Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hassan Nasrallah made four mistakes

In his Ashoura speech this past weekend, Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, irritated many Christians. He recommended that they take stock of their situation, especially, as he described it, the mistaken wager that some Christians once placed on Israel; but also, Nasrallah implied, their more recent dependence on the West in general and the United States in particular.

Nasrallah urged Christians “not to accept that some of them push [the community] toward suicide built on artificial fear and the [fear] of a bogeyman raised constantly and daily.” He went on to advise that Christians engage in “a calm dialogue between themselves … over their present and future choices to benefit from the experiences of the past.”

At one level, Nasrallah’s statements were interpreted as a warning to those Christian parties, above all the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb, who have opposed the government’s legitimization of Hizbullah’s weapons. It is in this vein that Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, responded that Nasrallah’s comments suggested that there was no need for a national dialogue over the weapons, even though such a process was approved during the Doha conference of May 2008.

However, there was something far more disturbing in what Nasrallah said, much more illustrative of Hizbullah’s impossible relationship with the Lebanese system. Echoes of this we heard several weeks ago, when the secretary general read his party’s new program. It is that Hizbullah today is challenging a key foundation of post-Independence Lebanon as a place between East and West, belonging to neither but also – and this was always understood – open to, and ambiguously even a part of, both.

There has long been in Hizbullah’s actions and public discourse a desire to turn Lebanon against the West, or at least to widen the rift between the two. Nasrallah’s mention of Israel was but a pretext, since Christians long ago, and quite sensibly, gave up on an Israeli alliance. The assault on Lebanon’s Western sympathies began during the 1980s when Hizbullah and its precursors abducted Americans and Europeans in Beirut, several of whom were murdered or allowed to die; and it continued during the postwar period, when the party used resistance against Israel as a byword to justify the broader rejection of American and European influence in Lebanese affairs. At the time this found favor with Syria, which saw the attitude as reinforcing Syrian exclusivity in shaping Lebanon’s future.

After 2005, and the Syrian withdrawal, Hizbullah went a step further. Because the party was obliged more than ever before to anchor itself in Lebanese realities, without a Syrian Army protecting its back and allowing it to focus on the conflict with Israel, it became imperative for Hizbullah to mobilize anti-Western sentiment nationally. The endeavor was mostly unsuccessful, until the party was rewarded when it pushed Michel Aoun and his Christian followers into a confrontation with the United States and, to a lesser extent, with the Europeans, by forcing the general to make a priority of defending his affiliation with Hizbullah.

Not enough has been written about the anti-globalization strain in Hizbullah’s rhetoric. Distilled down to its simplest form, it expresses the party’s hostility toward what it considers Western global domination, which finds a receptive ear in developing countries, particularly those in Africa and Latin America, where Hizbullah has expanded its networks among emigrant Shiite communities. However, this contrasts starkly with views in the “other” Lebanon, that which has long embraced the idea that Lebanon benefits greatly from globalization, and that has sent emigrants abroad, particularly to the West, to integrate into society.

The Lebanese ideal, if such a word can be used, is that Lebanon can only survive by remaining on good terms with the outside, particularly the West and the Arab world, both regions deeply ambivalent today toward Hizbullah and its sponsor, Iran. Hizbullah lives a paradox when embracing the notion that the Islamic community, or umma, must transcend national boundaries (its fealty to Iran notwithstanding), yet rejects this when the political, economic, and cultural values crossing borders are those Hizbullah regards as disadvantageous or menacing.

Hizbullah is fighting a losing battle, even among its own. The inherent cosmopolitanism of the Shiites will likely undermine efforts to create an enduring rift between the community and the West, even though Hizbullah has managed to alienate some sympathetic Shiites living abroad from their own governments, particularly in the United States. This applies even more to the rest of Lebanese society. It’s not a militia, through intimidation and without offering any realistic alternatives, that will persuade the Lebanese to abandon their innate openness, which helped sustain them through countless crises for well over a century.

Nasrallah made four mistakes in his Ashoura speech. He, once again, overstepped his boundaries in the context of the Lebanese system of sectarian compromise by taking an entire religious community to task when no one asked for his counsel. He addressed, therefore implicitly criticized, Christians in general, forgetting that his beef was allegedly only with a minority that once sided with Israel. He sounded threatening. And he blithely ignored the fact that when he told the Christians to be Lebanese above all, he had no credibility to do so inasmuch as he and his organization come across as being Iranian above all.

The Ashoura speech once again served to remind us that Nasrallah has no intention of “Lebanonizing” Hizbullah; rather he is seeking to mold Lebanon in Hizbullah’s image. It won’t work, and the secretary general, for the umpteenth time, has overestimated his capacities. Someone should have reminded him that Ashoura is, above all, a commemoration of self-sacrifice, in other words a day to embrace humility.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

When in doubt, follow the money

Almost three weeks ago Michel Aoun visited Damascus, in what still remains a largely unexplained visit. However, in light of Hassan Nasrallah’s several recent speeches, it’s easier to get a sense of how the winds are shifting in Beirut, and Aoun’s efforts to adapt.

Among politicians the news is that the general’s meeting with Bashar al-Assad was organized by Michel Samaha, one of Syria’s more energetic Lebanese paladins. Aoun, who has relied substantially in recent years on his relationship with Hezbollah and Iran to enhance his political sway—and many also believe to gain needed funding for his patronage networks—went along, sensing, accurately, that there is change in the air.

The Syrian resurgence in Beirut, facilitated by the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, has rebalanced the Syrian-Iranian relationship in Lebanon. Damascus and Tehran remain allies, but in relative terms Syria has regained much of what it lost to Iran after 2005, when it was forced to rely heavily on the pro-Iranian Hezbollah to defend its Lebanese stakes. That played out to Tehran’s benefit, and is precisely what the Saudis hoped to reverse by affording Syria new latitude to impose its will.

For someone like Aoun, who moved between Syria and Hezbollah between 2006 and 2009, now is decision time. The general knows that Hezbollah’s margin of maneuver will be affected by the Syrian return. That means his own importance in the context of Hezbollah’s national strategy will henceforth be different. The Aounists can no longer serve as Hezbollah’s Christian battering ram against the March 14 majority, given that this majority is rapidly reconciling with Syria. Saad al-Hariri’s invitation to Damascus and his get-together with Assad, for all its foulness in terms of implementing the rule of law and accountability in the murder of Rafik al-Hariri, really did outmaneuver Hezbollah and Aoun.

Now, a new form of polarization is emerging, that of the Arab states versus Iran, or so we are told. It’s irrelevant whether Syria will actually go along with so constraining a scenario—the chances are that Assad will continue to play both sides against each other, to Syria’s greater benefit—but in Beirut, where new fads take like wildfire, self-interest will dictate a growing alignment with Syria that might partially isolate Hezbollah. And it is precisely to avoid this that Nasrallah, in a series of recent speeches, underlined that his party was firmly anchored in Lebanon. Hezbollah needs this semblance of anchoring to preserve some autonomy with regard to Syria. The party doesn’t relish becoming a Syrian bargaining card again in the event of renewed talks between Assad and the Israelis.

That seemed to be a primary reason why Aoun readily accepted the invitation to Damascus, which he followed a week later with a visit of condolences after the death of Majd al-Assad. If Syria is the future, then the general, whose defining ambition is to belong to the political class he once so relentlessly denounced, will go along with this, no worse or better than most other Lebanese politicians. But there is another question that remains unanswered, namely where does the money now come from?

There is no use being bashful whenever money is mentioned. It is the lubricant of Lebanese politics, indeed of all politics, and political influence does not long last for a leader who fails to dispense patronage. As Aoun surveys the shifting horizon, he knows that he may soon have to find new funding sources to remain politically relevant. And in this he is no different than most of his counterparts, whether they are in the majority or the opposition, concepts that have anyway lost all their meaning.

But everyone knows that Syria doesn’t pay, while the Lebanese political class is well attuned to discovering who does. Which raises an interesting question: Does Aoun’s path toward better relations with Saudi Arabia pass through Damascus? Or rather, did the Syrians, sensing that Aoun would soon have to make his peace with Riyadh, invite the general to Damascus to remind him that they were the big boss in Beirut?

Whatever the answer is, here’s a New Year’s prediction. Within the coming few months, perhaps even sooner, we shall see Michel Aoun visiting the Gulf; and don’t be surprised to hear his followers suddenly less eager to denounce the “Wahhabization” of Lebanese life.

A divorce between Syria on the one side and Iran and Hezbollah on the other is unlikely. Hassan Nasrallah cannot afford to enter into a confrontation with the Assad regime. But his allies are recalculating. When you’re unsure about political decision-making, follow the money.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why the Lebanese feel so switched off

Below the Future Television offices in Kantari, there is a digital counter to record the number of days that have passed since the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The idea is to mark how long it takes for the truth to come out in the case, and presumably for justice to be rendered. However, the last time I looked, two weeks ago, the counter had been switched off.

It was a deeply reluctant Saad Hariri who made his way to Damascus this past weekend. As he made clear during and after his one-night stay in the presidential palace that Rafik Hariri had built for the Syrian regime, he was doing it all because political reality demanded such “reconciliation.” As prime minister, he had no choice but to open a new page with what he pointedly remarked was Lebanon’s only Arab neighbor, in the context of inter-Arab concord sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

Hariri has not forgotten his father, but like the counter that has been turned off he had to bend to the aftereffects of the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement. It was never Riyadh’s priority to obtain justice after the former prime minister was killed. At the memorable meeting between then-Crown Prince Abdullah and Bashar Assad in the Saudi capital in early March 2005, there were two facets to the conversation. The Saudis told Assad it was time to remove his soldiers from Lebanon; but they also made it clear that the kingdom would repay Assad by helping to reintegrate Syria into the Arab fold and let bygones be bygones.

Abdullah’s subsequent comments to senior Lebanese March 14 politicians confirmed his hardnosed reading of Arab realities. The regimes of the region generally don’t like to make things personal, and only when Assad did make things personal, by allying himself with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran and calling the Saudi leadership “half-men” during the Lebanon war of 2006, did the Riyadh-Damascus relationship collapse.

