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.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Silenced by Qaddafi
Last week the Sunday Telegraph in London asked me to pen a piece (along with one by the BBC's John Simpson) on the reaction in the Arab world to Saddam's capture. On Friday, however, Libya decided to give up its WMD, so the Telegraph didn't run my piece, as its priorities suddenly shifted.

So, here it is:

Saddam, alas, was no Hitler

BEIRUT--In the hours after Saddam Hussein appeared on television Sunday, Arab editorial writers scrambled to inject some meaning into the images of a once fearsome man—and former custodian of a state author Christine Moss Helms described in the 1980s as the “eastern flank of the Arab world”—transformed into a bewildered tramp.

A recurring reaction was that the episode, in particular Saddam’s reluctance to play Scarface and dissolve into a hail of gunfire, had somehow disgraced the Arabs. Most commentators in the region, but also Western observers and, even, Cardinal Renato Martino, the president of the Vatican’s Justice and Peace Commission, seemed to have but one word on their lips: humiliation.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi in London, reflected this mood by writing: “It was a shock to us, and an insult to millions of other Arabs [to watch]…the Iraqi president submitting to the humiliating [American] medical examination; we would have liked to see him fight to the end and die a martyr like his sons and grandson, or choose the death of Hitler by firing a bullet into his head or swallowing poison.”

Lebanese publisher and journalist Talal Salman, an unrepentant Pan-Arabist whose Beirut paper, Al-Safir, has been among the most strident critics of the American presence in Iraq, also seemed troubled by Saddam’s craven exit: “It was an end worthy of a despot, an oppressor of his people, weak in the face of foreign occupation…Every dictator is a coward, he kills but doesn’t fight.”

However, was Saddam’s capture really a slap to Arabs frustrated at seeing their champions—Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saddam himself—routinely pushed around by an alien superpower? For many it was, leading to often-voluntary amnesia regarding Saddam’s legacy. As Tunisian journalist Kamel Labidi wrote in Beirut’s English-language Daily Star, describing the reaction in Cairo to the capture: “Egyptian observers did not raise the issue of Saddam’s immense responsibility in bringing to its knees one of the wealthiest of Arab countries [and] in helping weaken an already tattered Arab world…”

However, this discomfort with Saddam’s fate merged with an understanding that he was also a splendid thug. A Damascus shopkeeper encountered on Sunday afternoon hardly seemed dishonoured by the arrest in Iraq. As he watched footage of the former leader, he smiled and remarked: “We got rid of him, but there is one left. Do you know who?” I hesitated: “No, you tell me.” He answered: “Osama bin Laden.” Somehow, I was not absolutely convinced it was bin Laden he had in mind, since the coded language of Arab societies will often substitute one villain for others much closer to home.

The humiliation argument also failed to adequately explain how much Arabs resent the suffocating reach of their autocrats, even if this is offset by powerful antipathy for the United States. In the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s arrest, this combination played itself out in a resort to conspiracy theories suggesting that the Americans had manipulated the incident. Saddam’s sister and daughter both argued he had been drugged, explaining why he had surrendered so quietly. The sister, Nawal Ibrahim Al-Hassan, explained: “If he were in full command of his mental capacities he would have resisted to [the] death.”

Other theories were more prosaic, seeking to explain the conditions leading to Saddam’s arrest. One account had it that Iran had collaborated in locating its old nemesis, in exchange for the Iraqi Governing Council’s expelling from its territory the Iranian opposition Mujahideen Khalq Organization. Another hypothesis was that the Americans had discovered Saddam’s whereabouts by intercepting his telephone calls to his second wife, Samira Shahbandar, who now lives in Lebanon with their son, Ali.

Arab conspiratorial thinking notwithstanding, the theories little approximated in duration those accompanying the fall of Baghdad last April, when it was rumoured that Saddam’s regime had been betrayed by its own security forces. It quickly became clear to all that the broken man on screen was indeed the former Iraqi leader, not one of his illustrious “doubles”, and that it was unlikely for someone in that condition to resist anyone.

But did the Arab world read into Saddam’s capture a general lesson about the fate of its autocratic rulers? Some did, and Arab-American academic Fouad Ajami summed up their argument most eloquently by writing: “Saddam is a crystal ball in which the rulers and the rogues in the region might glimpse the danger that attends them.” Perhaps, but it is doubtful that very many Arabs saw beyond the fact that Saddam’s captors were Americans. In the hierarchy of regional beefs, anti-Americanism still retains far more force than the overthrow of a brutal—yet also somehow palatable, for being home-grown—despot.

Saddam’s capture will not soon lead to an Arab liberal renaissance. However, the establishment of a truly open and democratic order in Iraq does have that potential, all the more so if it is soon transformed into an all-Iraqi venture. In that context, Saddam’s capture may one day take on more resonance in the region, though by then the Arabs will have likely airbrushed the Americans out of the narrative.

A sheep in Wolfowitz clothing?
The Washington Post has an extended portrait of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The bottom line is that he's one misunderstood man.

Sez in one passage:

But to Wolfowitz, there is no contradiction between calculated policies and idealistic goals. Rather, he contends, they can reinforce each other. Indeed, Wolfowitz is most confrontational when he is most idealistic.

Nowhere is that more evident than in his advocacy of transforming the politics of the Middle East, a policy that frequently is attacked as unrealistically idealistic. As he put it to the Jerusalem Post earlier this year, "The idea that we could live with another 20 years of stagnation in the Middle East that breeds this radicalism and breeds terrorism is, I think, just unacceptable."

But some think Wolfowitz is out of his league:

Some see Wolfowitz's views on the Middle East as dangerously naive. "Wolfowitz doesn't know much about the business he's in," says retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, a former chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the region. "He knows very little about war fighting. And he knows very little about the Middle East, aside from maybe Israel."

Wolfowitz responds, "I think I know a lot about Islam, as a whole, and I know a lot about the Middle East. I've been following it for a very long time." He also notes that the experts frequently have been wrong about whether one Arab state would attack another, as Iraq did to Kuwait in 1990, or what the reaction of the "Arab street" would be to the U.S. invasion of Iraq this year.

But to Wolfowitz, trying to change the Middle East is far from unrealistic. Rather, it is using universal ideals to achieve the practical end of curtailing terrorism. Just as much of East Asia democratized in the 1980s and 1990s, so too is there a chance that the Middle East could change radically. "It could," he says. "And it's certainly worth a try."

If that sounds a trifle Wilsonian, try Tim Cavanaugh's take on Wolfowitz for the Daily Star, which he reprinted on the Reason website.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

The Palestinians, Saddam and a Syrian
Work has made blogging all but impossible, but on the day Saddam Hussein was captured, some resurrection seems called for. Almost 10 days ago, I published an op-ed in the New York Times (the link is now pay only, but you can see a slightly altered version on the International Herald Tribune site here). The basic argument is that the Palestinian issue "for all its centrality to the Arab experience during the past half-century, and for all the justifiable grievances it has aroused...has, in many respects, rendered the Arab world impotent."

The argument is not a popular one in the Arab world, and there was the predictable criticism, including the natural conclusion that I was a Zionist. Yet I did get positive feedback from several Arab readers, and a stern rebuke from a supporter of Israel (indeed several), who could not stomach the fact that I described the Palestinians as "dispossessed."

On Saddam, I was in Damascus, in the office of a senior official when the news came through. He seemed unperturbed. Later on, in a tourist shop, I saw the owner looking at AL-Jazeera watching an American take swab samples from Saddam’s mouth for DNA samples. The Syrian smiled broadly: “We got rid of him, but there is one more. Do you know who?” I responded: “No, you tell me.” He answered: “Osama bin Laden.” And when someone else said: “And George Bush,” he feigned shock and, with a smile, said: “I don’t discuss politics!”

On this day, the Syrian didn’t care about Bush, even though he had just signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. All he was enjoying was the collapse of an Arab tyrant.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Back in town after three weeks of idle bliss. Not much to post, but here are two pieces I published in the past week. The first, for Thursday's Daily Star, urges the Arabs to welcome a second Bush term, since that would greatly enhance the U.S.'s remaining in Iraq; the second is my bi-weekly contribution to Slate's International Papers column.

