Friday, June 28, 2013

We’re all ears

The fate of Edward Snowden, the contractor who leaked information on National Security Agency (NSA) programs to gather massive amounts of information on Americans and non-Americans alike, continues to make headlines. The Obama administration has succeeded in turning the NSA story into one about Snowden himself, who for some unexplainable reason now stands accused of espionage. He is viewed by many of his countrymen as suspect for having traveled to Moscow, and for perhaps intending to fly on to Ecuador, via Havana.

China, from where Snowden escaped, Russia, and Ecuador are hardly shining examples of democracy, and have frequently opposed the United States. But Matthew Feeney has observed on the Reason website that we shouldn’t assume that Snowden’s behavior implies sympathy for the three countries. “At this point, he's just trying to avoid ending up in a cage on American soil. If he can do that while steering clear of a police state, he surely will,” wrote Feeney.

The difficulty the Obama administration has been having in getting international backing for Snowden’s arrest is, to a large extent, a consequence of anger with an NSA surveillance program that has attracted relatively less attention in the United States because it is mainly directed against foreigners. The so-called PRISM program came to light a few weeks ago in The Guardian, when it was revealed that the NSA was gathering large quantities of personal data on non-Americans from servers of American companies such as Google, Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, YouTube, AOL, and Apple.

Non-Americans are not covered by U.S. laws designed to protect privacy, even if they use the online services of American companies. And unlike the information gathered on Americans swept up in the data collection program directed at Verizon customers, PRISM did not focus merely on metadata – meaning  information about communications – it specifically obtained the content of emails, voice chats, videos, photographs, file transfers, and so on.

The American tech companies denied that they provided the U.S. government with access to their servers, but for many observers this was more wordplay than truth, an effort to avoid a public backlash that might have harmed the companies’ financial interests. It is generally believed that the companies do collaborate with American intelligence agencies, as the Verizon case showed, even if the precise nature of how they do so remains unclear.

Equally disturbing were revelations in The Guardian, based on other documents leaked by Snowden, that the United Kingdom’s GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA, was scooping up large amounts of information by tapping into trans-Atlantic internet cables. This raised alarm bells even within the British intelligence services. One source involved in GCHQ operations told the newspaper: “We felt we were starting to overstep the mark with some of it. People from MI5 were complaining that [GCHQ was] going too far from a civil liberties perspective… We all had reservations about it, because we all thought: ‘If this was used against us, we wouldn't stand a chance.’”

GCHQ shared this information with the U.S. government, raising further questions about safeguards to protect Americans. Under American law a warrant is necessary to get data from Americans, but only if they are suspected of a specific crime. But it’s uncertain whether material passed on from a foreign intelligence agency, if it includes information on or from Americans, is subject to the same legal standards, let alone whether these standards were respected.

But all this is academic for the large number of non-Americans whose privacy was invaded by PRISM and the GCHQ program. They have no legal rights under American or British law, even if they mistakenly believed that their privacy would be respected by the companies through which they accessed online services. And this is what has irritated governments in Russia, China, Germany and Switzerland, who now know the United States is spying on their companies and citizens in ways that the Americans had rigorously concealed.

American officials and representatives have argued that PRISM is necessary to fight terrorism, and have defended the program as a success. You would expect them to say that, because it costs them nothing politically to justify a global spying enterprise against foreign nationals. But for foreigners the story is different. No less than Americans, they don’t care to see their private lives violated, especially those who may have some connection with the United States, or travel there, but are not protected by its laws.

Given the ease with which people having foreign names, especially Arabs, can be confused with one another, there is an understandable fear among many people, for instance, that they may become victims of mistaken identity in terrorist-related cases. Others may be vulnerable to blackmail, and don’t want American intelligence agencies using such information in an effort to recruit them.

There are an infinite number of other reasons why individuals may not want their records collected by a foreign power. Imagine had the Soviet Union implemented such a program against Americans during the Cold War, this would have sparked outrage in America.

It is all the more troubling for undermining the credibility of the internet, the most liberating of all inventions, designed to facilitate the free flow of information and often helping circumvent autocratic regimes for whom the privacy of citizens is a threat.

Now the internet has been turned around by a democratic country that has nevertheless amassed far more potential power over people’s lives than the worst dictatorship. Identifying Snowden as the villain is to miss the point. Rather, the NSA should quote from Walt Kelly’s classic comic strip, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lebanon's army is balanced between state and Hizbollah

On Sunday and Monday, the Lebanese army fought against followers of the Salafist sheikh Ahmad Al Assir near the city of Sidon. This combat, the most serious challenge to civil peace in Lebanon since the war in Syria began, shone a light on some of the problems Lebanon faces as it seeks to avoid collapsing into civil war.

Mr Al Assir's decision to attack the army on Sunday - leading to the death of two officers - reflected the mistrust that many in the Sunni community feel towards the military. There is a perception among Sunnis that the army is an instrument of Hizbollah. This goes back to May 2008, when the party overran predominantly Sunni neighbourhoods in western Beirut, and the army allowed it to happen.

Sunnis in the Sidon suburb of Abra, where Mr Al Assir was based, were particularly angry that the army had taken no measures to oppose Shia militias that fired dozens of rockets into Abra during an armed confrontation early last week. When, on Sunday, two people close to Mr Al Assir were mistreated at an army checkpoint, he ordered his men to fire on the soldiers and called on Sunnis in the armed forces to desert, which the army could not let pass.

The army has indeed been close to Hizbollah, but this is not surprising. For 20 years now the senior officer corps has been made up largely of men promoted by pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians and parties including Hizbollah. Christian officers close to Michel Aoun did not fit into this category, but since he returned to Lebanon in 2005, Mr Aoun has sided with Syria and Hizbollah, so that his officers too now lean towards Hizbollah.

However, it is equally true that the army today is the prime defender of civil peace in Lebanon, and that it reflects the country's communal mosaic. The army command is careful not to take positions that might alienate its substantial Sunni rank and file. Efforts to cast doubt on the military's allegiances risk implicitly legitimising actions such as those of Mr Al Assir and his sympathisers, who regard the army as an enemy - "an Iranian army," Mr Al Assir has called it.

This points to another reality highlighted by Mr Al Assir's action: a sense that the agenda of Lebanon's Sunni community has been hijacked by its extremists. After the fighting near Sidon, mainstream Sunni politicians expressed support for the army, but avoided condemning Mr Al Assir. That was not because they agreed with him - indeed many saw him as a menace - but because they did not want to alienate the Sunni street, where Mr Al Assir's hostility to Hizbollah is popular.

