Saturday, January 26, 2008

Justice for Lebanon

Justice for Lebanon
January 26, 2008
The Wall Street Journal

Berlin. Detlev Mehlis speaks slowly. So when he says, "I haven't seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward," there is time for the meaning to sink in.

The person Mr. Mehlis is referring to is Serge Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor who, until a few weeks ago, headed the United Nations investigation looking into the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In December of that year, Mr. Brammertz succeeded Mr. Mehlis as commissioner of the investigating team, known as the International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC). Now, Mr. Mehlis is making the rather serious charge that Mr. Brammertz may not have done much while working on the Hariri case.

On Feb. 14 it will be exactly three years since Hariri was killed in a massive bomb explosion, with 21 others, in Beirut. The event sparked weeks of protests directed against Syria -- which most Lebanese blamed for the killing -- demanding an end to its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

The so-called "Cedar Revolution" led to a transformation of the political system when Syria withdrew its army, and its adversaries won a majority of seats in Parliament in subsequent elections. Since then, Damascus has tried to reassert its power in Lebanon -- but the Hariri investigation, if it points an accusatory finger at Syria, is its Achilles heel.

The Security Council has established a Lebanese-international tribunal under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to try the suspects. The tribunal, now being set up in The Hague, is an exceptional creation, much like UNIIIC was. This week a U.N. official revealed that judges had been selected. Never before has the Security Council overseen a political murder investigation.

With Mr. Brammertz having recently left Lebanon to take charge of a special tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Mr. Mehlis has decided to speak up. It is a rare occasion that he has agreed to do so on the record -- and one of the last, he insists. As a senior prosecutor at the Superior Prosecutor's Office in Berlin, he is keen to close his own personal file on the UNIIIC years, but also to warn that the vitality of the Hariri inquiry may be disappearing. "A new commissioner has been installed. So it's a good time for a very last summing up on my part," Mr. Mehlis says.

Whether UNIIIC was exceptional or not, Mr. Mehlis made it a point of appearing an unexceptional man while commissioner -- but one with pit-bull persistence. He'd shown that persistence before. It took him nine years to bring convictions for the 1986 bombing of the LaBelle discotheque in Berlin. He accused Libyan officials of being behind the attack. That experience, he says, left him with the view "that justice prevails, but you have to have patience."

But Mr. Mehlis is plainly worried that justice might not prevail in the Hariri investigation. It "appears to have lost the momentum it had until January 2006," he says. "When I left we were ready to name suspects, but it seems not to have progressed from that stage."

Indeed, Mr. Brammertz never named new suspects in his investigation, though he did mention he'd identified "persons of interest." Mr. Mehlis is dismissive: "If you have suspects you don't allow them to roam free for years to tamper with evidence."

Particularly odd to Mr. Mehlis is that his successor reopened analysis of the crime scene upon arriving in Lebanon. That not only cast doubt on the German's methods, it wasted valuable time. Mr. Brammertz's conclusions ended up confirming those of Mr. Mehlis, namely that Hariri had been killed by an above-ground explosion.

But Mr. Mehlis sees such behavior as emblematic of a broader problem -- namely that UNIIIC has told us little we didn't already know before Mr. Brammertz became its commissioner: that Hariri was killed for political reasons and that there were several layers of participation in the conspiracy. "We needed two years of investigative endeavor to discover this?" he laughs.

When Mr. Mehlis first arrived in Beirut, he visited the families of three of the victims in the Hariri blast and frequently talked to the media. Mr. Brammertz, in contrast, gave no interviews and never once addressed the Lebanese on what the case personally meant to him.

But what if Mr. Brammertz did not reveal his cards for tactical reasons? After all, he asked to maintain the secrecy of his investigation. Mr. Mehlis responds that to him, as a German, the notion of a secret investigation sounds ominous. "The Lebanese public has to be informed, even if there are setbacks in the investigation. In a democracy people have the right to know, particularly when a prime minister was murdered and people don't trust the authorities. This was an opportunity to restore credibility to the justice system."

Mr. Mehlis also sees a practical rationale for more openness by an investigator: "To have the support of the public, to encourage witnesses to come forward with information, and for governments to send specialized investigators, you need to give them an idea of what you are doing."

The Hariri investigation was always seen by its defenders as a lever to render political assassination in the Middle East more difficult. In Lebanon particularly, where dozens of leading politicians and officials have been killed since the 1970s (the latest a police intelligence officer on Friday, among whose duties was reportedly following the Hariri affair), this was the one crime, people felt, that international attention would not allow to go unpunished.

