Friday, March 29, 2013

Greta Garbo and the drones

“I want to be let alone,” said Greta Garbo, speaking for all of us who oppose government intervention in our private affairs. This impulse has had implications for a matter affecting the wider Middle East, namely the excessive reliance by the United States on unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to find and kill its enemies. 

The Obama administration has used drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, and for many observers this has become a troubling substitute for diplomacy and political commitment. Recently, details of the drone war came to light during the approval process for the new CIA director, John Brennan. And what it showed was that Americans are uneasy with a method of warfare mandating systematic assassination without judicial oversight.

Yet America officials would reject this characterization. After 9/11, the United States declared a “war on terror,” and drone attacks were placed squarely within this context. Because America was engaged in a war, explained Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, this “meant that members of al-Qaida would be treated as belligerents. U.S. forces could shoot them on sight, just as they could drop bombs on German military formations during World War II.”

However, the discussion took a sharp turn in September 2011, when the United States used a drone to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen who had joined Al-Qaeda, followed two weeks later by his 16-year-old son, who was born in Denver. A memorandum prepared by the Justice Department set guidelines for drone strikes against Americans. The fact that an “informed high-level” U.S. official alone could order a hit alarmed many people, since it denied potential targets the constitutional protections of due process.

The three conditions imposed were that such an official had to believe an individual posed an imminent threat of violent attack; that capture was unfeasible; and that the operation complied with the laws of war.

Senator Rand Paul, who represents the libertarian side of the Republican Party, announced that he would filibuster approval of Brennan for the CIA post, after he had received a letter from the attorney general Eric Holder, that did not rule out the use of drone strikes within the United States under “extraordinary circumstances,” such as the September 11, 2001, attacks. For Paul, this represented a flagrant violation of due process and his filibuster, though symbolic, garnered enough attention to cast a pall over the drone program.

However, it could be issues of privacy that end up shaping the views of many Americans on drone use. That is because law enforcement in the United States has started using drones to patrol neighborhoods from the sky. Not surprisingly, quite a few people are disturbed with being under the perpetual eye of the police. Drones produce video images and heat maps, and most individuals do not want to the cops to keep tabs on them in the sanctity of their own property.

The link between an assassination weapon deployed overseas and domestic privacy in the United States is not immediately evident. And yet both have been conflated thanks to the ubiquitous expansion of American state power during the so-called “war on terror.” In their book Top Secret America, Dana Priest and William Arkin describe the metastatic expansion of intelligence bodies and programs following the 9/11 attacks, which created so vast a labyrinth of overlapping efforts that no one has a clear grasp of the whole picture.

Constitutional principles have historically been undermined by the recourse to national security arguments. This permissiveness has spread throughout the federal and state levels. When law enforcement employs drones, it’s not to fight terrorists. Rather, it is a direct replication of the federal government’s ignoring the right to privacy when this clashes with the security priorities of the state.

Everywhere red lines are being routinely crossed on privacy, often affecting domains that have nothing to do with American security concerns. Indeed, in one case, the imposition of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, the safety of Americans could be compromised, as America obliges foreign financial institutions to spy on their American clients’ financial affairs for American tax purposes.

And yet there does remain a profound mistrust of government abuse within the United States. As Gene Healy, the vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, has written for the Reason website, citing law professor Ryan Calo, the “dystopian images that drones evoke could spur much-needed reforms to American privacy law.” If so, that would be welcome, because the most fundamental barrier to the totalitarian state is the right to privacy, the freedom to keep the dimensions of one’s life outside the realm of state scrutiny.

America’s tendency to overreach in the name of national security has also raised questions about the sovereignty of other states. Drones may be efficient, but as William Astore has pointed out, as weapons they are neither cheap, nor surgical, nor decisive. The reality is that innocent people are frequently killed in drone attacks, and most of the time they happen to be the citizens of foreign countries.

Should we be surprised? If individual privacy as an extension of personal freedom is something that Americans have to fight for these days, then how much worse it must be for those who do not benefit from American constitutional protections.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Is Najib Mikati preparing a comeback?

 Having endured the ministers named by Michel Aoun for two years, Prime Minister Najib Mikati deserves our admiration. And yet his decision last week to resign has set Lebanon on a dangerous path, despite calls for a resumption of the dialogue sessions.

Particularly worrisome is that the country has a tight timetable to name a government. If elections are postponed, then parliament’s term will have to be extended. For this to occur, any constitutional amendment must go through the government, which at present functions only in a caretaker capacity. That means that if there is no government by June when elections are scheduled to begin, Lebanon could find itself without a government and parliament.

Yet it’s also true that constitutional constraints have never prevented political compromises from being reached. So was Mikati’s resignation a scheme to return to power in a stronger incarnation? The prime minister assumed that he would be politically finished in his community if he didn’t fight to keep at his post the director-general of the Internal Security Forces, Ashraf Rifi, like him a Sunni from Tripoli, and a popular one at that. The principal target of Mikati’s exasperation was Aoun, whose ministers have been consistent thorns in Mikati’s side during his premiership.

Lebanese leaders are now examining the advantages in resuming the National Dialogue sessions. Their stated ambition is to discuss an election law and the formation of a new government. But even though dialogue must resume, the fact is that the focus on a new government leaves considerably less room to negotiate a new election law.

Nor is there any agreement over the role the next government must play. If the priority is elections, then the government would serve in an interim capacity to organize elections until a new team takes over once the voting ends. On the other hand if a compromise over elections is viewed as unlikely, then expect a stronger government of national unity, which would serve for a longer period of time and whose primary duty would be to address domestic discord until agreement is reached over an election law acceptable to all.

In an interview with this newspaper, Mikati said he would only agree to head the latter type of government. He explained this by saying “I have political ambitions, I am not going to lie to you.” In other words, Mikati is implicitly recognizing that it may be best to hold off on elections for now, while concentrating on establishing a government of national unity under his leadership, or as he put it in his resignation statement, a government of national salvation.

Mikati appears to be correctly reading the political landscape. There are simply not that many other Sunnis who can lead a government today. But it’s also true that whomever the Future bloc endorses, will probably be tasked with forming a government. The reason is simple: March 14 will go along with the choice, and Walid Jumblatt, who can swing the majority to March 14 will not seek a new rift with Saad Hariri and a majority of Sunnis by choosing someone else.

Among the few names circulating is that of Adnan Kassar. He was economy minister in Omar Karami’s government of 2004 and a minister without portfolio in Saad Hariri’s government of 2009. He is best know as the president of Fransabank.