More to come, though as a tidbit, I would recommend this Q&A session at Georgetown University with Paul Wolfowitz, somehow regarded as the new "dark prince" of the post-Cold War era. Here's a few choice quotes:

"You cited some things that Israelis have to change and you could make a longer list. You could have talked about settlements, for example. The President has talked about settlements, he's talked about the wall, he's talked about the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. There's no question that the President is prepared to put pressure on the Israelis to change. "

And this rather astute observation: "If the Palestinians would adopt the ways of Ghandi I think they could in fact make a more (laughter) - just very quickly - I believe the power of individuals demonstrating peacefully is enormous..."

Some of us who support the creation of a Palestinian state have been arguing that for a long time.

Monday, October 06, 2003

From the archives
On another theme entirely, my friend Tim Cavanaugh has sent this link to an extravagant article he wrote in the dying days of on the Virgin Mary's contribution to the anti-communist crusade, which she had planned to title The God that Failed, before copyright infringement laws prevented her from doing so.

In confession, Cavanaugh noted that the Virgin Mary had done much more than Pope John Paul II to rout the Reds: "Just another case of a man being praised for a woman's job," said he, genuflecting.
Front line: Upper West Side
After an extended period of catalepsy, be prepared for 3 weeks of occultation. At the end of the week I will be off on what my friends consider a well-deserved, and my enemies a welcome, vacation.

After writing a piece on the death of Edward Said, and comparing him to Fouad Ajami (a piece you can find here or here), I received mixed reviews to this comparison of two different, yet maybe not so different men.

My favorite was this billet doux from a Lebanese admirer:

I was outraged to read in your October 2 issue Michael Young's article on Edward Said and Fouad Ajami. How can anybody in his right mind draw a parallel between Edward Said, the champion of all Arabs, the man who stood for the cause of all Arabs, that of Palestine, and put himself and his family at great risk living and working in New York, the bedrock of Zionism in the world today, to Fouad Ajami, a man who exemplifies to most Arabs the traitor who has sold his soul and mind to Zionism and to everything that is anti-Arab. Shame on you Mr Young , you have truly offended all free minded Arabs.

Well gosh, I am sorry. I didn't realize that Said took such a risk living in New York amid all those zany Zionists. At least he wasn't in the World Trade Center when they flew a couple of airplanes into it.

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Collusion across the southern border
Here is my weekly Lebanon comment from the Daily Star, on the impending (or is it?) prisoner release between Israel and Hizbullah. It argues that though enemies they may be, the Israelis and Hizbullah are united in seeing the deal as a means of screwing Yasser Arafat.
Uday's failed assassins
An article in the Christian Science Monitor reveals the name of those who tried to kill Uday, Saddam's son, back in December 1996. He was hit by 17 bullets, but survived.

The story is interesting in two ways to me. First it reveals that arguably the most famous account of the attempted hit, the one written by the Cockburns in Out of the Ashes, is apparently wrong in several major details. The Cockburns said a group called Al-Nahda was responsible for the attack, and was founded by well-educated young Baghdadis. It turns out that the real culprit (if the Monitor story is correct) was a group called the 15 Shaaban group, which was made up of Iraqi Shiites from the south.

A second detail is that Saddam managed to find out who had carried out the attack thanks to the Jordanians, who handed over a 15 Shaaban militant to the Iraqi regime. He was tortured and revealed the names of the perpetrators. They were hiding out in the southern marshes, but one was killed and several of their family members were executed.

Said comments
Among the comments on Edward Said, this one by Charles Paul Freund in the Daily Star (and which picks up on a theme he developed in Reason magazine here) is well worth reading. It's main thesis is that the Orientalist critique, though it survives, has in many of its manifestations hit a brick wall of sorts, so that one of it's primary characteristics today is its transformation into a form of "Occidentalism"--whereby it is the West that is "objectified" and rendered into an Other.

Christopher Hitchens has written a remarkably warm obituary in Slate, which manages to highlight Said's sensitivity and paper over the real differences between the two men in recent months, while also underlining that Said's political views were, at times, wrong. The real story is often in the details, and Hitchens affirms that the two were on speaking terms almost until the end, with Said recently demanding that Hitchens write about a Palestinian organization known as the Palestinian National Initiative.

The merit of both pieces is that they give Said his due without being reverential. It was also with some surprise that I learned in perusing Out of Place, Said's partial autobiography, that the doctor who had diagnosed Said with leukemia is an old family friend of ours--a piece of information surely of no general interest, except to show how small the world of the Christian Levantine is, even if Said often insisted that he did not identify with any such group.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

After the last sky
Edward Said is dead, and for those of us who were often highly critical of him, particularly in his later years, it's surely not a pleasant moment. Dying doesn't make a wrong right, but it does obligate one to look back a bit more closely and see if all the criticism was justified.

Below is the last piece I wrote on Said. He reportedly once asked what I had against him. Nothing at all. I was disappointed to see that the man who should have embodied the highest correlation of the best of East and West (to borrow poorly from Christopher Hitchens) somehow ended up having so little to offer when it came to helping direct the Arab world out of its pervading autocracy and narrow-mindedness.

I believe Said had one thing absolutely right, though: he understood that the only real solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a binational democratic state. Nothing to date suggests he was wrong; only that he got the timing wrong.

Here is the piece:

In praise of surrender?

They were issuing honorary doctorates last Saturday at the American University of Beirut, and you could have pretty much guessed the list of honorees before attending the ceremony, had you been invited.

I wasn’t, and read with trepidation in this newspaper that “hope for the future was a central element in all the recipients’ speeches.” The bane of university award ceremonies is that speakers are under contract to crank out hope, even if there is little to rustle up. The events are too costly to send the public home looking for cyanide or a razor.

However, a comparison of the writings of two of the accomplished literary honorees tells a different story. When university ends, real life begins and what Edward Said and Amin Maalouf represent outside the compulsory optimism demanded by the academy is well worth examining. In different ways, the two men illustrate the difficulties, at times self-inflicted, of the intellectual in a world where doctorates, honorary or real, often mean very little.

Was there ever a doubt that AUB would choose Said, who is on everybody’s short list for some kind of award? With him you’re playing it safe while also putting up a front of daring subversiveness. That’s because Said has convinced everybody he’s dirt in the eye of mainstream America, when in fact he is merely its avatar--both a foil of the American system, and someone who could have achieved pop status nowhere outside of it.

Said will forever be remembered for his book Orientalism, but few people look closely enough at his output as a columnist. Several books have been collated from Said’s commentaries, most often written in English for Arabic newspapers. That the articles preach to the converted is hardly their worst failing, though it is easy telling an Arab readership that the US is overbearing and that Israel abuses Palestinian human rights. Said wastes much time breaking down open doors.

What makes Said’s articles disappointing is that they offer no cures for the maladies he diagnoses. The French sociologist Raymond Aron, himself a columnist, wrote in his memoirs that he realized it was easy in his articles to publicly criticize the behavior of politicians; far more challenging was putting himself in their shoes and proposing realistic alternatives. With Said one gets variations on a single harangue. This intermittent promoter of hopefulness has become that most tiresome of stock figures: a Middle Eastern Cassandra incapable of proposing a way out of the region’s tribulations.

Sitting next to Said was writer Amin Maalouf, far more hazardous an honoree for preferring to speak in French. The message Maalouf brought was different than Said’s, being expressed most prominently in his 1993 novel The Rock of Tanios. One can indefinitely debate the novel’s autobiographical attributes, but even a cursory reading will show the book is very much an expression of the hopelessness of Maalouf’s generation.

When it was published, The Rock of Tanios attracted attention for the wrong reasons. The novel won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, provoking the usual shrieking from the literati divided over whether the book was worthy of their attention. Though the story was set during the Lebanese conflict of 1840, Maalouf was really thinking about 1975. And like his character Tanios, who, despairing of his own society, literally disappears at the end of the novel, Maalouf and his generation figuratively did so by going into exile once Lebanon’s civil war began.

