Saturday, May 31, 2003

The perils of Karim
For those still interested in domestic Lebanese politics, this opinion piece of mine in today's Daily Star might be of interest. It's a severe portrait of Karim Pakradouni, the head of the Phalangist Party and current minister of administrative development, who has been servant to virtually everybody in his long political career, and who today bends to the will of Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud.

What they didn't notice Wolfowitz say
As debate continues over what Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz actually said in a Vanity Fair interview about the administration's highlighting of WMDs in Iraq, here are a few links that might be of interest. The Pentagon has published this transcript of what Wolfowitz said; the New Republic has this analysis of the exchange; Glenn Reynolds has this take on the thing, with more links; and Fred Kaplan in Slate deconstructs the whole weapons imbroglio

Meanwhile, George W. Bush doesn't see a problem. Of course the U.S. has evidence of Iraq's WMD program, he told Polish television, and the Washington Post reports this exchange with his interviewers:

"You remember when [Secretary of State] Colin Powell stood up in front of the world, and he said Iraq has got laboratories, mobile labs to build biological weapons," Bush said in an interview before leaving today on a seven-day trip to Europe and the Middle East. "They're illegal. They're against the United Nations resolutions, and we've so far discovered two."

From my perspective, a more interesting passage in the Wolfowitz Vanity Fair interview is the one where he says:

There are a lot of things that are different now, and one that has gone by almost unnoticed--but it's huge--is that by complete mutual agreement between the U.S. and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It's been a huge recruiting device for al Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina. I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things.

What we see here is Wolfowitz buying into the utterly ridiculous argument that Bin Laden reacts to incentives, when it was perfectly clear from the Riyadh attacks a few weeks ago (which came after the Bush administration announced its military withdrawal) that whatever the U.S. does, Al-Qaida will not cease its anti-American operations. Very odd to see a senior official implicitly discussing carrots and sticks when addressing Al-Qaida, when the thrust of administration thinking on the matter since Sept. 11 has gone in a completely different direction.

Friday, May 30, 2003

Converting Iraq?
Tim Cavanaugh at Reason has put on his miter to write about a subject that is getting less coverage than it deserves: Evangelical Christians and postwar Iraq.

He observes: "Now there are many reasons to be concerned about seeing evangelicals unleashed in the Arab world -- not least of which is their tendency ... to see the Middle East as a playground for enacting millennial fantasies ... But these alarms over evangelical missions in Iraq overlook two points.

The first has to do with religious freedom. Proselytizing, converting, passing out literature, importuning people with your witnessing, even vituperating rival religious beliefs, may all be fairly irritating in practice, but they are also essential to the very concept of freedom of worship. A countryside dotted with motivated, suspiciously cheerful missionaries is a signal that religious liberty is in good shape. Certainly a faith as total and dynamic as Islam can withstand the relatively feeble attractions of a few born again missionaries ...

The second point is less obvious, but will be familiar to anybody who has seen how the evangelization process works in Arab communities: When evangelicals proselytize Arabs, they don't focus on Muslims but on Christians. Specifically, on followers of the traditional eastern churches -- Orthodox, Coptic, eastern-rite Catholic, and so on -- that occupy small minority positions in the Middle East.

Landing Salam Pax
Salam Pax exists and just to prove it he'll soon be a hack for The Guardian, which will begin publishing his Baghdad Blog next Wednesday. The paper has a profile here.

Link via Matt Welch on Reason's Hit and Run.

(Jeff Jarvis catches the Guardian doing some suggestive censorship on one of Salam's postings.)
Chalabi's patsies?
Over at Slate, Jack Shafer is continuing to pit-bull Judith Miller's sloppy coverage of the Iraqi WMDs, and he provides a link to this Howard Kurtz article from the Washington Post highlighting a heated exchange of emails at the New York Times between Miller and Baghdad bureau chief John Burns. Evidently Miller filed a piece on Ahmad Chalabi without telling Burns, when she knew the Baghdad bureau was preparing a "major" piece on him.

Burns lambasted Miller, who replied: "I've been covering Chalabi for about 10 years, and have done most of the stories about him for our paper, including the long takeout we recently did on him. He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper." Kurtz noted she also wrote that the army unit she was traveling with, the Mobile Exploration Team Alpha, "is using Chalabi's intell and document network for its own WMD work. . . ."