The influence of Sunni Salafist groups has often been exaggerated. However, it's also true that at a time when the principal Sunni organisation, the Future Movement, is in a state of relative disarray, with its leader Saad Hariri having been absent from Lebanon since 2011, smaller, Islamist groups have gradually filled the vacuum. That is why moderate Sunni politicians must not allow the Abra incident to lead to their marginalisation among Sunnis, or permit other communities to portray them as being anti-state.

To clear up any ambiguities, Mr Hariri took to the airwaves on Monday to affirm support for the army. He remarked: "Perhaps the method [of dealing with Mr Al Assir] was harsh, but anything against the state must be dealt with in the same manner and no one is bigger than [the] country … if anyone believes the opposite, a day will come and they will ask the state for help and protection."

While this may not have pleased some Sunnis, Mr Hariri was plainly referring to Hizbollah when he stated "We will continue to say that arms are the main problem in the country."

Mr Al Assir picked a fight with Hizbollah and the state that he had little chance of winning. Sidon is a strategic passageway for Hizbollah, linking the predominantly Shia southern suburbs of Beirut to the party's stronghold in southern Lebanon. Mr Al Assir's warnings that he would close the road became intolerable to Hizbollah, all the more so as the cleric might have benefitted, in the event of broader fighting, from the assistance of Salafist groups in the Ain Al Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon.

Ultimately, the army defeated Mr Al Assir, who fled to an unknown location. Hizbollah can be happy with this, but so can the Lebanese in general. While Hizbollah undoubtedly is to blame for the rising tensions in Lebanon, due to its military interference in the Syrian conflict on the side of the Al Assad regime, inside Lebanon the party is keen to preserve civil peace, to protect its rear.

Mr Al Assir's abrupt departure may momentarily calm what had been a dangerous sectarian flashpoint in Sidon. While Salafist groups took to the streets in several places in support of the sheikh, they did so in a disorganised way that by one day later seemed largely to have been contained.

The best option for those Lebanese opposed to Hizbollah is to stabilise Lebanon politically, and allow the party to be drawn deeper into the Syrian quagmire. Improved arms supplies to the Syrian rebels will make them a far tougher opponent, and Syria's conflict will drag on, with Hizbollah losing more and more men.

Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently invited those who opposed the party to fight against it in Syria, not in Lebanon. The party's foes should take him up on the offer. Most Lebanese don't want and cannot afford a devastating sectarian war. Mr Al Assir failed to grasp this, which explains why few people regret his setback.

Lebanon’s Sunnis must not be hijacked

The Lebanese would do well to think of Prince Saud al-Faisal’s description of Syria as “occupied territory” in the joint news conference he held Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. For if Syria is regarded as “occupied” because of the presence of Iran and Hezbollah there, then what of Lebanon, where both have a decisive say over the country’s affairs?

As a Lebanese parliamentarian astutely put it recently, the deployment of American soldiers, aircraft, and Patriot missiles to Jordan was an American line drawn in the sand at the Hashemite kingdom. But no line is being drawn in Lebanon, except one placing the country on the dark side, as a territory effectively controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its local partners.

Both the Lebanese and Saudis have to inject nuance into this view. Hezbollah is powerful, but as a house of many mansions Lebanon is not a place where anyone can take domination for granted. Hezbollah won a round against Sheikh Ahmad Assir, profiting from his foolish attack on the Army, but the party cannot be reassured when its Sunni foes are bolder and when the Saudis are portraying Iranian influence as equivalent to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

There is some question as to whether the Gulf states seek to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon. Until now, their actions have been relatively restricted in nature, even if they have employed a big hammer against a fragile Lebanese economy.

Lebanese working in the Gulf who are considered close to Hezbollah, or who have given money to the party, are being expelled. The decision of Gulf governments to advise their nationals not to travel to Lebanon has more to do with these states’ fear of seeing citizens kidnapped and used as bargaining chips, than with a desire to undermine the tourism industry.

More worrisome is that the Saudis may consider Lebanon so far gone into the Hezbollah camp, that they will increase their backing of armed Sunni adversaries of the party. The Assir phenomenon shows the dangers of such a strategy. That’s not to say that Riyadh financed the sheikh. But when the Saudis intervene in a situation, they tend to act through Islamist networks, and in the highly charged sectarian context present today, this can lead to a Sunni-Shiite explosion.

Assir’s reference to the Lebanese Army as an “Iranian army,” like his call on Sunnis to desert the armed forces, erased any middle ground filled by the Lebanese state. In Assir’s view there are only Sunnis and Shiites, and the state is an instrument largely in the hands of the Shiites, inviting legitimate Sunni antagonism.

This is not a majority view among Sunnis. After initial hesitation among Sunni politicians to condemn Assir Sunday, for fear of alienating the Sunni street, Saad Hariri clarified matters Monday when he reproached Assir for having formed an armed group. “The Army made major sacrifices and we must all embrace it,” Hariri unambiguously told Future television. “We in the Future movement will remain with the Army, no matter what they are saying ... and our project will remain the state.”

This is a message the Saudis and other Gulf states must take to heart. A civil war in Lebanon will not advance their interests in Syria. On the contrary, it will give Bashar Assad room to pursue his repression at home, allowing him to better argue that efforts to oust him from power are only destabilizing the region. Worse, it will empower militant Islamists, who will go back home to challenge their governments.

What is needed today is a consensual, coordinated course of action that the Lebanese Sunni community can adopt to avert a civil war. If the Sunnis feel more reassured with guidance from their traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia, then so be it. The Saudis are in a good position today to impose their views on the other Gulf states, including Qatar, particularly if they have American backing.

This course of action should do two things: aim to seize the initiative in the Sunni community from the small, radicalized Islamist groups, who have imposed their agenda on mainstream Sunni politicians, especially in places such as Sidon and Tripoli. This can be done in several ways. More funding can be assured so these politicians can help alleviate the difficult economic situation in poorer Sunni neighborhoods, where Islamist groups recruit members. The Gulf states also have to cut off funding to extremists, whose proliferation will only frighten other communities and isolate the Lebanese Sunnis.

The second aim must be to exploit Hezbollah’s willingness to be drawn into the Syrian conflict. This has been reckless and may cost the party dearly. For those Lebanese opposed to Hezbollah, now is the time to begin preparing for the aftermath, if Hezbollah emerges weakened by its Syrian campaign. There is, of course, a possibility that the party will come out strengthened if Assad’s regime ultimately triumphs. But that is not very likely and a war in Lebanon will anyway not make this outcome more palatable. The Sunnis have to be patient and defend their stakes in the Lebanese system, while avoiding brinkmanship that would be a catastrophe for everyone.

