Monday, March 29, 2010

Ghosts of Beirut

Ghosts of Beirut - How the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri transformed the Middle East.

I mistook the explosion that killed Rafiq al-Hariri for a sonic boom, as it rattled the wooden curtain box above my balcony window.

It was almost 1 p.m. on Monday, February 14, 2005, and I was working in our apartment in eastern Beirut, 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) from the blast. The first sense I got that something had happened was my wife telling me, as she walked into the house, that what she had heard was no sonic boom. By midafternoon we knew that Hariri had been assassinated, that the image many of us had seen on our television screens of the charred remains of a victim being lifted onto a stretcher was of the charred remains of Rafiq al-Hariri. In the car sitting next to him was Basil Fuleihan, formerly an economy minister and a friend from my university days. Basil survived but was so badly burned that when he passed away on April 18, the miracle of his being kept alive seemed a curse. A friend who saw the explosion described cars, heavy armor-plated cars, tossed up dozens of meters into the air, as the shockwave made him feel like the flesh was being torn from his body.
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Hariri's killing struck me as astonishing. His enemies had gone too arrogantly far, without gauging the consequences. Unlike a surprising number of other people who had not known the former prime minister (I had met him only twice), I did not take the assassination personally. But I do recall telling a friend that it was the end for Syria in Lebanon, and feeling that now we had to deal with the enormous vacuum left behind by Hariri, because, like or dislike him, he had filled center court in the country for almost fourteen years. I had never been close to the Hariri entourage, and had criticized the prime minister's social and economic program in the mid-1990s.

But Hariri was no thug; he enjoyed defending his ideas against argumentative journalists, and wouldn't crack your knees for disagreeing with him. He had a tendency to see the state as a version of himself writ large, and collected people without allowing himself to be played by them. The son of a modest family from the southern port city of Sidon, throughout his social rise he had had the determination and astuteness of the upstart who hasn't yet acquired a vanity fed by the city. Hariri's feat was to conquer Beirut, to reinvent himself as a personification of the capital by way of a successful contracting career in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s.

But with Syria always looking over his shoulder, Hariri usually won his hands with three aces, never four. Nothing demonstrated this better than the fact that he was now dead, having tried but failed to pick that fourth ace.

That evening I went to the Hariri residence in the Qoreitem neighborhood to see what the atmosphere was like. As I stood in a crowd outside the door waiting to enter, I heard a young man shout, "If we want to know the truth, it is Syria that killed Hariri."

This was an audacious statement to make then, but not because Syria was innocent, for it was plain that Syria alone had the motive, the means, and the intention of killing Hariri; but because the young man was almost certainly a Sunni Muslim, from a community that had long resisted condemning the Syrians in Lebanon.

Inside the building were hundreds of people, as leaders of the opposition to the government of Prime Minister Omar Karami gathered to issue a statement. When it came, the statement held Syria and the pro-Syrian government responsible for the crime, demanded an independent international investigation, called for the government's resignation, and demanded that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon. The last point restated the central demand of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 approved the previous September, which had also called on armed groups in Lebanon to surrender their weapons-a provision directed primarily against Hezbollah. The participants insisted that the Syrian withdrawal take place before parliamentary elections in May and June, and declared a three-day general strike. These ideas would be given a label on Friday the eighteenth, when the opposition declared the launching of the Independence Intifada.

I sat next to a European ambassador who told me he had seen Hariri the previous week and inquired whether he was being careful about his security. Hariri had been confident, the ambassador remembered, persuaded that he was protected by his international connections, particularly French President Jacques Chirac. That didn't quite square with what Hariri's ally, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, said after the killing. Jumblatt had more openly defied Syria than Hariri in recent months and mentioned that he and the former prime minister would discuss which of them would be killed. "He was," Jumblatt later laconically told me. But if that was Hariri's thinking, then it indicated no certainty that he was safe, unless he was convinced that Jumblatt would be the unlucky one.

The relationship between Hariri and the Syrian regime had always been complicated. For much of his time as prime minister, Hariri had propped up the postwar Syrian order, if not always by conviction. Syrian rule after 1990 rested on a foundation of Arab and international consensus, and Hariri was the Saudis' stake in Lebanon. However, the bad blood had grown in the months between passage of Resolution 1559 and the assassination. The previous August, Hariri, who headed a parliamentary bloc, had been summoned to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He was told to approve a constitutional amendment extending the term of President Émile Lahoud, Hariri's enemy.

According to Jumblatt, Assad told the former prime minister: "Lahoud is me, if you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon." The Syrians held Hariri responsible for Resolution 1559. This overstated things but was true in that Hariri had influence with Chirac, whose government had jointly sponsored the resolution with Washington. Hariri had even quietly congratulated some Security Council members voting in favor.

In reaction to the extension of Lahoud's mandate, a small group of politicians and parties formed what became the "Bristol Gathering," for the hotel where they met. This coalition coalesced around a core of longstanding Christian foes of Syria, as well as, for the first time, previous Syrian allies, most prominently Jumblatt, leader to Lebanon's 200,000-strong Druze community.

Hariri officially remained neutral, but in the weeks before his assassination he and his bloc members more openly displayed their sympathy for the Bristol opposition, earning them threats from government ministers and even from the prime minister. Hariri had his eye on the summer legislative elections, hoping he would be able to reconfirm his popularity and widen his margin of maneuver with the Syrians. Yet he and his allies expected, at best, to win a substantial minority in parliament.

However, Syria's perception of its domination of Lebanon was inflexible. The Assad regime's fear of what Hariri, backed by the international community, might do to this domination; its paranoia with regard to Lebanese Sunni mobilization, fortified by Christian and Druze antipathy, which risked giving the wrong ideas to Syria's own majority Sunni population ruled by a minority Alawite regime -- all this made the former prime minister a premier target. It should have been obvious why Hariri risked more than Jumblatt. He was playing a high-stakes game so that his successes endangered Syria's twenty-nine-year-old rule over Lebanon as well as Assad's authority at home. Yet the Syrians were wrong in assuming that his removal would impose tranquility. All it did was bring about the outcome the Syrians had sought to avert: the unity of a majority of Sunnis, Druze, and Christians against Syria.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Is Lebanon scared of the Hariri tribunal?

If there were lingering doubts that it was Syria that leaked information to the German magazine Der Spiegel last year indicating that Hezbollah had participated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, they were dissipated when the preeminent Syrian megaphone in Beirut, Wiam Wahhab, informed us this week that an investigating team from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon had interviewed Hezbollah members.