Lebanese optimism aside, the point was a valid one: Respect for the rule of law, so lacking in Arab societies, could only benefit from a successful legal process to punish the guilty. That rationale remains persuasive today, as more and more people in the West doubt that Arab societies can be democratic. The Hariri investigation was there to say that democracy without law is a chimera.

His actions as UNIIIC commissioner left few doubts as to who Mr. Mehlis thought was behind the crime. He asked the Lebanese authorities to arrest four prominent pro-Syrian generals from Lebanon's security services and Presidential Guard. He took affidavits from Syrian officials, including intelligence officers. He even sought to question Syria's president, Bashar Assad.

Mr. Mehlis departed before this could go through, and he doesn't know what later happened. Media reports suggested that Mr. Brammertz held "a meeting" with the Syrian leader, but that is legally different, Mr. Mehlis explains, than a formal judicial interview, which even Lebanon's former president submitted to.

I remind him that two of his key Syrian witnesses did not seem particularly reliable. One told a press conference in Damascus that his testimony was fraudulent; another, a former intelligence officer, later became a suspect in Hariri's murder at Mr. Mehlis's request, and has made contradictory statements.

Mr. Mehlis responds that in such crimes you cannot be choosy about who to deal with. "What do you expect, white angels? Those two gave us a lot of information, which we could sometimes corroborate with information received elsewhere. In the end, the tribunal will determine their credibility, and ask why they agreed to sign their statements." Mr. Mehlis adds: "Maybe the witnesses were there to discredit the investigation, but that can help us determine who wants to discredit the investigation."

I put it to Mr. Mehlis that, whatever the UNIIIC discovers, there is palpable international reluctance to carry the Hariri case to its conclusion. Few at the U.N., for example, are eager to destabilize Syria's regime, assuming its involvement is proven.

His answer is ambiguous: "As a prosecutor you can't prosecute governments and countries; you prosecute individuals. When I headed UNIIIC, there was a will to get to the bottom of the crime -- shown in all the Security Council resolutions on the matter. Why not now? One of the most helpful [member nations] was Russia, which persuaded Syria to comply with the resolutions. Even with states having different interests, common understandings can be reached."

So what about today? "Traditionally, there is tension between politics and justice and I accepted that [former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi] Annan did not want more problems because of the Hariri case. Yet he was always very supportive of my work and well-being. The U.N. did not interfere in my efforts and had no leverage over me, as I was not after a position in the organization. Even had the U.N. tried, there were investigators from 17 countries who might have thought differently, making this impossible."

Mr. Mehlis doesn't so much fear a cover-up as that the Hariri case will stall. The tribunal, he predicts, will be set up this summer, but "people should not expect a trial within the next two to three years, unless the investigation regains momentum." Otherwise, what might happen? "I fear that suspects will end up in a judicial no-man's land, with Lebanon claiming they are under the U.N.'s jurisdiction, and the U.N. saying that they must remain under Lebanese jurisdiction."

What Mr. Mehlis is saying, in so many words, is that a tribunal does not a trial make. The tribunal will be formed and judges nominated, but unless the prosecutor has something solid to take to court, the process may lead nowhere. Still, he is mildly optimistic: "Definitely, no one can abolish this tribunal. I may not be happy about the time frame, but am deeply convinced the case can be solved and will be solved."

Mr. Mehlis also cautions that the U.N. would suffer from failure in the Hariri affair. "The U.N.'s image is at stake, particularly in Lebanon, where people put high hopes, perhaps too high, in the Hariri investigation."

So, what is his advice to Daniel Bellemare, Mr. Brammertz's Canadian successor? "Concentrate on the Hariri case itself; don't try to write a history book. Focus on the whos, hows and whys of the crime. Analysis can never replace solid investigative police work."

Most important, Mr. Mehlis says the Hariri case must remain in the public's consciousness. "For years the LaBelle case dragged on with small successes and failures, but it was always kept alive on the prosecution's side by my working to inform the media; and on the victims' side because their families created pressure groups. I feel that in the Lebanese case, the families of the deceased can certainly play a much more active role."

That may be true, but victims or their families rarely have a voice in the Arab world. The fate of the Hariri tribunal will help determine if that changes. Beyond the assassination of a high-profile politician, the question is whether the international community finally agrees that things need to be different in the Middle East, or just goes back to accepting the old ways.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A conference to save Lebanon's future

For some years now, Arab diplomacy has been a chronicle of death foretold. In Iraq, Darfur, and the Palestinian territories, either Arab states have been too anemic to seize the initiative, or have worked at cross purposes. Now, with the collapse of Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa's mission to Lebanon, brace yourselves for more futility.