Being patient may not excite many people. But even victorious, Assad will face domestic volatility for a long time, and Hezbollah will be affected. The priority in Lebanon has to be civil peace. Maintaining it will allow Hezbollah’s opponents to fight, politically, another day.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Russia may lose its strong Syria card

The political isolation of President Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland was a noteworthy moment in the Syrian crisis. With the Obama administration planning to arm the rebels, Putin could begin paying a heavier political price for his stance on Syria, and may find himself in a harmful proxy war against the United States before long.

Putin got his way in the final G-8 statement. No mention was made of President Bashar Assad’s departure. However, that was only one side of the story amid the growing insistence of the U.S. and the Europeans that any solution in Syria must necessarily include Assad’s exit. When Putin was told that seven members of the G-8 might release the statement without Russia signing on to it, the president became more flexible, leading to the compromise draft.

Putin had a very different interpretation of what happened. He denied that Russia was isolated, pointed out that several G-8 members had doubts about the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces, and said that Russia might send more weapons to Syria’s “legal government.” Putin could also defend himself by affirming that he withstood the pressure of his partners. And in criticizing the American and European decision to arm the rebels, he played on Western fears. “Is it to these people that the Europeans want to supply arms? What happens next with those weapons? Who will control in which hands they end up? They could possibly [end up] in Europe,” he wondered.

Putin’s remarks notwithstanding, Russia is finding that its options in Syria are narrowing. Barring an outright military victory by the regime, Moscow will eventually have to sign on to some sort of political solution that has a chance of working. Just holding on to Assad could turn into foolhardy obstructionism, when a willingness to endorse and lead a transition away from the Syrian leader may pay valuable political dividends. Barring this, Putin risks making the same error that the Assads frequently made, namely holding on to strong political cards for too long, after their value has dissipated.

With the Obama administration entering the fray, a decisive victory by the Assad regime seems less probable. The Americans, for all their ambiguities, have apparently determined that Iran, Hezbollah and even Russia, must not triumph in Syria, as this would represent a strategic setback to the United States and its Arab allies. That means we may see Washington gradually providing the rebels with whatever they need to stand their ground, regardless of the risks.

These dynamics would greatly exacerbate U.S.-Russian tensions. Neither Putin nor President Barack Obama wants this to happen, and yet the logic of the situation makes such an outcome almost inevitable.

For Putin, a confrontation with the U.S. and the other members of the G-8 over Syria is not desirable if the purpose is merely to keep Bashar Assad in place. Ultimately, Putin knows that Russia would be given a wide berth in Syria by the West if it were to define and participate in a credible political solution. But Russia has not proposed such a solution, even as it has helped Assad to impose a military solution.

That maneuver appears to have faltered now that Washington has shifted its position on assisting the rebels, and has realized that the Geneva II conference might be used to anchor Assad in place if the Syrian leader makes territorial gains beforehand. The fall of Qusair brought this home to the Obama administration. Hezbollah’s participation won Assad a victory, but a pyrrhic one: It precipitated U.S. involvement, making Syria’s war much more complicated.

Putin is constrained on another side. He realizes that Russia’s margin of maneuver is relatively limited, because if Assad is unhappy with any new Russian attitude, he can always lean toward Iran, which has been steadfast in keeping the Syrian president in office. So, Putin could face deteriorating relations with the U.S. and Europe on behalf of a policy that largely benefits Assad and Iran. Until now Russia has agreed with both, but as the U.S. and the Europeans become more assertive over Syria, Putin must determine whether Assad is still worth the fight. Then again, Iran, for reasons unrelated to Syria, may hesitate before breaking with Moscow just for Assad’s sake.

A political solution in Syria is the most desirable for all concerned. Putin appears to have miscalculated when assuming that the Americans could be persuaded to accept Assad’s continuation in office. If so, this obliges the Russian president to rethink his position. No political outcome seems possible if Assad stays in power, even if he is allowed to remain until his term ends. At the same time a military solution is doubtful. So unless Russia offers a workable transitional plan for Syria, we are heading into a period of prolonged stalemate.

Simply acting tough is a game with relatively limited benefits for Putin. The political context is changing, and Syria’s neighbors are at risk of collapsing into civil war. The need to define a political endgame is increasingly urgent. Perhaps the Russian president sees this as leverage that will bring all others to his side. But the G-8 conference exposed a very different mood, with even the most aloof of American presidents now agreeing that Assad must step down.

Putin doesn’t want to lose Syria, as Russia “lost” Kosovo, Iraq and Libya during the last 15 years. But unless Russia and the U.S. can collaborate to find a mutually realizable arrangement, and then bring their partners into it, Russia’s isolation will only increase and the substantial political capital it has garnered in Syria will dissipate.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sectarian suicide

This week, while driving in Beirut, I asked for the assistance of a parking attendant. Off to the side there was trash lying in the street that had apparently fallen off a truck. The attendant looked at the pile and made a remark associating it with a neighborhood in Beirut identified with a specific sectarian group.

It occurred to me that the young man, who must have been no more than 25 years old, remembered nothing of Lebanon’s civil war. If he had, he might have thought twice about succumbing to a nauseating sectarianism that can only bring misery, ruin, and regret.

A few years ago I wrote a book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, in which I argued that sectarianism, for all its many faults, created a social reality that has enhanced Lebanese pluralism. Because the religious communities were stronger than the state, and because the state is the prime foe of liberty in the Middle East, Lebanon was freer and more open than surrounding countries. In the spaces created by sectarianism, individuals could generally act and think as they pleased, and I called this a paradoxical liberalism, because it emanated from the sectarian system, which is anything but liberal.

Just how illiberal this system is was brought home to me by the parking attendant. When communal tensions reach a breaking point, the ugly face of sectarianism rears its head, consuming all before it.

Most disturbing is that the reality is different. Take the mounting Sunni accusations against Shiites for pursuing sectarian objectives. But are things really all that clear-cut? Not really. In recent weeks there have been efforts by Shiite opponents of Hezbollah to condemn the party’s entry into the Syrian conflict. In a demonstration before the Iranian embassy organized by Ahmad al-Asaad’s Lebanese Option movement – one man, Hashim Salman, was shot and killed.

This came as other Shiite figures have become more vocal in their condemnation of Hezbollah, or have openly supported the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. One of these individuals is Sayyid Hani Fahs, a Shiite cleric who once backed Iran’s revolution. “Since its early days, I have always supported the uprising in Syria. Shiites must defend a position in line with their Arabism, Lebanese nationalism, and history: they have always been on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors,” he affirmed. 

In other words, sectarianism uses a wide brush to paint a far more nuanced condition, where the exceptions tell us a great deal. As Hezbollah embroils Lebanon in a war next door, Shiites are among the first to pay a price. Family members of Hezbollah combatants killed in Syria have already done so, while Shiites working in the Gulf are increasingly finding themselves targeted by the authorities there and being forced to leave, losing their livelihoods.

