beirut calling


Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Blogging over at Reason
Several readers have complained that BC hasn't been updated for months. Indeed, part of the reason is too much work, but also that I've been blogging on Reason magazine's Hit and Run blog.

I'm keeping BC alive, but for the moment the little time I have goes to H&R. Will be back soon, though, when things clear up.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Golan grab?
Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is denying that the Israeli government has approved a plan to double the population in the occupied Golan Heights. According to Ha'aretz, he told the BBC's Hard Talk program:

"There is no program, there is no policy, there is no expansion of Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights," Olmert told the BBC.

"He [Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, who announced the decision] may have declared something... but in terms of the government policy... there is no such approved program..."

The statement comes amid mild hopes that Syria and Israel might resume negotiations on the Golan. While the prospect of serious talks still looks far away, the Syrians and Lebanese are "coordinating". As the Daily Star reported today:

A series of meetings will be held between Syrian and Lebanese officials in the next few days to pave the way for a possible meeting of the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council in the next few months. The meetings are apparently intended to reinforce the image of complete cooperation between the two countries.

The article suggests the reason for this is increasing American pressure on Syria through the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. However, it is quite possible that it is also, and perhaps mainly, linked to the prospect of progress in talks with Israel. If such talks resume, Syria is very keen to keep a tight rein on Lebanon.

The Battle of Algiers II
Christopher Hitchens has done a piece on the Battle of Algiers for Slate, the second in the online magazine in a few months. The first was written by Charles Paul Freund.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Press review
My biweekly review of the Middle East press for Slate is an end-of-year roundup, with some interesting material on Syrian-Israeli relations. Since then, this New York Times story has cast the prospect of Syrian-Israeli negotiations in a new light--and showed where Ariel Sharon's priorities lie.
We'll borrow this for now
The U.S. contemplated seizing Gulf oil fields in 1973 to break the Arab oil embargo, according to recently released British intelligence memorandum cited by the Washington Post:

It cited a warning from Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger to the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Cromer, that the United States would not tolerate threats from "under-developed, under-populated" countries and that "it was no longer obvious to him that the United States could not use force."

Seizure of the oil fields, the memo said, was "the possibility uppermost in American thinking [and] has been reflected, we believe, in their contingency planning."

Ironically, one danger was that Iraq might, at the USSR's instigation, move into Kuwait:

"The greatest risk of such confrontation in the Gulf would probably arise in Kuwait where the Iraqis, with Soviet backing, might be tempted to intervene," it said, presaging Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Presaging, yes: but the Arab world would have backed that intervention wholeheartedly, and regarded the U.S. as the threat to regional stability.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

My Lebanon 2003 roundup, for the Daily Star of Dec. 27.

A year of living dangerously

Whereas Lebanon could have been an Arab country deriving benefit from the US invasion of Iraq, namely through American appreciation for its free-market consociational model and its relevance in post-war Baghdad, the iron bond with Syria dictated otherwise. As the year closed, the bitter realization was that 2003 was a catastrophic follow-up to that climax of 2002: the Paris II economic summit held to help Lebanon emerge from its virtually insurmountable economic morass.

For much of the year, the Lebanese have had to contend with a virtual lockdown of their political system, provoked by a government of mostly pro-Syrian apparatchiks incapable of advancing a forward-looking policy agenda, grafted onto the more enduring personal rivalry between President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

This combination has suffocated even the vaguest of aspirations for domestic reform, all because the gentlemen in Damascus thought the new government would prevent Lebanon from turning into a fifth column while American soldiers entered Iraq. What the Syrians did not see, however, was that temporary quietude through a team of political heavyweights would lead to deadlock, and, therefore, threaten an economic revival necessary to ensure long-term Lebanese social stability. Lest we also forget, the Syrians need Lebanon as a safety valve to export hundreds of thousands of their laborers who might otherwise metamorphose into domestic Islamists if forced to rely solely on employment at home.

Lebanon’s Islamists showed a more paradoxical face in 2003. Even as Hizbullah behaved with remarkable pragmatism by mostly keeping the Shebaa Farms front quiet and negotiating a prisoner release with Israel, its Sunni counterparts were active in the shadows of Sidon and Tripoli. One might forget that this was a year in which an American missionary was killed in Sidon and several other foreigners the target of bomb attacks--and when militant Sunni Islamists were at the heart of fighting in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.

Even as the public’s attention was focused on Hizbullah and its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, the real question was why the state behaved so passively toward the Sunni groups, who have posed a systematic domestic security threat in recent years--dating all the way back to the attempted Balamand bombing of Christian clergymen in the early 1990s.

Lax security and unanswered questions were also obvious in another highlight of the year, namely the rocket attack against Hariri’s Future Television station. It is not often that post-war Lebanon has had to contend with assaults against its politicians, and the general silence that followed the event suggested there was more than met the eye. If the effort was designed to intimidate Hariri, it only partially succeeded. Soon, both the Hariri and Lahoud factions were leaking damaging information on each other, and by year’s end the prime minister was openly drawing attention to his dispute with the president.

