Monday, June 28, 2010

The Ghosts of Martyrs Square

[Interview of Michael Young by Michael J. Totten, original article here]

Michael Young, opinion page editor at Beirut's Daily Star newspaper and contributing editor at Reason magazine in the U.S., is one of the finest analysts of the modern Middle East working in English. He was born in Washington D.C. to a Lebanese mother and American father, and his mother took him to Beirut when he was still a child after his father died. He has lived there for most of his life ever since, even when the country came apart at the seams during the civil war between 1975 and 1990.

He has seen much more of the place than I have, of course, and he understands it and can explain it better than just about anyone. He also understands the region in general better than most because Lebanon is by far the best place to observe and study the Middle East. It's the most liberal and open of the Arabic-speaking countries, and all the major players have interests and roles there. The Syrians are there, the Iranians are there, and the Saudis are there. Sometimes even the Israelis are there. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, France administered it for decades after acquiring it from the Ottoman Empire, and American troops have been sent there as peacekeepers twice.

Michael has wanted to write a book about his country for years, and he finally did it when the chronology of events after 2005 took on the shape of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. His book is called The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, and he and I recently discussed it and many of the issues it raises over the phone.

MJT: You wrote in your introduction that Hezbollah's success is arguably more of a threat to Lebanon than the civil war. Can you explain why?

Michael Young: Lebanon's cycle of wars between 1975 and 1990 was the result of a combination of factors, including domestic strife and external intervention. It took a decade and a half for the country to emerge from its conflict, in large part due to Syria's ability to impose its hegemony over all Lebanese territory by force of arms, after 1990. But during all stages of the war, amid the worst dissension, there was nonetheless a consensus over the fact that the end of the war would signal a return of the Lebanese state—whatever that state looked like. Perhaps this was the result of the failure of all other projects, real and imagined, during the war years—projects of partition, of sectarian cleansing and depopulation, of federalism, and so forth.

With Hezbollah, however, we have, by definition, an anti-state: a party whose very existence as an armed organization is conditioned on the absence of a Lebanese state able to impose a monopoly over the use of violence. Structurally, there is no coexistence possible between a sovereign Lebanese state and an autonomous Hezbollah-run mini-state in its midst, backed by a united Shiite community, with a military force more effective than that of the Lebanese army, supported by Iran and Syria.

Michael Young: Hezbollah wants us to believe coexistence is possible, but it knows better than anybody that this is just a pretext to defend its arms, which are there to serve Iranian interests. Such a statement irritates many people, because so many truly want to believe that Hezbollah is authentically Lebanese, with Lebanese priorities. The genius of the Iranians, however, was to allow Hezbollah to anchor itself in the Lebanese Shiite community and psychology, in a collective narrative of suffering and deprivation. Yet the party's leadership cadre remains very much an extension of Iran's security apparatus.

In this context, the conflict defining Lebanon today, unlike during the civil war, is really between the Sunni and Shiite communities—between members of the same household who were allied during the war years. Both communities inherited postwar Lebanon, the Christians having lost much of their political power, but they cannot arrive at a consensus around the state. Hezbollah has systematically undermined the sanctity of the state in the eyes of its own followers, in order to set itself up as a legitimate alternative, even as the Shiite parties have, paradoxically, placed their partisans in state institutions, both for patronage reasons and to neutralize all efforts by the state to challenge them.

Anyone perceived as moving against Hezbollah is also perceived by Shiites as moving against the community as a whole. Therefore, it's impossible to find a modus vivendi between Hezbollah and the rest of the communities, particularly the Sunnis, in the shadow of a state accepted by all. This means that any sudden collapse in the tense equilibrium, let's say in the aftermath of a possible war with Israel, may quite easily degenerate into a breakdown in civil peace, tearing the society apart. A Sunni-Shiite war in Lebanon would be infinitely worse than anything we've seen before.

MJT: You describe Hezbollah, accurately I think, as "a total movement in the least totalistic of Arab societies." And you describe how the Shia community, Hezbollah's base of support, is, like the rest of the country, extremely diverse culturally and politically. How long do you suppose Hezbollah can keep going without being undone by these contradictions?

Michael Young: I think it can be keep going for quite a bit of time, all things remaining equal. Shiites, for the first time in Lebanon's modern history, feel empowered, and they thank the party for that, and for the weapons allowing them this feeling.

Shiites also believe that Hezbollah is a heroic entity for having resisted Israel. And most important, Hezbollah has generally respected the complexities and marvelous contradictions of the Shiite community, even as it has steadily narrowed the boundaries for independent political activities, and even certain types of social activities. This subtle balancing game has involved allowing Hezbollah's supporters to be themselves, while also dominating the commanding heights of the community—its patronage networks, institutions of communal self-defense, access to power and the state bureaucracy, increasingly education, and even clergymen independent from the party.

What might change this? Perhaps some sort of fundamental shift in Iran, which would undercut the funding so key to the Hezbollah's instruments of patronage. But even there, I don't think things would be that simple. The party will remain anchored in the Shiite community, and it does have independent funding networks.

How about a devastating war with Israel? That would certainly represent a challenge to the party, because Shiites don't feel like seeing their livelihoods devastated every few years in the name of a never-ending "resistance." But two things play in Hezbollah's favor. First, Shiites are likely to sympathize with the Hezbollah narrative in adjudicating responsibility for the war, which would of course seek to blame Israel. And second, the Israelis are likely in any future war to behave so brutally, as is their habit, that this will only ensure that Shiites, and probably most Lebanese, rally to Hezbollah's side.

MJT: You wrote that when some foreign journalists and observers dismissed the revolt against Syrian rule after Hariri's assassination as a "Gucci Revolution" that their mockery told us more about the critics than the demonstrators. You and I both know some of these people. Why do you suppose they see things this way?

Michael Young: I think that many foreigners, particularly Westerners, who come to Lebanon do so, in a way, to break with a part of themselves and their own culture. It's a psychological thing. They want to blend into a world not theirs. Perhaps that's why so many of them tend to embrace Arab causes, or the Palestinian cause specifically, with a mixture of righteous indignation at the purported evils of the West—in a way their own evils—and with the zeal of recent converts.

I believe that the Western critics who mocked the so-called Cedar Revolution as a Gucci Revolution couldn't stomach what they saw as the movement's desire to appeal to the West, as well as its appeal in the West.

