Thursday, February 26, 2009

On not debating Christopher Hitchens

Much attention was paid last week to the run-in the British-American author and journalist Christopher Hitchens had with followers of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Hamra Street. However, a far more interesting aspect of his visit was a lecture at the American University of Beirut, which if it told us something about Hitchens himself, told us a great deal more about the university and its students.

Hitchens’ talk was titled "Who are the Revolutionaries in Today’s Middle East?" In fact, the author focused on historical ironies, among them the irony of seeing "the old reds" of the Iraqi Kurdish parties being welcomed at Blair House in Washington by President George W. Bush, after he had helped them overthrow Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Baghdad. Iraq figured prominently in Hitchens’ presentation - the removal of a genocidal leadership that had, for decades, beleaguered its own people. "Could there have been any greater degradation for Iraq," he asked, "than of being under the control of a psychopathic family?"

For Hitchens, the eviction of Saddam Hussein was a revolutionary moment, one that he, as a radical, could hold up with satisfaction to express his approval of Bush’s actions in Iraq. It was often those on the left, he continued, particularly the communists, who seemed to best appreciate that essential moment in modern Middle Eastern history, perhaps because they had a sense of history’s contradictions, therefore its ironies. As Hitchens put it, "It seems that only those who opposed America during the Cold War could understand its liberating qualities in the post-Cold War period."

Here was a bold challenge to the left, asking what it meant to be of the left, to be an internationalist in the defense of universal liberal values. Hitchens’ critics have often labeled him a "neoconservative" for his defense of the American war in Iraq - in that way showing as trivial an understanding of the man as of neoconservatism as of the broader debate inside the left on how to uphold universalist principles. The question that the left has had to grapple with in recent years, even before the Iraq war, is a simple one: If a tyrannical leader is abusing his own people, is it the duty of the left to confront him in all ways possible, including force, because that may be the only course open in defending human rights and human liberty, even if this requires depending on the United States for its success?

Hitchens is one of the few public intellectuals in the West who has rarely fallen into self-referential terms when answering that question. When he justified the Iraq war, as he continues to, he usually did so from the perspective of the victims, not to score debating points in Washington or New York. That’s why the negative reaction to Hitchens’ lecture at the AUB was so revealing, and so demoralizing. You could distil his argument down to one sentence: The Arab world is better off without Saddam Hussein, and the US, alongside the true "Arab revolutionaries", is responsible for this outcome. Instead of addressing that point, many in the audience resorted to the oldest of rhetorical subterfuges: When you don’t like an argument, change the subject; which only tended to show how we in the region seem incapable of engaging in constructive self-doubt about our own affairs.

The dissent against Hitchens could be bunched into two broad categories: You’re talking about Iraq, but we want to talk about the United States and its hypocrisy and perfidy; or, You’re talking about Iraq, Hitchens, but we really want to talk about Palestine and what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. How ironic it was, since we’re into historical irony, that during the 1990s, when the Clinton administration was fully engaged in mediating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, its critics would impulsively point to Iraq, and the sanctions regime there, to illustrate America’s iniquities. Once again, it was a case of shifting the goalposts to feed a cretinous form of anti-Americanism. No less ironic was that Hitchens (few in the audience bothered to learn) has long defended the Palestinian cause, and co-edited with Edward Said a book on the Palestinians titled "Blaming the Victims."

It would have been nice to be able to extract worthy nuggets from what was, at times, an acrimonious session with Hitchens. However, those objecting to his endorsement of America’s regional role, in Iraq but also in Lebanon, left little to remember, except for a third irony: that their statements were offered in the confines of the American University of Beirut, a living example of the complexity of the historical American conversation with the Arab world. In its own way, the AUB was as much a consequence of America’s confidence in the universalism of its liberal values as was the Iraq war, though we can endlessly debate how the results greatly differed.