Wahhab’s message was simple: Accusing Hezbollah in the killing of Hariri could have dire consequences for Lebanon, as it might provoke a confrontation between Sunnis and Shia. While Lebanon officially continues to support the work of the tribunal, you will hear more frequently these days that many Lebanese officials quietly agree with Wahhab. They really just want the Hariri case to go away.

That has long been the calculation of the Syrians. In a meeting between Bashar al-Assad and the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in April 2007, Syria’s president implicitly linked Hezbollah to the Hariri crime. His words were leaked to the French daily Le Monde, where Assad was quoted as saying that instability in Lebanon “will worsen if the special [Hariri] tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII [of the UN Charter]. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites [sic] from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea ... This would have serious consequences beyond Lebanon.”

The exchange told us many things. First, that if Syria was so keen to prevent a tribunal under Chapter VII, that meant it had something to hide. It also told us that Assad was aware that Hezbollah might have participated in the assassination of the former prime minister, since why else would he have brought up, completely out of the blue, the possibility of a Sunni-Shia civil war? In turn, this might explain why, when Assad was ignored and the tribunal formed under Chapter VII anyway, the Syrians perhaps decided that everyone needed a stronger dose of reality and leaked the information to Der Spiegel.

What Wahhab did, doubtless at the instigation of Damascus, was to bring the message home once more, now that the prosecutor of the Lebanon tribunal, Daniel Bellemare, has decided to take more witness statements, including those of Hezbollah members. For what the Syrian regime fears most is that an accusation against the party might take a roundabout route that eventually leads in its own direction.

After all, the Syrians have carefully read the reports of the UN investigators over the years. Recall that in his first report in March 2006, the then-head of the United Nations commission, Serge Brammertz, atypically provided interesting information when he wrote: “The Commission believes that there is a layer of perpetrators between those who initially commissioned the crime and the actual perpetrators on the day of the crime, namely those who enabled the crime to occur.”

In other words, there was a suicide bomber; there was a group of individuals who surveyed Hariri’s movements, and this appears to be where Hezbollah comes in; and there were those who commissioned the operation, and it doesn’t take much to guess who they were. But when Brammertz failed to initiate an aggressive police investigation in Syria, the UN was left to focus on Lebanese participation in the crime.

Criticism has been directed at the UN investigation for Brammertz’s unwillingness to conduct a real police investigation in Syria when he was at his post between 2006 and 2008. However, that should not mean the Lebanese are off the hook. If Bellemare does manage to put out an indictment against Lebanese parties, will the government in Beirut be willing to bear the consequences? After four years during which the tribunal was front and center in the political debate, especially in the rhetoric of the March 14 coalition; during which people were killed or injured on the tribunal’s behalf; is Lebanon today getting cold feet?

News reports suggest that Hezbollah has allowed a small number of its members summoned by Daniel Bellemare to be questioned. That’s interesting in itself. But what about the others who have not been made available to the prosecution? If they refuse to come forward, Bellemare has the option of compelling the Lebanese to bring them in. And if the Lebanese fail to do so, he has the latitude to go to the Security Council. He may choose this path, or he may not. But sooner or later the Lebanese authorities will have to take a clear position on the tribunal.

The Lebanese political class is happy only when floating in ambiguity. Yet that’s not acceptable in the case of a major political crime that led to the formation of a landmark tribunal. The UN, for all its faults, took Lebanon seriously in 2005 by creating an independent investigation of the Hariri assassination. The Lebanese must now show they deserved it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Israel is losing the battle of narratives

Some will argue that the United Kingdom’s expulsion this week of an Israeli diplomat, by most accounts a Mossad agent, was a transitory spat between allies, following Israel’s use of forged British passports in the recent assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai. After all, they might add, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did something similar in 1988, without lingering consequences. Yet things seem rather different this time.

Israeli officials should take note that the narrative of their conflict with the Palestinians is changing fundamentally outside Israel. The specifics aside, in the larger picture more countries than ever before see Israel as the problem, and we’re not talking here about the popular antipathy the country seems to often provoke in Asia and Latin America. Even in friendlier climes such as the United States and Europe, the hardening perception is that Israel’s irresponsible settlement expansion plan is destroying all prospects for a mutually satisfactory accord with the Palestinians, and that the ensuing instability will harm everyone.

In the uproar that followed US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel two weeks ago, relatively little attention was paid to his important speech at Tel Aviv University, where one sentence accurately summarized Israel’s dilemma. “It’s no secret the demographic realities make it increasingly difficult for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and a democratic country in the absence of the Palestinian state,” Biden warned his hosts.

In this, the vice president only echoed a theme that Israeli officials themselves have long acknowledged. All things staying equal, Israel will continue to control a growing Palestinian population whose rights, by necessity given the imperatives of security, it will abuse even more extensively than it is doing today. Nor would this resolve anything, because demographics would march on, until two peoples are fighting over one piece of land – or trying to conclude an impossible peace.

The only alternative for Israel is the full-scale expulsion of Palestinians, which would thoroughly discredit Israel in the eyes of the world. In a way the Israelis are paying for that choice before it has ever been made. Nor will it be. Israel simply has no expulsion option. It can reduce the Arab population in Jerusalem, perhaps; it can momentarily seal off Palestinians in enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza; but without a political solution, those are merely odious stopgap measures costing the Israelis ever more valuable political capital to sustain.

That’s why the narrative has shifted, and it’s why Israel today is facing, for the first time, criticism from allies on moral grounds. A state that sustained itself for decades as a moral creation, a refuge for the world’s suffering Jews, is essentially ensuring that the only long-term outlook for Israelis and Palestinians is violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared backing for a two-state solution notwithstanding, Israel has no endgame other than the perpetuation of ruinous stalemate. And because it holds the land, the burden is on Israel to define that endgame.

Israel’s ability to draw the negotiating process out indefinitely has been greatly facilitated by Palestinian incompetence. The Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is struggling to regain the initiative among Palestinians, while Hamas, despite optimistic suggestions to the contrary, has no interest in entering peace talks with Israel. Yet Hamas’ disastrous provocation of the Gaza war over a year ago has considerably undermined the movement’s military strategy, with Palestinians now more willing to go along with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s state-building project in the West Bank, if it is allowed to eventually lead somewhere.

