Friday, August 26, 2011

Divided, Mikati’s cabinet stands

Sometimes a surfeit of optimism looks suspiciously like self-delusion. As the masonry came crashing down around Najib Mikati’s head on Wednesday, it was disquieting to hear the prime minister declare that all had gone well at the cabinet meeting held in Beiteddine.

There is electricity in the air over Gebran Bassil’s $1.2 billion energy bill, with Aounist ministers threatening to boycott government sessions unless, and until, the legislation is approved. In the latest development, Walid Jumblatt announced that his three ministers would reject such approval unless comments on the bill from his National Struggle Front were taken into consideration.

There is more to this than Jumblatt’s and Michel Aoun’s longstanding loathing for each other. Look more closely at the dynamics of the majority now in control of Lebanon and you will see that Aoun also has deep-seated problems with Mikati and Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament. While this will limit his margin of maneuver in the coming months, it will also allow the general to precipitate crises that ultimately strengthen him with his Christian electorate.

During the government-formation process, the prime minister did not hide from his political interlocutors that he had problems with returning Bassil to the Energy Ministry, for reasons of integrity. He was forced to back down when President Bashar al-Assad made it clear last June that he wanted a government in Beirut as soon as possible. But the reality is that Mikati is no keener to see the minister have access to a substantial sum of money than Jumblatt is, even if the Druze leader is an old hand at patronage politics and pie-sharing, so that his salvo against Aoun must be viewed in that light as well.

As for Berri, his resentment has long been building against Aoun, especially after the speaker lost the election in Jezzine in 2009 against candidates backed by the general. There have been rumors circulating among parliamentarians that Berri is looking for openings to strike back at Aoun by helping to undercut the general’s legislative agenda. More profoundly, nothing unites Aoun with the speaker, just as nothing unites Aoun with Jumblatt: The general regards the two as prime beneficiaries of the early post-Taif system that he abominates, principally because French exile denied Aoun the worldly temptations and the political authority that he felt was his by right.

Pity Najib Mikati for being a prisoner of clashing interests impossible to reconcile. When he is not facing Michel Aoun itching for a fight, the prime minister is submitting to the humiliations of Hezbollah. Last week, Time magazine published an interview with one of the suspects indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. It was no surprise to hear him say that the Lebanese authorities knew where he was, but would not arrest him. Mikati asked Hezbollah to deny the interview. This the party did, which in no way lessened the impact of the message: On the tribunal, the government does Hezbollah’s bidding. 

One might almost say the same thing when it comes to domestic security. Marwan Charbel, the interior minister, continues to defend a statement he made on the day of the Antelias bombing, to the effect that the explosion was the outcome of a personal dispute. No one buys that story, and even less so Charbel’s protestations that he was not protecting Hezbollah. That’s because it took almost no time for the verbose minister to contradict himself, when he declared that the Time interview was “dangerous and targets Hezbollah.”

Charbel knew very well that the interview was intentionally set up by Hezbollah. If he could so brazenly misstate the facts about that matter, then we can be assured that he could do the same about the Antelias blast. Charbel may be the common property of Aoun and President Michel Sleiman, but the interests of both are parallel these days, and Aoun is the stronger of the two. As a result, the minister has no trouble emulating Aoun in being a Hezbollah buffer.

March 14 has repeatedly said that it intends to bring Mikati’s government down. There is something rather unsettling in that vow—a sense that a government only has relevance in the context of partisan fighting between the country’s political alignments. You have to wonder where the interests of the Lebanese come in.

Yet Mikati and his turbulent team have done nothing to prove the opposition wrong. Aoun will continue to ride roughshod over his partners in search of greater power to offset his debilitating envy; Hezbollah has missed few opportunities to disgrace the prime minister; Jumblatt has no stomach for Aoun, and is rethinking his rapport with Hezbollah; and Mikati is a bright mask on a squalid tragicomedy—powerless, unable to escape his predicament through resignation, a man tied to a tree receiving a steady pummeling.

This is a government inspiring groans, pretty much the same groans merited by its predecessors. Ignored in the egotistical thrusts and parries of the politicians is the Lebanese public—disgusted with what is going on, yet in large part responsible for giving their leaders so much leeway to act as they please. Mikati’s government is effectively stillborn, despite a useful achievement here and there. Unfortunately, putting it out of its misery may not necessarily bring better.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Arab Spring gives US a new chance in the Middle East

Barack Obama has not faced the continuing revolutions in the Arab world with any passion. Rather, the US president has often behaved as if these were annoying intrusions into his domestic agenda. Yet change has come, and whether Mr Obama likes it or not this will alter Middle Eastern attitudes toward the United States.

