Thursday, August 27, 2009

Obama's Mideast vision: Confusion

There is great discomfort these days among those who backed Barack Obama’s “new” approach to the Middle East when he took office 10 months ago. That shouldn’t surprise us. Everything about the president’s shotgun approach to the region, his desire to overhaul all policies from the George W. Bush years simultaneously, without a cohesive strategy binding his actions together, was always going to let the believers down.

As the president’s accelerated pullout from Iraq begins to look increasingly ill-thought-out, as his engagement of Iran and Syria falters, as Arab-Israeli peace looks more elusive than ever, and as Americans express growing doubts about the war in Afghanistan, Obama is discovering that personal charisma is not enough to alter the realities of a Middle East that has whittled down better men than he.

For the US president, the clearest articulation of his approach to the region was his speech in Cairo last June. However, there was always more mood to that address than substance. The president put out a wish-list of American objectives, padded with reassurances and self-criticism, but there was no solid core to what he said – a discernible sense of the values and overriding political ambitions the United States was building toward. As Obama himself admitted, no single speech could answer all the complex questions the Middle East has tossed up. However, American behavior on the ground has made things no easier to understand, which is why regional uncertainties are turning to bite the administration in the leg.

For example, what is the policy in Iraq? In recent weeks, following the American military withdrawal from Iraqi cities, the upsurge in devastating suicide attacks has threatened to reverse years of efforts by Washington to stabilize the country. Ultimately, Obama’s priority can be summed up in one word, reflecting his psychological hesitation to commit to an enterprise that he associates, in a dangerously personalized way, with his predecessor. That word is “withdrawal,” and Obama described his Iraqi policy this way in Cairo: “Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future – and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq’s sovereignty is its own.”

Those were noble thoughts, but how do they square with other American concerns, such as the containment of Iran, the avoidance of sectarian conflict that might engulf the region, the stability of oil supplies, and much else? Obama feels that an America forever signaling its desire to go home will make things better by making America more likable. That’s not how the Middle East works. Politics abhor a vacuum, and as everyone sees how eager the US is to leave, the more they will try to fill the ensuing vacuum to their advantage, and the more intransigent they will be when Washington seeks political solutions to prepare its getaway. That explains the upsurge of bombings in Iraq lately, and it explains why the Taliban feel no need to surrender anything in Afghanistan.

Engagement of Iran and Syria has also come up short, though a breakthrough remains possible. However, there was always something counterintuitive in lowering the pressure on Iran in the hope that this would generate progress in finding a solution to its nuclear program. Engagement is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end among countless others. Where the Obama administration erred was in not seeing how dialogue would buy Iran more time to advance its nuclear projects, precisely what the Iranians wanted, while breaking the momentum of international efforts to force Tehran to concede something – for example temporary suspension of uranium enrichment. For Obama to rebuild such momentum today seems virtually impossible, when the US itself has made it abundantly clear that it believes war is a bad idea.

Attacking Iran is indeed a bad idea, but in the poker game he has been playing with Tehran, Obama didn’t need to show all of his cards. He’s virtually folded over Iraq, is stumbling in Afghanistan, and does not occupy himself very much with Lebanon, all places where the Iranians can and are hurting the Americans. By placing most of his chips on engagement, the president has failed to develop a more multifaceted strategy while relinquishing other forms of coercion that could have been effective in Washington’s bargaining with the Islamic Republic.

On Syria, the US has been more steadfast, particularly in trying to deny Damascus the means to reimpose its will in Lebanon. However, the Assad regime has shown no signs of breaking away from Iran, a major US incentive in re-engaging with the Syrians, even as it has facilitated suicide attacks in Iraq and encouraged Hamas’ intransigence in inter-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo. The Obama administration can, of course, take the passive view that Syria is entitled to destabilize its neighbors in order to enhance its leverage; or it can behave like a superpower and make the undermining of vital US interests very costly for Bashar Assad. But it certainly cannot defend its vital interests by adopting a passive approach.

With respect to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, Obama has taken Israel on over its settlements. It was about time, since the Bush administration’s permissiveness on settlement construction neutralized its own “road map”. However, there is more to Palestinian-Israeli peace than settlements. Obama is exerting considerable political capital to confront Israel, but it may be capital wasted at a moment when Hamas can still veto any breakthrough from the Palestinian side. In other words, Washington is working on a narrow front whereas its failure to weaken Hamas may render the whole enterprise meaningless. But how can the US weaken Hamas when improving relations with the movement’s main regional sponsors, Iran and Syria, remains a centerpiece of American efforts?

