Friday, May 27, 2011

Liberation, except if you’re Syrian

In his speech on Liberation Day, celebrating when the Lebanese finally saw the back of the Israeli occupation 11 years ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah mentioned Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. He remarked that when Netanyahu, in his speech before the US Congress this week, raised the issue of the rockets in Lebanon and Gaza, there “was fear in his eyes.”

Perhaps there was, but I also see quite a lot of fear in Nasrallah’s eyes these days as the situation in the Middle East goes through radical transformation. And there are primarily three reasons for this.

First, as hard as Nasrallah tries, he just cannot seem to convince Arabs anymore that “resistance” must be given priority over most other aspects of their lives. In Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, people have talked about emancipation, democracy and liberty, with the targets of their opprobrium almost exclusively domestic. Protestors may dislike America and Israel, but for now their aim is to rewrite failed social contracts, impose states that reflect their needs, and be rid of leaders and their families who have suffocated and robbed them for decades.

If Nasrallah has any doubts, he should recall what happened after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s January interview in The Wall Street Journal. Assad gloated that his “resistance” credentials would shield him from an upheaval similar to the others in the Arab world. They didn’t, and now Syrian demonstrators are burning the Iranian flag, along with the Russian and Chinese flags, in the streets of their cities.

There was something terribly off-key in Nasrallah’s comments, showing how alienated he seems to be from the spirit of this Arab moment. The language of rockets, guns and combat is jarring against a backdrop of societies demanding freedom. In armed resistance there is an implicit call for regimentation, for compulsory unity and the banishment of dissent in the greater cause of defeating the enemy. Yet everything about the Arab uprisings has been directed at undermining regimentation and authorizing dissent. Those in the region know all too well that their despots have spent decades using the conflict with Israel as justification for building up vast military and security apparatuses to facilitate open-ended internal repression.

Nasrallah’s second cause of fear is that he’s on the wrong side of the revolt in Syria. Hezbollah, which has always claimed to be the champion of the downtrodden, is defending a leadership crushing its own people. Nasrallah is covering for the soldiers, security officers and gang members who have fired live ammunition at unarmed civilians, killing an estimated 1,100 people in the last two months. He is covering for those in the Syrian security services who have detained and abused what is estimated to be thousands of people in recent weeks.

It was pitiable to hear Nasrallah mentioning the “resistance” bona fides of the Syrian regime as the principal validation for his support of the Assads. In that way the Hezbollah leader suggested that his own agenda was somehow more meritorious than the aspirations of the Syrian people (even as he admitted that Syria needed reform). The reaction on social media outlets was acerbic from many in Syria. They saw that in defense of his party’s and Iran’s interests, Nasrallah would abandon justice and applaud their tormentors. If Syrian protestors prevail, they will not soon forgive him his double-standards.

A third headache for Nasrallah is that he now finds himself at the epicenter of a sectarian confrontation in the Middle East. For a long time Hezbollah managed to transcend Sunni-Shia differences thanks to its accomplishments on an issue that most Arabs sympathize with, namely the battle against Israel. But much has changed since then. To a great extent Iran’s Arab enemies have made headway in portraying the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah as pursuing a project of Shia hegemony, regardless of the merits of such an accusation.

And in Syria Hezbollah’s ally, the Assad regime, also appears to be implementing a sectarian strategy. Many Arabs will have read or heard lately that Alawites are expelling Sunnis from places such as Tal Kalakh. Even diplomats in Beirut worry that this may be a step in establishing an ethnically cleansed Alawite mini-state. It would be disastrous for Nasrallah if a majority of Arabs were to begin lumping his Shia community together with the Alawites in an alleged partnership against Sunnis. He knows that for Hezbollah to be depicted as a sectarian group would undermine it as the vanguard in a model of regional resistance. And yet this has already started.

Hassan Nasrallah is behind the curve on what is going on around us in the Middle East. The Hezbollah leader is employing both rhetoric and imagery that are anachronistic in these transformative times. The future, we hope, will bring a promise of free societies, the reflexes of compromise and greater pluralism. If that fails, as it may, Nasrallah will have saved himself; but at the expense of many innocents.

The Assads or Bust

The Assad regime has lost all legitimacy, and yet there is still a refusal in most capitals to demand that the Syrian president step down. Such dallying buys his army and security forces more time to proceed with their plan of eradication. That may be the aim, at least among Arab officials, who fear that if Mr. Assad goes, other rulers will soon follow.

Such an approach is utterly short sighted. The governing family in Syria—the Assads and their Makhlouf cousin—has failed to gain the upper hand against protestors. The Syrian economy is suffering and the still-uncommitted urban business community is losing confidence in the regime’s ability to reimpose normality. Despite a shocking use of terror tactics (including firing live ammunition at unarmed marchers and deploying tanks against towns and villages), Syrians are displaying unimaginable bravery in continuing to mobilize in favor of liberty.

In this context, for the international community—and the Arab states in particular—to do nothing means ignoring the potentially severe regional ramifications of a breakdown in Syria. Here's why: the Assad-Makhlouf clan has intentionally played up sectarian tensions between its own Alawite minority and the Sunni majority. Their aim is to create circumstances so explosive as to reinforce the view abroad that it must be either the Assads at the helm or chaos.

But the reality is that the Assads are engendering chaos, and it may conceivably transform itself into virulent sectarian chaos if things are allowed to deteriorate further. Already, Sunni inhabitants of mixed villages who have fled to Lebanon report that they were expelled by Alawites. Some diplomats in Beirut are calling this a case of ethnic cleansing, with the possible aim of establishing an Alawite mini-state in Syria¹s northwestern coastal and mountain areas.

This perilous game hardly bodes well for the mixed societies neighboring Syria, in Lebanon and Iraq. In both countries relations between Sunnis and Shiites have worsened in recent years, and a Syrian regime that exacerbates its own society¹s centrifugal sectarian forces risks doing so elsewhere. There is Sunni anger in northern Lebanon with what the Alawite leadership is doing. Iraqi Sunni communities also maintain ties with their Syrian brethren, and may have an incentive, given their perceived marginalization at home, to assist them.

That is why the Arab preference—and that of the international community—to remain minimalist on Syria because of the complexity of the situation means effectively ignoring that regional destabilization may be the outcome.

If there are any doubts, consider what Mr. Assad’s powerful cousin and the financial pillar of his regime, Rami Makhlouf, told The New York Times recently: “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” Mr. Makhlouf warned, before adding: “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

Several sources confirm that, off the record, Mr. Makhlouf also issued a more direct threat against United Nations contingents in southern Lebanon, many of whom are European. Indeed, on May 27 there was a bomb attack against an Italian convoy near Sidon, injuring several soldiers. In this way Makhlouf was merely reiterating the timeless strategy of the Assad regime, namely that to ensure its own survival it will readily export instability, compelling outsiders to knock at its door to negotiate solutions.