Kassar may be the right man to lead a temporary government that would organize elections, but he would not work as prime minister of a more substantial national unity government if elections are delayed. Kassar is perceived as a technocrat, not someone with the political clout allowing him to wrestle with the likes of Aoun and Hezbollah and generate confidence in political stability. Nor would the Sunnis, eager for a stronger leader, consider him the best choice.

In the absence of Saad Hariri, who says that his personal security prevents him from returning to Lebanon, Future may opt for someone from its ranks, such as Bahia Hariri or Fouad Siniora. Hariri, given her political path, would be an interesting choice, and it is one that might calm Sunni-Shiite tensions in Sidon, a front line in contact between the two communities. Siniora, on the other hand, would be regarded by Hezbollah as a confrontation candidate, since the party remembers with great bitterness its relationship with him when he was prime minister during the 2006 war and afterward.

As for Mohammad Safadi, the finance minister, it is difficult to envisage that March 14 or Jumblatt would select him. That leaves few other viable options among the Sunnis. Mikati, understanding this, perhaps planned his resignation as a step on the way to forming a more harmonious government he would lead. Given his willingness to confront Hezbollah and Aoun, he could be more palatable to March 14, which this time might well join a national unity government.

One scenario is currently making the rounds. A petition signed by 69 parliamentarians has been presented to the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, to hold a parliamentary session to vote on raising the retirement age of security chiefs. This would resolve the Rifi problem, and allow the extension of the mandate of the Army commander, Jean Kahwagi, who is also set to retire soon. In exchange, the 1960 law would be formally scrapped and a consensus would emerge around Mikati to lead a new government, this time with March 14 backing.

There is something here for everybody. But can this arrangement work? If it does, Mikati’s gamble would have been a success, a convenient way to break free from the Aounist albatross around his neck. But we can kiss goodbye to elections for the time being. All those demanding that they take place on time should read the signs. There will probably be no voting in Lebanon this coming June.

Lebanon didn't love Mikati but is weaker without him

The resignation last week of Lebanon's prime minister, Najib Mikati, provoked contradictory feelings. It generated anxiety at the prospect that Lebanon may be entering into a prolonged period of vacuum, but it also removed a government that was a source of considerable national discord, paving the way for a new round of national dialogue sessions as Lebanese parties try to prevent a breakdown of civil peace.

The immediate impetus for Mr Mikati to step down was disagreement within the government over two important items: the formation of a commission to oversee parliamentary elections this summer, and the extension of the mandate of Ashraf Rifi, the head of the Internal Security Forces, who is supposed to retire on April 1.

Mr Mikati has often been undermined from within his government, and disagreement over the election commission was a case in point. Hizbollah ministers and those named by the Christian politician Michel Aoun opposed formation of the commission, arguing that this would facilitate elections based on the so-called 1960 law, which they reject. The law is likely to lead to a victory by the March 14 coalition and candidates backed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

This in turn would prevent Hizbollah from implementing its strategy in the event of Bashar Al Assad's ejection from power in Syria. The party seeks a parliamentary majority, with its allies, which would allow it to name a prime minister and a speaker of parliament.

This majority could also elect a new president in 2014, giving Hizbollah control over the top three political posts in the state, facilitating efforts to protect the party's weapons in a post-Assad phase.

That is why Lebanon has been so divided over which election law is to apply next summer. Worse, the absence of an agreement, and Mr Mikati's resignation, make it likely that elections will be postponed. The vote on the election commission was a way for Mr Mikati and the president, Michel Suleiman, to build up momentum for elections to be held on time and on the basis of the 1960 law, if no alternative is found.

The Rifi affair was more personal for Mr Mikati. Like the prime minister, Mr Rifi is a Sunni from the city of Tripoli. He is also close to March 14, and his departure was regarded by the opposition coalition as Hizbollah's way of gaining control of the Internal Security Forces, and therefore effectively all Lebanese security agencies. Mr Mikati insisted that Mr Rifi's term be extended, to avoid a backlash from the largely pro-March 14 Sunni electorate in his city, where Mr Rifi is popular.

Faced with the prospect of humiliating failure on these fronts, Mr Mikati decided to step down. Mr Suleiman must now hold parliamentary consultations to find a new prime minister. The different blocs now must name a favourite and the president tallies the results, asking the individual with the most votes to form a government.

However, a question that must be answered first is what role the next government will play, since this will determine whom the parties name. If the government's primary role is simply to organise elections, then it would be easier for a politically unaligned prime minister to take over for a limited period at the head of a neutral government.

On the other hand, if elections are to be delayed, a political heavyweight is more likely as prime minister, to lead a government that includes all major parties.

Without consensus on the government's role, the formation process will be arduous and could take a long time. It could also lead to a constitutional dilemma. If there are to be no elections, parliament's mandate must be extended. But this can be done only through a request formulated by the government. Yet Mr Mikati's government cannot do so in its current caretaker capacity. So unless a new government can be formed by June, when the first round of elections are scheduled to be held, Lebanon could be without a functioning parliament.

Mr Jumblatt's role will be essential in the coming weeks. The Druze leader left the March 14 coalition in August 2009 and was instrumental in toppling Saad Hariri in 2011. His bloc can hand the parliamentary majority to either March 14 or the March 8 coalition led by Hizbollah.

This has given Mr Jumblatt a vital balancing role in the past two years. Yet he has also been a staunch backer of the uprising against Mr Al Assad's regime, which has pushed him closer to March 14, even if he prefers to remain independent .

Mr Jumblatt will probably follow the lead set by Mr Hariri's bloc, which enjoys Sunni backing. Whomever they name as their preferred prime minister, he will too.

If so, that means that March 14 and Mr Jumblatt will have a majority, and that their candidate will try to form a government. This would be a setback for Hizbollah and Mr Aoun, but they would almost certainly join the government, in order not to be marginalised, if or when Mr Al Assad is forced from office in Syria.

In an effort to paper over Lebanon's domestic divisions, many people are today calling for the resumption of national dialogue. The conflict in Syria has heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon, and the political class is eager to calm the mood. The fall of the government means March 14 is now willing to participate in the dialogue. And all want to avoid the prospect of a new civil war as a consequence of the war in Syria.

And yet no one should expect the rapid formation of a new Lebanese government.

Dialogue is useful but it will not change the fundamental political calculations, often perceived as existential in nature, on all sides. Mr Mikati's government was often a calamity, but what lies ahead may well be further inter-Lebanese discord.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The truth Obama should have told the people of Israel

Barack Obama's visit to Israel this week is an effort to mend fences after four years of relatively strained ties. "Peace must come to the Holy Land," the US president said, but he was no more specific than that.

No wonder: a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is very unlikely at present. The real question is whether they are even a priority today, given the uprisings throughout the Middle East.