Barack Obama’s devotees may imagine that because he spent a few years abroad as a boy, he is well equipped to understand our complicated world. Perhaps he is, but his approach to the greater Middle East, shorn of the soaring rhetoric, has been artless and arrogant. The president is being tied up every which way by his foes, who can plainly see that the Obama vision is an unsystematic one. If ever the US has been close to achieving potentially terminal self-marginalization in the region, it is now.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The region imposes a Lebanese stalemate

In recent weeks, Walid Jumblatt has retreated from the sharp position he adopted at the Beau Rivage Hotel earlier this month on his separation from the March 14 coalition. From a desire to play an axial role in a Syrian revival in Lebanon, the Druze leader, evidently in the face of Saudi and American annoyance, took several steps backward. That shows some confusion on Jumblatt’s part when it comes to regional dynamics, and when Jumblatt is confused you can be sure things are confusing.

What is delaying the formation of the government? It would be nice to put all the blame on Michel Aoun’s desire to advance the career of his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. But Bassil is an addendum. The fact is that the states most involved in Lebanon – Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, as well as the United States – are caught in a wait-and-see attitude that makes difficult any accord over a new government, which, once formed, might tilt the balance one way or the other. Therefore, deadlock has prevailed.

At the heart of the problem is the ambiguous Syrian-Saudi relationship, characterized by reconciliation but also disagreement over what Syria seeks in Lebanon. The Assad regime had wanted to position itself as the sponsor of an inter-Lebanese reconciliation in order to hit three birds with one stone: to force Saad Hariri to visit Damascus and go a long way toward declaring Syria innocent in the murder of his father; to regain lost ground in Lebanon, both with respect to the March 14 majority and its allies Iran and Hezbollah; and to absorb the Lebanese track before a possible resumption of regional negotiations in the coming weeks.

However, the Saudis, and with them the United States and Egypt, have refused to sell the Lebanese store to Syria. It is an open secret that the Obama administration thwarted a visit by Hariri to Damascus before he became prime minister. The Saudis, too, became tougher, which is why Jumblatt, at least publicly, has moved away from his Beau Rivage speech.

At the same time, Damascus and Riyadh see advantages in maintaining a good rapport elsewhere, for example over Iraq. The succession of devastating suicide bombings in recent weeks has exposed implicit divergences between the Syrians and the Iranians, with the Saudis having an interest in going along with whatever impairs Iran. Syria continues to allow Sunni militants across its border to undermine stability in Iraq, while Iran, now that the Americans have started withdrawing from Iraqi cities, is keener to consolidate a secure Iraqi state friendly to Tehran.

The essence of Syria’s strategy is the destabilization of its surroundings to increase its own regional leverage. Yet this cuts in many contradictory ways. Iran cannot be happy with the prospect of a sectarian war in Iraq; Syria’s efforts in Iraq are also alienating the United States at a time when the Obama administration has engaged Bashar Assad to bring about a change in his regime’s behavior; Egypt is fed up with Syria’s and Iran’s encouragement of Hamas’ intransigence, which has neutralized Egypt’s role in inter-Palestinian reconciliation talks; Saudi Arabia and Egypt are unhappy with Syria’s obstructionism in Lebanon; and both Syria and Iran are eying each other with quiet suspicion to see which of them might open a full-scale dialogue with the United States before the other does.

No wonder Walid Jumblatt has seemed bewildered. As things appear today, he played his cards on Syria too soon, without any guarantees that Assad would come out on top in Lebanon. But who will come out on top? The lack of a simple answer is precisely why the government is not being formed. The country is a distillation of the Middle East’s contradictions, and rarely have these been as extensive as they are today.

Where does this leave us? There seems to be a general consensus that we should not expect a government until after the month of Ramadan ends. That’s a good excuse to dally. But then the road will be open to two possibilities: If the regional situation becomes clearer, particularly with respect to peace talks involving the Syrians, then we may well see a breakthrough, even if that will be preceded by strenuous efforts by Syria to ensure it has substantial sway over the Lebanese negotiating track.

If, on the other hand, the region is stuck where it is today, Lebanon will have to find a more practical solution to its political crisis. Pressure may build either for a reassessment of the idea of establishing a national-unity government or, given the diversity of interests in the region, to consider a different prime minister-designate. This would be a blow to a majority of voters in that Saad Hariri best embodies the March 14 victory last June.

The thing is, stalemate tends to impose new thinking, sensible or not. And for now the thinking is taking place not in Beirut but in foreign capitals, regardless of whether most Lebanese voters are happy with the results.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Obama’s plan: he knows how to get there … but where?

In a speech to American veterans on Monday, Barack Obama tried to sound reassuring about the war in Afghanistan. It didn’t work.