All these reasons—the prospect that heightened sectarianism provoked by the Assad-Makhlouf circle may spread beyond Syria¹s borders, the distinct possibility that Mr. Assad and his acolytes will destabilize their political environment to stay in office, and the fact that the Syrian regime is unwilling to (and incapable of) reform—call for much more political boldness than we’ve seen from the international community and the Arab states in particular.

It’s ironical that if the Arab states were to intervene with a diplomatic initiative to help resolve the Syrian crisis, they would first require a push from the United States. But for the Obama administration to abandon its lethargy, it would need to see evidence of Arab concern that what is going on in Syria endangers the Middle East.

This impasse tells us much about the reluctance in the Arab world, and also in Washington, to tackle Syria’s undeniably difficult predicament. In part, this is a consequence, on the Arab side, of a traditional refusal of governments to challenge state sovereignty; on the American side, of a fear of overstretch given Washington¹s other regional entanglements. But steering clear of the uprising against President Assad—when conditions are deteriorating and their negative impact on Syria’s surroundings is bound to intensify—is either disgracefully callous or foolishly naive.

Because of the increasing viciousness of the Assad regime’s crackdown on demonstrations, the U.S. administration, followed by the European Union, has imposed sanctions on the Syrian president. President Barack Obama declared that Mr. Assad “has a choice: He can lead [a transition to democracy, or get out of the way.” But an individual who has presided over the violent repression of his own population—including the killing of over 1,100 people, according to Syrian activists, and the arrest of several thousand more—is not likely to lead a transition toward a more open system. Mr. Obama knows this, as do the Arab leaders.

But don’t expect much to imminently change. The wave of Arab revolts has overloaded decision makers everywhere, challenging their default attitudes. Syria is passing through a period of historic transmutation, which will reshape the Middle East in decisive ways. However, both Arab leaders and American officials are waiting for the other side to budge because no one wants to do so first. For the Syrian people, this poverty of low expectations is proving fatal. Soon, they may not be alone.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A sectarian time bomb as Damascus clings to power

It is increasingly apparent in Syria that it may no longer be a question of whether the regime of President Bashar al Assad collapses, but how. Nor does it take great imagination to grasp that a violent, disorderly breakdown in the country could have dramatic consequences for the Middle East, particularly for countries such as Iraq and Lebanon.

In this context, it is remarkable how sanguine, even minimalist, Arab diplomacy has lately been toward Syria. Locked into their customary, obstinate defence of state sovereignty, Arab states have been reluctant to intervene in Syrian affairs (ironically, the Gulf Cooperation Council has advanced a plan to facilitate a change at the top in Yemen). Yet such diffidence, which has been just as glaring among decision-makers in the United States and Europe, not to mention at the United Nations Security Council, is a luxury no one can afford. If Syria disintegrates, this would constitute a significant threat to international peace and security.

There are deeply disturbing trends in Syria highlighting the nature of the danger. Recently, the Syrian army and security forces began attacking villages along the Lebanese border, notably Tell Kalakh. Sunni inhabitants who fled to Lebanon related that they had been expelled by Alawites, and that many villagers had been killed, their bodies left to rot in the streets. In Beirut, foreign diplomats are worried that this may be the beginning of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, whereby Syria's Alawite-led regime could be preparing a contiguous Alawite-majority area in the country's north-west coastal and mountain region, in the event Mr al Assad is forced out.

However, even if the Alawites are not planning a mini-state, the Syrian regime's behaviour has exacerbated sectarian tensions. Mr al Assad's praetorian military units are led by his brother and dominated by his minority community; the so-called "Shabbiha", or militias collaborating with the security forces, are by most accounts Alawite smuggling gangs, some led by relatives of the Syrian leader. And there have been numerous reports of the security services arming Alawite villages.

It remains unclear how Alawites in general feel about the regime's actions. There have been stories of dissent, although these are difficult to confirm. However, the widespread suspicion is that Mr al Assad and his acolytes have adopted a scheme to heighten sectarian contradictions in order to offer Syria and the world a stark alternative: either Mr al Assad remains in power or else Syria descends into chaos.

But things are not so simple. Syria's ruling family, made up of the Assads and their cousins the Makhloufs, has shown in recent months that it has nothing to propose but cruelty. The notion that Mr al Assad can yet introduce reform is fanciful. If the family has taken the risk of engaging in mass repression, with over 1,000 people killed, many thousands under arrest and the army having occupied major cities, there is an explanation. The Assads and the Makhloufs recognise that meaningful reform would only endanger their hold on authority. They could not survive democratic elections, presidential term limits, free media, respect for the rule of law, a proliferation of political parties and dissolution of Syria's myriad intelligence agencies.

A policy of subjugation can sometimes be effective if it attains two successive objectives: it must first silence those in the streets; and then it must follow this up with concessions or compensations that neutralise the protesters without otherwise undermining the regime's influence.

Mr al Assad has failed on the first count, and Syria's ruling family is incapable of engaging in the second. So rigid is the system put in place by the late Hafez al Assad, which aims to achieve equilibrium at the expense of potentially precarious flexibility, that the Assad-Makhlouf clan today finds itself wholly dependent on crushing dissent.

The Syrian people are unlikely to bend, and dissatisfaction is spreading. The regime's ability to stop all the leaks, from Qamishli in the east to Deraa in the south to Aleppo in the north, appears to be diminishing. Syria is notably vulnerable along its borders, so that the more sectarian the revolt becomes (not because of the opposition but because of Mr al Assad's tactics, and those of his collaborators), the more this may spur cross-border sectarian solidarities, loosening the grip of the Assads and the Makhloufs, especially if this leads to weapons transfers.

That is why much more Arab political audacity is required. It seems inevitable that the United States and Europe must take a leading role in such initiatives, but only the Arab states can operate on the ground and lend legitimacy to an effort to secure a peaceful transfer of power in Damascus. For a start, however, everyone must recognise that the Assad regime has forsaken all legitimacy, and act in consequence. Focusing on sanctions is a waste of time. The deterioration in Syria has moved well beyond the stage where such measures will change much.

A sectarian rupture, if the Assad-Makhlouf clan is permitted to pursue such a nightmare scenario, could severely destabilise Syria's neighbours. Lebanon could face turbulence, compounded by the complexities inherent in dealing with a Hizbollah that has lost a major regional partner. But Iraq, too, would have to absorb the shock waves next door, even as Sunnis and Shiites are still struggling to find a consensual social contract.

