Sunday, August 12, 2012

Are the Christian parties over?

There was much gnashing of teeth after the government’s passage of a new electoral law based on proportional representation. March 14 viewed it as a case of gerrymandering, benefiting Hezbollah and playing against the Future Movement. The coalition, along with Walid Jumblatt’s bloc, will likely vote the proposal down in parliament.

But an interesting aspect of the debate over the law is how the Christian parties in March 14 reacted to it. Both the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb blamed the Aounists for having allegedly gone back on what was agreed at a conclave in Bkirki, when Christian leaders agreed to back small electoral districts on the grounds that this better allowed Christian voters to choose their representatives.

Their reaction was somewhat disingenuous. Sure, Michel Aoun had no intention of opposing Hezbollah on the election project, which subdivides Lebanon into 13 electoral districts. But both the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, and Amin and Sami Gemayel, who head the Kataeb Party, are not especially unhappy with the deadlock over a new law. Its failure to be approved would mean that the Lebanese will vote on the basis of the 1960 law that also governed elections in 2005 and 2009, with which they have few problems.

That said, both the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb are quietly aware of their limitations in the upcoming elections, even as they have put up a front of self-confidence. Geagea has been especially skillful at that game, exploiting his openings when he can and allowing those around him to predict a windfall for Lebanese Forces candidates next year. However, the certitude of widespread success seems less certain.

The Lebanese Forces should do well in the constituencies of the North. In Bcharre and Batroun the party has substantial support; in the Koura too, where it recently won a by-election with the backing of the Future Movement’s Farid Makari. In Tripoli, Geagea has his eye on the Maronite seat and believes that it should be taken away from the city, where few Maronites live, and re-attached to Batroun.

The real question mark for the Lebanese Forces is Mount Lebanon. In all the electoral districts there, the party has followers but is incapable of forming lists. And in many places it will be at a disadvantage if it faces lists that are endorsed by larger voting blocs.

For instance in Baabda, where the Lebanese Forces have a significant political base, Hezbollah can neutralize the party’s electorate thanks to a unified Shiite electorate and the ability to virtually expand the number of votes in its favor at will, illegally, thanks to its effective control over polling stations in the areas under its sway.

Much the same holds in Jbeil, where the Shiite vote is equally cohesive, and collectively makes up a very important share of the total number of voters. As for the Metn, the solid Armenian bloc has been the king-maker in recent years. The Armenians may ensure that Sami Gemayel goes through, but unless they break with Aoun, they will prevent the triumph of a full-fledged March 14 list.

Michel Aoun has lost ground in the Kesrouan, according to his own partisans, but that will probably little benefit the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb. The fact is that in the district, as in the Metn and other constituencies, those candidates who will probably benefit from Aoun’s misfortune will be more traditional politicians, from notable families, who have kept a distance from the stark political battle between March 14 and March 8 with the Aounists.

In the Shouf and Aley, Walid Jumblatt will, as usual, call the shots, picking and choosing Christian candidates in line with his political interests. That may involve opting for a Lebanese Forces member here and a Kataeb member there, but ultimately he will mainly go for established Christians who hail from the mountain, not party appointees, who guarantee that his lists remain balanced regionally.

In Zahle, where the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb hope to place candidates, the mood has never been particularly receptive to the two parties. Both have an electorate, but much will be determined by the strategy of Elie Skaff, still the major player in the town. Many in Zahle were unhappy with his alliance with Aoun, and now that he has abandoned the general, they are waiting to see how he will position himself. The Lebanese Forces and Kataeb will probably win a good number of Sunni votes, but in the end both parties will bend to political realities over which their control is limited.

The fact is that in most districts both the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb must rely on the goodwill of more powerful local political actors for victory, and even to place their candidates on lists. Recognizing this, Geagea is apparently calculating that Saad Hariri will open up seats for him on lists in areas where Future voters prevail. Yet Future officials affirm this will not be easy. Hariri is keen to show that his movement is confessionally broad-based, and he will not readily sacrifice his Christian parliamentarians just to please his Christian party allies, even if compromises are possible.

