Friday, August 30, 2013

Will Iran fight to the last Lebanese?

Pity Hezbollah. After years of hearing earnest observers tell you what a quintessentially Lebanese party it was, and a revolutionary one at that, now we can plainly see that it is merely the Foreign Legion of the Iranian leadership – there to march or die at Tehran’s behest – as well as, more recently, cannon fodder for Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

With the United States intending to attack Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta east and west of Damascus, Hezbollah may again be placed at the forefront of a retaliatory plan.

Iranian parliamentarians have warned that any attack would provoke a response against Israel. “In case of a U.S. military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point toward the Zionist regime,” Mansur Haqiqatpur, an influential parliamentarian said on Tuesday. Hossein Sheikholeslam, who heads the Iranian parliament’s international affairs committee, warned that “the first victim of an attack on Syria will be the Zionist regime.”

Most analysts, however, see such statements in the context of implicit red lines set by the Iranian regime. They also note that threats made by parliamentarians, even important ones, do not necessarily have the same impact as those issued by senior security or political figures, perhaps buying Iran a margin of maneuver.

Iran’s red line, evidently, is this: If the United States limits its attacks both in time and scope and does not undermine the Assad regime, then the Iranians will not retaliate, or ask Hezbollah to retaliate. However, if American action takes longer than a few days and is seen as tipping the balance in favor of the rebels, then Iran and its allies will widen the war, most probably by firing rockets at Israel.

But let’s pause for a moment and look at what that means. It means, first, that Hezbollah is likely to find itself once again in a conflict with Israel. Speculation that rockets might be fired from Syria makes little sense. Any Israeli response to that would be directed against the Assad regime, which is precisely what the Iranians want to avoid.

So, instead, we can expect that Lebanon would become the front line in a new war, and Hezbollah tasked with firing its rockets across the southern border. The party would not have the choice to say no; after all, if obscure Iranian parliamentarians thousands of kilometers away say something will happen, it is the party’s duty to implement it.

That such a Hezbollah action would lead to a new catastrophe for Lebanon matters little to the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. After all he has said that Hezbollah would fight to the end on behalf of the Assad regime, and even offered to pick up a gun and enter the mêlée himself. One would never have thought Assad merited such commitment, but Nasrallah must consider several things.

The first is that any effort by Iran and Hezbollah to widen the conflict may ultimately negate their own strategic objective: the survival of the Assad regime. Once all the gloves are off, both Israel and the United States may decide that the deliberate, contained policy that Barack Obama favors is no longer valid. A sudden military escalation may persuade them to lance the Syria boil and hit Assad’s most vital military assets, weakening the regime and precipitating its downfall.

Second, Hezbollah reportedly has several thousand combatants in Syria. The sudden heating up of the Lebanese front would force the party to redeploy many or most of them to Lebanon, leaving Assad in the lurch at a crucial moment. Meanwhile, talk that Hezbollah can conduct a two-front war effectively is unpersuasive.

Third, Hezbollah has been careful in recent months, since its entry into the Syrian conflict, to keep a tight rein on domestic Lebanese affairs. Its primary aim is to avoid a sectarian civil war, which would draw in the party and neutralize its ability to act on Iran’s behalf. But a war with Israel would turn much of Lebanese society, even allies like Michel Aoun, against Hezbollah, and do great damage to its domestic strategy. No Lebanese wants to suffer so Hezbollah can act as a water carrier for an Iran wanting to keep Bashar al-Assad in office.

Fourth, if Hezbollah brings war to Lebanon once again, it will have to manage not only with the discontent of most Lebanese; it may also have to deal with that of the hundreds of thousands of Shiites bound to be displaced by the conflict. A million Shiites on Lebanon’s roads and in the country’s parks and schools, along with the nearly one million Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon, would be a calamity of biblical proportions. Even if the state doesn’t collapse, Hezbollah and Iran are ill prepared, financially or politically, to swiftly absorb Shiite anger.    

All this does not mean that Hezbollah will do nothing if the Iranians ask the party to widen the Syrian conflict. On the contrary, it is almost certain that Hezbollah would – seeing Assad’s survival as part and parcel of its own survival. But the potential costs are higher than anything the party has faced in its history as a branch of Iran’s security and intelligence apparatus. This will make Hezbollah think twice before acting rashly, and may give Barack Obama the leeway he seeks for a limited military operation in Syria.

The question is whether all sides are good at reading the signals sent by the other. When the rockets start flying, cool judgment often goes.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Syrian crisis poses many questions for Lebanon

Lebanon has suffered a spate of bomb attacks, most recently in Tripoli. That is why Lebanese are wondering how an American attack on Syria, in retaliation for the Al Assad regime's use of chemical weapons near Damascus, will affect dynamics in their own country.

The bomb attacks were almost certainly tied to the Syrian conflict. Two devices were detonated in Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hizbollah stronghold, apparently in response to the party's deployment of combatants in Syria to bolster President Bashar Al Assad. Last week, a devastating double bombing killed dozens of worshippers at mosques controlled by Salafis in mainly Sunni Tripoli.

The interpretation in Lebanon was that this constituted Hizbollah's response to the earlier bombings. It was an effort to strike a devastating blow against those whom the party considered to have planted, or harboured those who planted, the bombs in Shia areas.

In this reading, the Tripoli bombings were designed to impose a balance of terror and avoid further bombings in the future, rather than aiming to exacerbate sectarian tensions, Hizbollah wanted to avoid a descent into generalised sectarian violence, since the party's gains would be undermined by a Sunni-Shia war in Lebanon.

This makes sense, even if a contradiction lies at the heart of Hizbollah's calculations: the party's actions are more likely to heighten sectarian animosities and provoke further Sunni ripostes than the contrary. However, neither Hizbollah nor the Salafi movement is wired to think in terms of compromise, so their principles tend to drive them toward escalation.

The signs that the United States intends to strike soon against the Assad regime have raised the anxiety level in Lebanon. There are those who believe that a bombing campaign that shifts the military balance against Mr Al Assad would weaken Hizbollah and Iran, for whom the political survival of the Syrian president is a strategic objective.

Hossein Sheikholeslam, who heads the Iranian parliament's international affairs committee, has said that "the first victim of an attack on Syria will be the Zionist regime." Mr Sheikholeslam indicated that it was the Syrians who would hit back at Israel, not Hizbollah, but the linkage was clear: what happens in Syria risks spreading across the borders to include others.

However, that could be posturing. In reality, much will depend on the aim and scope of American military action. If the Obama administration intends to initiate a sustained campaign that ultimately leads to the downfall of the Assad regime, the stakes will be higher on all sides, and the actions of Mr Al Assad's allies, such as Iran and Hizbollah, more far-reaching and dangerous.

Yet reports this week in The Washington Post suggested that Barack Obama was considering a limited military operation. Senior administration officials spoke of an attack that "would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles - or, possibly, long-range bombers - striking military targets not directly related to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal …"

In that case, we can expect little change in Syria. As Eliot Cohen, an academic and former member of the Pentagon's Defence Policy Board during George W Bush's presidency, observed, if the plan is for "a futile salvo of cruise missiles, followed by self-congratulation and an attempt to change the topic [then it] would not work here. A minority regime fighting for its life, as Bashar Al Assad's is, can weather a couple of dozen big bangs".

To grasp what the Americans are thinking, one should understand Mr Obama's motives. It seems grotesque that 100,000 dead have not aroused American moral outrage to a significant extent but that the administration should now react to a relatively limited chemical weapons attack so forcefully, no matter how justified this is. Yet the primary intention appears to have more to do with Israel than Syria.