In different ways, Said and Maalouf speak to the surrender of the intellectual. Where Said sees the intellectual as a vanguard for change and innovation, he uncannily personifies the contrary in his most popular writings. Where Maalouf won a prize celebrating the vitality of writers, he did so on the basis of a book acknowledging the failure of humanism and the futility of the intellectual in his own society.

A thought comes to mind: Are Said and Maalouf, who have fallen under Western eyes since leaving their countries of origin, also lingering victims of the Middle East? Is that part of them that remains attached to the region destined to point out the limitations of the intellectual? Was that high mass at AUB really as hopeful an event as the organizers would have liked to pretend.

Aoun and Syria
Here's a link to my Daily Star article of today on the Syria Accountability Act, and a second one to an article written last Saturday for the Lebanon section of the paper. Both argue that Syria and the Lebanese government have provided supporters of the legislation with few alternatives.

The key role of Michel Aoun in all this might interest you to go back to this portrait I drew of the general in the Lebanon Report (which I edited) several years ago, after visiting him in his exile outside Paris--the first of two encounters.

I've always been ambiguous about Aoun, have little respect for his political skills, but also recognize that he has the keen instincts of a demagogue when it comes to gauging the public mood, which means he's often in tune with the public's discontent.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Matt Barganier demands to be read
Received this response from Matt Barganier to my previous posting. Seems only fair to run his more serious points:

...Welch is obsessed with the 500,000 number. That’s fine, but he uses it as a mallet against the antiwar camp:

“[A] New York-based advocacy group called the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) concluded in a May 1996 survey that ‘these mortality rates translate into a figure of over half a million excess child deaths as a result of sanctions.’

“In addition to doubling the Iraqi government highest number and attributing all deaths to the embargo, CESR suggested a comparison that proved popular among the growing legions of sanctions critics: ‘In simple terms, more Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions than the combined toll of two atomic bombs on Japan.’ The word genocide started making its way into the discussion.

“Still, the report might well have ended up in the dustbin of bad mathematics had a CESR fact-finding tour of Iraq not been filmed by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.”

The dustbin of bad mathematics? As I pointed out, the mere fact that CESR arrived at the figure the wrong way doesn’t debunk the figure. Also, I said that Welch put “most” of his effort into smearing the antiwar crowd; I granted that he throws a few softballs at sanctions. But why spend so much time calling everyone who blames the deaths on sanctions “loonies”?

As for my “sloppy thought”: Welch did mention more than one source for the 500,000 or higher number, including an Iraqi govt. report.

Also, I didn’t blame Welch for adjusting the excess deaths rate to 1989 levels. I merely mentioned that he did so. OK, so Matt Welch says it could be 420,000 dead kids. Garfield says it could be as many as 530,000. So again: Why spend so much time calling those who use the 500,000 “loonies”?

I also said that Welch was correct when he said that UNICEF doesn’t lay sole blame for the deaths on the sanctions. So what? Welch’s alternative culprits don’t make much sense. I spent a few words on that.

On the increased deaths: Did I misquote Welch? In the 2002 article, he said that deaths went down after oil-for-food. Hooray U.S./UN! In the Daily Star article, he said they went up. Bad Saddam! Give me a break, will ya?

Hey, I think you’re doing a good thing with the Daily Star. I read it at least once a week. But you oughta do me the courtesy of reading my stuff more carefully before you pull your guilt by association shit (Alouni) on me. (ouch. ed)

Matt Barganier
Bargain analysis
Received this word from one Matt Barganier, at, on Matt Welch's piece of a few weeks ago, and with a snide remark on my comment on Al-Jazeera:

"Speaking of unimpressive reporting (al-Jazeera)--you oughta read Matt Welch's stuff before you print it", with this link.

My response is below:

Hey Matt,

This is Matt Welch’s fight, but since you rather vulgarly instructed me to read what I edit in the Daily Star, let me turn around and tell you to read more closely what you claim to critique in your shoddy text. In your mail you also snidely made an aside on my own column today on Taysir Alouni of Al-Jazeera. I imagine you two would get along very well.

You open: “Welch puts most of his effort into smearing critics of sanctions/war and absolving the U.S./U.N. of primary blame for Iraq's twelve-year humanitarian disaster.”

Maybe that’s how you read this concluding passage by Welch: “Which is an excellent reason to question their [sanctions] continued infliction upon countries such as Cuba, Libya and Myanmar. With the very notable exception of South Africa, the sanction tool’s track record in changing dictatorial behavior (or triggering regime change, which is often the real motivation) has been poor. Surely there must be some option between all-out war and a slap on the wrist, preferably one that doesn’t contribute to thousands of needless deaths.”

I think it’s pretty clear that what you have here is a statement of doubt on sanctions, not a smear of sanctions’ critics.

Second, you write that Welch “claims to debunk the frequently heard statistics about the size of the calamity.” Bullshit. All he claimed to debunk was that, according to UNICEF figures, sanctions alone were directly responsible for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. He never offers a figure of his own--of which more later--and says that UNICEF never cited an absolute figure either. His stats are basically designed to prove that the numbers game is inconclusive.

When you write: "Welch cites the original UNICEF report for the years 1991-1998 as one source for the 500,000 figure," his whole point was that UNICEF did not cite that figure, at least in the way it was understood. (By the way were there any other original sources for the figure? Sloppy thought.) What the report said was: "If the substantial reduction in the under-five mortality rate during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under-five in the country as a whole during the eight year period 1991 to 1998."

In plain terms, that meant if 1980s trends (read for the entire decade) continued uninterrupted there would have been half a million fewer deaths. What Welch pointed out was simply that if you based the excess death figure just on 1989 figures (and in the Star piece he did not say that a 1989 base year was "more accurate"), the excess deaths figure would be lower. It's not a value judgment he was making, but recognition that throughout the 1980s the stats changed, so that as you moved nearer the end of the decade, the estimates (the 500,000 figure constantly cited) fell somewhat. That’s all.

Then you write: “He then invokes a 1999 study by Richard Garfield, a nursing professor at Columbia University, which sets the 1991-1998 death toll between 106,000 and 227,000. This debunks the myth of a half million, right? Not exactly. Garfield's updated estimate for the entire 1990-2002 period is actually 350,000 to 530,000. In other words, the authority Welch uses to contradict UNICEF and other purveyors of what he calls "the Iraqi babies scam" says that total deaths could be 6% higher than the "scammers" proclaim!”

C’mon Matt, reread what Welch wrote. He doesn’t contradict UNICEF for God’s sake, he makes the case that UNICEF never said what it was wrongly quoted as saying. Welch actually never confirms or denies the 500,000 death figure; in fact if you cite him on the 1989 base year, you’re saying that Welch is closer to believing the 400,000 figure, which is high enough. In fact Welch didn’t cite any figure at all for death estimates. What he did do was say that the deaths were not solely caused by sanctions, and that quote came from UNICEF. His citing of Garfield shows that he’s willing to accept a high death toll, but it’s not an absolute figure he’s after, it’s what caused the deaths?

And as Garfield’s figures showed, deaths actually went up in Iraq when money flowed in after oil-for-food. You never actually disagree with that stat by the way (indeed you cite it), so perhaps you might suggest a reason why it did go up? Why not offer an answer?

Finally you misread what Welch said in this passage: “UNICEF found that under-five mortality actually decreased in the autonomous north, while doubling in Saddam-controlled regions, giving pro-sanctions (and pro-war) advocates evidence that the Iraqi dictator was largely to blame. (It is also true that the north received far more international aid.)”

