Friday, February 24, 2012

Will Walid lead?

One evening, in January 2006, while I was interviewing Walid Jumblatt in Mukhtara, his telephone rang. He spoke for around five minutes, while an extra 10 were set aside for a succession of increasingly florid goodbyes. Closing the phone, Jumblatt apologized. “Those were Druze from the Golan calling me,” he explained.

At the time, Jumblatt was a virtual prisoner of his residences, as his conflict with the Syrian regime was in full swing. And yet, I thought, this had not prevented Syria’s Druze—under Israeli occupation, perhaps, but keen to stress their loyalty to Damascus all the more for it—from calling an arch-enemy of Bashar al-Assad to inquire about his health. The incident was not much to go on, but it did indicate to me that the Lebanese Druze leader perhaps had more influence among his Syrian coreligionists than most non-Druze knew. 

In recent months, Jumblatt has intensified his condemnations of the Assad regime, and its brutality. This week, in an editorial in his party’s weekly Al-Anbaa newspaper, Jumblatt urged the Druze in Syria to take the side of the revolution. “Beware you Arab strugglers in the Druze mountain against yielding to the Shabbiha in confronting your brothers in Syria and becoming like Israel’s border guards.” This was a reference to those Israeli Druze often stationed at Israel’s border crossings, and who are notorious for their harshness.

This week Jumblatt called for, and participated in, a vigil at Samir Kassir square in downtown Beirut in support of the Syrian uprising. Alongside him were several of his Druze parliamentarians. Jumblatt’s stance has contrasted starkly with those of two other Lebanese Druze leaders, Talal Arslan and the rather less elevated Wiam Wahhab, who have continued to endorse Assad rule.

Jumblatt’s maneuvering is revealing. Undoubtedly, there is an element of political and sectarian calculation in his actions. If the Syrian regime collapses, the Lebanese Druze leader would appreciate gaining a greater say in the affairs of the Syrian community. There are an estimated 200,000 Druze living in Lebanon. Jumblatt’s ability to extend his sway over a sizable portion of the 300,000 Druze in Syria would not only contribute to his own political survival and that of his son as traditional leaders, it would also provide Lebanon’s vulnerable Druze with significant demographic and geographical depth. 

There are protective reasons as well for Jumblatt’s power plays. If Syria’s Druze were to fall on the wrong side of a post-Assad order, they might suffer dire consequences. In the worst case this could produce an exodus, as it has among minorities in Iraq. A natural destination for Syria’s Druze would be Lebanon. Their arrival in large numbers would represent a heavy economic burden for Lebanon’s community, in an underdeveloped mountain. It might also exacerbate relations between Lebanese and Syrian Druze, and between the Druze and other communities. It would fall on Jumblatt to care for the refugees, a responsibility he would really prefer not to take on.

That is perhaps a reason why Jumblatt has opposed the Assads so vociferously, when he might have been safer remaining on the fence for a bit longer. Evidently, he believes that being ahead of the curve will buy Syria’s Druze—many of whom have participated in the regime’s repression—a measure of protection. Jumblatt has been joined by Muntaha al-Atrash, the daughter of renowned Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who fought against France from 1925 to 1927.  

An irony is that even as Jumblatt has praised the emancipatory impulses of those rebelling in Syria and elsewhere, he has been focused on maintaining his authority over his own community. The Druze leader has been enthusiastic about the Arab revolts, but not enough to see them repeated against Jumblatti domination.

And here we should read a third explanation into Walid Jumblatt’s exertions. As the Druze leader sees things, it’s better for him to ride the desire for radical change in the Arab world to his advantage, rather than cede ground to those who will use the fall of Arab despots as a basis to demand an end to paternalistic communal leaderships. To be fair to Jumblatt, he has done better for the Druze than the Assads, ben Alis and Qaddafis have for their societies, but he also knows that the fragrance of transformation can be heady.

Jumblatt also knows that the rancorous Assads have nothing to lose by getting rid of him. He goes out less than he used to, gambling that they are so busy eliminating their own citizens as to have little time to eliminate adversaries abroad. Jumblatt is playing a risky game, one with the potential to pay great dividends, or bring ruination.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Washington’s Syria policy is imaginary

The administration of President Barack Obama has often been ridiculed for what it describes as “leading from behind.” More often than not this has been an excuse for not leading at all, and nowhere has American vacillation been more on display than in Syria.