Recall that when American officials first expressed their worries about Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons, they did so principally out of a fear that such weapons might fall into the hands of groups that would use them against Israel, among others. By responding militarily, Washington hopes to create a credible deterrent and dissuade anyone from firing such weapons against its Israeli ally.

But neither Mr Al Assad, Iran, Russia or Hizbollah is foolish. Given that the Obama administration is already leaking to the media that its objectives may be limited, the greater possibility is that all sides will simply duck and allow the United States to make a show of it - while ensuring that the opposition does not take advantage of the consequences -before returning to business as usual afterwards.

If that scenario plays out, then Hizbollah will contain its response while continuing to assist Mr Al Assad and keeping the domestic Lebanese scene under relative control. But if Mr Obama is seen to be influencing military outcomes in Syria, then Iran and the party will react differently and are likely to look toward widening the conflict, to make it untenable for the United States.

Mr Obama still desires a diplomatic solution to Syria's conflict, but fears that too extensive a military campaign may lead to Mr Al Assad's downfall, leaving a dangerous vacuum in Damascus. After making his point, he will want to return to organising a peace conference with Russia for a negotiated transition in Syria. Many will be disappointed by Mr Obama's minimalism, but he has often disappointed on Syria.

Expect more U.S. minimalism on Syria

Amid the frigid talk in Washington about why President Barack Obama might order a strike against the Syrian regime, one word is never heard. U.S. officials describe a possible military action as “punishment” for the use of chemical weapons, and “deterrence” against the future use of such weapons, but none have used the word “justice.” You would have thought it would come naturally when mentioning the consequences of a crime against humanity.

But rendering justice means doing more in Syria than the United States is prepared to do. U.S. officials are saying that Obama plans a “limited operation,” one that may last two days. Such a response to the mass killing of civilians will probably achieve nothing. In seeking to avoid a campaign affecting political outcomes in Syria, Obama will effectively allow the carnage in the country to continue.

When retaliation for a terrible crime only helps perpetuate a larger crime, something is off kilter, especially from the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. In his defense Obama may state that he is not responsible for the Syrian war. That’s true, but he is also the president of a country that has been at the center of the post-World War II international system, with its laws, norms and treaties (indeed Obama claimed he respected the rules of this system, unlike George W. Bush). But today Obama has reinterpreted this legacy in such a minimalist way as to make the U.S. sense of responsibility negligible.

In Obama’s favor, one problem is that the Syrian opposition has come to be defined, and to an extent overcome, by its most extreme elements. Discord between the more moderate opposition figures, the bankruptcy of the Arab states, the cowardice and lack of foresight of the United States, and the futility of the Western Europeans, have crippled the effort to oppose Assad rule.

Ideally, what should the U.S. do? That question is often thrown out by those who see wisdom and vision in Obama’s immobility in the Middle East, even as American regional alliances begin to collapse. And yet the question requires a response.

From the start Obama has made a negotiated settlement in Syria his preferred outcome. In this he was right. A military solution is not feasible at this stage. It is also not desirable if it creates a political vacuum that can be exploited by jihadists, criminal gangs, and others, and leaves unanswered what happens to Syria’s minorities, above all the Alawites, an essential component of the Syrian social fabric.

But Obama’s efforts largely stopped at calling for the Geneva II conference. The president never sought to integrate a military strategy in Syria with his political aims, unlike Russia or Iran. Early on American officials said that President Bashar Assad had to leave office, as if a mere statement would push him to book a flight out of Damascus. Yet nothing was done to turn that thought into a reality.

Weeks ago Obama promised to arm the Syrian rebels, presumably to give them leverage in the run-up to negotiations. But that initiative stalled after opposition in Congress. The administration has instead relied on the Gulf states to send weapons, which may well undercut the conditions imposed by the U.S. for its own weapons supplies to the opposition. The Gulf states are far less discriminating about who ultimately receives the weapons, jihadists or otherwise.

Yet politically, if the administration wants negotiations, it must ensure that those it favors go to the table with a strong hand. That means three things: pushing hard, through it Turkish, Saudi and Qatari allies, for the creation of a unified opposition both inside and outside Syria, with a single program. It is imperative that the groups inside Syria agree to be represented by those outside. This is no easy task, but can be facilitated if those groups outside take over the distribution of weapons and funds through a broad, centralized Syrian body, perhaps under American and Arab supervision.

Second, it also means giving the opposition units it favors the weapons they need to make significant gains on the ground, since nothing will damage the jihadists more than the military success of their rivals in the rebel movement. And third, the U.S. must put all its political weight on the Saudis, Qataris and others to cut off their funding, both public and private, to the more extremist groups.

These are major endeavors, but American leverage will be greatly augmented once the Obama administration takes the Syria file in hand, and persuades its allies it has a real plan.

The persistent objective, one the Americans alone can impose on the different parties, is a political solution. In this they will have Russian backing. As practitioners of realist politics, the Russians read the balance of forces. If this turns against Assad, they will negotiate accordingly. But until the opposition (or the regime) gains a decisive military advantage, Syria will be stuck in a stalemate. Nothing suggests the U.S. intends to use an attack against Syria to break this stalemate. A sustained military campaign may precipitate Assad’s downfall (which is why Iran and Hezbollah have no interest in provoking one) and the vacuum Obama wants to avoid.

For Obama to refuse to integrate a military component, direct or indirect, into his political planning is irresponsible. As American intervention in the Bosnia war showed, well-measured American military action can facilitate a political arrangement. But doing nothing in Syria will only perpetuate chaos, possibly facilitating the creation of a terrorist haven, threatening regional stability further, exacerbating the refugee crisis, and leaving American allies to fend for themselves, which will lead them to make bad choices.

Firing a few Tomahawks will not benefit the Syrians in whose name the U.S. is acting. If matters remain contained, all will go back to normal soon thereafter, America having declared victory and again turned its back.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Legacy of Ashes

If the Syrian regime ordered a chemical weapons attack against civilians in areas east of Damascus this week, it did so with remarkable impudence, given the presence in Syria of a United Nations team investigating the previous use of such weapons.

Or perhaps President Bashar al-Assad is just a good reader of the international community, believing he can commit such crimes and wag his middle finger at his foes, without any fear of serious retaliation. If so, he may be correct. Nothing Western countries, above all the United States, have done on Syria should frighten Assad.

But Assad’s fatal flaw is that he tends to overplay his hand. There is one thing that he cannot dismiss completely: that at some point the Obama administration will grasp the devastating impact of the fact that it has undermined, in just five years, the central role the United States played in the Middle East for over six decades, and that this will lead it to respond militarily in Syria.

Already many Arab states are behaving as if they care little what the United States says or does. The Egyptian military has virtually ignored American counsel about how to deal with the aftermath of President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster. The army has committed several massacres but still sees the Obama administration wrestling with whether to describe what happened on June 30 as a “coup.”

And the challenges to American power are becoming even sharper. With many in Washington calling on President Barack Obama to cut off aid to Egypt because of its army’s human rights violations, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have offered the interim Egyptian government some $12 billion in aid, and have taken other measures to bolster the military. This has effectively undermined American leverage over Egypt – in the form of the $1.5 billion in direct military and economic grants provided by the United States annually, as well as $1.3 billion from the European Union.

Last Friday, in patent defiance of the United States, King Abdullah declared on television, “The kingdom stands with Egypt and against all those who try to interfere with its domestic affairs.” Even blunter were the remarks of Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the foreign minister, who stated, “Concerning those who announced stopping their assistance to Egypt or threatening to stop them, the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its people and capabilities and will lend a helping hand.”

