Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Our Mideastern future: a pair of shoes and a gun

What do the recent shoe-throwing incident with Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, the uncertain truce in Gaza, and Lebanon's national dialogue all have in common? Very little, except that the three offer up a vision of the Middle East as a place largely devoid of constructive ideas, where the rule of the gun looms large on the horizon.

There is little new to say about the Zaidi incident. Yes, we really do know that the shoe expresses contempt in the Arab world, and if we had doubts about that, then Zaidi clarified matters by calling President George W. Bush a "dog." We know that the Iraqi blamed Bush for all the woes that his country had suffered in recent years, and we also know that he would have never thrown his shoes at Saddam Hussein, who was responsible for Iraqi woes until April 2003. And we know that the Zaidi affair became a giant funnel of interpretation, which many outraged Arabs fell into to make the journalist's shoe-toss a personal statement of their own.

Not many Arabs saw irony in the fact that Zaidi's action is now a game circulating on the Internet. Hit Bush on the head and you can score points. But that detail summed up the sheer mediocrity of this Arab moment, with its earnest demonstrations in support of the journalist, when few Arabs ever bothered to demonstrate on behalf of the countless Iraqi journalists executed by their country's armed gangs. As Tunku Varadarajan wrote so appropriately in Forbes: "The Arabs, who once upon a time boasted Averroes and Avicenna, are now reduced to eulogizing a boorish act of agitprop as a heroic achievement."

Somehow, missed in all this was Iraq itself. For too long the Iraqi conflict has only been about America. When Iraqis were being slaughtered by suicide bombers arriving from Syria, all the Arab world could do was applaud the murderers as "resistance" against American imperialism. Yet when many members of that resistance turned against the murderers in Al-Qaeda, appalled by their sadism, the Arab world became silent because the narrative had changed and the Americans and their former foes suddenly seemed to be in accord. The obsession with America, the pervasive desire to see Bush fail in Iraq, has been the running theme of Arab and much Western commentary on the Iraqi conflict. Only a minority observed that American failures would also be Iraqi failures, and that while the Americans could always pick up and leave, the Iraqis would have to endure the consequences of that failure for a long time afterward.

Zaidi's act came at the worst moment for Iraq. Here was Bush on a farewell trip to acknowledge that Iraq had gradually broken free from the United States, after the administration's ambition in 2003-2004 to run the country as a protectorate. Far from being the leader Washington considered removing from office a few years ago, here, too, was Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, now in greater control of his country. Bush made his trip to Baghdad to burnish his own legacy by saying that Iraq could stand on its own two feet. That was the stated aspiration of many Arabs not so long ago. And yet Bush's final visit ended up not being about Iraq's emergence from the nightmare of dictatorship and war; it ended up being about a man whose feat became a computerized entertainment.

No less demoralizing are the events in Gaza. The callousness of the Israeli blockade has been the focus of much justified attention in the Arab world. In the absence of any clear policies on achieving peace with the Palestinians, Israel tends to resort to brutality. However, it is also worth questioning what Hamas has made of Gaza, a territory that could have once served as an encouraging example of what Palestinians could achieve when Israeli occupation ended. Instead, what we have is a failed political order, and one cannot blame this solely on Israeli pressures. Hamas has chosen the armed struggle, which required overcoming Fatah in Gaza before transforming the area into a garrisoned statelet.

Will the truce in Gaza be renewed, or won't it? Hamas last week said the truce was over because Israel had not abided by its conditions. However, that seemed to be hypocritical bluster, an effort to cover for the fact that the Islamist movement has been unable to give Palestinians a normal life despite the cease-fire. In fact, Hamas' pursuit of the armed struggle requires extending the truce so the movement can build up its weapons arsenal and prepare for a long war. That's why it was no surprise to hear Hamas' leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, tell Egypt's Al-Ahram that the movement might agree to renew the truce under the previous conditions.

Even if Israel lifts its siege, the only things Palestinians in Gaza can look forward to is the prospect of more carnage ahead. Hamas is not a state-building enterprise, it is a military movement that plays politics to retain the military option. The dystopia it offers is many decades more of the gun, and like Zaidi's shoes, the gun has left no room for discussion of an alternative, more desirable Palestinian future.