For decades, the fate of the Palestinians was at the centre of Arab concerns, a yardstick for regimes in the region. Arab leaders were judged by how effectively they defended Palestinian rights. However, with the outbreak of the Arab revolts in 2011, suddenly it was domestic concerns that preoccupied Arab populations. Societies turned against their rulers, therefore against states themselves, which had become vast enterprises of repression offering no path to improvement.

But if repression and a lack of progress characterised the Arab state for so long, what does this say about Israel? For its Jewish citizens, Israel has been democratic and its economy has developed in ways comparable to that of the industrialised countries. And yet Israel still controls, directly or indirectly, the destiny of large numbers of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. For decades, Israel has systematically undermined their aspirations for a state.

In this regard Israel is as dysfunctional as its Arab counterparts. Some 2.6 million Palestinians live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, while another 1.7 million live in Gaza. Israel's policy has been to isolate these areas from Jewish population centres, even as it has built settlements and integrated portions of the territories into Israel proper, while permitting limited self-rule by Palestinians elsewhere. From an Israeli perspective this policy has been successful.

But what lies ahead? If the Israeli aim, or at least that of the present government, is to further incorporate the West Bank and East Jerusalem into Israel, the demographics may prove insurmountable. The Israelis should look at the example of surrounding countries. No population can see its legitimate ambitions indefinitely ignored and its protests silenced. At some point, even in the inert Arab world, something has to give.

This is the message Mr Obama should have delivered to the Israelis - and publicly. Israel has never been immune to violence, even if its capacity to protect itself is high. Arab regimes, from Egypt to Syria, from Libya to Tunisia, were champions of tyranny, their security institutions designed to ensure that power remained in the hands of the leader. Israel, given its image in the world, has less latitude than Arab dictatorships to resort to the wanton suppression of Palestinians who may revolt again to secure their national rights.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the Israelis were, early on, among those most worried about the so-called Arab Spring. Arab dictators brought predictability; free elections do not. Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan were concluded with autocrats who made sure they would be preserved. Israel also had a de facto non-aggression pact with Syria's leadership, making the occupied Golan Heights among the most peaceful boundaries in the region.

The dictators also let Israel draw attention away from the Palestinians. After all, if the Arab states were readily abusing their populations, Israel could portray itself as a democratic exception - which it is, for its citizens. At the same time, the Palestinians could be depicted as by-products of dictatorial Arab orders, allowing the Israelis to argue that by surrendering land, they would only help create a new outrage to democracy.

Finally, Arab dictators often permitted Israel to hold off ceding occupied land. Which country would push the Israelis hard when their negotiating partner was an autocrat who, to ensure his own political survival, refused to move too far for peace? Syria's Hafez Al Assad is an example. He made military concessions to regain the Golan, but was so reluctant about entering into a warm peace with Israel that when talks collapsed in 2000, Israel paid no price.

Mr Obama used his visit to engage in symbolism intended to improve his reputation in an Israel that deeply distrusts him. He visited the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. In those ways Mr Obama effectively reaffirmed the two most powerful drivers of Israeli statehood: the need to establish a Jewish state and to defend Jews against annihilation.

But he missed the chance to get across the point that Jewish nationalism did not take place in a vacuum, and that the Jewish yearning for security was achieved by denying security to others. Palestinians were dispossessed by Israel's creation, and in the context of the Arab uprisings against the injustices of those in power, this reality has become more pertinent than ever.

And things won't improve if Israel continues its settlement building in the West Bank. Once that happens, prospects for an independent Palestinian state will disappear, and Israel will have to address the presence of a large Palestinian population under its military control. Palestinian leaders may well abandon their phoney autonomy and argue that it is up to Israel to again bear the burden of full-scale occupation.

The lessons of the Arab uprisings will weigh heavily on the Palestinian imagination. If the most brutal Arab regimes could be defeated, many will think, then Israel, so keen to prove its commitment to democratic values, can surely be defeated as well.

Deactivate Lebanon’s sectarian time bomb

With many Lebanese understandably worried about the possibility of a sectarian conflict in Lebanon between Sunnis and Shiites, it no longer makes sense for March 14 to reject a dialogue with Hezbollah. Instead, the parties should set up mechanisms to defuse tensions on the ground if and when these occur.

March 14 might argue that such a proposal is naïve. After all, Hezbollah will pursue its agenda regardless of the resentment this generates nationally. For instance a key measure that would reduce antagonism is for the party to end its direct involvement in the Syrian war. However, Hezbollah would never agree, since it regards the survival of the Assad regime as a strategic necessity.

The dangers of rejecting a dialogue lie elsewhere. Today, any clash occurring in the street can degenerate into a major conflagration. It is in no one’s interest to allow this situation to fester. To say that Hezbollah never implements that to which it agrees is to miss that the party only implements what it considers advantageous to its interests. Averting sectarian strife is desirable for the party, given its reluctance to enter into a civil war with the Sunni community.

What might March 14 and Hezbollah discuss? One item alone must be on their agenda, that of setting up mechanisms, in coordination with the Lebanese Army, to defuse incidents that may otherwise spiral out of control. This must, first, involve naming someone in each camp to communicate with a counterpart on the other side and intervene in unison at the right moment. Ideally suited to represent Hezbollah is Wafiq Safa, who heads the party’s security apparatus. On the March 14 side, the representative must be a Sunni with street credibility. Nouhad Mashnouq, who represents Beirut in Parliament, may be that man, as he has both the experience and the ties to the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to give him standing in Sunni quarters.

There is an additional challenge on both sides, namely that they do not control all those actors who might cause trouble. The limited influence of March 14 over Salafist groups, even more than Hezbollah’s inability to control individual Shiites, is a potentially serious liability. There will always be those who won’t feel constrained by an understanding between March 14 and Hezbollah.

However, a system of coordination that prevents an escalation and incorporates the army can compensate somewhat. Within an agreed coordination structure, the army would be able to communicate better with both sides and act swiftly in the event of a deteriorating situation, in accord with March 14 and Hezbollah. Moreover, the army can also ask the parties to act preemptively to neutralize rising tensions in an area if it observes such a development.

In the end the strength of such mechanisms lies in the quality of the people implementing them on a daily basis. Hezbollah has an efficient security network and effective means of intimidation. March 14 does not. That’s why the coalition must carefully select individuals in neighborhoods who have informal power, are respected, and who can call on collaborators to assist them. This may be easier said than done, but neighborhood, sports, and professional networks can all be drafted into the effort to calm spirits if altercations occur. And they must have a direct line to the army for when things get out of hand.