For instance, it is the United States that has lent credence to accusations by the Syrian regime that Al-Qaeda is assisting the Syrian opposition. Last week, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he believed Al-Qaeda in Iraq had infiltrated Syrian opposition groups, and was behind bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. Clapper needn’t have made that statement publicly. Not surprisingly, the Syrian opposition read it as a sign of American hostility toward its aspirations.

Politically as well, Washington has been all over the place. In an interview with France 24 just over a week ago, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said that the Obama administration was looking for a “peaceful political solution” in Syria. “Even the Syrian people do not want a military solution to this crisis,” he said, before adding: “We believe [President Bashar] Assad should step down, but at the end of the day the Syrian people will make the decision, not the U.S.”

A few days later, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, sounded less affirmative. While also defending a political solution, she observed, “[I]f we can’t get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures.” To many people this suggested that the U.S. might possibly endorse arming Syria’s opposition if that became necessary. Evidently, the Obama administration – amid the carnage in Homs and elsewhere in Syria, and rising calls in the Arab world and even in the U.S. Congress for Assad’s opponents to be supplied with better weapons – feared that it would fall behind the policy curve.

There are no easy answers in Syria, but Washington’s trouble is that it has no strategy for the country. This is proving very damaging indeed, given that the Russians and Iranians do have one, and it can be summarized quite simply: Actively support the repression by the Syrian army and security services, bringing the opposition, or a portion of the opposition, to the negotiating table. Introduce reforms, albeit cosmetic reforms, to return the political initiative to Assad. Integrate willing opposition figures into a national unity government, thereby neutralizing the discontent on the ground. And give the regime the latitude to govern again, in order to snuff out pockets of dissent.

This scheme is unlikely to work, but at least it is straightforward. Moscow and Tehran have dispatched military and intelligence units to Syria to impose their will. There are reports that the U.S. has also sent people into Syria to organize the Syrian opposition, but apparently in numbers so infinitesimal as to be virtually useless.

But what did Ford mean when mentioning a peaceful political solution? The Russians and the Iranians also want such a solution, however the Obama administration has opposed Russia’s approach to Syria. Officially, the U.S. backs the Arab League plan calling for Assad to step down and hand over to a vice president. Ford echoed that thought, then threw in his silly caveat about Syria’s people being the final arbiter of their own future. But is it the Syrians alone, or Syrians backed by the Arab League and the determination of the international community, who will ultimately shape outcomes in Damascus?

The U.S. finds itself lost between a desire to see the back of Assad and fear of a Syrian civil war. Doesn’t almost everybody? Yet most governments have prioritized their objectives. For Russia and Iran, the red line is preserving their interests, and both feel today that this requires Assad to remain in office. The Gulf states, in turn, want Assad to be gone, denying Iran a key ally in the Levant. The U.S. has no reason to engage with the Iranians, but Russia is different. If Russian estimates about Assad’s survivability are faulty, as they may well be, then U.S. diplomacy must work on that front. The Russians will defend Assad to the hilt, but once they deem him to be a liability for their relations with the U.S., the Europeans and the Arab world, and once they realize that his leadership is all but finished, they will contemplate alternatives, if only to protect what is theirs in Syria.

Many Arab regimes have already concluded that the only way to undermine Assad is to arm the Free Syrian Army. That debate replicates one that took place two decades ago over Bosnia. At the time, the George H. W. Bush administration and European governments opposed lifting an arms embargo on Bosnia, effectively ceding the advantage to the better-armed Serbs. The Clinton administration sought to change that policy, while a further impetus to arm the Bosnian Muslims came from within Congress. In the end, the Bosnian army did acquire more weapons and, with NATO and Croatian assistance, obliged the Bosnian-Serbs to accept a settlement.

A Syrian civil war is a fearful prospect, but American indecision is not going to prevent one from taking place. If Washington and the Europeans dither, the Gulf states won’t, and weapons will enter Syria anyway, as they already are. Better for the Obama administration to devise a political approach that embraces, while also controlling, a military dimension that would push Assad to reconsider his options. The starting point for any resolution in Syria must be the departure of the current regime. A transitional project can be a modified form of the Arab League plan, with guarantees to Syria’s minorities. Russia must be brought into the effort, perhaps with assurances that its interests will be looked after in a post-Assad Syria, because its backing is what is truly propping up the Syrian leadership.

Washington needs to get a grip. Its policy toward Syria has been strangely disconnected from its other regional priority, namely containing Iran. It took many months for the administration to acknowledge the Syrian crisis as a major issue. By insisting, on the record and off, that there is nothing they can do in Syria, American officials have effectively ensured that they will do nothing. Their performance has been craven and one-dimensional – in a word, pathetic.