Even the parameters of sectarian discussion are vague. Many Lebanese are behaving today as if there were a long tradition of Sunni-Shiite animosity in the country. There isn’t, and the two communities essentially fought on the same side during the war years. In many (if not most) districts of western Beirut, Sunnis and Shiites live side by side. Any sectarian conflict would be traumatizing to both, tearing apart a longstanding urban social fabric.

Nor did Hezbollah really enter Syria for sectarian reasons. Its support for the Assad regime has much more to do with the party’s strategic interests, and its need to keep an open line of communication to the Syrian coast and its ports in the event of a conflict with Israel, than with any ideological-religious affinity with the Alawite community.

Some will recall that in 1973, Lebanese Shiite cleric Musa al-Sadr issued a fatwa saying that the Alawites were a branch of Shiite Islam. This came at a time when the minority Alawite-dominated Assad regime had released a draft constitution that failed to make reference to Islam as the religion of the Syrian state. Protests ensued and the regime, taken aback, sought religious legitimacy. Sadr, who was then building up his relationship with Damascus, obliged.

However, as scholar Fouad Ajami has noted, this was more a pragmatic political arrangement than a position anchored in any doctrine. “The Alawites were the bearers of an esoteric faith which Muslims, both Sunni and Shi[ite], put beyond the pale of Islam,” Ajami wrote in The Vanished Imam, his biography of Musa al-Sadr.

That is not to say that Syria’s Alawites today do not feel part of a broader coalition of forces stretching from Iran and through Iraq to Lebanon. Nor does it mean that members of this coalition do not share a sense of solidarity in the face of the Sunni majority in the region. But in drawing sharp sectarian lines, as some are prone to do these days, there is a tendency to play up the sectarian dimensions of this reality and to downplay the political rationale underlining it.

And once the ideological or religious dimension gains the upper hand, the counter-reaction is similarly ideological or religious, and the ability to control things becomes more difficult thereafter. It’s then that we see the bearded demagogues emerging from the woodwork, calling for jihad and claiming to speak in the name of God and of righteousness, brooking no compromise and refusing to flinch before all excess.

Once we are prisoners of a conflict defined by such people, we are truly lost. Lebanon is particularly prone to the manipulations of populist charlatans. Yet, we lived through a war that should have taught us more. Instead, those who led us then are now still with us today, but as powerful as ever. We didn’t learn at the time and we’re not learning now. Lebanon, it seems, is eternally drawn to the flame.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Small arms won't help Syria without a US political effort

The Obama administration's decision to arm Syria's rebels is welcome. But it is late, half-hearted and incomplete, and it has been qualified by US officials in ways that may ultimately defeat the policy's purpose.

As in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama seems to be entering Syria with caveats flying.

Mr Obama didn't bother to announce the policy shift himself. He left that to the deputy national security adviser, Benjamin Rhodes, whose remarks left more questions than answers. Mr Rhodes explained that the president had decided to assist the rebels because President Bashar Al Assad's regime had used chemical weapons. This was odd: the US administration had initially played down reports of chemical weapons use, to avoid being drawn into the Syrian conflict.

Mr Rhodes did not specify what types of weapons will be sent, saying only that the US would be "responsive to the needs" of rebel commanders. However, US officials told CNN that small arms, ammunition and possibly anti-tank weapons would be dispatched. Mr Rhodes also affirmed that Washington has "not made any decision" to pursue other military options such as establishing a no-fly zone. And he ruled out any deployment of US ground troops.

The Syrian commander expected to receive the weapons, Gen Salim Idriss, the head of the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council, told the Daily Beast website on Sunday that he had not yet heard from the Americans. He seemed to confirm that, at least at the beginning, the US would send small arms and ammunition. Many observers believe that will not be enough to defeat the regime, which has warplanes and helicopters that the rebels have few means of countering.

The US hesitates to provide anti-aircraft missiles before it can be sure they will not end up in the hands of Jihadist groups, which might use them against civilian aircraft. But if the US does not create a no-fly zone over Syria, or allow the Europeans to do so, the benefits of its policy will be in doubt. After all, it is the regime's air superiority that has been most effective against the rebels. Unless this advantage is removed, the rebels can expect little success.

Mr Obama's turnaround was primarily a consequence of pressure building up at home. He had been criticised for having no policy on Syria and for allowing Iran, Hizbollah and Russia to help Mr Al Assad make strategic gains, as in the Hizbollah-led offensive that took Qusayr. Meanwhile, Washington was wasting time focusing on hopes for the Geneva II conference, which has been delayed.

It helped little that former President Bill Clinton added his voice to the chorus. At an event with Senator John McCain, the most prominent critic of the administration's approach to Syria, Mr Clinton was quoted by the newspaper and website Politico as saying: "Now that the Russians, the Iranians and Hizbollah are in there head over heels ... should we try to do something to try to slow their gains and rebalance the power so that these rebel groups have a decent chance, if they're supported by a majority of the people …?"

The Obama administration's intention is that with the weapons, the rebels will be able to deny Mr Al Assad full military superiority before the parties go to Geneva to negotiate - which some predict will not happen until 2014. But if small arms and ammunition will not do it, a more substantial American commitment, using air power, risks pushing the US into a confrontation with Russia and Iran, which Mr Obama does not want.

So the US must formulate a strategy that combines effective military assistance with a political project in Syria. It would have to begin by unifying the opposition around a specific political agenda, and creating a mechanism to reassure the Alawite community. The US must also use its influence to impose unity of purpose on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, whose disagreements have fragmented the opposition. And the US must cause Gulf states to end funding by some of their citizens of the most extreme rebel groups.

It is not yet clear that the Obama administration has fully thought through its actions in Syria. Simply sending weapons does not, on its own, qualify as a policy, and indeed may be highly destabilising if it is not integrated into a coherent plan that involves negotiations with the reluctant Russians, and even indirectly the Iranians.

The evasive way in which Mr Rhodes described American intervention only reinforced the sense that Mr Obama wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants Syria's rebels to reverse the gains of the regime and Hizbollah, but is not yet willing to commit to providing the whole arsenal that will be needed to break the stalemate. Even less is Mr Obama willing to lead a diplomatic campaign for a negotiated outcome, one that also stabilises Syria's neighbours.

It will be interesting to see whether the victory of Hassan Rowhani, the president-elect of Iran, creates an opening for some sort of package deal that would include Syria, Hizbollah, Iran's nuclear programme, and a lifting of western sanctions against Iran. For now, this is entirely speculative, but there is now a greater willingness in the US and Europe, and a need in Iran, which is suffering from harsh economic sanctions, to resume negotiations over what divides them.

Mr Obama is walking a fine line. If he gives the opposition largely ineffective weapons, this may, at best, prolong the deadlock. If he gives them weapons that turn the military tide, he will have trouble preventing a military victory that could break Syria apart and leave behind a debilitating political vacuum.