Yet the period was not a good one for the Saudis. Their allies in Lebanon were set upon by Syria and Hizbullah and pushed onto the defensive. The effective Saudi and Egyptian boycott of the Arab League summit in Damascus in March 2008 backfired (both countries sent only low-level representatives), as most Arab heads of states attended, quite a few from the Gulf. And Hizbullah’s subsequent onslaught against western Beirut and Aley in May 2008 brought on a conference hosted by the Saudis’ bitter rival, Qatar, from which Riyadh was largely excluded and where the March 14 coalition had to accept a disadvantageous settlement.

Rather than Syria being isolated, it was Saudi Arabia and Egypt who were, a matter further reinforced during the war in Gaza almost one year ago. Both regimes were ambiguous enough about the conflict and the possibility of Hamas emerging stronger from it, that they found themselves working against the grain of angry Arab public opinion. This may have been defensible from the perspective of their self-interest, but it placed King Abdullah in such an uncomfortable position that he decided it was time to extend a hand to Bashar Assad, against what the Saudi monarch saw as the real problem in the region: Iran. After all, it was the Assad regime and the Iranians who had encouraged Hamas to scuttle the Gaza truce, which prompted the Saudis to try dividing the two.

The Saudi gamble has yet to show results. While Syria and Iran may be going in different directions, we’re nowhere near a rift. Too much is at stake for both sides to allow such a thing. Syria still needs Hizbullah to complete its counterattack in Lebanon, which the Saudis have closed their eyes to in the hope that what Syria regains in Beirut, it will surrender with regard to Tehran. The Syrians see no reason to break with the Iranian regime over the Palestinian track either. Iran helps finance Hamas, while Syria has used the movement to great effect as leverage in its own bargaining with Israel and the United States; but also in gaining more control over Palestinian decision-making against other Arab states.

In Iraq, Syria and Iran have contradictory aims, as the Syrians and Saudis appear to be colluding, each for reasons of their own, against the emergence of a stable order in Baghdad. The Obama administration, because of its impatience to withdraw its soldiers from the country, is leaving behind a vacuum that Iraq’s neighbors are trying to fill. But even there Syria and Iran have time and again overlooked their differences, while Saudi dependency on Syrian cooperation has only increased.

Those utterly ignored in the game of nations that led Saad Hariri to Damascus were the Lebanese. Almost five years after Rafik Hariri’s murder, only six months after voters gave March 14 a new majority in Parliament, Lebanon has fallen back into Syria’s hands. People cannot understand why, and do not want to. Being pawned off by one Arab state to another is not what those who participated in the Independence Intifada troubled themselves for, particularly those civilians humiliated in May 2008 by a militia that had turned its guns against its own countrymen. For many people the images from Damascus were, justifiably, nauseating, a veneer of bogus unity plastered over a series of unpunished murders, their perpetrators grinning with satisfaction.

Many give Saad Hariri credit for going through a genuinely taxing undertaking. But many more of those who sided with the majority remain unsympathetic. They sense that despite their endurance during the hard times, their political leaders have been too willing to abandon principle, to abandon the victims, and to disregard an uneasy population that they once manipulated with alacrity. We’re in for a period of prolonged political discontent among the Lebanese, not to say outright disgust, because the country is afflicted with politicians and parties on both sides of the political divide who offer no vision for sovereign Lebanese statehood.

The Syrian perspective toward Lebanon has changed not one iota since 2005. If Assad could drive his tanks into Beirut once again, he would not hesitate to do so. But for now he doesn’t need to. Lebanon is the prize in a sordid regional transaction that its own leaders have legitimized. We can’t be sure what the consequences will be, but don’t expect the Lebanese to care much about their state in the future, its independence, or the rule of law. Those heady words were emptied of their meaning last Saturday.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Syria’s friend or its prosecutor?

Saad Hariri’s trip to Damascus this past weekend sent up a cloud of ambiguous feelings, very few of them particularly reassuring. Syria has substantially recouped its losses in Lebanon in the past four years, and if Hariri’s handshake with Bashar al-Assad did not underline that fact, then nothing will. However, one aspect of Syria’s political return has been little discussed, namely what “reconciliation” with the Assad regime means for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating Rafik Hariri’s murder.

The most commonly heard answer is that the tribunal is going ahead with its work and will remain impartial and resistant to political pressures. But how true is that? We tend to forget that the tribunal is a mixed international-Lebanese body, and even if we assume that the international judges will preserve their independence, can we say the same thing of the Lebanese judges now that their president, prime minister, speaker of parliament, and most other politicians, are staunchly defending improved Lebanese-Syrian ties? Judges don’t function in a vacuum. They have to think of their safety as well as of their career as much as anybody else.

According to the statutes of the Lebanon tribunal there are three judges in the trial chamber, one of whom is Lebanese. Of the five judges in the appeals chamber, two are Lebanese. There is also a Lebanese alternate judge who is entitled to sit in on each stage of the trial process, and who can replace the trial judge if that becomes necessary.

While the decisions of the three judges in the trial chamber are taken by a majority vote, because the process will involve a crime that occurred in Lebanon, the relative authority of the Lebanese judge will undoubtedly be enhanced. On top of that, the Lebanese judge in question, Ralph Riachi, is the deputy president of the chamber; in other words it will be important for the international judges to ensure there is a consensus with Riachi so that decisions don’t appear to be imposed by them, and specifically by the international community through them as its representatives.

This is not to cast doubt on the credibility of Riachi, or that of the Lebanese deputy prosecutor, Joyce Tabet. Both are highly regarded, and Riachi played a key role in negotiating the tribunal’s statutes, along with Judge Shukri Sader. However, judges are not supermen, and Riachi and Tabet know well what it was like during the years of the Syrian presence to maneuver through a judiciary infected with corruption and political favoritism. Integrity notwithstanding, it will not be easy for the Lebanese to ignore that, back home, their careers and the security of their families and friends may effectively be in the hands of Syria and Hezbollah, who have been systematically hostile to the Lebanon tribunal.

Once Daniel Bellemare, the man who will prosecute Hariri’s killers, issues an indictment, the Lebanese state will be caught in an impossible judicial and political dilemma. Beirut will find itself officially on the side of a prosecution that may well point the finger at Damascus, the only serious culprit in the killing of the former prime minister, even as the state and its institutions substantially fall back into Syria’s tightening grip.

And if Bellemare finds that Hezbollah played a role in the crime, that dilemma would only be compounded tenfold, so that it would almost certainly affect the ultimate outcome of the trial process. We can expect Riachi and Tabet to feel considerable heat from Beirut to shape the outcome of the indictment, and given its repercussions for Lebanon’s stability they may be more inclined to go along than their colleagues.

Might they resist? They might, and it would be to their credit. But it would also take a great deal of nerve, assuming Bellemare puts together a strong case. International tribunals (and even more so a mixed tribunal) are just as sensitive to political realities as national tribunals, often more so.

Then we have national interests. There is a mistaken belief that the Lebanon tribunal will operate with Chapter VII authority. In reality, as Shukri Sader explained in a paper read at the Yale Law School in October 2008, the tribunal was only set up under that authority, but may require United Nations Security Council resolutions to force states to comply with its requests if necessary. The Security Council is far more divided today than it was in 2005, when the investigation mechanism was set up. It is very difficult to imagine that there would be easy agreement between the five permanent members, particularly with a reluctant Lebanon now sitting on the council, to force Syrian compliance with the prosecution’s demands.

Politics as well as personal concerns will greatly determine what happens when Bellemare finally issues an accusation. To assume that the Lebanon tribunal will avoid the ensuing minefield is naïve in the extreme.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Turbulence still mars Saudi-Syrian relations

Few failed to notice what the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Saud al-Faysal, told the New York Times on Tuesday, and the possible implications for Syrian-Saudi amity in Lebanon. Among other things, the prince remarked that Lebanon could never be sovereign for as long as Hezbollah “owns more arms than the military force of the country.” As for Iran, he continued, the Islamic Republic should not be permitted to build nuclear weapons, before stating that he was “suspicious” about its assertions that the nuclear program was peaceful.

Nothing in those words indicated an imminent conflict between Riyadh and Damascus. Indeed, Saud al-Faysal is not the kingdom’s point man in relations between the Saudis and Syrians, a role that has apparently devolved to King Abdullah’s son, Abdul Aziz. However, implicit in his remarks was a very clear, if indirect, expression of what the Saudi priorities are in Lebanon and the broader Middle East, namely the containment of Iran and its most powerful surrogate, Hezbollah.

The haziness over Saad Hariri’s visit to Damascus is an additional sign that not all is right between Syria and Saudi Arabia, even if both sides have an interest in remaining conciliatory: the Saudis in order to pursue King Abdullah’s project of “Arab unity” in the face of a rising Iran; Syria, because the rapprochement with Riyadh has given it wide berth to reassert its will in Beirut. Although Hariri has said that he would visit Syria soon, according to reports a formal Syrian invitation has yet to be extended. That may mean the Syrians want to impose more conditions on his visit, after allowing Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of the General Security directorate, to embarrass the Lebanese prime minister by asking that some of his close collaborators appear before a Syrian court.

But it is Syria’s relationship with Iran that lies at the heart of Saudi-Syrian uneasiness. While the terms for the improvement in ties between Damascus and Riyadh were never made clear publicly, it seems obvious that Saudi Arabia expects President Bashar Assad to distance himself in tangible ways from Tehran, and to help in Hezbollah’s containment. Until now nothing has been visible on either front, amid signs that the Assad regime intends to play Saudi Arabia off against Iran to its own benefit.

Take, for example, the disinformation floated by the minister Adnan al-Sayyed Hussein last week. Before President Michel Sleiman’s visit to Washington, Sayyed Hussein – who allegedly belongs to the president’s quota in the cabinet, but in reality has become a spokesman for Syria and Hezbollah – said that the president would ask the Americans to consider implementation of Resolution 1559 an internal Lebanese matter, effectively “withdrawing” it from the international community. This ultimately proved to be bogus, a cynical ploy to undermine Sleiman’s meeting with President Barack Obama, but also a reminder that the president could not maneuver against Syria’s and Hezbollah’s interests.