Though the Obama administration has pushed for the Saudis to take the lead in assisting the Syrian opposition, it is obvious that the kingdom is profoundly dissatisfied with American disengagement from the region. The Saudis worry most about Iranian power, but see that everywhere the Iranians are making gains – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain – Washington has avoided getting involved.

When Prince Bandar bin Sultan traveled to Moscow recently to meet with President Vladimir Putin, one message was very plain: When you want to do business in Syria and the Middle East these days, it’s best to talk to the person in the Kremlin not the White House.

It is unlikely, as some have suggested, that Bandar visited Moscow on behalf of the Americans. On the contrary, everything about the meeting suggested it was a Saudi initiative, and resulted from Saudi displeasure with American detachment. While no agreement appears to have been reached, the meeting was likely the start of a process that may lead to a mutually beneficial relationship.

Russia, unlike the United States, is little concerned with democracy and, to the Saudis, is stubborn in defending its allies. Washington, in contrast, pushed its old friend Hosni Mubarak out of office without hesitation. Perhaps Russia can fill the strategic vacuum in the region that the United States has left, the Saudis may be thinking.

Beyond this, Obama must seriously consider whether America non-intervention in the Middle East will have other serious long-term repercussions for the United States. The reality in Syria is that people are getting killed in droves, and many Arabs will blame the Americans and Europeans for doing nothing to stop it. This could lead to an argument in the future that the West did not attack the Assad regime because it was complicit in its repression. This conspiracy theory could justify future acts of retaliation against the United States.

All this does not mean that the Obama administration will alter its behavior toward Syria. In fact, the chances are that it will not. But so precipitously has American influence in the Middle East declined under Obama, so openly has contempt been directed at the Americans, that the president must seriously think about his legacy.

Obama does not want to be the president who “lost” Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the twin pillars of American influence in the region for decades. He cannot afford to become the man who looked the other way as Syrian children were murdered by weapons whose use Obama himself declared a “red line” the Syrian regime should not cross.

America has rarely seemed so indolent in the face of barbarism. Is Assad right in expecting no better than empty posturing from Washington? Or will the most overrated of American presidents be shamed into action, if only to salvage his collapsing reputation? 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tyrants and Islamists leave Arabs few other choices

Historically, Egypt has been the place where Arab ideals first take root, and the first where those ideals are shown to be illusions.

When Egyptians rose up against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, many Arabs saw a defining moment in their recent history. When Mr Mubarak was ousted and Mohammed Morsi was later elected president, the narrative seemed to be writing itself: the Arabs were moving toward greater freedom, with Egypt in the vanguard.

Mr Morsi's incompetent rule soon lowered expectations. His decision last November to declare that he was above judicial oversight, like his ramming through of a contentious draft constitution that was opposed by key segments of Egyptian society, showed the president's utter ignorance of what democratic politics are about.

Mr Morsi regarded compromise as tantamount to defeat, not realising that defeat is a recurring feature in democracies, where presidents are not pharaohs.

However, those who opposed Mr Morsi failed to understand that democracy is also about representative institutions and their preservation. In pushing for his downfall, in collaboration with the army, they not only undermined the legitimacy of a democratically elected president; they also handed power to a military that had long been the backbone of authoritarian rule in Egypt.

Today the army appears to have no clear idea of how to extract Egypt from its worsening predicament. The escalating violence, meanwhile, has made any prospect of a consensual, democratic solution more remote than ever. Repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has opened a Pandora's box that will not soon be closed, even as the situation in the Sinai has dramatically deteriorated in recent weeks.

The collapse of the democratic ideal in Egypt has much symbolism for the region. If Egypt can't succeed, then what of Syria, Libya or Iraq?

If this pessimistic view is correct, it would not be the region's first ride down the path of broken political dreams. In the past 60 years disappointment has been common in the region.

Starting in the 1950s, Arab societies were captivated by Arab nationalism, best embodied by the then Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. For these nationalists, the ultimate aspiration was to create a single Arab state, reflecting the unity of the Arab peoples. When Egypt and Syria joined together to form the United Arab Republic in 1958, hopes were high that this represented the core around which other states would rally.

Instead, in 1961 the Syrians broke away from the UAR, displeased with the political order Nasser had put in place in Syria. He appointed a henchman, Abdel Hamid Sarraj, to run what became an unpopular police state. In truth, Nasser's own regime had already developed a definite autocratic streak of its own, as the army took advantage of King Farouk's removal in the revolution of 1952 to impose an increasingly authoritarian system.

This trend was replicated everywhere: Arab nationalist regimes, or variants thereof, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Algeria, hijacked their populations' drives for independence from colonial rule, or from the traditionalist leaders who had taken over from the colonial powers, to replace them with despotic leaderships.

Two things facilitated this outcome: the nature of Arab nationalism itself, and the importance of the conflict with Israel. Arab nationalism, as the personification of a grand Arab ambition, left little room for dissent or separate identities. That is why those who did not share the enthusiasm - often members of religious or ethnic minorities - were marginalised.

The conflict with Israel was equally pernicious, because it served to justify the over-militarisation of Arab societies and the vast expansion of intelligence agencies. That these were usually employed for domestic control, not to combat Israel, was irrelevant. "No voice should rise above the voice of battle," was the mantra used by regimes in many Arab countries, and opposing this view invited retaliation.

But while the ideal of Arab nationalism dissolved into the most brutal kind of tyranny, a second Arab ideal, one more limited in scope, has fared little better: that of states or administrations governed by Islamists.

Under Mr Morsi, this failure was most flagrant, but he was hardly alone. In Sudan, Algeria, and Hamas-controlled Gaza, and more recently Tunisia, some variant of Islamist rule, or its possibility, has been attempted, usually provoking a strong backlash from the military or from societies fearful that Islamism would bring intolerance.

This tension between religion and secular military institutions has been familiar throughout the Arab world. Dictators have grasped that the greatest potential threat to their rule comes from political-religious parties that are well-organised, have popular appeal, and thrive in a domain - religion - that regimes cannot easily silence without losing legitimacy.

Between the tyrants and the religious true believers, Arab societies have desperately few choices to guarantee a better future. When the first don't suppress them, the second dictate the lifestyle they must adopt. For a brief moment Egypt appeared to offer an alternative.

Had Egyptians seen that Mr Morsi could have been contained if they had reaffirmed the sanctity of the institutions to which he was subordinate, they might have acted differently. Their choice leaves the Egyptians, and many Arabs, at a loss for ideals, fresh victims of a damaged region.

Play the Aoun card against Hezbollah

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said the former U.S. budget director Bert Lance, who died last week. But watching the growing rift between Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, March 14 might want to modify that proposition: If it’s broke, make sure it isn’t repaired.

Aoun’s differences with Hezbollah initially centered around an extension of Parliament’s mandate and prolongation of Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi’s term (both of which Aoun opposed). Today the discord has spread, with Aoun telling the Saudi daily Al-Hayat, “There are differences [with Hezbollah] over a number of issues, mainly over establishing the state, democracy, settling the situation of south Lebanon, the Palestinian cause and Syria.”

Aoun went on to express his displeasure with Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, noting, “This is an individual initiative and there is no understanding between us and [Hezbollah] and we oppose intervention outside Lebanese territories.” He added, “The presence of the resistance in Syria is an understanding between them and Syria, we are not part of such an understanding.”

This was pretty strong stuff coming from a man who once justified every abuse, and covered every act of intimidation, carried out by the party. The reasons for Aoun’s reversal are not obvious, but with so egotistical a man it must have something to do with Aoun’s political interests, which Hezbollah has balanced against its own.