Hitchens’ critics failed to catch this incongruity. If you can embrace America’s educational mission as a byproduct of the spread of universal liberal values, then what makes the forcible removal of a mass murderer from power in the name of those same values so condemnable? The critics would respond that the US did not remove Saddam in defense of such values, but only to advance its own interests; yet that only invites a more pressing question: Why do the Arabs so often allow themselves to be defined by America’s actions? Did America’s assumed insincerity in Iraq prevent the Arabs, particularly Arab liberals, from welcoming the defeat of the Baath as a historic event in and of itself for the Arab world, without their having to preoccupy themselves with the instrument of that removal? In other words, haven’t too many Arabs, in getting hung up on the US, on the messenger, completely missed the message that Iraq is no longer a dictatorship, and that this can only benefit Arabs in general?

The recent death of David Dodge, a former president of the AUB, came and went with very little notice from most Lebanese. That was a poignant reminder of how marginal the university (which happens to be my own much-appreciated alma mater) has become in Lebanon’s intellectual life. The AUB has been through difficult years, but the worst wounds are frequently self-inflicted. Christopher Hitchens offered his listeners an opportunity to look differently at the momentous changes in their region, but all that many of them could do was launch the most spineless and confining of ripostes, telling him it was really he who had to look at himself.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Twelve angry Lebanese - A play in a prison lends life to a grim monument

In the hills above Beirut, inmates of Roumieh prison are staging a version of the Reginald Rose play Twelve Angry Men. It is the first time prison authorities in the Middle East have agreed to such an initiative, which seems as much directed at changing the attitudes of prison authorities toward incarceration methods as at the prisoners themselves. The play is financed by the European Union with Catharsis, the Lebanese Center for Drama Therapy, whose founder, Zeina Daccache, is the director. It will be shown every Saturday for one more month, and the results are, in many ways, astonishing.

What makes them so is that the spectators are invited to navigate concentric circles of surrealistic sensations. The first is the entry into Roumieh itself, a forbidding but mesmerizing citadel of retribution, designed by the architect Pierre Khoury, with massive Y-shaped cell blocks on either side of the main entrance (with a third in the rear), their striated brown-white facades overlooking enclosed courtyards. The facility was designed for 1,500 prisoners; today it houses over 5,000.

We head to the left, through a heavy metal door leading into the first courtyard where the Internal Security Forces check our papers. Each cell window is made of two parallel vertical slits sealed by horizontal bars, out of which most prisoners have hung rags to dry. A pair of inmates look down at us as we enter, young men smiling at the spectacle below (why would anyone want to come in?), their faces mashed into the narrow openings. One gives me a thumbs up. It’s difficult to smile back as the fa├žade of the building is one of pitiless squalor, the windows filthy and the metal rotting, the youths the sole sign of intelligent life in a derelict ecosystem.

Then it’s to the second courtyard, where the play will be staged in the gymnasium. Here, the metal door is even larger than the first, or so it seems. The area is pentagonal, with cells all around framed by bizarre juxtapositions. An art deco observation post to the right looks like a gladiator’s helmet with its visor down; near it is a printing press, mainly displaying religious books and mementos on the shelves; a lone basketball goal is off to the left (why not two?); while hovering over the space is a suspended walkway cutting across between the central spoke of the prison and the cell block to our left — a concrete bridge of sighs.

We take our seats in the gymnasium, an oblong room with a steep metal staircase at one end leading up to a fenced passage from which the guards can watch us. The play, which was the basis for a 1957 Sidney Lumet film starring Henry Fonda, is two hours long, during which the doors of the gym will be locked, and the curtains closed. The guards inside the room are unarmed in the event the prisoners do turn into angry men. That passage above will be the only way in and out of the room if something goes wrong, though at no point does anybody get a sense that something will go wrong, so immersed are the prisoners in their roles.

After a musical introduction, the first prisoner comes out. His name is Yusif Shankar, or Grandfather Shankar, and he’s serving a life term for murder (we’re not sure if that’s singular or plural). He tells us his story. He’s been incarcerated for 18 years, which, he explains, adds up to so many months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, with no sign that this demoralizing math will ever end with him a free man. Grandfather Shankar introduces the play, which has been re-titled 12 Angry Lebanese, adding that many Lebanese are angry. He is as smooth as silk, a natural actor (“Being good actors is how we got in here,” he later explains); his colleagues emerge from off right, and the show begins.