The episode must have been enlightening to the Saudis. They saw that Sayyed Hussein was a ventriloquist’s dummy, and they knew that behind him was Syria, along with Hezbollah, endeavoring to impose on Sleiman the neutralization of a resolution calling for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, especially Hezbollah. That hardly represented implementation of the “tangibles” Riyadh had been expecting from Assad on constraining the party. It also embarrassed the Saudis with the Americans (not to say the Egyptians), who have remained consistently skeptical that better ties between Saudi Arabia and Syria would change Syrian behavior in Lebanon and lead Assad to break with Tehran.

The problem is that the Saudis are now prisoners of the opening to Damascus. Their ability to shape events in Lebanon is less than Syria’s, so that any effort to reinterpret the concordat might shift the balance of power in Lebanon decisively against Riyadh and its local allies. That means that we are in for more uncertainty ahead along the margins of Lebanese political life, where Syria can increase its power, even as King Abdullah and Bashar al-Assad continue putting up a facade of civility.

In this context, we can reflect on what actually happened in Damascus recently, when a device destroyed the back of a bus carrying Iranian pilgrims. The Syrians claimed it was a bursting tire, a laughable explanation when one examined photographs of the incident and heard eyewitness accounts. If the Syrians were hiding something, it meant they felt a need to hide something. What? What really happened? One can only speculate, but in the context of the hardening positions on the Syrian and Saudi sides, and given the symbolism of the Iranian target, it’s legitimate to ask whether the two were somehow linked, without drawing any conclusions.

Syrian-Saudi relations are an admixture of parallel interests (in Iraq), mistrustful cooperation (on Arab-Israeli peace and in Lebanon), and carefully submerged hostility (over Iran). That doesn’t make for a new strategic relationship between Assad and King Abdullah, but it does complicate thoughts of a divorce tremendously. Unfortunately, Lebanon will remain a front line in that surly marriage of convenience.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Hariri case's narrow Lebanon angle

Earlier this month, Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, met with the families of victims who lost their lives in the bomb attacks between 2005 and 2009. After saying that he was aware of concerns about the length of his investigation, Bellemare explained, “I can assure you that we are making progress and that I am very optimistic. I sincerely wish I could tell you more about the reasons for my optimism but unfortunately I cannot because I do not want to give away any information, or even a hint, that could tip off those we are after.”

If Bellemare is optimistic, that’s good news, and his statement, though it told us relatively little, was perhaps the strongest sign yet that he believes his efforts will not end in a dead end. The prosecutor is responsible only for what he says, and he has said virtually nothing until now; however a more disturbing assessment is emerging from various sources, including foreign diplomatic sources, that the focus of Bellemare and his team may be on domestic Lebanese involvement in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and that only through this route might he follow the chain of decision-making in the crime outside the country.

What does this mean? Some will hear echoes of the Der Spiegel article: Hizbullah is blamed for Hariri’s killing, the investigation is contained inside Lebanon’s borders, Syria is effectively exonerated, and the international community averts a confrontation with the Assad regime. In fact, if the assessment is correct, things may be much more complicated.

To this day the role that Hizbullah played in Hariri’s killing is a matter of conjecture. Some senior March 14 leaders have long harbored suspicions that the party lulled the former prime minister into a sense of false security by engaging in a dialogue with him over parliamentary elections prior to February 14, 2005, in order to facilitate his elimination. There is also a pervasive sense among many observers that the truck bomb used in the assassination was prepared in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Subsequent killings have also been blamed on Hizbullah, particularly that of Gebran Tueni, on the assumption that he was spotted at the airport upon his return from Paris and the information passed on to the party.

This may all be true, but the fact is that from the available evidence that Bellemare and his predecessors, Serge Brammertz and Detlev Mehlis, published, we cannot affirm it is true. Basing ourselves solely on the reports of the United Nations investigation of the Hariri murder and subsequent crimes, we get a distinct sense that the attention of investigators was primarily directed at Syria, and that any Lebanese party or individual who might have participated in the Hariri assassination in particular, did so at the request of Damascus. In other words, a crime of that magnitude could not conceivably have taken place without Syrian authorization, given the tight control Syria exerted over Lebanon.

If it is true, therefore, that Bellemare will be unraveling the case through what we can call its domestic window, then what does that tell us about the UN investigation in general? Mehlis and Brammertz were well aware of the Syrian connection, as was, obviously, Bellemare when he took over his post. But there are also converging indications that Brammertz did not aggressively pursue his inquiry in Syria in the same way that Mehlis did, and the evidence for this is that no Syrian official, particularly no intelligence official, was ever arrested, even though Mehlis was on the verge of doing so when he left Beirut in December 2005.

If that reading is correct, then it might explain why UN investigators came to rely more on the alternative, domestic Lebanese, angle to the assassination. And here we have evidence that on the Lebanese side there was progress by the Internal Security Forces, albeit in collaboration with the UN. The evidence is, quite simply, the failed assassination attempt against the ISF officer Samir Shehadeh, and the successful killing of his deputy Wissam Eid. Both men were working on telephone intercepts, and a newspaper story prior to the Der Spiegel article, written by Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro, reported that there had been a breakthrough there pointing toward Hizbullah’s involvement.

Bellemare met with Eid the day before he was killed in a car-bomb attack, and while some sources believe that the killing was linked to important new information Eid had on the intercepts, Bellemare disagreed with this evaluation. We may never know, but if the UN prosecutor is pursuing a Lebanese path toward the truth, then, significantly, it may have been the Lebanese investigators, not those from the UN, who did the heavier lifting to make this possible.

Accusing Hizbullah alone, or individuals in the party, because that is where the available evidence lies, could bend out of shape our true understanding of the Hariri assassination. It would also raise doubts about Brammertz, who failed to take the wide road that Mehlis and the UN Security Council opened for him in 2005 to facilitate his probes in Syria. That does not mean that Bellemare would not find an alternative path to Syrian participation, perhaps through indictments he would bring against Lebanese intelligence officials (and his release of the four generals was not, legally, a declaration of their innocence). But an accusation against Hizbullah, even if justified, would only be partial if it did not include indictments against senior Syrian officials. They alone could have signed off on Hariri’s murder, a view painfully evident to any Lebanese who knows how Syria ran Lebanon, but also resulting from the relationship of hierarchy existing between Syria’s intelligence services and the Lebanese that the UN time and again described in its reports.

Bellemare’s work is ongoing, so we should be careful before reaching any hard conclusions on the basis of incomplete leaks. But we are entitled to wonder whether the Lebanon tribunal will identify those who gave the final order that Hariri be gotten rid of, or whether will we have to satisfy ourselves merely with identification of those who followed orders.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Appointment in Damascus

You have to hand it Michel Aoun; he knows how to provoke. Only days after Jamil as-Sayyed, the former head of the General Security directorate, asked Syria’s judiciary to bring in for questioning several Lebanese politicians, judicial officials and journalists whom he accused of slandering him, Aoun headed up to Damascus for a photo op with Bashar al-Assad. Better still, he was delivered on Assad’s private airplane.

The photograph itself was interesting: Assad shaking Aoun’s hand, gripping his elbow with overstated conviviality, on the esplanade outside the presidential palace built for the Syrians by Rafik al-Hariri in the 1980s; and Aoun, staring straight ahead with inexpressive mien, caught, mid-shutter, between stupefaction and a tentative smile.

The rest of the Aoun visit was filler. Assad had gotten what he wanted. Proof positive that he can divide the Lebanese by playing their politicians off against each other; proof, too, that a major Christian representative will readily ignore the Sayyed incident, a ploy designed to ensure that Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, when he ascends to Damascus, will do so with the added humiliation of knowing that Syria’s judiciary is taking Sayyed’s side on the matter of his father’s assassination. And proof, lastly, that the frequent visit with Bashar al-Assad is again a necessary passage for Lebanese leaders, when there were those who thought (how naively) that that sort of thing was over after the Independence Intifada of 2005.

It would be unfair to blame Aoun alone for this. Saad al-Hariri, too, realizes that his Damascus visit is inevitable, now that Saudi Arabia and Syria have reconciled. He, apparently, informed Sleiman Franjieh Wednesday that he would arrive with several of those individuals whom Sayyed named in his legal case, his way of obliging the Syrian regime to clarify their status beforehand. But Hariri will still have to shake the hand of the Syrian president, whose regime is the only serious culprit in Rafik al-Hariri’s murder, and he may well do so in the palace his father built.

Then there is Walid Jumblatt. Talk that Jumblatt would be the first to visit Syria was idle. No doubt the Druze leader would have liked to be first, but he also knew this was never likely. “Too much has passed between me and Syria,” he often says. On many an occasion Syrian spokespersons, official and unofficial, have indicated that the Assad regime would, henceforth, deal with Taymour Jumblatt, who returned to Lebanon last summer. For Walid, the eventual handover to his son requires, above all, reconciliation with Damascus, because Taymour could not long last against Syria, and because Syria contains a significant number of Druze whose support the Jumblatts must count upon.

Two Christian politicians, Amin Gemayel and Michel al-Murr, also revealed some time ago that they would make their way to Damascus, padding this eventuality with a bodyguard of explanations and provisos that they may or may not respect. Both men have good reasons to plan a Damascus junket, not least the fact that they have sons who are physically vulnerable and politically ambitious. Here we have the two sides of Syrian leverage in Lebanon: intimidation and the ability to promote or demote.

There was a time when Syria’s intelligence officers stationed in Lebanon used the appointment as an instrument of power. If you were a politician, or just someone meriting Syrian attentions, you might be urged by an intermediary to make an informal call on Ghazi Kanaan or his successor, Ruston Ghazali, in Aanjar. There you could be kept waiting, quite as informally, for several hours, until all self-esteem evaporated. The more experienced would wait at Hannouch’s on the Damascus road, asking to be summoned once Kanaan or Ghazali was ready to receive them.