Much the same can be said of Lebanon's Hizbullah, as it engages in a bogus national dialogue on its weapons, which the party has already indicated it will not give up. At what stage will the Lebanese throw up their arms and admit to the absurdity of finding common ground between the logic of a sovereign Lebanese state and the logic of a sovereign armed group in the midst of that state? Hizbullah, like Hamas, offers only a project of open-ended war, apparently now tied in to developments in Palestine, if we are to believe the party's deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, who declared a few days ago: "We are responsible, like all Arabs and Muslims, to completely liberate Palestine, from the river to the sea."

Who is looking flexible these days, amid such maximalism? Oddly enough the dictator in Syria, with Bashar Assad having declared on Monday that he would move to direct talks with Israel at some stage. Assad may be pulling the wool over American eyes as Barack Obama prepares to take office, but the truth is a grim one for the Lebanese. On the one side we have Hizbullah promising open-ended conflict, while on the other the Syrians are hoping that a new beginning with Washington will allow them to re-impose their hegemony over Lebanon, that rare society in the region with spaces of liberalism between its imperfectly applied despotism.

If you live by the gun you will probably die by the gun. That's the promise of the Middle East today, where weapons have become the ornaments of men, and where the foulest dictatorships end up looking like a good bet.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Let's not be crushed by the Syria train

"Don't panic," the former US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, told his Lebanese friends at a conference organized jointly last week by the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation and the Aspen Institute. And the Lebanese panicked, because the March 14 majority doesn't know how to make itself relevant as the transition in Washington accelerates, amid signs the Obama administration intends to engage Syria.

There is disconcerting haziness whenever American officials, past, present, or future, explain why it is time to talk to Syria. The principal argument is that the Syrians can be broken off from Iran and Hizbullah, that now is the time to pry Bashar Assad away from his dangerous liaisons. That reasoning, when not utterly na•ve, happens to be counter-intuitive. Assad knows that it is his dangerous liaisons that make engaging Syria desirable; the Syrians' strong card is their ability to dance with Iran and Hizbullah and Hamas and manipulate the Lebanese and Palestinian scenes while continuing to oversee mayhem in Iraq. For Assad to give all that up as a prerequisite for dealing with Washington is a non-starter. It would mean surrendering his leverage before getting down to the serious business of negotiations. Why should he do that?
Assad can read the dynamics as well as anybody. The reality is that it is the Americans who want a new relationship with Syria, so the onus is on them to make the concessions. Nor are the Syrians blind to the lessons of recent history. Hafez Assad spent decades playing the spoiler in the Middle East, many Americans were killed thanks to his efforts, but that only induced successive US administrations to pursue him with greater vigor. Syria has violated United Nations resolutions on Lebanon that the Bush administration considered vital, most damagingly Resolution 1701, but the fact is that Bashar Assad has paid no price for this and may soon be rewarded with heightened attention from the Obama administration.

Assad is under no great pressure from the US to give up anything significant. So why does the mood in Washington become so animated whenever the subject of dealing with Syria is brought up? Why does so potentially bad an arrangement seem high on the agenda of those in the Obama transition team dealing with Middle Eastern affairs?

The only convincing explanation is that the Americans are pining for the 1990s, when states rather than non-state actors happened to be more dominant in the region. As US policymakers look around these days, they see a disconcerting vista. In Lebanon, Hizbullah seems more powerful than the state; in the Palestinian areas, Hamas has a decisive advantage over the Palestinian Authority; in Egypt and Iraq, groups outside the reach of the state, or alienated from or inadequately integrated into the state, are challenging governments or ruling regimes. On the margins of the region, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Islamist movements, sometimes sponsored by state organs but also able to resist state authority, seem to be proliferating. A natural reaction of American diplomats and policymakers used to dealing with formal state structures is deep unease.

This the Syrians have skillfully understood. At a recent conference in Venice, I sat next to a Syrian doctor who several months ago was sent with colleagues to Washington to explain why Syria was worth opening up to. If one could distill his argument into a single phrase, it was this: "Syria is a state; it's best for everyone to bolster states in the Middle East against non-state actors." For many policymakers, the Syrian dictatorship remains attractive because it wards away the prospect of non-state Sunni Islamists taking over in Damascus. That Syria has been at the epicenter of efforts to arm and assist non-state actors such as Hizbullah, Hamas, and Al-Qaeda seems largely irrelevant to Western policymakers and opinion-shapers. In the absence of a desirable alternative to the Assad regime, the Syrians are making headway in marketing themselves abroad.