A prediction. The atmosphere in the coming elections may well undercut Aounist candidates, but the March 14 Christian political parties won’t gain from this. Those who will are candidates better attuned to local concerns and solidarities. There will be exceptions to the rule, since in some districts party candidates are also traditional leaders (take Sami Gemayel in the Metn), but by and large the March 14 label is not one that will excite Christian voters; on the contrary.

That may not be so bad. The Christian community is in need of more invigorating pluralism than we’ve had in the past seven years since the Syrians pulled out of Lebanon. The Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and the Aounists are entitled to representation, but it’s high time Christians started to wrench free from their exclusive hold.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Misjudging Iran's rationality is a recipe for more calamity

Amid signs that negotiations between the international community and Iran over the Iranian nuclear programme are going nowhere, the debate as to whether the Islamic Republic should actually be permitted to develop nuclear weapons has resurfaced.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, the American scholar Kenneth Waltz maintained that, far from destabilising the Middle East, an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would do precisely the contrary. Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region, not Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability, is what has fuelled instability, he writes, because power begs to be balanced. "What is surprising about the Israeli case is that it has taken so long for a potential balancer to emerge," Mr Waltz notes.

Many will disagree with Mr Waltz's assessment, and have long provided arguments disputing approaches such as his. And yet most of those opinions are unpersuasive, no matter how distasteful is the prospect of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons.

The first contention, and the one most often echoed by Israeli and American politicians, is that Iran's regime is fundamentally irrational. The premise is that mad mullahs rule in Tehran, and that their religious zeal may push them to press the button if it means that they can destroy Israel. Notions of deterrence, therefore, are irrelevant, because an eschatological ideology has taken over.

This line is useful in public statements, but if there is one thing that Israelis and Americans have learnt over the years, it is that Iran's leaders are eminently rational in the pursuit of their interests, and in the protection of their authority. A nuclear attack on Israel would be matched by more severe Israeli, and probably American, nuclear retaliation against Iran.

Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would be killed in a first strike against Israel. No Iranian leader will sign off on such a scheme, religion or no religion.

Iran has also shown exceptional rationality in working through proxies and in building up alliances far and wide to compensate for its shortcomings internationally. The Islamic Republic has, of course, transformed Lebanon's Hizbollah into a powerful military force on Israel's border; it has bolstered Muqtada Al Sadr in Iraq, and even rival groups to his; and it has extended its reach to Latin America and Africa. These patient endeavours are hardly those of a rabid regime hell bent on provoking Armageddon in the Middle East.

A second argument is that, while Iran may not deploy nuclear weapons against Israeli directly, it might encourage proxies or terrorist groups to do so. But as Mr Waltz writes, two things work against this: it would be easy to discover Iranian responsibility, and countries that develop nuclear weapons generally retain tight control over their arsenals. "After all, building a bomb is costly and dangerous. It would make little sense to transfer the product of that investment to parties that cannot be trusted or managed," he believes.

Iran's intention to closely monitor its weapons was plain during the Lebanon war of 2006, when the Iranians apparently gave final approval for use of, or even operated, Hizbollah's most advanced systems. But that begs another question, namely whether an entirely trusted Hizbollah might receive nuclear weapons from Iran.

Such an alternative cannot be discounted, but it is improbable. First, Israel would not hesitate to engage in a ferocious pre-emptive strike against Lebanon, perhaps even initiating a ground war to prevent such an outcome. And Lebanese society, with many Shia among them, recognising the potentially disastrous consequences of a nuclear-armed Hizbollah, would angrily challenge the party, undermining the national unity required to give a nuclear deterrent its value.

A third basis for opposing a nuclear Iran is that under a nuclear cover it would become more aggressive throughout the region. That's possible, but it's not clear that there is a correlation between aggressiveness and nuclear weapons. Without such weapons, Iran has already been exceptionally assertive in the region in the past years.