The Palestinian Authority has faced much criticism, especially by purported supporters of the Palestinian cause. But Fayyad’s approach is the only realistic project that Palestinians can pursue today – a project of internal consolidation. More important, as the world watches Abbas and Fayyad focusing on domestic reform, they also see Israel in a different light. The Palestinians, for once, have managed to transform interpretation of their relationship with Israel to their own advantage.

That’s why continuing skepticism over the extent of the dispute between Israel and the United States, or Israel and the United Kingdom, is irrelevant. Neither the Americans nor the British will soon, or ever, break with Israel. But neither, too, is disposed any more to acquiesce in Israel’s contention that its policies in the West Bank are justified by the absence of a resolute Palestinian partner. As Biden affirmed in his Tel Aviv speech, “Genuine steps toward a two-state solution are also required to empower those [willing] to live in peace and security with Israel and to undercut their rivals who will never accept that future.”

Ultimately, Israeli leaders will insist they have no obligations but to their own people. They will disregard intensifying frustration with their actions because Israel’s security is an Israeli matter. But how true is that? If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Israeli security will be more closely tied in with that of the United States. Any American regional nuclear umbrella will also cover Israel, regardless of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. As for the Palestinians, their problem has never been more internationalized – its repercussions felt in countless foreign capitals. Palestinian statehood may be debated at the United Nations in the not too distant future. Israel’s latitude to pursue containable unilateral steps is diminishing because the Middle East’s dynamics now have an impact in so many countries.

A more disturbing thought is that any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is long gone, making this entire discussion pointless. In that reading, the Palestinians have time in their favor, as they will form a numerical majority over the Jews before long. Therefore, all we can really look forward to is open-ended armed hostility, again lasting generations. That may be too bleak an evaluation. Then again it may not be.

Obama's domestic victory polarises US foreign policy

Senator John McCain declared on Monday that the passage of President Barack Obama's health care legislation had angered Americans from the heartland. "We are going to have a very spirited campaign coming up between now and November. And there will be a very heavy price to pay for it," the Arizona Republican and former presidential candidate warned. Mr McCain was speaking about domestic electoral politics. However, in the divisive atmosphere following the Democrats' approval of the health bill in the House of Representatives, over unanimous Republican opposition, it would be naive to assume that the rancour will be contained there. During his campaign, Mr Obama portrayed himself as a man of consensus. One might debate the merits or faults of his health plan, but his legislative victory has only confirmed him as one of the most polarising presidents in recent American memory.

Polarisation is not necessarily bad. Many of America's great legislative initiatives, from the New Deal to the civil rights acts, provoked lasting resentment in sections of American society, because they so profoundly changed the nature of the country's political and social order. Mr Obama's willingness to go all the way on health care may well define his legacy. But it will also hinder him when it comes to foreign affairs, and nowhere will this have more of an impact than in the broader Middle East, where the president has placed his most substantial wagers.

That doesn't mean that Republicans, out of sheer spite, will oppose each and every regional initiative of the president. If there is one place where agreement has survived between the two parties, it is foreign policy, and that is especially true in the Middle East. Mr Obama's accelerated withdrawal timetable from Iraq is popular; his positions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have not lost him core support; his favoured approach for addressing Iran's nuclear programme, with its mix of dialogue and sanctions, is acceptable to most voters; and even judgment of the president's surge in Afghanistan is on hold until July 2011, when American forces are scheduled to begin withdrawing.

Yet Mr Obama will also find his margin to manoeuvre severely constrained on all of these issues in the coming year, now that he has incurred Republican wrath and taken on an enormous financial burden through his health plan. In fact it's hard to see how he can avoid this. Take Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. It was, perhaps, no surprise that Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hardened his position on settlements while visiting Washington this week. Mr Netanyahu knows that with Congress in its current state, it will be very difficult for Mr Obama to pressure his right-wing government in the coming months. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have an incentive to pick a fight with Israel before congressional elections - Democrats, because they will need all the votes they can garner to retain their seats come November, given the unpopularity of the health care bill; Republicans, because defending Mr Netanyahu will be a way of thwarting the president.

And this goes beyond the power of a "pro-Israel lobby". In polarised environments, differing constituencies coalesce to pursue parochial agendas. Israel's backers, if they play their cards right, could rally, for example, conservative Christian groups (who regard Mr Obama as too liberal) or national security hawks (who believe the high cost of his health plan will make America weaker militarily) against the president's preferences. This could give Congress cold feet when it comes to granting Mr Obama the leverage he needs to negotiate peace.

The discord over the health plan will also limit the president's options in Iraq. Senior American officers in the country, even the former US ambassador in Baghdad, have advised that the United States retain flexibility by keeping more combat troops in the country beyond the September 1 withdrawal deadline. Given the post-election confusion in Iraq today, and the possibility of months of political wrangling, this seems wise. Yet Mr Obama is far less inclined to listen to such advice now that any delay might be turned against Democrats at election time.

The price tag of the health care bill will also curb the president's options with respect to Iran and Afghanistan. The Obama administration has always factored potential economic costs into its Iran strategy. A war, many people in Washington believe, would have ruinous consequences for the world economy. But if that assertion could still be debated before the health care bill, it no longer can be. With a price tag of $940 billion (Dh3.5 trillion) over the next 10 years, with many American states running crippling deficits, and with global finances still fragile after the 2008 crisis, Mr Obama will think longer and harder than ever before engaging in military action against Tehran, or allowing Israel to do so.

Much the same is true in Afghanistan. When he announced his Afghan plan, Mr Obama saw money as a major factor in making it sustainable. His promise that a pullout would start in the middle of next year was as much a financial calculation as a political one. The cost of health care may force the president to stick to his pledge in a more rigid way than he initially intended. Worse, if the Republicans win next November, Mr Obama may find that he doesn't own that war anymore, as Congress tries to chip away at his authority in the lead-up to the 2012 elections.

The repercussions of the current polarisation will endure well beyond November if the Republicans gain majorities in the House and Senate. Bipartisanship has long been a pillar of American foreign policy, the notion that American differences end "at the water's edge". Mr Obama restored harmony after the acrimony of the George W Bush years. But with so much at stake in Washington, that hiatus may have just ended.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Syria turns up the heat on Samir Geagea

There was a revealing moment last Saturday in the interview conducted by Al-Jazeera’s Ghassan bin Jiddu with Walid Jumblatt, which may explain to some extent what Syria will expect of the Druze leader now that President Bashar Assad has agreed to receive him.