Initially, the demonstrators who went down to Martyrs Square to protest against the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri tended to be middle class Christians, people who were generally educated, confident with themselves, speaking in many languages, trendily dressed, and so forth. Yet the foreign critics saw them as lacking in authenticity, particularly in Arab and Muslim authenticity, people meriting scorn for being ersatz knockoffs of the West. In other words, the demonstrators were disparaged for demanding the very same things that they, the critics, regarded as their due in the West—the rule of law, freedom, sovereignty, pluralism, and so on.

When Hezbollah organized its counter-demonstration on March 8, and there was a very large turnout, many of the foreign critics cried: "Aha! Now we know where the real Lebanon lies." Hezbollah, of course, was authentic to them, its supporters real people, Muslims, solid proletarians, quite unlike the pampered Christians of Martyrs Square.

Of course this dichotomy was entirely a fabrication of the foreigners' narrative. For on March 14, in a massive counter-demonstration to Hezbollah's counter-demonstration, we saw the largest public gathering ever in Lebanon. Everyone came out to demand a Syrian military withdrawal and justice in the Hariri murder, among them hundreds of thousands of poor Sunnis, who were hardly inauthentic. There was silence from the critics, for what could they say about a largely spontaneous, peaceful, carefree effort to say no to a heinous crime? But many of them continued pursuing their fantastic Orients of the mind and continued to ridicule the March 14 movement for years afterward.

But if I may end with a question. What's wrong with a Gucci Revolution? I find it rather condescending that foreigners especially should assume that the only changes we Lebanese can manage must be saturated with blood, that the real in Lebanon should somehow be marked by poverty and a rejection of Western liberal values. In their search for authenticity, many packed a hefty load of prejudice. Give me Gucci any time.

MJT: You admit that your book is not objective. My own book, which I'm just now finishing, isn't strictly objective either, which I'll freely admit to and won't apologize for. And you wrote near the end of yours that you know Lebanon well enough to be amused by claims of objectivity whenever the subject comes up. I chuckled to myself when I read that, but can you explain to readers who are less familiar with the country why claims of objectivity are a little ridiculous?

Michael Young: Actually I didn't quite say that my book was not objective, although, to be honest, objectivity to me is a splendid myth. Which writer does not, in the end, write subjectively? To try achieving the opposite effect is effectively to erase a part of one's self, which defeats the very purpose of writing. What I explained was that I was striving in the book for a form of subjective detachment.

Lebanon is not a good place to stick to hard and fast ideas. The purpose of my book was to explain the pragmatism and malleability, even the cynicism, of Lebanon's sectarian system, a system built on shifting alliances and communal self-centeredness. This has created a pluralistic society and has opened up spaces in which the Lebanese can behave with some measure of freedom. But in Lebanon's unstable chemistry it's not a good idea to put too much faith in leaders or parties or ideologies, because things are bound to be overturned eventually, depending on self-interest.

I supported the movement to reject Syrian hegemony in Lebanon in 2005 and after—the coalition known as March 14. However, I never had any great confidence in its representatives, even if I count some as friends. The only legitimate allegiance we must have is to preserving our freedoms, pluralism, the rule of law; Syria's rule over Lebanon represented a daily denial, explicit or implicit, of these values.

That's where my subjectivity comes in. My detachment rests on the principle that I find it utterly impossible to identify with most of those who make up Lebanon's political class, yet I find it fascinating to follow their fortunes, which is often the stuff of novels.

MJT: When I first visited Beirut in 2005, I thought it was analogous to Berlin in 1989, but now it looks more like Budapest in 1956.

Michael Young: I don't like these comparisons in a way because Budapest ended up going in one direction, Berlin in a second, and Beirut went a third, but I agree with you that Lebanon, like Budapest in 1956, has come full circle since 2005. There was a moment when Lebanon managed to get rid of the Syrians, yet the Syrians in some ways have returned. Those who opposed what happened in 2005 have effectively come out on top.

MJT: Just about all the news out of Lebanon lately is bad, especially Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt being forced to make pilgrimages to Damascus to make peace with the regime that murdered their fathers. Can you give us your explanation about how they were compelled to do that?

Michael Young: Lebanon's fatal flaw is that it's a divided society open to foreign intervention and manipulation. In February of last year, Syria and Saudi Arabia reconciled. The Saudis took the initiative in reconciling with Syria, and everything in Lebanon changed as a result. The Saudis, as you know, are the political sponsors of Saad Hariri. So from that moment it was only a question of how much time would pass before Hariri followed his political sponsors and arrived at some kind of reconciliation with Syria.

Michael Young: Walid Jumblatt, who represents the weak Druze minority, understood the dynamics quite quickly and knew he wouldn't stand a chance if he refused to go along. He remembers, of course, that the Syrians and the Saudis reconciled in 1976 during the civil war, and that his father was assassinated by the Syrians the following year, in 1977. He was not going to make that mistake again, so as soon as the regional dynamic changed, everything changed for Lebanon.

The Syrians were effectively given a green light by the Saudis to come back into Lebanon. It took some time for us to see the consequences because there were elections last year that Syria's adversaries won, or seemed to win, but by and large the anti-Syrian alliance that existed in 2005 began to disintegrate.

MJT: Can you explain why the Saudis reconciled with Syria? Hardly anyone talks about this and even fewer have written about it.

Michael Young: The Saudis and the Syrians, contrary to popular opinion, did not really break over the Hariri assassination. Throughout 2005, the Saudis were looking for some way to return their relationship with Syria to normal. What I believe led to the initial divorce between them was the rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Iran. And also the fact that there was a personal disagreement over the Lebanon war in 2006. As you know, Syria's President Bashar Assad referred to the Saudi leaders as half-men. Arab politics are, above all, personal, and this incident led to personal animosity that came on the heels of the Saudi fear of the Syrian-Iranian rapprochement. However, between 2006 and 2008 the Saudis were never entirely able to isolate Damascus. On the contrary, the Saudis ended up being more isolated in the Arab world. They weren't able to impose a united front against Damascus, and by 2009, following the Gaza war, the Saudis, along with other so-called "moderate" Arab states, were accused of being implicitly on the side of Israel.

MJT: Right.

Michael Young: The Saudis decided that enough was enough. They decided to open up to Damascus because their previous strategy hadn't worked. They hadn't managed to isolate the Syrians. And, being pragmatists, they decided to bring about a rapprochement with Damascus.