Nobody believes Israel as its nuclear monopoly weakens

A procession of American officials has been visiting Israel lately, to persuade the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to bomb Iran before international sanctions have had time to take hold. The arguments against an operation are familiar, but they also speak to an underlying malaise in how the world views Israel.

By striking Iranian nuclear facilities, Israel could provoke dire consequences. Iran would be likely to retaliate, perhaps with missiles, while instructing Hizbollah to fire rockets into Israel from Lebanon. Conceivably, Syria would get involved, if only to neutralise protests against the Assad regime. Iran could block the Strait of Hormuz for a time, pushing oil prices up and harming fragile western economies.

This catalogue of horrors is not improbable, despite reported Israeli assessments that Iran and Hizbollah might not react in spectacular ways. True, none of the parties relishes the prospect of war. Iran's regime is wary that if the Americans were to enter the fray, they might destroy Iranian military infrastructure. Hizbollah gains little by turning its Shiite supporters once again into Tehran's cannon-fodder. As for Syria, a devastating Israeli riposte against its army could actually be the straw that breaks the Assads' back.

Several negative outcomes could ensue for Israel as well. Not only might the country find itself in a war on several fronts; if it were to drag a reluctant Obama administration into a regional conflagration that it does not want, this could severely strain an already uneasy relationship with the United States. That's because the backlash of higher oil prices could plausibly lose Mr Obama his re-election, while undermining shaky financial recoveries globally.

But once initiated, a war could lead to this worst-case scenario. That is why few countries are willing to risk paying an onerous price for Israel's security. Even less so when the chances are that the Israelis can, at best, delay Iran's nuclear programme and unify a self-destructively divided leadership in Tehran.

This tells us something more profound. Whether the Netanyahu government likes it or not, its uncompromising behaviour in negotiations with the Palestinians in recent years has lost Israel much goodwill internationally. Notwithstanding the ineffectiveness of the Palestinians, themselves split between Fatah and Hamas, Mr Netanyahu has never been able to live down his refusal to indefinitely suspend settlement construction in the West Bank.

Israel's prime minister outmanoeuvred Mr Obama on peace negotiations last year, but to what end? Never has Israeli policy seemed so futile. The country evidently cannot make even minimal concessions to facilitate peace. It hasn't a clue about what to do with the millions of Palestinians whose destiny it controls directly or indirectly. Israel's own Arab citizens are increasingly alienated. The country is moving rightward. And Mr Netanyahu's government has had deep misgivings about the Arab uprisings, implicitly affirming that Israel feels secure only in the presence of Arab dictatorships.

Israeli leaders are agitated because so few governments accept that Iran poses an existential menace to Israel. If Iran were to build nuclear weapons, this would generate considerable regional instability. An arms race would ensue. A reinvigorated, nuclear Iran, especially one that is isolated internationally and insecure at home, might seek out foreign quarrels to bolster its domestic cohesion. But would such a country threaten Israel existentially? Not when Israel can obliterate Iran several times over.

A decision has not yet been taken in Washington on what happens if the latest sanctions on Iran fail to halt its nuclear programme. But the unprecedented force of the sanctions shows how little the Americans want a clash. And that reluctance makes me legitimately wonder whether the US would not, in the end, prefer to contain a nuclear Iran rather than endorse precarious military action that could expand into a regional war and aggravate the world economy in the process.

When the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, described Iran as a "rational actor" last weekend while in Israel, he was saying something else: that he did not buy the contention that Iran would beyond doubt employ nuclear weapons against Israel on the basis of the Islamic Republic's religious ideology. That may be obvious to many, but purported Iranian irrationality, a product of the regime's Islamic messianism, has been at the heart of the rationale for why the "the mullahs must not get the bomb".

If the Iranians are rational, then presumably they are as receptive to the principles of deterrence as anybody else. The United States and the Soviet Union embraced deterrence for four decades during the Cold War. Israel can do the same, many in Washington believe, not least when it holds a decisive military edge over Iran and will benefit from an American nuclear umbrella as further consolation.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton irritated the Israelis in July 2009 when she declared that the US would extend a "defensive umbrella" over the Gulf if Iran acquired nuclear weapons. The phrase implied that the US could live with that eventuality, as it has in India, Pakistan and North Korea. Ms Clinton backtracked, but that seemed more a tactical than a strategic retreat. Mr Obama hasn't issued a final word on Iran, but he apparently does not regard preservation of Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East as a vital American aim.