Fears of an outbreak of sectarian violence are not overdone. However, Lebanon has not traditionally been a place of Sunni-Shiite animosity. During the war years the communities fought on the same side. There has not been a history of oppression by one community against the other, as in Iraq. Western Beirut is full of quarters with mixed Sunni-Shiite populations, and has always been. In other words there are no deep roots of sectarian hostility. Differences between the communities are essentially grounded in political disagreements.

Political differences do not mean things are not worrisome. The fear in Lebanon is that a spark from an incident will lead to a cycle of violent behavior that gradually escalates as the casualty toll rises. At some stage, even intervention by the army can be counterproductive, as arrests provoke anger that will not subside.

March 14 will not readily go back on its pledge to avoid participating in the national dialogue. But that doesn’t mean that President Michel Suleiman cannot organize a smaller dialogue forum, under his auspices perhaps with the backing of religious figures, to address the specific matter of neighborhood conflicts. There would be no political program here; only agreement to dismantle sectarian time bombs.

Ultimately, the president might consider expanding the number of participants, though it would be best at first to keep the numbers limited until momentum is achieved. There is no point in allowing the dialogue to break down immediately as some parties engage in brinkmanship in order to burnish their reputation. As a former army commander, and as someone neither Sunni nor Shiite, Suleiman is particularly suitable to lead such a discussion.

For all this to have true meaning, it should be extended to ordinary individuals in both communities. Non-governmental organizations can be enlisted to guide the effort. Sunnis and Shiites can be brought together in numerous local contexts to reaffirm their desire to live in peace. One dreads to imagine what a conflict would mean to people living cheek by jowl in mixed neighborhoods, an additional incentive to persuade people to participate in a dialogue effort.

A dialogue along these lines is not about politics, so the parties should not allow politics to undermine the effort. It is about reducing ill feeling and building the means to deactivate any movement toward discord. It is about making sure that Lebanon does not sink into a war that would devastate a country that has already suffered enough.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Iraq spurred America’s Mideast apathy

One of the more appreciable aspects of articles written for the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war is that most American and European commentators have finally taken Iraqis into consideration. For a long time Westerners saw Iraq almost entirely through the prism of how the war affected the United States or the United Kingdom, with no room left for the Iraqis themselves.

The reason for this turnaround is the so-called Arab Spring. The narrative today necessitates recognition of Arab aspirations, because in the past two years these have driven developments in the Middle East. Even in Iraq, the U.S. was more often overwhelmed by Iraqi dynamics than the contrary, forcing American military units on the ground to immerse themselves in the details of Iraqi society.

It is that realization, perhaps, that has made President Barack Obama imitate the ostrich by sticking his head in the sand on most regional developments. The president, in one of his first speeches, addressed America’s ties with Islam, and virtually apologized for Washington’s actions. None of us realized at the time that this was an adieu of sorts, a way of telling Arabs that with George W. Bush gone and America having fulfilled an act of contrition, U.S. attentions would now turn elsewhere.

Yet the Arab uprisings have shown that Bush’s desire to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime was prescient. Whatever else one might say, American actions in Iraq spoke to what would, starting in 2011, become a broader Arab impulse to be rid of authoritarian regimes and replace them with more representative orders. Obama has embraced the Arab revolts with a lack of enthusiasm rooted in caution, so he will never acknowledge that his predecessor was on to something. Nor will he admit that his own disinterest in Iraq has only helped ensure that the country remains polarized along sectarian lines, thanks to the errors of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, backed by Iran.

The conflict in Syria has shown us that the Obama administration, like the Bourbons, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The Arab uprisings have not led to a change in the American outlook when it comes to understanding and acting upon the democratic aspirations of Arab societies. Such a change would mean, first, giving some credit to Bush’s decision to oust one of the worst mass murderers the region had ever seen, in favor of a more democratic Iraq.

And the administration has forgotten nothing in fitting events today, above all those in Syria, into a flawed template of conflicts past. Nothing was done to arm Syria’s armed opposition, for fear that Salafi jihadists would triumph as they did in Afghanistan. Yet America’s unwillingness to act only ensured that the Salafi jihadists would fill the void created by this obtuse reasoning.

The problem is that the U.S. has profoundly changed toward a region hitherto at the very core of its concerns. The Middle East is no longer a priority for Obama, and the pillars of U.S. involvement in the region have either been seriously eroded or allowed to deteriorate. American minimalism in the region is a direct consequence of Obama’s erroneous reading of the Iraq conflict, which the president chose to explain in the context of a clash of cultures.

As Obama put it in his speech in Cairo in June 2009, “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”

In that way the president showed he understood nothing of what had transpired before he came to office. Iraq was not a confrontation between America and Islam. Even in those interpretations most critical of the Bush administration, the war was fundamentally a political act, not engagement in a cultural war by other means.

What were the dual pillars of American involvement in the Middle East? Immediately after World War II, the principle motivation was the defense of oil supplies, which led to a close partnership with Saudi Arabia. Because of its vast oil reserves, the kingdom became the main stabilizer of oil markets.

By the late 1970s, a second strategic goal was the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace, built on the foundations of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. To consolidate the treaty, the U.S. began providing Egypt with large amounts of foreign aid, as it had done with Israel. The U.S. thus became the main sponsor and ultimate guarantor of Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Under Obama, the U.S. has shown little more than passing interest in these objectives. America has emerged as a leading oil producer in the world, importing just 20 percent of the oil it consumes. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2020, the U.S. will be the world’s largest oil producer, overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia. Given such trends, America’s unwillingness to prioritize its partnership with the Saudis is hardly surprising.

As for Arab-Israeli peace, Obama’s personal commitment to that objective has been nominal. Egypt is in dire economic straits, yet Washington seems strangely disinterested. On his first foreign visit, Secretary of State John Kerry did not travel to Cairo, once an obligatory early stop for secretaries wanting to get the pulse of the Arab world. Instead, Obama is now visiting Israel to mend fences, though this seems largely to be for domestic political reasons rather than to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

If Iraq was regrettable in one respect, it was in pushing Obama to embrace destabilizing minimalism in the Arab world. The U.S. has left a void that contending actors are seeking to fill, to the detriment of all. Obama no longer wants the U.S. to be the world’s policeman, and in that he has been revolutionary. But minimalism has come with a price tag as the world adjusts, and it will be measured in Arab lives. Perhaps the American narrative invariably dominates after all.

