Friday, April 26, 2013

Bad chemistry in Washington

Admire the Obama administration for its doggedness in redefining crises overseas to ensure that the United States does not get involved. The latest example is the American admission that chemical weapons were used last March in Syria, near Aleppo as well as in Homs and Damascus, most probably by the Syrian army.

The disclosure came with caveats allowing Washington to downplay any response. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin, the White House noted that U.S. intelligence agencies had “assess[ed] with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” 

This came after Israeli officials earlier this week had reached a similar conclusion. Itai Brun, who heads the research division of Israel’s army intelligence service, declared, “To the best of our professional understanding, the [Syrian] regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months.”

Another Israeli general echoed that view, suggesting that a “sarin-like” chemical had been employed, probably on five occasions.

Earlier, there were reports that the United Kingdom and France informed the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, last March that soil samples and interviews with victims indicated that chemical weapons had indeed been used in Syria.

Confirming all this is important, because President Barack Obama has said that the use of such weapons would be a “game changer” and could prompt American intervention in Syria. Yet even after the Levin letter, U.S. officials continued to affirm that they needed to corroborate the information. And reference to the “small scale” use of chemical weapons seemed a craven attempt by the administration to highlight the purportedly limited nature of the crime.

Such dissembling was already evident when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel refused to cede ground on the matter after the Israeli generals had made their views public. “Suspicions are one thing,” Hagel told journalists. “Evidence is another.” Secretary of State John Kerry, in Brussels for NATO meetings on Syria this week, also waffled, noting that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, “was not in a position to confirm” what his generals had said.

Obama is understandably reluctant to be drawn into a war that is increasingly vicious and complicated. But the president is the one who had made chemical weapons use his red line, perhaps hoping that Russia would prevent Bashar al-Assad’s regime from resorting to such weapons on the battlefield. If so, that showed a poor reading of the relationship between Assad and Moscow.

Assad has long had the Russians’ number. He knows they must look the other way on his transgressions, because their strategy is to keep him in office whatever the cost; or, at the most, use his negotiated departure as leverage to safeguard their Syrian interests and allies. Since Assad has given no indication that he intends to step down, the Russians have bolstered his regime whatever he does, and have played a significant role in organizing its military operations.

The repeated use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces was, in part, a way of testing the American reaction. And what they’ve seen must be greatly reassuring: an administration looking for shelter in the fine print, not at all intent on imposing its prohibitions. 

It is interesting that Obama’s warnings against the use of weapons of mass destruction, when he made them, were offered less out of solidarity with the Syrian people than to reassure Israel. Washington’s concern with Israel explains Obama’s refusal to arm the foes of the Assad regime, fearing that Israel might become their next target.  

Syrian officials have insisted that it was the rebels who used chemical weapons, pointing to the fact that Syrian troops were exposed to chemicals in the village of Khan al-Asal, near Aleppo, on March 19. Intelligence officials in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, dismiss this, believing the soldiers were affected by weapons fired from their own side. The UN has tried to send a team to Syria to investigate the incident, but the Syria government has refused to allow them access to sites other than Khan al-Asal.

Today, Obama’s credibility is on the line, and the dependability of the United States’ commitment to curtailing the employment of weapons of mass destruction. That the Obama administration wants to be careful in reaching a conclusion is defensible, but the impression today is not that it is after the truth in Syria, but that it is only looking for ways to avoid the consequences of the truth.

Obama still has no cohesive Syrian policy. American troops on the ground is a bad idea, but there are options short of that that the president has made no effort to advance. Russia will soon be on the defensive, backing a man who uses weapons of mass destruction against his own population. This can be exploited diplomatically, and if Obama wants to avoid a risky American military commitment, he will have to push Moscow hard. But for now, the president awaits a UN evaluation, which buys him time to review his options.

Whatever course Obama decides, the worst thing the administration can do is to continue to show that it is looking for an exit from its stated policy. If Obama never had any intention of upholding his line in the sand in Syria, he shouldn’t have drawn it in the first place.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Failures at the UN on Syria bode ill for the body's future

The United Nations has been unable to secure authorisation to visit Syria and determine if chemical weapons were used in fighting last March near Aleppo, and in Homs and Damascus. However, in a letter to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, France and the United Kingdom have affirmed that soil samples and interviews with victims led them to believe that such weapons were used.

The French and British assessment did not have the same impact as would that of the United Nations. And yet the international organisation has been helpless in Syria amid disagreements between the five permanent members of the Security Council. The mood in New York is reminiscent of that during the Cold War, when UN diplomacy was often hampered by the irreconcilable interests of the United States, the Soviet Union and their respective allies.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. When Barack Obama became US president, hopes were high that multilateral diplomacy would gain momentum. So, when bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize on Mr Obama in 2009, the Norwegian Nobel committee praised his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples".

However, since then, international diplomacy through the UN has more often than not been a tale of discord, and Mr Obama has not pursued it with any vigour. What has best illustrated the UN's ineffectiveness is the Syrian conflict. It has lasted for over two years, with horrific loss of life and an expanding refugee crisis, without the Security Council striving to collectively end this situation.

Two levels of disagreement between the United States, France and the United Kingdom on one side, and China and Russia on the other, have hindered a solution.

The first involves principle. Moscow and Beijing refuse to give the Security Council powers that may possibly lead to the overthrow of the Syrian regime. They refer back to what happened in Libya in 2011, when they believe a UN resolution to protect civilians was surreptitiously turned by the West into an instrument to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi militarily.

The second has to do with self-interest. In Libya, both China and Russia had economic stakes that were undermined by western policy. Their tangible interests in Syria, particularly Russia's, are not what they once were. But in terms of projection of power, both Moscow and Beijing have chosen to take a stand against the western countries there to affirm that their interests must be accounted for whenever there is major international action in the region.

But the Russian position in particular goes beyond that. The Russians have developed networks of relationships in Syria's military and intelligence hierarchy over the decades, and are reluctant to surrender these. There is also a fear that victory by an Islamist-led opposition may have repercussions closer to Russia, particularly in its Muslim-majority republics in the North Caucasus. In that context, the recent Boston bombings carried out by two men of Chechen origin will likely be used by the Russians to validate their behaviour in Syria.

From the start of the Syrian uprising, Russia and China have vetoed UN resolutions that could be used to justify western military intervention, that targeted President Bashar Al Assad, or that challenged their desired endgame. At the same time, the Security Council has agreed to lesser measures, such as issuing presidential statements, and authorised deployment of UN observers in April 2012, to bolster the option of negotiations. The mission ultimately failed as violence escalated, and the observers were withdrawn.