Mr Obama has been lucky - not a bad thing for a politician. The president has avoided taking the lead amid regional convulsions, failing to exploit openings to Washington's advantage. He has not even outlined a strategy defining American interests and aims, beyond the generalities in his speech at the State Department last May. And yet the US administration has almost everywhere managed to fall on its two feet, with limited negative consequences. Those who predicted that the Arab Spring would be a disaster for the US have so far been proven wrong.

For a superpower that has spent 60 years claiming to be a sentinel of Middle Eastern stability, even stalemate, the record recently has been very different. Mr Obama helped push an old friend, Hosni Mubarak, out of office in Egypt. He has sought to midwife a new order in Yemen to replace that led by another partner, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has blessed the removal of an ally in Tunisia, Zine Al Abedin bin Ali. He is demanding that Bashar Al Assad step down in Syria. And he has used the US military to help unseat Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. US support for the monarchy in Bahrain is the exception confirming the rule.

Mr Obama's paralysing caution has been a mitigating factor. The president has tried, though not very convincingly, to play up the fact that the US, as the world's leading democracy, has a desire to see democracy triumph elsewhere.

However, American abandonment of comrades in Egypt and Tunisia came only when there was no other choice. In Libya, Mr Obama seemed perpetually to move one step forward and two back in sponsoring Nato military action. In Syria it took the president almost six months of slaughter by the regime to take a stance against Mr Assad - though this would have been justified, even essential, much sooner, on both moral and political grounds.

Perception is important in politics. Mr Obama could have accumulated valuable cards by being out ahead of the transformations in the region. Ideas are equally important in this period of Arab upheaval, yet Washington has not been good at using its democratic ideals as a means of influencing what comes next in the Middle East and North Africa.

But perceptions can cut both ways and the reality is that, disturbing contradictions aside, in the public imagination the Americans today are increasingly perceived as having chosen the side of insurgent populations against overbearing despots.

Better still, some of Washington's most ardent foes are finding themselves on the wrong side of the Arab revolts. This is principally because of the situation in Syria. Iran, and more openly its Lebanese client Hizbollah, have openly endorsed Mr Assad, on the grounds that he is a bulwark of the "resistance axis" against Israel.

There have been unsubstantiated reports of Iranians and Hizbollah militants being active in the Syrian repression. Even if this is untrue it doesn't matter, for many Syrian protesters and their sympathisers believe it to be. The reputation of Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, has been battered. Syrians have mocked him in satirical sketches, accusing him of hypocritically cheering only those democratic movements that serve his political and sectarian objectives.

Oddly enough, for once the US has come out ahead in the reputation game. At this late stage it is easier to overlook initial American misgivings about popular movements than it is to ignore the fact that Sheikh Nasrallah and Iran are explicitly aligned with a murderous leadership in Damascus. Perhaps that's because they sold themselves for so long as partisans of the deprived, against the indignities imposed by the West, and by the US and Israel in particular. How they must have groaned last week when the Syrian army bombed a Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia.

Does this mean that America will suddenly be liked by Arabs, reversing the glut of polls affirming that it is loathed in the Middle East? Not necessarily. Washington's affection for Israel will remain a drag on its popularity. But popularity isn't everything, and we appear to be entering into a new phase with respect to the potential for change in the American role. We can hope that Mr Obama and his successors will show more imagination than he has demonstrated so far in exploiting the rich possibilities of the moment.

Freed of the accusation that it invariably supports authoritarianism in Arab states, Washington will have greater latitude to assist in bringing about democratic outcomes. This will permit it to end the unhealthy relationships of the past decades, in which American authority rested on leaders who had largely lost their legitimacy by stifling liberty and economic development.

The Middle East is still far from where it needs to be, but for once we can contemplate a radical overhaul that carries societies forward toward authentic pluralism and more balanced prosperity.

Mr Obama has not quite absorbed that the Arab Spring is the best thing that has happened to the US in a long time. In his fixation with properly managing each new revolutionary instalment, the president has missed the inherent magic of what is taking place.

He must catch on quickly, so that the man whose personal triumph embodied the inspiring, the thrilling, can ambitiously redefine America's long-term interaction with an Arab world in thrilling flux.

Hezbollah faces its trial with errors

For a party that repeats how unconcerned it is with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Hezbollah spends much time showing how concerned it is with the tribunal. The latest installment was a press conference Tuesday by Muhammad Raad, the head of the party’s parliamentary bloc, in which he stated that the United States and Israel had drafted the institution’s recently released indictment.