But don't pity Moussa. An exemplar of Arab political sterility, he arrived in Beirut last week with a plan that, his circle claimed, was "constructively vague." Through that vagueness, he probably thought he could secure for himself a margin of maneuver. Instead, the imprecision of the proposal allowed Syria and its Lebanese allies to impose conditions of their own on the distribution of power in a future government that were, plainly, not what the Arab states intended. So, by the end of his shuttle diplomacy, Moussa had to clarify what the Arabs meant, by which time it was too late.

You have to hand it to the Syrians. They gauged the utter mediocrity of their Arab peers early on, before the foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo that was supposed to pressure Syria into allowing a presidential election. Damascus defused Arab opprobrium by claiming they were on board with the Arab plan, before subsequently undermining it. Then, once Moussa left Beirut, Damascus upped the ante, asking its allies to accelerate the pace of their street demonstrations in Lebanon.

In a recent interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit recalled how, at the Paris donors meeting for the Palestinians late last year, Western states mocked the idea of a successful Arab diplomatic initiative in Lebanon. "You never do anything," is what Western officials told their Arab counterparts, Abu al-Gheit recalled. They were right.

So what is next? Typically, Moussa refused to admit that his mission had failed. The Arab plan had not reached a dead end, but only a "closed door that can be opened." That's a relief. Then again, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a door that might one day be opened, but that has remained closed for six decades. The Arabs need a plan B in Lebanon, but don't hold your breath.

The next confrontation point is January 27th, when the Arab League will have to consider whom to blame for the Moussa debacle. Here's a prediction: Little will happen, leaving a possible fracas for the Arab summit in March. The Syrians have made it clear that they will use instability in Lebanon as leverage to force Arab leaders to attend the Damascus gathering and avoid Syria's humiliation. Given the brutal way in which the Arab plan for Lebanon was discarded by Syria and its allies, however, the summit seems almost certain to be a bust, whatever happens in Lebanon. There are limits to what can be done in Beirut's streets, but there have also been worrying signs in recent days that Syria's allies are willing to push the envelope very far on that front. And with Lebanon chronically unstable, the Syrians feel, the Arab states, the United States, and the Europeans will lose interest in the country long before the Assad regime does.

In so many ways, Syria has managed to remain a Teflon state at the center of myriad regional crises. In April 2005, the Syrian mood was well captured in an exchange leaked to the French daily Le Monde between President Bashar Assad and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. After warning Ban that passage of the Hariri tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter would lead to instability in Lebanon, Assad pointedly told the secretary general: "We're in the eye of the cyclone. You will, therefore, need to stay in contact with us."

Now that Arab diplomacy has failed in Lebanon, so soon after the French were humiliated in their efforts to make headway on the presidential election, it is time to conclude that almost none of the methods employed previously will change Damascus' behavior. The Syrians are well into their counterattack in Lebanon, to reverse the setbacks of 2005, while the international community and the Arab states seem paralyzed. New ideas are needed if there is sincere regional and international concern for Lebanon's future independence - which at this stage is not guaranteed.

For starters, the Arab states, the US, and Europe - failures each and every one of them in defining an effective policy toward Syria - should initiate contacts to determine if they have parallel objectives in Lebanon, and define what these are. That shouldn't be too difficult. The US continues to oppose a return to the pre-2005 situation in Beirut; the Europeans too, even as they have thousands of their troops deployed in South Lebanon; and the Arabs very much fear a war between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites that would have regional repercussions, as well as threaten their own regimes. The groundwork for broad cooperation exists.

Those talks should then lead to a conference on Lebanon, preferably at the UN, whose resolutions passed since 2004 must provide an underpinning for any diplomatic action on the country. The conference would not only return Lebanon to near the front of international attention, it should decide on specific, tough measures to help implement Arab decisions and UN resolutions on Lebanon, and pave the way for a presidential election. The notion that internationalization of the Lebanese crisis is bad for the country is absurd. Without internationalization, buttressed by an Arab consensus, Lebanon will be lost within months.

Can this work? Nothing is less certain. There is great fatigue with Lebanon internationally; the Arabs, ever fearful of precedents, will water down any concerted effort to alter the behavior of a fellow Arab state like Syria; and some Europeans, most recently Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, adhere to the cult of "engaging" Damascus, whatever the disappointments. But Lebanon is not what it was in 1975, when its Civil War began. Events in the country have existential implications for many regimes in the Arab world, and by extension for equilibrium in the Middle East. Lebanon is a problem that has to be addressed whether the international community likes it or not, and in way that transcends the mostly fruitless policies adopted until now.