Regional and international lethargy toward dealing with events in Syria has been irresponsible. The issue is not one of state sovereignty, but of managing as well as the international community can a smooth transition away from Assad rule. Otherwise everyone might have a splendid mess to clean up, one that stretches beyond Syria's frontiers.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lebanon, fasten your seatbelt

The visit to Lebanon of Jeffrey Feltman, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is another visible sign of why Lebanon can expect to hit turbulence as the situation in Syria deteriorates. The Middle East is being transformed, the Syrian regime is under great pressure, and therefore political actors in the region and outside are preparing, among other things, for the aftermath in Lebanon.

Last weekend, Syria and Hezbollah showed how they were willing to play Lebanese vulnerabilities in their favor. There seems increasingly little doubt that they manipulated Palestinian outrage on Nakba Day to create incidents on the Lebanese border with Israel and on the Golan Heights, in order to better underline that the fall of the Assad regime would heighten Israeli insecurity. This echoed Rami Makhlouf’s comments to The New York Times last week, in which the cousin of President Bashar al-Assad warned, “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.”

It was very useful of Makhlouf to remind us that the Assads have pegged their survival to guaranteeing Israeli tranquility, despite occasional pin pricks. However, both the Americans and Israelis have taken unkindly to the border incidents. The decision on Wednesday of President Barack Obama to sanction Bashar al-Assad, like the statements he made in a speech a day later, puts the US president on a path where he will almost certainly soon demand the Syrian leader’s departure from office, since the regime in Damascus cannot reform.

Feltman’s visit came in the midst of this maelstrom. The United States could see an opening in Lebanon to regain some, or much, of what it has lost in recent years. On Thursday, Obama announced a new initiative on the Middle East, and the unrest in Syria means that Washington, for the first time in a long time, has an opportunity to push Iran and Hezbollah onto the defensive in Beirut and beyond.

Certainly, the Lebanese have been sensitive to American displeasure. When the US government fired a shot across the bow of the Lebanese Canadian Bank some months ago, accusing it of having laundered money on Hezbollah’s behalf, people paid attention. Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh flew to Washington and quickly arranged the bank’s sale, to protect the banking sector. Now, there is considerable speculation that Salameh’s tenure may not be renewed, given the opposition of March 14 to the holding of a special parliamentary session to address the issue while a caretaker government is in place.

That the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, is pressing for such a session and that March 14, by rejecting his initiative, is effectively undermining Salameh’s chances of being reappointed, suggests that the Central Bank governor may be at the heart of a political-financial dispute. And if that’s the case, it could signal that the Americans may still hold the governor responsible for the Lebanese Canadian fiasco. For one parliamentarian I spoke to, the heart of the matter is money: Washington is playing hardball to choke off Hezbollah’s financing.

The prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, is also very much aware that his margin of maneuver with respect to Washington is limited. Personal business interests aside (and they are hardly negligible), Mikati appears to have no intention of locking himself into a fixed position in a new government where he would have to submit to Hezbollah, when much might change in the foreseeable future. When he took on the task in January, the prime minister-elect still expected his strong Syrian backing to be a counterweight to Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. But today he is incapable of making such a calculation.

We’re beyond the stage to legitimately doubt the formation of a government “of one color,” and Feltman’s visit will have hardened that reality. Hezbollah understands that the ground is shifting, even if it will do everything to prevent it from shifting in the party’s disfavor. Lebanon is entering a decisive phase in the rivalry between the US and most Arab states on the one side, and Iran on the other. The country will be a front line in that confrontation.

Expect more regionally-influenced thrusts and parries in the foreseeable future to define what, conceivably, a post-Assad Lebanon might look like. Not a particularly difficult prediction to make, you say. Indeed, but if it’s so obvious, then much more needs to be done to fill the yawning political vacuum in Beirut. Since Mikati will not be able to form a government of national unity and, evidently, refuses to put together a cabinet that would be dominated by Hezbollah and Aoun, it would seem that his only option is to lead some sort of team of technocrats. That’s not ideal, it will perhaps not work, but it may be better than allowing the void in the executive branch to persist.

The likelihood, however, is that the prime minister-elect will do nothing at all. With so much in motion around him, he is simply unwilling to commit to anything that might burn him later on. Does that mean that March 8 and Aoun will withdraw their support for him? That’s improbable. New parliamentary consultations would almost certainly benefit March 14 and Saad Hariri. So expect a long interregnum without a government. Another easy prediction to make.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Syria finds it useful to have a fuzzy border with Lebanon

This past weekend Lebanon’s borders were the site of two very different happenings that highlighted one of the country’s more salient vulnerabilities. While the Lebanese have, until now, been spared the full force of regional upheavals, the incidents were an ominous reminder that this can change at any moment.

Along the southern border, near the village of Maroun al Ras, Palestinian and Lebanese demonstrators tried to cross the Israeli border fence on Nakba Day, which commemorates the “disaster” in Palestine in 1948. Though they were unarmed, Israeli troops fired upon them, killing at least 11.

Meanwhile, along Lebanon’s northern and north-eastern border, Syrian civilians continued to enter Lebanon, fleeing a brutal crackdown by Syria’s army. Estimates are that some 5,000 people have already fled, notably from Tall Kalakh, and unofficial estimates on Monday suggested that dozens had been killed.

Israel and the United States accused Syria of having fomented border incidents in south Lebanon and the Golan Heights to draw attention away from the repression at home. Several reports indicated that the Maroun al Ras march had been financed by Hizbollah, and sources close to the party corroborated this.

However, the nature of Syria’s role is more difficult to discern. And yet there are definite signs, and a widespread conviction in Beirut, that the Syrian regime did indeed exploit the Nakba Day events.

One reason is the statement last week by Rami Makhlouf, the powerful cousin of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in a New York Times interview. Mr Makhlouf warned of what would happen if the Assad regime were to fall: “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” he said. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”

Many interpreted the border rallies as a reminder to the Israelis and Americans of those words; and Washington’s denunciation of Syria as evidence that the message had arrived.

In recent years, Syrian officials had gone further in underlining how essential Syria was to serenity in southern Lebanon, reminding western interlocutors that United Nations troops there were open to attack. UN officials will have read Mr Makhlouf’s statements as an echo of that implied threat. What has disturbed the Assad regime for some time, and with it Hizbollah, is that the UN has pushed for border demarcation between Lebanon and Syria, hoping that clarity on that question would allow the international organisation to end the potential for conflict along Lebanon’s southern border.

The situation is this: in June 1967, Israeli forces occupied the Golan Heights, but also a sliver of land along Lebanon’s south-eastern border known as the Shebaa Farms. It is unclear if the farms area is part of Lebanon or Syria. According to UN maps they are Syrian, but Beirut claims they are Lebanese.