Hezbollah’s concern is understandable. The indictment appeared to confirm many of the technical details (with some differences) of what emerged in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary last year. Using the methodology of “co-location,” investigators examined concentric rings of cellular telephone usage, and in that way identified the four Hezbollah suspects. However, one thing the indictment did not mention, but that the CBC program did, is that the Lebanese police officer Wissam Eid, in analyzing telecommunications before, during, and after the Hariri assassination, found that “[e]verything connected, however elliptically, to land lines inside Hezbollah’s Great Prophet Hospital in South Beirut, a sector of the city entirely controlled by the Party of God.”

It is unclear if the special tribunal intends to pursue that line of investigation, or even if it has material to substantiate the CBC’s assertion. However, Hezbollah is well aware that the published indictment does not tell the whole story, therefore that it is best not to let its guard down. Hence Raad’s press conference, only a few days after the party arranged an interview between one of the suspects and an unidentified correspondent of Time magazine.

Hezbollah subsequently denied that any such meeting had taken place, alleging that it was all part of the plot directed against the party. However, there have been persistent reports in Beirut that the denial came at the urgent request of Najib Mikati. It didn’t take much for the prime minister to realize that he and his government’s credibility would disintegrate after the suspect claimed that the “Lebanese authorities know where I live, and if they wanted to arrest me they would have done it a long time ago. Simply, they cannot.”

Taking willful blindness to new heights, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, whose every remark provokes dubiousness and consternation, avowed that the Time interview was “dangerous and targets Hezbollah.” Charbel, like Mikati, knows that the Time interview happened, was Hezbollah’s doing, and served to reiterate how the party controls state policy when it comes to the tribunal.

Hezbollah’s discomfort aside, as Lebanese we are entitled to begin asking whether there will be further indictments. There have been numerous unconfirmed leaks to that effect, and even members of prosecutor Daniel Bellemare’s team have said in private settings that the indictment process would come in stages. It may be useless to speculate, but we can appreciate why Hezbollah is so nervous. The party may conceivably find itself holding the gun alone in what was, plainly, a much vaster conspiracy that also involved Syrians and other Lebanese – to borrow from the reports of United Nations investigators Peter Fitzgerald, Detlev Mehlis, and Serge Brammertz.

The Time interview only reaffirmed how rigidly Hezbollah has addressed the special tribunal, highlighting implicit contradictions in its defense strategy. The suspect in question said things that may potentially jar with the party’s line on the institution. Of course, he echoed Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s view that the tribunal had issued false accusations so as to discredit Hezbollah, when the real culprits were in Israel. However, a sincere declaration of innocence, as the suspect engaged in and which Hezbollah orchestrated, would appear to have been unnecessary had the tribunal been an Israeli project. Does a victim of political intrigue really need to prove his bona fides?

And second, the suspect revealed that he had an alibi proving that he was not at the crime scene. He recalled, “I was even surprised when I heard the news that Hariri was assassinated, and I stopped with a friend of mine in one of the coffee shops to watch it on TV.” The most ardent Hezbollah partisan could legitimately ask why the party doesn’t allow the suspect and his comrade to speak to the special tribunal by satellite link-up. If they can establish that the suspect was far from the hotel district, that would seriously undermine Bellemare’s case.

Hezbollah will not authorize any such statements, because that would mean recognizing the tribunal’s authority. And yet such a fear did not prevent the party from permitting the Lebanese authorities to pass on to Bellemare its evidence pointing to purported Israeli responsibility for the Hariri killing. And why must Hezbollah engage in speech after speech and press conference after press conference, and lately organize an encounter between a suspect and a journalist, if it is so apparent that the party has been framed? Not only is this a case of protesting too much, we now have a suspect saying that he has ways of confirming that he, therefore Hezbollah, is blameless. This is never a good argument when you want to convince the public that you gain by steering clear of a judicial process. If Hezbollah can legally destroy a fraudulent indictment, then surely the party gains by taking the tribunal up on its challenge and providing information to that end.

Hezbollah may have boxed itself into a corner on the special tribunal. What worries the party is that not everything was disclosed in the indictment. As more data is gradually uncovered by the prosecution, the party will have to respond publicly with a shifting defense that must remain convincing. If telephone conversations lead to the Great Prophet Hospital, even Muhammad Raad may be speechless.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The maestro of envy

Among the more dismal spectacles in an already dismal political landscape is that of Michel Aoun talking about Syria.

In the past two weeks, since the assault on Hama, Aoun has played down the Syrian repression. This week he observed that Syria was calm and advised the Syrian people to make their demands known through the ballot box—in a country celebrated for its democratic standards. Aoun also invited President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents to come to their senses and essentially embrace his rule.