Israel may yet strike Iran, but at its own peril if Washington disapproves. This makes an assault far less likely, Israeli bluster aside. Mr Netanyahu has simply failed to convince anybody that Israel makes a believable victim. Not with him in charge anyway.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The US and Russia, rivals of old, at odds in the Arab world

As the Arab uprisings enter their second year, it is useful to compare the way the two former Cold War rivals, the United States and Russia, are faring in the Middle East. There are several ironies here, and they will be crucial in determining how both adjust to a region in flux.

The first irony is that while the United States was for a long time the major backer of autocratic Arab regimes, it is Russia that is presently most resistant to democratic regime change in the Arab world. The Russians reaffirmed this last week, when they vetoed, along with China, a resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan to remove Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from office.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Russians appear adamant in wanting Mr Al Assad to stay in power. They have supplied the Syrian regime with arms, and the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accompanied by the foreign intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov, visited Damascus on Tuesday, purportedly to urge Mr Al Assad to accelerate reforms. Those in Beirut familiar with Russian thinking argue that their preferred solution is formation of a national-unity government, open to compliant opposition figures, that leaves the core of Mr Assad's rule intact. Others believe Moscow might contemplate Mr Al Assad's exit if it can preserve its interests in any transition.

In contrast, Washington, notwithstanding initial hesitations, turned against its authoritarian allies or partners with greater alacrity than Moscow. If there was little it could do in Tunisia, the Obama administration did come around quickly in demanding that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak step down when he faced massive street demonstrations in January 2011.

Russia refused to go that far, taking a hands-off approach to events in Cairo. And when Mr Mubarak was put on trial after his downfall, Russia's Foreign Ministry urged the Egyptian judiciary to respect "humanitarian principles" in deciding his fate.

The Americans also swiftly switched hats on Muammar Qaddafi when the Libyan rebellion began. The relationship had improved over the years, thanks primarily to the collaboration against Al Qaeda. President Barack Obama pussyfooted on intervention in the Libyan conflict, but when he decided to intervene, the United States played a vital role in the Nato military campaign.

Russia, however, viewed Qaddafi's removal as a setback. The rapport between the Soviet Union and Libya had been very close, and in 2008, Russia was offered access to Benghazi port for its naval vessels. The Libyan regime was also a major buyer of Russian weaponry, and there was close cooperation in the oil and natural gas sector. Moscow approved a Security Council resolution to protect Libyan civilians, but opposed it being used by Nato as an excuse for regime change.

A second irony is that Russia has left ideology aside in pursuing its Middle Eastern interests. After decades of communism, arms sales, oil and gas contracts - in a word, capitalism - are the new benchmarks of Moscow's regional policy. For a long time these better described Washington's motivations. The Soviets were doubtless interested in exporting weapons and projecting military power. However, an ideological agenda more plainly defined their conduct, whereas now the United States finds itself increasingly a prisoner of a philosophical commitment to democracy.

This doesn't mean Washington has abandoned commerce, military power or its other guiding principles. The Americans recently concluded an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and their bond with Israel is as strong as ever. It is that Russia is less reticent about taking decisions on the basis of realpolitik than America. This may mean that Moscow is less hypocritical; but it also means it is more sanguine about regime brutality than the Obama administration.

A third irony happens to be Israel. It was noticeable that in his defence of the veto on Syria last week, Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, did not embarrass Washington by mentioning its myriad vetoes of Security Council decisions on Israel's behalf. Partly, that was because Russia has developed good relations with the Israelis in the past decade. There have been strains between the countries, but this has not prevented budding bilateral commercial and even military ties, sustained by Israel's large Russian diaspora.

What happens in the Arab world in the coming years will determine whether the United States or Russia will gain down the road. If Arab societies install pluralistic, representative systems, where the instruments of state repression are placed under some form of civilian oversight, the Americans may emerge with more influence. Washington's forthright endorsement of the Egyptian, Libyan, Tunisian and Syrian oppositions, no matter how belated, makes it more apt to adjust to post-authoritarian orders, whatever the contradictions in its behaviour.

However, it is uncertain whether open political orders will soon emerge. Russia's calculation is that the Arab uprisings will engender further chaos before there is stabilisation. That will create fresh doubts, therefore numerous opportunities for it to manoeuvre, even in Syria, where the opposition is bitterly critical of Moscow. The Russians are also keen to contain developments that may have repercussions at home, not least the triumph of Sunni Islamists, which they fear may radicalise Muslims in Russia and nearby.

Washington and Moscow remain far apart on the Middle East, while the rationale behind their actions has never been so similar. But values cannot be discounted. Russia's hard-nosedness may yet backfire, while a more emancipated Arab world is also one less likely to bend to American priorities. Both countries are navigating blind in an environment where the old ways are simply much less suitable.