Twelve Angry Men, like its Lebanese derivative, is the story of a jury deliberating over a crime. But what it’s really about is guilt and innocence, and the willingness of those judging a crime to discern the innocence in apparent guilt. The subject matter is an inspired one for Roumieh. In the next couple of hours the play will be twice interrupted by interludes—in which the prisoners will dance, tell jokes, and talk about themselves.

An inmate from Bangladesh, who, with other migrant prisoners, must be counted as among the lowest of the low in the prison hierarchy for having little or no support outside, says that imprisoned or not, he is still being treated by those around him as a servant. A drug dealer and two others illustrate the absurdity of Lebanese penal practice when it comes to paroles. And a convicted rapist, who looks very much like a convicted rapist, admits to his crime, but dissolves into tears when describing his childhood. He explains that once his term ends, his criminal record will deny him the basics of a normal life in what will be a prison without bars.

When it’s all over, the prisoners exit first, sent off into a room across the courtyard before the return to their cells. Most had jackets and neckties on during the play, and as we file past them, it seems outlandish that these well-dressed gentlemen should now so abruptly be convicts again. The wind has kicked up and it’s beginning to rain. The lights have gone on in some cells, so that they seem almost cozy in the squall. Roumieh, the grimmest of monuments, has offered up an afternoon of stimulating contrasts. But is this a place where anything stimulating can last?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A road still long for the Hariri tribunal

We were delighted to realize last week that Daniel Bellemare, the head of the United Nations commission investigating the killing of Rafik Hariri and over a dozen others, could speak - so unlike his predecessor Serge Brammertz, who neither spoke nor, we're discovering, investigated.

Bellemare gave interviews to three newspapers, in what was a long-overdue effort to tell the Lebanese what he was up to. However, it was his conversation with the daily Al-Akhbar that was the most interesting, because Bellemare was pressed by the interviewer, Omar Nashabeh, to look at the past, when all the commissioner really wanted to do was talk about the future, specifically the tribunal for Lebanon that will begin operating on March 1 in The Hague. Bellemare demurred, far more than he should have, since Al-Akhbar has a close relationship with one of the four incarcerated generals, Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of the General Security directorate. Many of Nashabeh's questions were aimed at discrediting the work of the first UN commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, in particular his report of October 2005, which found "converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act."

The newspaper also managed to allow a rather significant misstatement into the published interview, which it has yet to correct on its website. At one point Nashabeh asks, "Do you mean that the continuity [of the investigation] does not mean that everything mentioned in the first report [of October 2005] remains valid until now? Bellemare is quoted in Arabic as having answered: "Did you read the two reports we released? They summarize this matter. We insist on this point because some believe that what Mehlis mentioned remains valid today... What I'm saying is that I'm relying on evidence, not on impressions."

Formulated this way, Bellemare is casting doubt on Mehlis' findings; worse, he seems to be implying that his predecessor's conclusions were based on impressions rather than evidence. I contacted the spokeswoman of the UN commission, Radhia Achouri, for clarification. She wrote back saying it was a mistake, then emailed me the transcript of what Nashabeh had sent her. The key passage, "[w]e insist on this point because some believe that what Mehlis mentioned remains valid today", was actually Nashabeh's question, not part of Bellemare's answer. I would like to think it was an honest blunder, but the implications were serious.

Two items of news leave us pensive about the progress of the UN investigation. The first is what appears to be the near certainty that Bellemare will not issue accusations this year. The commissioner has not said as much, in fact he's avoided saying anything at all on so noteworthy a matter, but all the signs are that he doesn't have enough yet to go to trial. If so, that raises questions about the work and the competence of Serge Brammertz. Sources both inside Lebanon and outside are expressing their doubts. Already one year ago, Mehlis, in an interview with me for The Wall Street Journal, went on record to say that "[f]rom what I am hearing, the investigation has lost all the momentum it had [when Brammertz took over] in January 2006... Unfortunately, I haven't seen a word in Brammertz's reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward. When I left we were ready to name suspects, but [the investigation] seems not to have progressed from that stage."