Israel’s occupation of the area has served as a pretext for Hizbollah to pursue armed resistance. The UN, in asking Lebanon and Syria to delineate their frontier, hopes to elucidate the farms’ identity and resolve the land dispute. If the area is Lebanese, the UN could ask Israel to withdraw; if it is Syrian, this would eliminate an excuse for Hizbollah to try liberating them.

The Assad regime has evaded the UN demand in order keep the identity of the Shebaa Farms ambiguous. There are several reasons why: Damascus considers the farms Syrian, but more important, if Hizbollah were denied a reason to pursue “resistance”, this would end any military leverage Syria could use in negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights. Syria has always sought to bind Lebanon to its own interaction with Israel, a point Mr Makhlouf subtly reaffirmed.

Lebanon’s boundaries with Syria have caused disagreement between Beirut and Damascus for decades. Various commissions have been set up to sort out the issue, but to no avail. At the same time, demarcation lines have had little meaning, as cross-border relationships are tight. This probably explains why the Syrian army has been attacking towns and villages close to Lebanon. The Assad regime’s intention is to prevent the Lebanese-Syrian border, which is porous in many locations, from becoming a passageway for sustaining the revolt.

Syrian spokesmen have accused Lebanese parties of sending weapons to alleged Islamist insurrectionists in Syria. There is no evidence of this, any more than there is evidence of an Islamist insurrection. However, in Syria’s border area with Lebanon, like those with Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey, there are concentrations of Sunni communities. The Assad regime fears that if the crisis in Syria were to become even more violent and sectarian, outraged Sunnis next door would act in solidarity with their Syrian brethren to help undermine Mr al Assad’s rule.

It is ironic that the Syrian leadership, which has long made itself politically relevant by destabilising its neighbours, frequently via permeable borders, now sees these very same borders as potential sources of peril.

What we may be witnessing on the part of Damascus in Lebanon is two-fold: the pursuit of a policy of self-defence through destabilisation by manipulating the vacuum on Lebanon’s southern border, in partnership with a sympathetic Hizbollah; and a policy of pre-emption along the northern border, to thwart any prospect that Lebanon’s Sunnis will eventually lend support to Syrian Sunnis, in an area geographically and politically sensitive for Alawites.

It has often been said that Lebanon’s curse is its surroundings. But being caught between Israel and Syria would have been considerably easier had the country not been wracked by deep domestic contradictions. That’s why the Lebanese borders will continue to cause great anxiety as Syria’s regime faces an existential challenge that will not soon disappear.

An Obama road map to change in Syria

Today, President Barack Obama, in what is being described by administration officials as “a major address,” will talk about the political upheavals in the Middle East. Better late than never.

However, you get an uneasy sense that on the most potentially significant uprising of the moment, the one taking place in Syria, Obama will not say very much more than he has until now.
That doesn’t mean Washington will not raise the heat on Syria’s President Bashar Assad. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, alongside the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, noted, “Assad talks about reform, but his heavy-handed brutal crackdown shows his true intentions.” She added, “They have embraced the worst tactics of their Iranian ally and they have refused to honor the legitimate aspirations of their own people in Syria.”

The U.S. and the Europeans have indicated that a new round of sanctions is forthcoming, and these will even cover Assad himself. This is too little too late. The U.S. and leading European states such as France and the United Kingdom must formally demand that the Syrian president step down. By ordering, or allowing, his army and security forces to open fire on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators, Assad has forsaken all legitimacy. Something is fundamentally broken in Syria, and delaying recognition of that reality may be ruinous.

We’ve heard Obama administration officials declare lately that they have little leverage over Syria. But nations build leverage, they don’t just pick it out of the ether. If there is one country that has the means to bring the Arab states, Europe, and Russia and China into some sort of concerted effort to hasten Assad’s exit from power, and more importantly, to help Syrians who oppose their regime organize a smooth transition to a democratic, pluralistic, order, it’s the United States. In fact only the United States can take such measures.

That’s not to say that such a process would be easy. However, enough states have enough of a stake in avoiding the further disintegration of Syria, one that might well lead to widespread sectarian conflict, that it is entirely possible to push for a successful end to Assad rule.

The Arab countries would play an essential role. The Obama administration could fashion an Arab consensus by portraying a change in Syria as fatal for Iranian interests in the Levant. Despite Saudi-American tensions in recent months, there would be much sympathy with this approach in Riyadh, helping to unlock Gulf skepticism. What bothers the Saudis is that they see an Obama administration without any discernible strategy to contain Iranian power. An American initiative to use the Syrian crisis as a means of countering the influence of Iran and Hezbollah could reverse this sentiment. It would likely also earn considerable support from Egypt, which views Iran as a major spoiler on the Palestinian front.

Russia and China have been recalcitrant at the United Nations, blocking all efforts to condemn Syria. This week the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, announced that France and the U.K. were close to getting nine council votes for a resolution on Syria. Moscow and Beijing have threatened to wield their veto, but there is probably more room for Washington and the Europeans to find a middle ground than is apparent. Ultimately, the Assad regime is not more important to the Russians and Chinese than Iran, and yet the Security Council repeatedly managed to approve tough resolutions against Tehran.

The case that could be put to Russia and China is this: The Assad regime, by escalating the repression of its own population, has made a peaceful resolution to the revolt in Syria highly improbable. Nor is the violence even working to quell demonstrations against Assad rule. Worse, the Syrian leadership has exacerbated sectarian antagonisms through its brutal retaliatory actions. This could have dangerous repercussions in neighboring states with mixed societies, heightening regional instability, therefore endangering international security.

Neither Russia nor China would want to risk valuable political capital by defending a despotic Syrian regime against hardening international recognition that Bashar Assad’s days in office are numbered. A crucial ingredient in bringing about this Russian and Chinese realization would be an adamant American and European, perhaps even an Arab, statement that it is time for fundamental transformation in Damascus; not bogus “reform” that the Assad family sees merely as a means of neutralizing dissent.

The doubters would respond that the Assads have great latitude to adopt a scorched earth policy to remain in place. They do, but as the Syrian situation festers and worsens, as it almost certainly will do, we should not underestimate the willingness of family members to look for escape routes. This is where international justice and diplomacy comes in: the first to limit the Syrian regime’s destructiveness; the second to negotiate an end to Assad rule by offering key figures possible incentives. Arab states and Turkey could play a significant role in this, but Obama alone can bring all the pieces together.