The president declared: “As I said when I announced this strategy, there will be more difficult days ahead. The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight. And we won’t defeat it overnight. This will not be quick. This will not be easy.” That he sounded uncomfortably defensive was a reminder of how the US tends to get caught up in quandaries from which it is never quite sure how to escape. This, in turn, speaks to a deeper problem of the Obama administration. Despite its good intentions, the overriding strategy in the Middle East is difficult to determine. What, to paraphrase the American newspaper columnist Thomas Friedman, is the strong idea that we can associate with the US president? No one knows.

At best a state’s foreign policy strategy is usually a blueprint loosely adhered to. Bureaucratic interaction and rivalries, public opinion, the inability to fund ventures, and bad surprises all intervene to undermine the best-laid schemes. That Mr Obama’s approach to the Middle East has often sounded more like an unsystematic to-do list than an integrated plan of action is not surprising: US administrations frequently issue a document called a national security strategy, which invariably reads like a chaotic compendium of desirable objectives, the realisation of which is usually left to the vicissitudes of the moment and American vigour.

Take the most famous recent national security strategy, the one released by the Bush administration in 2002 in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks. While it was widely seen as a neo-conservative manifesto, a justification for American unilateralism and pre-emptive action, in fact the document was steeped in contradiction. Alongside passages favoured by the neocons were others reaffirming the tried tenets of US liberal internationalism. Nothing odd there. Like all government papers, it was a product of competing government agendas, a mishmash of sometimes irreconcilable ambitions.

Mr Obama would dislike the comparison, but he has been even more nebulous about American strategy in the Middle East than Mr Bush. At the heart of his difficulties is a recurrent disconnect between means and ends. The president has strong-mindedly reworked the means of American actions, but without any sign that these will allow him to reach his ends.

Take the American relationship with Iran and Syria. When he took office, Mr Obama announced that he would open a dialogue with both countries. This was potentially interesting as it created implicit competition between Tehran and Damascus, close allies, to be the first to manage a diplomatic breakthrough with the US. Washington’s idea was to engage Iran on its nuclear programme, even if such engagement could be extended to a host of other regional issues; and to engage Syria as a way to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process, but also to seek Syrian cooperation in Iraq.

But there was also a risk that Iran and Syria would use this breathing space to advance their paramount goals: for Iran, building a nuclear military capacity that could help to earn it dominance in the Gulf region; and for Syria, a return to its commanding role in Lebanon, after its military withdrawal in 2005. We’re not there yet – but Iran is pressing ahead with its nuclear programme amid signs of serious obstacles in Tehran to American-Iranian normalisation; and Syria has made substantial inroads back into Lebanon, although a 2004 United Nations resolution co-sponsored by the US was passed to prevent this.

The US may still react down the road, but for the foreseeable future the Obama administration is a prisoner of its desire to keep the door open to Iran, buying valuable time for the regime there. As for Syria, while Washington has refused to lift most US sanctions on Bashar Assad’s regime, its ability and dedication to thwart Syrian conduct in Lebanon has greatly diminished in the past two years, which has also benefited Iran and Hizbollah.

Iran and Syria have developed far more consistent strategies in the Middle East than the US. Whether Tehran is shaping events in Iraq, in Lebanon, on the Palestinian front, in Afghanistan or in the Gulf, its principle aim is to avoid containment and build up multiple walls of deterrence to protect itself, its nuclear programme and its efforts to acquire a dominant regional role. Syria’s aspirations are more modest: to regain the upper hand in Lebanon, which provided Syria with regional relevance until 2005, but also to defend its stake in Palestinian politics by supporting Hamas, so it has something to bargain with in peace talks with Israel. None of these measures can square with Washington’s interests.

American behaviour in Iraq is equally difficult to explain. George W Bush was criticised for a war that effectively swept away the Arab counterweight to Iran. Certainly, the Iranians gained from American blunders after Saddam Hussein’s removal. But won’t a US withdrawal from Iraq, scheduled for 2011, actually strengthen Iran’s influence in Iraq and the Gulf? The question may be moot since Mr Obama will not reverse his decision to remove his troops. But if inhibiting Iran is a US priority, then you have to wonder if the president’s current Iraq policy will achieve this.

The US, because of its size and commitments, has less of an opportunity to be cohesive than other states. Ultimately, Iran and Syria, like Israel or the Palestinians, have the luxury of pursuing what are, at the global level, limited aims. But this cannot dispel the sense that under Mr Obama the US has repeatedly worked at cross-purposes in the Middle East, never making clear what its ultimate vision for the region is, what the US is working towards. Mr Bush insisted it was greater democracy. He may have been insincere, but at least his was a definable end. Mr Obama is still lost in a labyrinth of means, the ends still impalpable.