Monday, March 18, 2013

It’s renewal time for a grim March 14

On the eighth anniversary of the March 14 demonstration against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, the mood in the coalition is grim. Discord over a new election law, with the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb favoring the so-called Orthodox proposal against the interests of the Future bloc, has cracked March 14 and the cross-communal coordination that was its strength. How remote seems the unity of 2005. The Lebanese Forces have sought to defend their position by arguing that it was misunderstood. If so, it was up to the party’s leader, Samir Geagea, to better explain his intentions before he sided with Michel Aoun and Hezbollah on what he knew was a plan that would be perceived by his political partners as a stab in the back. Many Sunnis regard the Orthodox proposal as being directed against them, while all it will do is ensure that March 14 fails to win a majority.

Geagea, in private exchanges with journalists, has said that one of his aims was to strengthen March 14 by forcing Walid Jumblatt to make a choice. The Orthodox proposal would weaken Jumblatt, thereby forcing the Druze leader to move closer to his Sunni and Christian electorates. Geagea also feared that Jumblatt would engineer a new tripartite agreement to guarantee a sizable number of Jumblatti seats in parliament, and he didn’t want to pay for that strategy.

Geagea’s fears may be well founded, but his primary motivation in backing the Orthodox proposal was to undermine the 1960 law that would likely allow Jumblatt to again play a balancing role in Parliament, and hold March 14 hostage to his political calculations. If so, the scheme backfired. Jumblatt and Saad Hariri have moved closer politically, while Geagea is busy explaining that his subtlety was lost on everyone. Meanwhile, March 14 is in disarray.

It has been a difficult eight years for March 14, whose unifying purpose was to oppose a Syrian return to Lebanon. This was quickly, and naturally, transformed into hostility toward Hezbollah, Syria’s principal Lebanese ally. There was a danger here: What was initially an intifada against a system imposed from outside, by Damascus, became a domestic struggle, one with worrisome sectarian overtones as Sunnis and Shiites came to resent one another.

Hezbollah was mostly responsible for this state of affairs. The party broke all the unwritten rules of the confessional system, especially when it mounted a military assault in western Beirut against the Future Movement in May 2008. Nor has Hezbollah dispelled the deep suspicion that it played a role in most of the assassinations in 2005 and afterward, especially that of Rafik Hariri but also the bomb attack that killed Wissam al-Hasan of the Internal Security Forces.

Despite this, March 14 has gradually come to be perceived as a failure. The coalition dealt unimaginatively with the arrival of Najib Mikati as prime minister, and in its zeal to discredit him, it has taken political positions contradicting those it had adopted in the past. It is frustrated that Mikati has earned a measure of international respect, and, along with President Michel Sleiman, is considered a far more significant obstacle to Hezbollah’s agenda than March 14.

The departure of Hariri has little helped March 14’s credibility. For many foreign governments, as well as their representatives in Beirut, the nearly two-year absence of the leader of the opposition means they have no interlocutor with whom to communicate. And without one, the ability of March 14 to get its message across is limited.

Nor has it done any good that March 14 figures made faulty calculations on the Syrian conflict. Their belief in the imminent fall of the Assad regime was wrong, while there is a real threat that Lebanon will be further destabilized by the fighting next door. Hezbollah has been active in Syria, but so too have been March 14 figures and their allies on the ground in supporting the Syrian opposition. This may be morally justifiable, but it goes against the policy pushed by the government of isolating Lebanon from the upheaval in Syria.

At a broader level, March 14 is no longer identified with the project that made it so attractive to many Lebanese, that of building a strong and sovereign state. Partly, this is due to its decision to become an opposition party rather than participate in a Mikati-led national unity government. The choice meant that March 14’s rhetoric has shifted to rolling criticism of those running the state, which cannot make March 14 trustworthy at so sensitive a moment in Lebanon.

For many observers, a policy based exclusively on criticism is a sign of political bankruptcy. Stridency cannot substitute for ideas, and yet there is room to advance March 14 aims. Whatever its views of Mikati, the prime minister is willing to strengthen the state’s authority at the expense of Hezbollah, as is Sleiman. If Hezbollah is so keen to deny March 14 a parliamentary majority, that is because the party wants to control the president and prime minister, which is not the case today.

It may be time for March 14 to organize a major gathering to lend new impetus to its political action. In the context of such a forum, the coalition can address internal discontent, formulate a political program for the years ahead, and find its direction. Moreover, it is time to put an end to the bitter wrangling with Mikati, which has not helped March 14 or bolstered the effectiveness of the Lebanese state. A conference would also rally a dejected base and unify March 14 ranks.

Over the years it has become fashionable to condemn March 14. And yet for all its faults the coalition remains a moderate force in Lebanese politics whose ultimate aim is a state open to all sides that is not ruled by men with guns. However, March 14 urgently needs a rebirth, after it allowed the great expectations of 2005 to be stillborn.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Assir headache

Is there a more troubling figure than Ahmad al-Assir? The Salafist sheikh is like a protester, who, merely touched by a policeman, will scream that he is being murdered, all to attract attention. For a year and a half Assir has engineered confrontations to rally to his side a Sunni community angry with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

It is a testament to the disarray in the community – thanks largely to the two-year vacuum left by the head of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri – that there are Sunnis pinning their hopes on a sectarian demagogue. In that sense, Assir is not so different than Hezbollah, even if the party’s ability to control its followers is more reassuring.

Assir’s latest crusade is against the Lebanese Army, which the sheikh has accused of surrounding the Bilal bin Rabah mosque that he controls in Abra. Much can be said of the army, but Assir’s repeated street demonstrations against Hezbollah and the Shiites in Sidon have hardly endeared him to an institution committed to maintaining civil peace. Assir has put his fingers in the wound of confessional relations, and many now fear a perilous deterioration in Sunni-Shiite relations.

The problem is that Assir raises what many consider real problems. When he says that Hezbollah is placing its men in apartments around his mosque, he only plays up to a long-standing perception that the party uses property politics to advance its agenda.

Already, quarters around the southern suburbs that once had a Christian majority now have a Shiite majority thanks to Hezbollah’s purported efforts to build buildings and settle families there. In the Beqaa, there have been accusations that Hezbollah militants have rented apartments in Shtaura and its environs, to be able to link the Shiite-majority southern region of the plain with the northern region, if Sunnis ever block the central region in a potential conflict.

Are the accusations true? Maybe yes, maybe no, but few Sunnis are willing to give Hezbollah the benefit of the doubt because of the party’s actions in the past eight years. Hezbollah members stand accused of participating in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, and there has been considerable suspicion as to the party’s role in subsequent killings. In May 2008, Hezbollah militants overran west Beirut and humiliated the Sunnis. And in early 2011, the party precipitated the ouster of Hariri, the principal Sunni representative, and brought in Najib Miqati. All this was against the will of the Sunni community.

