Thursday, March 31, 2011

Will the Syrians feel they were fooled?

Among the more idiosyncratic innovations of dictatorships is the mass demonstration in favor of the regime. Normally, countries organize elections to gauge the popularity of their governors. In Syria on Tuesday, Bashar Assad’s operators ordered out the multitudes to say how much they loved their president. However, the effort, like the excesses in the choreography, also represented a paradoxical admission that quite a few Syrians perhaps did not share that view.

The public expression of approval, soon followed by the resignation of Syria’s government, was a transparent move by Assad to increase his leverage and offer absolutely nothing to a still embryonic, but surprisingly widespread, protest movement. On Wednesday Assad made a long-awaited speech, but issued only vague promises to introduce reform and combat corruption. The president framed the protests in Syria as the consequence of a plot by unnamed outsiders to sow dissension, therefore as a confrontation the regime needed to win. A confrontation is quite possibly what Assad will have assured thanks to his speech. The Syrians were anticipating much more. All week the president’s people affirmed that a decision to lift the state of emergency had been taken. Many in Syria will now feel that they were fooled.

By week’s end we will know better if Assad’s gambit has worked. If disgruntlement grows and Syrians take to the streets in greater numbers, his regime has provided itself with an excuse to return to violence. But it will not be easy for Assad to resolve the dilemma faced by other Arab leaders forced out of office during the past three months, or still under pressure to leave. Brutality by the security forces will only engender greater discontent and mobilize more people against the Assad system; genuine reform, in turn, will raise expectations and ultimately bring the Assads’ edifice crashing down.

The president’s principal difficulty is that the political structure built by his father was designed to impede change. Hafez Assad left behind an inflexible machine in near-perfect equilibrium, with members of the political and military elite, as well as the separate security and intelligence services, aligned in such a way that the president could play them off against one another. In this manner, the regime was able to prevent the formation of coalitions that might organize a coup.

At the same time, the regime’s Alawite-dominated nucleus, with its control over the institutions of subjugation, developed an implicit alliance with a Sunni entrepreneurial class, even as prominent members of the larger Assad-Makhlouf clan, above all the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, came to dominate the business community. All this greatly reinforced the web of interests underpinning the Assad regime, rendering a strictly sectarian reading of today’s events in Syria too narrow. Most significantly, authentic reform would require a prior dispensation from powerful political and economic actors who have absolutely no intention of relinquishing their privileges.

Assad’s advantage is that regional states, as well as the United States, prefer him to the prospect of chaos in Syria. In the end the president’s fate will be in the hands of his own people. However, rare were those Gulf Arab leaders who did not made the call to Damascus this past week to lend Assad support. Iran is even keener to see the president carry on, as is Israel, with whom Syria has been the best of enemies, the two having maintained a peaceful border for almost four decades. And the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, serenely assured us some days ago that Assad was a cut above Moammar Gadhafi for not having deployed the air force against his own people.

The irony is that one of the Arab world’s less progressive individuals yet managed to capture the mood of the moment in Syria. In a sermon delivered last Friday, Sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi proclaimed, sympathetically, that the train of Arab revolution had reached Syria. The Assad regime was left reeling by the remarks, interpreting the sheikh’s words as a denunciation of Alawite-led rule. Clinton and others share Assad’s anxieties, and worry that an uprising in Syria might play out in favor of Sunni Islamists. And yet for as long as the United States and other democratic countries surrender the rhetoric of freedom to the likes of Qaradawi, they will only strengthen the credibility of the Islamists at the expense of Syrians who advocate a non-sectarian, consensual, broadly national approach to reform.

In several of the recent Arab revolts, once a threshold of popular dissatisfaction was reached, regimes were incapable of holding back the tide. What began as the expression of specific beefs soon morphed into irrepressible demands for freedom and a change of leadership. A grand narrative took over and the public’s ambition followed. Can Bashar Assad successfully counteract the grand narrative of liberty that many Syrians have started to embrace? His address makes this far less likely.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hezbollah, at home alone

An astute friend and I were talking about the recent publication by the daily Al-Akhbar of American diplomatic cables circulated by WikiLeaks. Most of the published documents purport to show how Lebanese politicians welcomed, or sought to exploit, a Hezbollah defeat in the summer war of 2006. The party has used the leaks to affirm that its political enemies were on Israel’s side. My friend, a Shia journalist, had a different view. What they really showed, he said, was how isolated and unpopular Hezbollah is.

Indeed, several of the cables, written by the former US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, show not Hezbollah’s enemies, but its allies expressing discomfort, or displeasure, with the party. They include two parliamentarians from Michel Aoun’s bloc, Farid el-Khazen and Ibrahim Kanaan, and the former health minister, Muhammad Jawad Khalifeh, who is close to the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri (and who described Berri’s anger with Hezbollah).

It is not clear why Al-Akhbar decided to reveal these documents now. The net effect of the decision will be to highlight tensions and settle scores within the ranks of the new majority, amid reports that a new government is imminent. For example, the leaks are particularly embarrassing to the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt – in 2006 a March 14 stalwart, today an equally stalwart ally of Hezbollah and Syria.

Of course, the leaks could be efforts by Hezbollah to keep their shifty partners, Jumblatt and Berri, in line. They also serve, quite conveniently, to discredit Kanaan and Khazen, at a time when Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, is attempting to eliminate all rivals who might hinder his rise within the Aounist firmament. Not surprisingly, Bassil is revealed in the publicized cables to have been an ardent advocate of Hezbollah during the conflict with Israel.

Yet all this really just confirms what my comrade said. If Hezbollah and its echo chambers need to warn even their allies to stay on board politically; if the party is furious with the double language of the Lebanese political class, whose members will readily spill the beans even to the Americans, then that does not say much about Hezbollah’s capacity to unite Lebanon behind its resistance. In fact, it tends to confirm something that we always suspected: the party has managed to enforce a consensus solely through intimidation.

This poses potential problems for Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general. His implicit contract with Iran is that his party be prepared to protect and advance Tehran’s interests in the Levant, to the extent that Hezbollah would retaliate against Israel if the Israelis were to bombard Iranian nuclear facilities. But for such a project to be effective, for Hezbollah to go to war with confidence that its countrymen are not working behind its back against its interests, the party would have to enjoy widespread Lebanese backing.

The blunt reality is that it doesn’t. Hezbollah long ago lost the Sunni community. The Druze will follow Jumblatt, but not if that means they must pay a heavy price on behalf of Hezbollah in a war against Israel that harms the community in the mountains and in the West Bekaa and Hasbaya. As for the Christians, Khazen and Kanaan reflected far more accurately the mood in the community than Bassil; there is no Christian enthusiasm, and that includes among Aoun’s followers, for seeing Lebanon suffer for a Hezbollah project.