Information inside Lebanon has, since, confirmed that assessment. Sources told me that Brammertz had all but admitted to the Lebanese before leaving that he hadn't added much to his files during his years as commissioner, while Bellemare, upon arriving in Beirut, said he hoped that within six months he would be more advanced than he was then. One source defended Bellemare, saying he has since hired more investigators, whereas Brammertz had brought in an inordinate number of analysts. That suggested that Bellemare perhaps agreed, at least implicitly, with what Mehlis advised in his interview, when he recommended that he "concentrate on the Hariri case itself; don't try to write a history book. Focus on the whos, hows and whys of the crime. Analysis can never replace solid investigative police work."

Then there is the fate of the generals. In his Al-Akhbar interview, Bellemare had this to say when asked by Nashabeh about the four and their continued detention: "The Lebanese judiciary is sovereign and I cannot, as commissioner, intervene with the Lebanese judiciary... However that does not mean that I don't express my opinion to the Lebanese public prosecutor." He went on to affirm that once the tribunal began operating, the situation would change as the generals would fall under his jurisdiction. They would be allowed to present an application for release, and Bellemare promised that he would work quickly to transfer the files of the Lebanese detainees to The Hague.

Bellemare was noncommittal on whether he would free the generals, but Lebanese sources believe he will do so after their appeals are heard. His answer to Al-Akhbar failed to dispel that view. If Bellemare feels an urge to express his opinion to the public prosecutor on the matter of the generals, presumably it is to disagree with him - at least that's what the context of his phrase suggests. There is also the fact that Brammertz had already told the Lebanese that he no longer needed the generals for his investigation. The Lebanese were unhappy, considered this a cop-out on his part, and retained the four on the grounds that they might either escape if released, or affect the progress of the investigation.

In its rumor box on Tuesday, Al-Nahar reported that the judiciary planned to indict suspects in the Hariri assassination before the June parliamentary elections. It didn't say what the implications of this were, but one can guess. According to the law, Jamil al-Sayyed can run as a candidate in the elections, because until now he has not been charged with anything. Winning a seat would grant him parliamentary immunity. An indictment, therefore, would impede that effort. While Sayyed's candidacy is reportedly still in the air, if the judiciary is thinking of such a measure, then it is expecting the generals to be out by June.

We knew the Hariri tribunal was a long road. However, we shouldn't presume that because it will begin functioning in March, that the road is nearing its end. Indeed, we may only be at the end of the beginning. A road still long for the Hariri tribunal

Thursday, February 12, 2009

An election that raises Syria's appetite

Leave it to the Israelis and Palestinians to extinguish the heavenly light that accompanied Barack Obama into the White House. The American president, we were told, would take the sins of the Middle East onto his mortal shoulders and usher in a new morning of regional concord. Apparently not.

The wittiest comment on Israel's elections Tuesday, which saw a dramatic shift in the country toward the political right, came from a Hamas official, Moushir al-Masri, who declared that Israel had chosen "extremists." It would be difficult to disagree with Masri, but somehow he seemed to miss the irony that the Palestinians already did that three years ago when they elected a Hamas majority to the Palestinian Parliament.

What happens next in Israel is a matter of utter confusion. If Tzipi Livni, the Kadima leader, is asked to form a government, she will have to fish in the waters of the right to reach some sort of majority, one that will be unstable at best. If the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is handed the task, his right-wing government will also be rickety, bringing together secular and religious parties, along with the xenophobic partisans of Avigdor Lieberman - by some estimates giving the right a short majority of 64 seats in the Knesset. And all for what? Livni won't have any margin to discontinue settlement building and evacuate occupied Arab land, assuming she is serious about it; while Netanyahu is explicitly hostile to it.

On the Hamas side, this is all excellent news. That Israel is obliterating what remains of the Oslo process suits the movement just fine. The one unmistakable victim of the Israeli election is the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who can now look forward to many more years of deadlock with Israel, as well as an escalating effort by Hamas to discredit the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and then eventually either replace it with a more amenable structure or hijack the PLO itself.