Otherwise, let us just prepare ourselves for the worst. Conflict is as near as it has ever been in Lebanon since 2005. Diplomats have wasted many months, even years, misreading the situation in the country. Their timorousness notwithstanding, there is still time to avoid Lebanon's fall into the abyss if the international community displays some nerve.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why not the patriarch's moment?

You have to wonder what Michel Aoun thought when he heard the sound of the bomb that went off next to a US Embassy SUV on Tuesday. It is likely that one of the general's objective allies was behind the attack. Yet Aoun will continue to rail against American behavior in Lebanon, even as he keeps a worried eye on Washington where, we last heard, the debate is continuing over what the US should do to him or those close to him.

Marvel at Aoun's thoroughness. In 1990 he almost destroyed Lebanon's Christians. Today he seems to be carrying through on that ambition - indeed has expanded it to question the very idea of Lebanon as we know it - all the while claiming that he's saving the Christians from elimination.

In his hunger to be elected president, Aoun is blocking the election of Michel Suleiman and justifying the dismantling of the institutional protections allowing Christians to retain political power in Lebanon well beyond their demographic weight. The general's statement on Monday that the president must be chosen by direct popular vote was typically irresponsible. Why, if the logic of majoritarianism kicks in, should a majority of Lebanese who are Muslim elect a Christian president at all? And how many Christians really want the majority of Muslims to pick the head of state - an office that Christians have long insisted is their one guarantee against the majority of Muslims picking a head of state?

Recall how, last November, Aoun proposed a very different plan to bring a president to office, whereby he would have selected that president while Saad Hariri Saad-Hariri-Profile Sep-07 would have done the same to the prime minister. The scheme not only ignored the same voters whom Aoun today alleges he wants to enfranchise; it sought to completely bypass the popularly elected Parliament from which Aoun claims to derive his legitimacy. But with the general, inconsistency in the pursuit of power is no vice.

That the Lebanese political system needs a massive overhaul is apparent. Ultimately, gradual, consensual deconfessionalization of Parliament, with institutional safeguards for minorities, particularly Christians, is the only way forward for Lebanon - and the only way Christians can retain a stake and confidence in the system. But what Aoun is proposing is nothing of the sort; he wants the sudden, drastic, and nonconsensual abortion of the Constitution. The general's motive is to rule, and he somehow still believes he can win a vast majority of Shiite and Christian votes. So let the National Pact and the sectarian checks and balances that are the essence of the Lebanese confessional order be damned. Yet for the sake of national coexistence, it's time to tell Aoun "Enough!"

Actually, it's time for Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir to say it. Aoun is vulnerable today, because Christians see in Suleiman an acceptable alternative. Sfeir has recently chipped away at Aoun's strategy - focused on throwing up a wall of conditions to effectively prevent Suleiman's arrival. Aoun's angry ripostes directed against Bkirki have shown how seriously he takes the patriarch's criticism, even if the general has lost credibility in the process. But much more is needed from Sfeir. Pin pricks from the Church will only prolong Christian lassitude. The patriarch needs to galvanize the community, as he did just before the parliamentary elections in 2005, pointing out that Aoun's ideas threaten the Christians' future in Lebanon. He needs to put his weight behind an election now, and make clear that Suleiman, whatever one thinks of him, is the most likely to be a strong president, with even the predominantly Sunni Arab states agreeing to this. And Sfeir must affirm that Aoun is the main Christian obstacle to his election.

For several reasons Sfeir hesitates to do this. He's not a man who likes to name names. Yet unless the patriarch is blunt in mentioning Aoun, the general will just absorb his censure. Second, Sfeir knows it's the Syrians who are blocking the presidential election, and that Aoun is merely their plaything. Why go after a Christian leader and weaken the community in the process, the patriarch wonders, when Aoun is just a messenger? Third, Sfeir knows that his Church is divided, with some bishops siding with Aoun (and others with Suleiman Franjieh, who this week called Sfeir an employee of the American and French embassies), so that any undue criticism of Aoun might create more cracks within the clergy.