Is Michel Aoun a problem or a solution?

There was snickering and indignation on Monday, after Michel Aoun held a press conference to defend his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. Aoun’s vulgarity on the occasion notwithstanding, his nepotistic tendencies aside, it would be a mistake to blame him alone for the blockage in the government’s formation. The essence of the problem lies elsewhere.

The fuss being made over Bassil’s appointment is silly. Bassil is a notably unremarkable figure, despite his father-in-law’s extravagant commendations. However, nothing in Lebanon’s Constitution or political practice justifies the decision to deny him a ministerial post. Ministers are not parliamentarians and shouldn’t be obliged to meet the same criteria. To win a seat in Parliament, a candidate must usually ride the coattails of a powerful political leader. This means that governments filled with election winners also tend to be governments filled with yes-men. Is that a model we should be promoting, under the guise of enhancing legitimacy?

It would have been wiser from the start to give Aoun what he wanted, a portfolio for Bassil, and leave the Aounist movement, which had been divided over his appointment, to thrash out the consequences. Why did Saad Hariri allow himself to be trapped by what should have been a relatively minor political obstacle? Instead, the Aounists are now united behind Bassil, even those among them who dislike him, while the real reason for the delay in the Cabinet’s formation remains hidden.

The fact is that the delay is due to tensions in the relationship between Syria and Saudi Arabia, in the shadow of their uneasy reconciliation. The Syrians seek to hammer home their indispensability to any inter-Lebanese reconciliation, and they apparently still want Saad Hariri to visit Damascus before the government is finalized. The American veto of such a visit, but also Hariri’s reluctance to go along with a whitewash of his father’s assassins, evidently contributed to the cancellation of a meeting in Damascus several weeks ago between King Abdullah and Bashar Assad. Since then progress on the government has been slow, and was further hindered by Walid Jumblatt’s speech earlier this month.

In this context, the Gebran Bassil saga is a footnote, one being exploited by Aoun to raise the ante on Hariri, That is why it would have been far better for the prime minister-elect to neutralize this particular headache preemptively, by accepting Bassil and therefore perhaps avoiding the current row over handing the Aounists a sovereign ministry, which Aoun is using as leverage to shoehorn his son-in-law into the Cabinet.

It’s easy to underestimate Aoun. Rare are the major battles he has undertaken that he has won. He failed to liberate Lebanon from Syria when he headed a military government between 1988 and 1990, and he failed to defeat the Lebanese Forces afterward. Upon returning home in 2005 he scored a major victory, but then did nothing with it when he failed to become president – though he would have been uncircumventable had he remained neutral in the March 8-March 14 rivalry. And finally, he failed to win a majority in the elections last June, instead becoming a lighting rod for the growing number of Christians voting against him.

That Aoun should now be fighting so hard over Bassil is a revealing sign of how far he’s dropped. Having lost almost everywhere else, he at least wants to win the struggle over his succession. This creates an opening that Hariri and March 14 should profit from, in light of the aggressive Syrian endeavor to reimpose some sort of hegemony over Lebanon.

March 14 needs more imagination in dealing with Aoun. In the end his excessive demands are part of a bargaining ploy. Hariri has to advance gingerly when it comes to the general: he doesn’t want to alienate President Michel Sleiman or his own allies Samir Geagea and Amin Gemayel. That’s understandable, but as prime minister he will have to widen his horizons beyond March 14, while also preserving his Christian partnerships. One of the main aims of the Syrians is to break Hariri and the Sunnis off from the anti-Syrian Maronites. That is why they have threatened Gemayel, making him more responsive to engagement from Damascus; and it is why Syria’s local peons are now preparing to isolate Geagea, otherwise a much tougher nut to crack.

This situation makes it more desirable for Hariri to help facilitate inter-Christian reconciliation, which would bolster his own authority and his community’s defiance in the face of Syrian efforts to contain the Sunnis and undermine their ability to remain the backbone of opposition to some form of Syrian restoration. Such a plan is by no means easy. Since when have Sunni leaders dared play Christian politics? And with the Christians so divided, Hariri is more likely to fail than to succeed.

However, it’s equally true that Aoun is most dangerous when he feels forsaken. That’s why it’s worth determining what it is he really wants, and conceding what can be conceded in exchange for greater support from Aoun against Syrian moves weakening Lebanese sovereignty. Aoun has tried to use the Syrians to his advantage, but ultimately he has gotten very little out of them. Even his trip to Syria last year did not generate any particular warmth or long-term cooperation. Aoun may be more receptive to Hariri on the Syrian front than the general’s detractors imagine, even as his close ties with Hizbullah and Iran will doubtless limit his maneuverability.