Precisely how George Mitchell, the American envoy for the Middle East peace process, will untie this knot of vipers is anyone's guess. Perhaps now, all those who blamed George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice for not doing enough to promote Palestinian-Israeli peace can understand why they were so lethargic. Bush and Rice, chastened by their hubris of the years before, were modest about what the United States could achieve. The domestic dynamics in Israeli and Palestinian society did not permit a settlement, and Obama's aura, we must suspect, will not make much difference.

Also delighted with the Israeli election results is Syria. As he surveys the wasteland of Oslo, the president, Bashar Assad, sees his stock rising. We can hear echoes of what will be the conventional wisdom in Washington these coming weeks: "The Palestinian-Israeli track is blocked, so let's move ahead with negotiations between Syria and Israel." The Syrians are sending out signals that they would welcome being engaged by the US, but that this can only be effective if the administration lifts the sanctions imposed under the Syria Accountability Act (SAA). Syria would also like to be removed from the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors, and has indicated that Damascus has no intention of cutting its ties with Iran, Hizbullah or Hamas. These demands are opening gambits, but Assad will try to milk US impatience when it comes to progress in the region for all he's worth.

That's why it's urgent for the Obama administration to make public its new policy toward Syria. The Syrian wish list is not one Assad is likely to soon get. There even appears to be a continuing debate over whether to send an American ambassador back to Damascus. The Syrian regime's scribes have valiantly tried to generate good news by reporting that US-Syrian relations are normalizing. Some, for example, have written that the State Department is preparing to name Frederic Hof as the new ambassador to Syria. That appears to be untrue. The regime is also spinning that the American decision to allow Syria to buy spare parts for its two Boeing-747s is a sign that the SAA is collapsing. Again, that is untrue, since the legislation allows the US to sell parts if necessary to ensure the safety of flying.

But it's Lebanon where Syria's eye wanders most lustily. One writer, Sami Moubayed, who accurately reflects the Assad regime's thinking, let the cat out of the bag recently when he wrote that the Syrians "want to show the world - mainly the US - that just as they can deliver on Palestine, they can deliver in Iraq and Lebanon." He went on to quote the former US secretary of state, Warren Christopher, to the effect that Syria "influenced the leaders of Hezbollah to stop the conflicts with Israel in 1993 and 1996."

It is remarkable how the Syrians will refuse to constrain Hizbullah, while also peddling themselves as potential adversaries of the party. To believe Christopher's line, one would need to have been relieved of a memory. In 1993 and 1996 Syria didn't end the conflicts with Israel; it granted Hizbullah great leeway to use its weapons, as it did later on, then bargained over the rising number of Lebanese corpses to earn an advantageous deal - not coincidentally with Warren Christopher himself, living proof that an old fool is someone who will commend you for robbing him blind.

The Syrian messages on containing Hizbullah are not directed solely at the Obama administration; they are being beamed toward the next Israeli prime minister as well. Whether it is Livni or Netanyahu, the Syrians know that regional politics abhor a vacuum, so that blockage on the Palestinian front or in discussions over the Golan Heights might create openings between Syria and Israel over Lebanon. That remains an American worry, and is why there are opponents of Syria in Washington who nevertheless argue that an American presence at the table is desirable, if only to prevent the Lebanese from turning into Syria's and Israel's meal.

Since the region invites gastronomic terminology, in light of the Israeli election results the Obama administration has its plate full in finding a way through the inveterate stalemate of the region. Before long, it may conclude that the pickings are so slim that Arabs and Israelis merit only last suppers.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

David Dodge: aristocrat or footnote?

In his book "The Arabists", Robert D. Kaplan describes an episode after the American pastor, Benjamin Weir, was kidnapped in Beirut in 1984. The US government at the time was trying to secure Weir's release, but as one former diplomat, David Long, recalled, "[t]he Weirs treated me and the State Department as the enemies, even though we were their government, trying to help get Ben Weir released." When Weir's wife, Carol, met with the then US secretary of state, George Shultz, he happened to criticize her husband's abductors. Rather than agree with him, Carol Weir defended them "as people sincere in their beliefs, who 'had some legitimate grievances against the United States.'"