I believe, however, that Iraq is far more important for the Saudis than Lebanon, and there the Syrians and the Saudis have—for separate reasons—parallel interests. Both have a vested interest in destabilizing the Shia dominated regime in Baghdad.

MJT: Right.

Michael Young: And so the Saudis saw their rapprochement with Syria as a means for collaborating in Iraq against what the Saudis really do fear there, which is a Shia-dominated regime that they regard as being close to Iran.

MJT: What do you suppose would have happened if Hariri and Jumblatt said to hell with the Saudis and refused to make a deal with Syria?

Michael Young: From the moment the Saudis and the Syrians reconciled, Jumblatt understood that he had no interest whatsoever in opposing that decision, for a number of reasons. Remember, it's the Saudis who allow Jumblatt to have the power of patronage. Political leadership in Lebanon doesn't take place in a vacuum. People need money, they need political support.

The same applies to Hariri. There was never a chance that Saad was going to oppose his political patrons because without them, politically he doesn't stand for much. And remember, at the time he was not yet prime minister. He only became prime minister in late 2009. Had he taken the decision to oppose the Saudis, this would have had negative political repercussions on his future. At the same time it would have had negative repercussions on his business interests in the Saudi kingdom.

And remember that Walid Jumblatt has absolutely no interest in opposing the Saudis, especially when he realizes that the regional mood is changing. It was a foregone conclusion that these men would go along with the decision.

MJT: It's extraordinary that a country that is, at least on paper, a democracy can have its internal politics basically dictated to it by other governments in the region. Doesn't it effectively invalidate Lebanon's independence and democracy if Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have a vote?

Michael Young: I wouldn't quite say that invalidates it, but Lebanon obviously has deep and profound problems with its social contract. It's a country well worth preserving, I believe, but that doesn't mean the system isn't dysfunctional. We are a divided society, and in divided societies it's much easier for outsiders to intervene by sponsoring certain groups and communities. They can manipulate the country's politics by using the divided communities against each other. This has been Lebanon's fatal flaw for over a century.

But that doesn't invalidate the fact that Lebanon, while not exactly democratic, has in a sense developed and preserved a paradoxical form of liberalism—paradoxical because it's based on illiberal institutions. Lebanon has serious problems, but it is, as you well know, a remarkably liberal space in an illiberal region.

What Lebanon needs to do—and may not be able to do in the foreseeable future—is find a new social contract where we have stability and unity as well as freedom. Unfortunately right now, we have freedom without stability and without unity.

MJT: Bashar Assad and Hezbollah were both scared stiff by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon [to prosecute the assassins of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri], but it now seems to be petering out. You've written at length about the twists and turns of this saga, but can you give us the short version of what happened?

Michael Young: It's still a work in progress, so I need to say this with the caveat that they may well arrive at some kind of result with his tribunal. I'm not optimistic, but bear in the mind that I don't have all the details.

What happened is in 2005 a commission was formed by the United Nations Security Council to investigate Hariri's assassination. There was the start of a genuine police investigation under Detlev Mehlis. There were some mistakes made in that investigation, but Mehlis was fundamentally right in understanding that a police investigation was required.

When he left in December of 2005, he was replaced by Serge Brammertz. Now, Brammertz, the information suggests, did not pursue a police investigation. He did not really pursue an in-depth investigation in Syria, which he had a mandate to pursue. The whole thing floundered.

Then he was replaced with the Canadian investigator Daniel Bellemare whose role was transformed later on into the role of prosecutor. He is pursuing the investigation and must at some point in the near future come out with an indictment. But those two years when Brammertz did not pursue an in-depth investigation may have fatefully damaged the investigation of the Hariri crime.

What happens now, I don't know. But I don't believe that those who ordered the crime will be brought to justice.

MJT: Do you think the American and European engagement with Syria might have anything to do with the tribunal running out of steam? Some believe—and I don't know if this is credible—that that may be the case because if high level officials in Syria are indicted, it would scotch Washington's engagement with Damascus.

Michael Young: Look, there is a serious American engagement with Damascus, but the Syrians have not in any serious way engaged the United States. The United States has decided to send back an ambassador, the previous ambassador having been withdrawn in 2005 after the Hariri assassination. The Obama Administration has named Robert Ford, but his appointment has been delayed by the Senate. For there to be engagement, you really need a give and take on both sides. And at this point, the Syrians have done absolutely nothing that the United States has requested in terms of ending its arming and support of Hezbollah, ending its support of Hamas, or stopping Al Qaeda members from crossing the border into Iraq.

The Syrians, in turn, say the Americans have done nothing to make engagement worthwhile for them. Now that's nonsense. The problem is structural. Syria will not give up valuable political cards in exchange for a better relationship with Washington, because it feels that this would weaken it. And the United States will not, or rather should not, view engagement as successful until Syria gives up these cards. So we are where we are now, unless the Obama Administration lowers its conditions toward Syria, which, to my mind, would be a grave error.

So coming back to the tribunal, I think that if there is a solid indictment in the Hariri case—and by that I mean that it goes up the chain of command to those who actually ordered the assassination—it will prevent engagement of Syria not just by the United States, but engagement by all the countries that have in a way normalized their relations with Syria. This would be extremely serious for Syria.

But I'm not at all convinced that even if there is an indictment that it will go up the chain of command. If low level figures are indicted—and the likelihood is that they will not be Syrians—it will not necessarily lead to any kind of political tension between Syria and the international community.

MJT: Hezbollah allegedly has Scud missiles now. What are people in Lebanon saying about that? Anything?

Michael Young: I'm not hearing anything, and anyway I think this is in many ways a red herring. Hezbollah has plenty of weapons. Whether it has Scuds or not is a secondary debate at this point. It has plenty of rockets. It may well have advanced anti-aircraft systems. Hezbollah has the weapons required to engage in a substantial fight with Israel. In a future war, Hezbollah will have more firepower than it had in 2006, more advanced systems, and it will create a messier war that what we had four years ago.

MJT: This time around the Israelis are publicly threatening to hold the Lebanese government responsible if Hezbollah starts something.

Michael Young: The next war will be much more devastating. The Israelis will bomb Lebanese infrastructure. They may well bomb parts of Beirut. The Israelis will want to show Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Shia community in particular that any future war will bring complete ruination. They will want to show that the next war would be the war that ends all wars between Lebanon and Israel.