Which leads us back to the Lebanese panic - or at least the panic of those who understand that there are those in Washington who would welcome going back to the time when Syria could control Hizbullah. If the US preoccupation is with the growing power of non-state actors, then what better way to contain Hizbullah than by allowing a new form of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon? Reinforcing that argument is the fact that Israel has no real problem with it. According to reports, Israel and Syria advanced quite far over Lebanon in their talks in Turkey. If Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Israel's prime minister after his country's elections next February, one of the ways he might avoid making concessions on the Golan Heights is to cut Assad more slack in Lebanon.

Some US officials argue that Washington's engagement of Syria will help assure that Lebanon is not on the block in future Syrian-Israeli discussions. Perhaps, but if the Obama administration's priority is to inhibit Hizbullah, then we must be realistic: The sovereign Lebanon that emerged from the 2005 Independence Intifada is expendable, because that Lebanon has been unable to prevail over Hizbullah. Even within the US bureaucracy, those defending an independent Lebanon will have to persuade colleagues that a Lebanese state backed by Syria is less attractive to Washington and Israel than a weaker government that has been unable to extend its authority over all its national territory.

Does that mean an independent Lebanon is finished? Not necessarily. There are fundamental difficulties in a Syrian return to Lebanon, whichever form it might take: The Syrians need Hizbullah as leverage in their own talks with Israel. That means that far from weakening the party, they may only ensure that Hizbullah resumes its cross-border attacks. At the same time, Syria is incapable of fully imposing its writ on the party in the same way it could before 2005. Iran is now a major player on the scene, and there are many ways for the Iranians and Hizbullah to show that Syrian power in Lebanon is not what it used to be. This would make even less likely a Syrian-Iranian rift, however, since Syria could neither defeat Hizbullah militarily in that event, nor would it see any benefit in breaking with a party that has been its de facto enforcer in Beirut.
In other words, the Obama administration may soon come to realize that Syria doesn't have the means to give the US what it seeks in Lebanon. The Lebanese March 14 majority must see to it that while Obama is experimenting, an independent Lebanon survives. The majority has another strong suit, namely that it represents a far more desirable, pluralistic, even liberal Lebanese future than the despotism of Syria or the religious militancy of Hizbullah. However, March 14 has displayed crying incompetence in adapting to change in Washington, or shaping American attitudes in this transition period - for example by pushing for a delay in US engagement of Syria before the parliamentary elections next spring.

If the majority loses, alas we all lose. There is still a policy vacuum to be filled in Washington. There is still time for March 14 to fill that vacuum with practical proposals to ensure the US does not throw out the Lebanese independence baby with the bathwater when it chats up Assad. The Syria train is moving out in Washington, and the majority must ensure it will be on board.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Giving peace in Palestine no chance

Rarely a day goes by without someone offering new advice to the incoming Obama administration on how to deal with the Middle East. This advice is usually based on a simple principle: If George W. Bush pursued a specific policy, Barack Obama must do the opposite.
Much of the counseling has focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The lines of argument are familiar. The conflict lies at the heart of the Arab world's traumas, therefore resolving it is the key to unlocking many of the region's other problems. Peace is achievable because the outlines of an agreement were almost agreed to during the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords were signed. And Bush didn't do enough for Palestinian-Israeli peace, while Obama can succeed by compensating for that failing.

The difficulty with the three premises is that each is questionable. The problem of Palestine doubtless requires an urgent settlement, but all the signs are that we may be beyond that stage - past midnight on the kind of peace with which we would have been familiar in 2000, when talks collapsed and new leaders took over in the United States and Israel.

Is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the Gordian knot that needs to be cut in order for other regional crises to be resolved? The bitter fate of the Palestinians is a significant factor in how Arab populations view themselves and their relationship with the West. However, when one looks more closely, the centrality of the Palestinians' humiliation is also, perhaps even mainly, the result of the Arabs' humiliation at the hands of their own leaders and their alienation from politics in general. In supporting the Palestinians, Arabs also denounce the illegitimacy of those governing them. That is why Palestine, as much as it is about Israeli behavior, is also about the abject failure of the Arab state.