The extension of Parliament’s mandate effectively meant that Aoun was denied an opportunity to gain a substantial Christian bloc only a year before President Michel Sleiman’s term is scheduled to end. Already, the party had undermined the 1960 election law, which Aoun quietly favored because it would likely have given him an advantage, but had to publicly oppose when the Christian mood turned against it.

A new Christian majority, Aoun felt, would have given him valuable leverage to succeed Sleiman. This was all the more likely as Hezbollah and its allies have been insisting that they will not approve an extension of the president’s term next year. That is where Kahwagi comes in. Hezbollah, Aoun realized, sought to keep the army commander in place so that they could bring him to office next year.

Perhaps Aoun sensed that, while his alliance with Hezbollah had brought him many advantages (a sizable Christian parliamentary bloc in the 2005 and 2009 elections, thanks to Shiite votes, a large share of Christian ministers in Najib Mikati’s government, and probably significant funding from the party or its regional backers), it would not bring him what he sought most: the presidency.

This should have been obvious to Aoun in 2008, when the party failed to solidly endorse him as its candidate, and instead accepted Sleiman as president at the Doha conference in May.

Yet after Aoun won a large Christian parliamentary bloc in 2005, all he had to do was sit back and remain on good terms with both March 8 and March 14, until Emile Lahoud left office. It would have been very difficult to deny Aoun the presidency then, without making it appear that the most popular Christian politician was being intentionally cast aside.

Instead, Aoun picked sides, assuming that his alliance with Hezbollah would ultimately bring him to power. In fact it did the opposite, making Aoun so contestable to March 14, which had a parliamentary majority, that it did everything to deny him a victory. Meanwhile, Hezbollah was not about to waste valuable political capital on Aoun’s behalf, fearful that if elected he would be impossible to control.

Apparently sensing Aoun’s frustration and eager to break him away from Hezbollah, the Saudi ambassador met with the general in early July and declared that he was welcome to visit Saudi Arabia. Aoun did not set a date, but in the Al-Hayat interview, he affirmed that nothing prevented him from accepting the invitation.

“There are no obstacles in the essence of the relationship with Saudi Arabia but there are Lebanese political sides that have created the impression that Gen. Michel Aoun is against Saudi Arabia,” Aoun said. “If we review our ties with Saudi Arabia, there are no barriers between us, and Saudi Arabia helps Lebanon to be stable and to build a strong Army.”

Aoun also suggested that his political disagreements with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri were no longer an obstacle. “We had a dispute in the past which led us to resign from his Cabinet and now it is over,” he said.

Beyond Aoun’s personal ambitions, Hezbollah’s entry into Syria disturbed the general. The party’s irresponsible action has exacerbated sectarian tension in Lebanon, destabilizing the country. Aoun can be lucid when his political calculations have been dashed. There is a part of him that viscerally reacts against whatever damages the state, even if he sanctioned Hezbollah’s actions in that direction for years because he believed this would be to his advantage. But with little to lose today, he has no problems calling a spade a spade.

March 14 should take advantage of the situation. Aoun probably seeks an endorsement for the presidency, as a counterweight to Kahwagi. Neither Walid Jumblatt nor Samir Geagea will go along with such a scheme, but this creates an opening that can weaken Hezbollah at a difficult time for the party. That appears to be the Saudi calculation, and Aoun’s willingness to go along with it suggests, at the least, that he seeks to play both sides to his benefit.

Some wonder whether Aoun, who is nearly 80, truly wants to be president. Fulfilled ambition often lengthens life. All those who hope to ride the general’s coattails to power would agree. Breaking down Hezbollah’s network of alliances is achievable, at a moment when the party seems dead set on carrying Lebanon into the unknown.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Reading Machiavelli in Washington

Remember when public diplomacy was all the rage in the United States? There was a conviction that through a good public relations effort, the U.S. government could enhance its image, particularly in the Middle East. The Bush administration funded such media outlets as Radio Sawa, the magazine Hi, and the television station Al-Hurra, to which few Arabs paid any attention.

These projects derived from an assumption that if America was better liked by the world, this would enhance its influence. The question of “being liked” is not one Americans take lightly. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the question many of them asked was, “Why do they hate us?” The carnage that day was not a consequence of ideology or of irreconcilable world views; it was a question of fondness, as if al-Qaeda would have desisted had the U.S. only shown its warmer side. 

This belief in the importance of being liked is very much an American reflex. So, when the U.S. deputy secretary of state, William Burns, twice traveled to Cairo recently to mediate in the standoff between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, he must have been stung when his efforts failed and some parties denounced what they describe as unwanted American interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.

America has been treated with undue contempt by the Egyptians lately. The so-called liberal opposition is angry with the Obama administration for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, while the commander of the army, Abdel Fattah Sissi, indignantly told The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth, “You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that.” As for the Brotherhood, it has never had much sympathy for Washington anyway, and has interpreted American neutrality in the ongoing crisis as representing implicit support for the army.

In one respect, Sissi put his hand on the problem, albeit hypocritically. Nothing has done the U.S. worse damage in the past few years than its detachment from Middle Eastern events. A region that was at the center of American preoccupations a decade ago, has become one that Obama and many Americans seemingly do not want to touch with a ten-foot pole. America has turned its back not only on Egyptians, but also on Syrians, Libyans, Tunisians, and others.

Which brings us back to the debate over public diplomacy. Ultimately, the question is not whether the U.S. is liked, but whether it is respected or feared. To borrow from the great Italian political thinker, Niccolo Machiavelli, who asked in The Prince whether it was better to be loved than feared: “The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

But in the past five years the U.S. has been neither. A country that has spent tens of billions of dollars on Egypt for over three decades could not succeed in a mediation effort to avert an expected explosion. With all due respect to Burns, it was up to President Barack Obama, then readying his golf clubs for vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, to get personally involved and put pressure on Sissi.

Obama would do well to pick up The Prince and read other passages. For instance, Machiavelli observes that a prince “will be despised if he has a reputation for being fickle, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, irresolute; a prince should avoid this like the plague and strive to demonstrate in his actions grandeur, courage, sobriety, strength.”

All the public diplomacy in the world will not wash away the feeling that Obama is irresolute and cowardly when it comes to the Middle East. This has led many of his Arab partners to despise him and his administration, substantially reducing American authority.

The president, in his careful pursuit of neutrality, should have read another paragraph from Machiavelli: “A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy, that is for revealing himself without any reservations in favor of one side against another. This policy is always more advantageous than neutrality.”

Obama understandably sided with constitutional legitimacy in failing to condone Morsi’s ouster. But at the same time the administration sought to avoid alienating the army and much of the Egyptian population by not calling it a coup, which would have had legal implications for U.S. assistance. This tightrope act satisfied nobody, and in trying to be both legalistic and opportunistic the Obama administration ultimately was neither.

Had the administration backed the military’s move against Morsi, it would doubtless have been strongly criticized, but it also would have had far more sway to impose a smoother transition than what we are witnessing today. It could have used its leverage over the Egyptian army to ensure that its mediation succeeded as well as set red lines on what could be done against peaceful protesters – the events of last Wednesday being the third massacre carried out by the security forces since Morsi’s exit.

If an alternative strategy was preferable to Obama, for instance upholding Morsi’s rule against the army, then the administration should have pursued that from the beginning. But the Americans wanted it both ways. They did nothing, accepted setbacks, and issued empty statements. Before the U.S. can help Egypt, it must help itself.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sykes-Picot is more alive than we know

Since the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, commentators have reached for their history books to announce that we are witnessing the end of the Middle East as shaped by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. Their point is that the Arab world is breaking apart, and that what may emerge are new states defined by sect or ethnicity to replace those drawn up by the imperial powers almost a century ago.