That's why the US must formulate a comprehensive strategy favouring the political and military objectives it seeks, while also contemplating a broader arrangement with Russia, and even Iran, that addresses their fundamental regional disagreements.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Walid Jumblatt’s high-wire act

The Constitutional Council has been unable to discuss the constitutionality of parliament’s decision to extend its term, because there haven’t been enough members present to form a quorum. Walid Jumblatt, with Hezbollah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, has kept a judge loyal to him away from the sessions, helping block consideration of the extension and guaranteeing that it will stand.

In periods of shifting sands, watch Walid Jumblatt. His siding with Hezbollah and Berri is nothing new. Playing the balance between them and March 14 has been his political strategy since the time of Najib Mikati’s government. But the Druze leader’s maneuvers take on new meaning today as the military balance of power in Syria may be changing to the advantage of President Bashar al-Assad. That is unless the American decision to arm the rebels reverses the tide.

Jumblatt has several different priorities, which he will try to manage simultaneously in the coming months. First, he will do what he can to avert a Sunni-Shiite confrontation in Lebanon. Not only would the regions under his effective control be caught in the middle, but the cost to Lebanon as a whole would be unimaginable.

That is one reason why Jumblatt has insisted that Hezbollah must be part of any new government, and why he supports one that includes all of Lebanon’s major political forces. As he sees it, the government must be a forum to resolve Lebanon’s internal crises, otherwise there is a risk that tensions will spread to the streets.

Second, Jumblatt is prepared to reorient himself in the event of a possible victory by the Assad regime. We’re nowhere near that stage yet, and Jumblatt has not toned down his rhetoric against the repression in Syria. However, he has been forthcoming with Hezbollah, a leading ally of the Syrian leadership, despite their differences over Syria.

Jumblatt has another credible ally protecting him against the Syrians, namely Russia. Ultimately, the Russians realize, the Druze leader would adapt to an Assad victory, and they see no reason to lose a potentially valuable ally in Lebanon, not least when Russian companies are looking closely at Lebanon’s offshore gas reserves. But Russian ambitions transcend commercial affairs. Strong ties with a key figure in the Lebanese political system are important if Russia can save Assad and use that success to rebuild its influence in the Levant.

And third, Jumblatt must maneuver so that any eventual reversal on Syria will not harm his relationship with Saudi Arabia. Until now, the Saudis have tolerated his connection with Hezbollah and have invited him to the kingdom on several occasions, sealing their reconciliation.

Jumblatt needs Saudi aid in order to sustain his power of patronage, so he will have to walk a tightrope if Assad ever succeeds in recapturing more territory. He will have to consider resolving his disagreement with Assad, benefiting from Hezbollah’s and Russia’s sponsorship; and he will strive at the same time to keep privileged lines open to the Saudis, who happen to be Jumblatt’s ticket to shaping Sunni choices at a time when the community is leaderless.

If Jumblatt can juggle this, it would place him in a pivotal position between Saudi Arabia and Assad, and between Russia and the Lebanese political scene. This could open many doors for the Druze leader as he looks ahead. Jumblatt will particularly try to ensure that any leverage he garners allows him to push for an election law that preserves his domination in the mountains, while allowing him to place loyalists on lists in the West Beqaa and Beirut.

But the essential question is what would happen to Lebanon if Assad were to triumph thanks to Russian and Iranian aid? The sway of both countries would rise significantly over Syrian and Lebanese affairs, and Jumblatt knows that this could provoke two reactions: it could heighten Sunni hostility, making the situation more explosive; and it would require that Jumblatt himself adjust to the new reality by bending Hezbollah’s way on issues vital to the party.

If Russian companies ultimately win contracts in the offshore oil and gas sector, Moscow would have a vested interest in maintaining Lebanese stability. At a time when the United States favors shrinking its footprint in the Middle East, many Lebanese would welcome the presence of an outside actor who is listened to in Syria and Iran, and who would endeavor to avert civil conflict. 

Russia has another door through which to enter Lebanon, that of the Christian minorities. With many Christians feeling adrift and in search of a foreign patron willing to protect them, they may welcome a Russia, or an imagined Russia, that speaks on their behalf. In contrast, as Christians look toward the West, all they see is an America generally eager to wash its hands of the Middle East’s problems and a Western Europe destabilized by its economic challenges and not terribly preoccupied by the fate of Arab Christians.

Jumblatt could exploit these trends if they ever came to pass. With his feelers out to all sides, he would be well placed to take from all sides. Jumblatt’s opportunism angers many people, but he often manages to remain standing when others have to regroup from their bad choices.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

US influence in the region is dwindling under Obama

Barack Obama has been in office for four and a half years. While it is too early to judge his overall foreign policy legacy, what can be said about the fortunes of the United States in the Middle East is not reassuring. Under Mr Obama, America has been in retreat in the region, sometimes through no fault of the president's, but more often because he has allowed this to happen.

From the start, Mr Obama sought to break with his predecessor George W Bush, who had made US policy in the Middle East a cornerstone of his behaviour overseas. This was due to the September 11, 2001, attacks, which focused Washington's attention on terrorism emanating from the Arab world. US involvement expanded when Mr Bush invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

In December 2011, Mr Obama, a staunch critic of Mr Bush and the Iraq war, ended the US campaign in Iraq, withdrawing troops earlier than had been scheduled. This was welcomed by an American public tired of constant wars abroad, but it left behind a fragile Iraq, just as it was beginning to rediscover relative peace after years of conflict.

Mr Obama washed his hands of a country that had cost the US thousands of lives and billions of dollars without first attempting to contain Iran's growing influence there. While Mr Bush had facilitated Iran's agenda there by removing the Iraqi regime, Mr Obama seemed unperturbed by the fact that Washington's principal regional rival would benefit from too hasty a US disengagement.

The loss of Iraq was compounded by a far more serious strain on American alliances when the so-called Arab Spring broke out in early 2011. No matter how justified, the Obama administration's decision to persuade the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to step down had two consequences: it pushed an allied country into a prolonged period of political uncertainty and it alarmed another long-standing ally, Saudi Arabia, which came to question American reliability.

After Mr Mubarak's downfall, the US avoided intervening in the Egyptian political process, which was defensible. Less understandable was why the Obama administration did not help the new leadership to consolidate a democratic post-Mubarak political and economic system. The only thing that seemed to truly concern Mr Obama was whether Egypt maintained its peace treaty with Israel.

The US retains influence in Egypt, particularly over the army. But its ties with the Muslim-Brotherhood-dominated government have been variable. This may ultimately make for a healthier relationship than before, but unless Washington helps unify the hopelessly divided political class and encourages economic reform, Egypt may succumb to chronic political and financial instability. Allowing this is not an option for the US, which in over three decades has spent tens of billions of dollars to turn Egypt into a pillar of its regional presence.