The results created dry grassland for Assir’s flames. And yet his provocations have targeted not only Shiites. His decision to take a busload of followers to Faraya on the feast of the birth of the Prophet was equally contentious. Assir is entitled to go anywhere he wants in Lebanon, but he knew well that the presence of long-bearded Salafists in the Christian heartland would spark a counter-reaction (no less so than would Samir Geagea’s taking a busload of Lebanese Forces members to Abra). Assir also knew this counter-reaction would be led by Michel Aoun’s partisans. He manufactured a stand-off that he won (thanks to the army he is now attacking), and pranced triumphantly in the snow, proving that he was not a man who could be intimidated.

The big question is who is financing Assir? Some have suggested that he has Qatari funding, which the sheikh has denied. Unfortunately, denials don’t mean much in cases like this one, where funders will insist on anonymity. Wherever Assir gets his money from, and Salafists tend to look toward the Gulf for financial assistance, those helping the sheikh are only ensuring that Lebanon becomes more polarized than ever, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Yet the sheikh has more than just bluster and money; he also benefits from the presence in Sidon of the Palestinian camp at Ain al-Hilweh, where Salafist groups are strong. If Hezbollah were to enter into an armed confrontation with Assir, it would have to factor these Salafists into its plans as well. The party has no desire to be dragged into a fight with armed Palestinians on the main road to the south.

Ultimately, what is Assir’s program? He does not enjoy unanimous support, even in Sidon, and no matter how deep Sunni anger with Hezbollah and revulsion with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, his brinkmanship is alarming to those who fear a mad drive toward sectarian warfare. While Lebanon’s Salafists are less influential than many believe, it does not take much to spark a conflict. And once that happens, it is easy for the situation to spiral out of control.

Some will argue that Assir and Hezbollah are mirror images of each other. Therefore why blame one side and not the other? Hezbollah’s many errors in recent years have, more than anything else, pushed Lebanon to the edge of the abyss. Yet Assir is dangerous in a different way. He is still in the ascendant in a community where the political leadership has left a void. That is why Assir is far more likely to be reckless, and to drag Lebanon down with him, a victim of his hubris.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

As Arab inequality grows, Lebanon looks like a model

In finding a theme to explain the so-called Arab Spring, it is difficult not to fall back on two related causes. The first is that the countries affected were bastions of brutal authoritarianism. The second is that in most cases their social contracts never properly addressed the relationship between minorities and majorities.

When discussing minorities, the tendency is to focus on religious or ethnic minorities, but most Arab social compacts have made little room for a wider variety of groups, including sexual minorities and social dissenters. In some countries, this situation has led to dynamics in which minorities came to control majorities through elaborate mechanisms of repression. This was the case in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and in Syria under the Assad family.

The failure of Arab countries to adequately regulate communal relations, whereby minorities can be integrated into the state and reassured about their future, has been a fundamental flaw of the Arab state system for many decades.

There were several reasons for such a situation, depending on which country one was observing.

The first was ideological. The Arab nationalist state - as in Egypt, Syria or Iraq - by its nature was intolerant of minority identity. Those who took power in these countries, even when they hailed from a minority, sought to draw attention away from this fact and depict the state as the embodiment of broad national agreement, and the culmination of an Arab desire for emancipation from outside powers. To recognise divisive minority identities detracted from the more perfect unitarian identity regimes in these states sought to project.

Consequently, Arab nationalism came to justify despotic political orders, as minorities of all stripes - religious, ethnic, social or intellectual - were sacrificed at the altar of obligatory unanimity. Why unanimity? Because regimes, to maintain control over their societies, could not allow exceptions to the political line they had laid down. Unanimity when it came to identity was a foundation of the political unanimity centralised regimes enforced, even as they claimed that Arab nationalism was for the greater good of all.

A second reason why social contracts never properly acknowledged minority rights, and why minority regimes repressed majorities, is that there has rarely been a process of consensual nation-building in the Arab world. Instead, regimes have often come to power through coups, or have inherited authority. In both cases, the political orders they upheld were naturally predisposed against constructive dialogue and compromise.

For many Arab leaders, compromise is another word for concessions, which is anathema to the unforgiving systems they created, often after years of plotting in the shadows. That is why challenging the status quo is interpreted as a form of subversion, a way of defying the existence of the regime itself, which invites violent retaliation.

A third reason is that minority demands can often come with serious geographical consequences. That is the case, for instance, of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Turkey and Iran. The Kurds have long been oppressed by regimes in these countries, and not surprisingly this has reinforced their desire to form autonomous or independent entities. Their motivation has been little different from that of many Arabs during the 1950s and 1960s: to come together in a state unifying a people separated by borders.

A fourth, more controversial reason, has to do with religion. This issue involves ideology, but also much more than that. Many minority religions in the region are viewed as being incompatible with a dominant Islam, which has led to marginalisation of minorities. The Copts in Egypt, for example, have long had an uneasy relationship with the majority Muslim population, especially with regimes using Islam as a legitimising factor to implement unpopular policies.

Similarly, few Jews remain in the Arab world, to a great extent because they were harassed for allegedly representing an Israeli fifth column. In many countries the community had an ancient pedigree, yet in the last half-century Jews have all but disappeared from most Arab societies. Opposition to Jews may have been political rather than religious, and yet politics has become so entwined with religion and identity that the distinction among the three is routinely blurred.

One Arab country, Lebanon, has tried to adopt a political system that would manage relations between its minorities. The country functions according to a power-sharing arrangement (known as the Taif Agreement) that divides senior leadership posts among the major religious communities. However, far from inspiring other countries to imitate its model, Lebanon has been dysfunctional, enduring a civil war between 1975 and 1990, while in recent years sectarian relations have usually been defined less by cooperation than by obstructionism.

Yet the philosophy at the heart of the Lebanese communal pact is defensible, even admirable. Against a contrary predisposition in the region, the Lebanese sought to put in place institutions of coexistence and conciliation. One reason is that no single community has the wherewithal to rule over all the others, while the confessional system prompts communities to form alliances to contain any side or coalition that becomes too powerful. In theory this imposes modesty on all, but when it doesn't the system can slide into conflict.

In times of discord, a power-sharing mechanism can mean deadlock, as communities that for one reason or another feel their interests are not being taken into consideration gum up the system by refusing to participate in decision-making.

Minority-based fears are among the most difficult to resolve, because religious or ethnic minorities usually think in terms of existential threats. The Arab world has not given much thought to this vital problem, even as its travails today point to the urgency of doing so.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Empowered Salafists risk the peace to challenge Hizbollah

The Lebanese are speaking a great deal about war these days. The conflict in Syria has heightened tensions between the Sunni and the Shia communities, particularly the most militant groups in each. The fear is that events in Syria will lead to fighting between Sunni Salafists and Hizbollah that spares no one. And yet what are the chances of this actually happening?