The balance of power has shifted in Lebanon since Jumblatt’s turnaround. The Druze leader will be very careful not to alienate the Saudis, but that doesn’t mean Saad Hariri should stand pat. Political alignments are changing and it might be time to seriously investigate whether Michel Aoun would not himself welcome an opportunity to revise a political strategy that has ultimately left him empty-handed.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lebanon’s emancipation: an obituary?

Allow me, despairing reader, to cite from Bashar Assad’s speech of March 5, 2005, before the Syrian Parliament. You may re­member it as the one in which he mocked the allegedly few Lebanese at Martyrs Square condemning him for Rafik Hariri’s murder – before March 14 proved how mistaken Syria’ president was. But Assad also said this about Lebanon’s politicians: “Some declared they were Syrian allies and used its name, and some were merchants of political positions – they bought and sold these positions depending on their personal interests. Trading in merchandise is respectable, but trading in political positions is like the slave trade.”

What a pity that four years later, Assad, so wrong about the Lebanese in general, proved right about many of their leaders. After watching Walid Jumblatt take his community a significant distance back into the Syrian fold, we can now pick from lesser instances of buying and selling – most recently former minister Michel Murr’s announcement that he too would be calling Damascus to get an appointment. Murr was alarmed when Wi’am Wahhab, Syria’s ventriloquist dummy in Lebanon, hinted that the Assad regime had a problem with Elias Murr, which might hinder his ministerial ambitions. So even though the Syrians once tried to kill Elias, his interests now require that his father pick up that phone.

What a sordid irony that the Syrians are making a comeback in Lebanon, even though the June 7 elections confirmed how politically weak they were in the country. What brought about this state of affairs – the sudden Lebanese sprint to be on Syria’s good side, the abandonment of the consensus that took shape in 2004 and 2005 and that endured during the years of assassinations by Syria and its allies, and the nauseating mortification of Walid Jumblatt, who finds himself having to deal as an equal with Wahhab, a sub-product of Syria’s intelligence agencies?

Doubtless, threats were part of it. The Saudis have been willing to cut a deal with Damascus to contain Iran, while the US has been engaged elsewhere, so Syria saw that it could take advantage of this absence of political cover to bully Jumblatt and others who don’t have the luxury, they or their sons, of the protection afforded Saad Hariri. Samir Geagea, by his nature and past, is a tougher nut to crack, which is why Syria and its local peons are preparing to isolate him. How Geagea emerges from this campaign will determine the safeguards he enjoys.

But beyond the threats there is politics. In a situation as volatile as the one in Lebanon today, no leader wants to be marginalized. Take Jumblatt’s turnaround. For him the real danger is that if Syria does not manage to restore a measure of its past hegemony, then his opening to its regime and his desire to play an axial role in a Syrian-dominated Lebanese order will have all been for nothing. Jumblatt will have placed himself and the Druze community at Syria’s mercy without any palpable political gains in return. So, far from being a mere victim of Syria’s newfound power, Jumblatt may become one of its promoters.

The Syrians always understood that there was much to be derived in Lebanon from those who believed that Syria could be “broken off” from Iran. Assad realized that he could sell a Syrian revival to the Arabs and the West as the best way to contain Hizbullah, and through it Iran. Not that Syria has any intention of severing its close relationship with the Islamic Republic, or for that matter putting an end to Hizbullah’s rearmament. What Assad wants, quite simply, is to call the shots in Lebanon himself instead of Iran, albeit in the context of continued cooperation.

One reason for this is that the Syrians want to gain the Lebanese card before the possible resumption of US-sponsored peace negotiations between Syria and Israel on the one hand and Lebanon and Israel on the other. The reality is that Damascus is politically vulnerable today, much too vulnerable to enter peace talks without fortifiers. For starters, it has largely lost its influence over the United States in Iraq, and the prospect of sectarian warfare there can only alarm the Assad regime if the outcome is the radicalization of Sunnis throughout the region.

On the Palestinian front Syria, with Iran, has influence over Hamas, but if Palestinian-Israeli negotiations resume seriously, as the Obama administration would like, Assad could be caught between two contrary logics: He would have to square Syria’s participation in such negotiations with Iran’s desire to derail them, while Hamas would be caught somewhere in the middle. Even if the Syrians were to encourage Hamas to place obstacles before the negotiations in order to increase their own leverage over Israel, there are no guarantees they could later persuade the movement to compromise if the Iranians insisted that Hamas stand tough. After all Iran, not Syria, helps finance the movement.