The interview with Bin Jiddu was one of the two conditions imposed on Jumblatt by Syria some months ago, so that he could earn his Damascus invitation (the first being an apology to the Syrian people for a statement he made to the American journalist David Ignatius, to whom he had asked why Washington had not supported the majority in Syria as it did in Iraq). Jumblatt claimed at the time that he was reluctant to sit for the interview, because Bin Jiddu, who is openly sympathetic to Hizbullah and Syria, might corner him with his questions. More likely, the Druze leader preferred to negotiate beforehand what he would say, probably through the Turks and Qataris. Bin Jiddu, visibly elated by the red carpet treatment he received in Mukhtara, was easily neutralized by Jumblatt.

However, the journalist posed a question that signaled he had a good grasp of why Syria selected him to interrogate Jumblatt. In talking to the Druze leader about his relationship with his former allies in March 14, Bin Jiddu pointedly asked him to describe how things were going with the Lebanese Forces. In recent months, the Syrians and their local allies have sought to isolate Samir Geagea and break his alliance with Saad Hariri. Bin Jiddu knew that Jumblatt, to improve his bona fides with Syria, might jump on the occasion to denounce the Lebanese Forces leader.

In fact Jumblatt avoided a negative answer, forcing Bin Jiddu to clarify that he did not want to focus solely on the Lebanese Forces. But the message relayed by the Al-Jazeera correspondent was clear enough: In the future Walid Jumblatt might have to do better than that when mentioning Geagea, at least if he wants to enjoy Syria’s favors.

A longstanding pillar of Syrian policy in Lebanon has been the political containment of the Sunni community. In the eyes of the Alawite-led regime in Damascus, any Lebanese Sunni affirmation threatens to extend to Syria, where it might mobilize the Sunni majority there. A byproduct of this strategy has been the prevention of a solid Sunni-Christian alliance in Lebanon, with Christians traditionally those most hostile to the Syrian presence. When Geagea got too close to Rafik Hariri in the early 1990s, he was rewarded with a prison cell, just as when the Sunni mufti, Sheikh Hassan Khaled, threatened to stray off the Syrian reservation during Michel Aoun’s “war of liberation” against Syria in 1989, he was killed in a car-bomb attack not far from his offices at Dar al-Fatwa.

Last year, Syria’s Lebanese allies began vowing that Geagea would be their next target. However, in the build-up toward the formation of the government there were no apparent signs of a concerted campaign in this direction. Unconfirmed reports suggested that Saudi Arabia was protecting Geagea from Syria, though this perhaps meant only that the Lebanese Forces leader would be spared assassination. In recent weeks, however, there have been new leaks indicating that Syria is annoyed with the Hariri-Geagea bond, and has complained to the Saudis about it.

Why is Damascus so wary of Geagea? There are several reasons, beyond Syrian discomfort with a Sunni-Christian axis. For starters, Geagea has been gaining ground in his community. His organizational skills are doubted by none, and he is the person most likely to inherit a Christian plurality, even a majority, after the demise of the 75-year-old Michel Aoun, who is unlikely to leave behind an effective movement. There are Christians who will never embrace Geagea, but there are also signs that many of those who once disliked him and his party are increasingly in agreement with Geagea for having remained politically consistent.

A second reason is that Geagea has managed to build up ties outside Lebanon that in some ways protect him against Syria. The Saudis will be forever uneasy with the Lebanese Forces leader, given his wartime record, but they may yet think twice before depriving Saad Hariri of a valuable Christian counterpart. Geagea can also depend to an extent on the backing of the United States. This may not have saved him from imprisonment, but now that the Syrians are gone militarily, Geagea can use such ties (bolstered by the close connection he has maintained with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, someone much appreciated in Washington) to increase his leverage at key moments.

Geagea is also bothersome because he survived everything that Syria threw at him, and it’s not easy to eliminate him any more. He was never co-opted by the Assad regime, so that even if he decides to mend fences with Damascus, he will be able to do so from a position of relative autonomy and strength. The Syrians have nothing on him, and must be aware of a potential paradox: the more they try to cut Geagea off, the more they risk pushing ambivalent Christians to his side.

Despite this, the Syrians see advantages in pressing ahead against the Lebanese Forces leader. For one thing, the Saudis have given Syria a wide berth in Lebanon, and may eventually decide that Geagea’s affiliation with Hariri is becoming too serious a snag in the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement. If so, this could undermine the Lebanese Forces patronage networks. The Syrians also know that Geagea’s partial reliance on Sfeir for his communal legitimacy will one day end. But most important, Syria has succeeded in keeping the Christians divided, and with Aoun and President Michel Sleiman also vying for Christian validation, Geagea is vulnerable.

It will be interesting to see whether Jumblatt, after his Syria trip, continues to avoid criticism of Geagea, or whether he will be start participating in the marginalization of the Lebanese Forces leader. Jumblatt, with a sizeable Christian population under his authority in the mountains, many of them Geagea supporters, will hesitate. But with improved Syrian ties a priority, how long can he stay on the fence? The question is not academic. If Jumblatt turns against Geagea, that spells the end of the Christian-Druze-Sunni alliance that made March 14 possible.

Michel Aoun declared on Tuesday that March 14 was going to pieces. The general has become adept at anticipating Syria’s mood and his statement was, alas, not entirely wrong. He knows that once Jumblatt visits Bashar Assad, the majority might not endure as a majority. Watch Walid Jumblatt to see if Aoun’s confidence is justified.

Deconstructing the Wahhab assault

You have to feel sorry for President Michel Sleiman. Here he is doing his very best to satisfy all sides, and what does he get in return? An invitation to resign from Syria through one of its local megaphones, Wiam Wahhab.

Perhaps Sleiman will soon wake up to the fact that he is in a battle for his political survival. He has no choice but to fight back, and there are few ways to do so better than to play confessional politics. He needs to stiffen his back by garnering stronger Christian, particularly Maronite, support; he needs to portray all attacks against him as attacks against the Christians in general; and he really needs to move beyond the quaint notion that he can remain above the fray, and instead tighten his alliances with those having a stake in defending him against his enemies.

Sleiman’s only hope is to bargain with Damascus from a position of relative strength, not to benignly try to dodge Syrian bullets.

It’s remarkable the extent to which some Maronite leaders are willing to be used by Syria and its followers against one another. Wahhab’s broadside against Sleiman came after his meeting with Michel Aoun in Rabieh. Although Aoun’s media outlet, OTV, reported that the assault had taken the general by surprise, he has done everything possible in the past year and a half to undermine the president’s position. Deep down Aoun still harbors the hope that Sleiman might somehow be pushed out of office, and that he, Aoun, will sit in the chair he’s coveted for two decades.