You make this out to be a cop-out. In fact Welch doesn’t argue this from the perspective of someone who is pro-sanctions or pro-war. He merely observes that pro-sanctions (and pro-war) advocates exploited the figure. His parenthesis I read as an effort to qualify the argument of the pro-sanctions and pro-war crowd. Is Welch pro-war? I don’t know, nor have I ever discussed the matter with him. But he does cite UNICEF to the effect that war was one of the factors in the babies’ deaths, and to the best of my knowledge Welch nowhere has condoned killing babies, so you might find your answer there.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Taysir Alouni, again
Many readers will have come here through the critical piece I wrote in the Daily Star today on Taysir Alouni, Al-Jazeera's correspondent accused of being an AL-Qaeda operative, which Reason picked up here.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Bashir Gemayel
Tomorrow is the 21st anniversary of the death of Bashir Gemayel, Lebanon's president-elect in 1982, before he was killed in a bomb explosion, apparently set off by an agent of the pro-Syrian Syrian Social National Party (SSNP), reportedly at the order of a current SSNP minister, no doubt in collaboration with the Syrian intelligence services.

Marking the occasion, I wrote this commentary for the Daily Star, while outside my window people not long ago finished commemorating the anniversary (celebrated a day early this year). It's odd to see how so many are young, with no possible memory of Bashir. That's similar to the age of the supporters of Michel Aoun, the former head of the military government between 1988-90, who also seem to have little recollection of the days when the general was all howitzer and brimstone.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

It's rare for me to post an entire article of mine, but this piece from the Daily Star in mid-May (which I regretted writing around the time of the Aqaba Summit, and which I cannot link to a URL) has suddenly become strangely relevant -- again.

The road map is dead
The policy of the US and Israeli governments to isolate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been a fiasco. That was always expected when the Bush administration and the Sharon government reduced the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to one individual--one who now has every incentive to demolish the road map to peace.

The absurdity of the Israeli position might be gauged by reading through a Jerusalem Post article on Monday, following the spate of Hamas attacks against Israeli targets at the weekend. The article highlighted the debate within the Israeli cabinet over whether to banish Arafat. In the end, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided against it.

As the paper reported: “Sharon said that from his point of view removing Arafat from the Mukata would create a ‘less comfortable’ situation for Israel than if he continues to be holed up in his compound.” It also noted: “Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who in the past was a major proponent of expelling Arafat, said at the meeting that now he should not be removed … To do so, according to Defense establishment officials, would severely weaken Abbas.”

The passages show the sheer ludicrousness of the Israeli position. Both Sharon and Mofaz effectively admitted they could not circumvent Arafat, after months of advocating a policy based on the premise that the Palestinian leader could be marginalized. Worse, one of the justifications for not exiling him was that this might harm Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, the very man supposed to represent a legitimate alternative to Arafat.

The Israeli defense minister probably caught his own inconsistency, because the Post article continued: “Mofaz said that there (are) now effectively two concentrations of power in the PA, and that Arafat is doing everything he can to trip up Abbas and keep him from gaining real control.” However, it is apparent that Abbas’s chances of gaining control are minimal: “Mofaz also said he has his doubts about Abbas seriousness in taking overall security responsibility.”

These facts alone suggest it was a bad idea to turn Arafat into a foe of a negotiated settlement. It was plain from the outset that the Bush administration, encouraged by Sharon, missed the forest for the trees. By focusing on undermining the Palestinian leader, the US and Israel gave Arafat the road map as hostage. The only problem was that while the US administration probably did this involuntarily, Sharon is delighted to see the plan founder.

In an editorial yesterday this paper pointed to a discrepancy in Washington’s strategy, namely that it seeks to remove a man who, for all his faults, “is the closest thing the Arab world has to a legitimately elected leader.” There may be some truth there, even though Arafat is as authoritarian as they come. However, he so controls the reins of power in the Palestinian territories that he never allowed a credible alternative to emerge from within his Fatah movement.

One of the aspects of the road map that is most intriguing is that while it sets up a detailed mechanism to make Arafat less relevant, it does not, and cannot, bar him from political life. He will always retain an ability to clog up the process, and his control over patronage, combined with Palestinian rage against Israel and the US, would probably mean he could win an election scheduled for the first phase of the plan. That would have the effect of turning the road map on its head, making Arafat its chief implementer rather than prime target.

Sharon wants to make changes to the road map and empty it further of its content. He can do this because US President George W. Bush is unwilling to put his weight behind the plan. That’s why one should expect little vigor from Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was remarkably demure last week when Sharon implied he would talk to Bush directly about the road map, before telling an Israeli paper that he had no intention of dismantling settlements.

Neither Sharon nor Arafat will go through with the road map as it now stands. That leaves Abbas more exposed than ever. His only true friends are the self-deluded American and European officials who somehow believe he can hammer out a plan that most Palestinians loathe with an Israeli government that loathes it too. Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad trash what remains of Palestinian credibility, giving Sharon more arguments to avoid dealing with essentials.

The road map is virtually a dead letter, and its sponsors are to blame. That means the US, but also the EU, the UN and Russia, all of which backed a plan containing the seeds of its own destruction. One might blame the sordidness of Sharon and Arafat. Yet the feelings of both men were always clear, and it is probably fair to say that no plan could bridge their differences.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Spanish Inquisition
Al-Jazeera’s high-profile correspondent, Taysir Alouni, has been arrested in Spain, allegedly for having contacts with members of Al-Qaeda, including members of a cell discovered in Spain. Al-Jazeera ran a story on the arrest on its website, and noted the move had “been met with condemnation by the media network and non-governmental organizations.”

More interesting, however, was this report on the arrest in the London-based Al-Hayat, which remarked that Syria (Alouni is Syrian) had warned the Spanish authorities of his “suspicious activities” and had been watching him for years, because it accused him of being a member of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. According to Al-Hayat, Alouni has long been banned from entering Syria for that reason.

Is Alouni guilty? Who knows? If he’s not--and the Spanish accusation against him must be read before even thinking of imparting guilt--he certainly erred when it came to his journalistic credibility, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq. He may not deserve prison, but if Al-Jazeera really claims to represent something new in the Middle East, he deserves to at least be fired.
For those who didn't reroute here through the article, here is my comment for the Lebanon section of the Daily Star on recent efforts at political and economic reform in Lebanon. I say "efforts" with considerable difficulty, because this all is nothing more than a transparent ploy by the president, Emile Lahoud, to build up momentum, particularly in Syria, so that his mandate will be extended or renewed next year, which will require what is bound to be an unpopular constitutional amendment.

For aficionados of Lebanese politics only.
The end of Zionism?
Here is a truly remarkable piece titled "A Failed Israeli Society is Collapsing," written by the former Knesset speaker, Avraham Burg, written for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronot, reproduced in The Forward, and now reprinted in the International Herald Tribune. In many ways, it says it all.

Burg writes: "It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive. More and more Israelis are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit, to their parents' shock, that they do not know. The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun..."

"...The biblical landscape is charming. From the window you can gaze through the geraniums and bougainvillea and not see the occupation. Traveling on the fast highway that takes you from Ramot on Jerusalem's northern edge to Gilo on the southern edge, a 12-minute trip just west of the Palestinian roadblocks, it's hard to comprehend the humiliating experience of the despised Arab who must creep for hours along the pocked, blockaded roads assigned to him. One road for the occupier, one road for the occupied."

Burg's proposal? "Do you want democracy? No problem. Either abandon the greater Land of Israel, to the last settlement and outpost, or give full citizenship and voting rights to everyone, including Arabs. The result, of course, will be that those who did not want a Palestinian state alongside us will have one in our midst, via the ballot box."

Worst and dimmest
I haven't posted anything in two weeks, which should be a cause for celebration. The usual blogger lament stands: work makes blogging, and much else, impossible, so let's try to make up for some lost time.

Here is a rather angry piece I wrote for the Daily Star's opinion page on Ehud Barak, who was cited in the recent Or Commission report on the gunning down of Arab-Israeli protestors in 2000. I've never cared for Barak, who was always more bluster than anything else, and have found his post-election defeat persona even more insufferable than the one he had while in office.

I still recall what he told Benny Morris in the New York Review of Books exchange with Robert Malley and Husseing Agha, describing Arabic culture as one "in which to tell a lie ... creates no dissonance. They don't suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judaeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category. There is only that which serves your purpose and that which doesn't."

Coming from a man who often proved to be a splendid liar himself, this was truly remarkable.