And in Lebanon, Syria’s political power rests on shaky institutional foundations. The Syrians can kill, they have influence over officers in the army and intelligence services, but they no longer have a vast military and security network in place – while the elections showed that their sway over Lebanese society is negligible. What the Syrians have done successfully, however, is fill the spaces intentionally or unintentionally opened to them by the Saudis, the Americans, and the Lebanese themselves.

On top of that, the Syrians have a friend in Israel, which would like nothing more than to push Lebanon back to the predictable days of Syrian rule. Those were the days when the party began arming massively and killed more Israelis than ever before, and yet the Israelis feel they can intimidate Syria better than they can Iran, whose influence expanded in Lebanon after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. It hasn’t occurred to Israeli leaders that a resurgent Syria would have a great interest in reopening the southern Lebanese border militarily to strengthen their bargaining position when it comes to a final settlement over the Golan Heights.

These are the dynamics of the Syrian return to Lebanon. Do they mean that Assad will drive his tanks back into the country? The president would love to, but for now that seems unlikely. However, he is compensating through Lebanon’s leaders, who, in pursuing their personal and political survival, have succumbed to Syrian blackmail while disregarding all those assassinated in recent years for refusing to do so.

All in the family

So, Michel Aoun’s campaign to improve Lebanon can now be distilled down to one overriding concern: the appointment of his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, as minister. Aoun insists that Bassil will be named, even though this contradicts an agreement reached between prime minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Sleiman to bar from the cabinet candidates who failed to win a parliamentary seat.

The disagreement has been poorly framed. To lose an election should not prevent someone from becoming a minister, particularly in Lebanon. Nor does the constitution say anything about this matter. How does one win a seat in Lebanon’s parliament? Generally, by riding the coattails of a powerful politician who sponsors or heads a candidate list. Very rarely are parliamentarians chosen for their intrinsic merits. Therefore, the notion that a minister must have, first, won an election, or quite simply not participated in an election at all, means that he or she generally must either be beholden to one of the more powerful political leaders or avoided the risk of competing for a parliamentary seat.

What makes Ziad Baroud, otherwise an excellent minister, more legitimate in the cabinet than, let’s say, Misbah al-Ahdab? Baroud didn’t seek popular legitimacy (nor did he have to), while Ahdab, several times elected to parliament, lost last June because he stood as an independent. Why should Ahdab be penalized even as a petition is circulating to bring Baroud back? One can be a fine minister but a poor parliamentarian; one can be superlative at both; or one can be abysmal at both. There is no correlation between the roles of minister and parliamentarian, and popular approval certainly does not qualify one to sit in the cabinet, where many good decisions may necessitate being unpopular.

Which brings us back to Gebran Bassil. His defeat in Batroun is not enough to deny him a cabinet portfolio. If we need to judge him, then let’s do so according to different benchmarks. How did he fare as Telecommunications minister? As a layman all I can say is that while I may be paying less for my mobile telephone communications, rarely has service been as bad. Conversations are routinely cut off and most of the time it’s very difficult to hear what a correspondent is saying. The cellular system has crashed several times this summer from the overload, which is undoubtedly a black mark against the minister.

But is that enough to say that Bassil should not return to the cabinet? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if you’re not going to evaluate ministers by their performance, then what will you evaluate them by? But no, in that unless parliament and the cabinet introduce a systematic method of assessing ministerial performance, it makes no sense to pick and choose who deserves to be removed from office or denied a cabinet seat.

That leaves us with the single valid measuring stick to determine whether Bassil should again be a minister: the principles the Aounists themselves espouse, which in fact concern no one but the Aounists. For a movement that has often insisted, and very loudly, that it represents change and reform, nepotism is something to steer away from. Michel Aoun doesn’t have a son, so he’s advancing the career of his son-in-law, whom he wishes to see take over the leadership of his movement. With greater reluctance, Aoun also gave his nephew Alain a helpful push prior to the June elections, by asking Shakib Qortbawi to withdraw from the Baabda list on his behalf. Ironically, Alain Aoun, among the most sensible people around his uncle, is on bad terms with Gebran Bassil, and would like nothing more than for Hariri and Sleiman to have their way.

It must be demoralizing for the Aounist faithful to watch as their movement turns into a family affair. That’s not to say that Alain Aoun or Gebran Bassil are unpopular among their followers; quite the contrary. However, they are also emerging as major rivals for leadership, which means that the Free Patriotic Movement is beginning to look little different than other family-based political organizations in Lebanon.

Does that exclude Bassil from a ministry, or for that matter Alain Aoun? No. The question is whether other deserving Aounists, like the handful of voiceless parliamentarians who crave a reward for having stuck by Michel Aoun through thick and thin, can continue to stomach their secondary status. Instead of making such a fuss over Bassil, for example, shouldn’t Aoun be promoting more credible people like Qortbawi?