The Syrian-led campaign against Sleiman has been linked to the president’s recent invitation to renew the national dialogue sessions. That’s part of it, but the greater part is that Syria is, simply, pursuing its plan to wreck any semblance of a functioning, cohesive Lebanese state – its ultimate objective being to reassert Syrian political control in Beirut.

Understandably, the Syrians feel confident. This week the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee held hearings to approve the appointment of Robert Ford as the new American ambassador to Syria. The relations between the Syrians and the Saudis are also improving, amid signs that Riyadh is willing to give President Bashar al-Assad a relatively wide berth to maneuver in Lebanon. Damascus has even asked the Saudis to pressure their Lebanese allies into being more compliant with Syrian wishes.

Syria seeks to avert, in particular, the emergence of a political axis between Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Not only would coordination between the president and prime minister make it more difficult for Damascus to shape government decisions; it could also reinforce Sunni-Christian ties, which is what the Syrians spent most of their years in Lebanon trying to avoid. The overriding reason why Wahhab called on the president to resign when he did was probably that Hariri came to the president’s defense while on a visit to Germany.

In parallel, the Syrians have also started turning their guns against the leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea. Breaking the Sunni-Christian bond is at the forefront of Syrian thinking, but also preventing the consolidation of a Christian consensus around politicians seeking to decisively move Lebanon away from Syrian hegemony. With Walid Jumblatt set to visit Damascus soon, and politically vulnerable to Syrian injunctions, Bashar al-Assad now has more means at his disposal to break apart the alliances that once held the March 14 coalition together.

Strangely enough, this provides opportunities for Michel Sleiman. His relationship with Geagea is not close; both are competing to an extent over Christian sympathy; but both also have an interest in standing together to avoid falling divided. And in this they will have the approval of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Outside the Christian community, Saad Hariri, keen to avoid being undercut by Syria and its allies, will welcome such a development. A weak president is an albatross around the prime minister’s neck. But until, and unless, Sleiman anchors himself among his own coreligionists, he will remain an ineffective head of state.

Wahhab’s statement was, effectively, a declaration of war, but also an invitation to Sleiman to side more openly with Syria’s allies. “[A]fter two years of rule we feel like we are in the last days of the presidency,” he said. How right he was, if for all the wrong reasons. Unless the president counterattacks, Wahhab’s cynical description will be borne out.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Iraqis are better off today. Live with it!

It may be worth posing the question, days after the end of the Iraqi elections, whether anyone might be willing to admit that the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was, after all, a good idea. The question is loaded, the possible answers, for and against, manifold, and the caveats infinite. But I will dare an answer: Yes, Iraq is better off today than it was under Saddam, and you have George W. Bush to thank.

Not that Bush didn’t do everything in the first two years after the overthrow of the Baath regime to undermine his own enterprise, until he fortuitously hit upon the “surge” to reverse the situation. And even there, the US president greatly benefited from a change of mood in the Sunni community, when the Awakening Councils turned against Al-Qaeda. That only affirmed, as did this past Sunday’s voting, that too much attention is usually afforded the United States, when Iraq’s future is being largely defined by the Iraqis themselves, and has been since the 2005 elections.

So thank you Bush, but let’s move to the more interesting story: Iraq is emerging as a pluralistic country in its own right. Its democracy remains dysfunctional; its elections were marred by irregularities and more violence than was initially admitted; and there is no doubt that the specter of sectarian discord still hovers over Iraqi lives. Yet, those dynamics, for better or worse, are Iraqi dynamics, not American ones, with Washington discovering that it has limited latitude to shape outcomes in Baghdad.

But don’t expect anyone to reconsider the Iraq war just yet. Bush will not soon live down the public perception that he lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in order to justify a war, even though it is likely that he actually believed that Saddam possessed such weapons. The former British prime minister, Tony Blair, is in the same situation. A Spanish government lost all popularity over the Iraq decision, and only the other evening I spoke to Danish parliamentarians who were still bristling at how their government had misled voters in the run-up to the war.

Such reactions are understandable in the context of Western democratic practice. Voters and lawmakers have every right to expect that their representatives will not deceive them. But the reactions are also a trifle parochial when weighed against the awfulness of Iraq’s previous Baath regime. Here we have Westerners apoplectic with their onetime leaders for not telling the truth, but oddly incapable of mustering the same outrage when considering the misdeeds of a mass murderer like Saddam Hussein. In their haste to declare the Iraq war “illegal”, the critics rarely mention that Saddam violated countless United Nations resolutions and was exploiting the UN “oil for food” program to tighten his grip on power.

Worse, much Western and Arab consideration of Iraq passes almost exclusively through the prism of what it says about America. Even before their country was invaded, the Iraqis had become secondary players in their impending drama. The prewar debate in the US between antiwar activists, neoconservatives, liberal hawks and old-line realists was of some interest, but it was also light on the political and social realities of Iraq itself. In the Middle East, too, everything was about America, and not at all about how the imminent removal of an Arab dictator might help open up political orders in the region, led by carnivorous autocrats.

Now that we have an opportunity to see amend that interpretation, because there is no ambiguity that the Iraqis themselves are deciding their own fate, many Western and Arab observers of Iraq appear to have lost interest. Americans, when they can be roused, seem focused on “The Hurt Locker” and the military withdrawal scheduled for later this year, while the Arabs have pigeonholed Iraq into the Sunni-Shia regional rivalry, itself a facet of expanding Iranian influence in the region.

Here’s a prediction. As Barack Obama’s supposedly new approach to the Middle East continues to flounder, and as Iraq gradually emerges as a more stable order (don’t hold your breath, but it will happen in the coming years), Arabs but chiefly Westerners will view the country in a different light. They will continue to place American behavior past and present at the center of their reflections; but they will also begin to make the right queries, namely whether outside military force is sometimes necessary to depose destabilizing dictatorships, providing that political authority is handed over to the inhabitants of the country soon thereafter.

Over 130 attacks occurred on election day in Iraq, killing 37 people. Yet the national average for participation in elections was over 60 percent. Even in Baghdad, where most of the attacks were concentrated, the participation level exceeded 50 percent. Iraqis are eager to do their thing, and they would not have been able to do so had Saddam’s gruesome family still been around, like all those other gruesome families perpetuating their rule in Arab capitals. Something is right in this.