But would it be more so with a bomb? Mr Waltz believes that history shows otherwise. "[W]hen countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable and become acutely aware that their nuclear weapons make them a potential target in the eyes of major powers."

The merits of the discussion are imposed by the stark reality that Iran, if it does indeed pursue nuclear weapons, will not be dissuaded from doing so whatever the political and economic pressures, assuming there is no change of regime. Nor will a military attack, Israeli or American, necessarily halt Iran's nuclear programme, even if it delays it for a time.

On the other hand, the cost of bombing Iran would be exceptionally high in the region and beyond, dividing the international community more than it already is.

Strangely, the United States has not factored Syria into its approach to the Iranian nuclear question. The Iranians will lose a great deal if the regime of President Bashar Al Assad falls. Yet few officials in Washington have asked whether an Iran minus its Syrian partner - with Hizbollah therefore isolated in an increasingly hostile environment and wary of waging war - would still constitute a major threat in the Levant, with or without nuclear weapons. In other words the situation in Syria may prove as decisive, if not more so, in defining Iranian influence than whether it has weapons it can never use.

Iran has done enough to worry its neighbours. However, careful and multifaceted political containment is the best way to oppose Tehran, not a military onslaught that will unite Iranians, strengthen their leaders, spawn great and small wars, and ultimately alter little. An Iran with the bomb is thoroughly undesirable, but it is not the existential calamity it has been made out to be.

Do the Assads fear Alawite anger?

One of the mysterious subtexts of the current uprising in Syria is how the Alawite community will react once they fully realize that President Bashar Assad and his family have led them to disaster.

Under the minority leadership that predated the takeover of power by Hafez Assad in 1970, but especially under the late president, Alawites came to play an assertive role in Syrian life. Many departed from their northwestern areas of origin for other parts of the country, including Damascus. The poverty and ruthlessness of Assad rule notwithstanding, the story of the Alawites was one of social promotion and achievement, even if many in the community did not benefit from the returns enjoyed by their military-political elite.

Today, the prospect of their having to abandon many of the districts to which they had migrated and retreat to an Alawite mini-state is anathema. If, figuratively, Hafez was one of those who guided the community down off their mountain, Bashar threatens to push them back up, and that is something no Alawite can readily stomach.

Much discussed in the last year has been the notion that once the Alawite-dominated regime realizes it can no longer prevail in the Syrian conflict, Alawites will fall back on their communal heartland and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous. Several massacres of Sunni villagers in the plains between the Alawite mountains and the highway from Homs to Aleppo have appeared to be cases of ethnic cleansing in the event a communal statelet is established. There are also those who interpreted the regime’s focus on recapturing Homs, especially the Baba Amr neighborhood, as an effort to secure the geographical hinge of an Alawite entity, and link it up with the Shiite-majority Baalbek-Hermel district in Lebanon.

That scenario may ultimately play out, but it poses serious political and military problems for the Assads. It is conceivable that Iran and Russia might react to it by supporting the Alawites, or doing so for a time to retain leverage over a new government in Damascus. This could be decisive (or it may not be) in containing the Alawites’ disintegration and ensuring that they regroup in an orderly way.

But an Alawite statelet would also signal the breakup of Syria, with Alawites going one way, Kurds the other, and a weak central government prevailing in Damascus, led by the fragmented, perhaps by then conceivably antagonistic leaders of the Free Syrian Army. While this disarray could provide the Iranians and Russians with footholds in a post-Assad order, the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region would not only alarm Turkey and Iraq, it might also give dangerous ideas to Iran’s Kurds. The fact is that no one in Syria’s neighborhood has an interest in seeing the country fall apart.

Something more worrisome must also be considered. There are large numbers of Sunnis living along the coast, and an Alawite statelet would have to forcibly expel them to properly protect itself. This would represent a crime of indescribable proportions, tainting all those aligned with the Alawites. And if that were to occur, how would a rump, communally unmixed Alawite entity survive economically, even socially? The imperatives of self-preservation, buttressed by paranoia, could destroy everything invigorating in Syria’s northwest.