Russia conspires to salvage Assad rule

What strange tea are the Russians brewing in their diplomatic samovar? Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, visited Damascus on Tuesday with the foreign intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov, and made a statement afterward that was, at best, ambiguous. That’s not a good sign when Syrians are crying for clarity.

Following his meeting with Bashar Assad, Lavrov declared that the Syrian president “was completely committed to the task of stopping violence, regardless of where it may come from.” He said that Russia was ready “to help foster the swiftest exit from the crisis on the basis of positions set out in the Arab League initiative.” The foreign minister also stated that the Assad regime supported an expanded effort by the Arab League to monitor events in Syria, and said that Moscow would continue to work with Syrian opposition groups.

Meanwhile, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, emphasized that the Syrian opposition had to accept a dialogue with Syria’s regime, otherwise the clause in the Arab League plan for the country referring to the formation of a national-unity government would have no value. Lavrov’s and Churkin’s remarks came amid reports in Le Figaro that Russian experts are helping revamp Syria’s Baath Party, in preparation for a new Constitution that will supposedly authorize multiparty elections, limit presidential terms, and do away with Article 8 of the current Constitution that designates the Baath as the “leader of state and society” in Syria.

There had been speculation on Tuesday that Lavrov might advise Assad to consent to a Yemen scenario, whereby the Syrian president would leave office and usher in a smooth transition. Nothing of the sort happened. On the contrary, the foreign minister appeared to endorse the so-called reform proposals of the Syrian regime, and, like his U.N. ambassador, focused on the dialogue dimension of the Arab League plan while ignoring the demand that Assad step down.

It is increasingly apparent that Moscow favors a solution that would preserve the core of Assad rule, behind the facade of a bogus transformation. The Russians seek the establishment of an anemic national-unity government in which compliant members of the Syrian opposition would be integrated, along with constitutional changes that would be, in practice, cosmetic. To bludgeon the opposition and make it more pliable, the Russians recently supplied Syria with arms for the military offensive of the past week. The idea that Assad must depart is not on the table, even if Moscow may not have entirely ruled that out as a contingency in the event its current strategy fails.

Particularly intriguing was the fact that Fradkov accompanied Lavrov on his trip. Why did he? According to Le Figaro, the intelligence chief may have been in Damascus because Russia wishes to reopen a listening post it controlled during the Cold War on Mount Qassioun, behind Damascus. It would be in character for the Russians to use Assad’s tribulations as leverage to gain concessions. At the same time, intelligence chiefs generally travel to foreign capitals to meet with their counterparts or to brief foreign leaders on intelligence in their possession, or both. This adds weight to the claim, again in Le Figaro, that Russian military and intelligence personnel have been operating in Syria in recent months, to help neutralize the uprising.

The sole political instrument available to initiate a dialogue between Assad and the opposition is the Arab League plan. That explains why Lavrov and Churkin have been trying to inject new life into it, and why the Syrian regime is now seemingly interested in reinvigorating, even expanding, the Arab observer mission. Without the Arab framework, the purported reform program fashioned by Russia and Assad would take place in a vacuum – devoid of local, regional and international legitimacy. If their national-unity government gambit is to see the light of day, the Arab plan must first be revived.

Almost immediately, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in separate venues, sought to undermine Russian actions. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Ankara was preparing a new initiative on Syria “with those countries that stand by the people, not the Syrian government.” This was an implicit slight at Russia. At the same time, Gulf Cooperation Council governments, led by Saudi Arabia, recalled their ambassadors in Damascus while expelling Syria’s envoys from their own capitals. The measures were designed to reiterate that there can be no solution with Assad in power.

After remaining quiet on Syria during much of the past year, the Saudis are mobilized. They were instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the Arab observer mission once they realized that it was being exploited by the Syrian regime. And they will play a vital role in blocking the Russian-Syrian project to suffocate the Syrian revolt. Riyadh evidently has an ally in Turkey, as both countries see an opportunity to prevent the survival of a regime they both regard as a threat, while also undercutting Iran’s influence in the Levant.

The United States and the Europeans appear to be on the same wavelength as the Saudis and Turks. As far as all these countries are concerned, Bashar Assad is history, and Russian intransigence will not alter that. We should watch for new diplomatic attempts at the U.N., perhaps via the General Assembly, to circumvent a Russian veto. And don’t put it beyond the Gulf states, with Turkish acquiescence and American and European assistance, to accelerate the arming, financing, and training of Syrian army deserters.