Arab states, almost by definition, have embodied the failure of integration in the Arab world. Since independence they have been dysfunctional, authoritarian, over-militarized and economically underdeveloped. Unity has been imposed from above, usually brutally, with no tolerance for dissent, whether political or cultural. Leaders who led such countries were viewed with a mixture of distaste and respect for ruthlessly managing the complex dynamics of their societies.

One of these was the late Hafez Assad. During the 1980s, I recall one American academic, though no friend of Assad, referring to his rule as a success. But success is ultimately decided by one’s legacy, and the legacy of the late Syrian leader was, first, to ensure that his son would succeed him, and, second, to put in place a system of sectarian repression that is largely responsible for the carnage in Syria today.

At the heart of the Syrian and Iraqi situations most saliently, and perhaps slightly differently the Lebanese situation, is the problem of minorities. When the League of Nations was created after World War I, one of its principal preoccupations was to ensure that minorities would be protected in the new states that had been created after the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

The British and French mandatory authorities did, to an extent, favor minorities in the countries they controlled, principally as instruments of control. Britain ruled Iraq through a pro-Hashemite Sunni elite, while the French promoted minorities in Syria, among them the Alawites, who enrolled in the Troupes Speciales as a means of social advancement. This would lead to minority domination of what would become the Syrian army, and later Alawite control over Syria.

In Lebanon, though the Christians were a slight majority in 1920, France established a “Greater Lebanon” that responded to the demands of a community that was a minority in the region. Within decades the country they had created would have a Muslim majority. Lebanon would endure a 15-year civil war after 1975 that undermined Christian power and that subsequently gave the Sunni and Shiite communities a predominant role in the running of the state.

In Syria and Iraq the situation was different as minorities took or retained power and established dictatorial regimes that perpetuated minority rule. Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and in Syria the Assads’ hegemony broke down in 2011. But in neither Syria nor Iraq has a new social contract been found to accommodate minorities, so that in both countries there is a sense that these tenuous communities aspire to ethnic entities of their own.

This portrayal may be partly true, but it is also problematic. In Syria, Bashar Assad still believes he can retake all of Syria (even if others are dubious, as David Ignatius’ piece on the page shows). Far from falling back on an Alawite statelet, Assad has focused on ensuring safe communications between the coast and Damascus. He realizes that his co-religionists have not spent four decades and more expanding their presence, power, and interests throughout Syria, only to readily return today to their largely marginal areas of origin.

Iraq’s Sunnis, too, despite their sense of alienation from Baghdad, appeared to be in a different mood about their country in 2010, when parliamentary elections were held. The pacification of the Sunni uprising had largely succeeded, Sunnis participated in the elections that year, and the coalition that many of them supported, Al-Iraqiyya, won a majority, even if after months of maneuvering and discord, it was Nouri al-Maliki who again became prime minister.

There was no secessionist movement then, and even now the notion of a breakaway Sunni state raises many questions. What would be its resources? What would happen to Sunnis living in Shiite-majority areas and Baghdad? Formal separation is easy to talk about, but when implemented it is traumatic, especially when involving sectarian or ethnic communities, because it usually leads to transfers of population.

To this day the populations transfers between Greece and Turkey in 1923, or between India and Pakistan in 1947, are remembered as dark moments in the history of the countries involved. The impetus to replicate this in the Arab world is not widespread. Even during the Lebanese war, when de facto partition was in place, no effort was made to give the sectarian enclaves a definite legal status.

There is a sense among many in the West, weaned on a diet of anti-imperial historiography, that as Sykes-Picot was an imperial arrangement, its consequences must have no real legitimacy in the Arab world today. But that’s not true. The Arabs guard their imperially created boundaries jealously. Breaking up a state remains a path many hesitate to take. In Arab nationalist ideology, the political destiny of the Arabs is to join together in larger political entities, until a single Arab state is formed. Arab nationalism is a dream of unification, not fragmentation, and it retains an intellectual hold on societies that do not wish to define themselves primarily through a sectarian prism.

Does this mean Arab states will remain unified, at least officially? Political and geographical unity often clash with the reality of sectarian or ethnic division. Arab states are destined to wrestle with this contradiction for some time to come, as a substitute for formal separation. The inheritance of Sykes-Picot may be poisoned and discredited, but it is also far from dead.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Lady of the manor

The Lebanese were allowed a peek into the abyss of their political culture this week, when Nabih Berri’s NBN station interviewed Sonya al-Rassy, the daughter of the late President Sleiman Franjieh.

The interview, alternatively hilarious, nauseating, and disturbingly revealing, was a coup of sorts for Berri. He must have taken pleasure in hosting Rassy’s repeated putdowns of the energy minister, Gebran Bassil, at a time when Michel Aoun and Sleiman Franjieh, the grandson and namesake of the former president, are at odds over Hezbollah’s decision to extend the term of parliament and of army commander Jean Kahwaji. Aoun unsuccessfully opposed both initiatives, and as a consequence relations between him and Hezbollah have become, to quote an Aounist parliamentarian, “cold.”

However, it’s the worldview that al-Rassy brought with her that was most remarkable. Here was someone from a prominent family who seemed bothered that social hierarchies were breaking down, whose facts were loose, and whose interpretive powers were suspect.

Al-Rassy was scornful of Bassil, saying that his family “were our guys in Batroun,” reducing the minister’s family to that of Franjiehs' minions. One could delight in the way al-Rassy cut the self-important Bassil down to size, but the fun ended there. Lebanon has fundamentally changed in recent decades and when al-Rassy suggested that the Bassils had come from nothing and “didn’t own a car,” she missed that – well – today almost everybody owns a car.

To al-Rassy people have their allotted place in an unchanging system, and should not aspire to transcend their station. What is the world coming to, she wondered, when “the Karami son is shot at in Tripoli?” What is going on when Samir Geagea, whose father was a policeman and “used to sound the trumpet” in the Franjieh household, becomes an influential political figure?

In the most astounding exchange of the interview, al-Rassy almost levitated with pride when saying that, alone with the Jumblatts, hers was a “feudal family” (inadvertently revealing, not for the first time, that the Druze leader is a model of sorts to the Franjiehs). These days, laying claim to a medieval institution is not something to boast about, and al-Rassy didn’t see the irony of being invited by employees of a Shiite politician to a program in which she profusely praised another Shiite leader, Hassan Nasrallah, both of whose careers were built on contempt for the traditional Lebanese “feudal” order.

Al-Rassy was equally withering when speaking of the former prime minister, Saad Hariri. And here, once you cut through the myriad cheap shots, she was rather more lucid. Al-Rassy noted that the threats to Hariri’s life notwithstanding, if one wanted to be a politician in Lebanon, there was no room for fear; one had to be physically present in the country, “not in Paris or Saudi Arabia.”

Al-Rassy, whatever her political leanings, did not say anything that has not been said quietly by countless other politicians, many allied with Hariri. Her criticism seemed less a matter of antagonism than an objective assessment by the daughter of a political family of how leadership is exercised. Hariri once had so much power, you could almost hear al-Rassy lament, how could he wantonly throw it all away? 

The interview also told us a great deal about the mediocre nature of political conversation in Lebanon. Facts are shaky, interpretation is based on a tendentious reading of the shaky facts, and personal experience is somehow elevated to the level of cosmic truth.

We learned, for instance, that Lebanon’s war “ended 40 years ago” when al-Rassy blamed Bassil for failing to supply electricity after all this time. If the war concluded four decades ago, that would mean it was over before it officially started in April 1975, which would have been ideal had it only been true.