That the discord at the UN reminds us of the Cold War should not detract from the fact that the conflicts the organisation deals with today tend to be different to those during the years of superpower rivalry. As the author William Shawcross wrote in his book, Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict, established patterns of conflict broke down in the post-Cold War period as combating parties, no longer benefiting from American or Soviet patronage, relied on messier networks of support, giving local warlords more latitude to set their own policies. Shawcross called this phenomenon unstructured or destructured conflict.

In other words, even as Russia and the United States have supported the contending sides in Syria, they have not really controlled dynamics on the ground. That poses the obvious question: can the UN resolve the Syrian conflict if local actors are pushing it in a very different direction?

Many have spoken of a package deal that the United States and Russia might reach over Syria. But that is unlikely. Instead, the Security Council can at best use creative diplomacy to profit from the stalemate, and then only if the warring sides are ripe for a deal and see stalemate as being to their disadvantage.

That is not the case today. Mr Al Assad views deadlock as useful in forcing the opposition to engage with him. Russia, too, has adopted this strategy, hoping that eventual negotiations will stop the war and bolster their Syrian allies. But that would imply asking the opposition to disregard over 70,000 victims and the use of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles against civilians, a tall order indeed.

The UN has failed in Syria, but it has done so because the conflict represents something different for each of the actors involved, and the international community is too divided to define a consensual solution. Instead, to facilitate such a consensus, the parties have sought to give their Syrian allies a military advantage and compel the other side to compromise. This does not bode well for the UN, which invariably mirrors the pathologies of the international order.

Hezbollah’s mad gamble in Qusair

It’s still too early to tell whether Hezbollah will succeed in its bid to clear the area of Qusair of Syrian rebels, in that way assuring Syrian regime control over the passage between Damascus and the coast, via Homs, and between the coast and Lebanon’s Hermel region.

Hezbollah is perfectly aware of the great risk it has taken by intervening in Syria. The fact that it has done so regardless suggests that the decision was an Iranian one. Hezbollah’s risk is twofold: Its intervention has provoked domestic discontent, increasing Sunni-Shiite tensions, while undermining the policy of Lebanese non-intervention in the Syrian war; perhaps more dangerously for the party, it may be sucked into the Syrian conflict, unable to extirpate itself, taking ever greater losses in someone else’s fight.

Conceivably, Hezbollah may find itself in much the same situation as the Israelis in southern Lebanon until 2000: operating in a foreign land on unfamiliar terrain and engaged in guerrilla warfare against a determined foe defending his territory. There are reports that Hezbollah has taken significant losses. If so, the Shiite community will accept this for a time, but unless Hezbollah can achieve its objectives relatively quickly, discontent will rise if the war in Syria turns into a grinding campaign that provokes many more Lebanese casualties.

Nor can the sectarian aspect of the conflict be ignored. Lebanese Salafists have called for a jihad in Syria, which could seriously destabilize the situation in Lebanon. The fight against Hezbollah could become a magnet for jihadist groups keen to do battle with Shiites – whether Syrian, Lebanese or Iraqi. Already, the Nusra Front has threatened to strike against Beirut if Hezbollah is not prevented from participating in the Syrian conflict. Though the Nusra Front is hardly one to talk, this situation is precisely what everyone had sought to avert, and which Hezbollah, with Iranian encouragement, has suddenly and quite recklessly made more likely.

Hezbollah’s Syria strategy has also virtually ensured that Lebanon will not have an election this summer. Despite the calls for one, the reality is that the political climate is too tense for any kind of agreement over an election law, let alone for a voting process that may be divisive and volatile, particularly in mixed confessional districts.

Nor would most of the major political actors be unhappy. At a sensitive time for Hezbollah, the party prefers to avoid the uncertainty of an election that may alter the balance in Lebanon. The Future Movement as well would not oppose postponement, with its leader out of the country, its patronage power much reduced, and its majority (albeit an unstable one) in parliament. Walid Jumblatt, too, has no interest in surrendering his balancing role, especially if elections are held on the basis of legislation different than the 1960 law, which guarantees him a leading role in Aley and the Chouf.

Among the Christians, Michel Aoun, similarly, prefers to delay elections, to safeguard his status as the dominant Christian in parliament. Only Samir Geagea seems eager to go ahead with the voting, in large part because the Lebanese Forces have a relatively small parliamentary stake to defend by embracing the status quo, and feel that they would gain if elections went ahead.

More urgent than elections is the formation of a new government. Hezbollah, keen to protect its rear, seeks a government of national unity that can stabilize the situation in Lebanon, and that would once again endorse the formula of “the Army, the people, and the resistance.” Yet achieving this is tricky, since the Future Movement will not join a government that legitimizes Hezbollah at a time when the party is engaged in Syria. Nor is it realistic to seek a reaffirmation of the Army-people-resistance triad when Lebanon is so divided, and when no Sunni leader, least of all the prime minister-designate, Tammam Salam, can afford politically to reaffirm it.

Despite claims that Hezbollah controls Lebanon, the party has overreached, inviting a potentially dangerous Sunni counter-reaction. If it’s true, as some have claimed, that the party has committed crack troops in Syria, that means it has depleted its vanguard units facing Israel. How revealing that like Bashar Assad’s troops redeployed from the Golan front toward Syria’s interior, Hezbollah will forget Israel when tasked with a project of repression.

If Hezbollah gets caught up in a Syrian quagmire, we can expect a far more perilous situation in Lebanon as the party finds itself simultaneously challenged internally and in Syria. Some may regard this as an opportunity to extract concessions from Hezbollah, but the greater likelihood is that it will only push the party to take harmful measures to protect itself, exacerbating the situation.

Hezbollah’s becoming cannon fodder for the Syrian regime, at Iran’s request, is not something the party must relish. It may be understandable for Hezbollah fight in Syria, since the downfall of Assad would represent a far-reaching defeat for Iran and the party. But there is a price to pay for Hezbollah’s pushing the boundaries of Lebanon’s sectarian system to its limits. And this price may be the party’s gradual destruction, or worse a Lebanese sectarian civil war.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Obama rewrites the U.S. contract abroad

After the bomb attacks in Boston Monday, President Barack Obama hesitated to call them acts of terrorism. Obama and his officials soon rectified their conscious error, but the president’s reaction told us much about his refusal to define events in such a way that he might become a prisoner of his response to them.

Obama acted like any lawyer would. Had he defined the bombings in Boston as terrorism, this would have tied his hands. He was right to be wary. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism” that set in motion an array of far-reaching governmental measures. Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, with its restrictions on civil liberties; there was metastatic growth in U.S. intelligence agencies, creating a vast bureaucracy whose effectiveness remains questionable; and soon there were wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I supported those wars, but the mass murders in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania were not linked to Saddam Hussein, despite administration efforts to draw such a link.

All this must have gone through Obama’s mind when he heard of the explosions at the Boston Marathon. The president didn’t want to use a word that would give law-enforcement, the military and intelligence agencies leeway to take measures that he might oppose but would also have to endorse. As usual, Obama read the world as he would a contract, but in this case his failure to call a spade a spade backfired, as he sidestepped what seemed obvious to all, before later undermining his thinking by using the “terrorism” designation.