Blame the Americans, but also Iraq’s neighbors and those who had benefited from the Baath regime, for having made the transition to a more pluralistic country far bloodier than it needed to be. Cross your fingers and hope that Iraq can stay the course. But most Iraqis do not long for the days when they were ruled by a tyrant who caused the death, directly or indirectly, of hundreds of thousands of people. A reassessment is in order.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cassese's optimism hides real worries

There was excitement in Beirut this week, after the Lebanese heard about the 60-page report issued by the president of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Antonio Cassese. The document, describing the tribunal’s progress during its first year, was well-structured, informative about the institution’s legal framework, and elegant, with erudite references to Hegel, Voltaire and Plato. But it’s not at all obvious why so many people managed to read good news into the text.

Cassese did express optimism, writing that the tribunal had made “significant progress towards building a case which will bring perpetrators to justice.” However, the president also added that “much remains to be done, and the unwavering support and continued cooperation of Lebanon and all other States, as well as donor Countries and relevant organizations, are needed in order for the [prosecution] to successfully fulfill its mandate.” Unwavering support is something states rarely give, particularly to a tribunal whose work has significant political repercussions, so Cassese was sounding a cautionary note.

Cassese wrote that the assassins of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, “carried out the attack with the complicity of a wider group.” Nothing new here. Recall that in his first report in March 2006, the then commissioner of the United Nations investigation, Serge Brammertz, uncharacteristically provided real information when he wrote: “The Commission believes that there is a layer of perpetrators between those who initially commissioned the crime and the actual perpetrators on the day of the crime, namely those who enabled the crime to occur.”

International investigators, particularly the prosecutor of the tribunal, Daniel Bellemare, know very well who was behind the killing of Hariri, and how it was done. Cassese’s report, if one reads carefully, confirms this. We know that there was someone who commissioned the crime, and it doesn’t require much imagination to say who it was. We know there was a suicide bomber who actually detonated the device. And we know there was an intermediate circle of enablers observing the former prime minister’s movements who communicated only between themselves. Someone in that group apparently made an unauthorized telephone call that broke the closed circle, pointing investigators in the direction of specific individuals. How do we know this? From the mass of confirmed information out there, through the UN commission’s reports, and because two Lebanese officers in charge of analyzing telecommunications intercepts, Samir Shehadeh and Wissam Eid, were the victims of assassination attempts, one of them successful.

As Cassese implies in his report, it is the intermediate group of enablers that is posing the most problems for tribunal investigators. “[T]he authors of terrorist crimes generally make up small and secretive cells, which sometimes act in clandestine fashion. Hence, it is extremely difficult to identify the perpetrators of a specific crime.”

More disturbing is that little information appears to exist for indicting those who commissioned the crime. Cassese’s report indicates that the attention is on the “secretive cell” of enablers-perpetrators, not on Syria, which alone had the influence and motive to organize a conspiracy to eliminate Hariri. One reason is that the testimony of Mohammad Zuheir al-Saddiq has been discredited; but also that Serge Brammertz never moved beyond that setback to pursue an aggressive police investigation inside Syrian territory, although his mandate permitted this and his hypothesis for how the crime was committed demanded it.

The tribunal president also tries to explain that the Lebanese need to be patient about the timeframe for indictments. “As a rule, at least two or three years elapse between the beginning of criminal investigations proper by an International Tribunal’s Prosecution and the initiation of trial proceedings,” he writes. That is a sleight of hand. Investigators have had almost five years to look at Hariri’s assassination, with no sign of indictments coming soon, even if it’s true that the first investigator, Detlev Mehlis, was not preparing a formal legal case.

But worse, international tribunals do not generally find themselves without any identified suspects this late in the game. Suspects in custody are the backbone of an investigation. They are the ones who can provide information about the nuts and bolts of a crime. As Cassese admits, the problem with terrorist crimes is that it is difficult for investigators to gather information on the structure and chain of command of the perpetrators, because they are so cautious. If Daniel Bellemare doesn’t have enough to prepare indictments now, why should we expect this to change in the future?

We understand from Cassese’s report that in the coming months Bellemare will try to garner more information about the enablers and the suicide bomber to indict. This will require the assistance of the Lebanese authorities, who, according to the agreement reached between the Lebanese judiciary and the tribunal, “may not refuse to cooperate on any of the grounds usually applicable in inter-State legal assistance or extradition treaties (such as non-extradition of nationals, political offence exception, double criminality requirement or [double jeopardy]).” And, according to the tribunal’s statutes, provision is made for conducting trials in the absence of the accused.

In other words, for Bellemare to make headway he must ask the Lebanese to bring in individuals either who can shine a light on the cell of enablers or who actually belonged to it. Cassese doesn’t name names, but it’s very easy to guess to whom he is referring. There is one group that fits the profile he outlines, and we can be confident that the ­­Lebanese authorities will reply that they are unable to implement Bellemare’s summons. This leaves the prosecutor with the option of indicting suspects in absentia, although the disadvantage there is that it will be nearly impossible for him to subsequently uncover the chain of command in the crime. It may also provoke civil discord in Lebanon.

This makes for an odd disconnect in Cassese’s report. He tries to reassure the Lebanese that the delay in an indictment is normal, that these kinds of cases take time. But in the end, the obstacles he describes are structural, having little to do with time. If Bellemare cannot bring in certain suspects today for questioning or arrest, it’s doubtful that he will be able to do so tomorrow either. The prosecutor is not in the dark about what happened. But he needs the key to unlock an indictment, and he needs the Lebanese to help him find that key. The Lebanese will most probably not do so, leaving Bellemare only with bad choices.

That’s why Cassese’s optimism seems contrived. The tribunal president knows what’s wrong. He has to somehow induce the Lebanese to do what they have no intention of doing. Despite the claims to the contrary, Lebanese and regional politics will profoundly shape what lies ahead. Cassese’s report essentially admits this, albeit in the subtle language of the jurist. The Lebanese have no reason to feel especially upbeat.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The concerns of Lebanon's Christians are not parochial

With Lebanon's municipal elections underway, a significant question has emerged after two Sundays of voting, one with deeper consequences for the country and for sectarian relations. Namely, what does the future hold for Lebanese Christians? In the three major elections held during the past five years, the parliamentary elections of 2005 and 2009 and the current municipal elections, the truly competitive races took place in predominantly Christian areas. In mainly Shiite constituencies Hizbollah easily prevailed, along with the weaker allied Amal movement. While in majority Sunni districts the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri held sway. Only the Christians, especially their largest sect, the Maronites, escaped such unanimity through their political divisions.