We discover that Rafiq Hariri “was killed from above, mammy” (“mammy” being one of the words of endearment al-Rassy tosses at the interviewer), which would indicate he was the victim of an Israeli or American drone attack. It’s odd that a United Nations investigation never found any evidence of this, though al-Rassy would say this only confirmed the vast conspiracy put in place to accuse Hezbollah.

Al-Rassy tells us that Newsweek once reported that the Maronite was the “best combatant in the world.” I cannot guarantee that the magazine never published an article on the topic, but I would wager more money than I have that it would have never been formulated in such a way, or that “the world” would have been used as a yardstick. Hyperbole is common in Lebanon, where few people read and reality is viewed impressionistically.

It is funny how when many better-known Lebanese figures speak their mind, you just wish they wouldn’t. Out comes the bigotry, the conceit, and the transmutation of dubious facts into dead certainties. It’s all very shambolic, imprecise, and not a little disquieting. Sonya al-Rassy doubtless has her admirers, but I imagine that quite a few more Lebanese watched her interview with sheer incredulity.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hizbollah is losing on several fronts as it clings to its patrons

Last week, the Lebanese president, Michel Sleiman, showed the extent to which Hizbollah's intervention in the Syrian conflict, like its independent military arsenal, is provoking discontent in Lebanon. The political mechanisms the party employed to legitimise its weapons are weakening, which could have long-term repercussions.

Mr Sleiman took many by surprise on Army Day, last Thursday, when he bluntly criticised Hizbollah's decision to send combatants to Syria to fight alongside the Syrian regime. The president also defended Lebanon's army against the party.

"The task of the army becomes difficult if a faction or more of the Lebanese implicates itself in conflicts beyond our borders, which could lead to the importation of external crises, thus turning the nation into an open battlefield by proxy while such crises are draining the armies of much greater nations," Mr Sleiman said.

The president also, for the first time, implied that Hizbollah's arms were "illegitimate". He said: "The task of the army becomes difficult, indeed impossible, if this duality between legitimate and illegitimate weapons persists."

In the context of the national dialogue sessions, Mr Sleiman has sought to find a means of integrating Hizbollah's weapons into the state. But this was the first time he had spoken so forthrightly. Not surprisingly, he was criticised by Hizbollah's allies, and that night rockets were fired on the presidential palace - the second time this has occurred; the first was in June after Mr Sleiman filed a complaint with the United Nations about Syrian violations of Lebanese airspace.

On Sunday, Hizbollah's deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, defended the party's weapons, saying they protected Lebanon and deterred Israel. However, Hizbollah must realise that Lebanon's political context is shifting. A central part of the party's strategy has been to anchor its independent military capacity in national institutions and a national consensus, but this is dissipating as unease with the party is being more openly expressed.

Hizbollah insisted the last three cabinets should endorse in their policy statements the formula of "the state, the army, and the resistance" as the basis of a Lebanese defence strategy, as such bestowing on the "resistance", or Hizbollah, a separate, recognised role. So when Mr Sleiman said that Hizbollah's behaviour complicated the army's task while carrying Lebanon into a foreign war that did nothing to enhance national security, he defied a fundamental tenet of the party. On Tuesday, he went further, stating that the formula was no longer valid.

Hizbollah's decision to fight in Syria, aside from alienating Lebanon's Sunni community, has disturbed some key allies. The party's main Christian partner, Michel Aoun, has not hidden his displeasure with its Syria campaign and condemned the rocket attack against the presidential palace while defending the president against his critics.

Mr Aoun's relations with Hizbollah have suffered because of differences over a number of domestic political issues. One Aoun-aligned parliamentarian, when asked to describe relations with Hizbollah, answered "cold". This does not mean that Mr Aoun intends to break with Hizbollah. But his political interests, like those of his electorate, are at odds today with the party's priorities.

To mark his change of direction, Mr Aoun has improved his relations with Saudi Arabia and has even been invited to visit the kingdom. Many in his electorate, whether businessmen or low-income voters, are suffering from the dire Lebanese economic situation, a direct consequence of the Syrian conflict and of Gulf Arab targeting of Hizbollah because of its involvement in Syria.

Hizbollah has lost the broad approval it once enjoyed in Lebanon, which helped shield it in times of volatility. And there is much volatility around as Hizbollah has taken a substantial risk in Syria, where Bashar Al Assad's fate is far from certain. The Syrian president may be solidly in place for now but the tide is constantly shifting on the ground, and Hizbollah, other than finding itself increasingly trapped in Syria's quagmire, knows that impatience is rising at home.

The party must also sense - along with its patron, Iran - that Syria poses a medium-term threat to both of them. The Syrian economy is slowly collapsing, which can only increase Mr Al Assad's dependence on Tehran. Unless his forces decisively gain the upper hand soon, the conflict could harm an Iranian economy already under considerable strain.

The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has made economic relief a priority, at a moment when the US House of Representatives has passed a new round of sanctions against Iranian oil exports. The bill still needs to be approved by the Senate and signed by President Barack Obama, who is reluctant to undermine Mr Rouhani as he seeks to start a dialogue with the west.

If Washington and Tehran begin such a dialogue, this may buy Hizbollah some breathing space. But not much. The party's "military wing" was recently placed on the European Union's terror list, worrying many Lebanese that this might have a negative impact on them and on the country's reputation. Without a clear exit strategy from Syria, Hizbollah could find that even its Shia supporters are growing unhappy with its open-ended commitment.

Nor will the aftermath in Syria necessarily benefit the party. A messy outcome there will hardly ensure a stable Lebanon, while Hizbollah is keen to avoid domestic instability. If Mr Al Assad triumphs, the party will have to manage Sunni discontent; if he loses, Hizbollah will have to absorb the downfall of a major backer, a strategic defeat for both the party and Iran.

When all its props in society go, Hizbollah will still have its weapons to silence its adversaries. But intimidation can only make matters worse at a time when many Lebanese are doubting Hizbollah's choices. The party cannot long survive in an unreceptive environment, which could turn hostile before long.

The embassies should have stayed open

Pity Edward Snowden. He was accused of revealing valuable information allowing terrorist groups to learn that the United States was eavesdropping on their communications. Today, with U.S. embassies in the region closed because electronic “chatter” suggested an attack was imminent, terrorists know this by listening to American officials.

The Obama administration has pursued leaks aggressively, except when these advance its agenda. The news that the U.S. discovered that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had ordered the organization’s franchise in the Arabian Peninsula to carry out an unspecified military operation is useful to President Barack Obama. It allows him to defend American surveillance programs, after Congress recently failed by a narrow margin to defund the National Security Agency’s program to collect metadata and other information domestically.

That is not to say that the latest threat was contrived to serve such a purpose. Rather, the closure of several embassies was portrayed as an effort to stray on the side of caution, and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have praised the move.

Perhaps they were right, but the American reaction must have especially pleased Zawahiri and his acolytes. Nineteen embassies in the Arab world were closed for a week, American and British citizens left Yemen hurriedly, and the United States looked as if it had lost its nerve. And all Zawahiri had to do was to pick up the phone and say a few words.

Not surprisingly the Yemenis were unhappy. They decried the evacuations as a step that “serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism.” Jihadist websites, in contrast, were delighted with the havoc the apparent threat had created.

The dangers to the United States and other Western countries are real and should be taken seriously. However, when episodes like the latest embassy closures occur, it’s difficult not to feel that the responses are out of proportion with reality. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. rightly concluded that the best way to combat terrorism was to show that Americans could go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Since that time American actions have proven the contrary, so that those who claim that Osama bin Laden won may be right.