The impulse to keep doors closed is very much a part of Obama’s approach to foreign policy – and it is fair to assume that his initial reading was that the Boston attacks might have been the result of foreign involvement, regardless of who was actually behind them. But Obama is hardly alone. U.S. policy abroad has always been reactive, tied into the vicissitudes of domestic politics, formulated without foresight or a clear strategy. That is why it tends to be ad hoc, waxing and waning depending on political realities and the public mood.

This was the view of George Kennan, one of the great observers of American foreign policy, who, as a diplomat in Moscow after World War II, inspired what became America’s Cold War grand strategy: containment of the Soviet Union. As John Lewis Gaddis recounted in his biography of Kennan, he lamented the U.S. propensity to fight wars without an “eye on the future.” Paraphrasing Kennan’s thoughts, Gaddis wrote “the U.S. government was woefully deficient at grand strategy, if by that term one meant the ability to coordinate all available means with fundamental policy ends.”

Containment was of course a major exception, even if, over time, it was repeatedly transformed and revised as it hit against global realities. Presidents after the Cold War, with containment no longer there to guide them, have struggled to lend overriding meaning and consistency to American behavior overseas. Bill Clinton usually sought to work through multilateral channels on crises. This led to the United Nations’ humanitarian effort in Somalia, which precipitated a military failure and withdrawal. Clinton acted boldly in the former Yugoslavia, through the NATO alliance, when European efforts had failed to put an end to the Bosnian conflict. And the U.S. did the same in Kosovo, from where NATO forced Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces.

Bush, who initially seemed to promise American foreign policy minimalism, was transformed by the September 2001 attacks. In the aftermath he sought to justify pre-emptive military responses to emerging threats, before emphasizing democratization. Both these approaches were seen as creating a framework for aggressive interventions abroad, and for regime change. When Obama came to office he reversed this through more restricted foreign policy realism, where the U.S. would only pursue its vital interests.

Yet Obama’s foreign policy has belied this. The situation in the Middle East dramatically changed after December 2010, when the Arab uprisings broke out. Yet Obama never adapted American policy accordingly. Instead, he disengaged from the Arab world, having already accelerated the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in 2009, then wasted two years before altering his position on the war in Syria (and even then ever so timidly), though Bashar Assad’s downfall will surely weaken Iran, America’s main regional adversary.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. has had no consistent rationale for its presence. Under Obama, it first expanded its military deployment and adopted a counterinsurgency strategy, only to change tack and focus on counterterrorism, before announcing that it would withdraw its troops by 2014. As the academic Vali Nasr has written in a scathing new book on Obama’s policies, there was no real political component to Afghan policy, with too much ceded to the military and to inexperienced political operatives around Obama.

Nasr was an aide to the late Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why his criticism stings. “The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy,” he argued, “has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan and the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.”

Nasr has been no less severe on the Syria policy, writing that Washington’s “lean back and wait” approach “has squandered precious opportunity to influence the course of events in the Middle East.”

Doing less is not always bad, and Obama’s restraint on the Boston bombings reflected an understandable skepticism with America’s tentacular security apparatus. But the president is also a great believer in big government, except overseas. There, Obama has done little thinking, and offered even less attention, embracing a standoffishness and lack of imagination that are difficult to explain.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Played for fools - Geagea is in a tough spot

Perhaps it's slowly dawning on the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb that they have been played for fools by Hezbollah, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Michel Aoun.

Both of the Christian parties had expected there to be a vote in parliament on the so-called Orthodox proposal, but the signs today are that this will not happen. If so, they will have to admit that they ran into a trap, led to endorse a proposal that would break March 14 apart and prevent it from winning a parliamentary majority.

What is most disturbing is that the Lebanese Forces, from the start, were dishonest about their intentions toward the Orthodox proposal. Facing a strong backlash from the Future Movement, Samir Geagea, and his aides hinted that they were not that keen about the project and would not vote for it in parliament, while arguing that they had to publicly approve of it because most Christians did.

The fact is that the Lebanese Forces always had the most to gain from the Orthodox proposal. Any scheme that mandates voting for candidates only from within one's own sect gives Geagea a boost in his rivalry with Aoun. The Lebanese Forces leader couldn't stomach the 1960 law because it ensured that Aoun would benefit from Shiite backing in key districts such as Baabda, Jbeil, and even Kisirwan and Metn, whereas in a straight competition between Maronite voters, the Lebanese Forces would do far better than under the 1960 law.

The view in the Lebanese Forces is that the party could not afford another election in which it won fewer than 10 seats, with Sunni and Druze voters (in the Shouf and Zahleh) alone permitting them to achieve that. The Kataeb adopted a similar rationale, believing that proportionality in the Orthodox proposal allowed them to win more than the paltry numbers they could expect under the present law.

And now the rug is likely to be pulled out from under their feet, as Berri fails to bring the proposal to a vote. That's understandable, because Berri, Hezbollah, and Aoun are not keen to see the Orthodox scheme become law, despite claims to the contrary. Berri and Hezbollah don't like to be tagged as exclusively Shiite parties, especially when they can bring non-Shiites into parliament on their lists. And Aoun has no interest in giving Geagea and the Gemayels a larger number of parliamentarians than they have today. For all his grumbling about the 1960 law, Aoun was one of its main beneficiaries.

Having been drawn out onto a limb, the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb then decided to saw it off by declaring that they would not participate in elections held on the basis of the 1960 law. Since that law is one of the few means that March 14 has of gaining a majority in parliament, and since the parties' attitude will lead to a vacuum if no alternative election law can be agreed, the decision is astonishingly reckless. The Lebanese Forces and Kataeb are denying March 14 a victory through an attitude that may carry Lebanon into a destabilizing political void.

One of Geagea's advisors, in explaining his party's position on the Orthodox proposal, told me that the Lebanese Forces leader "was playing chess while the others were playing checkers." As things appear now, Geagea is a piece on Hezbollah's chessboard, and anyway it's better to be a good checkers player than a bad chess player.

From a Christian perspective, Geagea has won nothing. His strong card had been that he was the person ideally suited to steer a rapprochement between the Maronite and Sunni communities, something vitally important in light of the situation in Syria and the probable downfall of Bashar al-Assad's regime. Instead, his embrace of the Orthodox proposal, while it was principally directed against Aoun, has been largely construed by Sunnis as targeting them.

That said, Geagea's political gymnastics have betrayed anxiety that a Sunni triumph in Syria might alarm Lebanon's Christians, who fear an upsurge in Sunni Islamist groups. There also seems to be on Geagea's part understated resentment of Saad Hariri, who has been absent from Lebanon since 2011, leaving his allies in the lurch. So there may be some truth to the view that Geagea is not as well disposed to his Sunni allies as he once was.