Then there was the appointment in Damascus. The late Hafez al-Assad ran Lebanon like a baronial province, where selected subordinates, civilian and military, would each run their Lebanese politicians as they saw fit, while parallel lines of authority ran down from Damascus to Beirut, Assad the ultimate arbiter, using everyone against everyone. To visit Damascus was fairly easy, but to be granted an audience with the president was altogether different – an occasion for him to send a strong message, advance a politician or issue a threat or reprimand.

No doubt we shall soon have to decipher more regularly the subtleties of the unwritten code of Syrian appointments. Observers will watch to see whether politicians drive or fly up to Damascus; whether they attend a lunch or earn no more than coffee and a glass of water; whether they meet with Bashar in person or are passed off to a high-level or mid-level nonentity, or, worse, are asked to deal through the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, the invisible man whose presence is detectable only by the displacement of air occurring when he slides by.

The road to Damascus from Beirut is open; but the real story is that the road from Damascus to Beirut is also open, and is being widened. It was the road taken by tanks and car-bombs. Now it will be backed up with far more dangerous contraptions: craven Lebanese politicians.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Can the Maronites reinvent themselves?

In the shambles that is the Maronite leadership, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir has over the years been a beacon on the matter of Lebanon’s sovereignty. His inflexibility has served the country well, and this was demonstrated again in the blunt remarks he made this week on Hizbullah’s weapons. However, Sfeir made two other statements that showed that his inflexibility can be a double-edged sword, and that Maronites may suffer in consequence.

On Tuesday, both in Bkirki and later on after visiting with President Michel Suleiman in Baabda, Sfeir repeated that he did not see any possible coexistence between the state and Hizbullah, or more precisely between a sovereign national army and Hizbullah’s militia. Only a national army, he insisted, was entitled to defend the country. “Is it possible that there be a regular army and another army outside the legality [of the state] which one day points its weapons at the enemy, and the other points them toward the interior?” Sfeir asked.

The patriarch was only stating the obvious, which political Lebanon, in its inimitable capacity to sustain mirages, has been carefully ignoring as the government prepares a Cabinet statement legitimizing the existence of Hizbullah’s arms. So loud are the voices supporting counterfeit concord, that Sfeir is shouting in a desert. Faced with the impossibility of disarming Hizbullah, the politicians are justifying the party’s retaining its weapons, as if rationalizing an absurdity could make it more reasonable. The patriarch abruptly tore the veneer away.

One could argue that Sfeir enjoys the luxury of criticism because he doesn’t take the hard decisions. Yet there was much more to the patriarch during the latter two decades of the Syrian interregnum than talk. Under considerable threat during that time, isolated amid a craven political class at Syria’s beck and call, Sfeir was the Maronites’ only real leader, a debt that his critics, above all Michel Aoun, never acknowledged, so absorbed were they in their own authority. The patriarch understood that omission could be as powerful as action, and rejected Syrian invitations to Damascus, even as the Syrian-dominated security services found ways to intimidate the church by blackmailing its more corrupt and sensual clergymen.

But right after shattering the jar of complacency on Hizbullah, Sfeir was asked about the abolition of political confessionalism. And here the patriarch fell back into a disposition that showed why, for all his qualities, he is no innovator. He, quite correctly, stated, “What is the advantage of abolishing political confessionalism in [national] texts before doing so in [people’s] minds, if everyone says ‘I’m a Maronite, or a Druze?’” And when asked about Walid Jumblatt’s proposal for a communal rotation of the three presidencies, Sfeir responded that he did not understand it.

Jumblatt’s proposal was intentionally ambiguous. Did the Druze leader mean that all communities would benefit from being rotated into the three top posts in the state, or that the rotation would occur between the Maronites, Sunnis, and Shiites, who already hold those posts? The Taif Accord outlines the abolition of confessionalism, but it does so in parallel with the establishment of a Senate which would retain a sectarian breakdown, and which Jumblatt would like to see led by a Druze.

Sfeir is not a politician, so his evasiveness was defensible. However, his uneasy response showed he was still thinking, in a most conventional way, that the Maronites’ final protection remains the presidency. It’s true, confessionalism cannot be abolished in law before the outlook of the Lebanese is transformed. However, that line of reasoning is self-reinforcing. Unless you abolish confessionalism institutionally somewhere, unless you change laws somewhere, nothing will ever alter the confessional mindset. But what is needed is a gradual, self-sustaining process of change, where you modify texts to help modify minds, in a way that those who feel most threatened by such change find simultaneous compensations, institutional or otherwise, elsewhere.

Take the Senate. Regardless of whether it is headed by a Druze or not, such a body would be a valuable corresponding institution to a deconfessionalized Parliament, and according to Article 22 of the Constitution should address “major national issues.” The aim of a Senate would be to reassure those expected to lose most from deconfessionalization, namely the Christians, who continue to benefit from a 50-50 ratio in the legislature even though they make up less than that in the population. Sooner or later Christians will face challenges to the ratio. Better for them to negotiate a new formula from a position of strength than to obstinately defend a system that, if Sunnis and Shiites ever reach agreement, may be forcibly overturned in their disfavor.

What of Jumblatt’s rotation plan? Sfeir’s mistake, and that of many Christians, is to read too much into a Maronite presidency, whose powers have been depleted. In fact, the presidency has brought only woe to the community. Competition for the post has divided Maronites in a way the prime ministership and speakership of Parliament have not Sunnis and Shiites. The powers of the president are by and large less proactive than those of his Muslim partners. Therefore, why remain so unyielding toward a plan that would give Maronites a taste of political positions often more effective than the presidency, thereby offering them a chance to transcend their sense of communal decline; a plan, also, that might rejuvenate the political order by creating more frequent openings for fresh leaders?

The symbolism of being head of state is important to Maronites, but it is also an illusion. The presidency has power, but on a day-to-day basis, in the formulation of long-term policy, its latitude is more limited. Instead of resisting this, the patriarch, like all Christians, should consider new ways his community can reinvent itself in a Lebanon that is changing rapidly, where Christian irrelevance is, alas, becoming ever more flagrant.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Syria Exports Trouble

Paris, July 14, 2008. On the podium of dignitaries at the bottom of the Champs Élysées one man savors the irony of the moment. He has been invited by President Nicolas Sarkozy to this celebration of Bastille Day, when France commemorates the opening shot in its revolution to end absolutism. Yet for the invitee, Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, this is a consecration, the first major sign that his regime's isolation is about to end, and that his brand of absolutist rule is getting stronger.

After the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, in February 2005, Syria, the only credible suspect in the crime, found itself accused and was forced to withdraw its army from Lebanon. Its subsequent rapprochement with Iran widened the rift between Damascus and two major Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But within three years, Sarkozy, who hoped his efforts would earn France a greater role in the Levant, became the first major Western state to reverse that trend. Assad had surrendered nothing to warrant the embrace.

This has become a Syrian habit. Assad has been getting away with murder, literally. His regime allows foreign jihadists through Syrian territory to carry out attacks in Iraq. Syria has bolstered Hamas's intransigence over a settlement with Israel, and has encouraged the Palestinian Islamist movement to scuttle inter-Palestinian reconciliation. In Lebanon, Syrian meddling has been unrelenting since the pullout of its soldiers, while Assad has armed or allowed the rearming of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah, violating U.N. Resolution 1701 that ended the Lebanon war of 2006.

The former U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, once declared that the Bush administration did not seek regime change in Damascus, only "behavior change." It achieved neither, and during his campaign, Barack Obama approved of a dialogue with Syria (and others) "without precondition," a gesture unlikely to alter Assad's behavior.

Today Syria continues to export instability in defense of its regime and interests, and the reality is that no one is doing anything about it--not the United States, the United Nations, the Arab states or the European Union. To Assad's dubious credit, he has positioned his otherwise weak country in a perfect dead spot regionally and internationally, unmolested by any political will to forcibly curtail Syrian misdeeds.

In Iraq, the Syrians have exploited several parallel dynamics--Sunni displeasure with the Shiite-led government, divisions in the Iraqi political elite, and American haste to withdraw--to ensure they have a say in a future Iraq and access to cheap Iraqi oil. Assad's regime, in addition to offering Al-Qaeda militants safe access into Iraq, also hosts Iraqi Baathists under its control. According to an Iraqi security official cited by the Washington Post, Syria allowed Baathists and Al-Qaeda to co-ordinate actions at a meeting held in Zabadani, Syria, last July 30.

Syria has also benefited from Obama's impatience to leave Iraq. Following devastating attacks against Iraqi government targets in Baghdad last August, the administration was markedly tepid when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki publicly blamed Syrian-backed Iraqi Baathists.

American military officials leaked that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was behind the explosions, not Baathists, leaving unmentioned the probability that the militants had entered through Syria. The State Department spokesman also played down the crisis, saying that "diplomatic dialogue was the best means to address the concerns of both parties." The Syrians surely read in that lukewarm reaction Washington's inclination to look the other way on Syrian transgressions, in order to facilitate its drawdown in Iraq.

On the Palestinian front, Assad is striving to achieve what his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, tried for decades to do with mixed results: Hijack the Palestinian card to use in Syria's own negotiations with Israel. Under Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians retained what was known as "the independence of the Palestinian decision." When Arafat died, however, gone was his ability to impose unity on Palestinian ranks, which allowed the Assad regime to gain the leverage it sought through Hamas' leader, Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Damascus. Syrian sway over Palestinian affairs only increased when Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, and subsequently expelled its Fatah rivals from Gaza.

Syria has not only used Hamas against Israel, it has also pushed the movement to thwart Egypt's ability to act as principle Arab mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. Egyptian officials accused Syria of pressing Hamas to undermine Egyptian-led negotiations last year to extend the truce in Gaza. Syria has taken a similar position on inter-Palestinian talks, whose successful outcome would revive Cairo's influence over Palestinian affairs, to Syria's detriment.