The U.S. has not conducted its “war on terror” in an ideal way. The NSA’s surveillance programs are a good example of how the siren song of absolute security has allowed the U.S. government to dramatically widen its authority to enter into the lives of Americans, with no regard for privacy. Even if legislation to defund the surveillance programs was defeated, there will be other ways to bring the programs back into line with what Congress originally intended in the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

In defending the surveillance programs, Obama declared it was necessary to balance privacy with national security. He’s right, except for one thing: the balance has invariably tilted in favor of national security, as Americans and non-Americans have faced ever more intrusive government snooping into their personal communications, financial affairs, purchases, Internet habits and anything else the government deems to be of relevance to public safety.

Perhaps the most egregious facet of the “war on terror” was the Bush administration’s creation of a legal twilight zone in which torture was interpreted as something acceptable, while prisoners caught in Afghanistan and elsewhere were denied the protection of the Geneva Conventions. The justification of torture, sordidly redefined as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” greatly damaged George W. Bush’s legacy, as did the administration’s adoption of an illegal “extraordinary rendition” program that allowed prisoners to be sent to countries that practiced torture in order to be interrogated.

As for the legal status of prisoners, a case could be made early on that Al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants did not qualify as prisoners of war under Common Article 3 of the conventions, even if the Supreme Court later ruled that they did. However, the administration’s case was much weaker under Protocol 1, which the U.S. never ratified. The result was that prisoners found themselves in a legal no-man’s land, labeled “enemy combatants” to be held until the end of the war on terror.

The only problem is that the war on terror is open-ended. The prisoners at Guantanamo prison are still caught up in a legal void: they are covered neither by the Geneva Conventions nor are they under the jurisdiction of American law. What to do with them is a headache that Obama has yet to resolve, which has delayed his plans to close Guantanamo.

Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a laudable effort to overthrow an incalculably cruel regime. However, how difficult it was for the president, and for those, such as myself, who supported the war, to convince others of this when the administration was bending the law to allow the very behavior it was supposed to fight. For what we saw at Abu Ghraib was only what we had earlier seen at other U.S. prisons.

Fouad Ajami, a defender of the Iraq war, wrote this at the time: “We ought to give the Iraqis the best thing we can do now, reeling as we are under the impact of Abu Ghraib – give them the example of our courts and the transparency of our public life. What we should not be doing is to seek absolution in other Arab lands.”

Ajami was right in arguing that America’s strength resides in its legal system and its transparency, not in the denial of due process and secrecy. Nor will overreaction and panic defeat Al-Qaeda. The U.S. embassies in the region should have tightened security and remained open. Steadfastness and principle should yet mean something to a nation that has frequently struggled not to abandon both.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Trial and error for March 14

The decline of March 14 has been like a death in an Egyptian movie. The agony never ends, the statements of recrimination and regret come in successive stanzas, and as the character finally expires, the orchestra builds up to a shriek of violins.

For March 14, the sharpest blow was internal discord over the Orthodox proposal, which showed how unsettled were the Christian parties that elections would perpetuate their secondary status in the coalition, and in their own community. Stanzas of recrimination and regret accompanied March 14’s repeated political setbacks, its frustrations in government and, above all, the reckless effort by Hezbollah to bring down Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2011.

But the agony that is never ending comes from the continued delays in the trial of suspects in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. What was once the most effective weapon in March 14’s scabbard has become mostly irrelevant to realities in Lebanon.

That’s not to say that the tribunal is, or was ever intended to be, a weapon for the one-time majority. But it symbolized what the 2005 uprising against Syria and its Lebanese allies was about: a rejection of murder as a staple of Lebanese politics. When the United Nations authorized an investigation of the Hariri assassination, followed by the formation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, many Lebanese, perhaps naively, believed this would signal an end to impunity for political crimes in the country. How wrong they were.

As March 14 began regressing as an effective political force, as it lost its parliamentary majority, and as it fractured over an election law, the special tribunal still had not began a trial. One president died and another came in, the prosecutor was replaced, the Lebanese authorities were unable to arrest suspects, and delay followed delay, so that today it is unlikely the trial will begin until next year. Now the reason given is that the defense has requested many documents from the prosecution, and needs time to digest the mass of information.

That is understandable, but less so is how March 14 built its political strategy entirely around the Hariri investigation, and persisted with this even after there was ample evidence that it was stalling. Nor were they shaken that the reports of the second and third UN commissioners, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, were paragons of uninformative blandness.

Even a man whom March 14 trusted to get to the bottom of the Hariri assassination, Detlev Mehlis, Brammertz’s predecessor as UN commissioner, was souring on what had happened in the investigation after his departure. In January 2008 I interviewed him for The Wall Street Journal, and he was unambiguously skeptical.

Speaking of Brammertz, he said, “I haven’t seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward.” In response to Brammertz’s conclusions that Hariri had been killed for political reasons and that there were several layers of participation in the conspiracy to assassinate him, Mehlis asked, “We needed two years of investigative endeavor to discover this?”

I soon concluded that senior Lebanese judicial and political figures shared Mehlis’ concerns. One admitted that Brammertz had not greatly progressed in his work, while another blamed him for repeatedly confirming the arrest of four generals suspected in the crime before shifting the burden onto the Lebanese. Yet March 14 politicians remained officially optimistic about the UN investigation, and, more difficult to grasp, they believed their own rhetoric.

When Daniel Bellemare issued an indictment in 2011 accusing Hezbollah members of being involved in Hariri’s murder, March 14 felt it had received a new lease on life. The coalition didn’t pause to consider that Syria had not been accused, even though it was highly unlikely that Syrian officials were not involved in the crime since the removal of so prominent a political figure as Hariri certainly required a Syrian green light.

Such a grave shortcoming could only indicate that investigators had missed a great deal, and yet still March 14 retained high hopes for the legal process. When Saad Hariri was ousted, they demanded that Najib Miqati, the prime minister-designate, put in writing his position on the STL, otherwise they would not support him. Miqati could not accept such a condition, but in the end he successfully pushed for government funding of the tribunal, to preserve his Sunni bona fides.

Today, the STL is in good hands, but that doesn’t change the fact that its impact could well be restricted. We may get an insight into how Hariri was killed, and with whom the perpetrators spoke. But nothing the trial tells us about Hezbollah will be new, and the ability of March 14 and others to use the revelations to end impunity will be limited.

The coalition put all its eggs in the basket of an investigative process riddled with flaws, and a judicial process that is glacially slow. Had this been understood much earlier, March 14 may have planned its strategy differently, instead of waiting for a silver bullet that would allow it to impose its agenda domestically. Instead, today it cannot seem to revive itself, the violins rising in the background.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

By losing interest in foreign policy, the US injures itself

Chris Christie, the governor of the US state of New Jersey, warned last week against the growing appeal of libertarianism in American politics, particularly on matters of national security.

"I just want us to be really cautious," said Mr Christie, a Republican, "because this strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think is a very dangerous thought."

The governor was criticising efforts by members of the US Congress to restrict the National Security Agency's surveillance programmes. Congress is restive on this issue because many Americans worry that the NSA is violating their privacy. Among those Mr Christie targeted was Sen Rand Paul; the two men may become rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Unfortunately Mr Christie missed an opportunity to remind his countrymen of an even more dangerous thread running through public and Congressional opinion, namely the tendency towards isolationism - hiding at home in an imagined security cocoon while becoming ever more reluctant to get involved in foreign crises.

President Barack Obama, once hailed for his cosmopolitan background, has been the prime exemplar of a more inward-looking approach to international relations.