Friday, August 22, 2003

Held in low esteem
My friend Chibli Mallat is being excoriated for a clause he wrote in a commentary in today's Daily Star on the bombing against UN headquarters in Baghdad. Chibli wrote: "I promised de Mello to write to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, whom I hold in high esteem, about the usefulness of a UN role, and I did."

Evidently, his holding Wolfowitz in "high esteem" was too much for some. Alas, I cannot out Chibli's private correspondence, which simply proves that academics are monumentally petty people, but I do take perverse pleasure in seeing that the ideological divide on Iraq is as sharp as a knife--and that Western intellectuals especially are impaling themselves on it.

It's a Zuleika Dobson moment: mass suicide by different ideological suitors, and the river is filling with bodies. Oh well, at least Saddam is gone.

For a PDF view of today's Star opinion page, go here.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

I would like to claim laziness as my reason for not posting anything to this site. But that's not it at all. I've had problems with the Blogger website that I can't explain. Error messages all over. Hope to make up for that anon.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Two opinion pieces in this week's Daily Star are well worth looking at, both the work of historians: David Abulafia of Cambridge has written on the deal between the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen and Sultan Al-Kamel in 1229 to share Jerusalem. The compromise, which came during the Crusades, was an effort by both men to avoid a confrontation (Frederick, who was also king of Sicily, was an Islamophile), and Abulafia used the incident to make a commentary on any future Palestinian-Israeli deal on Jerusalem.

Military historian Douglas Porch has written a commentary on how the German and Japanese occupation models are not examples to emulate in Iraq, but, on the contrary, ones which should be avoided by the U.S. The piece is drawn from a longer one he wrote for the National Interest magazine.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Hi, Bye
"It's good to get them in a dialogue while their opinions are not fully formed on matters large and small."

With these words from Christopher Ross, the special coordinator for public diplomacy at the State Department (and a former ambassador to Syria), the Bush administration has declared its intention to subvert Arab minors--at least political minors. Ross was speaking about the new State Department (taxpayer) funded Arabic-language magazine Hi that is distributed in over a dozen Arab countries, according to the Washington Post.

The Post reports: "The premiere issue of the glossy, full-color 72-page monthly appeared in July with a cover story on the experiences of Arab students in American colleges and shorter articles on yoga, sandboarding, singer Norah Jones, Arab American actor Tony Shalhoub and marriage counseling -- the latter story illustrated with a photo of Dr. Phil McGraw, the Oprah-spawned TV tough-love guru.

"It doesn't contain a word about the American invasion of Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Afghanistan or al Qaeda. Nor will future issues. The magazine's editors and its State Department funders plan a resolutely apolitical magazine."

That's very interesting. A lifestyle magazine geared towards a young Arab audience is supposed to be a subtle way of getting Western values across. However, I wonder whether those who imagined a publication that will cost U.S. taxpayers $4 million per year have actually reflected on how culture is used in the Arab world.

Their shaky assumption is that Arab youths will absorb Western values by reading about Lenny Kravitz and Norah Jones. In fact, whether we're talking about the Arab world or elsewhere (but particularly the Arab world), there is always a gap between embracing a Western cultural image or icon, and internalizing the values it represents to cover most other aspects of ones life. Culture in this day and age offers a menu, so that you can have Madonna as an entree and Bin Laden for dessert (as several 9/11 hijackers proved). The interaction between the modern and the traditional is constant in the Middle East, and, so, the impact of a lifestyle magazine might be very limited indeed.

A second objection I have is whether it is worth paying that much money when Arabs already have access to Western shows, films and music through satellite channels and other media. Plus, Hi's readers in most Arab countries (who can pay about $2 a copy) will also be that those who have access to and can afford a plethora of Western magazines already being distributed. (Even in the most closed Arab countries, many Western publications can be found, though sometimes delayed; their distribution is limited, however, and they’re often priced out of the local market.)

Moreover, Hi’s potential readers are the educated elite of the Arab countries, and most already know the U.S. anyway. The State Department may be preaching to the converted--or conversely to an elite that will robustly reject conversion.

Far more useful than Hi from a U.S. "public policy" perspective is to simply allow more Arab students into the U.S. and let them be educated in American universities. Instead, what we see now is the opposite. Some might complain this will cause another 9/11, but (a) the vast majority of Arabs in the U.S. are and have always been perfectly decent folk, and (b) there are ways to ensure that a minority of them won't threaten U.S. security, while protecting the majority's civil rights.

From the archives: As I was buying a newspaper today, I crossed paths with the minister and Phalange Party leader Karim Pakradouni, two bodyguards in tow. Pakradouni was Flamingo-like in his white polo shirt and slacks, and struck up a conversation with whatever moved in his blast zone.

In tribute, I reprint below a portrait I drew of him several months ago in the Daily Star, which earned the owner of the paper a telephone call from a Pakradouni associate (and the usual gratitude from me).

The perils of Karim
Several years ago a friend and I were invited to interview Karim Pakradouni at his home. I had just reviewed his latest book where I described Pakradouni as a chameleon, a man of contradictions, and, in so many words, an opportunist. When I asked whether he thought the review was fair, he hardly missed a beat before answering: “Yes, yes.”

Of course that was Pakradouni being versatile, since it was obvious he had not read the review and couldn’t care less whether it had been fair or not. But had he read it, Pakradouni would probably have answered in the same way, since a defensive rejoinder would have required a direct approach deeply distasteful to a spirited rogue who thrives on oblique movement.

In those days Pakradouni was still the number-two man in the Phalange Party, deputy to the no less elastic George Saadeh. By a stroke of luck, and opportune political backing, Pakradouni has since scaled the unanticipated, if scarcely dizzying heights of party leadership, and today finds himself a government minister. This has pushed him into unfamiliar territory, since to buttress his trembling power base the chameleon has turned into a demagogue.

The instrument of this metamorphosis is the debate over “balanced development.” As minister for administrative development, Pakradouni has called for the more even geographical distribution of state funding, framing the issue as one of constitutional necessity. In fact, he’s been playing confessional politics, provoking a cabinet row last week after contending that more government money went to schools in Muslim areas of Beirut than in Christian ones. He followed this up Wednesday by stating that the bulk of state funds for expropriation purposes were earmarked for Beirut, at the expense of Christian areas outside.

Pakradouni has to pay his way in the government, and what better means to satisfy his benefactor, President Emile Lahoud, than to stick it to Prime Minister Rafik Hariri? However, the Phalange leader also has other constituencies to please, because he knows that his popularity is as thin as his consistency. Pakradouni probably assumes that if he is to leverage his ministerial portfolio into a parliamentary seat, he must become a spokesman for Christian resentment.

Can he succeed? Pakradouni’s past might provide an answer. Like Claudius, who feigned idiocy to survive his murderous nephew Caligula and become emperor, Pakradouni emerged strengthened from the internecine Lebanese Forces wars of the 1980s. An Armenian Orthodox, he was regarded as too communally weak to threaten the ruffians fighting for the militia’s leadership. That’s why Pakradouni politically (and physically) outlasted virtually all the men he served: Elie Hobeiqa and Samir Geagea, but also three presidents--Elias Sarkis, Bashir Gemayel, and his current arch enemy, Amine Gemayel.

But this journeyman’s political journey began before the war. Pakradouni was instrumental in initiating contacts between the Phalange and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the early 1970s, and he did the same with Syria once the war started in 1975. After such a variegated tour it was stunning to hear Pakradouni once say, in answer to a question as to how he could change his politics so often, that it was not he who had changed, but the surrounding circumstances, to which he had had to adapt.

The only problem with Pakradouni’s reputation for flightiness is that it has made him incapable of generating loyalty. Always too clever by half, the Phalange leader has now been co-opted by the president’s men, useful only for as long as he plays their game. With or without them, however, he is politically irrelevant as an autonomous force, his only real merit being that he is living proof of Lebanon’s good-natured promotion of the ideologically amoral.

Pakradouni’s rise merits recognition in another regard, namely as a provocation against Lebanon’s sectarian system. That an Armenian, and an Orthodox no less, should stand at the head of an essentially Maronite Catholic party, is a splendid reminder of how the postwar Lebanese political order disdains even a semblance of legitimacy. On the contrary, illegitimacy is what guaranteed Pakradouni’s ascent. What better man to acquire than one who could only assemble a few thousand votes in Beirut during the 1996 parliamentary elections?