That reluctance would be shared by many in the Shia community who yet express their fondness for Hezbollah. Nasrallah’s rash support for the Shia opposition in Bahrain last week has provoked a harsh backlash from the kingdom. We can expect many more Shia in the Gulf to soon see their residency permits or visas revoked and their financial interests and investments ruined. Add to this mix the communal anger if Shia are made to endure another devastating war with Israel in the South, and we can appreciate that Nasrallah’s margin of maneuver is not as wide as he and his partisans claim.

If a government is formed, Hezbollah will be able to consolidate itself. Nor will the government necessarily be as frail as many claim. It will enjoy a parliamentary majority, Syrian and Iranian endorsement, and could last until the next elections. However, by playing a dominant role in the government, Hezbollah risks being identified with the state’s failures. A government of “one color” will only heighten Lebanon’s contradictions, the very same that have denied Hezbollah the broad blessing it has sought for its vanguard role as a “resistance.”

That is not to suggest that Hezbollah is weakening, but rather that its ability to impose its agenda on a majority of Lebanese is less reliant on persuasion and more on coercion than at any time previously. The party has successfully deflected much potential discontent onto Michel Aoun, whom it has pushed to the front of the stage. Aoun has not disappointed. But in times of major crisis, or conflict, that tactic doesn’t go far. If the situation in Lebanon were to shift decisively, Hezbollah could suddenly find itself on its own, friendless.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The leaders don't appear to know who is in charge

There is an unreal quality to the western military intervention in Libya. Airplanes are flying, bombs are falling, but the strategic thinking in Washington, Paris and London seems focused on political perceptions at home. There is no clarity about what might happen to the Libyans, in whose name the attacks are taking place.

On Monday, things began unravelling like a playground game gone wrong. France and the United Kingdom disagreed over whether Nato should take the Libyan operation in hand. Italy vowed to regain control of its military bases used to launch air raids on Libya unless this happened. The United States announced that it would soon cut back on its military activities and allow the Europeans to lead. The US president Barack Obama stated that Washington wanted Muammar Qaddafi "to go", after the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, had said the US did not view Col Qadaffi's removal as a goal of Operation Odyssey Dawn. And in London, the prime minister David Cameron and his chief of the defence staff, Sir David Richards, disagreed over whether Libya's leader should be targeted.

To call what is going on a military-diplomatic train wreck may be premature; but unless the western states get a grip on their policy, we're surely watching a train wreck in the making. And Col Qaddafi is bound to emerge from the circus much strengthened.

Nonetheless, for humanitarian and hard-nosed political reasons, international intercession in the Libyan crisis was necessary. Col Qaddafi's brutality was never in question, and there was no reason to doubt his promise to inflict terrible retribution on the inhabitants of Benghazi had he recaptured the rebel stronghold.

In terms of national interest, the consequences of permitting a massacre would have been equally harmful. It would have encouraged other Arab autocrats to take the destabilising step of crushing dissent without fearing western censure. It would have sparked Arab disdain for the double standards of the United States and Europe, crippling their ability to shape outcomes in a new Middle East. And it would have put on the road thousands of young Libyans, angry with the west for having abandoned them to a butcher, ideal recruits for al Qa'eda.

It's in the implementation, however, that the western states have made major mistakes. Some will insist that the decision to pass a Security Council resolution came far too late; that it should have been taken weeks ago when Col Qaddafi was losing ground. Undeniably; but it is also precisely that delay, and the fact that loyalist Libyan units were on the verge of defeating the rebels, that generated the critical mass needed for a consensus at the United Nations.

More damning is that the leaders in Washington, Paris, and London failed to think their actions through. Mr Obama has not hidden that he regards Libya as a nuisance, and flew to Brazil on the first day of the air offensive to prove it. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy is too impetuous to act as a reassuring guide through the morass. And Mr Cameron frequently comes across as slick wrapping around a hollow vessel. Yet it is these three men who signed off on an intricate UN resolution whose broad mandate has confused even them.

What is the Libya endgame? No one knows. Resolution 1973 exceeded the establishment of a no-fly zone by authorising all necessary measures to protect civilians. Concurrently, the UN decision ruled out the deployment of ground troops. This replicated a major ambiguity during the Kosovo war of 1999, when it became obvious how difficult it was to protect civilians from the air, and even more so to dislodge the despots whose existence, by definition, endangered the civilians.

When the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, warns that a Libya breaking up into statelets is unwelcome, he implies that only Col Qaddafi's removal can prevent this. But Mr Gates led resistance against involvement in Libya, and, justifiably, has no intention of throwing American soldiers into the battle. But if so, why has there been minimal coordination between the western states and the rebels who, presumably, in the absence of American, French, or British forces, are needed to overthrow the Qaddafi regime? Worse, why do so few in Washington, Paris and London know anything about the rebels, on whose victory so much relies?

The Obama administration's intention to transfer control of the Libyan campaign to the Europeans will only aggravate matters. We saw what high standards of inconsequence Europe attained during the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s, and Washington will never hand a blank cheque to the British or French by placing its pilots and sailors fully under their authority. American leadership is a must. Yet Mr Obama won't lead and won't allow others to lead either.

The solution to this muddle? A lot of luck, but also an urgent tightening of the objectives in Libya. Whether they like it or not, the western powers are lining up to get rid of Col Qaddafi, so it is past the time to determine who is in charge on the rebels' side - or help organise a credible Libyan interlocutor if no one stands up. At the same time, the Libyan leader must be offered a negotiated exit. Countries like Turkey or Russia can help in this respect. Cornering the regime will only induce it to fight harder. On the other hand, signs that Col Qaddafi is willing to bargain may fragment his support base.

Most important, the Obama administration should stop behaving like an ostrich. Washington cannot be both in and out of the conflict, and doesn't have the luxury of pretending to be a secondary power. Either it must take command in Libya, or no one will.

Syria Showdown? The Assad regime faces a new Arab uprising.

In January, Syrian President Bashar Assad sat down for a Wall Street Journal interview and explained why he was unlikely to face a popular uprising similar to the ones in Tunisia and Egypt.

Assad remarked that change inside Syria was shaped by "the people's feeling and dignity, [it is] about the people participating in the decisions of their country." While Syria faced circumstances more difficult than those in most Arab countries, the country remained stable. "Why?" the president asked. "Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."

Many Syrians might dispute that Assad is closely linked to his people's beliefs. Despite a 48-year-old emergency law, his regime is facing growing domestic discontent. Demonstrations took place last week throughout Syria, and have continued in the southern town of Dara. On Wednesday, security forces fired at protesters near the Omari mosque and at a funeral procession, killing at least 15 people, according to opposition sources. By Thursday, the uninterrupted bloodletting led the opposition to estimate that around 100 had died, with scores more detained. Hundreds of people were also said to have been arrested in Damascus, Aleppo, Suwayda, and Baniyas.