As Shafer writes, the exchange is significant because it confirms that Miller's source for the WMD stories she filed (in particular one story suggesting that an unidentified Iraqi scientist had key information on the whereabouts of WMDs) was Ahmad Chalabi. The stories have failed to pan out, raising questions as to whether Chalabi manipulated Miller to advance his own agenda.

From the above exchange, conspiracy theorists might also speculate that Miller's pre-empting of the Baghdad bureau story might have been a way of (a) protecting her good access to Chalabi by torpedoing what could have been a critical Times story by another reporter, and (b) paying Chalabi back for the information he had given her.

That leads to the point of this posting. Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress was also the source for the Sunday Times story which reported that three Al-Jazeera employees were on the payroll of the Iraqi intelligence services. A few days ago the station's director-general, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, was dismissed, leading to speculation that the episode was linked to the Times revelation. However, this link hasn't been substantiated. If Miller was indeed a patsy, it might be time to double check whether the INC, which has no sympathy for Al-Jazeera, also manipulated the British paper when it passed on documents purporting to prove the treachery of the Qatari station's employees.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Narcissism at Hizbullah
I have written a highly critical commentary on Hizbullah in today's Daily Star. This follows a speech last Sunday in which the party's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, called on the Lebanese authorities to delay presidential, municipal and parliamentary elections in order to avoid domestic divisiveness at a time when the U.S. purportedly threatens the Middle East. He asked that they, instead, back Hizbullah's resistance priorities.

I described this as "narcissism", and point you to the following paragraph:

If that was the party’s message, then it must have come as a shock to hear Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, assert on Sunday that Damascus would continue to back Hizbullah for as long as it limited its operations to defending Lebanon against Israeli threats. By interpreting the party’s efforts in such a narrow way, Assad was perhaps thinking of the alleged Hizbullah bomb-maker caught off the Israeli coast a few days ago. With Damascus worried about how the Palestinian-Israeli “road map” might affect its own fortunes, it is not about to cede the initiative for heightened regional violence to a Lebanese militia.

A firing at Al-Jazeera
Recently, the Iraqi National Congress gave documents to the Sunday Times purportedly proving a link between Al-Jazeera and the Iraqi intelligence services. Now the Qatari station has fired its director-general, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, suggesting the accusations may have been true. A distinct possibility is that some of the station's people were on the Iraqi payroll, and that al-Ali was made to pay for this, even though he was not personally involved.

I took a more sanguine view of the affair in my International Papers column in Slate a few weeks ago. Here's the relevant paragraph:

Al-Sharq al-Awsat also led with a report splashed in Britain's Sunday Times suggesting that between August 1999 and November 2002, Iraq's intelligence services had ties with three unnamed employees at the Qatari satellite TV station Al Jazeera—two cameramen and an official in the "external relations" department. The Iraqis allegedly used the relationships to shape the station's coverage of news about Iraq. The Times story was based on intelligence documents found in Baghdad by the Iraqi National Congress and passed on to a reporter at the paper. Skepticism is in order since the INC is hardly a neutral purveyor of information, given its hostility toward Al Jazeera. What's more, the charges are less important than they were played up to be. They did not suggest an Iraqi-Al Jazeera connection after the outbreak of war (information the INC would surely have publicized had it been available), when coverage was more crucial. The disclosures about the Al Jazeera official were also fairly trivial: He is said to have handed the Iraqis copies of two letters sent by Osama Bin Laden to the satellite station, and he apparently helped get individuals expressing the Iraqi viewpoint invited onto some shows. Given Al Jazeera's sympathies, that was hardly a feat. Arguably, the most remarkable thing was that only three Al Jazeera staffers were on the take, since wealthy Arab governments routinely buy influence in media outlets.

If those are still the facts, I stick by my judgment. Andrew Sullivan, however, is less tolerant, arguing that Al-Jazeera is "an adjunct to Islamo-fascism."