MJT: But once in a while someone in the Israeli government suggests that Syria will be targeted instead of the Lebanese government if Hezbollah starts another war. What do you think about that?

Michael Young: I don't believe it. What disturbs me is that any devastating future war would open the door for Syria to return to Lebanon militarily. The Israelis were never particularly pleased by what happened in 2005. They never had a fundamental problem with Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, and as a result if the Syrians used a devastating Israeli war as leverage to reimpose a measure of order in Lebanon through their army, I'm not at all convinced that the Israelis would object.

But the Israelis are divided on this. We don't know who will be prime minister during the next war.

MJT: What if the Israelis actually do take the war to Damascus instead of Beirut? And if the Israelis were to actually destroy the Syrian government, what do you suppose might happen in Beirut and Damascus?

Michael Young: I'm still not convinced of that scenario. We'd be talking about a major escalation.

Israel's priority it to neutralize Iran and its proxies, and its most powerful proxy is Hezbollah. So the idea that it would take the war to Syria and not Lebanon strikes me as being unrealistic. They may take it to both Lebanon and Syria, but I don't think it's likely. They will already have their hands full in Lebanon.

If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, I think the Israelis will come to the conclusion that they cannot allow Hezbollah to be strong on their northern border. They can manage Hamas to a certain extent, but Hezbollah is a different matter. So I think if Iran develops nuclear weapons, Israel will feel the need to attack Lebanon and try to neutralize Hezbollah. I'm not a military specialist, but I think that would have to involve a ground war and that the Israelis would have to move as far north as they can to destroy Hezbollah's infrastructure. It would be, as I said earlier, a very messy affair.

MJT: It all looks pretty bleak in the short and medium term, but how do you feel about Lebanon's long term prospects? I sometimes get the sense that you're a bit less of a long-term pessimist than I am.

Michael Young: No, I share your pessimism. My book is not an optimistic book. It ends with a question, which is, what happens next? I view the signs of liberalism in our society as something positive, but overall this is a book about a country that came full circle.

In 2005 we had a moment when Lebanon managed to get rid of the Syrian army, and in 2009 the Syrians effectively returned to Lebanon. They only returned politically, but ultimately I think their desire is to return militarily.

MJT: I agree.

Michael Young: But already they're dominating us politically once again. So in that sense I share your pessimism. It's difficult to be an optimist in the Middle East.

MJT: It certainly is.

Michael Young: Lebanon's illiberal institutions effectively cancel each other out and create spaces for liberal actions. Hezbollah is also a beneficiary of this sectarian system. Only Lebanon could have allowed a party like Hezbollah to build up a parallel state.

The spaces our society opens up allow people to be who they want to be, so sometimes it allows the worst characteristics of Lebanese society to go on without any restraint. Hezbollah has managed to use the weakness of the state to build its own state.

As a libertarian, I'm all for weak states, but obviously when a weak state allows a political-military organization to establish a parallel state, or when a weak state allows illiberal institutions to dominate in many cases, we have to look at the proposition a little more closely.

MJT: I share your affection for the country, and I can understand why you prefer to live in Lebanon when, as a dual citizen, you could just as easily live in the United States, but what surprises me is that you and your mother were there during parts of the civil war when you could have returned to Washington.

Michael Young: I was here for ten or eleven years of the civil war. As much as I like the United States, Lebanon is my country. And we weren't living in the bunkers for all of those ten or eleven years. There were some good years in that period. I was growing up then, and I remember many of those years with fondness. It wasn't wall-to-wall fighting and wall-to-wall carnage, but there were, of course, difficult years in there, particularly the Israeli siege of West Beirut in 1982, which I lived through. I was at an age where it attached me more to the country than it detached me to the country.

If there is another long war will I have the same forbearance? I'm not sure. But it's an interesting place, it's home, and I have to stay.

MJT: So who are you trying to reach with your book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square? What do you hope to accomplish?

Michael Young: I was trying to reach several audiences. First of all, I wanted to write a book for a non-specialist audience in the United States that introduces our political culture. At the same time, I wanted to write a book of reportage about a rich time period. Lebanon from 2005 to 2009 was when many of the best and worst characteristics in Lebanon played themselves out. We've had political assassinations, a war in 2006, and very nearly civil war in 2007 and 2008. This was a brief period that offered a lot of lessons, and I wanted to present this to a non-specialist audience. At the same time, I wanted to write a book that the Lebanese themselves would be able to read, whose interpretations they might find interesting. I didn't just want this book to be for a general Western audience. I want the Lebanese to read it and come away with insights into their own system and political culture. I really did want the book to be engaged with the political debate inside Lebanon, even though it is in English. Whether I succeeded or not, I don't know, but that was my aim.

MJT: I have to say you are, at least among writers in English, one of the finest analysts the country has produced.

Michael Young: Well, thanks. We should remember, too, that Lebanon is a small place. There's another book that came out about Lebanon recently by British author David Hirst, called Beware of Small States. Lebanon is a small state, and it is certainly one we should be careful with. It's physically small and seems politically small until something happens and people realize that it's not as small and unimportant as it sometimes seems.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Did you say McChrystal or MacArthur?

By the time you read this article, President Barack Obama should have decided whether to keep General Stanley McChrystal on as his commander in Afghanistan, or accept his resignation. Whatever he settles on, the problem with the Afghan campaign is not McChrystal, it’s that Obama has ensnared himself in a war he is unlikely to win.

McChrystal put his career on the line because he and his advisers couldn’t keep their mouths shut in the presence of a Rolling Stone writer, speaking critically of Obama and senior members of his national security team. The general recalled that the president seemed “uncomfortable and intimidated” at his first gathering with military brass after taking office. More egregiously, a McChrystal adviser noted that at the general’s first one-to-one meeting with the president, “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his f––ing war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

Still, what McChrystal and his entourage said was hardly unprecedented. Tension between the military and civilian leadership is a staple of warfare, particularly in democracies. General Douglas MacArthur was fired by President Harry Truman during the Korean war, and McChrystal himself took over from General David McKiernan, who had been fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

From a command perspective, there appear to be two major obstacles in Afghanistan: It’s not at all clear that Obama has the political and financial means, or the public backing, to pursue the war in the long term in a way that he and his generals would prefer; and, to an extent deriving from this, the administration is bitterly divided over what to do next in the country, which makes for considerable confusion all the way up the decision-making hierarchy, civilian and military.