A key indicator of the uprising's momentum will be whether the situation escalates after Friday prayers this week. The Assads are taking no chances. The brutality in Dara is a testament to the family's sense of vulnerability. The minority Alawite-led regime controls all levers of power and intimidation in Syria, including elite military units and the intelligence services. Reports have suggested that troops whose principal role is regime protection were swiftly dispatched to the south. According to Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, this included Republican Guard detachments, and rumor has it that Assad's younger brother, Maher, has been directing operations.

Haytham Manna, the spokesman for the Arab Committee for Human Rights, appeared to agree that internal security companies, not the army, were leading the repression. He told the BBC Arabic service that "security branches, military and civilian, wearing civilian clothes, they are the ones engaging in [attacks against the Omari mosque]."

The fear is that the situation may take on a sectarian coloring, with Sunnis, some 74 percent of the population, turning against Alawites, who represent roughly 8 to 12 percent. This is simplistic. The Assads will defend Alawite domination as an existential necessity, but Sunnis thrive in many sectors, especially the economy. Assad is married to a Sunni. Syria is characterized by complex, sometimes crisscrossing, political, regional, tribal, ethnic, and class bonds that transcend a narrow sectarian reading of events. That's why a breakdown of authority could bring about a situation even more volatile and vicious than in Libya.

That's not to suggest that  perpetuation of Assad rule is the solution. If anything, it has become a major problem. The Arab world is going through radical transformation, and the dictatorship in Damascus is no different than the others that have been lustily overthrown lately. Although Syria is nominally a republic, the president inherited office, and absolute power, from his father, Hafez Assad. Family members are widely viewed as presiding over networks of corruption and patronage. British author William Dalrymple inadvertently caught the essence of the system's dysfunctional nature when he wrote, approvingly, that Syria was "a police state that tends to leave its citizens alone as long as they keep out of politics."

Like his father, Bashar Assad has maintained his supremacy by methodically undermining all potential alternative centers of power and legitimacy. The Syrian system is built in such a way that it offers a stark choice between the Assads or chaos. Hafez Assad sharpened that arrangement after fighting a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency starting in the mid-'70s. This culminated in the ferocious siege of Hama in February 1982, in which tens of thousands of people were killed.

Bashar Assad still enjoys support from states preferring him to chaos. In the Gulf and Iraq, leaders facing popular rebellions of their own have no wish to see another despot ousted; nor do they want to have to manage a dangerous political void in Syria. Saudi Arabia still seeks cooperation with Damascus to contain Shiite influence in Lebanon and Iraq. Pointedly, the Syrian government defended the deployment of Gulf forces in Bahrain on behalf of the Sunni Al-Khalifa monarchy, even as Iran sided with the marginalized Shiites. Damascus won't soon break with Tehran, but Assad needs the Saudis on his side to help absorb anger, especially Sunni anger, at home. 

Assad can also garner anxious approval from outside the Arab world. The Obama administration does not want another Middle Eastern headache, and it has been thoroughly tongue-tied over Syrian events. Israel, too, prefers the routine of Assad rule to the unknown, not least because the Assads have kept their mutual border quiet for nearly four decades. Iran regards Syria as a strategic ally in the Levant, while Turkey has used relations with Damascus as a wedge into the Arab world. Even so, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Assad last week that he needs to embrace democratic reform.

Erdogan was right. Foreign tolerance for Assad will mean nothing if a majority of Syrians unites against his leadership. The president might recall what his wife, Asma, said in a recent Vogue profile. She urged her countrymen to engage in "active citizenship," as she put it. "It's about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward. … We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it." It will indeed, but conceivably without the Assads.

Shield Lebanon from the Arab upheavals

Two developments in the past 24 hours, one inside Lebanon, the other in neighboring Syria, have the potential to exacerbate communal relations between Sunnis and Shiites in the coming months. It would be irresponsible for Lebanese officials, on both sides of the country’s growing political divide, do nothing about this.

The first is news that the prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, has shown President Michel Sleiman the first draft of his Cabinet lineup. If a government is formed soon, all the indications are that it will harden dissension in Beirut. Hezbollah and Michel Aoun will use the government to advance agendas that March 14 views as anathema. At the same time, the departing prime minister, Saad Hariri, has made public censure of Hezbollah and its weapons a cornerstone of his political strategy, and this will extend to the new Cabinet. The predictable result of all this is a widening of the Sunni-Shiite rift.

The second development comes from Syria, where the news on Wednesday was that the security forces had stormed a mosque in Daraa, killing at least six people. It’s unclear where the situation is going, but things are more likely to get worse than better in the foreseeable future. The great danger is that Syrian instability will eventually take on a sectarian coloring. And what happens in Syria could have daunting sectarian repercussions in Beirut.

Lebanese politicians have rarely appeared so at odds with one another, and never have they allowed their disagreements to be expressed as much, explicitly or implicitly, in sectarian terms. Indeed, they have come to rely inordinately on sectarian symbolism, solidarities, and animosities to rally support. Complicating matters, the politicians have linked these actions to similar impulses regionally.

It is perfectly understandable for Hariri to condemn Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah when the Hezbollah leader chooses to immerse himself in the affairs of Bahrain, where Sunnis and Shiites are fighting over the kingdom’s future. Lebanon, given its complex sectarian makeup, has no interest in taking a stand on Bahrain, let alone playing along with Nasrallah’s ambition to bolster other Arab upheavals (though Hezbollah has been dead silent on repression in Iran and Syria).

However, Hariri has also shown little hesitation in pushing the sectarian envelope, albeit more subtly. His foreign allegiances were all too clear on March 13, when a large portrait of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was unfurled above Martyrs Square. And by focusing on Hezbollah’s arms without offering a political quid pro quo as an incentive to the Shiite community, all the caretaker prime minister and March 14 are doing is strengthening a perception among Shiites that disarmament is a byword for their marginalization.

As implausible as this may sound, now is the time for Hariri and Nasrallah to establish mechanisms to cushion the ominous impact of regional turmoil on Lebanese affairs. Regardless of the profound personal tensions between the two men, the incompatibility between Hariri’s vision of Lebanon and Hezbollah’s, their divergences over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and much else, the benchmark they should adopt is a simple one: a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon would be devastating for all; it would be just as fatal to Hezbollah as it would to the political and social system that Hariri seeks to promote.

The safety nets that Lebanon once enjoyed to contain its problems have all precariously eroded in recent years. Arab diplomacy, always on hand to intercede and lessen friction in Beirut, is in disarray because of Arab disarray. Constitutional institutions, which were created to manage political and inter-communal interaction, have been seriously undermined by a succession of events. They were ransacked during the time of Syrian tutelage; and during the post-2005 period, when Hezbollah and its allies faced off against March 14, the constitution was repeatedly undermined for political convenience.

What can Nasrallah and Hariri do to avert the worse? A good starting point is to greatly calm their rhetoric and that of their allies and partisans, and grasp, as much as possible, that everything they say is being fed by the Lebanese into a template of regional confrontation. Such advice may sound nonsensical when both sides have embarked on a systematic effort to delegitimize the other – Hariri by challenging Hezbollah’s arms, Hezbollah by accusing March 14 of siding with Israel during the summer 2006 war. However, neither side will eliminate the other. Hezbollah will not succeed in imposing its writ on Lebanon, and March 14 is living under an illusion if it imagines that the weapons quarrel, or even an indictment issued by the special tribunal naming Hezbollah members, will mean the party’s downfall.