This has exacerbated Egyptian-Syrian hostility, even as Saudi Arabia earlier this year patched things up with Damascus in an effort to break Syria away from Iran. The Saudi-Syrian understanding, however, has not affected Assad's close ties with Tehran. Instead, it has handed Syria more latitude to re-impose its will in Beirut. The Saudis believe that one way to contain Hezbollah's power, and therefore Iran's, is to endorse a Syrian resurgence in Lebanon.

The Saudi turnaround vindicated Assad in his view that by destabilizing Lebanon in 2005 and the following years--during which time politicians, journalists, and security officials were assassinated--he managed to get his way. Yet nothing suggests that better Syrian-Saudi relations will end Syria's support for Hezbollah, which neither the Arab world nor the international community has made a condition for normalization with Damascus. On the contrary, since 2006 European states with contingents in the U.N. force in South Lebanon, which is charged with implementing Resolution 1701, have wooed Assad, fearful that his proxies might harm their soldiers.

After Hariri's murder, the U.N. Security Council set up an investigation and later a tribunal to identify the guilty. Almost half a decade later, the process has yet to show results. Assad is confident. Everyone is knocking at his door while Hariri lies forgotten. The Syrian president knows that in a world afflicted with amnesia he can do as he pleases.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Barack and Hassan concur, the US is waning

It’s not often that Barack Obama and Hassan Nasrallah agree, but both made important speeches this week, and both appeared to concur that American power was on the decline.

Of course Obama didn’t quite put it that way. Instead, he merely implied the growing sense of American difficulty, the fact that the United States was “passing through a time of great trial,” which he made more palatable by sandwiching it between words of encouragement and resolve. His speech to West Point cadets on Tuesday was an effort to explain to his countrymen why it was important to send an additional 30,000 or so troops to Afghanistan. But what remained, despite the soaring rhetoric toward the end of the president’s speech, was the terrible burden all this placed on an America much gloomier than it was decades ago.

Obama chose to highlight domestic American rifts, when he remarked that “years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort.” He drew attention to America’s economic travails by noting that “[i]n the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”

As for the American enterprise in Afghanistan, the centerpiece of Obama’s speech was that he would actually start withdrawing American soldiers by July 2011. No, the United States would not bankroll an Afghan nation-building project, because (and here the president sounded more like a shopkeeper than a purveyor of global domination) such a scheme “sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost.”

Obama has always prided himself on being a realistic assessor of American limitations. However, listening to Hassan Nasrallah gloat at the weakness of the United States, you had to wonder if the US president misses the point. Power and success are in many respects fruits of perception. Just look at Nasrallah himself, who persuaded many a fool that the hecatomb of 2006 was a divine victory for Lebanon. Modesty in the exercise of foreign policy is a bad idea, particularly for the leader of the world’s most powerful country, whose destabilization, whether we like it or not, only destabilizes the global political and economic order.

No doubt, Obama was walking a fine line in his West Point speech. He had to persuade a skeptical American public, but also a Democratic-led Congress that will have to explain to an uneasy electorate why it must help finance a massive increase in funding for Afghanistan (officially some $30 billion) at a time of economic crisis. However, the president might also want to consider how America is viewed overseas. He’s proud that everyone wishes him well, that everyone applauds George W. Bush’s exit, but as the initial European reaction to Obama’s speech showed, Europe remains stone cold about assisting the United States with more troops of its own. It no longer costs much to tell Washington “No”.

Expect America’s foes in the Middle East to take more advantage of this situation. The Iranian regime, rather visibly, does not believe the Obama administration will attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear capability. And Obama’s haste to get out of Iraq, or Afghanistan as soon as he can, like his bellyaches about the economic difficulties facing the republic, exhibit far too little American nerve to frighten Tehran.

In Lebanon, Iraq, and on the Palestinian front, to name only these, the US has also had little to show for itself. The “peace process”, which Obama had described as the centerpiece of his regional considerations, remains hopelessly stalled; the Obama administration is so keen to pull out of Iraq that it has looked the other way while Iran has continued to increase its influence in Baghdad, and while Syria has allowed more Al-Qaeda militants through its borders to murder Iraqi civilians.

As for Lebanon, in the last two years the Americans have seemed off balance. This is in part because their allies have switched sides, with the Saudis effectively approving a Syrian political return to the country and the March 14 majority consequently in disarray. But Washington has also done little to bolster Resolution 1701, which has been eroded thanks to systematic violations by all sides. And the US Embassy in Beirut has sometimes seemed more preoccupied with development projects than with Lebanon’s role in the regional rivalry between the US and Iran.

Obama’s caution is defensible in some regards. War alone cannot be the benchmark of American power. Nothing would do more to harm the US than for it to sink itself into myriad conflicts it cannot win outright. In some ways, however, Obama failed to pick up on that lesson in the political realm, making ambitious promises concerning several complex Middle Eastern issues, without setting clear priorities, so that today, with little progress evident in any of them, the president stands discredited.

The mounting perception of American weakness will, arguably, be the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East in the coming years. It will alarm Washington’s allies and empower its foes, and Barack Obama’s stiff-upper-lip displays of candor, his persistent enunciation of American inadequacies, will only make things worse. Power may be a source of great evil, but not nearly as much as a power vacuum.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hizbullah serves us a reheated meal

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech last Monday, outlining Hizbullah’s latest “political document,” was a compendium of positions and interpretations the party had developed over the years. In that sense it offered few surprises. More revealing was that Nasrallah felt he had to make the speech now, recognizing that much has changed in Lebanon since 2005, when Syrian soldiers withdrew from the country and the favorable political environment Hizbullah had benefited from collapsed.

Nothing in the political document suggests that Hizbullah has altered its outlook when it comes to its relationship with the Lebanese state. The party continues to defend its military autonomy, and demands that we all come around to doing the same; it strives to push Lebanon in directions hostile to the United States and even Western Europe; at the center of its preoccupations are the Palestinian cause and the rescue of Jerusalem, casting serious doubt on Hizbullah’s willingness to limit its ambitions to liberating the Lebanese half of Ghajar and the Shebaa farms; and Hizbullah remains especially loyal to Iran, so that “the creation of contradictions with it represents a harming of the self and of Arab issues.”

And yet something has changed when Nasrallah feels the need to issue a second document on Hizbullah’s worldview to the Lebanese public (the first being the party’s Open Letter of 1985, announcing its political program). The party’s “Lebanonization” will never amount to much for as long as Hizbullah rejects the premises of sovereign Lebanese statehood. However, there can be no doubt that after 2005 Hizbullah was forced to contend much more with Lebanon, for whose domestic political ways and byways Nasrallah had expressed such contempt before that time, when Syrian cover gave him the luxury of focusing on his conflict with Israel.

Hizbullah’s record when it comes to Lebanon has been much more mediocre than Nasrallah cared to admit. It was amusing to hear the secretary general mentioning the need to respect Lebanon’s consociational system, just after his denunciation of sectarianism, perhaps because Hizbullah has systematically violated the rules of consociationalism and remains among the most sectarian of organizations. But that inconsistency helped better to explain why Hizbullah’s “rediscovery” of Lebanon after 2005 proved such a failure.

Over the past year, there has been much hand-wringing, particularly in the March 14 camp, that the May 2008 military onslaught of Hizbullah represented some sort of a victory. The view is simplistic. The offensive did substantiate that the party would resort to arms when its interests were at risk, but the long-term costs of that undertaking were prohibitive, and continue to rise. Hizbullah gained a blocking third in the Cabinet, and it did get the election law it wanted. However, neither brought the party very much. The impact of the blocking third was significant symbolically, but otherwise its repercussions were contained, while the election law did not produce an opposition victory last June as Hizbullah had hoped.

On the negative side, Hizbullah’s takeover of western Beirut highlighted its limitations. It showed the party could not afford to act against Christian areas, and that its capacity to hold hostage predominantly Sunni neighborhoods was limited in time. For its efforts, Hizbullah earned undying Sunni animosity, confirming it could only really get its way by resorting to its guns, undermining Nasrallah’s earlier claim that he would not turn his weapons on the Lebanese. Worse, Sunni anger and rising Christian doubts, expressed in the parliamentary elections, established that there no longer was a national consensus behind the “resistance.” Nasrallah’s credibility remains only as good as his threats.

Nasrallah’s need to submit his program to the Lebanese may have been surreptitious recognition of the setbacks brought about by the May confrontation. By communicating with his countrymen, the secretary general perhaps sought to publicly acknowledge that, somewhere, he had to be more transparent about his aims, more willing to address Lebanese society on equal terms, transcending the violence of the past.

But if that was indeed Nasrallah’s objective, his message all but neutralized it. Rather than being an instrument of interchange, Hizbullah’s document is a hypocritical effort to conceal that the party has every intention of imposing its priorities on Lebanon, regardless of what anyone else wants. The national dialogue over Hizbullah’s weapons will remain a sham. Nasrallah’s vision of a “state of resistance,” with Hizbullah as its vanguard, will continue to generate great tension, since a sovereign state and a sovereign militia cannot coexist. By reciting from his old song book, Nasrallah betrayed that for all his purported willingness to communicate, his preferred communication method is the monologue.

The secretary general will not persuade very many people to get over Hizbullah’s actions in 2005 and afterward. Most Lebanese will not soon overcome their suspicions of Hizbullah’s role in the assassination of Rafik Hariri and several others, regardless of whether the party is guilty. Few will forget Nasrallah’s speech on March 8, 2005, in defense of Syria, then and now the only serious culprit in the former prime minister’s killing. Few will soon forget the 2006 war, with its devastating consequences amid vacant exclamations of a divine victory; and even fewer can fail to grasp that the next war will be far worse, because Nasrallah’s vision, as outlined in his party’s latest document, only guarantees this.

In that light, the Nasrallah speech, like the document he read, has only heightened the contradictions in Lebanese society. Hizbullah realizes that the partial Syrian return to Lebanon, facilitated by Saudi Arabia, may restrict the party’s ability to maneuver in the way that it had been able to do until recently. Nasrallah’s effort to anchor himself better in the Lebanese political reality may be, in part, an effort to widen its political latitude with regard to Damascus, even as Hizbullah remains Syria’s main tool of intimidation in Lebanon. However, that only confirms the inconsistencies at the heart of Nasrallah’s reasoning.