The Christians are still paying a heavy price for the rivalry between Geagea and Aoun, as if one bout of communal self-destruction were not enough. How odd to hear Geagea speak about revitalizing the Lebanese state when he now backs a plan that will only further break up the state. And it is not being naïve to say such a thing, as if we were not wise to the sly political calculations of the Lebanese Forces leader. The reality is that both Geagea and the Kataeb have tied themselves up in knots through their maneuvering, and the Lebanese in general as well as Christians in particular lose from their choices.

For instance how are Christians living in mixed districts to fare when two of their leading communal political parties are pursuing greater isolation? Did Geagea and the Gemayels think of them at all when they approved of the Orthodox proposal? Or did that other devouring Maronite egotist, Patriarch Bshara al-Rai, who is too besotted with his own purported importance to grasp that many Christians live in mixed confessional districts, therefore need to coexist in harmony with their Muslim brethren?

The stupidity of the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb is painful to watch. At a moment when the overriding necessity, in light of the Syrian conflict, was to gain a parliamentary majority for March 14, or at least prevent Hezbollah from doing so, the two parties preferred to pursue their own trifling agenda. To hell with Lebanon, they have told us, as long as we can get a few more heads into parliament.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Political moves in Lebanon will test Beirut's stability

A Sunni politician from Beirut, Tammam Salam, has been designated to form a new Lebanese government. The main problem he is facing today is disagreements over what role the government should play, with elections scheduled to begin next June.

Mr Salam's appointment followed intense manoeuvring after the resignation of Najib Mikati. Hizbollah had wanted Mr Mikati to head a new government, while the party's main opponent, Saad Hariri, was apparently preparing to name Ashraf Rifi, the former head of the Internal Security Forces, as his bloc's candidate.

Neither man would have been ideal: Many Sunnis resented Mr Mikati for associating with Hizbollah in his previous government, while Mr Rifi would have been regarded as a provocation by Hizbollah, which sees the ISF as the security agency of the rival March 14 coalition.

Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader who holds the balance in parliament between March 14 and the Hizbollah-dominated March 8 coalition, broke the deadlock. Mr Jumblatt cannot afford Sunni-Shia conflict, as his base region is caught between majority Sunni and Shia districts. He travelled to Saudi Arabia to persuade the head of the Saudi intelligence service, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to back Mr Salam, a notable moderate. Though this was not easy, the prince finally agreed, obliging Mr Hariri, Lebanon's preeminent Sunni politician, to endorse Mr Salam.

Mr Salam's appointment as prime minister was widely welcomed by the Lebanese, who in previous weeks had sensed that their country was slipping into sectarian strife and economic decline. The Syrian conflict has been the primary cause of this development, with Hizbollah militarily backing the regime of the president, Bashar Al Assad, and most Lebanese Sunnis staunchly behind the rebels.

Lebanon's economy, too, has suffered from the fighting, which has reduced the export of goods to the Arab world. The Syrian war has discouraged tourists from visiting Lebanon in the past two years, a blow to the country's tourism sector.

Mr Mikati's government itself was wracked by divisions and perennial dissonance. Though it included political forces that were not necessarily antagonistic to each other, the government was undermined by the conflicting interests of its members, and Mr Mikati had perhaps hoped that by stepping down he would be able to form a more cohesive government. It is not surprising, then, that his resignation calmed the atmosphere by removing a source of frustration.

Still, Mr Salam's task is not an easy one. The major point of contention is what type of government he will form: will it be small, made up of non-partisan ministers whose principal role will be to organise parliamentary elections before resigning? Or will it be a national-unity government, Hizbollah's preference, with more political figures as ministers, which would last longer than Mr Salam would like?

Mr Salam has insisted that his priority is holding elections. He realises that a political government would be one that he has trouble controlling and whose legitimacy would be questioned if elections are indefinitely delayed. Last Monday, the March 8 coalition offered a compromise. It said it would support a non-partisan government if a parliamentary election law were agreed before the government's formation. The offer seemed reasonable, designed to avert a political vacuum, but Hizbollah's aim was rather different.

Hizbollah has been trying to prepare the political context in Lebanon for the possible fall of the Al Assad regime in Syria. Its prime objective is to gain control of the levers of the Lebanese state to protect itself and its weapons once the Syrian leader goes. Hizbollah's strategy is to win a majority in parliament, with its allies, or at least to prevent March 14 from winning one. A majority would allow the party to vote in a president and select a speaker of parliament, as well as to name all of Lebanon's senior military and security officials.

But for Hizbollah to achieve a parliamentary majority, it needs an election law that would guarantee it a victory. The party has succeeded in shifting the debate away from the present law, which would probably return a March 14 majority to parliament. It has also backed two other suggestions, a proportional voting system and the so-called Orthodox proposal, which would allow voters to vote only for candidates from their religious sect.

The Orthodox proposal has been criticised by those who say it will divide Lebanon further. The scheme will probably not be approved by parliament, but its offensiveness has pushed political forces to consider a fallback project of a mixed system that would include both proportional representation and a winner-take-all system. All these ideas have one overriding advantage for Hizbollah: they make the current law ever less likely and will weaken the electoral power of Mr Hariri, satisfying the party's aims.

That is why Hizbollah is so keen to push for a quick agreement over an election law. Once the party can secure a law that it views favourably, it matters little what Mr Salam does with his government, as he will be in office for a limited time. No one expects elections in June, however, making a delay likely. After that, Hizbollah wagers, it will be in a position to win a majority and form a pliable government.

But what that would mean is that Mr Salam, by insisting that elections take place on time, is doing precisely what Hizbollah wants. The party is using this as leverage for quick passage of a law it wants. Elections may ultimately take Lebanon back to the foul mood of some weeks ago, as Sunni-Shia tensions rise again. No wonder Mr Salam is not keen to manage the unwieldy Lebanese beast for too long.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Obama delusion

One still marvels at the self-delusion of the Norwegian Nobel Committee when it decided in 2009 to bestow the peace prize on President Barack Obama.

The decision was a backhanded swipe at George W. Bush more than an acknowledgment of Obama’s qualities. At the time the new president was only nine months into his first term and had done relatively little of consequence. But for the Nobel Committee, it was necessary to show that the world expected Obama to be very different than his predecessor (and the committee’s implicit identification of itself with “the world” surely displayed Nobel-standard hubris).

Now, with Obama in the early months of his second term, we can see how wrong the committee was. Yes, Obama is hardly a warmonger, and has definitely broken with the Bush style. But in praising the president’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” the committee was thinking of a dynamic internationalism built on laws and activist institutions, where resolutions of global problems demanded commitment from a United States working with myriad partners.