All these reasons are legitimate, but unconvincing. If the Christians are in dire straits, as Sfeir repeats in one way or another every day, then his reluctance to take a stronger position is indefensible. There is a higher interest that has to be considered. But the patriarch must also calculate that Aoun is the weakest link in the opposition; his marginalization would open the door to a presidential election in the Christians' interest, and it would deny Hizbullah a Christian partner allowing them to impede the vote. As for the divisions within the Church, the patriarch, with Rome's backing, can certainly wield more authority than he is doing now.

However, Sfeir shouldn't be pushed to the forefront alone. One of the great limitations of March 14 is that it has had no real dialogue with the mass of Christians since the 2005 elections. Aoun has been granted too much latitude to manipulate his coreligionists' sense of frustration. It's no secret that most of the parliamentary majority's Christians are not regarded particularly highly within their community. One reason is that very few are able to participate in politics on the ground, because they spend so much time escaping assassination. But nothing prevents them from being active through representatives. March 14 has the financial means and networks to make inroads into the Christian electorate, but it has been lethargic in responding to the community's needs.

Saad Hariri will argue that it's not up to a Sunni leader to play Christian politics, as it would discredit his Christian allies and provoke a negative backlash from within the community. That's too narrow a way of looking at things. He can easily do more to bolster the patronage activities of his Christian coalition partners and allies, if he hesitates to directly involve himself. But both he and Walid Jumblatt also need to hone the way they communicate with Christians - after all Jumblatt represents a large Christian electorate in the Chouf, Aley and Baabda. They need to talk to Christians directly, as often as they can in Christian areas to Christian audiences, explaining why they want a presidential election, without conditions, as soon as possible.

Most importantly, they need to publicly apologize for the 2005 electoral alliance that so many Christians, fairly or unfairly, still regard as an effort to diminish their representation. The step would not be an easy one, but modesty in the defense of independence is no vice. Simply put, Christians need finally to be talked to so that Aoun can no longer reach them.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pop Goes the President

Nicolas Sarkozy and what American candidates might learn from France’s permanent reality show

History, even trivial history, does indeed repeat itself as farce. In December 1995, Francois Mitterrand traveled to Aswan in southern Egypt to spend his Christmas holidays. It was a fittingly Wagnerian ending for the dying former French president—a last communion with timelessness through contact with a timeless culture, before Mitterrand met the real thing in Paris a week later. Cut to last Christmas. French President Nicolas Sarkozy also decides to holiday in Egypt. He stays at Luxor—not Aswan but close enough. Descending from a private jet, Sarkozy, his Ray Bans tilted forward, his shirt opened an extra button, looks more like a Corsican hoodlum than the president of a venerable nation. At his arm is new girlfriend Carla Bruni, whom no one seems quite sure what to describe as. Model? Singer? Next First Lady? This is their first overseas expedition together, after the media discovered they were an item during an outing to EuroDisney.

"Vulgar!" was how many Frenchmen described their president after witnessing all this. And vulgar Sarkozy surely is. There is little gravitas to a hyperactive man present everywhere and nowhere, with a strong opinion on just about everything; someone evidently enjoying his recent divorce, who seems as bored with high culture as he delights in the favors and company of the affluent, of pop singers and actors.

But that’s missing the significant point that Sarkozy has skillfully used his relentless presence in the media as a source of political advantage, while redefining what the presidency can be all about. By being a pop figure himself, ever-present in the minds of his countrymen, publicly and personally, Sarkozy has managed to retain the initiative. With much in the media about Sarkozy, his leadership has turned into a reality show and the president is writing the script. So ubiquitous is Sarkozy that he is the state and the state is he. How better to define political power?

Those now moving through the U.S. primaries might want to investigate. Sarkozy, often referred to as the most "American" of French politicians, has until now juggled paradoxes. He was elected as the candidate of a conservative party, peddling a message that France needed to return to traditional values. Yet he is anything but conservative in his avidness for luxury and attention; and anything but an agent of traditional morality in his private life. However, that doesn’t much differentiate him from, let’s say, the former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, still Europe’s archetype of schlock. What does is that Sarkozy is who he is in France, where presidents invariably act like republican monarchs

There is more to that kind of presidential behavior than old Europe stuffiness. To act like a monarch without being one, to play the members of their court off against each other, is a way French presidents have had of maintaining control over an unruly political class and society. Mitterrand was an expert at dividing his supporters to boost his authority; Charles de Gaulle so naturally behaved like a man of destiny that the French created a new republic to accommodate him. Even Jacques Chirac, who earlier in his career had also sold himself as an "American" politician because of his fondness for pressing the flesh and his informality, by the end had morphed into a detached royal in the public consciousness—stuck in a gloomy palace with a wife he could neither stomach nor divorce, whom he was said to address with the formal "vous."

