movement in Gaza. The Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, lives in Damascus, is a frequent visitor to Tehran, and although Syria will send sporadic signals that it is displeased with the Islamist group, this is chaff designed to keep alive the illusion that Syria and Iran are on different wavelengths. Nothing will divide Syria from Iran when the relationship brings so many foreign supplicants to Damascus with offers of concessions to President Bashar Assad, if only he would consider abandoning Iran. Assad takes the concessions, offers none of his own, and yet the visitors still keep coming.

Iran and Syria are, similarly, putting on a "good cop, bad cop" routine in Lebanon. Damascus is steadily re-imposing its hegemony over its smaller neighbor, neutralizing or assassinating those who oppose a Syrian return. Iran is backing Syria up because Hizbullah will benefit. The Shiite group knows that the stabilization of Lebanon under a sovereign government would force it to surrender its weapons; and without weapons Hizbullah would cease to be Hizbullah. Iran needs the party and its arms to sustain its influence in the Levant, as well as to preserve a deterrence capability at Israel's doorstep. Damascus, in turn, needs Hizbullah to intimidate Syria's Lebanese foes. The Iranians are proving almost as instrumental as the Syrians in reversing the gains of the 2005 Cedar Revolution.

The US, meanwhile, continues to back Lebanon's anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. However, it is increasingly doing so from a distance. The Bush administration has spent much less money than Iran in Lebanon, and has not pressed its wealthier Arab allies to make up for the deficit. In fact it has been remarkably silent as one such ally, Qatar, has played an essential role in bolstering the Assad regime and Hizbullah. Worse, in the run-up to the ongoing crisis over choosing a new Lebanese president, Bush endorsed what would prove to be a disastrous French diplomatic initiative to facilitate an election. The initiative, in practical terms, invited the Syrians back into Lebanese presidential politics, undermining Washington's and Paris' declared aim of defending Lebanese sovereignty.

The Bush administration has also been catatonic in Congress. For example it has done nothing to press for passage of the Syria Accountability and Liberation Act, legislation that would substantially strengthen and widen US sanctions against Syria. The law is blocked in the House Foreign Affairs Committee because of disagreement over wording between the ranking Democrat and Republican members. The reasons for this are mainly domestic and electoral. Yet thanks to parochial politicking, the US government has been denied a valuable stick with which to defend its interests in the Middle East.

So, how does a dialogue look now? Iran would gladly draw the US into a lengthy discussion of everything and nothing, and use this empty gabfest as a smokescreen to advance its agenda. But diplomacy is not an end in itself; to be meaningful it has to achieve specific aims and be based on confidence that both sides seek a mutually advantageous deal. Nothing suggests the Iranians have reached that stage yet.

That's because Iran believes it is winning in the region. The US seems unable to deploy the same array of foreign policy instruments as the Iranians, even if it is vastly more powerful; America's principal Arab allies are anemic, their mostly geriatric regimes illegitimate; and America's attention span abroad often seems so limited that an adversary's favored tactic is to just wait until its officials lose interest and head for the lecture circuit. The Iranians are right: they are winning; at least for the time being.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Syria prepares its grand comeback

To better understand the assassination of General Francois Hajj on Wednesday morning in Baabda, one has to view it against the backdrop of the statement by Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa a day earlier. At a conference of Syria's National Progressive Front, Sharaa declared that "Syria's friends in Lebanon represent a true force on the ground, and no one in Lebanon is able to harm Syria and Lebanon."

One of the things most disturbing to the Syrians about the decision of the March 14 coalition to support army commander Michel Suleiman was that this was apparently preceded by commitments on both sides. One such commitment appeared to have been agreement on a new army commander, or a list of potential army commanders. Hajj, despite the opposition's effort to paint his killing as a blow against Michel Aoun, was actually Suleiman's man and was reportedly one of those on the list.

The message, therefore, was that for Suleiman to become president, he has to, first, renounce all previous commitments reached with March 14 and enter into new arrangements with the "true force on the ground."