But as Obama showed, being different than Bush hardly means meeting the expectations of a panel of idealistic Scandinavians. Instead, the president has, at best, proven himself to be an amoral minimalist, seemingly unresponsive to human rights abuses and international law, for whom internationalism means that the world should do more so that the United States can do less, as it rebuilds its economy and focuses on gay marriage and gun-control legislation.

Obama has substantial backing at home for this approach. Americans, after a decade of military involvement overseas, have had enough. They prefer to look inwards and wrestle with domestic priorities. Recall that this same insular impulse undermined George H. W. Bush’s re-election bid in 1992, as voters turned against a president more taken by foreign affairs than by American pocketbooks.

Bush could have defended himself by saying that wrapping up the Cold War and removing the Iraqi army from Kuwait necessitated a rather longer attention span than most Americans were willing to concede to overseas matters. When Bill Clinton insisted that “it’s the economy, stupid!” Americans liked what they heard. And when Clinton’s eight years ended, they thought they had found in George W. Bush someone similarly preoccupied with internal issues.

Bush, of course, proved otherwise. But even those who consider him a yahoo don’t realize that the president functioned mainly through international institutions and multilateral contact groups for much of his tenure, particularly in the Middle East. Other than Iraq, indeed because of Iraq, the president usually sought consensus in addressing regional problems. Whether it was the Iranian nuclear file, Palestinian-Israeli talks, the situation in Lebanon after Rafiq Hariri’s assassination, or Afghanistan, Bush was no unilateralist.

And to his credit, when the situation in Iraq began seriously deteriorating in 2006, Bush did not abandon the Iraqi population to a sorry fate. Yet this is precisely what Obama may soon do in Afghanistan, the “right war,” as he draws down American forces there. For all the high regard that people have for Obama, the president has seemed largely unperturbed by threats to peace in the world and the obstacles to collective international action.

Nowhere has this been more evident in Syria, which will one day be seen as a stain on Obama’s legacy. From the start of the conflict, the president has refused to take a lead in fashioning an international response to the conflict. The United Nations has been deadlocked, and Obama has done nothing to break this deadlock. Well over 70,000 people have been killed by a barbaric regime, most of them civilians, yet Obama has not even managed a stirring speech on their tragedy. The president once said that Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons were a red line for the United States, and yet he has been largely silent on the Syrian government’s refusal to allow a UN team into the country to ascertain if such weapons were used.

Obama is not truly interested in what is going in the world, and the impact on America’s credibility. He is a detached leader on matters that do not involve Americans. Remember how the president was once viewed as having a global cultural sensibility, with his African father and his time spent in Indonesia as a boy? The reality is quite different. Obama is the man we feared George W. Bush would be: stubbornly unwilling to involve himself in the tribulations of other nations, even if this means abandoning American values.

Underpinning all this is Obama’s failure to formulate a cohesive foreign policy strategy. The president has been good at making loud pronouncements that lead to inaction. There is no sense that he has an integrated, overriding philosophy for dealing with the world. A realist, he has nonetheless skirted issues harming American interests. His secretaries of state have been competent managers, but not people of imagination and vision, who take the long view of foreign policy and tie this into America’s identity as a global actor.

What are the sources of American conduct? The Norwegian Nobel Committee didn’t ask the question, perhaps because they too readily assumed that the answer reflected their own preferences. But the fact is that Obama himself has never answered what America must stand for, so reluctant has he been to be tied down with absolutes.

What crises that appear, the president prefers to sidestep, his high rhetoric concealing the fact that he’s escaping through the back door. Some call this prudence. Others regret a United States for whom evasion has been elevated to the level of a virtue. All pay a price for the instability left by an unwilling America.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Russian role in Syria will not end when the regime falls

Russian President Vladimir Putin called last week for an end to the carnage in Syria, and strongly advocated negotiations between the parties. This sounded hypocritical from a leader whose country has contributed to the carnage by supplying weapons to President Bashar Al Assad's regime. Perhaps sensing the apparent duplicity, Mr Putin called on Monday for an end to arms supplies to all sides in Syria.

His contradictions notwithstanding, the Russian president's comments point to another reality, one reinforced by fears that the fall of Mr Al Assad would not bring peace, because the minority Alawites would see the new Syria as an existential threat and continue the fight. This reality is that, regardless of Moscow's behaviour until now in Syria, the Russians will be essential in helping pave the way towards a peaceful endgame.

Why Russia has sided with Mr Al Assad is a matter of debate. Some argue that Mr Putin sought to prevent western countries, especially the United States, from doing in Syria what they had done in Libya. Another view is that the Russians feared that a triumph by Sunni Islamists against Mr Al Assad would provoke similar yearnings in Russia's Muslim republics, among Islamists hostile to Moscow.

That could be true. But nothing seems likely to save Mr Al Assad now, as his forces lose control over large swathes of territory in Syria's north and south. And if the president goes, then the nature of Russian involvement in Syria will change. From being a defender of the status quo, Russia may become a guarantor of minority groups, above all the Alawites.

Few are better placed than the Russians to address the fears of the Alawites. This may not be to the liking of an Islamist-dominated post-war Syrian government, but ultimately that government's priority will be to stabilise the country, and that could make dealing with Russia unavoidable. Addressing the apprehensions of minorities will be a primary responsibility of any post-Al-Assad leadership.

The United States is unlikely to help much in this regard. The Americans are disengaging from the Middle East, and their ties to the Alawites and other minorities are negligible. The Europeans don't have the sway to take the lead on minorities, even if they contribute to a general settlement. Russia is mistrusted by the Syrian opposition, but it can contribute to normalisation by reassuring minorities. Therefore its influence may be more significant than we imagine.

Where Russia might make a difference is in maintaining open channels between a post-Al Assad government and former Alawite army and intelligence officers and other minority representatives, who could potentially lead resistance to the new authorities. And if Mr Al Assad still holds power in some Alawite enclave on the coast, only Russia would have the credibility and contacts to push him in directions that facilitate an overall resolution of the conflict.

A reason why western states may see benefit in granting this latitude to Russia is that they would prefer Russia over Iran to fill a post-war vacuum. While both countries are bolstering the Syrian regime, their motives are different. Russia seeks to avoid the blowback of an Islamist-led uprising in Syria; Iran needs to protect its assets in the Levant. Where the Russians aim to avert chaos, the Iranians may see in chaos an opportunity to fill the vacuum to their advantage.

One Iranian priority is to carry on supplying weapons to Hizbollah via Syria, if needed. That may be why Tehran has organised and trained Syrian minority militias. This takes us back to 1982, when Iran established and armed Lebanese Shiite groups during the Israeli invasion, to have leverage in the post-conflict phase. By securing lines of communication between Syria's coast and the majority Shiite Baalbeck-Hermel district in Lebanon, Tehran could guarantee arms deliveries to Hizbollah if Lebanon were besieged in a war with Israel.