In some respects this was laudable. For optimists, the Christians' pluralism was a sign of political maturity, as was their ability to accept the election processes as peaceful contests. There is some truth here. Historically, the Christians, like Lebanon's other religious groups, known here as confessions, have tended to gravitate around dual rival leaderships. Christians still do so, while Lebanon's Muslim communities in the past decade and a half, and longer in some cases, have come to be dominated by a single party or individual.

However, the optimistic reading of the Christians' destiny fails to take into consideration underlying dynamics that threaten the community's status as a central participant in Lebanese political life. For starters, there are demographics. Christians today represent anywhere between a quarter and a third of Lebanon's population (no census has been taken since 1932), after having been a majority in the pre-Independence and immediate post-Independence period. In 1989, the Taif Accord established parity between Christians and Muslims in parliament, after decades when Christians held a 6-to-5 majority. This was later integrated into the constitution as one of a series of amendments that diminished Christian political clout. Most prominent, the executive powers of the president of the republic, traditionally a Maronite, were distributed collectively to the council of ministers, led by a Sunni prime minister.

Christian-Muslim legislative parity, though Christians make up less than half the population, continues to be respected by Muslims. Indeed, in the recent municipal elections in Beirut, Mr Hariri sponsored a list of candidates, half of whom were Christian. Unlike parliament, municipal councils are not divided along religious lines. However, the decision was a sign of a deeper problem. If parity is increasingly regarded as a favour to be granted by Muslims, then it could just as easily, and legitimately, be challenged once the Muslims decide that the political breakdown no longer reflects reality. It is here that Christians, particularly the Maronites, have failed to prepare themselves for such an alternative. And to do so essentially requires that they overhaul their decades-old outlook when it comes to Lebanon and their aspirations in it.

Taif outlined a process of political deconfessionalism, whereby Lebanon would gradually reduce or eliminate the apportionment of political and administrative posts according to religion. The process never got off the ground, for myriad reasons. The most compelling, however, was that deconfessionalising the system would create panic among Christians by denying them the protection of parity, taking away from them reserved government posts, above all the presidency, therefore formalising their minority status.

Yet for Christians to cling to this unnatural situation through fear is potentially dangerous. It is better for them to seize the initiative of change, shaping outcomes in their favour, rather than have change imposed on them one day if Sunnis and Shiites agree to reduce Christian power. The Taif process allows for manageable change, including the formation of a senate to decide on vital national issues that would maintain Christian-Muslim parity. A system allowing communities to rotate senior government posts between themselves is also feasible, and could further reassure Christians.

In other words, where there is consensual change, there will also be a willingness by all sides, particularly the Muslims, to compromise. Yet the Christians have shown little willingness to address deconfessionalisation, and their leaders have been reluctant to initiate communal discussion on the topic. Which brings us to the psychological advantages of accepting a system that reduces or does away with sectarian quotas. For as long as Christians cannot transcend the fact that they are losing power, they will be unable to reinvent themselves in a new Lebanon. Their focus on preserving elusive prerogatives has prevented them from admitting to the dwindling advantages of these prerogatives. What they need is to define a new role for themselves, in a country where Muslims still remain amenable to facilitating this transformation.

This is no easy feat. The presence of an armed Hizbollah makes any new negotiation on power-sharing difficult today, especially between Sunnis and Shiites. Christians in particular are passing through a period of hardening dejection, exacerbated by destructive political rifts. Their saga of decline is undermining the confidence of their youths, whose first reflex is to emigrate. Christian churches, often pillars of the community educationally, but also socially and even politically, are in need of profound reform. Christian leaders are by and large obsessed with parochial calculations, and thoroughly incapable of fashioning a new vision for their coreligionists.

And yet the Christians have much to offer. Among both Sunnis and Shiites you will hear warnings of the imbalances in the political and social system if Christians were to collapse into irrelevance. Christians played an essential function in the creation of modern Lebanon, and for better or worse the system's DNA has been affected as much by their cultural, social and political reflexes as by that of the other communities, if not more so. Lebanon's Christians remain important, but they seem to be the last to realise it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Resurrecting Michel Sleiman

President Michel Sleiman decided to convene a national dialogue session, and all hell broke loose. You have to wonder why. Absolutely nothing will be achieved once it is held, particularly on the major topic at hand, Hezbollah’s weapons, so why all the fuss over who will attend? At best the invitation will mean having to listen to several hours of tedious monologues only partially compensated for by a free lunch.

As low as expectations are, however, the national dialogue is one of the few instruments that Sleiman has to reassert his dwindling power. Since entering office in May 2008, the president has found himself being repeatedly sniped at by Michel Aoun, Hezbollah and pro-Syrian figures, even as members of the friendlier March 14 coalition have increasingly, if privately, lamented Sleiman’s passivity and urge to please everyone.

The president is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, much as was President Elias Sarkis during the late 1970s. Incapable of pleasing everyone, Sleiman has, instead, displeased everyone. The Syrians and Hezbollah, along with their allies, have sought to weaken him because, somewhere, he represents the sovereign state. Aoun has rarely missed an opportunity to discredit the president because he fears that Sleiman might emerge as the paramount Christian representative. That fear, albeit more quietly expressed, is shared by Samir Geagea, while March 14 would welcome a Sleiman more robust in support of its agenda, which the president will avoid so that he can remain a consensual leader.

So what is Michel Sleiman to do? There is no obvious answer, but a good start is to stop trying to pursue the mirage of consensus and, instead, play sectarian politics. The president has to shore up his Christian base of support, especially his Maronite base, even if that sometimes involves resorting to the crassest demagoguery. Only as a potent Christian representative will he be able to bargain from a position of relative strength domestically, while turning every attack against him into one against the Christians. Aoun has done very well with that tactic, but Sleiman, as head of state, has even greater potential to make it work.

For starters, the president needs to get out much more, so that he can work his community at the local level. He may not have many allies, but here he does have one who counts: Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. There is nothing wrong with relying on competent ministers, such as Ziad Baroud, to burnish a reputation, but that’s hardly enough. Sfeir is the most significant ticket to communal legitimacy, and can help Sleiman immensely through the clout and networks of the Maronite Church.