It’s been clear for many years that as far back as his abortive “war of liberation” against Syria, the general’s devouring fantasy was to become Lebanon’s president. That plan failed time and again, despite Aoun’s acrobatics and his alliance with Hezbollah against the majority that emerged from the 2005 elections. Today, Aoun pursues a lesser objective, namely to guarantee that his children, with their spouses, inherit his political mantle. The boy of modest means from Haret Hreik has made good, and aspires to bequeath a dynasty.

In that respect, Aoun is no worse, or better, than most other Lebanese political players. However, only the foolish fail to see through his ambition, regarding him as something of a reformer. Look closely at the laws the general is advocating—even ask his allies in government what they think—and they will laugh and quietly tell you that the initiatives Aoun has packaged as “reform” are merely accelerated means of catching up for all those years when he was exiled by Syria, incapable of securing the benefits accruing to most of his peers.

Perhaps that’s why the general’s comments on Syria are so grating. The supreme egoist carried Lebanon into a ferocious conflict against the Syrian army in 1989 purportedly in defense of freedom—the same freedom sought by Syrians now—causing massive numbers of casualties. Aoun’s subsequent decision to turn his guns on the Lebanese Forces killed many more, accelerating the Christian exodus from Lebanon. Despite the wreckage, the general’s followers still regard him as a communal champion and have never held him to account.

Now, Aoun has not only reconciled with the Syrian regime—he is not only among its most vocal, and willfully blind, partisans—on top of that he and many of his supporters will blithely tell you that the Assad regime, which has done more harm to Christian influence in Lebanon than just about anyone, is in reality a protector of Christians.

Yet hold a snap parliamentary election in Mount Lebanon, the Christian heartland, and Aoun would probably do as well as he did in 2009, if not better. The man has been as acrobatic as Walid Jumblatt in his reversals—has transformed contradiction, demagoguery and hypocrisy into powerful weapons—and all the while he has managed to retain a solid core of Christian admirers. Aoun may embody the very worst features of the Lebanese political class that his supporters once claimed to oppose, but nowadays they are willing to overlook all that because deep down, their principle difficulty with the political system was envy. They wanted what everyone else had.

You have to admire Aoun’s cynicism. He always grasped that envy was the key to the hearts and minds of many Christians after the war ended. It was envy directed against the national reconstruction effort, from which many Christians, rightly or wrongly, felt excluded; envy directed against Taif, which took power away from the Maronite president and placed it in a cabinet led by a Sunni prime minister; and envy directed against mainstream politicians who had cut a deal with the Syrians, thereby monopolizing the instruments of patronage while Aoun rotted in exile (and Samir Geagea in prison).

When Aoun returned home he continued to manipulate envy. The old resentments were still alive, to which the general added fresh ones. He directed his flock’s envy against the March 14 coalition, which had denied him the presidency; against Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, whose loathing of Aoun was written all over his mitre; against President Michel Sleiman, who occupied the office that Aoun coveted. Envy was everywhere. Aoun became a maestro of acrimony, issuing bilious declarations, deploying libel and imprecation, his body language radiating annoyance as he insinuated that he and his own were entitled to much more than they were getting.

The more ridiculous Aoun’s performances became, the more ridiculous his devotees appeared for applauding his every asinine semi-colon. And yet many have remained with him, so that those of us who wrote Aoun off too readily must admit that we were partly wrong. The man has lost ground, without question, offers nothing, is arguably the most destructive politician the Christians have had in decades, has no vision worth mentioning, and embodies, as do others, the brutish pursuit of naked self-interest. But his survival is ensured for as long as he can feed off the flaws and fears of his community.

Aoun’s durability tells us much, too much, about the Christians. The general is not alone in meriting condemnation, and the fact that the community’s principal leaders are figures who became prominent during the war years is hardly a badge of honor. But not a few Christians want Aoun nonetheless. As they follow him through his labyrinth of self-serving policies, anti-democratic diatribes and corrosive envies, it is beyond time for them to ask if Michel Aoun offers them a better future, or more disenchantment.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Assad's overreach pushes former allies into a corner

Hama was one massacre too many for Syria's President Bashar Al Assad. In recent days, Turkey, the GCC and the Arab League have condemned Damascus, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain recalling their ambassadors. It didn't need to be that way. Yet Syria's regime, awash in brutality, has not lacked in hubris either.

For months Syrian security forces have been slaughtering protesters at will, with no response from the Arab world. So Mr Al Assad could be forgiven for imagining that he might get away with his assault on Hama, on the eve of Ramadan. But as the Syrian president has shown on several occasions, in Lebanon above all, he frequently sins by gambling a round too many.