Sarkozy has taken a different tack. He’s still all-dominating and has demoted his prime minister to little more than an assistant’s role. But that domination comes not from pulling the strings from a high perch, but from the president’s getting personally involved in the muck of politicking. So, for example, although he named Bernard Kouchner as his foreign minister, Sarkozy has blocked him out of his highest-profile overseas undertakings—whether relations with the United States, or Libya, the fate of French aid workers detained until recently in Chad, and contacts with the Syrian regime over the presidential election in Lebanon.

There is risk here, because the president himself might rise or fall with the outcome of his actions. In Lebanon, Sarkozy was so keen to arrive at a deal with Syria to enhance his personal prestige, that he completely ignored a United Nations resolution co-sponsored by France in 2005 that sought to prevent involving Damascus in Lebanon’s presidency. It didn’t matter: Syria humiliated the French anyway by undermining their scheme to resolve the Lebanese crisis. The recent visit to Paris of Libya’s leader Moammar al-Qaddafi turned into a public relations disaster for Sarkozy when even government ministers expressed their distaste. And Sarkozy’s involvement of his wife in negotiations with Libya over the release of Bulgarian nurses last summer looked disturbingly like an effort to save his failing marriage by handing her a sensitive mission.

Yet Sarkozy’s breaking of taboos, his imposition of a public and personal narrative to keep his political adversaries off balance, makes you wonder whether his strategy can be applied by politicians elsewhere who want to remain on top. France is very different than other countries, particularly the United States. But maybe not as much as we think. Americans may not soon take to a president gallivanting with his latest girlfriend, whose nude photos circulate freely on the Internet. However, they were surprisingly tolerant when a president of theirs lied by suggesting that the blowjob he had been provided did not really qualify as sex. Americans are also more likely than the French to appreciate a celebrity-president who likes popular culture—indeed who is popular culture—because that’s far closer to the nature of their society than it is of French society.

As for the pull of traditional "values," so central to political life in America, Sarkozy has shown that politicians can maneuver in the gap between rhetoric and behavior, and still remain credible. The continued devotion to the Kennedy fable is as good an American illustration of this proposition. John F. Kennedy paid any price and bore any burden to get laid, but still remains among the most respected of U.S. presidents. As Gore Vidal has written, describing JFK’s reaction after being elected: "’Mass every Sunday,’ Jack would moan, ’for four years.’" The lesson is that if you play to the gallery on values, you can do what you want in private. At least Sarkozy’s conduct is offered up minus the hypocrisy.

In his way, Sarkozy is quite invigorating: a post-modern president in what is sometimes, oddly, a pre-modern society—all baroque rules, obstinate certitudes, veiled prejudices, and a surprising affection for hierarchy. In an American campaign where some candidates have latched onto the catchword of "change", without daring to change much, Sarkozy’s dissidence is instructive. Times are changing, thank heavens for that.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Amid Arab diplomacy, whither the tribunal?

By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Friday, January 11, 2008

So unreliable have Syrian commitments to Lebanon's normalization been in recent months, that almost no one anticipates success for the Arab League plan to resolve the Lebanese presidential crisis. Yet that reaction may be short-sighted. Something is taking place behind the scenes - it's still not apparent what - that might encourage Syria to play along with the Arab consensus, if only for tactical reasons. And if that happens, you have to wonder whether the Hariri tribunal will be part of any package.

The United Nations investigation of Rafik Hariri's assassination, previously so central to political life in Lebanon, has been pushed to a twilight zone. One commissioner, Serge Brammertz, has gone and another, Daniel Bellemare, this week officially replaced him. Bellemare is reportedly no more willing to name names than Brammertz was, because he wants to prepare a legally spotless case. That's good news, but it also means we will return to the absurd situation where the UN commission tells us that Hariri was killed for political reasons related to the 2005 parliamentary elections, then stops short of declaring that the only actor with an interest in eliminating him on that basis was Syria.

What happens next with the Hariri tribunal? Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that there had been progress in establishing the body, and that he would announce the names of the judges "at an appropriate time in the future." The secretary general added that the judges would assume their functions "on a date I will also determine soon." The nomination process for judges is tricky, particularly with regard to the Lebanese judges, who are more vulnerable to domestic political pressures. But Ban was also waffling. Not all the pieces are yet in place, and in late December the municipal council of The Hague issued a statement saying the tribunal would only begin operating in 2009. Even by the glacial standards of the UN, that's disturbingly slow.