That story came to mind following the news last week that the former president of the American University of Beirut, David Dodge, himself a victim of kidnapping in 1982 and 1983, had died. Dodge's great-grandfather, Daniel Bliss, was a founder of the AUB, and the Dodges were high up in that resident American aristocracy in the Middle East that extended higher education to the Arabs, alongside missionary activity, bolstered by an unyielding Yankee faith in self-improvement.

That positivism would lead many Americans to so embrace the world they had come to serve, that later, out of a sense of fair play or naivete, some would justify its vilest actions. The Weirs paid heavily for their devotion to the Arabs. Benjamin Weir spent 16 months in captivity at the hands of a precursor of Hizbullah, while his striking daughter Ann, with whom I went to school, was killed when a train hit the bus she was riding in Egypt, where she was teaching. These people were better than defending actions that, in many ways, spoke to the vanity of their hopeful efforts.

One might be inclined to see David Dodge's death as a page turned in the American educational and moral enterprise in the Middle East, which began in the mid-19th century. However, that moment truly came 25 years ago, in January 1984, when the AUB president, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated outside his office on campus. Maybe his murderers too had legitimate grievances, but I rather doubt it. In eliminating a man who knew the Arab world intimately, who spoke its language and had been born in Beirut, Kerr's killers exhibited only animosity toward the cross-cultural dialogue that the Weirs and others passionately believe in to this day.

Much commotion has surrounded the supposedly new ways of Barack Obama in the Middle East. This cosmopolitan man, we hear, will salve the wounds of the American-Arab relationship, and the first sign of this was his interview last week with the Al-Arabiya channel. We have to wonder, however, whether this narrative is not a parody built on a thorough misunderstanding of what has happened in the past 30 years in the Middle East. We can blame the United States for making mistakes in its dealings with the region, but what goes on there does not take on meaning solely in the shadow of American stimuli. The region's actors have always defined their aims and interests free of America, even if they must factor America in.

To misread this is to misread the Middle East. Malcolm Kerr was not shot down by a bewildered soul, heart-broken by American perfidy. After all, Kerr embodied what was most alluring in the American conversation with the Arab world. He was killed by men with a clear mission, intent at the time to force an American retreat from Lebanon. Benjamin Weir's captors were no different. Their calculations were unemotional, heartless, drenched in a realistic view of power relations and American vulnerabilities. Give the murderer credit for being serious about his crime. More dialogue and engagement wouldn't have saved Kerr; yet in his statements, Obama shows himself to be as foolish as those who believe that if Americans are targeted in the Middle East by virtue of being American, then somehow they had it coming to them.

We live in a very different place than the one the American missionaries moved to in the late 1800s, and which they managed to shape in confident ways well into the 1950s. However, by the 1960s and 1970s, the AUB itself came to house the more radical manifestations of Arab political behavior, thanks in part to the fate of the Palestinians, a sign that the end was near for the temperate liberalism of the university's founding fathers. And while it was in the name of that liberalism, and of an attendant sense of moral justice, that many Americans adopted the Palestinian cause as their own, they hardly seemed to notice when it connected itself to a strain in Arab militancy more violent than ever before.

Kerr's lucid comment on this state of affairs has been often quoted. Post-June 1967 Arab politics, he wrote in the preface to "The Arab Cold War", "have ceased to be fun." Using the analogy of an Ivy League football game, he noted that the war had left "several players crippled for life and the others so embittered that they took to fighting viciously among themselves instead of scrimmaging happily as before." Kerr has often been reproached for his flippancy here, but there was an essential truth in his belief that the region had taken on dark tones that were destroying it from within. Ultimately, Kerr foretold what was behind his own death.

The AUB survives, but not as a bridge between the best of America and the best of the Middle East. The institution now reflects the realities of our region. The Protestant devotion to good example, to the possibility of a life justly and abundantly lived, decades ago crashed against the hard face of an unforgiving Middle East. That's why the death of David Dodge seems such a footnote today; and it is why the words that Carol Weir addressed to George Shultz sounded something like those of a woman loyally defending the scoundrel who had locked her out of the house.