GCC silence on Syria was a consequence mainly of Saudi reluctance to favour the Syrian revolt, because of concern that the shockwaves might destabilise the kingdom. With crises in Yemen and Bahrain as well as an uncertain transformation in Egypt, the Saudis had less time to focus on Syria. This attitude became untenable when the Syrian death toll rose and Mr Al Assad proved unable to crush his foes.

The Hama massacre put the Saudis on the spot. The kingdom could not continue to avert its eyes from what many in the region now view as the repression of a Sunni majority by Syria's Alawite minority. For King Abdullah, such a perception threatened to undermine his unofficial role as paramount Sunni figurehead in the Arab world and champion of the faith.

There is also the symbolism of Hama. In the interpretation of many Islamists, the carnage in the city three decades ago under Hafez Al Assad marked a key moment in the snuffing out of a Sunni revival in Syria. To allow another such calamity today was difficult for Riyadh, both symbolically and because it might have led to radicalisation among Islamists that could ultimately blow back against the Saudis themselves.

More prosaically, the Saudis and their Gulf partners, like Turkey, have plainly concluded that the policies pursued by the Assad regime are not only failing, they are heightening regional volatility in dangerous ways. The Syrian leader was quietly given time and room to put his house in order, but couldn't deliver. This now permits Saudi Arabia to review its options and look at how it might use Mr Al Assad's exit to its own advantage.

Turkey has taken a more roundabout path to the same conclusion. Before the Turkish elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was highly critical of the Assad regime's behaviour, particularly after the military campaign in Idlib province that forced thousands of Syrians to flee into Turkey. At the same time the Turks are said to have proposed that the defence minister, Gen Ali Habib, an Alawite, head a transitional committee after Mr Al Assad's departure. This was turned down by the Assads. The general's dismissal on Monday, a day before Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrived in Damascus to deliver a rebuke to the Syrian president, could have been an irrevocable rejection of the Turkish plan - a way of saying that it's either the Assads or chaos.

Now Turkey is bracing for the repercussions. Mr Davutoglu left Damascus moderately optimistic that Mr Al Assad would implement reforms, but the absence of specifics was worrying. Thousands of Syrian refugees remain in Turkey and the Assad regime's tactics make it more likely that Syria will dissolve into ethnic-sectarian conflict. Fragmentation might lead to de facto autonomy for Syria's Kurds, which could affect Turkey's Kurdish community. Moreover, in the event of civil war, Alawites in Turkey's Hatay province might demand intervention on behalf of their Syrian brethren.

With the regional doors slamming shut, the options are narrowing for Mr Al Assad. There is no military answer to his regime's problems. Even the method the Syrians have traditionally adopted to protect themselves, namely wreaking havoc in their neighbourhood to negotiate advantageous resolutions, has been virtually neutralised. Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has backed the Assad regime, fearing the emergence of a Sunni-dominated Syria to Iraq's west; while Lebanon, a perennial outlet for Syrian power games, is governed by a coalition sympathetic to Mr Al Assad. Syria can convey limited warnings through both countries, but cannot readily subvert their civil peace.

The Assads also benefit from Iranian assistance in their bid to stay in power. Yet even Tehran and its Lebanese ally Hizbollah appear to be preparing for a post-Assad Syria. According to a recent news story in France's Le Figaro, Hizbollah has moved its arsenal of weapons hidden in Syria back to Lebanese soil. It is doubtful that the party will provoke a war with Israel to earn the Assad regime breathing space, or take measures against the Sunnis that lead to sectarian strife in Lebanon. Hizbollah will not commit suicide for the Assads.

If all looks bleak for Mr Al Assad and his illegitimacy as president is beyond question, one thing is equally true: there is no clear transition plan for Syria. Unless the Alawites can be divided and induced to abandon the Assads, they will pursue their panic-stricken scheme of suppression as a step toward communal survival. Now is the time for diplomacy to chip away at the Syrian regime's resilience. The hard part will be to avert a sectarian war, the Assads' last bullet.

We need talking heads, the Lebanese way

In an interview with Al-Akhbar Wednesday, Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, described Druze leader Walid Jumblatt as the “Sergeant Shultz” of Lebanese politics. In the old television series Hogan’s Heroes, set in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, Shultz was the guard who perennially caught the prisoners engaging in illicit activity, but who, after a bribe or threat, would assure them of his silence: “I see nothing, nothing,” was his catchphrase.

It’s true, Jumblatt has an uncanny gift for willfully forgetting his acrobatic turnarounds. However, one thing the Druze leader has consistently sought to do in recent months is advance internal dialogue to avert discord over the myriad issues dividing the Lebanese. And that comes from his ability to see clearly what lies ahead for Lebanon, particularly what is least reassuring.