The Assads will continue to be masters of the Alawites for as long as they remain in Damascus. However, once they flee the capital their ability to govern their community will very likely fray severely, or even collapse. The contract between Alawites and the Assads is not one bound by devotion; it is defined by interests, minority solidarity, and frequent Assad intimidation, even assassination.

If Bashar were to abandon Damascus and move to the Alawite area, all bets would be off. Having brought only ruin to their community, the Assads could expect a harsh backlash. And if they use military power to silence their coreligionists, we could begin seeing a crucial split within the Alawite community that might, ultimately, spell the end of an Alawite state project. What better way for the uneasy Alawites to preserve their stake in a future Syria, than to turn on the family and its acolytes who brought them to the abyss?

That may be one reason why Bashar has been so resilient in combating the revolutionaries, amid persistent signs that he will never be able to reassert his authority over the whole of Syria. Deep down, he may sense that an Alawite statelet is not one that would long last, and even less his leadership over such a creation. Bashar needs to prop up the eroding façade of a Syrian state in order to avoid an alternative that is almost certain to consume him.

Which begs the question: Given that the regime’s praetorian units are still in Damascus, at what stage, if an exodus toward the Alawite mountains becomes imperative, do the Assads sound the retreat? Do the elite units fight on in the capital indefinitely, weakening them for the future, or do they decide at some point that the priority must be to defend their communal redoubt? This imposes delicate choices. Too sudden a withdrawal from the capital could provoke a rout for the Assads; too late a withdrawal could mean their forces get bogged down in a debilitating struggle that undermines the fallback plan.

The carving out of an Alawite statelet is a sincere probability, but the obstacles hindering the success of such a mission are immense. The Assads are trapped. By pursuing their repression from Damascus, they are unable to concentrate their forces; by implementing an Alawite-first scheme, they could sign their own death warrant. Sooner rather than later they will have to decide which is their priority.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Recovering from the Asma attack

Remember that disgraceful moment when Vogue published a sycophantic portrait of Asma al-Assad in early 2011, just before her husband began murdering his own people? Now the author, Joan Juliet Buck, has penned a piece for Newsweek explaining she wrote it. The title is not promising: “Mrs. Assad Duped Me.”

The broad outlines of the story are well known. The Assads hired a public relations firm, Brown Lloyd James, that organized Buck’s trip to Syria. There, she was accompanied by two company employees, one of them Sheherazad Jaafari, the daughter of Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations. Jaafari also helped set up Barbara Walters’ interview earlier this year with Bashar al-Assad, and apparently maintained ardent epistolary contact with the Syrian president.

When the article appeared in February 2011, it provoked nausea. Titled “A Rose in the Desert,” it was, essentially, a puff piece on the wife of a dictator. The Syrian uprising began shortly thereafter, and Vogue showed that it had even less courage than integrity by taking the article off its website. Yet unlike prisoners in Syria’s gulags, articles are not easily made to disappear. As Max Fischer of The Atlantic observed last year, the article survives online because it continues to be posted on the official site of the Syrian president.

Buck’s account is rather odd. The top part of her article is an effort to make it clear that she was no dupe for the Assads’ charms. She knew “the country’s more recent past was grim, violent, and secretive.” As she put it, “Under Bashar al-Assad, Syria was still oppressed, but the silence and fear were such that little of the oppression showed, apart from vast numbers of secret police, called Mukhabarat.”

Buck recounts the details of her visit to Syria and of being taken into the intimacy of the Assad family—even watching Bashar helping in the preparation of fondue. She tells us that her computer was tampered with in her hotel room, obviously by Syria’s security services. And she describes how Jaafari expressed displeasure when Buck chatted with the French ambassador in a hotel bar, after he had had taken the battery out of his cell phone and hers to prevent eavesdropping.