We were waiting for something new on Monday; instead Nasrallah merely reheated yesterday’s meal. This demonstrated that Hizbullah is in more of a bind than it will disclose, devoid of fresh ideas. They’re here and we’re here, and for Lebanon’s misfortune only one of us can come out on top.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Permanent government, Lebanese style

The most amusing thing that happened last week was the doubt surrounding the future of the interior minister, Ziad Baroud, following his dispute with the director general of the Internal Security Forces, Ashraf Rifi. Some gullible souls actually worried that Baroud might resign.

The amusement came not from that fact that Baroud, competent and ambitious, was never likely to engage in such a career-ending move, but that even if he had decided to resign, it would have taken about half a dozen foreign governments to approve it.

That’s because our government “made in Lebanon” was really the child of a thousand fathers. There were, of course, the Americans and the French, but also the Saudis, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Turks, and to a lesser extent the Egyptians and the Qataris. So for Baroud, or anyone else, to walk out on his or her colleagues would reopen the infernal bazaar to new bargaining, until the international constellation of forces again aligns.

When in doubt, listen to Walid Jumblatt. The Druze leader recently remarked on Al-Manar television that he expected the current government to remain in place until the next parliamentary elections, in 2013. That seems an awful long time, particularly for so uninspiring a crew, but what Jumblatt was really saying was that the regional agreement over Lebanon would impose such stalemate.

In light of this, we’re entitled to reflect for a moment what the Independence Intifada of 2005 really brought us. It certainly didn’t provoke an intifada; or rather while it did force Syria to withdraw its soldiers, it failed to change the old order or push Lebanon into a durable phase of emancipation and sovereignty. On the contrary, instead of being tossed around by one state, Syria, the country’s future is now being decided by several states, few of which much care for each other.

However, as disappointing as this situation may appear when placed against the backdrop of the high ambitions almost five years ago, it does provide advantages. In the end, many fathers are better than one, particularly when that one father happened to be Bashar al-Assad.

Between 2004 and 2006, Lebanon benefited from a series of United Nations decisions that effectively placed the country under a form of international trusteeship. Security Council Resolution 1559 set the stage for the Syrian withdrawal and the disarming of Hezbollah; Resolution 1595 initiated an international investigation of Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination; and Resolution 1701 created a mechanism for the pacification of southern Lebanon after the 2006 July War.

That framework has been gradually eroded over the years. Hezbollah has resisted disarming, while the Lebanese political class, including leading members of the majority, has covered that refusal. The Hariri investigation has now become a tribunal, but there continue to be doubts about its outcome, given indications that the investigation stalled under the second commissioner, Serge Brammertz. As for Resolution 1701, it has been violated repeatedly by Hezbollah and Israel, but also Syria and Iran, with no penalties imposed on any of the parties.

Since Lebanon is a regional concern, and who can doubt that it is one, the country would benefit greatly from finding a complementary political framework to that of the United Nations, without abandoning the latter. The main objectives of this new form of trusteeship would be to guard as much as possible against a new war between Hezbollah and Israel, which would be especially devastating; to ensure that Syria does not return militarily to Lebanon, which the Assad regime would do in an instant if the conditions allowed it; and to gradually strengthen the authority of the state at the expense of domestic armed militias, particularly Hezbollah.

Syria and Iran would resist such measures, and in many cases they would do so successfully. However, the upshot of this give-and-take over Lebanon might often be compromises – between what the Saudis, Turks and Egyptians, with American and French support, seek, and what the Syrians and Iranians are willing to give up. These compromises, even if they perpetuate the status quo, might also, in certain ways, limit the ability of the Syrians and the Iranians, with Hezbollah, to bend the system their way, as they have continually tried doing in the past four years.

The reality is that far more states have an interest in stabilizing Lebanon than in destabilizing it, when it is mainly through instability that Syria and Iran sought to impose their preferences on the country in recent years. But Assad will always want more, exclusive control. To resist this, those Lebanese concerned with reinforcing their national sovereignty must think creatively of how to turn to their advantage the regional and international yearning to preserve a peaceful Lebanon.

Once more, Lebanon is the fruit of a convoluted compromise. That doesn’t say much about our ability to shape our own future, but it’s better than being solely a Syrian protectorate. It buys us some time, although it’s up to us, Lebanese, to determine what we do with that time.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Obama just can't afford to neglect Iraq

Next week, US President Barack Obama will announce his new strategy for Afghanistan. After a long delay, it’s about time. The available information suggests the president will increase US forces by some 34,000 over a nine-month period, to roughly 100,000, with various benchmarks set, which, if they are not met, would allow Obama to take “off-ramps” to reduce his military commitment.

This decision raises a question. Obama accused his predecessor, George W. Bush, of fighting the “wrong” war in Iraq, not the “right” one in Afghanistan. Given Washington’s different political challenges in the broader Middle East today, is Obama making that mistake in reverse? Is Iraq now the “right” war, while Afghanistan’s importance has been overplayed?

The question is academic. Obama is not about to revoke his withdrawal plan for Iraq. He intends to remove all American combat troops by August 2010, and all forces by the end of 2011. However, that only shines a light on the president’s ambiguities in defining his strategic priorities. In essence, does Obama consider it more important to contain Iranian power in Iraq and the Gulf region, or to inhibit Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?

Both are worthy objectives. But as dangerous as Al-Qaeda is, there are numerous uncertainties about its capabilities as well as the advantages it might derive from a more favorable environment in the future – some of these raised by American officials themselves. For example, it is unclear whether a Taliban victory would necessarily enhance Al-Qaeda’s effectiveness. It might, but given the complex interests in the country today, not least those of Pakistan, as well as the fact that a comprehensive Taliban victory is less probable than it was in 1996, Obama’s deployment of 100,000 US soldiers can be legitimately questioned.

What is not open to question, however, is that the emergence of a powerful, even hegemonic, Iran may undo over six decades of American policy in the Gulf specifically, and the Middle East generally. Thanks to Bush’s blunders in Iraq after 2003, particularly his creating a vacuum there that Tehran exploited to its advantage, America’s allies to Iraq’s south have existential fears. There is very little to like in most Gulf regimes, but that’s irrelevant: Washington must decide whether it can afford to ignore their possible destabilization, even collapse.

In this context, the Obama administration’s approach to the Iranian nuclear program is essential. Much of the focus has been on Israel and whether it can tolerate a nuclear Iran. But Israel has a nuclear deterrence capability. America’s Gulf allies do not, and would be the first affected by an Iran in possession of atomic weapons. Their sole deterrent would be sectarianism, the manipulation of Sunni fears of Shiite domination. If Obama’s principle aim is to weaken Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Gulf that the United States indirectly permits by staying aloof in the region could spawn hundreds of Al-Qaedas.

Obama’s lack of a strategic vision has been written about to death. Everywhere, he speaks softly and carries a big carrot. A more pertinent question at this juncture is what should be done? A pullout from Iraq is inevitable. However, the US can do two things in the coming year to limit Iran’s ability to profit from the aftermath.

First, the administration must work to strengthen the authority and cohesiveness of the Iraq state by pushing much harder for Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, perhaps enlisting regional support; and it must help sponsor, even try to impose, an agreement between Baghdad and the Kurds over the disputed province of Kirkuk. This is easier said than done, particularly in the midst of an American drawdown, and would doubtless require Obama’s personal involvement. However, it can be done, because only an empowered Iraqi state, one whose different components are at peace with one another, would have a chance of limiting external meddling and avoiding a further escalation in domestic communal violence.

A second step must be to reinforce the American military presence in the Gulf area, as a fallback measure once the troops have left Iraq. This would demonstrate that the US intends to draw a line against Iran. Such an initiative would gain in significance by being formulated in a multilateral framework agreed, let’s say, with the Gulf Cooperation Council.

What about the Afghan conflict? Obama’s notion of “off-ramps” exposes the indecision in Washington, of wanting to have it both ways. According to press leaks, as of next June Washington will begin looking at a number of developments in Afghanistan – political reform, the performance of President Hamid Karzai and his sincerity in limiting corruption, military success, and more. If there are few signs of progress on these fronts, Obama would retain the option of cutting back American forces.

As White House press secretary Robert Gibbs put it on Monday, it’s “not just how we get people there, but what’s the strategy for getting them out.”

Yet what a contradiction it is for Obama to imply how vitally important Afghanistan is through a 30-percent increase in forces (in addition to the 21,000 troops he sent last March), while simultaneously affirming that if things don’t work out in the coming nine months, the US might reduce its presence. Either winning in Afghanistan is crucial, in which case the administration should avoid hard deadlines to remove its combat units, or it is not that crucial, in which case little justifies Obama’s large build-up.

It is this inconsistency that allowed Vice President Joe Biden to alter Obama’s thinking on the military plan presented by General Stanley McChrystal earlier this year. Biden prefers a more limited counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan, and while there may be flaws in the approach, his questioning has forced the administration to ponder how important Afghan­istan really is. Part of that exercise requires reassessing its approach to Iraq and Iran, America’s greatest headache.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A loud grumble shakes the Aounist jungle

There is discontent in the Aounist household. In an interview on Wednesday with Al-Mustaqbal, the former deputy prime minister, Issam Abu Jamra, a senior official in the Free Patriotic Movement, stated that he had sent a written complaint to Michel Aoun after Aoun appointed only one member from the movement, Gebran Bassil, to a cabinet post.

Aside from the fact that Abu Jamra reported his objection in a mouthpiece belonging to his political adversaries, he also noted that “all options [were] on the table” if he received no response to it.

Precisely what Abu Jamra can or will do is unclear. Aoun has treated his followers with considerable disregard over the years – openly favoring his son-in-law, Bassil, over all others, ensuring that none of his parliamentarians becomes too prominent, and running the FPM with a firm hand – and he’s done so because he knows they have little political weight without him. However, Abu Jamra’s move is significant, because it appears to be the first public salvo in a fight over the future of the Aounist movement, now that Michel Aoun has lost all the major battles that had allowed him to impose unity on his fractious flock.