Beyond the rhetoric, Hariri and Nasrallah must set up a group whose role would be to act as a regular channel between the two leaders, its main purpose to identify and neutralize looming sectarian flashpoints. This team could include both men’s closest advisers, but the most important thing is that it remain secret and continue to meet regardless of the public stances taken by the leaders. Over and above this, Hariri and Nasrallah should urge Michel Sleiman to resume the national dialogue sessions, the principal item of discussion being the shielding of Lebanon from regional tremors. While that forum may become a futile talk shop, it would also bring in all communal leaders and reassure the Lebanese that conciliatory exchanges are always possible. This would help reduce the pressures in the street.

Of course, such an approach would only scratch the surface in absorbing the force of sectarian strains. But Lebanon’s leaders, for once, must transcend their narrow, parochial calculations and accept that the country invariably distils what happens in the Middle East, and often the very worst of what happens in the Middle East. Whichever instrument or medium they adopt, Hariri and Nasrallah must stay in contact, even through the toughest of times.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Safety last, for Lebanon

In a sign that Egypt is making a comeback on the Arab scene, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement on Wednesday expressing its worries about Lebanon. Through a spokeswoman, the foreign minister, Nabil al-Araby, declared that Cairo “is closely following Lebanese developments, and is concerned with the increasing polarization and declining room for dialogue.”

Araby is right to be concerned. In the past six years, three long-standing safety nets that Lebanon benefited from to contain its domestic conflicts have frayed severely. While the country is peaceful, and may well remain so, several potentially divisive political tests lie ahead. Without a serious interchange between the Lebanese, the risk that political disputation will turn violent should be taken seriously.

The first of these safety nets is Arab diplomacy. The familiar mechanisms of Arab political intervention in Lebanon lie in ruins today. Until Syria imposed itself in Beirut in 1990, when Lebanon’s war ended, developments in the country fell under the sway mainly of Syria and Saudi Arabia, with Arab sanction, under the watchful eye of the United States, in the shadow of “red lines” set by Israel.

After the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005, Arab diplomacy returned, with the Saudis and Egyptians primarily concerned that Iran was filling the openings left by Syria. Their efforts were mostly unsuccessful. Lebanon became the object of a struggle between Damascus on the one side and Riyadh and Cairo on the other. The result was Saudi Arabia’s greater isolation. For example, its boycott, with Egypt’s, of the Arab League summit in Damascus in March 2008 backfired when most Arab leaders attended. And two months later, it was the Saudis’ rival, Qatar, that brokered an accord to end an 18-month Lebanese deadlock that had nearly led to a new civil war.

With the Middle East now facing rolling upheavals, the Arab state system is in disarray. If Lebanon were to enter into a prolonged crisis, let’s say over the indictment by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, who would be on hand to reconcile the parties? The Saudis are too preoccupied with their own neighborhood; Egypt is going through a major political transformation; and Syria and Iran, like the Saudis and Egyptians, are too close to one side to be acceptable mediators.

As for Qatar and Turkey, despite all the hype about their newborn regional weight, it was obvious how little leverage they had when they sent their foreign ministers on a futile mission to Beirut in the wake of the government’s collapse. Without a broad Arab imprimatur – one that is currently unlikely given regional troubles and cleavages – outside political interventions in Lebanon are bound to fail.

A second safety net that has fallen in recent years is respect for confessional red lines, rhetorical and political, both between and within communities. After the Syrian withdrawal in 2005 and the consequent effort by Hezbollah to fill the vacuum so as to forestall disarmament and the weakening of its semi-independent status, Sunni-Shia hostility rose. On both sides an ugly sectarianism took root, devoid of any will to compromise. This frequently spilled out into the streets, as in January 2007 and May 2008 in Beirut, and on many more occasions in Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawis.

At the same time, Michel Aoun, to bolster his popularity, pursued a populist strategy that involved undermining the accepted norms of communal behavior and rhetoric. Aoun made blunt condemnation of the Sunni community a rallying cry for his supporters. And the general overturned communal conventions by attacking the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, and the president, Michel Sleiman, so as to discredit Maronite centers of power not under his control.

A third safety net that has all but disappeared in recent years is that provided by constitutional institutions. The process of decay, to be fair, has been a long one. The war greatly eroded the power of such institutions, and Syria’s 15-year protectorate over Lebanon only accelerated this. During those years, the Lebanese would arrive at an election never sure if would actually be held. Two presidents saw their mandate extended under Syrian duress. The rule of law was applied inconsistently, and the day-to-day functioning of the state after 1998 was largely in the hands of a Syrian intelligence officer.

The Lebanese did not fare much better after 2005. Parliament was closed for over a year because Hezbollah and the speaker, Nabih Berri, sought to block the election of a president after Emile Lahoud’s term ended. When one was finally chosen, the voting itself suffered from a lack of constitutional legitimacy, since Michel Sleiman, as army commander, should have presented his resignation two years earlier. Hezbollah and its allies also reinterpreted the constitution to justify the demand for a blocking third in the cabinet. While this was not strictly unconstitutional, it went against the spirit of the organic law. And even the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was approved in a questionable constitutional way.

In effect, short-term calculation has replaced constitutional predictability and legitimacy as the benchmark for political action. This can be disastrous, for creating a state functioning on the basis of improvisation and bargaining, in other words a state by default. Managing Lebanon’s challenges effectively will require something sturdier. But don’t expect Lebanon’s political class to provide it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

For Beshara Rai, the headaches begin

Bishop Beshara Rai, who was elected Maronite patriarch on Tuesday to succeed Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, has declared that his tenure would rest on a foundation of “partnership and love.” Yet Rai will face four major challenges within the Maronite community after he begins his duties, and each one will test that promise to its limits.

Rai’s first priority will be to rejuvenate the Maronite Church. From an ecclesiastical perspective, Rai, who is no spring chicken himself, will play a pivotal role in promoting a younger clergy that can take in hand the institution during the coming decade and beyond. He will also be called upon to replace those bishops who have passed the retirement age. More fundamentally, Rai will have to ensure that the new bishops inspire more confidence than many of those on their way out. The church has exacerbated a deep crisis in Maronite confidence, not least because many of its senior clergymen are perceived as corrupt, worldly, divided and under the thumb of politicians.

Politics has had the most divisive influence on the Maronite Church. The church is valuable to the political class and other Lebanese social forces because of its myriad, powerful networks. Beyond its spiritual capabilities, the church’s ability to shape attitudes at all levels, through its parishes, educational facilities, and social services, is second to none. That is why Rai will not find it easy to transcend politics – indeed he has played the political game as intensely as others. He will have to discover the right balance between accepting the church’s innate pluralism and unifying it through a cohesive spiritual agenda while limiting the politicians’ sway over the institution.