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Qassim's rebirth
Fascinating story in today's Al-Hayat, suggesting that there is a resurgence of sympathy for the former Iraqi leader Abdel Karim Qassim, best known today for being Saddam Hussein's target when he was still a young Ba'ath militant. Reportedly, Iraqis took down a statue of Abdelwahab al-Ghariri (who was killed in Qassim's assassination attempt) and scrawled this on the cement stand: "Forgive us our leader ... it's time to again give you consideration." This resurgence of Qassim's popularity is a source of anxiety for the U.S. and the U.K., who know he is remembered as a far-left ardent nationalist who overthrew the Hashemite monarchy and had little sympathy for the West.

Qassim's post-mortem rehabilitation is interesting, since it serves two simultaneous purposes: it allows Iraqis to discredit Saddam's regime, but also the Americans. It is also interesting because Qassim was a hardcore secular nationalist, with no sympathy for Islamist movements, so support for him could be one way people have of showing their rejection of an Islamic Iraq. The phenomenon should probably not be confused with the rehabilitation of someone like Stalin in Russia, since it seems to be motivated less by nostalgia than by an effort to shape ongoing developments in Iraq.

Monday, May 26, 2003

Young on the poverty of Arab intellectuals
Chuck's citing of Tom Segev opens a helpful door in this exchange on liberalism, that leading to the most cheerless room in the Arab mansion: the one populated by its intellectuals. In a Reason article last year, I raised the same point Chuck did, arguing that Israel's so-called "new historians" (who initiated the post-Zionist dialogue) challenged Israel's founding myths by "basing their arguments on a powerful premise: that Israel's behavior often contradicted the humanist principles they believed their state should epitomize."

Many things can be said about the new historians, not least of which is that they do not consider themselves part of a unified "school". Indeed, last year a dispute broke out between two prominent new historians, Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris, over whether Ehud Barak had really made historic concessions to Yasser Arafat at Camp David. Mortarboards flew, and in the melee Morris (who sided with Barak) showed he could be as much a servant of Israeli power as its intellectual adversary.

In the end, this type of dispute is exactly the medicine Arab intellectuals need. Self-doubt is scarce in the world of Arab ideas, and it is pitiable to see there is no serious Arab revisionist historiography to challenge the way governments project themselves. This may be difficult in Arab countries (and some historians have produced ground-breaking works outside the Middle East), but this only confirms the point: to be an intellectual in the Arab world often means sharing the worldviews of one’s government, while simultaneously deploring its methods.

So Chuck and I can agree: Individuation, or the process of developing sovereign identities over those imposed from the outside, is indeed part of the Arab world's salvation. What Chuck misses, I think, is the extent to which Israel's new historians are a product of Israel’s successive triumphs: in effect they could challenge the country's myths because its reality was secure. In other words open societies (though I have reservations as to whether Israel fully qualifies for that category) require a self-confidence lacking in the Arab world, where defeat is perceived as the norm.

Must the incessant Arab lament end? Surely, but I fear Chuck hasn't yet answered my original question: Given what we have in the region today, what practical processes (on the ground) can enhance liberalism's chances of succeeding? What can bring about the transformations that both Chuck and I agree are essential to turn our debate into something tied into reality?

Sunday, May 25, 2003

Ibrahim Hamidi freed?
I've just received an SMS message informing me that Ibrahim Hamidi, the former Al-Hayat bureau chief in Damascus, has been released. He had been arrested at the end of December for publishing an article that irritated members of the Syrian elite, including the president, Bashar Assad. The news has not been confirmed independently.
Freund on Israeli individuation
Last weekend, Michael posed a series of challenging questions about how the Arab world is supposed to attain liberalism if the U.S., "the practical sponsor of liberalism," behaves in a way that isn't supportive of liberalism. Michael cites the example of " Washington's overtly Shiite-centered strategy in Iraq," arguing that if the U.S. is engaged in "a potentially divisive communal game, the Arabs will not behave differently."

I agree with Michael's larger point: If the U.S. fails to enable an open system (of free expression, markets, etc.) to develop in Iraq, a historic opportunity will have been squandered at the expense of Arabs and Americans both. But my argument is that it is the open system that will eventually generate a broadened Arab liberalism, not the example of (frequently self-interested) actions by the occupying American government.