Legitimacy requires more than attending mass. The president must develop patronage relations with his coreligionists, but also be cunning enough not to publicly replicate the sordid behavior of other politicians. Saad Hariri and Nabih Berri have managed to balance their national roles with their communal ones. And while Berri’s sway is perhaps nothing compared to that of Hezbollah, the speaker has always cleverly played on Shia sensibilities to remain relevant. In other words, a leader who tries to remain above the fray only marginalizes himself. Lebanese politics requires getting down into the mud, and Sleiman cannot evade this.

Some might argue that the president would only diminish himself by engaging in retail politics. But all presidents, in all countries, take retail politics very seriously. Having support at the base, in the same way that Hezbollah does, or Walid Jumblatt, or Saad Hariri, buys a politician or a political organization a wider berth to maneuver. More important, it associates them with the broader aspirations of their community, making political enemies think twice before going after them.

Certainly, there would be difficulties. Neither Aoun nor Geagea would take kindly if the president hunted for clients among their constituents. But Sleiman has the authority of the state behind him, so that sometimes rivals will see an interest in accepting compromises with the president. The stronger Sleiman becomes, the more he will be regarded as a threat by all those who want to keep the presidency weak. There will be times when Sleiman will have to take decisive decisions, against one side or the other, even if that means inviting a confrontation. But he might also want to remember that nothing builds support for politicians as well as well-chosen confrontations they can define on their own terms.

Let’s be honest: Michel Sleiman has nothing to lose. He’s as weak as a president does not want to be, and his reviving the moribund national dialogue is a sign that he understands his dire predicament. But Sleiman is not without resources. He has former comrades in the army on whom he can rely in the right moments; he surely has a lot of insalubrious information on a lot of insalubrious people; the Maronite Church is looking for him to be more forceful; and by being dependent on no one in particular, Sleiman can better play adversaries off against one other.

Most important, Sleiman is a Maronite. His community may not be what it once was politically or demographically, but it does still hold the balance in a Lebanon alas polarized along sectarian lines between the two major Muslim sects. It may sound cynical to advise the president to exploit those divisions for his own purposes. But everyone else in the political class is doing precisely that. At least Sleiman would have a justifiable cause: saving his office from terminal insignificance.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Just what does Barack Obama stand for?

Why is it that only days before Iraq’s parliamentary elections, we’re getting no sense of what they mean for the United States? Barack Obama’s White House and the American public seem strangely detached from the event, the mental door having been closed on Iraq some time ago. This begs a larger question: What does the US stand for in the Middle East?

Judging from the Obama administration’s performance recently, it’s hard to tell. If we take a random selection of values or principles that might be guiding the US in the region, we enter a policy fog, the frequent over-reliance on style at the expense of substance. One can say many things about George W. Bush’s years in office, positive and negative, but he never sinned through ambiguity. A year into Obama’s term, however, ambiguity and disorientation are presidential trademarks in the Middle East.

Does the administration stand for democracy, for example, or more broadly has it made human rights principles a centerpiece of its policy? Not really. During his campaign Obama consciously played down that trope by accepting that he would talk to the region’s rogues without condition. He tried with the Iranian regime, which ignored his overtures, and when the Green Movement took to the streets last summer, the president for a time studiously avoided encouraging the demonstrators. In his Cairo speech, Obama only paid lip service to democracy and human rights, showing that they were really not what preoccupied him.

Now Washington has sent an ambassador back to Damascus – without conditions. Syria’s responsibility for the assassination of Rafik Hariri has been quietly played down (though to be fair, no less so than it has been in Beirut), and the Assad regime’s abuse of its own population is of utter disinterest to the Americans. Syrian involvement in the myriad bomb attacks in Iraq, its support for Iraqi Baathists, and its permissiveness toward Al-Qaeda in Iraq have not made the administration reconsider its Syrian opening. Violence works, and Obama has not proven otherwise.

In that case, can we say that the administration stands for stability and balance in the Middle East? Syria may have a nasty regime, defenders of that argument might say, but at least it can help the US counter-balance its other regional rivals, above all Iran. If so, then nothing indicates that Obama’s team is close to achieving that premise. The Syrians have made it amply clear that they will not turn against Iran, nor do they see any advantages in doing so, and Damascus’ propensity for exporting conflict to Iraq, the Palestinian areas, and Lebanon, hardly enhances stability.

One country where the balancing game might be played against Iran is Iraq, but there the US has managed in the past year to greatly undermine its own effectiveness. The administration’s focus on a military pullout has reduced its leverage in Baghdad (recall Vice President Joe Biden’s failed mission recently to get the Iraqi government to reverse a decision to ban Sunni candidates). There is also the fact that Obama, from the beginning, never clearly defined what role Iraq would play in American regional strategy. The president has neither highlighted the country as a model of Arab pluralism and democracy (albeit an imperfect one), nor as an essential front line in the containment of Iranian regional influence.

So, if the US priority in the Middle East is not advancing democratic ideals or enforcing human rights principles, and if its ambition to impose stability and balance is sorely lacking, then what else defines its behavior? Is it to enhance American power regionally? Power was at the center of the neoconservative worldview, so when Obama entered office he tried to portray his administration in less stark a light. Yes, power was important, for example in Afghanistan, but America would also seek dialogue, consensus, peace between Arabs and Israelis, and would generally put on a kinder, friendlier face than the Bush administration.

That kinder, friendlier face was shown two weeks ago, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly declared that the US would not use force against Iran. An attack on Iran would doubtless be a terrible idea, but for Clinton to rule out such an action so bluntly was not the best use she could have made of American military superiority. Indeed, it clarified a situation that the Obama administration should not have clarified, and the statement may ensure that the hardest of the hardliners in Tehran will win all future domestic debates on the best way to deal with international efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

American power has been equally absent elsewhere. Nothing has been done to make Syria pay for undermining Iraqi stability, which presumably is a vital American interest. Iran has been more effective than the US in building networks of alliances in Iraq, even though the Americans have spent seven years in the country. Nothing has been done to make Israel more pliant on a settlement with the Palestinians, though administration spokespersons have described Palestinian-Israeli peace as a vital US interest. And Washington has, similarly, been incapable of persuading Arab states to implement even limited normalization with Israel as a prerequisite to regional talks, which Obama promised he would restart.

The reality is that the Obama administration these days provokes little confidence in its allies and even less fear in its adversaries. The US remains the dominant actor in the Middle East, but to what end? If Obama’s ultimate goal is to be different than George W. Bush, he hasn’t even managed that. As setback follows setback, he is increasingly finding himself constrained by the same dynamics that Bush faced. But at least Bush knew what he was supposed to be about. Obama just seems lost.