Rai’s second principal challenge will be to work on reuniting a Maronite community that has been at perennial odds with itself. The task will be comparable to herding cats. Which is why the new patriarch may renounce the quasi-unachievable ambition of making the community speak more or less with one voice, and instead devise a strategy to rally his coreligionists around specific themes. One of these must be the greater isolation of the clergy from politics. Another, to bring an ossified institution in tune with its environment, especially its Muslim environment, and introduce mechanisms to remove older clergymen. Rai may want to consider setting an age limit for patriarchs, and lower the retirement age for bishops.

This challenge will be an arduous one, given the third challenge the new patriarch will face: Michel Aoun. From his perch as the head of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc, Aoun has sought, since the parliamentary elections of 2009, to demolish all alternative centers of Maronite power. The attacks and humiliations that he visited on Rai’s predecessor, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, and his continuing endeavor to marginalize President Michel Sleiman, are flagrant illustrations. Another is Aoun’s demand for the lion’s share of Christian ministerial portfolios, as well as a blocking third, in a new Mikati government.

Aoun cannot be happy with Rai’s election. The new patriarch is believed to lean toward Sleiman, who hails from Jbeil, which Rai represented as bishop. Rai is also someone determined and striving, who has no intention of being hastened to the sidelines by Michel Aoun. For now, the patriarch enjoys the authority that accompanies his new office, leaving Aoun little room to criticize him without risking discrediting himself. This will likely lead to a waiting game as each man sizes up the other. However, if Rai initiates a process to narrow Maronite differences, he may open himself up to Aoun’s broadsides. That is why the patriarch will have to tread carefully.

The fourth, and most sensitive challenge Rai will face is to reconcile the Maronites with Lebanon itself. For many in the community, communal demographics are a chronicle of Maronite irrelevance foretold. The most optimistic estimates suggest that Christians in general make up a third of the Lebanese population. Where Aoun has exploited Christian fears to rally his followers against the Sunni community and its leadership, Samir Geagea has pursued an alliance with Saad Hariri and the Sunnis against Hezbollah. However, the Maronites have gained little by having a leg in both camps. Their inability to stake out an independent position to preserve their common interests has only hardened their minority status in a Lebanon shaped by the dynamics of the Sunni-Shiite relationship.

Like Sfeir, Rai will have to work within the confines of the Taif agreement and the post-Taif Constitution. Taif calls for the abolition of political confessionalism, and for now Christians regard this as a near-existential threat, since one of its consequences would be to eliminate the 50-50 ratio of Christian-Muslim seats in Parliament. But the idea won’t go away. Rai, if he doesn’t want to see his community debilitated by an inflexible defense of its prerogatives, will have to conceive ways of making this eventuality more palatable to Maronites. In fact, he will have to encourage the community to instigate the Taif reforms on its own terms, in that way ensuring that political change is not one day imposed against Christian wishes.

This will create a paradox: even as Rai tries to isolate the church from politics, the church will remain the major potential conduit for transmitting, and legitimizing, Maronite concessions in the context of a consensual political reform project. But this difficulty will be just one of the very many the patriarch will confront. Rai’s vow to rely on love will more likely soon elicit tough love, while partnership is an elusive goal the patriarch will have to convince others to embrace.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lebanon's revolution waylaid by the old sectarian demons

Last weekend, thousands of people gathered in Beirut to demand an end to Lebanon's sectarian system. The groups backing the campaign are poorly organised, their agendas diverge, but the greatest difficulty they face is more fundamental: most Lebanese, for better or worst, are used to functioning within a sectarian framework, and have always bestowed legitimacy on their sectarian leaders.

If you have any doubts, let me draw your attention to what is likely to be a very large rally this coming Sunday held at Martyrs Square by the March 14 coalition, whose leading figure is Saad Hariri, Lebanon's caretaker prime minister. The gathering will celebrate the sixth anniversary of a March 14, 2005 demonstration, when close to a million Lebanese protested against Syria's hegemony over Lebanon following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. If anything heralded what we are witnessing today in Arab streets, it was that peculiarly Lebanese moment when all fears and inhibitions fell.

So enthralling was that day that the subsequent governing majority in Beirut took March 14 for its name. Many idealistic Lebanese deemed the occasion revolutionary, the dawn of a new era of a unified Lebanon in which one's religion would be secondary. In retrospect, however, what happened was precisely the opposite. The idealists had mistakenly identified their laudable aspirations as what was really a quintessential manifestation of Lebanese sectarianism.

How so? After Hariri's killing, a majority in Lebanon's Sunni community turned against Syria, accusing it of being behind the crime. In that way they joined the substantial numbers of Christians who had long opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon, as well as the Druze community that had earlier followed its leader, Walid Jumblatt, into opposition against the pro-Syrian government in Beirut. While there were quite a few Lebanese, many from the educated middle class who supported the protest movement as individuals, a far larger number came out obeying the calls of political leaders or parties who played on their sectarian allegiances.

Something pragmatic also took place on March 14. While all those who participated had distinct political objectives and came from a multitude of political and religious backgrounds or rejected religious affiliations altogether, they found common ground in advocating a Syrian military withdrawal. Lebanon's sectarianism triggers such behaviour, deriving from a medley of separate interests - defined substantially, but not exclusively, through sectarian calculations. And when the dials are in alignment and a majority reaches accord over specific goals, sectarianism can pack a tremendous wallop.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The dark angel Gabriel

In his article for NOW Lebanon this week, Hussein Ibish wrote about the growing legitimization of Islamophobia in the United States. One of the persons he mentioned as spreading the message of hatred is a Lebanese-American, Brigitte Gabriel, who has received considerable publicity lately, not least a profile in the New York Times.

Gabriel heads a non-profit organization called ACT! for America, and her pitch has been a rather simple one: The United States faces an existential threat from Islam and must defend itself. But what makes Gabriel different from others plying the same trade is that she claims to have personal familiarity with the issue, thanks to her experiences in wartime Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s.

Here is what Gabriel has posted on her website: “I founded ACT! for America because Islamic militants have declared war on America. I know what this means. For years, I witnessed first-hand how brutally jihadists treat non-Muslims.” While Gabriel says that she is not against Islam as such, her critics observe that in her remarks she has often signified precisely the opposite. Gabriel has asserted, for instance, that “[i]n the Muslim world, extreme is mainstream.”

Gabriel is the author of a bestselling book titled Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America. In it, she recounts her time in unsettled South Lebanon, making her case that it was really all about Muslim extremists killing Christians. However, anyone with even cursory knowledge of events in the South during the period that Gabriel lived there would see that her template is nonsensical.