Moscow cannot take on the world, even less so when the man they hope to save has perpetuated abominable massacres of civilians. Syria is not Grozny. If it’s either civil war or a Russian plan to salvage Assad rule, many Arab states and the West might tolerate the former. That could be dangerous, but not less so than the Russians’ illusion that Syrians will stomach more of Bashar Assad after all that he’s done.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Our shadow president

If one thing could be said of Nassib Lahoud, it’s that the fact that he was time and again viewed as a natural choice to become Lebanon’s president virtually guaranteed his never being elected to the office.

Lahoud’s death this week had a poignant feel about it. His health had deteriorated in recent years, during which period he was largely absent from politics. His last real plunge into the electoral pit came in 2005, when he lost in the Metn thanks in no small part to a slanderous campaign by the Aounists. They sought to portray Lahoud as a Syrian pawn during the period when Michel Aoun still headed a military government fighting Syria. That was before Aoun himself became a Syrian pawn fighting heartily on Syria’s behalf.

In the last two decades, Lahoud’s fate mirrored that of the presidency, and of the Maronites in general. With the president’s power substantially reduced by Taif, and Maronites in numerical and moral decline, the non-Maronite political class came to have a greater say over who was elected head of state. And even after the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005, the final nod on that front came from Damascus.

Both dynamics ensured that towering mediocrities would ascend to Baabda. Leading politicians, frustrated Maronites among them, even when they disagreed over much else, could agree that they did not want a president with a strong personality, and above all credibility, to hinder their agendas and bite into their interests. The Syrians, similarly, had no intention of promoting someone who might give them headaches, from a community traditionally hostile to Syria. 

That was Nassib Lahoud’s quandary, and it was one reason why March 14, when the coalition decided to name a candidate to succeed Emile Lahoud in 2007, in fact named two: Nassib, but also Boutros Harb. In so doing, the former majority effectively undermined both candidacies, paving the way for the eventual endorsement of the army commander, Michel Sleiman, someone far more in step with the substandard exigencies of the political leadership.

Lahoud’s integrity notwithstanding, he was no naïf. In 1992, he re-entered parliament on a list headed by Michel al-Murr, even though a majority of Christian voters boycotted the elections. His calculation was that Christians, realizing their error, would come around. He may not have liked Murr, but he reckoned that both had helped legitimize President Elias Hrawi’s authority against that of Michel Aoun, so it made no sense to be overly delicate about the partnership.

He was right on both counts. Lahoud could play the electoral patronage game as well as anyone, albeit within morally acceptable boundaries. He made no bones about wanting to be president, and that necessitated dealing with the Syrians—even the requisite visit to Damascus on occasion. Lahoud was careful, shrewd, cool-headed and single-minded in the pursuit of his objectives. This could impose occasional compromises. But the man also remained by and large true to his principles, so that when you look back upon his career, there remains a solid core there, unseen in most of Lahoud’s foes.

It was often held against Nassib Lahoud that he was a favorite of the intelligentsia, but not of most other Lebanese. This had a vulgar, populist ring to it and was terribly condescending about what the Lebanese merit when it comes to their leaders. It also happened to be wrong. Lahoud was no demagogue, that’s true, but many in Lebanon would have embraced him as a worthy embodiment of their state and as a symbol of the nation’s unity. Class matters in a president, and Lahoud had plenty of it, to go with the brains.

The last time I saw Nassib was in December 2008, at a conference organized in Washington, DC. I was to moderate a panel with Lebanese politicians from both sides of the political divide, and he took me aside to warn that I had better keep tight control over the proceedings, otherwise they might prove embarrassing. In the end, he was right again. The politicians, paying no heed to me, went at each other, showing their profound divisions to an American audience in search of something rather more uplifting to take with them.

On that same trip I met an American diplomat, who told me something else about Nassib. At the State Department there are multiple levels of employees working on Lebanese and Middle Eastern issues. Whereas Lebanese politicians always sought out senior officials, the diplomat explained, Nassib had also readily met with lower-ranking staff members. They were not the ones who made the big choices, but they generated the paper and wrote the background reports upon which senior staff relied to take their decisions. Nassib understood the value of these individuals, in that way showing that he grasped how American policy is made.

The 2005 election was a bitter experience for Lahoud, and it was a discouraging symptom of what had happened to the Maronites. The Aounists’ defamation of him was built on a foundation of envy and spite, and sinister glee in cutting down one so reputable. Yet the community’s future, if it is to be successful, cannot rest on such base sentiments. This makes us regret Nassib Lahoud all the more.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

From Russia, for Bashar’s eyes only

You know something is not right in Russia when the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, sounds increasingly like Andrei Gromyko, his hermetic predecessor under the onetime communist regime.