The Saudis were distressed with Mr Mubarak's departure, and even more so with the Obama administration's encouragement of it. If the Egyptian leader could be abandoned, the Saudis felt, then why not the Saudi monarchy? In fact that was not Mr Obama's intention and ties between the US and the kingdom have improved since then, although there remains a lack of closeness between the two.

Washington has behaved ambiguously towards Saudi priorities. The administration is not particularly happy with the Saudi-endorsed policy in Bahrain, but has done nothing to prevent it. On Iran and its nuclear programme, the US has imposed sanctions, but continues to avoid any resort to war.

Mr Obama has shown little interest in the region, so the Saudis see a president upon whom they feel they cannot rely. This has handicapped America's ability to enrol the Saudis in its diplomatic ventures, above all peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Obama's initial willingness to depend on an alternative country, Turkey, to help advance American regional interests has failed, as Turkish limitations in the Syrian conflict have become evident.

The notion that America can lead from behind is a fantasy. Without America in the vanguard imposing a common agenda, there will be only cacophony as America's allies pursue separate aims.

Nowhere has this been more obvious than in Syria, with Qatar and Turkey supporting some rebel factions, and the Saudis backing their rivals.

Gone are the days of the 1990s when the US held all the reins in the Middle East. Then, the regional architecture was built on the combination of a friendly Egypt that played a vital role in bolstering American regional diplomacy, Saudi Arabia, which steadied the energy markets, and Israel, which was America's foremost military arm in the region, and whose conflict with the Arabs was supposed to be resolved through an American-sponsored peace process.

Mr Bush's invasion of Iraq sent a shock through the region and shattered the Arab status quo. Iran gained in Iraq, worrying the Sunni Gulf states and heightening Sunni-Shia tensions. Mr Obama, in turn, downgraded America's regional presence, creating a vacuum that its allies have struggled to fill.

Syria's conflict embodies American duality, with the Obama administration frustrated by a fractured opposition pulled on all sides by regional actors, even as Washington remains unwilling to force President Bashar Al Assad from office itself.

The US is an important actor in the Middle East, with tremendous military power, but its ability to shape the region's future has been greatly reduced. Mr Obama's reluctance to be sucked into regional dynamics has left a volatile void.

For the first time, it is possible to discern the contours of a potential post-American Middle East. It's no surprise that Russia, China and Iran are exploiting this opening.

Abandon privacy, the NSA tells America

The debate over whether the National Security Agency had the right to gather personal telephone data on Americans continues to rage. Many are uneasy about the ability of the government to collect private information on individuals if there is no probable cause or suspicion of their involvement in a crime.

The right to privacy is best expressed in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. constitution. It affirms: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Americans are ambiguous about the NSA program. According to a Rasmussen poll just 26 percent of voters were in favor of the NSA’s collection of data from the Verizon telephone company, while 59 were opposed. A CBS poll found that 58 percent disapproved of the program when used against “ordinary Americans,” while 38 percent approved. However, when respondents were asked whether they backed the gathering of phone records of “Americans suspected of terrorist activity,” 78 percent said they had no problem with this, while only 20 percent disapproved.

The NSA scandal covers two programs, with different implications. The first involves the collection by the NSA of so-called telecommunications metadata from domestic subscribers of the Verizon telecom company. Metadata are details of communications (time, place and duration of a call, the numbers of the caller and of the person or institution called), but not the content of conversations.

The second involves a program called Prism, where the NSA has mined information, including the content of communications, from servers of major technology companies such as Google, Skype, Microsoft, Apple, YouTube, Facebook and others. The program is primarily directed against foreign targets, and the NSA was able to implement this because much Internet traffic from overseas passes through servers in the United States.

Obama administration officials have defended the programs as necessary to fight terrorism. President Barack Obama stated that “you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy” because “there are some tradeoffs involved.” That would be true if 100 percent of anything were possible. But Obama missed the point. The issue was not greater security, but the fact that millions of Americans were caught up in a surveillance net without being suspects in a crime, were never told about this, and are being discouraged from learning more for national security reasons.

The NSA programs received congressional approval, and were mandated by a decision of a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approved requests for the data collection. Moreover, the Supreme Court has said there is no right to privacy if an individual’s records are taken from third parties, because allowing a third party (a phone or Internet company, for instance) to hold these records means voluntarily surrendering one’s privacy.

In a dissent, Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that this decision was ill suited for the digital age, where people revealed a great deal about themselves thanks to the technology they used, but nevertheless had little intention of granting the government access to their personal communications or browsing history. In other words Sotomayor implicitly pointed to the spirit of the law, or what citizens understood their right to privacy entailed.

Defenders of the NSA programs assured the public that proper safeguards were in place to protect the innocent. Perhaps, but the FISC has rarely turned down a surveillance request, and the sheer volume of information taken from Verizon means there is probably little oversight in individual cases, once data has been collected.

Eavesdropping is usually built on a de facto presumption of guilt. When a person is under scrutiny, all those connected to that person are in danger of being scrutinized as well. But because data mining has become an essential part of American intelligence gathering, in the Verizon case the NSA asked for broad authority to collect data from everybody, just in case it eventually became useful in an investigation. This qualifies as a fishing expedition, which democracies avoid.

A second problem with the NSA programs is their secrecy. Secret warrants and courts, whatever their justification, are the stuff of totalitarian nightmares, and are designed to circumvent public discussion. Nor do we know how effective congressional or FISC oversight was, since no one will talk about an issue that is classified. In other words, Americans are not entitled to know how or even if their rights were protected, and must take officials’ word for it.

How difficult that is when the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, is doing the reassuring. Last week he insisted that the oversight was sufficient. But Clapper is hardly reliable. When asked last March before a congressional hearing whether the NSA was collecting data on Americans, he replied that it was not.

A third problem is that a proposed solution to a threat should not become worse than the threat itself. It would be foolish to play down the risk of terrorist attacks in America. But the NSA surveillance program applies a wide brush to a relatively narrow problem, and it navigates in a gray zone between how the law is interpreted by the government and understood by the public. Fighting terrorism should not entail undermining a cherished constitutional principle, whatever Obama’s comments on the necessary tradeoffs at play.

The right to privacy erects an essential barrier between individuals and their state. States amass vast amounts of information on their citizens, which can be used to control what they do. The feeling of being perpetually under the eye of those in authority is deeply troublesome. The more power states have, the more they will use and abuse it. And that’s what most people understandably fear.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Syria, John Kerry is left out on a limb

The effectiveness of the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria is dependent on there being a good relationship between President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While nothing suggests there are problems on that front, Obama has limited interest in the matter that preoccupies the secretary most today: Syria.