Arab citizens are the victims of despots who neither respect them nor afford them the bare essentials of a political life. Citizens are permitted only indifference, only to express themselves in favor of the tyrannical fathers ruling over them. What is the role of Palestine in such a context? Arab regimes have used the conflict with Israel to maintain suffocating security establishments and to deflect popular anger away from their own shortcomings. However, that could mean that if Arab societies become more open, Palestine will recede as a prime shaper of Arab attitudes.

Taking this a step further, if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved but Arab despotisms are left in place, it is doubtful that we would see deep changes in the nature of Arab societies. Peace with Israel will not mean that fewer young men join militant Islamist groups (probably the contrary would happen), nor that Arab citizens will be able to voice their opinions more liberally. No one doubts the importance of Palestine, but as the Lebanese showed at the end of their 15-year civil conflict, just as the Kuwaitis showed after the 1991 Gulf war and the Iraqis did at the end of the 2003 war, Arab societies will turn against the Palestinians, often in very unreasonable ways, when they feel that they themselves have paid an onerous domestic price for having backed the Palestinians.

The second assumption about a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, namely that the outlines of a final agreement are known and were defined during negotiations in the 1990s, is equally problematic. All the evidence today suggests that Palestinian-Israeli dynamics are changing so rapidly that the Oslo framework may have become a distant anachronism.

The reason is that on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide those unwilling to make the required concessions for peace are in a position to veto a final settlement. On the Israeli side we are likely heading after the February 2009 parliamentary elections toward a center-right government, one either led by the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu or in which he will have a decisive say. Given that the present center-left Kadima-led government has been incapable, when not unwilling, to take steps bolstering the credibility of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, it seems illusory to expect better next spring.

Similarly, Hamas has no interest in a peace settlement, believing the armed struggle can deliver the Palestinians much more. The Islamist movement may soon have as its main Israeli adversary Netanyahu, who, like Hamas, welcomes an open-ended truce that ultimately resolves nothing. Meanwhile, the Palestinians' condition will only consolidate the divisions between the West Bank and Gaza. However, not before very long this stalemate might only further undermine the credibility and negotiating strategy of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, creating openings for Hamas in future elections. This coming January, Hamas and Fatah are likely to clash over whether Abbas should remain in office as president, and this week's fighting in the Mieh Mieh camp in southern Lebanon was a worrying omen that Palestinian refugees may soon be caught up in their political animosities.

So, did George W. Bush err in not doing enough to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? His administration blundered in isolating the late Yasser Arafat, pushing for Palestinian elections, and doing nothing to persuade Israel to suspend settlement-building - all steps that strengthened Hamas and discredited Fatah. But Bush's lethargy in the past year, despite the Annapolis conference, was only a symptom of the dynamics at play: Washington is basically unable to impose peace on the Israelis and Palestinians, and nothing suggests this will soon change.

Few in the US want to admit that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may be irresolvable for now. That's understandable, since doing nothing to address the conflict may be worse than doing something, even if that something is futile. The danger is that Palestine has become a diplomatic quandary where it is better for the Americans to oversee negotiations that merely delay the inevitable descent into violence between Palestinians and Israelis. Such negotiations present no prospect of peace, but keep alive an empty process that is better than no process at all. If so, Barack Obama may soon find himself as ineffective as George W. Bush was.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Michel Aoun's minority package tour

You have to hand it to Michel Aoun, he never goes half-way. Here was everyone else staying in Syria for a few hours, two days at the most, and here is Aoun opting for the full four-night, five-day holiday package tour, including visits to religious sites, open buffets, Damascus by night, and an audience with the dictator, all for the low price of his mortal soul.

There will be much dispute over Aoun's choices as he "reconciles" with his old Syrian enemy - his partisans applauding the general, his adversaries finding fault. But a more obvious question is what does Aoun gain from this trip that he didn't have before embarking on the road to Damascus? And what does he lose? - assuming that many Lebanese, perhaps most, still believe that Syria was behind the killing of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, as well as of dozens of others beginning in 2005.