This week, Russia declared that it would oppose a United Nations Security Council draft resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. The draft, introduced by Morocco, reiterates the aims of an Arab League plan for Assad to hand over power to a vice president and allow the formation of a national unity government. This government would work to end the violence in Syria by pulling the army and security forces out of cities and releasing prisoners.

The Russians may sense that they’re backing a lame horse in Assad, and an indication of this was Lavrov’s statement in Australia this week. He noted, “We are not friends or allies of President Assad. We never said that Assad remaining in power is a precondition for regulating the situation. We said something else – we said that the decision should be made by Syrians, by the Syrians themselves.”

Lavrov’s caveat notwithstanding, you would have thought that the Syrians, or a substantial number of them, who have braved bullets and cannonfire for 10 months had already made their choice. Then again, the foreign minister’s remarks jar with what the Syrians and their allies in Beirut are saying. For them, Russia has indeed made Assad’s political survival a precondition for a deal over Syria. This seemed apparent when Moscow offered earlier this week to host a dialogue between the Syrian opposition and regime.

Where is the truth? Perhaps in the rather straightforward reality that no leader who massacres thousands of his own people, whose army is falling apart through proliferating desertions, who has been asked to step down by the Arab states, reflecting an unprecedented consensus – that no such leader can hope to regain his legitimacy and remain in power for any significant length of time. This is so evident as to not merit repetition, and it’s astonishing that the Russians, whatever their national interests, have refused to adapt to the shifting mood on Assad inside Syria, in the Arab world and internationally.

The argument that Russia hopes to protect its stake in a future Syria is unconvincing. By holding on to Bashar Assad so stubbornly, despite the killing, the Russians are ensuring that a post-Assad government will impose retribution. Nor does there appear to be bargaining yet between the Russian government and the Syrian opposition that would persuade Russia to drop Assad if it gained satisfaction.

Then there is the Libyan argument. Russia will not make the same mistake in Syria that it did in Libya, where it agreed to U.N. action leading to regime change in Tripoli, though the resolution authorizing force was intended solely to protect civilians. Perhaps, but to believe that version one must assume the Russians are boy scouts. From the moment NATO warplanes were permitted to bomb Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, the only plausible outcome of the campaign was some version of regime change. Yet Moscow did not wield its veto.

This week Lavrov also remarked, “The Russian policy is not about asking someone to step down; regime change is not our profession.” What an odd thing to say. It’s not as if Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis and Syrians sought Russian acquiescence before overthrowing their dictators. Russia may have obstruction power, but regime change during the past year in the Arab world has been the consequence of internal discontent. For Russia to hinder the process is an example of the domineering tendencies it has denounced in the West.

Yet another Russian argument against approving the Arab plan to remove Assad from office is that this might provoke a Syrian civil war. Are the Russians watching the same channel as the rest of us? Syria, precisely because of the homicidal policies of its leader, is heading inexorably toward civil war. The single way to derail such an outcome – and the opportunities are diminishing daily – is to make it apparent to Assad and his acolytes that there is Arab and international unanimity, Russia included, behind their departure.

Only a Security Council resolution affirming this will shake the will of the Alawite security elite bolstering Assad’s rule, forcing it to consider alternative options. Lavrov knows very well that one of the last threads sustaining the Syrian regime’s confidence is Russian assistance and Russian arms. That Moscow refuses to use that thread as leverage is not making it more relevant; it is guaranteeing that Russia will gradually become less relevant to a solution in Syria.

A more nuanced perspective is that Russia is using the Syrian card to negotiate with the West on other vital regional issues, for instance Iran, where Moscow opposes new sanctions and military action. That may be true, but if so it may not lead very far. For the West, sanctions preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons are a way of averting a military solution. No one, least of all the United States, wants a war with the Iranians. If Russia aspires to defend its conditions in Iran, it seems strange to do so at the expense of its welfare in Syria.

The philosophical argument may be the most persuasive. Russia inherently opposes bringing foreign leaders down, because it doesn’t want that principle to be used against its own leaders – above all Vladimir Putin, who is facing opposition in his renewed bid for the presidency. But even there you have to wonder. If Assad is all but destined to fall, isn’t Putin better off embracing the winning side, to better bolster his “democratic” bona fides at home?