What is least reassuring today in the country is the potential for blowback from the ongoing repression in Syria. The regime of President Bashar Assad is doubtless in its death throes. However, these can be drawn out and wreak havoc if the Assads decide to bring their foul temple down on the heads of their countrymen and others. Unfortunately, Lebanon is getting increasingly sucked into this Syrian maelstrom, to its detriment.

This is not an easy situation for the Lebanese to manage. Lebanon is still a place, in theory at least, that guarantees free expression. And what is more meritorious of expression than solidarity with the Syrian people in their struggle against a consortium of criminals that has been butchering them for five months? If Assad rule has a saving grace, it has eluded almost everyone for four decades. On Monday I, too, participated in the gathering at Martyrs Square in support of the Syrian intifada. While such events rarely achieve much, it is essential, particularly for the Lebanese, to take an ethical stance on Syria while reminding several pro-Assad Lebanese parties, who have regularly assaulted anti-Assad demonstrators, that their intimidation will fail.

At the same time, however, Lebanon’s politicians should be careful when using Syrian events to feed their domestic disputes. One’s stomach churns when hearing the parliamentarian Michel Aoun declare that Syrians must resort to the ballot box to articulate their demands, and must regain their senses by embracing their autocrat. Aoun would be pitiable if he believed such drivel, and mendacious if he did not. But what the general says has repercussions, both in Lebanon and Syria, and can only damage communal ties.

The same holds for Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general. The self-described champion of the downtrodden was the first to side with the Assads against the downtrodden in Syria. His excuse was that if the Syrian regime went, the resistance axis would suffer a mortal blow. Here was a nice way of saying that Hezbollah’s political survival depends on the suffering of the Syrian people. For many Lebanese Sunnis, whose Syrian coreligionists make up the majority now suffering, this statement was taken as a declaration of war.

By the same token, when Saad Hariri comes to the defense of the inhabitants of Hama, a move both laudable and overdue, he must yet be conscious of how this will be perceived by his Lebanese rivals. For many, the former prime minister was making a bid for the loyalty of his Sunni brethren in Syria after the Assads’ downfall, as well as looking to undermine Prime Minister Najib Mikati among his own communal followers. It’s too much to ask of Aoun, Nasrallah and Hariri to avoid politics, but when their statements have a deep impact on sectarian perceptions, in the shadow of what may become a full-fledged sectarian confrontation in Syria, then they must beware.

Here is a proposal that will sound absurd today, as Hariri and Nasrallah remain irreconcilably divided over just about everything. But it is necessary, given the deterioration in Syria and the possibility that the Assads will provoke an armed conflict with devastating consequences for Lebanon, that the two leading Lebanese Sunni and Shiite representatives open channels to one another, and very soon.

As I have argued before, these channels can remain secret and be maintained through trusted aides of both leaders. They need not cover at first more than limited measures required to stabilize conditions on the ground. However, they must also be flexible enough to later be expanded if necessary. A Hariri-Nasrallah exchange would not be a substitute for a broader national dialogue, nor should it become one; but it must be conceived in a medium-term timeframe, because Hezbollah will need such a conduit before long if the Assad regime falls and the party finds itself facing circumstances that compel it to reassess its status with its Lebanese partners.

From Hariri’s perspective, such a channel could create political openings while imposing few concessions. If Hezbollah suffers a major setback in Syria, the former prime minister could find himself with substantial leverage. A direct line to Hezbollah would allow Hariri to address several vital issues with Nasrallah, which could then serve as the basis of a national debate. No one has an advantage in allowing the party to panic and devastate Lebanon in order to protect its own autonomy in the aftermath of a change of regime in Damascus.

Hezbollah won’t disappear when the Assad edifice collapses. Nor is it wise to wait for that outcome before speaking with the party. That’s because Nasrallah may, rashly, feel that he first has to pave the way for such a conversation by improving his own leverage, through military means. It’s best to preempt such an alternative by initiating discussions now, and that applies as much to Hezbollah as to Hariri.

Sooner or later, Hariri and Nasrallah will have to sit and converse, as distasteful as this may be for either man. Lebanon’s fate is already being defined by Sunni-Shiite relations, which are far from satisfactory. Political reconciliation is not in the cards, but the disintegration of Syria is bringing that deadline closer. And when it comes we will need a mechanism to persuade Hezbollah, and more importantly the Shiite community, that its preservation of a massively armed, parallel mini-state is simply no longer tenable.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hama becomes the new battleground of Lebanese politics

A rare Arab politician who reacted publicly to the violence in the Syrian city of Hama last weekend was Saad Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. That was odd. Since he left Lebanon some months ago, Mr Hariri has been almost invisible on the Lebanese scene. The intervention raised interesting questions about his motives, but more significantly about whether Lebanon might find itself sucked into a growing sectarian maelstrom in Syria.