So, the answer seems obvious: Pakradouni will not succeed in surfing into parliament on a wave of Christian popularity. He may well end up in that august institution (which teems with men far worse than he), but not thanks to any freshly minted esteem. That’s Pakradouni’s dilemma: he’s been for so long considered the ultimate middleman that it’s almost impossible to take him seriously as one of those whose interests must be mediated.

The only thing the Christian demagogue act will do is irritate Hariri. It’s a pity, but also very instructive, that the leader of a once venerable party should today find himself reduced to a mere gadfly. Then again who thought Karim Pakradouni would ever make it this far in the first place?

Overrating Powell
A few thoughts on the reports earlier this week in the Washington Post that Secretary of State Colin Powell might not remain for a second Bush term, assuming there is one. But first a short aside to this New York Times link suggesting that those Iraqi trucks Powell pointed to as WMD production facilities were, it seems, actually designed to make hydrogen...for weather balloons.

Now back to the Post reports: I'm rarely one to agree with Newt Gingrich, who has his own agenda in trying to undermine Powell, but there is truth in what he says about the secretary of state as regards the Middle East. If one institution can be said to have protected and abetted the stalemate in U.S.-Arab relations for decades, if one institution helped ensure that successive administrations would ignore issues of democracy and human rights in the region, it was the inevitably “moderate” State Department.

Why did this situation occur? In part because for a long time there was a core of so-called Arabists at the State Department who genuinely believed in the possibility of domestic Arab reform, and who sensed that a more aggressive approach on democracy might permanently alienate regimes and abort such reform. (China hands, I recall, used much the same rationale after the Tiananmen massacre). So what ensued was a paradox: the State Department, motivated by a desire to cooperate with Arab regimes in the hope they would improve, gave them an incentive not to do so.

A second reason is bureaucratic indolence. The State Department, like any other large bureaucracy, tends to preserve the status quo because that is what is bureaucratically safest. In the Middle East, transformation not only threatened to shake up existing (and often painstakingly engineered) relations with Arab regimes, it also gave competing bureaucracies an opportunity to meddle in State’s affairs.

In the first year of the Bush administration, Powell’s myriad shortcomings (for example, “smart sanctions” in Iraq) were concealed by the fact that foreign policy was not a Bush priority. Powell didn’t try to change things, and no one really cared. Such a minimalist philosophy, however, couldn’t work after 9/11. In contrast, from the outset Powell’s competitors at the Pentagon took a different tack. Initially the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, came in with a plan to reform the armed forces, and after 9/11 that penchant for change--that delight in keeping perceived opponents constantly off balance--was used to steer the administration towards war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While I have many reservations about the neocon philosophy, it has certainly not brooked stalemate--stalemate that we in the Arab world have spent decades whining about, whether when mentioning our own sclerotic and repressive Arab regimes, or those regimes’ relations with the U.S. Does it make sense today to turn around and consider as the Arabs' best friend the man (and his department) who has fought the most to ensure a continuation of this stalemate?

We needn’t approve of the neocons’ excessive militarism to point out that they, far more than Powell, have at least acted in consequence with the stated ambitions of the U.S.--to advance democracy and open markets. Are the neocons hypocritical? Yes, as relations with North Korea show. Are they unfair? Again yes, as they have shown in their uncritical devotion to a perfectly abysmal Sharon government in Israel, despite the fact that its policies are compromising a U.S. peace plan and quite possibly Israel’s own future. Do they have too great a belief in military power? Plainly, and Iraq certainly requires better U.S. “people skills” if Iraqi minds are to waver America’s way.

But at least the neocons have relocated the foreign policy debate to where it should be: in the realm of innovation, not deadlock. It’s in that realm that the old-line realists, so-called left-liberals, multilateralists and just plain old State Department wonks have to fight back. They haven’t done so, and their dearth of ideas suggests that if Powell goes next year, it may create a potentially dangerous imbalance in the administration, assuming Bush is reelected, but it certainly won’t cost Washington any fresh ideas.

Here's the link promised in the previous posting: my Daily Star commentary on Hizbullah's attack in the Shebaa Farms yesterday.

Friday, August 08, 2003

Hizbullah and Syria are set up
I'll be posting a link to my Daily Star commentary on the subject tomorrow, but as some of you may have heard, there was fighting in southern Lebanon today, specifically in the Shebaa Farms area. Hizbullah bombed Israeli positions, and Israel retaliated with aerial bombardments and artillery fire.

The U.S. reaction to this, according to the Associated Press, was as follows: "The Bush administration responded angrily Friday to Hezbollah's shelling of Israeli positions in a disputed Lebanese border region.

"American diplomats told Lebanon and Syria that the administration was seriously concerned about what a U.S. official described as a "calculated and provocative escalation'' by the extremist group and told the two Arab governments it was important to restrain further attacks."

I'm not one to defend Hizbullah very often, but the fact is the party was magnificently set up. It didn't initiate the fighting out of the blue; it was reacting to a car-bomb assassination--almost surely organized by Israel--of a Hizbullah member last Saturday in Beirut's southern suburbs. My theory is that the Israelis killed the man in order to provoke precisely the response that came today.

Why? Because too quiet a south Lebanon border was drawing American attention precariously away from Hizbullah and Syria. With both the Sharon government and Washington hawks keen to push Syria into a corner--if not worse--and disarm Hizbullah, it simply wasn't convincing anymore to blame Syria and the party even as they scrupulously adhered to a de facto ceasefire in the border area. So they were provoked, and by retaliating did exactly what Israel wanted them to.

Now the U.S. is again demanding that Syria end its support for Hizbullah, even as the U.S. Congress is contemplating voting on a piece of legislation known as the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003.

That leads to a wider question: since May 2000, when the Israelis pulled out of Lebanon, the Shebaa Farms has been used by Hizbullah and Syria as a pressure point on Israel. Now, with a friendly administration in the U.S., Israel has turned the tables, so that any kind of fighting there can now be used to build up the American case against Hizbullah and Syria.

The party and Syria were set up a week ago. That's surely unfair, since they had effectively ceased to attack Israeli troops beforehand. The only solution, however, is for them to abandon the farms option altogether and send the Lebanese Army to the border area. That was the Lebanese aim back in 1978 after the Israeli occupation started, and it was implicitly embodied in U.N. Security Council resolution 425, demanding an Israeli pullout from Lebanon.

There is no reason for the measure not to implemented now, with the Israelis gone.

Two pieces from the Reason website are well worth pondering at length. Jacob Sullum has a nice word to say about Arnold Shwarzenegger's bid to be Californian governor, which is perfectly understandable inasmuch as the "Austrian Oak" took time off to attend, of all things, a Reason Foundation banquet.

Chuck Freund has a worthy piece on why Joseph Stalin wanted to kill John Wayne. One of Chuck's operating theories is that he wanted to do so to save the career of Johnny Weissmuller, who, after his years as the one-and-only Tarzan, was by then falling off the vines.

A footnote: My grandmother was once riding with Weissmuller in a London taxi, when for no reason at all he let out that Tarzan yell. Her reaction, decades later: "He wasn't a very bright man, you know." Maybe not, but making Cheetah look smarter was good for box office.

And since we're on the subject of Chuck, he wrote this fine commentary for the Daily Star on the premature burial of Arab culture.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Full court press
Here was the Bush administration openly threatening Belgium because it allegedly overstepped its prerogatives by accepting international human rights litigation in its courts, only for us to now realize that much the same thing is occurring, well, in...the United States.

According to today's New York Times, American courts are accepting a considerably larger number of trials having foreign implications, including human rights trials. Said one legal scholar: "If we're going to try these people for violating a nickel-and-dime contract, why can't you sue them for genocide?"

True, the administration has been consistent, opposing such litigation both at home and abroad. The only difference is that Washington has threatened to take retaliatory action abroad, in one case telling Belgium that it would seek to move NATO headquarters to another country if such trials continued.