McChrystal was caught grumbling on the record, but what of the dozens of administration civilians involved in Afghan policy who have leaked anonymously against each other during recent months? They won’t be held accountable for their actions, even though they have been no less responsible than the general for undermining confidence in the war effort. But then again, is Afghanistan worth the effort?

When Obama took office he made a point of saying that he wanted a Cabinet that was full of individuals who could assert themselves. It was duly noted that he had read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” on Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet during the American Civil War. Lincoln was surrounded by headstrong men, several of whom were openly contemptuous of the president, with political agendas quite different than his. And yet by force of personality Lincoln managed gradually to outmaneuver his Cabinet secretaries one by one and manipulate them in ways that were advantageous to him.

Obama made the mistake of saying that he would seek to replicate this experience, that he didn’t want pushovers in his administration either. Perhaps he didn’t realize it at the time, but the statement was hubristic. The president has not proven himself to be the equal of Lincoln, nor has he even managed to impose unity in the ranks. The reason for this is that he has contradictory aims in Afghanistan. Where Lincoln had one overriding purpose, to defend the union, sometimes with great ruthlessness, Obama wants to win in Afghanistan, but within a limited timeframe, after which he will reconsider his options, all the time realizing that he is pursuing a narrow counter-terrorism program that has somehow morphed into a major state-building enterprise, one he probably cannot afford.

Confused? Aren’t’ we all. And you can add to that that Obama’s promotion of Afghanistan as the “right war” during his election campaign was primarily brought on by his loathing for President George W. Bush. Whatever one thinks of Bush, it was never a good idea for Obama to shape his policies as a counterpoint to those of his predecessor. This impulse has pushed Obama to leave behind a vacuum in the Middle East through his accelerated, ill-thought-out withdrawal from Iraq; and it is sinking him in Afghanistan.

Obama’s choices with McChrystal were never good: If he accepted the general’s resignation, this would have little helped the outcome in Afghanistan. McChrystal is the architect of the American counter-insurgency plan, and with deadlines so short it wasn’t easy for Obama to hand off to another commander, who even if he applied the plan to the letter, by no means a certainty, would have needed time to ease into his new post. And if the president kept McChrystal in place, that wouldn’t alter the fact that Obama had to resolve his ambiguities over Afghanistan in collaboration with two men he mistrusts, McChrystal and, of course, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

Similar confusion was present in Iraq, until Bush took the decision to order a “surge” of troops in 2007, against the advice of many of those around him. His administration, too, was a prisoner of clashing policies and ambitions, but in that particular instance Bush showed he could lead, something he had failed to do before then. The president also named a new commander, David Petraeus, to direct the effort. Obama thought he had done all this by naming McChrystal and ordering a surge of his own last year in Afghanistan. But the key question he left unresolved was whether, like Bush in Iraq, he was as stubbornly committed to seeing Afghanistan through as he said.

That uncertainty is why McChrystal and his people raised doubts about Obama’s engagement, and it’s why Karzai has lately been reorienting himself toward Pakistan, who he surely feels will outlast the United States in Kabul. Money is a vital matter. Washington simply cannot pay for an indefinite Afghan war. No wonder Obama was angry with McChrystal. The general only highlighted how weak a hand the Americans hold. But in the end the president is to blame.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Those who respect Christopher Hitchens need not be ‘neo-cons’

I was once the prisoner of a tiresome online exchange on Lebanese politics in which my interlocutor, to score a point, suggested I was a neo-conservative. I dismissed the allegation, only to have the writer reply that I was indeed a neo-con, because I had approved of Christopher Hitchens’s movement from political left to right on the Middle East.

Mr Hitchens has just published a memoir, titled Hitch-22, which, among many other things, explains why the author broke with many of his comrades on the left in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In retrospect, however, I regret having written that Mr Hitchens shifted from left to right, for he has always regarded his political stands as reaffirming the fundamental values of the left, which many on the left have abandoned. So, to apply Mr Hitchens as a yardstick for neo-conservatism is to misinterpret his trajectory entirely, and to betray a misunderstanding of what the left itself stands for.

In his book, Mr Hitchens describes his disillusionment with the American left after the mass murders in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Caught between their dislike of George W Bush, their anti-capitalism, and a tendency to blame America for all that is wrong in the world, the left remained painfully ambiguous toward crimes that, Mr Hitchens believed, demanded precisely the contrary reaction. “What an opportunity for the Left to miss, there” Mr Hitchens writes, “and what an overbred and gutless Left it had proved to be”.

Mr Hitchens’ disgust with the left’s hand-wringing was matched by his antipathy for paladins of the right as well – particularly of the religious right – who interpreted the atrocities as retribution for American sexual promiscuity. Mr Hitchens writes scathingly of the “Reverends”, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell: “Here was an unexampled case of seeing all one’s worst enemies in plain view: the clerical freaks and bigots of all persuasions and the old Charles Lindberg isolationist Right, the latter sometimes masquerading as a corny and folksy version of a Grassy Knoll conspiracist ‘Left’”.

That overburdened passage yet contains a vital expression of Mr Hitchens’s sensibilities. The image of seeing one’s enemies in plain view is borrowed from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Officers and Gentlemen, in a passage where the main character, Guy Crouchback, learns of the Soviet-German alliance of 1939, the momentary partnership between Europe’s two major totalitarianisms: “[A] decade of shame seemed to be ending in light and reason … the Enemy was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off; the modern age in arms.”

It is clarity of purpose, the pleasure in realising who the enemy really is, that has defined Mr Hitchens's approach to politics. Last year he spoke at the American University of Beirut, his talk titled “Who are the revolutionaries in today’s Middle East?” The answer, in short, was that they were those who stood against the region’s autocrats. Revolution and radicalism are powerful words in Mr Hitchens’s lexicon, words of the left incidentally, and they were not diminished at all when most members of the audience loudly condemned him for having supported America’s war in Iraq. However, in their fixation on America, when Mr Hitchens sought to draw attention to regional agents of change, they implicitly condoned stalemate.

While Mr Hitchens welcomed Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, he never did so from the standpoint of the neo-cons, for whom the Iraqi conflict served above all to affirm American military power and dominance. Mr Hitchens’s internationalist solidarities, his sympathy for the Kurds, but also his anti-Stalinism and lucidity as to the malevolence of Middle Eastern dictators all contributed to his alignment with the Bush administration, without ever swallowing its menu whole.