Earlier this week, after meeting with Poland’s foreign minister, Kerry commented on efforts to hold an international conference on Syria in Geneva: “This is a very difficult process, which we come to late.” To many this was implicit criticism of the administration’s repeated efforts to avoid engaging with the Syrian crisis. Kerry added, “We are trying to prevent the sectarian violence from dragging Syria down into a complete and total implosion where it has broken up into enclaves, and the institutions of the state have been destroyed, with God knows how many additional refugees and how many innocent people killed.”

This breakdown has been going on for over two years, and has been characterized by all the alarming elements Kerry described. For him to suddenly outline the dangers seemed more a subtle criticism of how the Syrian situation was allowed to reach such a stage than acknowledgement of a fundamentally new approach in Washington.

The question is whether Kerry has much latitude to push the United States in directions that Obama hesitates to allow. The Obama White House has tightly controlled the foreign policy agenda in recent years. Hillary Clinton was influential enough to have her way on certain issues, but one thing she frequently had trouble doing was enrolling the president in efforts to advance her recommended policies.

Kerry may be less effective. He was not Obama’s first choice as secretary of state, and the president has been largely silent on Kerry’s efforts to organize the Geneva II conference. That’s ironic, because Kerry agreed to it with the Russians partly in order to lessen the pressure on the president to intervene in Syria, after Bashar Assad’s forces allegedly used chemical weapons against the rebels.

The president has also said nothing about Kerry’s attempt to resume negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. It is understandable that Obama does not want to put his name to politically risky courses of action that might fail; but without more presidential commitment, the momentum that Kerry requires to get both projects rolling will not be forthcoming, thwarting the secretary’s political aims.

For instance, there were reports Tuesday that France and the United Nations had concluded that the Syrian regime used limited quantities of chemical weapons in fighting near Aleppo some months ago. The White House once again stuck its head in the sand. The spokesman, Jay Carney, said, “[w]e need more information” that allows the administration to “establish a body of information that can be presented and reviewed, and upon which policy decisions can be made.” There was a man throwing out chaff to buy Obama room to maneuver. Indeed the administration has yet to gather such a body of information, and has set no deadline for doing so.

In that context you have to wonder what leverage Kerry really has. The Obama administration, probably with Kerry’s approval, has withheld $63 million slated for the Syrian opposition, angry with its refusal to attend the Geneva conference while Hezbollah continues to fight on Syrian territory. The opposition decision was unwise, since it embarrassed Washington and by way of contrast made the Assad regime, which has agreed to attend the conference, look flexible.

However, publicly undermining the opposition is not the way to go. It strengthens a regime that has long fought America in the Middle East, and it weakens America’s diplomatic hand, when the objective should be to reinforce the opposition and impose unity in its ranks. But that requires effort and initiative, which have been absent from the administration’s approach to Syria. In contrast, the Russians saw how poorly Bashar Assad managed the Syrian uprising, but they never undercut the Syrian leader, and now he is stronger thanks to their military assistance and blocking tactics at the United Nations.

With friends like the Obama administration, who needs enemies? But Kerry is lucid about Syria’s importance, whereas the White House seems not to be. All those who have argued that the United States has no strategic interest in Syria have drunk from Obama’s Kool-Aid. For starters, Iran and Hezbollah have reached the contrary conclusion, and have acted accordingly, which imposes a second look at that foolish proposition. It is surely in the interest of the U.S. to push Iran out of Syria, and to make it difficult for Hezbollah to rearm in any new Middle Eastern conflict. A contained Hezbollah is one that will be more careful about embarking on new wars, which could stabilize Lebanon.

And since Iran is the main rival of the United States in the region, and since its nuclear program happens to be a major concern of the Obama administration, weakening Tehran’s footprint in the Levant could facilitate negotiations to help resolve the nuclear standoff.

Nothing is clear-cut in the Middle East, but the potential gains from an Iranian defeat in Syria should nevertheless have been obvious from the very beginning to Obama’s foreign policy sages. The White House claims to adhere to political realism, but other than displaying hard-nosed indifference to the fate of the Syrian population, the administration has failed to apply realist principles in defense of American national interests to the events in Syria.

Kerry’s admission that the U.S. came late to Syria will not endear him to Obama’s current advisers at the White House. The secretary of state could find himself without political allies at a time when he needs them the most to implement a coherent Syria policy. But the arrival of Susan Rice as the new national security advisor to replace Tom Donilon and the appointment of Samantha Power as UNambassador, both of whom have taken a touger line on Syria than other officials, could play in Kerry’s favor. Perhaps the secretary won’t be as lonely as he might have been.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Hezbollah’s Vietnam?

The only thing odd about Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict is that it took over two years for the party and its backers in Tehran to make the decision. That’s because whatever one thinks of Hezbollah, the triumph of Syria’s rebels always posed an existential threat to the party and its agenda.

The victory in Qusayr was undeniably an important one for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, knocking the rebels out of a swath of strategic territory in the province of Homs, linking Damascus to the coast. It now allows the Assad regime to turn its attentions to other areas from where the regime was forced to withdraw.

Attention is now focused on Aleppo, where Hezbollah combatants have been amassing recently. However, we can’t forget that the rebels have already been pushed out of neighborhoods around Damascus. And the recent deployment of Patriot missiles and F-16 aircrafts to Jordan suggests there are expectations of a regime offensive in the southern province of Deraa, considered the most likely location from where rebels could mount an attack against the Syrian capital.

Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in the Syrian war is a high-risk venture. Many see this as a mistake by the party, and it may well be. Qusayr will be small change compared to Aleppo, where the rebels are well entrenched and benefit from supply lines leading to Turkey. In the larger regional rivalry between Iran and Turkey, the Turkish army and intelligence services have an interest in helping make things very difficult for Hezbollah and the Syrian army in northern Syria, particularly after the car-bomb attack in Reyhanli in May.   

Many will be watching closely to see how the current crisis in Turkey affects Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to react to the Syrian situation, particularly if the epicenter of the fighting shifts to Aleppo. Erdogan has faced the displeasure among many in Turkey’s southern border areas with their government’s policy in Syria. At the same time, a defeat of the Syrian rebels in and around Aleppo is not something that Turkey can easily swallow so near to its borders, particularly if Hezbollah is instrumental in the fighting.

Hezbollah is willing to take heavy casualties in Syria, if this allows it to rescue the Assad regime. The real question is what time frame we are talking about, and how this affects the party’s vital interests elsewhere. For now, Hezbollah has entered Syria with no exit strategy. The way in which Hassan Nasrallah framed the intervention indicates that it is open-ended. This will prompt other parties to take actions and decisions they might otherwise have avoided for as long as the Syrian conflict was primarily one between Syrians.