Looking ahead to 2004, the next battleground will be municipal elections scheduled for spring. Lahoud would like to extend his stay in office, but knows it will be difficult to justify a deferral of the presidential election in fall if local polls take place beforehand. On that basis alone, Hariri will support elections and, unless the security situation deteriorates dramatically, it is difficult to see him losing. Even Syria might flinch at the thought of postponing local elections that most Lebanese consider as relevant, if not more so, than legislative elections.

Then we must ask what will happen to Lahoud? The president has been peripatetic in recent weeks, even venturing overseas, when his modus operandi had been to avoid travel, except to countries having trivial local importance. If his mandate is to be extended, he must display verve and activity, and he has done so. Ultimately, however, his fate will be in the hands of others.

An extended or renewed mandate will be a tough sell for the president’s friends in Beirut and Damascus. Hariri is opposed to it, so too is Sfayr, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Birri has shown little enthusiasm. The Maronite community has never really been behind Lahoud and now, we hear, the Americans are whispering that whatever the constitution mandates on an election should be respected, although this can be read in contradictory ways. Lahoud will even be hard-pressed to find an ally in Paris, where President Jacques Chirac plainly backs Hariri.

So, will the corpse of 2003 resurrect in 2004? Everything suggests it might, since the alternatives could be disastrous, both for Lebanon and Syria. On the other hand the political leadership has rarely disappointed those predicting disappointment. But why fret? Whatever happens, the cast of characters will stay in office for the coming months; plenty of time to paint your new year black.

More on the previous post: My article for the Daily Star today, but linked to the version posted on the Reason website, which, unlike the Star at present, actually has an article archive.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Liberty, equality, fraternity
Alain Hertoghe sees anti-Americanism in French coverage of the Iraq war. His reward? Being fired by his employer, the French Catholic daily La Croix.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Shammas on Said
Novelist Anton Shammas has written a very subtle short essay on Edward Said for the annual New York Times Magazine stiffs issue. Shammas, who is an Arab-Israeli and who famously and publicly argued that, as an Israeli citizen, he was entitled to full integration into an otherwise Jewish state, is now considerably more pessimistic about a Palestinian-Israeli peace.

He writes:

At the memorial service, a reading from the Arabic translation of his autobiography, ''Out of Place,'' replaced his English original in a moment of sheer magic, giving his life a home of sorts, a posthumous place, a mandate inside his virtual mother tongue. ''In his text,'' the philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote, in a passage that Said was fond of quoting, ''the writer sets up house. . . . For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.'' Arabic, that night in Beirut, was his house and his mandate.

It is interesting that when I first met Shammas, he felt that Hebrew would provide him with both his house and mandate, and indeed he told me how he did not want his Hebrew-written novel Arabesques to be translated into Arabic. Today I'm not so sure that he would agree with this. Language, for Shammas, may have become a source of betrayal and a symbol of expectations dashed, since it apparently was (as an exchange with AB Yehoshua suggested) and is (as his present pessimism confirms) insufficient to integrate him into Israeli society.

Shammas also writes:

In Said's essay ''On Lost Causes,'' he wrote that ''a lost cause is associated in the mind and in practice with a hopeless cause: that is, something you support or believe in that can no longer be believed in except as something without hope of achievement.'' But unlike some of us, Said never believed that Palestine was ''a lost cause.'' Rather, he believed that the intellectual has an ethical commitment to relentlessly and unflinchingly speak out, against all odds, against all grains and against all hegemonies -- real, imagined and self-proclaimed.

At sea on O'Brian
Saw Peter Weir's film Master and Commander in a Beirut theater yesterday night, and thought of Christopher Hitchens' criticism, centered around the fact that Dr. Stephen Maturin is transformed into a mostly uninteresting character.

The summa of O'Brian's genius was the invention of Dr. Stephen Maturin. He is the ship's gifted surgeon, but he is also a scientist, an espionage agent for the Admiralty, a man of part Irish and part Catalan birth—and a revolutionary. He joins the British side, having earlier fought against it, because of his hatred for Bonaparte's betrayal of the principles of 1789—principles that are perfectly obscure to bluff Capt. Jack Aubrey. Any cinematic adaptation of O'Brian must stand or fall by its success in representing this figure.

On this the film doesn't even fall, let alone stand. It skips the whole project. As played by the admittedly handsome and intriguing Paul Bettany, Maturin is no more than a good doctor with finer feelings and a passion for natural history ... a superficial buddy movie is born out of one of the subtlest and richest and most paradoxical male relationships since Holmes and Watson.

The point is perfectly relevant. I would add that Maturin in the books is a somewhat menacing figure, for being unknown--Aubrey's equal, if not superior, in the use of weapons, and as capable of hard carnal desire as he is of scientific curiosity.

One note: in the original novel of the film (which I haven't read), the ship hunted down by Aubrey is an American one, not French as here, which would have been vastly more interesting a story in this day and age of allegedly eternal alliance with Britain. Just over a decade after the story takes place, England would burn Washington DC in the War of 1812.

Still, Weir's film is intriguing for returning us to the nautical adventure movie, which has been abandoned in recent years. Like the Western and 18th-century costumers, once-familiar genres, sea films now make only an occasional comeback and then, well, drift away. Expect Hollywood to pay some interest, though: Brad Pitt as Captain Blood.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Liaison dangereuse
Chuck Freund sends a missive to Ayman al-Zawahiri.