Those of us who supported the war can easily commiserate. Endorsing the removal of a genocidal thug in Baghdad did not make us neo-cons. Among the more prominent foes of the Baath regime in 2003 were men and women of the left, both Arabs and Westerners. They knew the American right, like the American left, could make no intellectual or historical claim to defending democracy and human rights in the Middle East. But they also saw that Washington was willing to rid the world of a foul organism indeed, their own cherished desire, therefore they saw no good reason to oppose Saddam Hussein’s ouster simply because America was the instrument.

The journey of the left has been a thorny one in the Arab world. By allowing hostility toward Israel and America to shape their outlook, rather than the pursuit of programmes for national amelioration or revival, many on the left have come to support groups whose ideology is antithetical to everything that they themselves stand for, or should. In much of the Arab world a majority of old-line Arab nationalists, communists, and Baathists (alongside an alarming number of westernised liberals) have come to embrace groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas, whose reliance on the perpetuation of violence, anti-secularism, and contempt for the values of the Enlightenment draw much from the principles and idiom of the extreme right.

The Arab left has decades of post-colonial failure as its balance sheet, ceding to Islamists the role of spokespersons for their anti-Americanism and commitment to the Palestinians. The western left, particularly in the anti-globalisation movement, has largely followed suit, helping sustain the Middle East’s most intolerant forces. Applaud Mr Hitchens for insisting that this is not the natural place of the left, at least one that is liberal and humanistic. But you might be branded a neo-con if you do.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What don't we know about Syrian security?

As expected, the summit between the Lebanese and Syrian presidents, Michel Sleiman and Bashar Assad, yielded statements redolent with platitudes and elusiveness. At the end of the day we couldn’t even be sure of whether the two leaders intended to convene the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, as many expected they would.

Lebanon and Syria are conducting the bulk of their bilateral work today in closed quarters or committees, the results obscured by laconic communiqu├ęs. When it comes to sensitive matters such as security cooperation, the reality is that we know next to nothing about what the two sides are cooking up, and this is deeply unsettling.

On Monday, Al-Hayat reported that it had asked Lebanese sources about the nature of security and military cooperation in the committee meetings held in Damascus last weekend. While Lebanon and Syria addressed the topic, the unnamed sources refused to provide any information. This evasiveness from the Lebanese side was enlightening, since it suggested that Beirut didn’t want to embarrass Syria, which holds the strong cards when it comes to security.

Since we are offered no answers, here are a few questions. What has the head of the Internal Security Forces’ Information Department, Wissam Hassan, been discussing during the past months with Rustom Ghazaleh, the former head of Syria’s military intelligence network in Lebanon? Hassan is considered close to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and was the leading security figure aligned with the March 14 coalition, along with his nominal boss, Ashraf Rifi, the ISF’s director general. The Hassan-Ghazaleh meetings evidently began after Hariri’s December visit to Damascus, although one has to be careful in affixing specific dates when it comes to such exchanges.

News of the Hassan-Ghazaleh meetings, while circulating in some circles earlier this year, was publicized in the daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah and Syria. The paper also noted that Hassan had been granted an audience with Bashar Assad. It is almost unheard of for the head of a department in Lebanon’s security forces to meet a foreign president, which leads to the rather obvious conclusion that Hassan did something to earn such a high honor. It’s useless to speculate what he did, but Hassan has access to some of the most sensitive dossiers of the Lebanese state, including the Hariri investigation and the Sunni Islamist groups in the north.

So, while we can only guess what ground Hassan and Ghazaleh are covering in their frequent get-togethers, we have a right to wonder whether Saad Hariri has any control over their agenda, and whether Hassan’s collaboration with the Syrians has not become, in some respects, a form of cooptation? The sit-down with Assad was perhaps designed to send precisely the latter message.

This is interesting in light of the fact that Syria, like Hizbullah, initially sought to dismantle the Information Department, at the height of the conflict between March 14 and the opposition – principally to weaken Hariri and the majority. That demand appears to have been dropped, and the only possible explanation for this is that the department and the Syrians are now on the same wavelength.

What should concern us above all is how security cooperation with Syria affects Lebanon’s sovereignty and the rule of law, but also what passes for human rights in our country.

Sovereignty first. If the parameters for military cooperation continue to be defined by the Lebanese-Syrian Defense and Security Pact of September 1, 1991, then they offer both Beirut and Damascus a wide berth for abuse. The agreement echoes the infamous Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination, the founding instrument of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, in affirming that “Lebanon should not be a source of threat to Syria’s security and Syria should not be a source of nuisance and threat to Lebanon …”

The pact goes on to outline measures each side must implement to fulfill that condition, including “banning any activity or organization in all military, security, political, and information fields that might endanger and cause threats to the other country.” Under that broad formulation, even this article might qualify as “causing threats” to Syria, by virtue of its casting doubt on the very legitimacy of a security pact that is consciously, therefore dangerously, vague, and its questioning of security cooperation conducted without any accountability.

That Lebanon and Syria should cooperate over security is not the issue. Of course they should, since that’s what neighboring countries do. However, this must respect the letter and spirit of the law. The Lebanese are entitled to know, for example, whether cooperation covers the ongoing investigation of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, since the Lebanese security forces are among the executors of decisions taken by the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare.

Does coordination mean that the Lebanese security forces are expected to collude with Syria’s allies in elections – parliamentary, municipal, or other? If requested to do so, are the Lebanese obliged to silence, or even hand over to Syria, Syrian opposition figures living in Lebanon? Does coordination mean that Lebanese citizens sought by the Syrian authorities can be denied due process by being arrested in Lebanon and handed over to Syria’s intelligence services? The government has offered no clarity whatsoever on any of these queries.

If we’re in a new Lebanon, as some officials persist in saying, then they have to convince us. Yet nothing suggests that anything has really changed in the country when it comes to security issues. Those who called the shots before 2005 are now doing the same once again, and a Sword of Damocles continues to hover over the rule of law, due process, human rights, and freedom of expression, because of a lack of transparency by the Lebanese state. New Lebanon indeed.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Arabs shouldn't weep for Helen Thomas

By this time, you will have heard what happened to former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who resigned this week as a columnist for Hearst newspapers after a comment she made to an American rabbi, David Nesenoff, was caught on videotape.