Russia, which has a good relationship with Israel, has no such ambitions. On the contrary, from Israel's perspective, Russian influence in a post-Assad Syria may be welcome, given Israeli fears that a void might lead to attacks in the Golan Heights.

Any political formula that helps resolve the Syrian conflict is one that Israel cannot help but endorse, particularly at a time when the United States has adopted an increasingly minimalist approach to the region.

And the Russians may have another, commercial, incentive in mediating in Syria. Recently, Russia's Rosneft partnered with ExxonMobil to bid jointly on a tender to develop Lebanon's offshore gas and oil reserves.

Lebanon's stability is tied in to that of Syria, and Syria's offshore gas and oil sector will, once peace is achieved, become a lucrative magnet for Russian investment. Gone are the days when Russia's principal focus was on weapons exports to the Arab world. Today a stake in Syria's and Lebanon's economies may be far more effective in extending Russian influence in the region.

Nor will this necessarily lead to friction between Russia and the United States, despite their disagreement over Syria. Ultimately, Washington, too, is looking for a negotiated outcome, and worries that a military solution will lead only to Syria's fragmentation.

With this in mind, it may be time for the US and Russia to begin informal consultations over a post-Assad Syria, so that they see eye to eye on any Russian intercession.

The protection of minorities concerns both countries, even as they prepare to engage with the majority.

Syrians are no doubt justified in blaming Russia for many of their woes today. From the start, Mr Putin has been on the wrong side of the Syrian revolt. But Russia may well prove to be indispensable to a Syrian peace, and the time to start thinking about this eventuality is now.

Lebanon’s minorities have Syria in mind

Lebanon’s latest political psychodrama is about whether the deadline for candidacies to the forthcoming parliamentary elections should be extended or suspended. This has produced some strange bedfellows, namely the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb on the Christian side, and Hezbollah and Amal on the Muslim side.

At the heart of the problem is the 1960 election law, which the main Christian parties reject out of hand. If elections are held on the basis of the law, these parties have vowed not to participate. For them, as for Hezbollah and Amal, extending the deadline for candidacies under the 1960 law means legitimizing that law. So they prefer the proposal of the Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, to suspend candidacies altogether, challenging the 1960 law and possibly precipitating a political vacuum if no agreement on an alternative is reached.

The behavior of the Lebanese Forces is, perhaps, most difficult to explain. The party has backed the Orthodox proposal, but in the face of withering criticism, Lebanese Forces officials sought to explain their position. In fact, they only confused matters more.

The gist of their argument went something like this. Under the 1960 law, the Lebanese Forces are at a disadvantage. The party cannot afford to win the same relatively small number of seats that it did in 2009, as this would lead to permanent marginalization. Most Christians support the Orthodox proposal. So, Samir Geagea had to endorse it, especially as Michel Aoun has done so. But in reality, Geagea is open to a law that would be agreed with March 14 and that satisfies his political objectives. “Geagea is playing chess while the others are playing checkers,” a party official explained to me.

Soon thereafter, there were reports that if the Orthodox proposal came up for a vote in Parliament, the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb would not vote in favor. How true this was is anyone’s guess, but it begged the question: If backing the Orthodox proposal was merely a tactical ploy by Geagea, then why would he undermine it by opposing the proposal when his approval mattered the most?

In fact, what we saw was something rather different. When Berri called for a parliamentary session to take up the matter of an election law, he did two things. First, he asked March 14 to come up with an election proposal of its own to place against the Orthodox proposal; and he called for the full suspension of candidacies, rather than a delay in the deadline. To the first request, Berri received no response, as March 14 remains divided over a preferred proposal, and the Future Movement, wanting to avert a greater rift with Geagea, has formulated no election project of its own.

In turn, Berri’s suggestion that candidacies be suspended under the 1960 law was welcomed by all the major Christian parties. Perhaps it was another chess move by the Lebanese Forces, but the message was unmistakable: The party would side with Hezbollah and Berri to torpedo the 1960 law, regardless of whether this might lead to a constitutional vacuum, and regardless of whether it helps ensure that March 14 will not win a majority in the next Parliament.

This dilutes the protests of the Lebanese Forces officials who have always insisted that their primary aim is to strengthen March 14. As for the Future Movement, whose interests are harmed by Christian approval of the Orthodox proposal, it has advanced a compromise: Candidacies would be suspended until May 19, allowing time for talks to reach agreement over a consensual election law. This was approved on Wednesday.

But for one senior politician, the tacit alliance between the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb, Berri and Hezbollah may suggest something more than electoral maneuvering. Instead of thinking about March 14, Geagea and his deputy George Adwan are actually concerned about the aftermath of the conflict in Syria.

Because Christians fear Sunni affirmation following the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime, quite possibly in an Islamist guise, Geagea, the Kataeb, and the Aounists are laying the basis of an alliance of minorities with the Shiite community. Their accord over the Orthodox proposal proves this, as does the Lebanese Forces’ and the Kataeb’s refusal to be mere accessories of the Future Movement, which the 1960 law guarantees.

Is this true? The long absence of Saad Hariri has created a void in the Sunni community, the consequences of which, Christians worry, will be greater Sunni radicalization. In response, the Christian parties had an opportunistic interest in making it appear to their co-religionists that they would defend them against a Sunni resurgence. But they also saw an advantage in preparing for the endgame in Syria, and the Orthodox proposal, whereby each minority can shape its own destiny free from other communities, allegedly was the way to do so.

Certainly, Geagea has lost the esteem he enjoyed among many Sunnis, preferring to rally Christian support through actions addressing communal anxieties. In tactical terms this has increased his electoral leverage over Hariri. However, the leverage means nothing if there are no elections because the Christian strategy has led to a void; and it means nothing if the Lebanese Forces decide, henceforth, to position themselves as the defenders of Christians against a Sunni renewal.

An alliance of minorities may be attractive to many Christians, but what it means is that the community could find itself once again standing against the overwhelming majority in the Arab world. This is what happened during the war years, and the result was a collapse in Christian fortunes and numbers. To adopt such a position when Sunnis may be about to triumph in Syria is not only stupid, it is suicidal. Geagea grasped this reality not so long ago, which makes his contortions on the election law all the more incomprehensible.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rocky start to Hariri tribunal is a test for Lebanese politics

On March 25, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was to begin the trial of four Hizbollah members accused of participating in the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. This was delayed by the pretrial judge to give the defence more time to prepare its case. No new trial date has yet been set.

In Lebanon, the postponement hardly caused a ripple, a sign of how low expectations are for a process that has dragged on for years. And yet in the political climate today in the country, the trial is bound to add to the ambient tension between Sunni and Shia. At the same time, this uncertainty will have an effect on the trial process.