The progress would be dynamic. As the Assads watch Arab governments, the United States and Europe moving forcibly against them, followed by Russia and China, they would necessarily begin recalculating their options. They have tried to suffocate the uprising in Syria, but their efforts have gone nowhere. Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the Syrian president, has warned that Israel would suffer from the Assads’ departure. That did little to keep the Israelis on the regime’s side, and the border incidents last weekend, which Israel and the United States blamed on Syria, only made matters worse.

A civil war in Syria would be a catastrophe, as much for a majority of Syrians as for the regime’s minority Alawite community. The Assads have boldly implied that it must either be them dominating in Damascus or chaos. Obama and the Arabs above all must quickly shoot down that mad thought. Syria can become democratic without more carnage, but it does need outside assistance. The Assads have to sense that their “Samson option,” that of bringing down the temple over everyone’s head, will fail. For the region’s sake it has to fail.

Friday, May 13, 2011

March 14’s regrettable minimalism

It has been a debilitating transition since Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government fell months ago. One reason is that the majority has proven utterly incompetent in forming a new government. The rapaciousness of some of its members has been disgraceful, exposing the hollowness of the majority’s alleged reformist agenda.

However, direct your criticism at March 14 as well, and that includes Saad Hariri as caretaker prime minister. Hariri is still smarting, justifiably, over the way he was ousted from power. Hezbollah barred the prime minister’s return to office in favor of Najib Mikati, against the wishes of most Sunnis. And then, with Syrian assistance, it flipped Walid Jumblatt, forming a new majority. Since then, Mikati has been bogged down in a grinding government-formation process, and Hariri has had no incentive to assist the majority out of its morass.

But it’s also fair to say that, both in form and content, March 14 has not played the interim period well. The coalition has missed a rare opportunity to bolster its credibility at the expense of its rivals, and more important, to guarantee the continuity of proper governance.

First, the form. In recent weeks, Hariri seems to have disappeared from the political landscape. At a time of political anxiety in the country and rising economic woes, this is no time for the caretaker prime minister to lie low. One can interpret the caretaker role in a minimal or in a maximal way. Hariri has tended to favor the former, clearing out of the prime minister’s office too soon after Najib Mikati was appointed. This created the semblance of a vacuum at the head of the executive, when Hariri could have used the long interregnum to reassert his bona fides as the right person for the job.

Hariri’s absence also heightened a sense that he has put his personal ill feeling above the interests of the state. Many Lebanese believe the caretaker prime minister is still boiling over his sense of betrayal by Mikati, but that it’s not up to the country to pay the price for that sentiment. The accusation may be unmerited, but it does carry great negative weight at a moment when Hariri and March 14, who have portrayed themselves as the paramount defenders of the project of a sovereign state, cannot afford to be perceived as capricious.

Then there is content. Around the time of the February 14 commemoration of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, Hariri and his allies began raising the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons. The caretaker prime minister made several strong statements declaring that the party’s arms had become a major source of national discord. Who can deny they are? However, the way the matter was formulated allowed no room for flexibility. Nothing was put on the table; no quid pro quos were offered. Hezbollah was simply told that it must disarm, with the objective not presented as part of a broader strategy whereby it could become the object of constructive negotiations in the future.

Just demanding that Hezbollah surrender its weapons will lead nowhere. All it will do, in fact, is further strengthen the party among Shia, who will construe calls for disarmament as an effort to marginalize the community. What March 14 must do is integrate that demand into a larger proposal that aims to give Shia more political power in exchange for disarming, but in the context of the state and the Taif reform process. Because March 14 has failed to do so, Hariri’s denunciation of Hezbollah’s weapons has become merely a slogan.

Worse, it has become a slogan that has drifted under the radar, with no one in March 14 raising the subject anymore. This has debased the seriousness of the weapons question, making the public assume that Hariri broached it only as a tactical ploy in his standoff with Mikati.

And then there is the state of affairs in Syria. Wherever one stands on Syrian developments, the caretaker government has taken almost no measures to shield Lebanon from the tremors next door. The blame can be spread around, of course; after all, the government is purportedly one of national unity. However as prime minister, Saad Hariri should take the lead. Lebanon is functioning today as if it were somehow isolated from Syria. Yet the situation there can break down very quickly. We need a government in Beirut that has contingency plans in the event Syrian instability decisively shifts. As things stand, Lebanon is complacently assuming that the Assad regime will crush the protests and maintain an equilibrium in Damascus.

Last February 14, the leaders of the March 14 coalition apologized to their followers. They had made mistakes, they admitted, by taking decisions that jarred with the better instincts of their base. Yet since the government was brought down, the former majority has not done enough to elucidate why it is better than Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. The new majority has been stumbling terribly, but March 14 has exploited this not a bit. Ready your storerooms for fresh apologies.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Syria fortifies Obama in his indecision

The New York Times gave readers a double-whammy of Syrian statements on Tuesday. Its correspondent in Beirut, Anthony Shadid, landed interviews with presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban and with Rami Makhlouf, the powerful maternal cousin of President Bashar Assad, who represents the financial front of the regime.

Shadid was allowed into Syria for only a few hours to conduct the interviews. You have to wonder whether this provoked much debate in the newspaper’s offices. The condition transformed the correspondent into a stenographer, and the New York Times into a platform, for the dual messages emanating from Damascus. This irked quite a few people. However, it’s also fair to say that Shadid has kept the Syria story on the front pages of his daily, at a moment when the attention in the United States has been drifting elsewhere.

What did Shaaban and Makhlouf say? The essence of Shaaban’s remarks was that the Syrian regime had gained the upper hand against the uprising. “I think now we’ve passed the most dangerous moment. I hope so, I think so,” she said. Shaaban repeated the government line that Syria faced an armed rebellion, and disclosed that she had been tasked with initiating a dialogue with dissidents. “We see [the Syrian events] as an opportunity to try to move forward on many levels, especially the political level,” she added.

Makhlouf’s comments sounded more ominous. “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” he warned. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.” He observed that the regime had opted to fight, insisting that all its members were united: “We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.” He also issued a transparent threat: “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

Some have suggested that the two messages reveal a split in the Syrian regime. That’s not convincing. The messages were not that different, and to put Shaaban on the same level as Makhlouf is absurd. Shaaban is viewed as a spokesman for the president, but she plays no central role in the Assad-Makhlouf constellation. She doubtless needed a green light to go ahead with the interview, one that required some measure of approval by Makhlouf and Assad’s younger brother Maher, both of whom have taken an eradication approach to the protests. Makhlouf, in turn, needed no authorization whatsoever.

What Shaaban said was likely intended to be interpreted in the United States as a marginally soft statement by Bashar Assad. In contrast, Makhlouf offered the harsher alternative if the president’s approach was rejected by the international community. It was a classic good cop, bad cop routine, and those familiar with Syrian manners will be little surprised by the ploy. That’s why it seems far-fetched to assume that we are witnessing a fundamental rift in Syria’s ruling family.