On May 27, Thomas attended Jewish Heritage Celebration Day at the White House. There, Nesenoff asked her if she had anything to say about Israel. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” Thomas replied. “Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land; it’s not German, it’s not Poland’s.” When asked where the Jews should go, she answered “they should go home” to “Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.” Nesenoff posted her remarks online and all went dark for the 89-year-old journalist of Lebanese origin.

It’s never pleasant to see someone self-destruct, particularly someone as prominent as Helen Thomas, the dean of White House reporters who had been asking difficult questions of American presidents for almost half a century. However, it would be an insult to Thomas to dismiss the whole affair as the foolish ramblings of a senile woman. If she continued to write for Hearst, then presumably she was of sound enough mind to be taken seriously by the likes of Nesenoff.

Nor would it be quite fair to suggest that Thomas was being anti-Semitic. If anything, her impossible vision offered up an extreme form of integration – or rather reintegration. Let the Jews come back to their countries of origin, including the United States, was her proposal. For anti-Semites, at least those living in the West, it’s usually a contrary trajectory they seek to impose: the departure of Jews to wherever they are accepted, above all Israel.

The fact is that Thomas’ statements were, simply, stupid, as well as ahistorical and thoroughly out of touch with the mainstream in the Palestinian national movement. Two decades ago the Palestinian Liberation Organization accepted the idea of a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. Before that, even the uncompromising Palestinian National Charter of 1968 accepted that Jews who had resided in Palestine “until the beginning of the Zionist invasion” would be considered Palestinians. The date of that invasion was left unspecified, but as French analyst Xavier Baron has written, the Palestinian National Council established it as 1917, which meant that at least some Jews would be allowed to remain in Palestine.

More important, even in their most obdurate mood Palestinian nationalists recognized that there were Jews in Palestine long before the creation of Israel, something Thomas failed to admit. For her the Jews are entirely alien to the land, and she could not possibly have been limiting her suggestion to the occupied Palestinian territories, since she never indicated that Jews should return to Israel proper.

Thomas was speaking from her gut, and no doubt quite a few Arabs and individuals sympathetic to the Palestinian cause applauded from their gut too. The daily Al-Hayat even published an article this week on Thomas’ resignation, under a headline stating that she was pushed out of her job because of criticism from the “Jewish lobby.” That was nonsense. The condemnation was universal, and rightly so. Thomas’ words were indefensible, as was her inability to grasp what it means to tell Jews that they should return to Germany and Poland, countries where Jewish communities were annihilated during the World War II.

The worst thing that could happen is for Thomas’ fate to feed into a new Arab tale of victimhood. Siding with crackpot conclusions like hers only discredits Arabs, especially at a time when the onus is on Israel to explain precisely what it intends to do with the Palestinians it has dispossessed, occupied, and mistreated for several generations, and who within a not-too-distant future will form a demographic majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

Israel has provided no convincing answers and, as a consequence, has seen the narrative of Jewish victimization diluted by growing international sympathy for the Palestinian narrative of victimization. One narrative must not be allowed to displace the other, but for Arabs to endorse Thomas means they seek exclusivity for their own.

A Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement is probably a long way away, perhaps generations away at this stage. However, the Arabs have as little right to be ambiguous about what should become of the Jews of Israel after that settlement as Israeli Jews have the right to evade questions about their plans for the Palestinians. This is not a marginal matter. There is a real risk that the Palestinian national movement may eventually fall under the sway of Hamas, whose charter is disturbingly silent about what should happen to Jews in a liberated Palestine. Presumably, a majority would be expelled or choose to leave, while those staying behind would find themselves part of a “protected” second-class community under an Islamic government.

When Thomas was publicly challenging George W. Bush about his war in Iraq, much of the American literati applauded. The crusty old cow has spunk, they muttered admiringly. Now she’s a pariah, and faint echoes of admiration are accompanied by embarrassed coughs and the clearing of throats. And yet for me, the real worth of Thomas was her complete blindness as to the genocidal nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime, her abridgment of the Iraqi issue so that it mainly encompassed her dislike of Bush and her verbal jousting with the president – a parochial endeavor implying that Iraq was only really important as part of a Washington conversation.

Helen Thomas was a good reporter, and for that she merits kudos. But reporters don’t necessarily always think things through, and many of them are no better than stenographers with an attitude. That someone of Thomas’ experience should have been so easily betrayed by impulse suggests that lately she had veered into the latter category. It’s a shame, but there you have it. We really don’t need to disgrace ourselves by trying to discern reason in her unreason.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Whither America after the Gaza fiasco?

As Israel stumbles to limit the fallout from its foolish, violent handling of the Gaza flotilla incident, a larger question is what the fiasco means for the United States in the Middle East. Beyond the negative impact on peace negotiations, Washington must determine how to defend its interests amid the current transmutations in the region.

The “peace process” is very nearly dead. It’s almost impossible to imagine that Israelis and Palestinians will conclude a settlement in the foreseeable future, and the problem goes beyond the negotiators on each side. The obstacles are structural: There is no will or trust in Israel to make the concessions a settlement requires, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not jeopardize his coalition to pursue an uncertain peace. And Hamas has the ability to undermine any agreement with Israel reached by the Palestinian Authority, while the Arab states are too bankrupt politically to prevent this.

Efforts by the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to establish the foundations of a state are laudable, but frail. However, the Israelis cannot and will not see that the success of his endeavor would help define a more promising outlook for them. Today, Israel is devoid of any vision, of any sense of how the country might integrate into the Middle East. And across the aisle is a Palestinian partner who, unless it can produce an advantageous end-game soon, will see its standing disintegrate to the advantage of Hamas and its allies.

As the United States watches this shipwreck, it seems helpless to prevent it and has no backup plan to defend its own aims in the region. Palestinian-Israeli peace is desirable, and President Barack Obama was right to explore ways to restart negotiations; but now is the time to reassess, events in recent days bringing home the reason why. What is Obama’s Plan B? Israel is becoming more isolated internationally by the day; America’s Arab allies, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are weaker than ever; and even the United States itself is losing its primacy in the Middle East by pursuing an elusive victory in Afghanistan and abandoning a rare success in Iraq.

If one had to wager on the shape of the region in the coming years, it would be reasonable to put money on America’s enemies. Iran, Syria, armed Islamist groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, even American allies such as Turkey that have chosen to fundamentally overhaul their connection with Washington and Israel, are showing themselves to be far more adept at playing to Middle Eastern vicissitudes than the Obama administration. A new regional order is taking shape, and Washington is still using weapons from the old order.