I think there's a lesson to be taken from the Israeli experience, and how its society came to generate a critical "Post-Zionist" dialog despite conditions (continuous external threat, internal communal tensions) that would seemingly reinforce a limited number of communal identities. According to Tom Segev, the Israeli journalist and author, it was Israel's open media that invited citizens "to discover themselves as individuals distinct from the national collective," a transformation that led to further revolutions in journalism, historiography, and much more. Segev calls this transformation "Americanization," but I would argue that it is inherent in an open system, and has little to do directly with the U.S.

(By the way, the Israeli example also addresses another of Michael's concerns: that many Arabs may well prefer a communal identity because they perceive it as a secure identity. Michael is right to highlight the point. But a liberal system wouldn't prevent them from making such a choice, any more than it has prevented Israelis or Americans from adhering to communal identities when they have chosen to do so.)

What Segev is describing is the process of continuous individuation, an apparent inevitability of liberalism. Segev singles out the media as the tipping-point influence, but that's certainly too simple a view; the process is neither simple nor passive. Nor, for that matter, is the process as simple as I'm making it sound. Perhaps we'll be able to follow its progress in Iraq.

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Beirut's Daily Star has failed to post Saturday commentaries on its website, which prompts me to do something I usually avoid: post my weekly contribution to the paper's Lebanon section here. Because text boxes are too small, the article continues into succeeding boxes, ending with the word "stake".

Disarm Ain al-Hilweh
It is intriguing to see that a government willing to dispatch agents to hassle Lebanese Forces sympathizers at a funeral in far off Bsharri cannot care a hoot about a Palestinian state-within-a-state in Ain al-Hilweh.

Interior Minister Elias Murr had this to say on his return from a recent trip: "We are against fighting in the camp and strongly deplore the killing of innocent people. As to the gangs inside the camps, such as Esbat al-Ansar and others, we will not permit them to foment disorder in territory under state control, and these people will face justice one day."

The statement was laudable in its intent and bizarre in its context. It begged the obvious question: Why can't the Lebanese Army simply disarm the camps and arrest those fomenting disorder in territory verifiably not under state control? After all, most of us have spent a decade paying a tithe to ensure the army receives a lion's share of budget spending, and have utter faith that it can prevail. [Continued]
[Resume] Perhaps military doctrine dictates otherwise. In much the same way as the army cannot be deployed on the border with Israel, our officers have possibly deemed entry into Ain al-Hilweh (which incidentally harbor the killers of several of their military intelligence comrades) as strategically imprudent. Or, there could be other reasons that are more complicated.

For elucidation we should look at the perennial rivalry between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Syria. Though such things aren’t publicized, it is Syria’s yearning to deliver Lebanon’s Palestinians to an overall regional settlement. As Damascus contemplates its depleted hand, it still has some cards to play in Lebanon, one of them its control over the refugee camps in Beirut, Tripoli and the Biqaa. With the Rashidiyyeh camp in Tyre under Arafat’s influence, Ain al-Hilweh has become the main battleground between Syria and the Palestinian leader.

This raises another question: If the Syrians want to undermine Arafat, why not just send Lebanese units into Ain al-Hilweh to liquidate his men? One reason is that the Palestinians would unite against the army, since all their factions agree on the need to preserve the political and military autonomy of the camps. What would ensue is a veritable bloodbath, forcing the Lebanese to police a hostile and impoverished environment for years. Isn’t it better, many argue, to simply contain the Palestinians in the camp, even if it means letting them kill each other?

There is another reason. An unstable Ain al-Hilweh usefully reminds outside countries that the Syrian presence in Lebanon is necessary, particularly if the camp is home to Al Qaida-linked Islamists. It is also a source of manpower for anti-Israeli operations if Syria requires such military leverage. For example the cross-border attacks by Palestinians against Israel in April 2002 were, arguably, Syria’s way of expressing displeasure with the Saudi initiative adopted a few days earlier at the Beirut Arab League summit, which Syria was annoyed with. [Continued]
[Resume] Given these various agendas, what is the optimal solution to the Ain al-Hilweh imbroglio? The laissez-faire alternative seems the most pragmatic: if fighting is limited to the camp, then there is no need to intervene. The only problem is that, as Murr underlined, innocents are paying the price, and so too are Lebanese--from the assassinated Sidon judges to the intelligence officers gunned down last summer. In other words the violence is hardly as well contained as some presume.