The reason for this is that there is no serious alternative to what the Assads and the Makhloufs are doing today. They can either stand together behind repression, or fall apart. That’s hardly to justify the regime’s butchery of hundreds of unarmed civilians. Rather, it’s to affirm that the Syrian leadership is incapable of undertaking anything different. There simply is no reform option, and there never was. Genuine reform means dislodging the bricks holding up Assad-Makhlouf authority. Bashar Assad’s open-ended presidency, the crony capitalism practiced by his cousin and other members of Syria’s elite, the abuse practiced by the all-powerful security services, even Alawite predominance, would never survive a system shaped by free elections, the rule of law, and the existence of independent media.

The New York Times interviews were made possible by the deep uneasiness in the Obama administration with moves that might destabilize the Assad regime. The Syrians are good judges of their adversaries’ weaknesses, and what they see in Washington is a president who prefers the Assads to the possibility of chaos. They realize that the measures taken until now by the United States and Europe have been relatively gentle, therefore wholly ineffective. Add to that the U.N. Security Council’s recent failure to condemn Syria and official Arab support for Syrian stability, and you will grasp why the Assad regime saw an opening to reinforce American paralysis.

Nor can the Obama administration ignore that the Syrian leadership regards American dithering as a sign of implicit approval of its actions. Indeed, Shaaban described the recent statements of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Syria as “not too bad,” and the sanctions against Syria as manageable. That can only mean one thing: If Washington fails to clarify its views on the carnage in Syria through effective policies, the killing and the arrests there will continue, with the U.S. bearing partial responsibility. The White House’s uncertainty can be measured in human lives.

The Syrian protesters are right in not pursuing their salvation in Washington, let alone Brussels, Paris, or London. This is not an American administration overly outraged by the viciousness of dictatorships. Even in Egypt, Obama only turned against Hosni Mubarak when he was left with no other choice – although doing so against an old ally while sparing Assad suggests that Obama is like the coward who will yell at his wife to avoid a brawl with the neighbor.

What all this could also mean, however, is that the Syrian regime is wrong in pursuing its salvation in foreign capitals. Ultimately, Assad, his legitimacy in tatters, will have to win out against his own people. That will not be easy, not when the president has had to order the military occupation of several of his major cities. The regime’s behavior is a daily insult to Syrians, one they will not readily forget.

The Assad regime is trapped by its own repressive tactics

Amid mass arrests throughout Syria, the partisans of President Bashar al Assad now believe that they have gained the upper hand over the burgeoning protest movement. That may be true, although this seems far from being a foregone conclusion. But repression will not solve Mr al Assad's dilemma: his regime has shown itself to be utterly incapable of reforming, so the forcible silencing of Syrian society may lead only to an extended, debilitating stalemate that leaves the country's problems unresolved, and irresolvable.

When the uprising in Syria began earlier this year, foreign governments urged Mr al Assad to introduce reforms. However, in the Syrian context, reform is shorthand for the collapse of the Assad-controlled order. If the leadership was to implement reform by opening up the political system and allowing free elections, permitting independent media, introducing the rule of law, ending the paramount role of the Baath Party and cutting the powers of the myriad security agencies, that would be tantamount to political suicide. Mr al Assad never had any intention of taking such measures, and will not do so at present, especially if he crushes the revolt.

The notion that the extended Assad family will compromise once, or rather if, it snuffs out the demands for a freer society is laughable. The system put in place by the late Hafez al Assad was a citadel of deadlock and equilibrium: security services balanced off other security services; military units balanced off military units; senior Alawite officers balanced off senior Alawite officers, all of whom held in check senior Sunni officers. And Assad family members balanced off other family members. To an extent, even the president himself had to respect the interests of Syria's different power centres, which is why Hafez managed so little economic restructuring.

What the Assads have fought hard to protect by deploying their praetorian guard units and manifold security apparatuses - not to mention gangs of Alawite gunmen, - they will not soon risk losing by embarking on a project of genuine transformation. Nor, if Mr al Assad holds out, will he have any motive to do so. The philosophy of power in Syria is stark: if you have power, maintain it at any cost, otherwise you will lose all power - precisely the precept that the Syrian ruling family has lately been applying. However, it does contain a fatal flaw in that it leaves the president no room for flexibility.

That is why, once the demonstrations began, Mr al Assad cried out that it was all a foreign-sponsored conspiracy in support of domestic Syrian jihadists. Precisely how this narrative squared with the regime's decision to lift the state of emergency in place since 1963, or pretend to, was never quite explained. But the only instrument the Assads could readily deploy was heightened political paranoia, justifying their brutal suppression of largely peaceful dissent. Worse, the regime resorted to sordid communal provocations, sharpening sectarian tensions by playing on minority fears of a vengeful Sunni resurgence, one that allegedly had taken on Islamist overtones.

These types of manipulations may be useful in the short term, but they are also undermining dangerously a long-standing foundation of Assad rule, which Hafez worked very hard to put in place. The former Syrian leader, even as he established mechanisms of Alawite self-defence to preserve his dominance and that of his community, strenuously avoided accentuating overt sectarianism or allowing head-on clashes with the Sunnis, at least when he could. This he did, in part, by allying himself with an urban Sunni business class and also portraying his regime as a vanguard of Arab nationalism, thereby playing down sectarian identities by amplifying the pan-Arab principles once embraced by a majority of the region's Sunnis.

Today, the pillars of Assad power have all been severely shaken. For all intents and purposes, the Syrian social contract, or what passed for one, is buttressed by no more than bullets. The regime's legitimacy lies shattered, propped up only by fear and a military occupation of Syrian cities and towns. Even if protesters have avoided sectarianism, the Assads have not, which may have ominous implications for the future. Syria's vulnerability to outside interference, which the Assads have emphasised in denouncing alleged outside plots, may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as suppressed, angry border communities seek assistance from their brethren in neighbouring countries.

In some western capitals, particularly Washington, there is hope that a weakened Assad regime will be more amenable to outside pressures. The reasoning is that Mr al Assad, in order to regain international respectability, will show greater willingness to resume negotiations with Israel, break with Iran, interfere less on the Palestinian track and cut back Syrian military aid to Hizbollah in Lebanon.

In fact, Mr al Assad is probably to react in precisely the contrary way. The last thing he will do after ordering his army and security forces to gun down hundreds of civilians is to undermine his credibility further by negotiating with Israel. And why would he distance himself from Iran and Hizbollah, isolating himself further regionally and surrendering the "resistance" card, when the Iranians may be helping to save him? A Mr al Assad triumphant at home will have no incentive whatsoever to follow an optimistic script written in the United States or Europe.