One of those weapons, the peace process, is almost worthless. Engagement of Iran and Syria, for a moment Barack Obama’s illusory silver bullet, has backfired. The cretinous American obsession with being loved by Arabs and Muslims, expressed through the president’s Ankara and Cairo speeches, has prompted no discernible response. And even international cooperation to contain Iran and its nuclear program has, until now, only bought Tehran more time.

So what is Washington to do? For starters, it has to reach realistic conclusions about where Palestinian-Israeli negotiations are heading. If a settlement is a strategic imperative, then Obama must use all the tools at his disposal to bring about an agreement, including withholding credit guarantees to Israel. But if he won’t do so (and such a step would probably just harden Israeli rejection of American conditions while provoking outrage in Congress), then it’s time to put peace negotiations on the backburner and focus on consolidating American power elsewhere to address the main threat to the status quo in the Middle East: the emergence of a nuclear Iran.

And the only conceivable way of doing that is to reevaluate the relationship with Iraq and develop a strategic relationship with Baghdad that takes priority over Washington’s ties with its other Arab allies. This does not mean Obama will need to discontinue the American military withdrawal from Iraq. On the contrary. The point is to build up an alliance with an Iraq not dependant on the United States, that can defend itself against Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, that is also pluralistic and can put to good use its vast oil wealth. Such an ally, located at the heart of the Middle East, would be valuable to Washington and represent the only serious Arab counterweight to Iran.

For some reason this proposal is considered bizarre for being so different from what we have today. Yet it is no more bizarre than the Syrian decision to develop a strategic relationship with Iran against its Arab brethren; or than Turkey’s determination to strengthen its regional bona fides by becoming a loud defender of the Palestinian cause and a harsh critic of Israel – moves partly designed by the ruling AKP party to place its domestic Turkish rivals, above all the army (the principal guardian of the Israel affiliation), on the defensive. What is so peculiar about grasping that regional dynamics are shifting, therefore that Washington must reinvent itself in the Middle East?

The United States must also prepare to abandon Afghanistan. Obama’s “right war” is every day proving to be a wrongheaded war, an expensive, all-consuming conflict that is distracting Washington from the more important task of neutralizing Iran’s expanding power in the Gulf and the Levant; worse, a conflict that Iran can use to bleed the United States in defense of its objectives in those regions.

The American approach to the Middle East, based as it is on familiar, static policies that have failed to accommodate to new regional forces, is only marginalizing Washington. Barack Obama the much-vaunted visionary is showing himself to be perilously myopic.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hezbollah’s next target: UN resolutions on Lebanon

When the national dialogue sessions still had some meaning, the main item of discussion was examining ways to “spread the authority of the Lebanese state over all its territory.” This contrived formulation was a way of indirectly addressing Hezbollah’s establishment of its own state within the Lebanese state, backed by a private army allowing it to defend the party’s autonomy against its fellow countrymen who might disagree.

However, when Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, admitted that his men were arming Palestinian groups in Gaza, benevolent observers of the party who had always regarded it as essentially a Lebanese concern, woke up (rather late) to the reality that Hezbollah also had a well-developed regional agenda. And be prepared, if a Latin American or African government takes Hezbollah on within its own borders, to hear those same persons feigning astonishment that Hezbollah also has a global reach.

If you accept that Hezbollah’s main game board is Lebanon, then you can always find good things to say about the party as an authentic domestic manifestation against the corruptions and shortcomings of the Lebanese political and social order. But if the party is exposed as a regional and global player, then its admirers must accept that it is playing on behalf of someone, since a Lebanese militia really has no business training Mehdi Army militants in Iraq or setting up various types of networks in the deepest confines of Latin America and West Africa. That someone, or something, is Iran, and if Hezbollah is an extension of Iran, then there really is much less to say about the authenticity of its Lebanese agenda.

All this comes to mind following the condemnation last week of Hezbollah’s activities in Egypt by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his latest report on Resolution 1701. Ban noted that in continuing to possess weapons, Hezbollah had violated Resolution 1559, and he wrote that “[t]he threat that armed groups and militias pose to the sovereignty and stability of the Lebanese state cannot be overstated.”

Indeed, Hezbollah is not only committed, and its representatives have said so openly, to undermining Resolution 1559, the central aim of which was to force a Syrian pullout from Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah, in that way re-establishing a sovereign Lebanese state after decades of Syrian hegemony; the party is also hoping to use that as a first step toward the dismantling of Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 summer war, sent the Lebanese army to the South, set up a stronger UN force there as well as a mechanism to prevent the arming of Hezbollah below the Litani River; and, incidentally, reaffirmed Resolution 1559.

Ban is understandably worried about Hezbollah’s activities in Egypt because he is much more profoundly worried about what the party, and its regional backers Iran and Syria, might do to the elaborate scaffolding of UN decisions on Lebanon that was set up starting in September 2004. This not only includes Resolutions 1559 and 1701, but also the series of resolutions following the Hariri assassination creating an investigative and legal framework to punish those guilty in the crime.

We can expect the June elections, if the opposition wins a majority, to be the first step in an Iranian and Syrian effort, through Hezbollah, to burn down the edifice of UN resolutions on Lebanon. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Hezbollah’s allies, such as the Aounists, are eager to participate in the bonfire. However, the Christians on both side of the political divide, who will ultimately decide the election outcome, are so taken up with their parochial calculations, so narrowly obsessed with ensuring that their Christian rivals will be eliminated, that Hezbollah faces no electoral obstacle to advancing its goal of replacing the UN framework with a new one that protects its weapons, legitimizes and expands its autonomy, and puts the Lebanese state at the service of the resistance.

Lest we forget, that is precisely what Hassan Nasrallah’s “defense strategy” is all about.

That is the stake in the upcoming elections, and it is also why Hillary Clinton came to Beirut last Sunday. The secretary of state and her aides, notably Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary for Near East affairs, can surely sense that the UN decisions on Lebanon are slowly crumbling. Even the Hariri investigation has lost much momentum in the past four years. We too should worry, particularly if Hezbollah comes out of the elections stronger. Lebanon would be isolated internationally, the UN would lose interest, and Hezbollah would be delighted to inherit the levers of power in a country that has fallen between the cracks.