Secondly, it is odious to see a Lebanese state that on a daily basis rejects the notion of Palestinian resettlement, tolerating the worst manifestations of the Palestinian presence. When virtually all Lebanese militias have been disarmed, when a former militia leader has been imprisoned and scores of his partisans harassed, it is fantastic to see Palestinian armed redoubts persisting. It implies the security services will only tread where they are sure to intimidate.

Under the circumstances, the preferred option is to disarm Ain al-Hilweh and make it as manageable a place as, let’s say, the Yarmouq refugee camp near Damascus. However, this must be done in a way that minimizes casualties, through negotiations that would make force unnecessary, or minimize Palestinian resistance if it becomes inevitable. A precondition for pacifying Ain al-Hilweh is that the Syrians enter the fray and make clear it is a priority.

Will Syria agree, given its interest in maintaining Ain al-Hilweh’s autonomy? That will depend on whether Lebanon makes enough of a fuss to get its attention. It would mean putting Lebanese welfare first, but also reversing years of humiliation during which wanted fugitives have used the camp as a refuge. As even the present government will admit, Lebanese credibility, never great to start with, is seriously at stake.[End]
Playing with Hizbullah
My friend Anthony Mills has researched a brief for the section of a Lebanese business magazine, Executive, that I edit (the section not the mag), and reports that Hizbullah is marketing a computer game known as "Special Force." The idea of the game is to seize an Israeli outpost and defend a Lebanese village, and to add realism to the enterprise "maps were obtained from the party's media archives to ensure the simulations are as true-to-life as possible."

According to a Hizbullah spokesman some 10,000 copies of the have been sold in Lebanon and the Middle East, with roughly the same number of pirated copies out there. I won't purloin Anthony's work by saying more, but when the brief is published I'll be sure to post it. But a word on the moral here: Islamists seem to be among those most attuned to the advantages of capitalism (as Al-Qaida has repeatedly shown), which, incidentally, in no way contradicts the tenets of Islam. But does that mean hope for Arab liberalism?

Friday, May 23, 2003

Several people have told me (and I've noticed) that access to BC has been very slow, partly it seems because Blogger is moving all blogs to a new system. Hopefully things will improve in the coming days, when I plan a series of new postings.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Robin Wright has an article in today's Los Angeles Times, noting: "In the wake of the Saudi bombings, the United States has broken off talks indefinitely with Iran because of intelligence indicating that Al Qaeda operatives have taken refuge in the Islamic Republic."

A reminder: The U.S. and Iran had been holding talks in Geneva, allegedly to discuss such issues as Afghanistan and Iraq.
The plots thicken
In an earlier posting during the Iraq war (and in this Daily Star commentary), I had written about the various conspiracy theories circulating in the Arab world on the collapse of Baghdad, including reports of a prior deal between U.S. forces and the Iraqi Republican Guard. Now Fred Kaplan has written an article in Slate, based on another article in Defense News, suggesting that "before Gulf War II began, U.S. special forces had gone in and bribed Iraqi generals not to fight."

Kaplan writes: One official is quoted as saying that, in the scheme of the whole military operation, the bribery "was just icing on the cake." But another says that it "was as important as the shooting part, maybe more important. We knew that some units would fight out of a sense of duty and patriotism, and they did. But it didn't change the outcome because we knew how many of these [Iraqi generals] were going to call in sick."

In this article cited by Kaplan from, one Phil Brennan argues: "The unprecedented collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, quashed with dizzying speed and negligible casualties, was not the result of good luck or overwhelming force of arms. It was largely due to cell phones manned by CIA psy-ops agents conducting a telemarketing campaign selling surrender to the enemy’s top commanders."

In the article Brennan cites an "exclusive report" in a Lebanese newspaper Sawt al-Ourouba to make the case for what is known as The Deal--i.e. the payoffs to Iraqi generals. Only problem is I personally never heard of such a newspaper, and therefore would caution anyone about believing too much of what was said in it (even if I believe there is more truth than falsehood in the theory of a negotiated surrender.)