In a statement on Sunday, Mr Hariri said that it was no longer possible to remain silent about Syrian events. He condemned "the massacre to which the Syrian city of Hama is being subjected, and the bloody killings in Homs, Idlib, Deir Al-Zor, Deraa and several Syrian towns and areas on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan". In a phrase reflecting lingering resentment, he noted that the inhabitants of Hama had "witnessed the worst massacre in the 1980s".

Several things might explain why Mr Hariri chose to speak up. In implicitly defending Syria's Sunnis against the exactions of the minority Alawite leadership, Lebanon's pre-eminent Sunni leader may have been making a bid for influence over his Syrian coreligionists. That game can be risky. It was because the Assad regime feared that Mr Hariri's father, Rafiq, might extend his financial and political sway to Syria's Sunnis that he was contained, frequently threatened, and eventually killed during the time that Damascus lorded over Lebanon.

For some observers, Mr Hariri may also have been signalling a change in Saudi attitudes toward President Bashar Al Assad. Riyadh, the former prime minister's political patron, has been quietly supportive of the Syrian regime, avoiding any criticism of the brutal crackdown against protesters. Some say the Saudis have also provided financial aid to keep Mr Al Assad afloat. It's not that they especially like the Syrian leader; rather, they have been keen to hold back the tide of revolt in the Arab world, fearing it might destabilise the kingdom.

There is a view circulating that Mr Hariri would not have said what he did had he not received a Saudi green light. Perhaps, but it is more probable that the former prime minister was pressing his political advantage in a zone of Saudi ambiguity. The Saudis have no stake in alienating Syria's Sunnis, and Mr Hariri helped in that regard. He, in turn, finally said what he had evaded saying until now, namely that he is with the Syrian revolution - sharply differentiating himself from the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has praised Mr Al Assad.

There may also have been a domestic Lebanese calculation in Mr Hariri's declaration. The former prime minister has sought to marginalise Najib Miqati, his successor. Mr Miqati, who heads a government dominated by Hizbollah and other pro-Syrian groups, hails from the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli, where outrage at the fate of the Sunni brethren across the border is rising. By taking a critical position on Hama, Mr Hariri trapped Mr Miqati: if the prime minister turns against Syria, he will alienate his allies in government; if he fails to do so, he risks losing part of his political base.

Mr Hariri's ambitions notwithstanding, Lebanon is caught between bad alternatives with Syria. The former prime minister was well justified in expressing his anger with the killings in Hama and the deadly consequences of the muted reaction from Arab capitals. On moral grounds alone, it is no longer tolerable for Lebanese officials, above all those in Mr Miqati's cabinet, to engage in omerta about the Syrian slaughter because of political expediency.

At the same time, the Lebanese are divided when it comes to the Syrian crisis and much else. The prospect of prolonged sectarian confrontations in Syria has risen alarmingly. Such a calamity could have ominous repercussions for other countries with mixed societies in the region, including Lebanon, where Sunni-Shiite relations have worsened in recent years.

And yet on the basis of national interest, Lebanon must be on the right side of the Syrian revolution. Mr Al Assad's policy in the last four months has been folly. Higher levels of repression cannot conceivably resolve the metastasising challenges that his regime faces. The military operation to reconquer Hama may represent the end for Assad rule, even if this takes time. Unless Lebanon prepares for such an outcome sensibly, it could find itself on the wrong side of a new post-revolution leadership in Damascus, to its disadvantage.

The reality is that those in power in Beirut are virtually guaranteeing that there will be antagonism if Mr Al Assad goes. And it is not just Mr Miqati and his ministers. President Michel Suleiman has been ostrich-like when addressing matters Syrian, blandly echoing official Syrian rhetoric. The speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, has long been a Syrian echo chamber. Sensing the danger, particularly with regard to his own Druze community, Walid Jumblatt alone has tried to dodge and weave, counselling that the Syrian regime introduce true reform, even as he has endeavoured to avoid a rift with Mr Al Assad.

Mr Hariri may have no remedy for how to spare Lebanon the turbulence next door; indeed, his comments on Hama have surely made matters trickier. But the former prime minister is wagering that the regime in Damascus is not long for this world. If he's correct, Syrians in the streets will not soon forget his backing. However, ultimately it is state-to-state relations that count. And for now the Lebanese state still has all its eggs placed in the Assad basket.

Give Obama an ‘F’ in the Middle East

We can learn a great deal about President Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East from the contentious way that he handled the recent debt ceiling dispute with the U.S. Congress.