To the first question, the easy explanation, an electoral one, is unconvincing on its own. If Aoun's gambit is that he has to become friendly with Syria to be assured that his candidates will be given more room on electoral lists in predominantly Shiite constituencies, as well as Jezzine, then he has already forfeited enough politically to achieve that. Rather, the general's deeper ambition (if "depth" can in any way reasonably be applied here) is to become the primary mediator between the Christians and Syria's regime. Aoun's immediate aim is to displace President Michel Sleiman from that role, but more generally to breathe life into a contentious notion associated with his principal Maronite political ally, Suleiman Franjieh, but also with Aoun's own son-in-law, Gebran Bassil: namely that Christians, in order to protect their community, have a long-term advantage in entering into a strategic regional alliance of minorities with the Shiites and Syria's ruling Alawites.

If there are any doubts about this, the symbolism of Aoun's visit is there to dispel them. The point of the general's planed excursions to Christian shrines in Damascus is to show that Christians thrive under Bashar Assad.

To the second question - what does Aoun have to lose by so flamboyantly settling his differences with a regime accused of systematic murder in the past three years? - the answer is: quite a lot. Through this gesture, the general has taken his followers farther than ever in their divorce from the Lebanese sectarian consensus. Aoun has repeatedly sold his alliance with Hizbullah as a successful effort to preserve that consensus following the 2005 Independence Intifada. That would only be true had Aoun remained a bridge between Sunnis and Shiites. Instead he took sides, and is now thumbing his nose at the Sunni community once more by effectively absolving the Syrian regime of guilt in the Hariri murder; or worse, making it plain that he cares little about that guilt.

But it's the Christians who will ultimately have the most forceful say on Aoun's Damascus trip. And whichever way you cut it, most Christians do not share the general's views on an alliance of minorities, nor are they particularly eager to embrace the Assad regime, preferring a colder relationship of mutual respect. Aoun is under the impression that he can continue to manipulate Christian misgivings about the Sunnis to his advantage. However, those misgivings only have meaning in the context of domestic Lebanese affairs. Once the Christians see the general wanting to take the community into a regional confrontation with the Sunni Arab world, once they realize that Aoun's method for doing so is a partnership with a deeply mistrusted Syrian leadership and with Iran, their reaction will likely be one of suspicion, if only from a perspective of self-interest.

Self-interest counts for a lot, but there is also the matter of principle. It sends a very different message when Lebanese officials, mandated by the government, meet with their Syrian counterparts, and when a parliamentarian like Michel Aoun does so. That's not to say that Aoun had no right to visit Damascus, only that by doing so outside the confines of formal state-to-state relations - the desirable framework for ties between Lebanon and Syria - he injects a form of unilateralism into his act that demonstrates he will ignore Syrian behavior in Lebanon, regardless of how it violates Lebanese sovereignty and United Nations resolutions. That's why Aoun's defending his visit as representing a new page in Syrian-Lebanese relations is so manifestly vain. Aoun claims to be representing all of Lebanon when he only truly represents himself.

Why should that matter? Because it would have been useful, just this once, for the Lebanese to be united around their victims. Aoun's political career since his return to Lebanon has centered on a perpetual struggle against the legacy of Rafik Hariri, whom the general never forgave for having, in death, served as a mobilizing force against the Syrian presence. By transforming his stay in Syria into a grand tour, part political summit, part pilgrimage, by offering so large a dispensation to Bashar Assad and demanding nothing in exchange (except for what Assad will toss him by way of making the trip more palatable in Lebanon), Aoun has betrayed the memory of even those who sided with him in his darker moments: the soldiers who died for him on October 13, 1990, after Aoun had fled to the French Embassy and refused to issue them with an order to surrender; Gebran Tueni, who had his differences with the general, but always defended Aoun's partisans when they were arrested and mistreated by the Lebanese security services; Samir Kassir, who had engaged Aounist students at St. Joseph University and encouraged them in their fight against Syrian hegemony; Antoine Ghanem and Pierre Gemayel, who had, like Aoun, endured years of marginalization at Syrian hands.

Egoism is sometimes a quality of great men. Aoun would agree after placing himself at the same altitude as Charles de Gaulle reconciling France with Konrad Adenauer's West Germany. But his is an egoism without a trace of greatness, without vision or a center of gravity. Aoun took the package tour of Syria, the one the budget tourists choose. He won't come away from the experience with his reputation enhanced.