All this will not alter the reality that Mr al Assad's options are limited. He cannot change Syria for the better, so he has to press on in the expectation that he can overcome through violence the malcontents in his own society. But violence can only possibly breed further discontent. Something is broken in Syria. The regime is predicting victory, but victory against one's own people is invariably pyrrhic.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Our dictator, our fault?

The images of a fallen autocrat defending himself from within a chicken coop can be enthralling. Watching Hosni Mubarak on trial earlier this week, Arabs all over must have superimposed a face of their own choosing on that of the dying man lying in his bed.

The killing of the father is a favorite theme in literature and psychology, but its most forceful manifestations can usually be witnessed in politics. A democratic Egypt, if one emerges, will need to transcend Mubarak—not to mention the garland of fathers in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. However, a warning is in order. Those Arab societies that have rejected their regimes and are going through revolutionary transformations today should also address seriously why they remained for so long under the boot of absolute, kleptocratic, usually homicidal leaderships.

If events in Egypt end mainly with punishment of Mubarak and his sons and cronies, then Egyptians will have achieved relatively little. Getting rid of a dictator is no substitute for the overhaul of the deeper infrastructures of Arab societies facilitating authoritarian rule.

Take the Arab reaction to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003. Overwhelmingly, the peoples of the Middle East condemned the American invasion of Iraq, coloring their views of Saddam. The region’s worst mass murderer somehow received a dispensation because no one could stomach his enemy. Saddam became associated with what was soon perceived as a legitimate resistance, despite its systematic murder of innocents.

A personal episode helps illustrate how warped was the reasoning in those days. When Saddam was caught in his “spider hole,” an Arab academic living in the United States explained to me how much he regretted the development. “Bush will benefit from it,” he groaned.

When observers can take such a functional view of what was, in its own way, a moral accomplishment, you know there is a problem. Saddam Hussein’s crimes, regardless of who removed him from power or benefited from his capture, were sufficiently monstrous for sensible Arabs to consider them independently of context, on their own terms. The region is indeed a better place without a man who butchered nearly half a million Iraqis, and provoked a war against Iran leading to the death or injury of well over a million others.

Instead of turning Saddam Hussein’s downfall to their own advantage in battles with their homegrown greater or lesser Saddams, many Arabs talked only about America. What they could have said was that it was up to the Iraqis themselves, and Arabs in general, to depose such an odious individual, not the Americans. They could have said that, with Saddam gone, it was incumbent upon Arabs to help rebuild a postwar Iraq, thereby accelerating an American withdrawal. They could even have said that, American intervention aside, Saddam was a victim of his own hubris and egoism, the same hubris and egoism saturating their own leaders, so that any strike against hubris and egoism was for the greater good of the Arab world.

Yet a crushing majority of Arabs said no such things.

As Egyptians debate the meaning of Mubarak’s trial, shouldn’t they be engaging in greater introspection? Shouldn’t the Iraqis or the Tunisians, too, like the Yemenis, Bahrainis and Saudis? Or the indomitable Syrians? That entire countries were governed for decades by despots and their families, whose mere presence was a daily insult to citizens, was—and in many places still is—quite troubling.

Nor can this flaw be washed away solely by the trial or execution of a former leader. Removing the father is only one step in a liberal revolution. Unless societies build institutions to preserve and enhance democratic behavior and individual freedom, revolutions replace one despot with another, one authoritarianism with another.

Syrians are paying an intolerable price for 40 years of dismal, stifling Assad rule. It would be unfair to portray the ongoing carnage as penance for having permitted a single family to humiliate Syria for so long. By pursuing their struggle peacefully and avoiding the sectarian traps set by the regime, the demonstrators have grasped that the essence of their democratic renaissance must be to embody the antithesis of what Bashar al-Assad and his acolytes represent. When the Syrians finally do overcome the beast, and provided they do so without violence by way of sectarian inclusiveness, they may be better placed than Egypt to move toward a democratic order.

Despotism is a frame of mind as much as it is an individual imposing his writ on all. Arabs striving to regain their liberty and impose the rule of law will have to break down complex structures of obedience and conformity that were, or still are, manipulated by their leaders. These structures include fear of violent repression, but also oppressive ideologies, sectarian prejudices, social and financial dependencies, a tendency to engage in self-censorship, and much else.

Congratulate Egyptians for putting Hosni Mubarak before a judge. However, they, like all Arabs, should also place their society before a severe judge—themselves—and determine what responsibility they bear for Mubarak. The answer will truly set them free.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Christians and the lions

Strangely, there has been uneasiness among some Lebanese Christians at the prospect that the Syrian regime might collapse amid popular discontent. Strange, because if anything has devastated Lebanese Christian power and confidence in four decades, other than the Christians’ own abysmal choices, it is the Assad presidencies.

Those anxious about the possible downfall of the Assads have generally raised the same argument: Bashar al-Assad heads a minority Alawite regime that has been good to the Christians of Syria. His ouster would benefit the Sunnis, above all Sunni Islamists. This would not only hurt Syrian Christians, it would also have terrible repercussions in Lebanon, where Christians could find themselves coping with an Islamist leadership in Damascus.

Of course, not all Lebanese Christians, or even necessarily most of them, subscribe to this view. But it is also true that the nervousness is not limited to Syria’s local allies. There is still a strong sense in a country with a deeply confessional mindset that minorities ultimately have an interest in siding with other minorities, against potentially hegemonic majorities. And this reasoning has never been reassessed, despite the somewhat disturbing detail that in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, like in Syria under the Assads, the Christian communities have tended to side with repressive minority regimes.

A fear of Islamists was, for example, the gist of a revealing recent expression of Christian fright about events in Syria. In a Foreign Policy web article in late April, one May Akl, a Yale-based press secretary of Michel Aoun, went out of her way to argue that the revolt in Syria was different from that in other Arab countries. Why? Because the Syrian army had come under attack. A purported ambush of troops near the city of Banias, she wrote, proved that “a Jihad-like approach is a force behind the movement demanding reforms.”

Akl then went on to explain, “In the context of these leaderless revolutions that stemmed from rightful social, economic, and political demands, the only organized and well-structured group has been the Muslim Brotherhood. For 83 years now, the aim of this widespread movement has been to instill the Quran and Sunna as the sole reference for ordering the life of the Muslim family and state.”

What evidence did Akl present for her extraordinary claim that the Syrian army had been targeted by jihadists? She provided a link to an article from The Independent in London, which merely cited Syrian state television to that effect. How persuasive, or surprising, from an official outlet that has been a wellspring of disinformation during the weeks of dissension in Syria, overseen by a regime that has portrayed the domestic unrest as a rebellion by armed Islamists.