Earlier this year the administration warned Congress that the debt ceiling would be breached by August. Some weeks ago Obama entered into negotiations with congressional Republicans over a debt reduction package that would include raising taxes and slashing spending. Republicans rejected a tax increase and broke off talks, leaving Obama in limbo. The president then stood back and watched as Congress tried to devise a solution, reinserting himself into the process when this failed, fearing that a default would harm his re-election prospects. Ultimately, he brokered a deal that conceded quite a bit to the Republicans, angering many among his Democratic base.

Transpose those lessons to Obama’s actions today on a variety of Middle Eastern issues, and a pattern emerges. What we have is a president with undeniable intelligence, but without particularly strong convictions, whose preference for standing away from the fray often allows his political rivals to outmaneuver him, and who will raise expectations then come up short in carrying through on them. Obama is an opportunist ill adept at creating opportunities.

For instance, the president made many promises on the Palestinian-Israeli track during his election campaign and afterward, but never worked hard to finalize a solution. Maybe one was impossible, but it is remarkable how little Obama immersed himself personally in an undertaking that he accused his predecessor, President George W. Bush, of ignoring at his own peril. One person who promptly got the president’s measure was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He recently forced Obama onto his hind legs by mobilizing Congress against the president’s conditions for a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians – conditions that merely reflected United Nations resolutions and the outcome of negotiations past.

Obama has been even worse at developing a broader strategy for the region. Some blame can be placed at the door of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but it is up to the White House to provide strategic guidance. There has been none, only management, usually inconsistent and tardy, of proliferating crises. What are the American priorities in the Middle East? No one knows. If it is containing Iran, then Obama’s accelerated drawdown in Iraq makes little sense; if it is protecting America’s access to oil, then the president has done a terrible job of managing the relationship with Saudi Arabia; if it is fighting terrorism, then why did Obama pursue a nation-building project in Afghanistan, which he then abandoned a year later after Osama bin Laden was assassinated? And if it is realizing Arab-Israeli peace, Obama has done far less than Bush, who could have done far more.

There is disarray in Washington on the Middle East because the president has repeatedly shown that, deep down, he just doesn’t want the region to draw his energies away from addressing America’s domestic priorities. That may be defensible in a narrow, parochial way, but it also has been catastrophic at a moment of far-reaching transformations in the Arab world and beyond.

Bush was often accused of being insular. By way of contrast, many have pointed to the current president’s cosmopolitan upbringing. When the Nobel Committee awarded Obama the peace prize in 2009, it was, partly, a sigh of relief that “someone like us” was back in the White House. In retrospect, Bush was the truer globalist, with a better grasp of the intricate relationship between American power and international commitment. There was much to criticize in Bush, but he never allowed a lack of ambition to dictate his agenda. Obama, in turn, has become a hostage to America’s financial constraints by failing to devise an integrated foreign policy plan to ensure that the country’s limited resources could be used to maximal advantage overseas.

The most troubling aspect of Obama’s performance has been his frigidness, exacerbated by indecision, when it comes to human freedom – the major issue of the day, and of the post-Cold War world. For a man supposed to embody the triumph of an African-American community long denied its freedom at home, Obama has been unusually reluctant to employ American power – military, ideological, and diplomatic – to assist those abroad denied their freedom. Whether it was his response to the demonstrations in Iran against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen Syria, or even Libya, where the U.S. is involved in the NATO campaign, the president has been evasive and hypocritical, incapable of transcending his innate analytical detachment to seize the high emotions of the moment and shape them to his benefit.

Morally, Obama’s behavior in the Middle East is objectionable; diplomatically, the president has been without inspiration, a leader who has prompted few genuinely profitable foreign policy openings. His three major speeches on the region – those in Ankara and Cairo, and his more recent effort at the State Department, in which he vowed that the United States would “promote reform across the region, and … support transitions to democracy” – have become embarrassing reminders of how little the president has achieved. Even Obama’s urge to engage in a dialogue with the Muslim world was vacant, the whim of a college professor, a meaningless exercise in self-flagellation – for who but the U.S. alone, the president plainly implied, was responsible for the misunderstanding with the Muslim world?

For a long time, the benchmark of foreign policy mediocrity was President Jimmy Carter’s administration. But Carter did manage some significant achievements, such as the Camp David treaty, the Panama Canal treaties, and SALT II. Three years into Barack Obama’s term, what legacy has he left, especially in the Middle East? He’s missed every major regional turning point, disappointing even ardent partisans. Obama may win re-election next year, but his is hardly a memorable presidency. It’s just that no one wants to admit it yet.