One reason for the delay is money. The tribunal will need $120 million for three years of operation, but it's not at all clear where things stand today. Some countries have pledged money, but have not yet paid. A key question is whether Saudi Arabia has given anything, or will, which would open the door to other Gulf funding. There were unconfirmed reports that at the donors meeting for the Palestinians last month in Paris, the Saudis pledged to match the French contribution to the tribunal. After this, Future TV suggested in a news item that financing had been secured. At around the same time, the American ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that the UN's top legal man, Nicolas Michel, had informed him that the tribunal had received the needed monies. But there never was an official announcement to that effect from New York, and Ban's ambiguous remarks on deadlines imply that something is not right.

We must watch Saudi behavior very closely in order to get a better sense of how the Arab states in general will deal with the Hariri tribunal. Whoever puts money into the tribunal has valuable political leverage over Syria. However, if the Syrians first agree to compromise in Lebanon, the funds might never be forthcoming. That is why pledging money is very different than paying up. A pledge can be indefinitely postponed.

Which brings us back to the Arab League plan for Lebanon. Nothing suggests that the Arab states are discussing the tribunal with Damascus. But the tribunal is the elephant in the living room whenever one talks to the Syrians. Sooner or later the topic must make its way to the table. While the Arabs don't have the power to derail a UN Chapter VII decision, they can do two things: delay the tribunal by holding back on payment (if that's indeed what is happening); and help create a political context that somehow rehabilitates Syria, making it much more difficult for the international community to push the Hariri trial to its logical conclusion.

Can we presume, then, that the Arab plan for Lebanon is partly an opening shot to retrieve Syria? That's not to say that a presidential election in Beirut is one facet of a cover-up to save the Assad regime. However, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa has consistently avoided blaming Damascus for the stalemate in Lebanon, and while that's normal for the head of a pan-Arab organization, it has also left him with room to maneuver on a broader agreement between the Syrians and their Arab critics. Once that logic kicks in, it's time to start asking questions.

The Arab states never had a liking for the Hariri tribunal. Even the Saudis were not convinced by it in late 2005, only coming around after President Bashar Assad strengthed his alliance with Iran, pursued his destabilization of Lebanon, embarrassed the Saudis on the Palestinian front, and escalated his rhetoric against the kingdom. But all that really means is that the Saudis view the tribunal as a useful political instrument - one that can be calibrated depending on the Syrian response - not a medium to dispense justice. Fair enough, international legal cases are a lot about politics, but we have no guarantees that the kind of arrangement the Arabs might find acceptable with Damascus is one that truly enhances Lebanese sovereignty.

For the moment, the Syrians and the Saudis are still too far apart to reconcile. Damascus is also too greedy, wanting total hegemony over Lebanon - backed by tanks if it could manage that - not a more detached form of Finlandization. This makes compromise with the Assad regime difficult. But we can assume that Moussa will keep the door open to the Syrians whatever happens, and in this he will have the support of most Arab leaders. At some stage, expect the Hariri tribunal to enter into the toxic bargaining that spawns inter-Arab political settlements.

In Beirut, however, there is still too much silence. The parliamentary majority has ceded the initiative on the tribunal to outsiders, as if March 14 has no domestic stake in its outcome. But many in the international community and the Arab world just hate the tribunal because it threatens to overturn the way they do business. So don't be surprised if one day the tribunal suddenly is only half as effective as it was supposed to be.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Damascus may have just lost the Arabs

Damascus may have just lost the Arabs
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, January 03, 2008

Two things happened this New Year's holiday to reinforce Lebanon's deadlock. The first was the fighting early this week between Hariri partisans and Shiite supporters of Amal and Hizbullah in the mixed Basta neighborhood; the second was the nature of the celebrations welcoming in 2008, a substantial amount of which involved machine-gun fire.

Both events indicated that the next irresponsible step forward by any side in Lebanon's crisis could be the point of no return. The Lebanese are armed, primed, and, while firmly opposed to the idea of war, in a state of mind to sustain one if things were ever to get out of control.

Oddly enough, this balance of terror might be a good thing, as it will oblige everyone to respect the advantages of statis. The parliamentary majority, despite talk of the contrary, will almost certainly not go for a half-plus-one option to elect a new president, because of the likely blowback in the streets; opposition parties must now consider the grave danger of blocking roads again, as some opposition figures have lately implied they would. The system is tied in a Gordian knot that only a regional shift will loosen.