This growing isolationism must be qualified. Given global economics and communications, no state can be truly isolated. But a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has made Americans much more wary of overseas commitments. Caution about America's ability to be effective abroad has pervaded many of Mr Obama's foreign policy decisions, above all in the Middle East.

That is what Mr Christie would have been more justified in saying, rather than indirectly defending a surveillance programme that has provoked uneasiness among the public. A recent Pew poll found that 47 per cent of Americans felt that the government's antiterrorism policies had gone too far in restricting civil liberties, while 35 per cent said that they had not gone far enough.

However, the public distress on this issue should not allow Mr Christie to conclude that libertarianism is the most pressing menace to US national security. Ultimately, a more active foreign policy would serve America better than this new isolationism. But Mr Obama has devoted relatively little time and thinking to foreign affairs. Even his vaunted "pivot to Asia" has not materialised as much more than a bid to justify disregarding the Middle East.

America's foreign policy after World War II was built around a combination of realism and idealism. Its post-war strategy was the containment of communism, which blended these two attitudes: There was an idealistic belief that the US would fight communism in an open-ended struggle wherever it manifested itself to defend liberty; and this was based on a realistic view that a hard-nosed attitude and a strong military would let the US embark on this forceful policy.

With the end of the Cold War, America sought a new foreign policy model. While it never defined anything as clear as containment, Washington continued to pursue policies alternatively characterised by values and by a more cynical reading of power relations. Thus, President Bill Clinton intervened in Bosnia in response to the Srebrenica massacre, while George W Bush pursued his "war on terrorism" and the Iraq war by relying on America's military superiority.

Mr Obama has brought no clarity to US foreign policy, and he has shown himself unwilling to take the lead on vital international issues. His administration has downgraded America's hitherto prominent role in the Middle East, and has seemed to be without a strategy in places such as Syria and Egypt. John Kerry, the secretary of state, has just restarted Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, but this has been an exception confirming the rule of US standoffishness.

In Asia, Mr Obama will be pulling troops out of Afghanistan soon, while the US has taken a cautious line on the tensions between China and its Asian neighbours, many of them US allies, over contested maritime areas.

One thing Washington has not done is draw red lines around its allies, to protect them. This may show an understandable desire to avoid a confrontation with China, but it has also meant that the US has been more adept at dealing with situations mainly outside its control than at ensuring that the outcomes are in America's favour.

That seems to be true almost everywhere where the US has been involved, from Europe to Africa to Latin America. The administration has only rarely been proactive, often preferring to follow the lead of other states. Mr Obama has called this "leading from behind", but many have seen desperately little leading by America.

Not surprisingly, there is a cacophony of American views on the country's foreign policy course. Libertarians and some realists have approved of the focus on domestic priorities, with the latter arguing that a stronger America at home means a stronger America abroad. In contrast, other realists have lamented that the US aversion to intervening in the world means it is not protecting its interests.

Liberal interventionists have been dismayed by US indifference to the carnage in Syria and worry about what will happen in Afghanistan once the US pulls out. And neoconservatives mistrust Mr Obama for having defined his foreign policy preferences in opposition to theirs, even if the president has continued Mr Bush's antiterrorism policies, such as the pursuit of drone attacks.

Until the administration resumes a more active role in defining the global agenda and stops affirming that there is little it can do abroad, confusion will reign about America's intentions in the world. Too little of America can be just as destabilising as too much of America.

Preparing for the worst in Palestine

For a journalist, writing about Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations is more about duty than pleasure, like producing a royal heir. The talks between the two sides that resumed this week are no exception. The chances of success are next to nil, and yet the articles get written.

It’s odd how an Obama administration that has been hopeless on Syria and Egypt should now expend political capital on the Middle East’s Gordian knot. But even there the effort is halfhearted. President Barack Obama has left the legwork to Secretary of State John Kerry, putting virtually none of his personal credibility on the line to ensure the negotiations are a success.

Moreover, the participants will meet not in the United States, where the administration can exercise direct influence over them, but in the Middle East. The American official tasked with following up on the talks is Martin Indyk, a savvy former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and ambassador to Israel, but apparently not someone with the full weight of the president behind him.

Kerry deserves credit for having brought the two sides back to the table. But that such a basic achievement should be greeted with ululations is indicative of the profound difficulties ahead. And nothing suggests Kerry has new ideas to ensure success.

If anything, the obstacles are greater than they ever were: The Israeli population in the West Bank has increased by some 20 percent in the past five years. Defenders of the settlements hold powerful positions in the government. One of these, Naftali Bennett, is a former head of the Judea and Samaria Settlement Council. Recently, he was quoted as saying, “I’ve killed many Arabs in my life, and there is no problem with that.” Last June, Bennett derided the idea that a Palestinian state would be formed on land evacuated by Israel. “Never in the history of Israel have so many people invested so much energy in something so futile,” he said, before adding that “[t]he most important thing for the land of Israel is to build, build, build.”

And build Israel has, to the extent that a settlement council member, Dani Dayan, recently told the Washington Post, “I think in the last two or three years, we have passed a point of no return. ... What I mean is that from a psychological point of view, there is no going back. We are here to stay.”

Such are the attitudes with which Kerry and Indyk will have to wrestle. While some polls suggest a majority of Israelis would welcome an agreement with Palestinians, others show there is still resistance to the recent decision to release Palestinian prisoners and continued opposition to freezing settlement construction. Even Yair Lapid, the centrist finance minister who controls five portfolios in the Netanyahu government, opposes the dismantlement of large settlement blocs, even as he backs a two-state solution.

Some believe that, ultimately, the key is to accept the principle of a transfer of territories between Israelis and Palestinians, so that the larger blocs near the 1967 lines can be integrated into Israel and the Palestinians compensated elsewhere. Land swaps were endorsed by the Arab League earlier this year, in a modification of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. This helps, but the reality is that there is a higher barrier that needs to be cleared, one that transcends technical solutions: mutual mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis, and the fact that neither side seems keen to live alongside the other.

Palestinians resent more than half a century of abuse, dispossession and humiliation, and this will not soon evaporate. Israelis demand more security, but do not seem to realize that their policies today are only further intertwining their fortunes with those of the Palestinians. Unless Israelis are willing to engage in the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem, they will continue to live next to a hostile population, increasingly radicalized by the hopelessness of their situation. Already, Palestinian leaders willing to compromise with Israel, above all Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have lost authority because they never get anything in exchange for their moderation.

Can we expect this pattern to change now that the secretary of state has gotten Israelis and Palestinians into the same room? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s track record suggests not, and he has no intention of challenging the solid majority in his government that supports the settlement enterprise. As for the Palestinians, Hamas has opposed renewed peace talks, and has rejected the land swap principle approved by the Arab states. With this degree of bad faith all around, you wonder where Kerry gets his optimism.

In fact you have to wonder why the secretary of state insists on addressing the Palestinian-Israeli challenge at this moment, when there seem to be so many other American priorities in the region. Egypt is a mess, and yet Obama’s way of dealing with it is to send Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both critics of his Syria policy, to Cairo next week to meet with Egyptian officials. In the annals of official lethargy that must stand as a milestone.

Kerry’s management of the Syria crisis is no less puzzling. While the secretary appears to want to inject clarity into the chaotic American approach to the country, many politicians in Washington, along with Obama’s chronic hesitancy, have worked against him. Kerry’s decision to shift to the Palestinian-Israeli track is a risk that may weaken him further, since any setback can and will be turned against him.

The real problem is Obama himself. The president never seems to have both hands on U.S. overseas concerns. Rather, an escape hatch is perpetually prepared to avoid his being burned by failure. No foreign policy can thrive with such a man at the helm, and certainly not a Palestinian-Israeli track forever lined with corpses of expectation.