But then Buck does an abysmal job of explaining why someone well versed in the crimes of Assad’s rule could have written such a flattering article anyway, at the behest of a PR company no less. In fact she doesn’t really try. The article is inferior revisionism, an effort to recast her Syria trip and her own allegedly negative reactions to it, in the light of subsequent events, while placing the blame on Asma al-Assad for putting up a phony façade of compassion. “How could she stand by and do nothing while the Syrian regime ate its young?” Buck asks.

Yet Buck is just as hypocritical. There is much to say about Syria’s first lady, little of it generous, but Asma al-Assad basically fulfilled her end of the seedy bargain between Syria’s presidential family, a public relations firm, and a magazine—the tacit aim being to make the head of the Syrian criminal enterprise more presentable internationally. The moment Buck agreed to do the story, she knew very well what the end result would be. She had not been contracted to report on the barbarous history of the Palmyra prison, after all.

That Buck now wants to back out is reasonable. She is writing a memoir, and the Asma al-Assad profile did her career no good. But Buck’s story cannot erase the dodgy ethics in which she engaged. It may be par for the course for PR firms to drive glossy magazines in the direction of their clients, and it’s easy to say that the article on Asma was not political. But anything and everything written about the Assads, by touching on their power and reputation, is political.

Buck is more culpable than Barbara Walters, who, while she ingratiated herself with the Syrians to land an interview with Bashar al-Assad, also asked the president tough questions when given the opportunity. Buck wasn’t in Syria to ask tough questions and didn’t try doing so. Now, a year and a half later, she has decided to wipe her slate clean, yet offers up a contradiction of sorts: She knew how bad the Assads were before embarking on her project but was fooled by Syria’s first lady. Which one is it? Did Buck know, or did Asma al-Assad pull the wool over her eyes? She cannot have it both ways.

Let’s face it, for years the media gave Bashar al-Assad a free ride. Though he oversaw a repressive order and was strongly suspected of approving the assassination in February 2005 of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, the president was never held accountable. When Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama decided to normalize relations with Syria in the latter half of the last decade, there were plenty of influential people in the West, with access to powerful media outlets, supportive of this, wanting to believe in the sincerity of the onetime student of ophthalmology in London.

Meanwhile, those of us in Lebanon, and even more so those lonely voices in the Syrian opposition, who had first-hand knowledge of the Assad regime’s unrelenting awfulness were mostly ignored. Only when Bashar started slaughtering thousands of Syrian citizens did people wake up and realize that he was a killer, and a rather good one.

Buck is one of those latecomers, and her embarrassment is multiplied by the fact that she participated in a concerted effort to legitimize the killer. Her article is not a sincere expression of regret; it’s a calculated attempt to reinvent herself. Had Assad not faced a popular uprising, Buck would not have written a single word on her Syrian experience. That she is doing so now, after all the carnage, insults our intelligence.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Syria's conflict spills over into Lebanon's muddled politics

It seems that nothing can go right in Lebanon these days. The government has been hopelessly incompetent, state services, above all electricity generation, are collapsing, and the war in Syria daily seems to be spilling over into Lebanese territory.

The Syrian situation has been particularly alarming to outside countries, who fear that Lebanon may go the same way as its neighbour. While Lebanese vulnerabilities are many and the society is indeed divided, this has been par for the course in recent years. In an odd way, Lebanon is so used to being dysfunctional that it is better adapted for weathering ambient storms than others.

At the same time, the Syrian conflict, combined with myriad headaches at home, is pushing the political balance in Lebanon in new directions. This could have a destabilising effect in the future.

The government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been a disaster. That is saying something since its predecessors were hardly models of success. When Mr Mikati formed a governing team last year, he did so with parties and politicians expected to work well together - a government of "one colour" it was called.

Hizbollah was the dominant force, though it held a tiny number of portfolios. A second Shia party, Amal, was also represented, led by Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker. Hizbollah's principal Christian ally, Michel Aoun, took over the largest single share of ministries, a third of the total. This trio was the core of the government, its political vanguard against the March 14-led opposition.

Mr Mikati's ministers, along with those named by the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, and the president, Michel Suleiman, held veto power over government decisions. However, on their own the three were too weak to initiate major policy.