The Syrians are accelerating their return to Lebanon, and the disastrous French initiative on the presidency only confirmed to them that the international community would readily engage Syria on Lebanon. As for the United States, it has been comatose - caught between the constraints of the Annapolis process (if a process it is) and the need to reduce pressure on Iran after the release last week of a National Intelligence Estimate affirming that Tehran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The French and the Americans have been neutralized in Lebanon, and while this can be reversed, Sharaa's remarks showed the extent of Syrian confidence.

Things are more complicated with regard to the Arab states. Saudi-Syrian hostility continues unabated, and a paramount Syrian objective in imposing a Lebanese presidential vacuum is to gain leverage for Syria's triumphal re-entry into the Arab fold. The intended date is next March, when the Arab League summit is to be held in Damascus. The Assad regime would like the gathering to consecrate its return to regional prominence, and Lebanon is Syria's hostage to bring that about.

For the moment leading Arab states aren't playing ball. At a press conference on Tuesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit shot down reports that a mini-summit was to be held soon between Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Palestinians. He also downplayed prospects for a regional peace summit in Moscow next year, which the Syrians hope will place the Golan Heights issue back on the table.

But will the Arabs stick to their guns? Syria humiliated the Saudis and Egyptians by undermining their separate efforts to sponsor an inter-Palestinian settlement. Damascus is now blocking Suleiman's arrival in Lebanon, although both Egypt and Saudi Arabia approve of the general. Less clear, however, are the calculations of King Abdullah of Jordan. His apparent engagement of the Assad regime suggests he is willing to be more flexible on a Syrian role in Lebanon if this can help calm the Palestinian front, thereby buying Jordan a measure of domestic stability.

Whichever way you cut it, Lebanon is in for many more months of anxiety. However, the imbroglio over the presidency makes you wonder whether the Syrians have a clear-cut presidential strategy. Syria has impeded the election of a bevy of allies, likely friends, or fellow travelers who were acceptable to March 14, including Robert Ghanem, Michel Edde, and Suleiman. Their treatment of Suleiman in particular reveals that they don't quite trust the Lebanese Army, and that they certainly don't want a new army commander who might reverse pervasive Syrian infiltration of the senior officer corps.

Creating a vacuum is not a strategy; it is a tactic designed to bring someone to power on Syria's terms. Damascus wants exclusivity in the next Lebanese president, but without its armed forces in the country to impose this, a new officeholder might prove too independent. That's why we should doubt Sharaa when he says, as he did on Tuesday, that Syria does not intend to return to Lebanon "militarily or in a security capacity." But it's also why, in believing that they cannot dominate the Lebanese without an armed presence, the Syrians might be overreaching. The Syrian move into Lebanon in 1976 required a regional and international consensus, as well as an Israeli green light, and was formalized by the Arab League. That's unlikely to happen again today. In forcing the issue, doesn't the Assad regime risk provoking a powerful local, regional and international backlash that might ultimately scuttle its plans?

Then again, a direr scenario is just as plausible. What remains of the Cedar Revolution is under mortal threat, with March 14 increasingly disoriented and without imagination. The coalition's Christian policy is a shambles, allowing Michel Aoun to continue conning many of his coreligionists into believing that he best represents their interests, even as he perpetuates the presidential vacuum to undermine Suleiman. Amid such chaos, no wonder the Syrians feel they are but a step away from reversing the losses of 2005. And so repulsive are the divisions within Lebanese society that we must seriously worry that the West and the Arab states will soon quietly agree to subcontract Lebanon to Syria again.

That's what the Syrians are hoping. They are convinced that the logic of the gun will prevail. When a substantial proportion of Lebanese society is either actively or objectively working on Syria's behalf, it's difficult to blame them. Yesterday was the second anniversary of Gebran Tueni's assassination. It is dawning upon us, certainly too late, that he and all the other murder victims of the past two years probably went in vain. That's no surprise when so many Lebanese are taking their country in vain.