Friday, November 27, 2009

Permanent government, Lebanese style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Obama just can't afford to neglect Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

A loud grumble shakes the Aounist jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kiss the Independence Intifada goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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