This edifice immediately began breaking down, principally because of Mr Aoun's devouring political appetites. He continues to harbour ambitions of becoming president, and saw an opening to marginalise his rival, Mr Suleiman. He also sought to appoint Aoun loyalists to the civil service, to expand his power and pave the way for his own election in 2013.

Mr Suleiman resisted, bringing the appointment process to a halt. Mr Aoun also engaged in bruising fights with Mr Berri. Frustrated by the inability to advance his agenda, Mr Aoun has also hit out against Mr Mikati and Mr Jumblatt, further poisoning the atmosphere in the cabinet.

Hizbollah has tried to calm the game, but to no avail. The party's priority is to maintain the government in place so it can organise parliamentary elections next year, which Hizbollah intends to win. Party officials feel that once President Bashar Al Assad falls in Syria, they will have to control the commanding heights of the Lebanese state to protect their weapons and autonomy. While this has kept Mr Mikati's government in place, the government has become a liability for Hizbollah. No one, including the party's Shia base, has a good thing to say about how things are being run.

The fighting in Syria has further eroded the government's reputation. Every few days, Syrian troops attack mainly Sunni areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border, frequently causing loss of life among Lebanese citizens. March 14 has demanded that the government order the army to protect Lebanese territory. The problem is that the Free Syrian Army has used the loosely controlled Lebanese side of the frontier as a rear base for its combatants.

The state has found itself in the middle, damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. If the army closes off Lebanese border districts to the Free Syrian Army, it will be accused by March 14 of doing the bidding of the Syrian regime. But by failing to do so, it leaves a vacuum that makes Syrian incursions likely. This situation could worsen as the Assads lose more ground.

The arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees has been equally problematic. While middle class Syrians who recently fled Damascus and Aleppo have injected some money into the Lebanese economy by moving into hotels and apartments in floundering mountain resorts, that is bound to be of limited duration. It is the much larger number of poor refugees who must be dealt with effectively, and are not.

The Mikati government has taken no special measures to care for refugees, who are benefiting principally from private aid initiatives, and no camps have been built to house them. The implications are potentially serious. Assisting refugees is also a way of controlling their actions. Refugee communities are a burden on local social networks, but can also become volatile politically. Youths among refugee populations are most apt to be mobilised, creating difficulties for host countries.

Many of the refugees have sought sanctuary in Sunni areas hostile to Hizbollah and the Mikati government. This, with the fact that Lebanon's Sunnis feel new empowerment as the hated Assad regime disintegrates, will have to be watched closely. Sunni confidence mixed in with a growing sense of anxiety among Shiites that they will lose out if Mr Al Assad is ousted is worrisome, particularly as Hizbollah is very well armed. The possibility of conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, averted until now, is never far enough away.

The chances still are that Lebanon will stumble through what remains of a scorching summer without a major outbreak of violence. But the underbrush of Lebanese society is too dry to be particularly reassuring. The risk of new fires in the years ahead is real.

Gore Vidal’s certain idea of America

My first encounter with Gore Vidal was in 1988, when he spoke to the annual convention of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in a most un-Vidalian setting, an off-the-shelf hotel in Crystal City, Virginia. The topic was the American national security state, and Vidal, of course, delivered a talk dripping with sarcasm.

At the time I wasn’t particularly taken by what he said. His attack against monotheism was perfectly sound, though it must have confused quite a few people in the audience, who had just been through that peculiarly American ritual of a religious invocation over breakfast. Vidal’s criticism of Israel was equally understandable, given his public, although it was also unfocused and not terribly well-informed, unsurprising for a man never really drawn to the affairs of the Middle East. More questionable was his blithe dismissal of the American empire, his view that it was about to collapse through bankruptcy, and that once it did all would be better for Americans.