Take the recent retirement of Ashraf Rifi, the director general of the Internal Security Forces. There were expectations that Mr Rifi's term would be extended, but this was not to be. Prime Minister Najib Mikati pushed for an extension in his government, but a majority, led by Hizbollah and Michel Aoun, refused to endorse the proposal. This precipitated Mr Mikati's resignation, as he could not afford to abandon Mr Rifi, like him a Sunni from Tripoli.

Mr Rifi closely collaborated with the United Nations investigation of the Hariri assassination. He took over at the ISF from Ali Al Haj, one of the four generals jailed for their alleged involvement in the killing, then released for lack of evidence. Once the head of Mr Hariri's security detail, Mr Al Haj later spied on him for the Syrians. Mr Rifi, in turn, has been regarded as a rare pro-March 14 commander (and therefore, anti-Syrian) in the security services. That is principally why his mandate was not extended.

From the special tribunal's perspective, Mr Rifi was a choice Lebanese interlocutor. Two of his officers, Samir Shehadeh and Wissam Eid, played a key role in linking telephone data to Hizbollah, which formed the basis of the current indictment. Mr Shehadeh was the target of an assassination attempt in September 2006, and left Lebanon soon thereafter. Mr Eid was killed by a car bomb in January 2008.

Another of Mr Rifi's senior officers, Wissam Al Hassan, headed the security force's intelligence branch, before he, too, was assassinated last October. Many suspected Hizbollah, because of its widespread security network, of being behind that assassination as well as the attacks against Mr Eid and Mr Shehadeh. The party has denied this.

With Mr Rifi gone, the tribunal will be looking to see if cooperation with the ISF will continue, and if any further requests for assistance will be addressed in a positive way.

The ISF director general officially stepped down last weekend, to be replaced by his deputy, Roger Salem, who himself is scheduled to retire in a few months. The ISF leadership is generally held by a Sunni, and the fear in March 14 was that once Mr Salem left, he would be replaced by Mr Al Haj, due to seniority.

The advent of Mr Al Haj would be regarded as a provocation by pro-Hariri Sunnis. Many do not see him heading the ISF, because this could provoke domestic unrest. Indeed, some foreign embassies in Beirut have warned senior Lebanese politicians that they could not tolerate a return of Mr Al Haj, who would have latitude to influence embassy security and might opt, at Syria's request, to arrest and deport Syrian opposition figures in Lebanon.

If Mr Al Haj is sidelined, the senior Sunni in the ISF is Ibrahim Basbous, considered to be politically neutral by insiders. This cannot reassure March 14, which seeks an active ISF chief who will protect them - understandable in a country vulnerable to political assassinations. But given the importance of the special tribunal to Sunnis in particular, Mr Basbous will find it difficult to resist cooperation with that body if he takes over the ISF.

One scenario being discussed is that parliament will soon vote to raise the retirement age for senior security figures, in response to a petition signed by 69 parliamentarians. This would resolve the Rifi problem, allowing the general to be brought back from the reserves to again command the ISF. This, in turn, would facilitate the extension of the commander of the Lebanese Army, Jean Qahwaji, later this year, averting a vacuum at the head of the major security institutions.

The special tribunal would welcome such a development. Continuity is essential to its work, above all when there is no functioning Lebanese government and the political system is divided and deadlocked.

And yet once the trial starts, it is unlikely to do much good for national reconciliation. It would shine a bright lamp on Hizbollah's alleged participation in a crime that Sunnis regard as having been directed against their community, through the elimination of a communal champion. This could further exacerbate Sunni-Shia ties, even as the communities already differ deeply over Syria, Lebanon's parliamentary elections and, now, Mr Rifi's fate.

Lebanon has a vested interest in reassuring the special tribunal that it stands behind its work. Once the trial begins, the suspects will most probably be tried in absentia, as none have been arrested. This will not help Lebanon's reputation internationally, least of all if Hizbollah remains in government. One way to compensate is to ensure close Lebanese collaboration with the tribunal, and this concerns most visibly the justice minister, the interior minister and the ISF chief.

Whether Mr Rifi is back at his post or not, Lebanon must prove it can respect its international obligations. This is easier said than done. The country is passing through great instability, and the success of the special tribunal may suffer as a consequence. For a long time, tribunal officials insisted their work was unconnected to internal Lebanese politics. Their bubble of splendid isolation may soon be burst.

Friday, April 5, 2013

In search of enemies

Michel Aoun has said that he would not accept a return of Najib Miqati as prime minister. That’s understandable, since the biggest loser when Miqati chose to step down was Aoun.

But is the General really surprised? To be allied with Aoun has always been a risky venture, given that his opportunism invariably sinks his partners. Aoun not only alienated Miqati (the performance of Aounist ministers was an endless source of frustration for the prime minister), he has also antagonized the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri. Only Hezbollah has been spared Aoun’s duplicity, largely because the party is so much more powerful than he is.

There has been talk recently that Hezbollah’s patience is limited. Aoun’s maneuvering at Miqati’s expense – for instance, his backing of the so-called Orthodox proposal and of a pay raise for the public sector, both of which the prime minister opposed – helped push Miqati to the door, something Hezbollah did not want. Perhaps, but officially the party was fairly close to Aoun on both these issues, and at a moment when the Assad regime in Syria seems so vulnerable, Hezbollah cannot afford to lose its main Christian ally.

But has Aoun done anything with this leverage? Hezbollah helped win him 12 ministers in the Miqati government, but then the General squandered this advantage by systematically undermining the prime minister. Aoun’s gift for angering potential allies always seems to harm his political interests. Berri cannot stomach him, nor can Walid Jumblatt, whom Aoun accused on Tuesday of not being normal, after Jumblatt stated his opposition to a return of Free Patriotic Movement ministers to the Telecoms and Energy Ministries.

Gebran Bassil and Nicholas Sehnaoui irritated the so-called centrists in the government, which explains Jumblatt’s reaction. Bassil’s management of the offshore gas projects has long elicited Miqati’s mistrust, while his sending fuel oil to the Syrian regime discredited the prime minister in the eyes of his own community.

As for Sehnaoui, he repeatedly refused to hand over telephone and internet data to the Internal Security Forces in the investigation of Wissam al-Hassan’s assassination. Sehnaoui’s refusal was defendable, as he sought to protect privacy, but to Miqati and the centrists it looked like yet another effort to impede the Hassan inquiry.

Aoun has viewed conflict as beneficial to his power, even if he has had a knack for losing his most important battles. From his ruinous uprising against the Syrian presence in Lebanon over two decades ago to his more recent wager on the ultimate triumph of Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian revolt, Aoun has miscalculated. He may be skilled at playing on Christian fears of marginalization, which led him to favor the Orthodox proposal, but this is hardly challenging. When it comes to reading the longer-term outlook for Lebanon and the region, Aoun has usually reasoned like an ignorant provincial bigot.