Hezbollah is already a magnet for individuals and groups in Syria keen to take the air out of the region’s leading Shiite political-military organization - or simply to protect their towns and villages. As Qusayr showed, the presence of Hezbollah only induces its enemies to fight twice as hard against the party. As a proxy of Iran, Hezbollah will prompt governments to do the same, and they will see an opportunity to wear down the party and trap it in a grinding, no-win situation.

Playing in the favor of Hezbollah’s enemies is that the party has little latitude to alter its strategy in Syria. It must go all the way, predisposing it to sink ever-deeper into the Syrian quagmire, or until the point where the Syrian regime and pro-regime militias can capture and control territory on their own. That is not easy in a guerrilla war in which rebels have often out-matched the army.

Hezbollah, by contrast, benefits from coordination between the Syrian regime and Russia and Iran. Hezbollah’s entry into the conflict in Syria was, clearly, one facet of a broad counter-attack agreed by the Russians and Iranians, who have slowly but effectively reinforced and reorganized Syria’s army and intelligence services in the past two years. Their behavior has been disgraceful and pitiless, but from the start their objective was clear – to save Assad rule – while the Obama administration offered no strategy at all, and compensated for its incompetence in addressing the Syrian crisis with empty rhetoric.

Many have commented on the fact that Hezbollah’s reputation is in tatters. The so-called champion of the deprived is now at the vanguard of Bashar al-Assad’s repression of his own people; the embodiment of resistance has shifted forces away from the border with Israel to help in crushing an uprising against a brutal dictator.

That’s perhaps true, but Hezbollah is not particularly concerned with its reputation, except when it affects its political power. The party’s behavior is shaped by stark power calculations, and it has often read this into political situations with some accuracy. Hezbollah feels that, ultimately, if Assad stays in office and the uprising against him is overwhelmed, this will impose a new reality that will allow the party to resist all counter-reactions. In the end, Hezbollah knows, power tends to define reputation in the Middle East much more than allegiance to what is regarded as the morally acceptable position.

But that interpretation will apply only if Hezbollah avoids being drawn into a long and debilitating campaign in Syria. The party’s tolerance threshold is high, as is its ability to maintain Lebanese Shiite loyalty. But in Syria, as in Lebanon previously, the outsider is at a disadvantage. Hezbollah should learn the lessons from its own experience. The party cannot allow Syria to become its Vietnam.  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why America's liberal hawks lost their voice over Syria

Last Sunday, US Senator John McCain offered a bleak assessment of the situation in Syria. He observed that the president, Bashar Al Assad, "now has the upper hand and it's tragic while we sit by and watch". Mr McCain's sense of outrage is shared by very few others in the United States, as those willing to advocate American intervention in Syria on moral grounds have been largely silent.

Things were different when President George W Bush prepared to invade Iraq. He had the support of a group of moral interventionists who endorsed the removal of Saddam Hussein, as they had earlier backed American involvement in the Bosnia war. Most of these individuals were public intellectuals, writers and academics who had little ideological affinity with the Bush administration. Many came from a left-wing background, earning them the label liberal hawks.

Yet the silence of most of these individuals on Syria has been so noticeable that the Washington Post's Jason Horowitz wrote about the topic last week. He speculated that the liberal hawks had been spooked "by the traumatic experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and the clear reluctance of a Democratic president to get mired in the Middle East. Call them Syria's mourning doves".

Certainly, American fatigue after a decade of conflict in the broader Middle East is a major factor in shaping responses to Syria. However, moral interventionists generally base their actions on principle, and principles aren't supposed to change depending on political context. That is why there appears to be a more profound reason for the silence of the interventionists, and it probably has something to do with culture, even if few of them might readily admit to this.

Justification for American interference in Syria must be based on a narrative that appeals to the American public and politicians. The narrative in Bosnia stressed how Washington had to assist a freedom-loving people repressed by brutal Serbian forces, who had abused the human rights of defenceless Bosnian Muslims.

After the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995, President Bill Clinton escalated America's military role in the Balkans, allowing it, ultimately, to sponsor the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian conflict. This diplomatic success through armed force validated the attitudes of the moral interventionists.

Iraq was less convincing. The outcome of the war seemed too messy to fit into the neat narrative that the liberal hawks had defined before the war. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a leader of unspeakable viciousness, ruling over a long-suffering population. But what emerged from the American invasion was less a people welcoming their new-found freedom than a society falling back on the primary identities of sect or tribe as Iraq descended into chaos.

For the liberal hawks, there was little liberalism around which to rally. Armed Islamist organisations gained the upper hand. Al Qaeda found a new impetus. Iran benefited the most from the changed situation. And for a long time political violence and factionalism were the order of the day, so that many interventionists wondered whether they had not made matters worse by pushing for action in Iraq.

Given the memory of the September 11, 2001, attacks, this had a freezing effect on American moral interventionists. After all, liberty and democracy were regarded by them as necessary antidotes to the religious extremism that had led to that day. Instead, what materialised in Iraq, and is now materialising in Syria, was an Islamist upsurge accompanied by heightened sectarianism, precisely the opposite of what the interventionists had sought.

There is something else. As the one-time interventionists watch events in Syria, what they can see is that the uprising has tended to be led by a rural population, while Syria's more polished and cosmopolitan urban population has tended to be ambiguous. Indeed, the Assad regime has played on this urban-rural dichotomy to divide Syrians. Many in the secular west find it difficult to identify with rebels who shout "God is great" at every turn, and who come across as unsophisticated and frequently uncontrollable.

Syria's rebels often appear too different from Americans, unlike the Europeanised Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars, to invoke much sympathy in the United States. Their fight seems so plainly not to be America's fight that moral interventionists have little room to make a case on their behalf, especially in a country that has turned in upon itself and embraces the Obama administration's minimalism abroad.

That is not to say that there are no supporters of American intervention in Syria, or those who don't recognise the serious political implications of President Barack Obama's refusal to do much there. Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration official and the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, has been critical of the president's performance in Syria, publishing his thoughts in an excellent book, The Dispensable Nation. So too has another former Obama administration official, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who teaches at Princeton University.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has been equally disparaging of Mr Obama's indifference towards the loss of life in Syria. "The moral dimension must be restored to our deliberations, the moral sting, or else Obama, for all his talk about conscience, will have presided over a terrible mutilation of American discourse: the severance of conscience from action," Mr Wieseltier wrote.

Yet individuals such as these are exceptions. Their willingness to challenge the trend of apathy in the United States is laudable, as is their worry that America will pay a price, both strategic and moral, for avoiding Syria. They also realise that an America that abandons Syria cannot be true to the values it purports to represent.