Of course that’s for the Aounists to thrash out. If Michel Aoun insists on Gebran Bassil, fine. Let the Aounists clean up their internal mess, but without trying to assure us that they represent something different.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Why Syria has Samir Geagea in its sights

Amid the ruckus over Walid Jumblatt’s comments last Sunday on his differences with the March 14 coalition, relatively little attention has been paid to another consequence of the broad realignment taking place in Lebanese politics today: the targeting of Samir Geagea.

The ambient momentum to define a new relationship with Syria is building. Saad Hariri, whether he likes it or not (and we can be sure he does not), will have little choice as prime minister but to ascend to Damascus for a photo-op with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, whose involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri is little doubted by the Hariri faithful. Walid Jumblatt’s acrobatics lately have been in large part efforts to reposition himself advantageously with respect to Damascus. And even Amin Gemayel, whose son was very likely murdered by Syria or its local agents, recently opened a conduit to Damascus through the former minister Wiam Wahhab, even as he was reconciling, or reconciling again, with Sleiman Franjieh, another close Syrian ally.

But not Geagea. Last week, Franjieh indicated that the time for a rapprochement with the Lebanese Forces had not yet come – a sign that Syria disapproves of such an initiative. Officials in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party are saying that containing Geagea is their next priority. Jumblatt, a perennial bellwether, has focused his recent criticism on the Lebanese Forces leader, showing perhaps that his efforts to patch things up with Syria require that he join in a mood hostile to Geagea.

What’s the reason for this? After all, Geagea, while he is getting stronger politically, is still rejected by very many Christians. The Maronite leadership is divided, and though Geagea is the most disciplined of the lot, for now it seems unrealistic that he will become a truly national figure, someone who can unify the community around him.

Several things make Geagea threatening to Syria. First of all, he is a natural organizer, a former militiaman, someone who has to be taken seriously when it comes to mobilizing his followers. Armed with a past of rejecting Syrian hegemony, having spent 11 years in prison on the orders of Damascus, he could emerge as a solid Christian cornerstone of an effort to deny Syria the political restoration it seeks in Lebanon.

More importantly, such a role would be doubly reinforced by the second thing making Geagea threatening to Syria: his close ties to Saad Hariri, therefore to the Sunni community. In some regards the Lebanese Forces have taken on an interesting function in the past years, namely that of a militant vanguard in the partnership between those Sunnis and Christians most opposed to a Syrian comeback. Syria’s Lebanon policy has always been about containing both the Sunnis and its Maronite adversaries. So the Assad regime is keen to break the Geagea-Hariri connection, and particularly to suffocate the Lebanese Forces, the weaker link in that connection but also its more cohesive component.

It’s not clear how the Syrians and their local acolytes might do so. To turn the judicial system against Geagea, as they did in the 1990s, is almost impossible today. However, the Syrians can isolate him, whether by ordering their partisans to concentrate their attacks on the Lebanese Forces leader, or by using the desire of Lebanese politicians to deal with Damascus as leverage to push Geagea into the corner and turn him into a burden for Hariri. But that strategy, too, is fraught with risks. If everybody gangs up on Geagea, Christians could rally to his side.

The Syrians might also conceivably try to dialogue with Geagea, so as to split him off from Hariri. But what would the Lebanese Forces leader gain by surrendering a valuable affiliation that bolsters him politically, in exchange for an invitation to Damascus that, in the end, would only disguise a yearning to make Lebanon subservient to Syria again?

We should watch what happens to Samir Geagea in the coming weeks and months. The Lebanese Forces, whatever they do, don’t quite fit into the prevailing mood emerging in Lebanon today – a mood of fake consensus amid deep disagreements and changes. Geagea and Saad Hariri will probably remain close, but going after the first is an indirect way of undermining the second. That is why Syria has Geagea in its sights.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Dissecting the Beau Rivage turnaround

Did Walid Jumblatt really need to drop his political bomb last Sunday at the Beau Rivage Hotel, Rustom Ghazaleh’s former headquarters, in a neighborhood once exemplifying Syrian hegemony? What Jumblatt failed to do quietly in the June parliamentary elections – position himself as arch triangulator and manipulator of the balance in Lebanon’s political system – he did with a crashing of dishes over the weekend. Jumblatt’s former allies are angry, rightly so, but the real question is how all this will affect Lebanon’s sovereignty.