Gabriel frequently draws a direct link between what she saw on September 11, 2001, and what she encountered in her hometown of Marjayoun, located on a hill overlooking the Lebanese-Israeli border. “Watching the World Trade Center buildings fall in 2001,” she has written, “I was struck by the same fear that I experienced during the war in Lebanon. As I watched, words instinctively came from my mouth as I spoke to the TV screen: ‘Now they are here.’”

Gabriel was born Nour Saman, and during the first years of the Lebanese civil war after 1975, she lived in Marjayoun. In those days the South was buffeted by two principal dynamics: clashes between Israel and Palestinian militant groups; and antagonism between the Palestinians and inhabitants of southern Lebanon, Christians and Shia Muslims mainly, who resented the heavy price they were paying for a conflict over which they had no control. The Israelis began arming and overseeing those Lebanese opposed to the Palestinians, among them a Christian Lebanese army officer named Saad Haddad, who formed a pro-Israel militia and became the de facto commander of three enclaves established along the border by the Israelis. In 1978, Israeli forces invaded South Lebanon to dislodge the Palestinians. When they withdrew, the enclaves were joined into an Israeli-protected “security belt” under Haddad’s control.

In her book, Gabriel notes, “[F]or my first ten years I led a charmed and privileged life. All that came to an end when a religious war, declared by the Muslims against the Christians, […] tore my country and my life apart. It was a war that the world did not understand.”

Evidently, it was a war that Gabriel did not understand either. South Lebanon was a complicated place, but it was not characterized by anything resembling an Islamic jihad. Gabriel, in her blanket indictment of Muslims, airbrushes out that Shia also suffered from the cycles of attack and retaliation between the Palestinian factions and Israel. As a consequence many became as hostile to the Palestinians as the Christians, later joining the pro-Israel militia. Moreover, the Palestinian organizations were secular nationalist. Although many combatants were Muslim, not all were. And their fight was with Israel; it was not a religious crusade against Christians.

As for Gabriel’s grave comment “they are here” after the 9/11 attacks, that’s pure theater. She knows very well that there was nothing remotely comparable between what happened in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and what she confronted in Marjayoun. Her effort to conflate the situations suggests not a flaw in interpretation; it suggests a conscious effort to mislead.

Gabriel’s portrayal of her daily tribulations during the war also appears to be overdone: she lived in a shelter for three years; she was sometimes driven to school in a tank; bombs tended to explode nearby, so that Gabriel had to use schoolbooks to protect herself from shrapnel. Anyone who grew up during the Lebanese conflict probably lived through similar incidents. However, Gabriel has a way of erasing all nuance, implying that her life was a daily serving of Stalingrad. The reality is that everywhere, in Marjayoun as in Beirut, the war was intermittent – with paroxysms of violence punctuating extended lulls. Maybe Gabriel’s accounts are true, or partly so, but she also makes no effort to mitigate them by stressing the normalcy in between.

Why does all this matter? For all its problems, Lebanon is not defined by boundless Muslim loathing for Christians. Sooner or later charlatans are outed, and even Gabriel’s admirers will eventually have to address her fabrications more seriously. But most irking, this particular imposter also happens to be a thief. Gabriel has stolen a part of our collective Lebanese memory in order to forge it and peddle it to unsuspecting audiences, all to advance her career in America.

Surely, it must have occurred to Gabriel that someone from back home might one day notice her con act. Perhaps it did, but she was too conceited to care. Purveyors of bigotry and paranoia eventually burn themselves out. But if that process can be accelerated by putting a match to Gabriel’s mendacity, then all the better.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Offer Shiites an arms-for-power swap

Here is the always entertaining Michel Aoun, showing in what ways the current discord over Hezbollah’s weapons can lead Lebanese politicians down paths at stark odds with their own past.

“We hold our head high with the weapons of the resistance,” Aoun said on Tuesday, “because [the weapons] have held our head high around the world. They [March 14] threaten us with the international tribunal, and they respond to us from the United States of America and Europe and Israel, because these weapons preserve our honor.”

For a man who once claimed to be a major force behind the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, American congressional legislation that, among other things, sought to cut arms supplies to Hezbollah and encourage Lebanese-Israeli peace talks; who supported United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which saw the light thanks to American and French cooperation, and implicitly called for Hezbollah’s disarmament; and who fought two bitter conflicts against the Lebanese Forces in 1989 and 1990 to compel the militia to integrate its weapons into the Lebanese Army, such a statement was characteristically deceitful. But is Aoun alone?

The decision of Saad Hariri and March 14 to make an issue of Hezbollah’s arms is overdue. Lebanon’s inability to consolidate its shaky social contract, to address political reform, to reinforce the authority of the state, and to fortify its deficient sovereignty are all consequences of the lack of a national consensus, deriving from the untenable relationship between a state and an armed group militarily more powerful than the state that has used its arms, or compulsively threatens to do so, in order to protect itself and its autonomy from that state. Until this matter is resolved, Lebanon will function at two speeds – that of Hezbollah and its allies, and that of everyone else.

However, does March 14 have what it takes to prevail? Not so long ago, Saad Hariri was defending what he described as the arms of the resistance. Three governments led by the former majority crafted convoluted policy statements to sanction Hezbollah’s retention of its substantial military arsenal. March 14 is correct in saying that Hezbollah has directed its weapons against other Lebanese, and that its deployment of men dressed in black in Beirut’s streets last January, after finalization of the draft indictment at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, was a threat to repeat that. But then March 14 went ahead and participated in the parliamentary consultations that gave Hezbollah the prime minister it and Syria wanted, allowing the party to claim that it had worked through constitutional channels.

That does not mean that March 14 is mistaken in focusing on weapons, but unfortunately the twists and turns the coalition has navigated to reach this conclusion indicate, rightly or wrongly, that it is relying to some measure on political improvisation. Worse, Hariri must respond more persuasively to the charge that he shifted gears on Hezbollah’s guns because he was not returned as prime minister. Unless he does so, March 14 could find itself on the defensive in advancing a very risky agenda to push for Hezbollah’s disarmament.

Perhaps it’s time to offer stronger medicine. It easy to forecast how Hezbollah will respond to demands that it surrender its weapons. The party will tell its Shiite coreligionists that this is a first step in taking the community back to the days of marginalization in Lebanon. As ludicrous as that may sound, given the party’s muscle, Hezbollah has been adept at exploiting communal anxieties. Such a warning would succeed in eliciting a defensive response from Shiites, particularly at a tense time in Sunni-Shiite relations throughout the Middle East.

That is why Hariri and March 14 should consider endorsing a quid pro quo aimed at neutralizing such fears: In exchange for Hezbollah’s agreement to disarm in stages, March 14 must offer to initiate a far-reaching dialogue on implementing political reforms within a specific timeframe, under the auspices of the Taif Accord, one of whose results would be to expand the political representation of the Shiite community. Shiites would, thus, have a choice between Hezbollah’s weapons and greater political power; between self-preservation under the party’s military umbrella or under the umbrella of the state.