It could always threaten U.S. courts that if the litigation continues it will move the federal capital to...Brussels.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

You pay, they forget
On a topic related to this site--the perennial drawbacks of state intervention--today’s New York Times has an interesting story by historian Douglas Brinkley on the Library of Congress’s decision to unpack and publish thousands of items from warehouses and storage facilities belonging to the Federal Writers’ Project, a program of FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Much of the material is now available on Internet.

Two ironies come to mind reading the piece. The first is that one public-funded entity has decided to salvage the lost works of another. Is that a bad idea? Hardly, since there seems to be material in the warehouses and storage facilities that adds to a better historical understanding of 20th Century America. It’s just that resurrecting the FWP treasure trove only confirms again what a waste large government-funded projects, particularly artistic projects, tend to be. Had the private sector been given access to all those piles of FWP junk, we could have picked the stuff up at Borders years ago, and the government could have actually made some money off of it, instead of paying twice for the same project.

The second irony is that, as the Times story reports, many of the FWP writers (including John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Malcolm Cowley, Edward Dahlberg, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Kenneth Patchen, Philip Rahv, Kenneth Rexroth, Harold Rosenberg, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright and Frank Yerby) were later reluctant to be identified with the project at all, even though it did pay them $20-25 a week during the Depression.

The reason was simple: as artists none wanted to be remembered as government factotums (John Cheever described his job as fixing “the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards.”) However, since many came from the political left, and a few even championed the splendid experiment taking place in the Soviet Union, where the state consumed all, it was a revealing insight into the fact that when writers must choose between ideology and image, they tend to prefer the latter.

Syrian instincts
Here's an article I published in today's Daily Star on Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa's sinister comment last weekend that American pressures to force Syria to disarm Hizbullah would “awaken [Lebanon’s] confessional and religious instincts.”

The most disturbing word ­Sharaa used, I wrote, was “'instinct'­, as if the Lebanese were instinctually awaiting the moment they could resume murdering one another, after years chafing under the unsettling burden of a 13-year peace."

It has long been a part of the Syrian political dicourse to argue that Syria alone stands between peace and carnage in Lebanon. Those of us who have seen how the Syrians operate here know better. Of course they have an advantage over us, as the Syrians don't know anything about confessional and religious instincts. Nothing at all.

Friday, August 01, 2003

One aim of mine at the Daily Star opinion page is to examine the different currents of thought in the U.S. leading up to the Iraq war. Last week Chris Toensing looked at the neo-imperial urge in Washington, and on Thursday I cast my four eyes on the neoconservatives, asking, "Why do they keep winning."

Next week Tim Cavanaugh will look at our brother libertarians and ask how they fared during the war, while Chris will chime in again on the liberal left.

Saddam wanted out
According to a front-page story in today's Al-Hayat, citing "Arabic sources", Saddam Hussein recently sent his henchman, Abed Hammoud, to the Americans to cut a deal. It went something like this: that attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq would cease if Saddam and his family were allowed to leave Iraq. The Americans refused, assuming that Saddam made the offer because he was close to being captured, and promptly arrested Hammoud. A few days later Uday and Qusay were killed in Mosul.

The story is interesting for several reasons. However, what intrigued me was the fact that Hammoud, who will surely be put on trial by the Americans or by an Iraqi government, should have so willingly agreed to go on a mission that was almost certain to lead to his arrest. Why did he agree to do so? There are a number of possible explanations: he had no choice; the Al-Hayat story is false and Hammoud was captured; he was running interference for Saddam. A strange episode whichever way you look at it.

Al-Hayat also has another interesting front-page story from Iraq, reporting on a statement issued by a group of Kuwaiti Shiite clerics in which they complained that senior Iraqi Shiite clerics and their supporters in Najaf had been systematically attacked in the past two days by supporters of Shiite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. The Kuwaiti clerics also asked Coalition forces to intervene to restore order.

One question is whether those predicting an American quagmire in Iraq have sufficiently taken into consideration the fact that internal Iraqi divisions--indeed inter-sectarian divisions--have bought the U.S. more time to rebuild the country. If so, who's complaining?

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Damascus Spring-let?
This from ArabicNews highlighting the reaction of the Syria Civil Society Revival Committees to the Assad regime's decision (No. 408) to "separate" the Baath Party from the Executive branch.

This effectively means that the Baath Party will no longer have the state apparatus in a full-nelson. How likely is Syrian President Bashar Assad to succeed? His father tried implementing the decision, but failed. In a sense, Bashar may be doing this the wrong way around: generally when bureaucracies become major headaches, the best option is to circumvent them, preferably through the private sector. That's sort of what Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri tried to do after 1991, though he spoiled the whole thing by becoming the prime dispenser of private-sector patronage.

Assad, however, wants to weaken the Baath apparatus, but offers no substitute or parallel structure to replace it. Up to now, SYrian private-sector reforms have been advancing at a snail's pace. Plus, Assad continues to rely heavily on the intelligence services and the Baath to impose his writ. This gives both the security services and the party an incentive to collaborate in blocking presidential reforms.

In a nutshell, Syria may very simply be incapable of domestic reform. Once change becomes serious, Assad becomes irrelevant, much like Gorbachev.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

Baker's field?
The Washington Post is reporting that former Secretary of State James Baker III, after languishing in the purgatory of finding a solution to the Wetern Sahara problem, may have something more substantial to do soon--in Iraq.

If Baker accepts (and he might not), it could mean the tide is shifting away from the imperial to the less ambitious realist conservatives in the U.S. For one view of how Washington is debating its imperial future, see this very interesting article by Chris Toensing (of the left-leaning Middle East Report) published in today's Daily Star opinion section.

For reasons we need not develop, but which have nothing to do with political censorship, the Daily Star decided not to publish this commentary of mine in the Lebanon section today. I was happy to comply, and, so, am posting it here for anyone who might be interested:

Engaging Hizbullah

In June, the CNN correspondent in Beirut, Brent Sadler, played me an outtake of an interview he had conducted with Information Minister Michel Samaha. In the tape Samaha made a rather confusing claim that once regional circumstances changed, Hizbullah would help in the fight against terrorism.

What, we pondered, could he possibly mean?

Thanks to American journalist Seymour Hersh--who spoke to Samaha for a New Yorker magazine article on US-Syrian relations--we now know. Hersh wrote: “Samaha…told me that Hizbullah has stabilized daily life in southern Lebanon, by controlling and monitoring the sometimes violent activities of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in squalid refugee camps scattered throughout the area. He argued that America was making ‘a foolish mistake’ by not trying to engage Hizbullah. The group…complied with Syria’s insistence that it prevent would-be Palestinian suicide bombers from crossing the border into Israel.”

Before getting to the filling of Samaha’s statement, let’s nibble at the crust: Who told the minister that Hizbullah had any desire to “be engaged” by the United States? Or that this could lead anywhere. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, tried doing so, as did the British ambassador to Lebanon. Though both efforts were defensible, it was not clear what they achieved, or that they were preferable to the status quo. “Engagement” is a nice word, but it often means little more than seeing two latent antagonists photographed next to one other.

Then there was Samaha’s innovative, duly copyrighted argument that Hizbullah is a source of stability in the border area, and a force prepared to wrestle with Palestinian militants on their way to fight Israel. Not surprisingly, the minister’s predecessors never used that line, mainly because it’s a pretty tough sell. However, what Samaha did was to conflate two Syrian messages--one on Hizbullah, the other on the Palestinians--transmitted several years ago to an American ambassador by the deputy parliament speaker, Elie Ferzli.

At the time Israel was still occupying southern Lebanon, but the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was beginning to toy with the idea of withdrawal. The Syrian messages, which according to one source came in a single statement, were roughly this: “If Israel withdraws, we might be able to control Hizbullah, but not Palestinian groups in Lebanon, who, after all, wish to liberate their land from Israeli occupation.”