Monday, May 19, 2003

Did Fisk rip me off?
I was amused to read on Andrew Sullivan's website that the satirical weekly Private Eye cast doubts on a report Robert Fisk filed from Iraq, suggesting he made up part of his story. I can report my own little Fisk story where he did not make his story up, but may have used something I wrote to fill in a few blank spaces.

Under the pseudonym Walid Harb several years ago, I wrote a review of a book that came out on the former Lebanese warlord Elie Hobeika. The opening sentence read like this:

A few years ago, one of Lebanon's giddier periodicals, suitably titled Prestige, published as its cover story an interview with a Lebanese celebrity. The photograph adorning the front of the magazine was that of a blue-suited, cleanshaven man in his mid-40s, radiating the serene gravitas expected of a government minister, which is what he was. The magazine was distributed to the inner sanctums of Lebanon's vanity fair. The response was a collective nod of approval. One could almost overlook that the object of this attention was someone who had, in an earlier incarnation, ordered a militia under his command into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they boisterously dispatched an estimated 1,000 civilians, give or take a few score.

And later: Much of the local curiosity about the book was generated by two chapters describing Hobeika's sexual capers and naming most of his paramours. The list is jubilantly long and includes a large number of women who pass for being members of the postwar plutocracy. Several marriages have reportedly suffered as a result.

When Hobeika was assassinated, Fisk wrote about his funeral, and it was, of course, an irresistible story. I was, therefore, surprised to see that Fisk had (intentionally or not) lifted my imagery. Here is what he wrote in the January 27, 2002 issue of The Independent:

All this the congregation already knew. But they were intent on Hobeika's transformation from war criminal to statesman, from gunman to the cheerful womaniser who, not so long ago, graced the cover of Lebanon's version of Vanity Fair.

I have little respect for what Fisk writes today, but I do recognize that he surely didn't need my sentence to make a reputation well earned a few years earlier. Nor is that one sentence quite enough to charge plagiarism, though it comes close. Maybe Fisk just remembered it from reading The Nation. Anyway, I have identified the parallels in bold, and you can decide.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Young on the American example
There is little I can disagree with when it comes to Chuck's general argument in his latest offering below to our back and forth on Arab liberalism. However, I do have doubts on some of the specifics of what he says, and a question on process.

Doubts first. Chuck writes: "Pan-Arabism, as many of its critical historians have been observing for decades, is finished politically." Alas it is not, Chuck, because it is one of those mercurial and resilient ideologies that is hailed when it (rarely) succeeds and is defended as having been misapplied when it fails. I prefer to reflect on how we can encourage Arabs to kill off Pan-Arabism, or that aspect of it, as you wrote, that "provides the narrative structure for the Arab story of victimization at the hands of those non-Arabs who are more powerful, more conniving, richer, etc."

I also have doubts about the ease with which the Arabs will agree to replicate the liberal ideal of creating "large and multiplying communities based on varying identity choices", therefore transcending identity hinged on group enmities. I'm not suggesting Arabs are incapable of doing so, or refuse to do so. Rather, I feel many actually prefer a tighter, religion-based group identity that, yes, often survives by defining enmities, but also provides much security. Look at Lebanon: suffocating group identity is indeed a problem, but also a sanctuary.

On process, I have the following question: How can our current liberal cries in the desert (or indeed those of the continuously shuffled officials whom the Bush administration is dispatching to Iraq) be turned into reality? This is where I believe U.S. policy in Iraq comes into play, but also Washington’s policy towards Iran, Palestine and Lebanon. In the end, liberalism in the Middle East must dangle from a tangible hook to avoid being just a theory, or a longing.

For example, how does a yearning for identity choice in the Arab world square with Washington's overtly Shiite-centered strategy in Iraq? If the U.S., the practical sponsor of liberalism, is playing a potentially divisive communal game, the Arabs will not behave differently. Ironically, the Bush administration’s approach is based on the assumption that the Shiites have none of the hang-ups with Pan-Arabism that Sunnis do. Or, how does one react when the U.S. sanctions Syrian control over a liberal Lebanon, whose power-sharing structure the U.S. could never stomach, despite the fact that Syria's communal system is worse?