In fact, all the signs, if one bothers to look, have suggested the precise contrary. The anti-regime demonstrations have not been led by Islamists; they have been peaceful, despite the brutality of the regime’s security apparatus and praetorian guard; and the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to join the demonstrations relatively late, at least organizationally, only issuing a statement on participation two weeks ago. But Akl’s flimsy assertion was good enough in the service of a parochial Lebanese agenda feeding off communal paranoia.

The Alawite regime has felt far less comfortable in overtly accentuating sectarian relations in Syria than the Lebanese have in Lebanon. The Assads have created safety nets to protect their coreligionists, but they have also downplayed the Alawites’ minority status, by allying themselves with a Sunni business class and by embracing an Arab nationalist identity transcending communal solidarities. The fiasco of Baathist rule has been a decisive blow against that strategy. However, in general, the two Assad regimes never allowed any fanciful notion of an “alliance of minorities,” especially with Christians, to check their determination to preserve themselves with a bodyguard of Arab nationalist credentials.

Moving beyond the Christians, however, how many Lebanese can honestly look back upon four decades of the Assads with any sense of warmth? Yes, the Syrians did impose an end to the cycle of Lebanese wars in 1990, but the onerous price that Lebanon had to pay was a decade and a half of a near-total Syrian domination. And even this should not blind us to the reality that during our 15-year conflict, Syrian officials usually worked heroically to keep the violence alive. On numerous occasions their army bombarded civilians of all persuasions and religions, while the Golan Heights front remained dead quiet, reminding us of where the priorities of Arab militaries lie.

It’s a bad idea for the Lebanese to turn the events in Syria into grist for their domestic political disputes. Syrian society may be a mosaic of communities, just like Lebanese society, but it is also quite different in many respects. To interpret everything occurring there through the narrow prism of confessional politics is a mistake. Hopefully, democrats will emerge triumphant in Syria. They alone are the ones we Lebanese should consider with any feelings of sympathy.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Osama is dead. Good, but so what?

Who truly regrets the assassination of Osama bin Laden? There are those of us who never saw the Al-Qaeda founder as an avatar of Arab frustration and humiliation.We still believe that the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Palestinian suffering or American imperialism, and everything to do with rational criminals striving to execute what they imagined would be the most aesthetical of mass murders.
However, there is something deeply disturbing in watching the United States applaud Osama’s elimination as the cornerstone of a national reawakening. A killing, no matter how justified, is still just a killing. Surely America can offer much more, particularly at this verge moment in the Middle East when protesters are looking to establish open societies, and are being gunned down as a consequence.

Unfortunately, the greater likelihood is that with bin Laden out of the picture, President Barack Obama may have found the near-perfect excuse he seeks to involve the U.S. less in regional complications. Even before his political campaign to become president, Obama’s narrative was that the attacks against New York and Washington imposed, primarily, a counter-terrorism response, making President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, with its nation-building component, the wrong war, in contrast to the right war in Afghanistan.

Obama has vowed to start a military drawdown in Afghanistan this summer; next year he faces an election. The president will not linger among the Afghans longer than he needs to. The tensions in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship may subside, despite the fact that there were Pakistani officials who surely knew that Osama bin Laden was in their midst. As Obama begins disengaging from Afghanistan with the bin Laden boil with Islamabad finally lanced, the president might welcome Pakistan’s cooperation to help fill the vacuum in the country.

The long-term question, as always with the Obama administration, is one of strategy and meaning. Until now, the president, otherwise a thoughtful man, has had little to say about the implicit link between the absence of democracy in the Middle East and the emergence of individuals like Osama bin Laden. Obama’s tendency to favor counter-terrorism action after 9/11, his mistrust of ambitious democratization schemes, has made for an especially vacant interpretation from the White House of the bin Laden phenomenon.

That’s not surprising, given the president’s political antipathies. After 9/11, the association between the rise of bin Ladenism and the absence of democracy in the Arab world was drawn primarily by so-called neoconservatives. There was a double irony there, as early neocon thinkers and officials tended to be realists politically, against the neo-Wilsonian of the George W. Bush years, when the spread of democratic values became a hymn; and they were also partial to dictators, as long as the dictators in question opposed communism.

By the time America was assaulted by Al-Qaeda in late 2001, this reading had changed among certain influential neocons in the Bush administration. More important, they gave the president an explanation for 9/11 that he found convincing, while old-line realists, left liberals, traditional conservatives, and libertarians had very little to say about why a group of young Arab men had murdered thousands of Americans for no apparent reason. The explanation, inasmuch as it was coherently formulated, was that authoritarian Arab regimes, by relentlessly suffocating their societies, had facilitated the emergence of Islamist-dominated oppositions, one of whose more extreme emanations was a particularly nasty transnational strand of jihadism that had targeted America.

One could agree or disagree with this perspective, but Bush happened to be sympathetic. For diplomatic reasons his administration tiptoed around a central contention of the neocons, namely the essential role played by Saudi Arabia in ideologically inspiring and financing jihadist movements. And since the U.S. was not about to invade the kingdom, the preferred way for dealing with this malicious cycle of a freedom deficit nourishing violent Islamist militancy was to establish a pluralistic, American-dominated Iraq in the very heart of the Arab world, to help transform the Middle East from within.

Obama never bought into that rationale. Which is precisely why Osama bin Laden’s assassination seems so devoid of deeper significance when you listen today to American officials describing the operation in Abbottabad. Retribution came, period. But the administration has pointedly avoided associating bin Laden’s fate with the democratic rumblings in the Middle East, except to suggest that Al-Qaeda, ultimately, is now a spent force in the region. Perhaps it is, but then why play up Osama bin Laden’s death with such fanfare?

Neocons aside, there is indeed an implicit link between authoritarianism in Arab societies and violence. This is not a culturally deterministic argument; it is a commonsensical one. When societies, most societies, are prevented from expressing themselves relatively freely through representative institutions, certain groups will feel compelled to effect change violently. This urge can take on a religious coloring or it can take on secular revolutionary or populist colorings. But for the Obama administration to view Osama as a phenomenon in isolation is, effectively, another way of declaring that the U.S. will not soon embark on a more profound meditation on liberty in Arab societies.

But if America has nothing much to say, or do, about advancing liberty, or merely political and social pluralism, in Arab societies, then where does its comparative advantage lie, in relation to Russia or China let’s say? If Osama bin Laden’s death provides Washington with a means of avoiding answering the question, it will have been in vain. A striking security operation no doubt, but also one that is as meaningless as revenge, almost by definition, generally is.