For now, Jumblatt’s move is primarily directed at shaping the formation of the government. While this appears to have been thrown momentarily into disarray, the reality is that it will be very difficult for Saad Hariri to either withdraw from the running or negotiate a new Cabinet formula. On Monday, Jumblatt seemed to make that very point when he remarked that he thought his declaration of independence would not change the current Cabinet distribution of 15-10-5. This means that Jumblatt, even though he is no longer of March 14 and has said he would vote with President Michel Sleiman, may yet receive a share of March 14 seats. Jumblatt wants three ministers. In other words, depending on how he leans when it comes to government voting, he will play more significant a role in setting the agenda than if he faithfully toes the March 14 line.

For starters, he now has leverage to bring in ministers of his choice. Jumblatt never swallowed that in the current government he was forced to give up on Nehme Tohme, the Greek Catholic parliamentarian from the Chouf. Tohme, who heads the Al-Mabani contracting company, plays a major role in Jumblatt’s services network. However, it is also important for the Druze leader to name a Christian minister, since he presides over a multi-sectarian region and parliamentary bloc. One of Jumblatt’s first demands of Hariri is likely to be that Tohme get a services ministry.

However, beyond the vicissitudes of patronage politics, Jumblatt has a more complicated thought in mind, one we are entitled to question. By playing the balance in the government and Parliament, from the March 14 quota no less, the Druze leader is striving for an axial role in political life. He wants to be uncircumventable in major political arrangements. Jumblatt remembers that it was the Syrians who greatly enhanced his political stature for three decades, well beyond what the Druze community could have expected. With the Syrians gone, Jumblatt wants to avoid marginalization in a country defined largely by Sunnis and Shiites.

Jumblatt was one of those most responsible for pushing the Syrians out of Lebanon. However, he did so because the Syrian system had changed by 2005. Instead of strengthening the traditional political leaders, the regime of Bashar Assad, through Emile Lahoud and his acolytes, sought to demote them. The extension of Lahoud’s mandate and Rafik Hariri’s assassination went two steps too far. Now Jumblatt is laying the groundwork for a new relationship with Syria. By leaving March 14 and positioning himself between Lebanon’s different political forces, which also means positioning himself between the regional forces shaping Lebanese affairs, Jumblatt believes he will have more margin to maneuver with respect to Damascus. He will try to sell to the Syrians, as he did on Sunday, and as he is likely to do in shaping a Cabinet statement the Syrians are happy with; in turn he hopes again to become a prize Syrian interlocutor in Lebanon.

Is this worrisome? It certainly is, because Damascus is politically weak today and Jumblatt’s exertions may well give Assad the latitude he seeks to strengthen himself once again in Lebanon. In fact the fear is that for the Druze leader to maintain a leg up on his domestic partners, he may have to actively work toward facilitating some sort of Syrian restoration – not what it was before 2005, but a system where he can play all sides against each other in order to keep his head above the waves. The problem is that if Jumblatt believes a Syrian return is inevitable, and therefore prepares to gain from this situation, he may actually help advance the return when such a project is not, otherwise, guaranteed success.

Some will argue that Walid Jumblatt can afford to play a mediation role with Syria because the Assad regime has displayed such crying incompetence in Lebanon in recent years, and its partisans are so feeble politically. There is a great deal of truth there. However, the venture is very risky. If one of the most prominent leaders of the emancipation movement of 2005 is so willing to gamble with Lebanon’s sovereignty when it comes to Syria, this will only encourage those defending that sovereignty internationally to argue that the Lebanese are simply not worth the effort. Why should Washington or Paris say no to Syria, which following its Lebanon withdrawal never stopped fighting to regain a dominant role in Beirut, when Lebanese politicians are now saying yes?

Jumblatt cannot drift far from the Saudi line on Lebanon. He can defend his opening to Damascus as part of a broader effort, one that includes Saudi Arabia and the US, to break Syria off from Iran. However, Jumblatt must be careful not to undermine Hariri, still the biggest Saudi game in town. He knows this, which is why the Druze leader, once he consolidates his balancing role, will likely reconcile with Hariri in one way or another. Jumblatt sees no benefit in joining the opposition; this would render him politically irrelevant and lose him the funding that allows him to sustain an extensive services network that is the core of his power.

Among the more worrisome aspect of Walid Jumblatt’s turnaround is how it will affect his relations with the Christians. His effort this week to remind everyone of the Druze-Christian reconciliation in the mountain was a sign of his sensitivity to the issue. One of Jumblatt’s motives for his statement on Sunday was his fear that some Christian leaders might make it to Damascus before he does. Yet the Sunnis feel that Jumblatt has betrayed them on Syria’s behalf; Christians wonder why he remains so hostile to them. What does the future hold for the Druze without those two communities? No wonder Jumblatt’s coreligionists are uneasy.