The Syrian regime has blocked everything, but in so doing may have overplayed its hand. Its monochromatic policy in Lebanon - that of re-imposing Syria's writ without compromise - is backfiring. Damascus can destroy but it cannot really build anything. Its ultimate card is a Lebanese civil war, but for the moment Iran appears not to want one. Having spent hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, on Hizbullah during the past year and a half, it seems reluctant to sanction a debilitating conflict that would swallow up its main Lebanese ally, much as the 1975 Civil War did the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Moreover, sectarian fighting would only mobilize Arab Sunnis against Iran and force Tehran to turn its attentions to a country not a centerpiece of its regional strategy.

Iran and Syria are usually on the same wavelength, but there is a key difference between them. Syria's efforts are largely concentrated on Lebanon, the Assad regime's ticket to regional relevance, while Iran's are not. Without Lebanon - specifically the ability to manipulate violence along the northern Israeli border for leverage - Damascus cannot seriously contemplate resuming peace negotiations with Israel. None of the self-styled mediators between Israel and Syria seem to have grasped this reality. Denied the Lebanese card, Syrian President Bashar Assad has few means of pushing Israel toward a deal he can sell to his own people. That's why his Lebanon policy is not driven by a need to avoid a "hostile" government in Beirut, as some insist; it is driven by the need to dominate Lebanon entirely, without which Syria will remain weak regionally.

The Iranians play on a wider field. Lebanon is important to them, and Tehran will continue to fight hard to avoid a Syrian debacle there. However, the Islamic Republic must also consider its relations with the United States, Europe, and Russia, its ties with the mainly Sunni Arab states (amid improving contacts with Egypt and Saudi Arabia), the balance of power in Iraq, the Iranian economy and its impact on regime survival, and myriad other interests that discourage adventurism in Lebanon. Also, the complex, often hostile, relations between different power centers in Tehran make equilibrium between them a natural default position when shaping foreign policy, checking the behavior of Iranian allies outside.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy got all the attention last weekend when he announced that his government was cutting off contacts with Syria over Lebanon. This detracted from the equally important statement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who also blamed Syria for the Lebanese impasse. This was the same Mubarak who had repeatedly tried to mediate between the Syrians and Saudis, and who, last November, floated the idea of army commander General Michel Suleiman (then regarded as acceptable to Syria) as a presidential candidate. The fact that Mubarak should have expressed public exasperation with Syria alongside Sarkozy, as the Syrians prepared to torpedo a joint effort by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to hold an Arab League foreign ministers meeting on Lebanon, suggested he is close to the end of his tether with Assad.

It's difficult to have much confidence in the Arab states, but Lebanon's fate has become an existential issue for the Saudis - beyond the question of their support for this or that faction. With Iraq effectively under Shiite control, Iran now spared an American attack, at least momentarily, and Syria and Iran having undermined the inter-Palestinian Mecca Accord, Saudi Arabia is not about to cede more ground in Lebanon.

This week, a story in the Kuwaiti daily As-Siyassah quoted a Lebanese diplomat in Cairo as saying the Saudis believe Syria has sponsored anti-regime Salafists in the kingdom itself. As-Siyassah is close to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and no Lebanese diplomat would have made such a charge on the record without getting a Saudi green light to do so. Whatever the truth of the accusation, it is an extremely serious one, underlining that the Saudis are increasingly willing to label the Assad regime a threat to their stability. The logical flip side is that Riyadh might retaliate by playing domestic Syrian sectarian politics.

Pro-regime media and analysts in Syria have lately put out the word that Syria is confident the Arab League summit scheduled for March in Damascus will be successful. That bravado betrays deep anxiety. The summit is supposed to be a crowning moment for the Assad regime, where it can prove that it is a bona fide regional heavyweight. The Syrians hope to use the gathering in one way or another to cash their Lebanese chips in. They also probably hope that a diplomatic triumph will strengthen their hand with Iran, buying Syria more credibility in the partnership and more room to maneuver throughout the region. If the summit is a fiasco, Syria could be shown up as being regionally irrelevant.

No amount of car bombs in Beirut will make the Arab summit a success if the Saudis and Egyptians, like the Americans and French, believe that a dangerous and unreliable Assad merits isolation. A Lebanese civil war, in turn, assuming that Iran would ever agree to push Hizbullah into such a mad venture, could have negative repercussions for Syria itself. Hafez Assad, who always hooked Syrian behavior to a regional consensus; who avoided placing Syria at the forefront of Sunni-Shiite tension for too long; and who always kept an open line to Riyadh, must be rolling in his grave.