What the Syrians were saying in a nutshell was that if the Israelis left south Lebanon, they would continue to face military pressures from across the border. As it turned out the Syrians had their cake--sort of--and ate it too: Hizbullah pursued its military operations after 2000, albeit in that netherworld known as the Shebaa Farms; and in March-April 2002 unidentified gunmen, widely suspected of belonging to Palestinian groups from the refugee camps, carried out cross-border attacks, including one on March 12 against an Israeli bus in which six Israelis (and the two attackers) were killed.

For obvious reasons, Samaha avoided mentioning that most (if not all) of the March-April 2002 attacks were conducted with Hizbullah’s collaboration--at least if one believes politicians, journalists, and international civil servants in Beirut. Unfortunately, local officials have been so focused on defending Hizbullah against its Western detractors, that they have also drifted over into casting doubt on the aptitude of the Lebanese state. When Samaha says that Hizbullah brings stability to the south, he’s also saying that a militia can do so more effectively that the lavishly-funded Lebanese army.

One wonders whether Hizbullah was that keen to read Samaha portraying it as an efficient guardian of Israel’s borders. The party has indeed turned the tap on and off in the border area, but it also has an image to preserve. To hear the information minister exposing the worms in the party’s woodwork, and all that to make Hizbullah more palatable to readers of the New Yorker and to Americans in general must have been a tough nut for Nasrallah to swallow.

But surely not half as tough as it must have been for the Bush administration, which is currently debating whom to include in a revised list of enemies. One can imagine Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reading what Samaha told Hersh, especially that bit about America’s “foolish mistake” in not engaging Hizbullah. “I’ll engage Hizbullah, all right,” he might grumble; “I’ll engage them with every weapon system we’ve got.”

Who knows, Samaha might even end up a celebrity, like another Arab information minister we won’t soon forget.

PS--Thanks to Nicholas Blanford for correcting the date of the bus attack against northern Israel in March 2002.

Friday, July 25, 2003

It's the dream of any newspaper or author to occasionally publish the more outlandish letters received from readers. Often, however, these so expose the pathologies of the letter writer, that one keeps them under wraps to preserve a minimal amount of decorum.

However, what follows is a rather odious example of what the Daily Star receives (forwarded to me personally)--a letter that is apparently not written by someone who talks to his refrigerator, but which is also contemptuous, mildly racist, and, ultimately, baffling as to where the author is coming from. I was tempted to print the author's name and email address, but then thought anonymity more appropriate.

"It is interesting to note that even on an issue as the recolonization of the Middle East (Iraq and Israel) Lebanese society is divided with some of the Maronites supporting the colonizers. You have had 2 articles sympathetic by your Mr. Young and some Christian lawyer. These Lebanese Maronites never lose a chance to place themselves against mainstream sentiment, including other Christians, in the region and their country. It is a sectarian death wish resulting in further isolation. They also fail to understand that us Westerners don't mind using them but no matter how much French they speak or imitate Western dress and mannerisms, although crudely with a distinct lack of taste, they will in our eyes always be Arabs. And watching a group obsequiously suck up to you simply breeds contempt. Suckholery is never respected."

What was that about lack of taste?

Abu Mazen and Munich
Many readers will have come to this site through the link provided by Slate in the piece posted yesterday on Mahmoud Abbas, asking whether he was somehow involved in the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage takeover. The information is based on a book published in 1999 in France by Muhammad Daoud Oddeh, knowns as Abu Daoud. I reviewed the book in The Nation, here.

No doubt some readers will consider the piece a hatchet job to discredit Abbas (Abu Mazen). In fact I had no such intention. My point was (assuming what Abu Daoud said was true--and he devotes several chapters to proving the allegation) that it is hypocritical to assume that Abbas is a moral paragon, while Yasser Arafat is not. Ultimately, Arafat is the elected Palestinian leader, and he's the person the U.S. should deal with. In the end both he and Abbas had the checkered past of any member of a militant armed group.

It is silly to simply assume that one is completely different from the other, particularly when the assumed good guy still takes his orders from the bad guy, and when the bad guy's popularity is vastly greater.

In much the same way, Palestinians regard Ariel Sharon as a thug, a view I entirely share, having witnessed at first hand his devastating work in the summer of 1982. As I write in the Slate piece, Palestinians and Israelis will only build peace on a bedrock of short memories.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Here is a link to my comment in today's Daily Star on the Elisabetta Burba affair. Reason will be publishing a version of the Star piece on its website later on.

Far more interesting is Richard Sale's comment (largely based on his UPI report posted earlier here), but which sums up the issues more concisely, and includes quotes from an interview with former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Two article links to better understand the contending agendas in Washington vis-a-vis Syria. Earlier I posted Richard Sale's long UPI dispatch on what happened on the Syrian-Iraqi border several weeks ago.

Now Seymour Hersh has weighed in with a piece in the New Yorker, confirming many of Sale's revelations and adding several of his own, including (for local Lebanese interest) Information Minister Michel Samaha's absurd claim that Hizbullah actually protects Israel's border from radical Palestinian groups. As Samaha knows well, the cross-border attacks by Palestinian groups in April 2002 (which included an attack against an Israeli bus, causing several fatalities) was conducted with Hizbullah assistance.

Another article worth reading is this piece I commissioned for the Daily Star op-ed page from the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka, who warns: "In the old days, Washington’s threats rarely meant much. But times have changed and Assad and Hizbullah remain very much in Washington’s sights."

Her article is a warning to the Syrians, who remember Pletka from the days when she was an aide to Senator Jesse Helms. On a visit to Beirut she made a number of statements that made Syria, well, uncomfortable.

More Burbalings
I will be linking BC to a commentary in tomorrow's Daily Star on Elisabetta Burba, who last weekend admitted to being the source for forged documents alleging that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger--a claim White House advisors (who knew the papers were forgeries) put into George Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.

While Burba told Italy's daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published Saturday that she suspected at the time that the documents were fakes, she nevertheless passed them on to the U.S. embassy in Rome and kept quiet when the Bush administration highlighted them to justify war against Iraq. Indeed, her interview with the Milan paper seemed little more than an effort to cover up for her transgressions, which may or may not have been the result of pressure from the Italian government, and in particular Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, who owns Panorama magazine where Burba works.

From my perspective, however, the story only exposed Burba for the charlatan that many Lebanese knew she was. That's because in September 2001 she wrote a scandalously sloppy and misinformed piece for the Wall Street Journal Opinion-Journal, which you can read here. Basically, she claimed that the Lebanese had applauded the Sept. 11 attacks, though she cited no convincing evidence whatsoever.

I had pounced on her in the Daily Star and also in this article in Reason, which was a slightly altered version of the Star piece.

It's time Burba wiped yellowcake off her face.

My friend Fawaz Gerges has been targeted by Campus Watch's Jonathan Calt Harris. While I'm not a big fan of CW or its one-sided analytical skills, Harris does raise some genuine problems with a certain critique of the Arab world in American Middle East academia that tends to play down the threat of militant Islam, and play up America's responsibility for all the region's woes.

I tried to address this issue on the Reason website back in 2001.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Saghiyyeh on Iraq
Al-Hayat published a very lucid commentary by Hazem Saghiyyeh in its Saturday edition, an English translation of which can be found here.

After opening on a comment on Abdel Karim Qassem's failed efforts to revive Iraqi nationalism at the expense of Arab nationalism, he addresses the growing opposition to the newly-established transitional ruling council.

He writes: "[M]aybe there are many criticisms on the transitional ruling council in Iraq. On its prerogatives. On its representation. On its formation stemming from an American occupation. However, one thing must never be repeated: no one should say that the transitional ruling council and hence Americans are inventing sectarianism. No one should say so, especially those who are supposed to have a nationalistic awareness.

"These people must do something totally different: reconsider their role and admit that the representation within the ruling council is wider than any representation they would have ever dreamt of making in any of their countries. Hence, they ought to reconsider their sense of awareness, which divides any country as soon as they set foot in it. Iraq is one of the best examples of nations disintegrating because of the nationalist mentality."

Incidentally, the piece is not well translated. The sentence "In 1963, the Baathists ousted Abdulkarim Qassem. Before he collapsed, he came under a violent campaign led by Nassiriyah followers" should read ..."under a violent campaign by followers of Gamal Abdel Nasser."

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