The dynamics facilitating a war are there, making any assurances that a conflict will never happen sound hollow. On the other hand, the factors dissuading the Lebanese from imminent war are equally strong. The primary worry is not so much that Lebanese society is preparing for war, though the national divisions are worrisome, but rather that small groups will provoke clashes that might escalate.

Of late, attention has been focused on one individual, the Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir, in Sidon. Sheikh Assir emerged last year in the predominantly Sunni southern coastal city, which is a front line of sorts abutting the largely Shia areas further to the south. The populist Sheikh Assir's preferred tactic has been to provoke quarrels with Hizbollah to rally supporters to his side. Many Sunnis, after years of humiliation at the hands of Hizbollah, have been receptive to Sheikh Assir's message, whatever their views of the man.

The sheikh's brinkmanship has been disturbing. In recent weeks, for instance, he has accused Hizbollah of placing men in apartments near his Bilal bin Rabah mosque to monitor him. In response, he has organised demonstrations near the apartment buildings, heightening Sunni-Shia ill-feeling. Only the army has prevented violence, although the sheikh's men did clash with Hizbollah some months ago.

The latest demonstrations coincided with a commemoration of the former parliamentarian Maarouf Saad, whose killing in March 1975 is regarded as one of the events that precipitated the civil war of 1975-1990. The irony was lost on nobody, although Mr Saad's son Mustapha, a political ally of Hizbollah despite being Sunni, has condemned Sheikh Assir for threatening communal coexistence in Sidon.

It is unclear from whom Sheikh Assir gets his funding, though the rumour mill suggests it is Qatar. Moreover, he is believed to have good relations with Islamists in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain Al Hilweh in Sidon, which has made him more daring in challenging Hizbollah. Were a conflict to break out between the party and Salafists in the city, Sheikh Assir would probably benefit from the assistance of Salafists in Ain Al Hilweh, who largely control the camp. This would cut the coastal road to the south, and Hizbollah's ability to open the road by force would be considerably impaired.

In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, several Salafist groups also appear to have gained ground thanks to the fighting in neighbouring Syria. In the past year, there have been regular skirmishes between the Sunni quarter of Bab Al Tebbaneh and the Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen. This has usually been contained by the security forces, but it has also given greater impetus to armed Salafists.

Sidon and Tripoli tell us much about the likelihood, and lack thereof, of a new war in Lebanon. Young Islamists, spurred by the war in Syria, have pent-up resentment against two of the allies of the Assad regime, Iran and Hizbollah. Moreover, success in the Syrian conflict has come thanks to Salafist-jihadist groups, notably the Al Nusra Front, which this week led the takeover by rebels of the city of Raqqa. Once the war in Syria ends, these groups may conceivably cross the border and, with Lebanese Salafists, take on Hizbollah.

The way the Syrian conflict ends will play a key role in determining whether this scenario is probable. A long, grinding battle, if President Bashar Al Assad falls back on an Alawite heartland, could exacerbate matters in Lebanon, as Hizbollah comes to Mr Al Assad's assistance. Similarly, any post-Assad Syrian civil war could spread to Lebanon. And that is not to mention the serious and growing problem of refugees, who have imported many of the contradictions of Syrian society into Lebanese areas vulnerable to sectarian antagonism.

All this is very troubling, as it is difficult to see how Lebanon might escape the negative aftershocks of the Syrian conflict. Furthermore, the economic situation in the country is poor, which means that the most marginalised may have an incentive to enter into a conflict that, they feel, will allow them to make money as militias did in the past.

But there are also many reasons not to go to war in Lebanon. First, Salafists are not influential in society, and most Salafist groups are not jihadists. They tend to operate religious institutions or schools, allowing them to appeal for funding from wealthy Gulf states, their financial lifeline. This could change as the situation in Syria changes, but Lebanese Sunni society tends to be conservative and careful, and has no incentive to back a war that devastates all of Lebanon.

And then there is Hizbollah. While Salafists believe they can defeat the party, a war would mean carnage. Any attack against Hizbollah would threaten civil peace, prompting the state, particularly the army, to react. Nor should it be forgotten that Hizbollah has financially co-opted some Salafist groups, so Salafists may be divided. Christians, too, would dread a Salafist rise, and many may side with the Shia. Mainstream Sunnis, increasingly isolated, may contest the militants.

And then there is memory. Many Lebanese still remember well the civil war and the terrible destruction it wrought. Few want to go back to that dark time from which Lebanon never completely recovered. This is the most powerful antidote to a new war, but will it be enough? That the Lebanese are asking such a question reflects the mood of profound doubt and anxiety in their country.

Drawing a line in the sand on elections

Prime Minister Najib Mikati said two things of importance in his interview with MTV on Monday night. He backed the formation of a neutral Cabinet to oversee the upcoming parliamentary elections. And he said the government was committed to holding the elections on time, on the basis of the 1960 law if no consensus was reached on an alternative. Mikati made it clear that the so-called Orthodox proposal was not consensual, and affirmed the law would not be passed. A day later, both the prime minister and President Michel Sleiman signed a decree calling for elections to be held starting on June 9 on the basis of the 1960 law. The move angered the March 8 coalition, which complained that the maneuver was not only a violation of the separation of powers, but also sought to impose the 1960 law, which, various parliamentarians insisted, had lost all legitimacy.

How does one read Sleiman’s and Mikati’s action? Mikati’s most powerful weapon has always been the threat of resignation, which would leave Hezbollah hanging, having to forge a new government with a credible Sunni prime minister at its head, all to cover for the party’s continued retention of its weapons. And yet now Mikati has gone a step further, announcing that he intends to resign anyway and force Hezbollah to accept a neutral Cabinet to oversee elections, perhaps on the basis of a law it vehemently opposes.

Mikati says that the 1960 law is not one he favors. But as Michel Aoun opted for the Orthodox scheme rather than reiterate his backing for the proportional law passed by the government, the prime minister believes he is under no obligation to accommodate his partners’ U-turns. The Orthodox proposal is widely perceived by Sunnis as directed against them, and Mikati has no intention of paying a political price for endorsing a project that he finds abhorrent.

Sleiman and Mikati also sought to underline that they would not accept being held responsible for a vacuum come election time. The chances that a consensual law will replace the 1960 law are very low. If such a law happens to pass, the president and prime minister can always modify their decree. However, if no agreement is reached, as is likely, then both men can say they prepared a fall-back position to avert a void, shifting the burden of delaying elections onto others.

