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.

Ignorance pervades the 'neocon' debate

Recently, an American researcher in Beirut wrote a commentary in which he disapprovingly referred to me as a “neoconservative.” Though the subject struck me as dated, when the author sent me a version for review before publication, I explained that I was no such thing. More maliciously, he accused me, without any evidence, of coordinating a piece I had written on American policy toward Syria with those of three former Bush administration officials. This time my denial was angrier.

Slapdash indictments are common these days in journalism about the Middle East – where the aim of writers is frequently to gain access to one side in an often polarized political situation, or to catch the eye of potential political sponsors. Far from stimulating exchange, such polemics inhibit an understanding of intellectual trends in the region.

A major source of disagreement is the Iraq war. I happened to welcome the war because it overthrew a brutal regime responsible, directly or indirectly, for the death of some 1 million people. In 2005 I also approved of American and international efforts to end Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Among “progressives” who identify with Arab issues, these positions earned me and other Arabs sharing my views a “neocon” label.

I am not a neocon, though I have found myself on their side on occasion. To be viewed as a neocon, even a hawk, is by definition to be categorized as someone having an American perspective on regional affairs. Yet my motives (being half-Lebanese) and those of other Arabs for welcoming Saddam Hussein’s downfall and the end of Syria’s long Lebanese interregnum derived almost entirely from an Arab standpoint. Our approach to the debate in the United States on the Middle East has been that of outsiders; we’re interested in how it affects us, but we cannot, reasonably, be portrayed as representatives of a particular faction.

Let’s define “neocon.” Neoconservative thought has changed greatly in three decades, so it’s best outlined through its main features during the Bush years. The most forceful compendium of neocon thinking was the National Security Strategy of 2002, though the document was a mishmash that included liberal internationalist notions as well. What was new, however, was its focus on US military superiority and its justification of Washington’s right to engage in pre-emptive strikes against emerging threats and to advance its interests unilaterally. Drawing from the heightened imperative of security, neocons, though they were hardly the only ones, were inclined to go along with the tenuous legal system for holding terrorist suspects at Guantanamo prison and other military facilities, extraordinary rendition, even torture.

There is a strong domestic American component to the neocon agenda. The neocons saw 9/11 as allowing for the relative curtailment of civil liberties and freedom of markets through the USA Patriot Act, and they have repeatedly encouraged (without success) the introduction of national identity cards, using intrusive biometric data. Though neocons, sensibly, argued in favor of advancing liberalism abroad, almost none of those present in the Bush administration actively opposed the undermining of liberal values when the White House and the administration’s judiciary bureaucracy tortuously validated the mistreatment of foreign detainees.

If you call someone a neocon, particularly an Arab, you should be pretty sure that he or she meets those criteria. However, it’s likely that almost no Arab who supported the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Baathists in Iraq, or the Syrian army from Lebanon does. Most either opposed abusive American behavior or were indifferent. But all knew that every time the US neglected human rights, liberals who had initially supported the premises of American intervention were discredited.

By transforming the discussion of the desirability of confronting Middle Eastern autocracies into a parochial American bellyache about neocons versus anti-neocons, the polemicists have emptied it of everything interesting, for example disregarding how, during its second term, the Bush administration moved away from neocon tenets of the first term.

Take Lebanon’s emancipation movement against Syria, following the murder of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The US played a key role in forcing the Syrians out by working multilaterally, through the United Nations. Even administration neocons endorsed this strategy, showing the discrepancy between theory and practice. The reality is that the legalistic, internationalist US response to the Lebanese crisis was a far cry from what neocons had earlier advocated. Nevertheless, those in Lebanon publicly lauding this conduct, by virtue of being with America, were still branded hawks, ideologues, and, yes, neocons.

Credit the neocons with one thing. After 9/11 they filled the gap of comprehension in the US when it came to the attacks. Left-liberals, old-line realists, and libertarians had little credible to say about why the crimes were committed. The neocons alone saw them as the consequence of a systemic problem deriving from a lack of Arab democracy. They were right. But the riposte was haphazard, contradictory, and ultimately counterproductive, so that America soon found itself isolated. That’s why Bush adopted more consensual policies during his second term.

Grasping these subtleties is compulsory to avoid tossing the word neocon around with abandon. As for my American accuser, I found instructive that when a mutual friend criticized his statement that I had coordinated with the former officials, all he could reply in an e-mail was: “You’re right on the coordination – I have no idea.” Fabrication seems to be par for the course whenever the neocon bogeyman is brought up.