The reality is that in the past four and a half years, Aoun has failed to capitalize on the considerable political advantages that he successively accumulated. He emerged as the most dominant Christian from the 2005 elections, but was unable to leverage that into his election as president in 2007. Had Aoun remained neutral in the confrontation between March 8 and March 14, he would inevitably have become head of state. No one, on either side of the political divide, would have mobilized against Aoun had he remained on good terms with both the majority and opposition.

Instead, Aoun sided with Hezbollah and Syria’s allies, in the hope that their power of intimidation would bring him into office. But in so doing, he only ensured that the March 14 majority would take any and all steps to block him, which they did by supporting Michel Sleiman, someone whom they initially mistrusted as being a Syrian creation.

The Doha Agreement, which endorsed Sleiman as president, was the first nail in Aoun’s political coffin, and it was followed by the parliamentary elections last June. Even though the general emerged with a larger parliamentary bloc, it was a Pyrrhic victory. He was unable to bring in a majority, as he and his allies had promised. Indeed, the fact that Aoun had become so polarizing a figure, in large part due to his partnership with Hezbollah, mobilized many more Christians against him, handing March 14 its new majority. That was the second nail in Aoun’s coffin.

The third appeared to be general’s abysmal performance in the negotiations over the government. From the outset, Aoun’s only acute concern seemed to be Bassil’s return as a minister, so that he bore a major responsibility for keeping the state on hold in the interest of nepotism. He rejected Saad Hariri’s first cabinet proposal on that basis. Recall that Alain Aoun and Farid al-Khazen had been named ministers in the lineup, one no worse than what Aoun ultimately accepted. But the general cared little that those two figures were among the more respected of his partisans; all his anxieties were focused on the son-in-law.

And if that was not enough, who could avoid noticing that a final agreement on the cabinet came when Bassil returned from Damascus, having heard from the Syrians that it was time for Aoun to be flexible. The general spent a decade and a half denouncing other Lebanese politicians for allowing their decisions to be taken in Damascus, only to fall into that nasty habit himself, and with a family member as errand boy.

As Aoun gets older, those under him are preparing for what comes afterward, accumulating cards. The general’s big battles are over. He’s not president, he failed to spearhead an opposition win, he takes orders from Syria, and he’s willing to throw caution to the wind in order to guarantee that Bassil succeeds him as head of the Aounist pack. That gamble, too, is likely to fail, and there are those around the general, his old comrades first, who this time don’t want to pay the price for his setbacks if it loses them their one chance of making it themselves.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kiss the Independence Intifada goodbye

The death of the Independence Intifada of 2005 has been prematurely announced many times. However, today we have in front of us a genuine corpse, the end of the fleeting aspiration four years ago, at least in its more restricted form, of establishing a system emancipated from Syria. The Syrians, who left Lebanon through the window after Rafik Hariri’s assassination only to re-enter by the front door in recent months, have done so thanks to an understanding with Saudi Arabia. There are differences between what we have today and the Syrian-Saudi condominium after Taif, above all that the Syrian Army is no longer deployed in Lebanon. The latest contract is more equitable and is complicated by the fact that Iran has a powerful stake in the system through Hizbullah. However, it is familiar in leaving Lebanon with little discernible sovereignty, in large part courtesy of Lebanese divisions.

It’s no secret that the Saudis put considerable pressure on the prime minister-elect, Saad Hariri, to come to an arrangement over the new government with the opposition, one reason why he was forced to spend much time negotiating with Michel Aoun, to the irritation of his Christian partners. The Syrians, too, kept their end of the bargain, apparently with Turkish prodding, by bringing Aoun into line. After five months, the Hariri government was made in Lebanon only in the narrowest of ways.

This represents a fundamental shift from what Lebanon had between 2005 and 2009. From 2004 on, the country was placed under an effective, if highly imperfect, form of international trusteeship, thanks to a series of Security Council resolutions governing Lebanese affairs. This began with Resolution 1559, calling for a Syrian withdrawal, an end to foreign interference in Lebanon’s presidential election that year (and presumably all years), and the disarmament of armed groups. The UN decisions also included Resolution 1595, which set up an international commission to investigate Hariri’s murder, and it was followed by Resolution 1701, establishing a reinforced mechanism for the stabilization of southern Lebanon after the summer war of 2006.

That international scaffolding has been substantially eroded in recent years, by action or omission. Resolution 1559 has been implemented only in the sense that Syrian soldiers have left Lebanon. However, Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs has been unrelenting, and in late 2007 France significantly undermined the letter of the resolution, which it had co-sponsored, by actively bringing Damascus into the Lebanese presidential election. As for the disarmament of Hizbullah or pro-Syrian Palestinian groups, nothing has happened, and the Cabinet is preparing to find a consensual rhetorical formula in its statement to evade the question.

The initial optimism surrounding the Hariri investigation has, similarly, worn off. Although the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare, remains confident that he will bring indictments, there continues to be serious question whether the guilty will ever be identified. There was a perceptible slowdown during the two years of Serge Brammertz, so that today no suspects are in custody. The regional and international political climate does not favor raising the heat on Syria – realistically the principal culprit in the crime. While it is too early to be definite, we should begin considering the possibility that no indictments will be brought, despite Bellemare’s assertions.

As for Resolution 1701, it has been a mixed bag. The reinforced UN force in the south has doubtless limited Hizbullah’s margin of maneuver in the border area, forcing the party to rebuild its main line of defense north of the Litani River. However, the resolution has failed utterly in preventing Israeli overflights but also Hizbullah’s massive rearmament, because the Security Council has been unwilling to punish Syria or Iran for violating its conditions. That the Lebanese government will soon put together a policy statement endorsing this situation helps little.

We should heed what the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, told Al-Nahar last week. He warned that arms exports from Iran put Lebanon at great risk, then added, pointedly, that he hoped the Lebanese government realized this. Lest we forget, the scope of Israeli destruction in 2006, though enormous, was contained by the Americans, mainly to avoid discrediting the Siniora government. Feltman’s remarks indicated that Washington would be less inclined next time around to do the same thing. In other words, the Lebanese must accept that their best protection against Israel is Resolution 1701.

So the Syrians are back. They don’t rule Lebanon from Anjar, but they are likely to retain a final say on most decisions of importance in the country. If one wants to see the glass as half full, Syria must now accept as a reality that many of its political foes are represented in the government and Parliament. Syria’s ability to tap into corruption and patronage networks has been blunted. But if the glass is half empty, Assad has significantly negated the emancipatory impulses of 2005, allowing him to once again use Lebanon to advance Syrian interests, to the Lebanese detriment.

On April 24, 2007, Assad told the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at a meeting held in Damascus that “[Lebanon’s] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability.” Will his forces return to Beirut? Does he want them to? If he could he would. However, Syria has done well enough by chipping away at the order put in place after its withdrawal, and now has allies even within the majority camp.

As a Syrian academic close to the regime once stated privately at an academic conference: Lebanon had a choice between being with Syria or with Iran. The Saudis, otherwise absent from that menu, have apparently chosen for the Lebanese. This opens the door to many possibilities, even if Syria will not soon break with Iran over Lebanon. But what it really does is remind us that what happened four years ago was neither an intifada nor, ultimately, a moment of true independence.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Kabul, Baghdad, Beirut: one headache

Relatively few Lebanese have paid much attention to the debate taking place in Washington over whether the American president, Barack Obama, should agree to a counter-insurgency plan for Afghanistan proposed by his commander there, General Stanley McChrystal. The plan calls for a broad effort to make the country safer for its citizens, and involves increasing the number of American troops by 40,000 or so.

Relatively few Lebanese, albeit perhaps more than those following the events in Afghanistan, have paid much attention either to what is taking place in Iraq. Senior Iraqi leaders, including the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, have accused Syria of continuing to facilitate the passage of Al-Qaeda militants across its border as a means of pressure to ensure that Damascus will have more of a say in post-America Iraq. At the same time, the United States, while conscious of this, has sought to avoid a Syrian-Iraqi clash, because it believes this might complicate its overriding priority, namely withdrawing American forces by the end of 2011.

And yet both in Afghanistan and Iraq, what the US decides will have definite repercussions for Lebanon and our little neck of the woods. If Washington’s focus is on a military drawdown and political extraction, this could carry the Levant back to a period of American benign neglect. That would leave Lebanon ever more exposed to the whims of its neighbors and the dynamics of the Middle East. The prospects are not reassuring, particularly if they pit the mostly Sunni Arab world against Iran and its allies, with Syria in the middle leveraging its support for one side or the other in exchange for renewed hegemony over Lebanon.

The latest news is that Obama is trying to have it both ways. The president told congressional leaders on Tuesday that he would not substantially cut back American forces in Afghanistan and reduce their mission to targeting Al-Qaeda (as Vice President Joe Biden had urged); but he also indicated that he remained undecided about whether to dispatch the additional troops that McChrystal had requested. This could lead to the worst of possible outcomes: a US force that remains undermanned and continues to take casualties, and a president increasingly boxed in when it comes to changing that strategy toward a greater or lesser commitment.

A United States off balance in Afghanistan could lead to bad decisions being taken in Iraq, not least an acceleration of the military withdrawal. That would threaten the country with a dangerous vacuum which the countries of the region might seek to exploit. Iran would fight hard to protect the gains it has made in Iraq. Syria and Saudi Arabia, each for its own reasons, share an interest in preventing the consolidation of a strong central government in Baghdad. The Syrian regime seeks a larger role in Iraq, wants to take advantage of Iraq’s oil, and benefits domestically from being perceived as a defender of Iraq’s Sunni minority. The Saudis worry that a Shiite-dominated Iraqi order, especially one that might further empower Iran, would undermine the kingdom’s stability.

It takes little imagination to realize that all these conflicting interests and calculations can play themselves out in distilled form in Lebanon. However, that doesn’t really tell us what the Lebanese can do to avoid the worst repercussions of regional developments.