The General’s most damaging habit has been to keep up his hostility to the Sunni community, seeing this as a way of rallying the support of Christians, given their historic apprehension of the Sunni majority in the region. But this is not particularly smart at a time when we are witnessing a Sunni revival, and when Aoun’s ally Hezbollah is on the defensive given the likely overthrow of Assad in the foreseeable future. Worse, Aoun’s behavior has prompted negative reactions from the Gulf states, where more than 100,000 Lebanese work.

When given the choice between pursuing short-term gain or laying the groundwork for long-term advantage, Aoun has usually chosen the former. After the elections of 2005 the General became the natural choice to succeed Emile Lahoud as president, given that he had emerged as the leading Christian representative. All Aoun had to do was to navigate a neutral path between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, open to both sides yet committed to none.

In that situation, any effort to deny him the presidency in 2008 would have been regarded by Christians as an effort to disregard their preferences, which neither March 8 nor March 14 could afford. After all, Berri had stayed in office because the Shiites demanded it, and Fouad Siniora had become prime minister because Sunnis demanded it.

So what did Aoun do? He sided with Hezbollah against the same majority in parliament necessary for his eventual election. This he did because he felt that an alliance with Hezbollah would improve his chances, and he sensed that Christians would support him against Saad Hariri and Jumblatt following the quadripartite agreement between Hariri, Jumblatt, Hezbollah, and Berri in the elections of 2005, which many Christians viewed as a betrayal.

Soon, Aoun’s partisans conveniently forgot that Hezbollah had been part of that agreement. Hezbollah never seriously pushed for a Aoun presidency, and by opposing the parliamentary majority the general lost any chance of being elected, thwarting his principal ambition.

This may have been par for the course for the erratic Aoun, but it was also a debilitating setback to a rare consistent aspiration in a political career marked by contradiction and obfuscation. After Michel Suleiman came to office instead of Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement leader found that he had hit a glass ceiling. He has continued to play politics, but having been denied the ultimate prize, he has done so without much sense of purpose. Instead Aoun has aggressively struck out in all directions, in seeming frustration at his pointlessness.

This is the man whom too many Christians regard as a model. But a model of what? Of political failure and cheap populist pandering? Of sectarian narrow-mindedness? Of personal ambition regardless of what this might cost Lebanon as a whole? The sad thing is that Aoun has always been in a position to offer much more than that, but he has never been able to resist the pull of his darker side.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Obama should prepare his apology now

In March 1998, President Bill Clinton issued an apology to the people of Rwanda for having done nothing to prevent the genocide of 1994, in which between 500,000 and 1 million people were killed.

President Barack Obama should prepare his apology to the Syrians. While a genocide may not be taking place, the deaths of over 70,000 people, the fact that the Assad regime is using tactical ballistic missiles and warplanes against its own civilians, and the creation of a refugee population in the hundreds of thousands demand more from Washington than the utterly useless response of today.

American interests in the Middle East may not be what they once were, but one should not overstate the point. The U.S. still has a strategic benefit in strengthening alliances with regimes that have emerged, or are emerging, from the upheaval that began in December 2010. It still has much to gain from regional stability, above all the prevention of sectarian conflict that may undermine much of what the Americans have achieved, and died for, in the past 10 years.

And even if growing U.S. self-sufficiency in oil and gas makes the region less vital in terms of oil supply, there are many global economic powerhouses, such as China, that continue to rely on Middle Eastern oil. Their economic health is vital for the global economy, therefore the U.S. economy. Regional instability also affects global oil prices, which in turn impacts on economies worldwide. Saudi Arabia still can help stabilize international oil markets.

The debate over Syria has gone through several permutations, many based on false premises. The most misleading argument against involvement is that the United States is not prepared to deploy forces, since, we are told, Americans have spent a decade at war and Obama wants to focus on domestic concerns, above all the U.S. economy.

That assumes that the economy is not tied into Middle Eastern tranquility. Nor is it realistic to claim that the only thing America can do in Syria is to send troops. No one has seriously proposed this, and as the war in Libya proved, there are alternatives short of American boots on the ground. Yet the Obama administration has not shown any interest in examining all options, preferring to allow events in Syria to take their course, only realizing lately that this was a mistake.

But this realization has not led to a broad reconsideration of American policy. Instead, the Obama administration has preferred to engage in limited measures to shape dynamics largely pushed by others. No effort has been made to identify realistic preferable outcomes, before using American power to bring these about.

Instead, American actions show a lack of clarity and conviction. On Wednesday the Washington Post reported that the U.S. and Jordan had stepped up training of Syrian opposition combatants. The objective is for these combatants to defend a buffer zone along the Jordanian border, from where the armed opposition can attack Damascus, and through which humanitarian aid can be distributed.

However, for a buffer zone to be effective, it must have the means to protect itself from air attack. Yet the U.S. has told the Syrian rebels not to expect Western countries to create a no-fly zone above the territory. That means that the rebels will have to rely on anti-aircraft missiles. But here, too, the U.S. is very reluctant to see this happen, fearing that such missiles may eventually be used against Israel.

So what does the U.S. propose? If it has gone to the trouble of preparing Syrians to carve out a buffer zone, then it cannot ask them to forego measures necessary to protect it. But all the possible measures to do so worry the U.S., making you wonder why the Obama administration decided to train the rebels in the first place.

Similarly, for some time the U.S. has favored a political solution to the Syrian conflict. This has represented a gross misreading of reality in the country, since the Assad regime seeks to bludgeon the opposition before engaging in talks and the opposition is unwilling to speak to a mass murderer. In the absence of a military advantage by one side, there never was a serious hope for negotiations.

In failing to conclude something so obvious, the Obama administration displayed laziness, even incompetence. Yet to acknowledge that only by breaking the military stalemate could a political outcome have become possible meant giving the opposition the tools to gain the upper hand against the regime. But the administration has always said it does not want to fuel the Syrian conflict. The consequences have been that the conflict escalated anyway, Salafist-jihadists filled the vacuum, a political outcome became more remote than ever, and now the U.S. has backtracked in bolstering the rebels, realizing that the quicker the fighting ends, the better for the region.

Nor does this explain why Obama has been so reluctant to take the lead in building an international consensus over Syria. Only the Americans could find potential common ground with Russia and cobble together an accord at the U.N. Security Council. Only Washington could impose a semblance of order, while setting red lines, on Saudi, Turkish and Qatari assistance to the rebels.

All this was never going to be easy, but as the opposition gained ground, a flexible diplomatic process might have created valuable openings. But to many people Obama is above reproach. His inaction has been viewed as laudable prudence, after the George W. Bush years. But the reality is that Obama has behaved shamefully in Syria, and his administration has been lethargic and usually wrong. The president should prepare his apology now, and read it with his Nobel peace prize in the other hand. No image would better illustrate the pointlessness of American behavior in the Syrian conflict.