The obstacles to such an arrangement are many. Hezbollah would doubtless reject it outright; Christians on both sides of the March 8 and March 14 divide would be exceptionally resistant to going along with Taif’s abolition of political confessionalism; it would be no easy task to agree to the precise staging in such an intricate process (what comes first, disarmament or deconfessionalization?); and, somewhere, a new population census would have to be taken, because Sunnis believe they are as numerous, or nearly so, as the Shiites.

However, the proposal would also be difficult for Hezbollah to permanently dismiss. It has the potential to constantly come back and provoke debate among Shiites, because it addresses their long-term status in Lebanon. The scheme would also oblige March 14 to define more clearly on behalf of its own partisans how it views Lebanon’s constitutional future. And even if nothing happens in the short term, a promise of reform in the shadow of Taif would impose a framework for discussion later on, placing Hezbollah’s disarmament on the political table far more effectively than today, since the party and the Shiite community have been offered no incentives to comply.

Hezbollah’s weapons are indeed the elephant in Lebanon’s sitting room. Saad Hariri and March 14 have finally decided to mention them, but what is their Plan B if the party doesn’t answer? Hariri sees Taif as the state’s most potent weapon. The time to use it is now.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Hezbollah’s weapons of mass disputation

In the wake of Saad Hariri’s speech on Monday in which he described Hezbollah’s arsenal as a national problem, it is apparent that March 14 has decided to pick a fight over the party’s weapons and indeed make this a cornerstone of its future political strategy.

There is deliberate ambiguity within March 14’s ranks. In his speech on the sixth anniversary of Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination, Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, reiterated his support for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The resolution does not differentiate between so-called weapons of resistance and other weapons outside the control of the state.

Saad Hariri and the Future Movement have been more ambiguous. While not disagreeing with Geagea, they have continued to declare the resistance “sacred,” focusing their criticism on how Hezbollah has turned its arms against other Lebanese. But this ambiguity conceals another: For as long as Hezbollah holds any weapons at all, Hariri and his acolytes have implied, the party will be tempted to deploy them against all those holding contrary political positions.

That’s unless agreement can be reached on preventing this, which is the essence of the approach now embraced by March 14. It appears that when Saad Hariri realized that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was likely to accuse Hezbollah members, he saw an opening to use the opportunity as leverage to bolster the sovereignty of the Lebanese state, especially to give it a monopoly over the exercise of violence.

Last summer, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, disclosed that Hariri had approached him with an offer ahead of the tribunal’s probable indictment of Hezbollah members. Hariri and Nasrallah could together agree to blame supposed Hezbollah rogue elements of involvement in Rafik al-Hariri’s killing, the prime minister purportedly proposed, and in that way shield the party’s leadership. When Nasrallah asked just who might be identified as a rogue element, Hariri is said to have replied Imad Mugniyah.

This was Nasrallah’s version, so it must be taken with some question marks. However, there is a fundamental truth in that Hariri had an incentive to seek a quid pro quo. Interestingly, Nasrallah never revealed what its components would be. What might the prime minister have demanded in exchange for endorsing a narrative that Hezbollah’s leadership was innocent in the murder of his own father?

No one in the Future Movement has ever said so plainly, but it was always evident that in Hariri’s mind, as well as in that of the former prime minister, Fouad al-Siniora, who heads the prime minister’s parliamentary bloc, a deal would have to address weapons. And while neither Hariri nor Siniora appeared prepared to insist on the total disarmament of Hezbollah, it was a different matter when it came to the party’s domestic employment of arms. Had Nasrallah been willing to bargain with Hariri, we can guess that one of the prime minister’s principal stipulations would have been that Hezbollah present tangible guarantees not to turn its guns on other Lebanese.

We got an inkling of this last summer, following the fighting between Hezbollah and Ahbash gunmen in the Bourj Abi Haidar quarter of western Beirut. At the time, Hariri had floated the idea of demilitarizing the capital. In a meeting with Bashar al-Assad a few days later, however, the prime minister heard the Syrian president declare that while it was important to maintain calm in Lebanon, it was also necessary to protect the resistance. This was Assad’s way of telling Hariri that he should stay away from Hezbollah’s weapons.

Today, Hariri has no such constraints. Sources close to the March 14 leadership have indicated that the coalition will take a much firmer stance on weapons at their Martyrs’ Square gathering in just under two weeks, one that may involve asking for United Nations assistance. If this information is confirmed, it would mean that the former majority is preparing to internationalize the controversy over Hezbollah’s arms – or rather, is preparing to set up a domestic pole to echo and reinforce international requests that the party disarm.

The venture is risky, but it also goes to the core of Lebanon’s malaise in the six years since the Hariri assassination. A truly sovereign state cannot coexist with an independent armed militia that is, in many respects, stronger militarily than the state. Either the state must prevail or Hezbollah must. But it is an illusion to imagine that the logic of a state and the logic of a political-military organization whose very nature is that of an anti-state can be made compatible.

Saad Hariri’s decision to admit this is significant, after he had approved of formulas for the previous three governments that effectively sanctioned Hezbollah’s weapons. This transformation, like a possible tribunal indictment of party members, means we should brace for messy quarrels ahead in the divided Lebanese household.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

America's end, or its democratic moment?

That the American empire is declining is an argument that won’t soon disappear. In recent years it has gained further traction, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis that began in 2007. Empires run on money, skeptics will insist, and the United States simply doesn’t have as much as it once did to spread around.

But there is more to empire than money. As James Morris demonstrated in a three-volume masterpiece on the British Empire, there is also an aesthetic to imperial rule, as well as a swagger and sense of purpose that buttress domination. America may or may not be on the wane, but using Morris’ yardstick, its sponsorship of a decades-old political order in the Middle East – what some have referred to as a Pax Americana – is nearing an end.

Paradoxically, this realization may revive American fortunes. The popular upsurges taking place throughout the Arab world, and which have wreaked havoc on Washington’s allies, compel the U.S. to reinvent its regional role. As the historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote in Newsweek, Americans, in their fondness for revolution, tend to overlook how revolutions by and large produce terrible bloodshed. But if the U.S. can assist in obtaining liberal outcomes from the current Arab revolts, than this could benefit everyone, above all itself.

One thing is certain, America’s old ways in the Middle East are floundering. What are the foundations of Pax Americana? They have changed depending on the timeframe, but from the mid-1940s on a principal pillar was access to cheap oil and the stability of the oil markets. Today, American reliance on Gulf oil has been reduced, but Saudi Arabia, with its spare capacity, is still regarded as a significant stabilizing force (even if leaked American diplomatic cables cast doubt on the volume of spare capacity the kingdom really enjoys).

From the late 1960s onward, a second pillar of America’s Middle Eastern order was the defense of Israel and a guarantee of Israeli military superiority. During the Cold War, Israel was partly viewed through the prism of a containment strategy against communism, as a valuable ally against Arab states supported by the Soviet Union. But there was also a deeper commitment to the idea that the Jewish people must never again face an existential threat. That is why after the Soviet breakup the U.S. continued, and continues, to confer on Israel a status that sometimes appears to transcend its strategic value.