There is little the Lebanese can do to limit the damages of a debacle if they remain divided. But that’s stating the obvious, and Lebanese unity is not around the corner. However, even amid their divisions, the political forces can yet implement mechanisms to contain domestically what happens in the broader region, which requires properly reading the tea leaves.

What are some of these mechanisms? Plainly, an intensification of cross-sectarian dialogue at the local level, particularly between the Future Movement and Hezbollah, but also between the Lebanese Forces on the one side and Hezbollah and Amal on the other, whose supporters are cheek to jowl in the Ain al-Remmaneh-Shiyyah-Haret Hreik district. This can be complemented by periodic national exchange sessions hosted by President Michel Sleiman, bringing together major party leaders, and if needed security chiefs, to examine ad hoc measures that can be taken to ensure that the situation on the ground gradually improves.

Of course, all this has to an extent been done, and the span may seem rather far between what Barack Obama decides in Afghanistan and what Lebanon’s political leadership decides in Baabda. However, the reality is that the regional situation is so interconnected today, that what explodes in Kabul and Baghdad may send shrapnel Lebanon’s way. We need to think more about the region, for we are its point of highest contradiction.

The dragons of 'progressive' delusion

By coincidence, I happened to pick up another book while reading Hussein Ibish’s excellent, precise dismantling of the agenda for a single Jewish-Arab state in the area of historical Palestine. The book in question, which provided a handy conceptual context to Ibish’s, was Robert Conquest’s “The Dragons of Expectation,” which discusses how ideological delusion has “seized the mind of many in the West and elsewhere – with misleading thought about what faces us, much of it bred and projected from unreal obsessions about the still-living past.”

The phrase sums up well the failings of those advocating a one-state agenda, particularly Palestinians and Arabs living in the West. For as Ibish writes, such a project is largely a diasporic one, far removed from Palestinian and Israeli realities. Yet its proponents continue to press on with the binational state idea, oblivious to its unpopularity and their own specious assumptions, because they believe in the pure idea, a dragon of expectation that, left unquestioned, can be destructively consuming.

Conquest has fought such dragons for decades, particularly those to which many in the West succumbed at the time of the Soviet Union. His masterpiece on the Stalinist purges, “The Great Terror,” was maligned by so-called “progressives” when it was published in 1968, particularly his estimation of the number of victims, which he placed at some 20 million. The critics pointed out that Conquest later lowered his figure once the Soviet archives were opened. The joke was on them. So appalling did these remain, that they only confirmed how right he was early on in regarding the decades of Stalin as a defining monstrosity of the 20th century.

The delusions of Western or Western-educated Arab progressives have also shaped views of other Middle Eastern issues after the 9/11 attacks. Yet why focus on the left when the right, too, is afflicted with myriad faults? Principally because it is the left that has purported to speak in the name of universalist, humanistic values, while those on the right – old-line realists or neoconservatives – have either tended to preoccupy themselves with maintaining stability, regardless of its repercussions for liberal values, or have placed American power at the center of their contemplations.

There is also the reality that the left, more than the right, has allowed its discourse to be overtaken by a utopian urge, by the Ideal. And those like Ibish, or Conquest, each in their very different worlds, are commendable, and set upon, because they cannot stomach the bending of reality to satisfy that Ideal. They know that when ideas take on a greater import than the evidence sustaining them, in other words when they become counterintuitive, those holding onto these ideas will fall in love with their own moral righteousness, denouncing dissenters as immoral.

Let’s take two examples from the contemporary Middle East. In the last decade and more, not a few Western progressives have embraced Hizbullah as a regenerative force among Lebanon’s Shiites and in the midst of the country’s fractured political culture. Because Shiites tend to be poor, this sympathy has been accompanied by a form of ethical sanction, a sense that the party is a dispenser of social justice, a righter of past wrongs. Hizbullah’s hostility toward Israel and the United States, like its successful resistance in the south up to May 2000, have fed into a broader mood that the party, even if it is not what a Westerner, or a Westernized Arab, would naturally gravitate toward, nonetheless has come down on the right side of history, against outside hegemony and a Lebanese system that is corrupt, archaic, and morally indefensible.

These thoughts tell us more about those thinking them, than about Hizbullah and the Shiite reality. It is a mystery how individuals who consider themselves partisans of humanistic principles can identify these in an autocratic religious, militarized party whose ideological mindset and political continuity is reliant on the perpetuation of violence. And this against a Lebanese social and political order that, for all its faults, is organically pluralistic, allowing invigorating variety and dissent.

A second example. For years after the invasion of Iraq, progressives referred to the foes of the “neo-imperialistic” United States and its allies there as a “resistance.” This sloppy, expansive term did not filter out former regime criminals or Al-Qaeda, at a time when it was beheading foreigners and representatives of Iraqi institutions. I vividly recall one left-wing professor with tenure at an American university regretting the capture of Saddam Hussein, because, he said, this would strengthen George W. Bush. There was “the resistance” and there was America. In the odd zero-sum moralism of the time, what one gained the other lost, and no self-respecting humanist was going to side with the US president.

Today, this neat dichotomy is falling apart. Whatever “resistance” there may be is undermining the emergence of a sovereign Iraqi state. Iraq’s leaders openly accuse Syria of continuing to allow Al-Qaeda militants across its border to strengthen the Syrian hand in a post-America Iraq. Regional cynicism has taken over. The US is on its way out. Progressives are lost. Who to blame? Who embodies the total Ideal? There are no clear answers, except perhaps one: The nasty, brutish rule of Saddam Hussein is over, a new Iraq is emerging, and the US, basically responsible for this, is evidently averse to playing the neo-imperialist bogeyman by lingering.

In defense of their virtuous choices – that of endorsing a supposedly just Hizbullah against a Lebanese state riddled with shortcomings or the idealization of a purported Iraqi resistance against Western domination – progressives have sided with the very forces most dedicated to thwarting liberal outcomes. In that way they are defined more by what they oppose than by what they stand for. To paraphrase Robert Conquest, they have failed in their duty to clear the ground of false witness.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mr. Baroud, please stop the killing

Almost two weeks ago, two young men were driving down from Faraya very early in the morning. For some reason, perhaps speed, perhaps the water on the road after a night of rain, or some combination of both, their vehicle swerved off the road near Feytroun and exploded, killing both.

The incident, one of the countless fatal car accidents that occur in Lebanon on average daily, again brought home the astonishing absence of a national traffic policy. One can of course blame reckless drivers, but a larger share of the blame goes to the state, in particular the police, which has systematically failed to implement its own traffic laws.

When the interior minister, Ziad Baroud, came into office, for a time the police began imposing penalties on drivers not wearing a seat belt or caught speaking on their mobile phones while driving. Like everything else in the land, though, the effort was haphazard, having little impact. More important, little was done to curtail speeding, a greater danger that could easily be brought under control if the police showed some will.

In the past year or more we’ve all noticed the bright new cars and four-wheel-drive vehicles given to the Internal Security Forces. The cars are from the United States, have thick wheels, and are very much designed to appear aggressive and run fast. They have the horsepower to engage in high-speed car chases, to ram other cars if need be, and presumably to make a Lebanese policeman feel as powerful as an American one.

Thank heavens the Lebanese have shown little incentive to go along with that image. But it’s also disconcerting to see the vehicles, otherwise, serving mainly one purpose: to allow policemen to cruise slowly through Lebanese streets, inert with boredom, while doing absolutely nothing to implement traffic laws. In fact, on most days it is the policemen themselves who seem to break those laws in one way or another.

It cannot be difficult to impose speeding regulations. The favorite technique of the police has been to set up speed guns on highways to catch drivers exceeding the speed limit, then to set up a road block further on to hand out fines. But you can only use that method ever so often. Roadblocks only strangulate traffic, increasing the burden on all drivers. That’s why the roadblock system is used sparingly in most countries.

What should be done is to deploy police cars on Lebanon’s main highways and thoroughfares, and demand that they do their job by signaling to speeding drivers that they need to stop. No one asks that the police chase all the crazier drivers, as the results will be cataclysmic; but if enough police cars are present on a highway, one car can signal to another ahead that so-and-so is coming his way. In other words, the effective way to limit speeding is for the police to be present, to coordinate the efforts of its cars on the road, to set up an efficient network of observation, to impose high fines for speeders, and to do so at most hours of the day and night.

Before long, the mere presence of the police will make people slow down. A system of cameras can also be set up to catch speeding cars that the police don’t see. This is all very basic policy, which begs the question: Why, on most days, are Lebanese drivers forced to take their lives into their own hands by driving on major highways? Why is it that, specifically on the matter of imposing speeding regulations, the police has been thoroughly incompetent, in fact dangerously nonexistent?

There is no convincing explanation. And yet Lebanon is well known to be accident prone. An article published on this website last September cited a 2004 study by Sweroad, the consultancy arm of the Swedish Road Administration, to the effect that Lebanon had “more than twice as many deaths per 100,000 vehicles than in Western European countries.”

The author, Matt Nash, also cited Internal Security Forces figures that 2,767 accidents occurred in 2006, killing 378 people; 4,421 in 2007, killing 497; and 2,483 accidents up to August 2008, killing 275 people. However, he found that these figures were substantially lower than those provided by the Lebanese Red Cross, “whose statistics show a total of 8,115 accidents in 2006, 9,546 in 2007 and 4,661 up to June 2008.”

According to a report published seven years ago by the Youth Association for Social Awareness (YASA), which addresses Lebanon’s traffic policies and their shortcomings, “Lebanon [is] almost the unique country in the region, where traffic laws are outdated and not well implemented. Unlike Lebanon, most [Middle East and North Africa] countries have amended and improved their traffic rules and laws during the last decade.”

No one seriously doubts Ziad Baroud’s competence. When several prisoners escaped from Roumieh Prison earlier this summer, he intervened to fire security officials for being asleep on the job. But the traffic situation, which he promised to address when he was appointed, is becoming a blight on his record. The cars are there, the police are there, and the road network in Lebanon is not especially vast to prevent effective policing. There is no reason to allow the barbarity on the roads to continue, nor the daily readiness of some to commit homicide or suicide.