Particularly unhappy with their effort is Nabih Berri. The parliament speaker had insisted that the rival political groups arrive at a consensus law. Left unstated in his choreography was that continued deadlock would make more likely the adoption of laws that favored his interests and those of Hezbollah: the Orthodox proposal, the government’s proportional law, or Berri’s own mixed election project, all of which in one way or another are to the political advantage of March 8. Sleiman and Mikati undercut his strategy.

Why each man did so merits examination. Mikati, it is obvious, does not want to go into the history books as someone who harmed Sunni interests and alienated the Gulf states. What he promised on Monday was effectively what the Future Movement had sought for some time: an impartial government at election time and neutralization of the Orthodox proposal in favor of a 1960 law that is almost certain to bring victory to March 14. Beyond that, any measure that weakens Hezbollah can be sold to the Gulf states as containment of Iran, at a moment when Mikati needs Saudi approval to bolster the economy.

In this light the decision of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to send a letter to Sleiman warning that Lebanon was not abiding by the policy of disassociation in Syria’s conflict was worrisome. The GCC was, plainly, referring to Hezbollah, but Mikati’s and Sleiman’s stance could be held up as proof that the party is being resisted in Lebanon.

But what motivates Sleiman? The president presumably would gain from a delay in elections, since it would mean that his mandate is extended as well. Yet by setting a deadline for elections, he lessened the chances of this happening. Nor does his revival of the 1960 law help him among Christians, since most of his coreligionists regard the law as bad for Christian fortunes. Sleiman has taken the right decisions, but certainly not the ones that will buy him a political extension and communal popularity. If his overriding motive is principle, then perhaps we have a better president than we know.

Could it be that both Mikati and Sleiman are thinking of their legacy, and that this drives their blocking Lebanon’s mad drive toward communal and institutional breakdown? Amid the scheming surrounding an election law, and with each party floating proposals that advance their interests at the expense of the general welfare, the president and prime minister have laid down a marker to the contending political alignments: If you disagree with us, then bear full responsibility for reversing what we did.

One can protest that Mikati is pursuing a political agenda of his own. Perhaps he is, but he is no worse than Hezbollah or Aoun, who will vote in favor of government decisions, only to turn around and condemn them when this suits their aims. Aoun has become skilled at hammering governments in which his bloc is represented. Hezbollah has been just as duplicitous, for example approving of the disassociation policy in Syria, then ignoring it in practice.

The fate of the 1960 law is still in the air. Hezbollah parliamentarians have hinted that elections will not be held on the basis of the law, suggesting the party may resort to violence to prevent them from happening. But come June, Lebanon needs to vote and the only logical outcome is to do so according to a broadly accepted new law or, barring that, the law in place. On this issue, Saad Hariri has an ally in the prime minister. March 14 should take note.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Hezbollah corners March 14

Many things can be said about the current disagreement over an election law, but one thing is undeniable: Hezbollah has very successfully shifted the debate away from the 1960 law, which, it believes, would ensure victory for Saad Hariri and his allies.

It was the error of the March 14 coalition not to see what was coming, and it was negligence on the part of the Future Movement in particular not to prepare an election proposal of its own to throw into the pot in order to have something with which to negotiate.

The 1960 law has been delegitimized, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Christian parties in March 14, such as the Kataeb, who have said that it failed to give Christians proper representation. The Lebanese Forces were more ambiguous, but have now signed off on the Orthodox proposal, which, if nothing else, has split March 14, perhaps irreparably. So, Hezbollah and the majority have hit two birds with one stone. They have created a rift in the ranks of their opponents, and they have discredited the one law that might have given Saad Hariri and his comrades a chance at victory.

The calculation in Hariri circles was that lack of agreement over a new law would ensure that the old law applied. Yet this conclusion (which I also argued) was a misreading of the mood in the Christian, particularly the Maronite, community, as well as of the unwillingness of Samir Geagea and the Gemayels to hear Michel Aoun again say that their parliamentarians had won thanks to Muslim voters. There was also a realization that the Maronite patriarch, Bishara al-Rai, would weigh in and heighten Christian fears, in this way further marginalizing Geagea and the Gemayels.

But if March 14 didn’t adequately prepare for the oncoming train wreck of the election law debate, Hezbollah and Aoun did, and played their cards right. The results have been bad, since the Orthodox proposal they defend (the same one Walid Jumblatt insists is dead) would ensure more sectarian fragmentation of a country already well divided. But it will also mean that Hezbollah and its allies have a good chance of remaining in control of Lebanon. That is their aim, and has been since they realized that Bashar al-Assad might not hang on.

In a speech on Wednesday, Hassan Nasrallah denied that Hezbollah sought to delay elections. Why would it, he asked, when all the laws on the table appear to presage a defeat for March 14. In that respect Nasrallah was in agreement with March 14, or at least those in it who do not support the Orthodox proposal. But it was also odd to hear him implicitly admit that the fears of March 14 were justified.

So what is next for the opposition? Saad Hariri has said that he will return to Beirut at election time. However, political campaigns require more than a last-minute appearance by the leading candidate. Hariri must come back before then and help define what the election is about. He has much legwork to do to repair his alliances and formulate a message that injects new life into a moribund March 14.

One can, of course, say that Samir Geagea and the Gemayels struck a blow at March 14 through their endorsement of the Orthodox proposal, and that they consciously walked into the trap that Hezbollah and Syria had set for them. But blaming the Christians for March 14’s demise is simplistic. When the leader of the coalition has been absent for nearly two years, to the extent that every appearance by him is regarded as an exceptional event, we have to wonder whether this hasn’t damaged the cohesiveness of March 14 even more.

The first question it prompts is whether Hariri truly wants to be a major player in Lebanon, or whether he is driven largely by a desire for retribution against those suspected of having killed his father. If he does seek a political role, then politics is about presence, dealing with issues and people; it’s about using all the instruments at one’s disposal in pursuit of clear objectives. If Hezbollah was able to widen the cracks in March 14, that’s because it saw that in the absence of its most powerful figure, the coalition would collapse in disarray.

And with all due respect to the current Future leadership, it is only Saad Hariri who has the latitude to persuade the Sunni community, to rebuild March 14 as a more cohesive entity, to open a dialogue with Hezbollah and decrease tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and to gradually fill the large spaces left by his extended departure.

When Hariri urged voters to choose March 14 candidates in 2009, he failed to say that he would not be among them two years later. But his responsibility to voters has not diminished. Hezbollah is manipulating the void Hariri has left because it can, at a moment when March 14 seems to have lost any common sense of direction.