And a third pillar of Pax Americana, especially after the Cold War, was American reliance on partnerships with friendly Arab states at peace with Israel, whether formally or implicitly. This, in turn, afforded the U.S. paramount authority in the Middle East, so that it became the axial state in regional affairs, through which most major policies had to pass. America was uncircumventable and its edicts could only be rejected at great risk. There was one downside, but it never seemed important enough amid the regional status quo: the U.S. system rested exclusively on authoritarian regimes.

Each of these pillars has eroded in the last decade. Saudi intervention in the oil markets remains a matter of great import in Washington, but the U.S.-Saudi relationship, particularly after the 9/11 attacks and the American invasion of Iraq, has deteriorated. Israel still enjoys American backing and remains the largest recipient of American foreign aid, but the relationship has been increasingly costly, because of a widespread Arab conviction that the U.S. will never push Israel to make concessions on behalf of a settlement with the Palestinians.

As for American supremacy in the Middle East, it has sprung a leak from both ends. American mismanagement of postwar Iraq and stumbling in Afghanistan have played to Iran’s advantage. The region has also witnessed the rise of another non-Arab actor, Turkey, which has taken a firm distance from Washington. These dynamics, in turn, fed off and accelerated the relative decay of America’s prominent Arab allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, whose brand of leadership seemed to stifle any regeneration of their states and societies, and who were seen as neutered on the Palestinian issue.

It’s not obvious where the Arab uprisings will lead. Perhaps understandably, given the speed of events, President Barack Obama and his administration are still functioning according to the old paradigm of American influence over the region. Their catchword continues to be stability, even as instability proliferates. However, now seems a necessary time for the U.S. to prepare a new approach to the region, one in which Washington accepts that the days of Pax Americana are over, but also devises a new framework to facilitate the emergence of democratic, pluralistic, secular Arab societies, even if American paramountcy suffers as a consequence.

The tradeoff may not be as straightforward as it seems. American military strength will remain unrivaled, and the antagonism with Iran in particular will persist. Power politics will not suddenly end in the Middle East. However, democracy and pluralism, as concepts, are valuable weapons. The U.S. now has an opportunity to deploy them, and doing so means ensuring that the Arab uprisings do not engender flawed, illiberal orders far worse than what we had before.

If not quite a pillar, there has been a fourth American preoccupation in the Arab world since the 1990s: the suppression of terrorism. Washington’s thinking on that front has been fixated on the use of military countermeasures. But only healthy societies can lastingly eliminate terrorism. And healthy societies are generally open societies that enforce the rule of law. It is America’s moment to recognize this.

Local, not global, consensus, will unite Lebanon's parties

At the heart of the government-formation crisis is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, created to put on trial those responsible for the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The previous government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri was brought down by Syria and Hizbollah because of a deep rift between the party and the Hariri-led March 14 coalition over Hizbollah's demand that Beirut end its ties with the tribunal. Last weekend, Mr Mikati's attempts to fashion a consensual government were dashed when March 14 announced that it would not participate, because the prime minister-designate had offered no guarantees that he would protect the tribunal.

The tribunal is expected to indict Hizbollah members, and the party spent months trying to force the Hariri government to denounce the institution as "politicised". Hizbollah says the tribunal will base its indictment on what it calls "false witnesses", in other words witnesses who allegedly lied in their testimony to UN investigators probing the Hariri murder. The party had demanded that the government initiate its own investigation of these false witnesses, and is expected to do the same of a new Mikati government.

The false witnesses charge is a red herring. Only verifiable evidence can be approved for an indictment by the tribunal's pre-trial judge. Hizbollah's real objective, however, is to set up a parallel legal process inside Lebanon in order to erode the legitimacy of the Special Tribunal and protect itself politically. Hizbollah knows that any legal case targeting its members could devastate the party's reputation in Lebanon and the region, not least because a Shiite organisation would be seen as having taken part in the killing of a major Sunni figure.

Such an accusation would not only undermine Hizbollah, but could also render the party less effective as a promoter of Iranian interests and as a military vanguard against Israel. That's because Hizbollah's efforts to intimidate Saad Hariri, the most dominant Lebanese Sunni politician, have exacerbated tensions with Sunnis, so that in a conflict with Israel the party might find itself precariously isolated. Indeed, earlier this week, Mr Hariri declared that Hizbollah's readiness to use its weapons against other Lebanese had become a national problem.

Less clear are Syria's calculations when it comes to the next government. Damascus was instrumental in bolstering Mr Mikati, who is close to the Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Even though a government may well be formed soon, in the past weeks Mr Assad has conspicuously not pushed hard for the rapid establishment of one. There are several reasons for this.

The Syrian leader grasps that acting too hastily in Lebanon might backfire against Syria given the volatility in the Arab world. He must sense that if the formation process drags on until after an indictment is issued by the tribunal, and Syrians are named, it would be preferable then to have a more broadly representative government in Beirut than one controlled by Hizbollah and its like-minded partners.

Conversely, if no Syrians are named, Mr Assad might prefer to address the indictment with a political vacuum in Beirut. This would allow him to exploit Lebanese divisions and enhance Syrian influence over Lebanon's affairs, at the expense of Mr Hariri and Hizbollah.

Mr Assad is also aware that a Hizbollah-dominated government may provoke unease further afield. Friends of Syria, such as Turkey and Qatar, have reportedly told the Syrian president that they are unhappy with the way the Hariri government was brought down and Mr Hariri sidelined. Mr Assad will also have to be cautious and not allow a new government to harm Syria's ties with Saudi Arabia. As for the United States, France and the European Union, they have warned that they would object to Beirut's backtracking on its international commitments, especially those to the tribunal, which was set up under the binding authority of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Syria would gain little by being perceived in foreign capitals as the foremost sponsor of a government covering up an assassination.

But it's not just about Syria. The transformations in the Middle East are obliging everyone involved in Lebanese affairs to recalibrate. Even Hizbollah, and with it Iran, knows that given the regional mood it cannot ride roughshod over Sunni sensibilities by imposing a new non-consensual government that might spawn protests in the streets. This helps explain why the party has also moved prudently, even though negotiations over the new government were delayed by the exorbitant ministerial demands of its ally Michel Aoun on Mr Mikati.

Amid competing regional stakes, it took five months for Mr Hariri to finalise his government following the parliamentary elections of 2009. The government of his predecessor, Fouad Siniora, emerged from another regional compromise embodied in an accord negotiated in Doha. Lebanese governments are difficult to put together, but when they come apart, outside actors usually have something to say about it.

So, when Mr Assad brought about the collapse of the Hariri government recently, he gambled. What you break you own, is the Pottery Barn rule. But in Lebanon what you break others will want to own as well. Mr Mikati may yet succeed in putting together an effective team, but whatever he does will provoke reverberations in the Middle East. But then so many things seem to these days.