It could be that we’re missing something much more obvious. Russia has a devouring need to affirm itself in a world where its power is dwindling. Flexibility means marginalization, in Russian eyes. Maybe, but inflexibility is frequently a surer ticket to the margins, and that’s a price the Gromyko generation is still paying.

A legal labyrinth of war one British author helps navigate

How does the United States balance its commitment to due process with the need to protect its citizens? American officials posed that question in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks against their country, and to this day it has not been adequately answered.

The British author William Shawcross has just published a book, Justice and the Enemy: From the Nuremberg Trials to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that examines the topic of justice in time of war. His book is a daring plunge into a debate that has become an emotional minefield. In so doing he has managed to reaffirm a consistent theme in his writings amid accusations that he is an ideological turncoat.

Shawcross is a valued friend, but that is irrelevant in recognising that his book will be indispensable to any discussion of Washington's struggle to devise a legal system to put terrorist suspects on trial. The solution found has been controversial, but more credible in terms of American judicial precedent than many realise.

One reason Shawcross was asked to write the book is that his father, Hartley Shawcross, was chief British prosecutor at the Nuremberg tribunal. The author defends the Nuremberg process, but also observes, "it is only in retrospect that it seems unimpeachable". The tribunal did not usher in a new legal order, but it did precede international steps outlawing crimes against humanity. In other words, legal systems are dynamic and improve over time, a theme essential to understanding Justice and the Enemy.

The view put forth by Shawcross is roughly this: The system of military commissions established by the Bush administration to deal with terrorism suspects, while not ideal, sought to protect suspects' rights, and just as much those of the victims. Military commissions are not new in America, and have been effectively legitimised by Supreme Court decisions.

The heart of the problem, Shawcross continues, is the legal status of prisoners taken by the United States after 9/11. He unpacks the arguments over whether these prisoners are entitled to protection as legal combatants under the Geneva Conventions. Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters don't qualify as prisoners of war under Common Article 3 of the conventions, but there is some question as to whether they do so under their later Protocol I. America never ratified the protocol, while most United Nations members did, a source of lasting friction between Washington and the international community.

Shawcross also discusses the difficulties faced by President Barack Obama, who famously vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within a year and place terrorism suspects before American civilian courts. The president was forced to backtrack when confronted with vigorous congressional opposition, partly because no one relished granting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, the broad rights afforded under American law - rights he could have exploited to turn the trial into a political platform against his accusers.

Ultimately, Shawcross writes, a German in the dock at Nuremberg "would be astonished to learn of the rights, privileges, and entitlements, if he were suddenly transferred by time machine to the court in Guantanamo." Mr Bush's military commissions worked on a presumption of innocence, while the standard of proof required "probative value to a reasonable person", with these conditions reinforced in 2009. Moreover, no German at Nuremberg would have had "highly paid" lawyers representing them from the country of prosecution, as the Guantanamo prisoners have had from the United States.

The prickliness of the latter assertion betrays Shawcross's deeper allegiances. He has made no bones of his sympathies for the US, and for Mr Bush in particular. This has earned Shawcross enemies, and will push some of those enemies to affirm, unjustifiably, that his book is an apologia of American policy. In fact, Shawcross is critical of the American treatment of prisoners at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and has doubts about Mr Obama's replacement of legal procedure with drone strikes.

Yet it's also true that Shawcross has shifted over time. His 1979 book Sideshow was a savage indictment of the Nixon administration's actions in Cambodia. His disapproval of the Carter administration and its shabby treatment of the Shah of Iran was no less perceptible in his 1988 book, The Shah's Last Ride. In 2000, he published Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict, where he defended the United Nations and international humanitarian intervention, while also underscoring its discontents.

When Shawcross endorsed Mr Bush and the 2003 war in Iraq, his friends on the left cried foul. He craved establishment approval, they howled, and felt they had won their case when he wrote an official biography of the Queen Mother. This seemed terribly thin against a man who had long chronicled crimes ensuing from the abuse of power - crimes he, reasonably, identified more readily in Saddam Hussein than in Mr Bush. Shawcross believes strongly that the US is the prime global defender of democracy. That may be his flaw, but it is a flaw validly embraced against a relativism holding that, on human rights and values, all nations are equal.

Here is where Justice an the Enemy is so useful. All nations are guilty of crimes, but all are not equal in how they make use of those crimes to ameliorate their behaviour institutionally. In a post-9/11 world, America has wrestled with its values in search of optimal legal outcomes. It has succeeded in some ways and failed in others. But credit Shawcross for striving to guide readers through a moral labyrinth out of which he makes no definite claims to know the path.