Still, Vidal’s death on Tuesday at the age of 86 reminded me of the permutations in my own modest thinking on American power, and how influential the author was later on in shaping these views. I share the late Christopher Hitchens’ view that, toward the end, Vidal mostly wrote drivel. His approach to 9/11, Hitchens believed, because it was so driven by conspiracy theories, had “accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant.” But even then, Vidal’s second volume of memoirs, “Point to Point Navigation,” published in 2006, had a surprising melancholy quality to it and a sense of lucid finality, almost brutal, as Vidal closed many of the doors on his life.

In retrospect, and the crackpot strain notwithstanding, Vidal was ultimately correct about the perverse nature of American power. It could lead to laudable actions, such as the removal from office of a mass murderer like Saddam Hussein, in the face of protests from an international community that never worked up nearly the same outrage when the Iraqi leader slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. However, more troubling is how the blunt instruments of the American state, as well as of myriad American private institutions, have acquired tremendous authority over the individual, both at home and abroad, repeatedly violating America’s constitutional principles such as due process, the right to privacy, and countless other freedoms.

Vidal often liked to say that he had not a sentimental bone in his body. “There is no warm, loving person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” Many of his essays belie that view, and one could not possibly understand his articles and novels on the United States without first acknowledging his longing (surely the anteroom to sentiment) for the ideals of the early American republic. These were, as Vidal saw them, anti-imperialism, a respect for liberty, a reluctance to be drawn into the complications of the world, above all through the use of military power, and an odd acceptance of a specific type of patrician elitism, even if Vidal, never devoid of contradiction, liked to present himself as the enemy of an American establishment that sustained empire.

Though dismissed as an “America hater” by his detractors, Vidal was a blend of radicalism and conservatism. He regarded the first as inherent in the second – the preservation of American values requiring the constant challenging of a present undermining what was most admirable in the past. Yet Vidal was not naive about the Founding Fathers. His novel “Burr,” the first in his Narratives of a Golden Age, addressed the intrigues of America’s first decades after Independence. Not coincidentally, its main character was the man who shot Alexander Hamilton, whose vision of a centralized and expansionist America first echoed national impulses so distasteful to Vidal.

There was something else profoundly old-fashioned in the man, namely an appetite for history. Yes, he could publish what passed for serious fiction, Vidal once observed, by describing the “common experience,” something as “boring as one’s friend Brian, who wants to tell us just how and why he left Doris shortly after the exchange student Sonia signed on for his Barth Barthelme Burke and Hare course at East Anglia.” But history, Vidal believed, was the only form of narrative with universal appeal, and his writings were all, in some manner, historical. “There are few texts without context,” he wrote.

That is perhaps why Vidal’s essays sparkled, and why his novels sometimes suffered for being veiled essays. The good essayist has to make a point clearly, usually from the top, illustrate that point in invigorating ways, and, even where there is ambiguity, not allow the ambiguity to overwhelm the argument. These seemingly stark rules aside, Vidal wrote unforgettably about cosmopolitans who were anything but black or white. His essays on Italian novelist Italo Calvino are superb (in the one on Calvino’s burial, the cold water has turned distinctly warm), and few writers were as careful readers as Vidal was of Updike, Montaigne, Henry James or Sciascia.

Vidal had a quality, humor, sorely missing these days among American public intellectuals, for whom earnestness and lawyerly caution has become the norm. His articles, choosing randomly, on the Kennedys, Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, can be simply hilarious, brilliantly so, and deliciously cutting. Vidal’s view that Roosevelt’s affinity for violence was the consequence of an irresistible drive to transcend his inherent “sissiness” is difficult to ignore, and quite subtly tells us something about more brutal leaders far and wide, not least the current president of Syria.

It’s a shame that advanced age had transformed Vidal’s wit into a repulsive lump of vitriol. This isolated him, and his credibility was little enhanced as he became, quite willingly, a guru to those far less sophisticated than he, gathering up any morsel of condemnation of America falling from his lips. And yet Vidal loved a certain idea of America, not that of noisy patriotism and suffocating surveillance, but of the sovereign individual, free and left to his own business. Whether one agreed with him or not, there is no doubt that the country Vidal knew so well is drifting away from where history should have taken it.