These aren't rhetorical questions. The inconsistencies raised are things Arabs will look at to determine whether liberalism is a serious alternative to what they already have. We can't deny the power of American example, as much as we might like to.

Saturday, May 17, 2003

Freund on letting Arabs choose an identity

Chuck and I have decided to inject predictability into our exchanges, so from now on they will take place on weekends.

In his May 7 entry below, Michael asks the intriguing question, "Can we find a formula that blends the undeniable (if often toxic) power of Pan-Arabism" with Arab liberalism? My reply is that a successful liberal regime in the region is in fact Arabism's hope, because liberalism has the power to transform the concept. Pan-Arabism, as many of its critical historians have been observing for decades, is finished politically. At this point, its cultural role has become almost entirely a negative one: It provides the narrative structure for the Arab story of victimization at the hands of those non-Arabs who are more powerful, more conniving, richer, etc.

Why? I'd argue this: Arabism's early proponents assigned it a role it could not fill, and it has ended up filling the only role it can. "Arabism" is a legitimate and appealing communal identity, but it cannot be a foundational political identity. The group involved is too vast, occupying too many places, with too many historical and cultural differences, and too many competing local interests. While it has been strong enough and romantic enough to remain a rhetorical distraction, it has been too weak to overcome the realities of the natural regional and local polities. Having helped run recent Arab history off its rails, it has since served to tell an excuse-making version of the train wreck to which it was a primary contributor.

How can liberalism come to its rescue? Liberalism invites its citizens to fashion themselves as they wish; that's one of its essential points, and the secret of its enormous material success. Liberal regimes are communities of large and multiplying communities based on varying identity choices. This is identity-building on one's own terms, not (as is often the case in the Mideast) identity hinged on group enmities. If "Arabism" became an issue of chosen identity (as it inevitably would in a liberal system) rather than remain a failed political scheme (or worse, a politics of failure), it could rid itself of its negative baggage. In fact, it would have to, because its proponents would find themselves competing for adherents.

Arabism in a liberal system would soon morph into numerous kinds of Arabisms competing with each other and with all the alternatives. It would still have at least latent political significance, but more important, it would go from dead rhetoric to a living concept, and from toxicity to the enrichment of the region and beyond.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Pope Petraeus
Readers might find this article from the Washington Post interesting. It's on Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander for the Mosul area. I've long grown tired of those who see a catastrophe around every corner in Iraq, but reading how Petraeus thinks he's supposed to deal with the Iraqis is, well, a trifle irritating.

Some tidbits:

Petraeus on Petraeus: "Amazing, isn't it?" Petraeus said later as he waved to the mob from his departing Black Hawk. "It's a combination of being the president and the pope."

Petraeus on dealing with the natives: Petraeus calls his heavy hand, even with allies, the "Big Man concept" and he often follows even his simplest instructions to Iraqis with the phrase "those are my orders." In a culture used to centralized power, he has employed the technique to begin the difficult task of assembling a multi-ethnic army and a functioning city government.

Petraeus on fooling the natives: Two weeks ago, Petraeus invited 250 city leaders to a convention to choose a new interim mayor and council in Mosul, crimping the invitations with his division's notary seal in a country where stamps are signs of power. "They think it's a super-secret Pentagon thing," he said.

Petraeus on who is boss: "I am the occupying power, make no mistake," Petraeus said, arguing that censorship to preserve public order was his "obligation" under the Geneva Conventions. "I am responsible for this place."

Khatami does Beirut
Iranian president Muhammad Khatami spent 3 days in Lebanon this week in what was a genuinely significant visit. Though many have written Khatami off (perhaps legitimately), he seemed to have other ideas. Western press reports focused on his statements of support for Hizbullah and opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, but that was a one-dimensional reading of something far subtler.

What did the visit achieve? First off, in repeatedly praising Lebanese democracy, tolerance and communal coexistence, Khatami was doing two things: he was sending word back home that he continued to favor reform, and was willing to carry that message to Iran's Shiite brethren in the Arab world; and he was establishing a long-term state-to-state relationship with a fairly liberal country that has a substantial Shiite community.

Secondly, Khatami made it clear that Iran's ties to Lebanon would mainly be funneled, henceforth, through the Lebanese government, not Hizbullah. Yes, he praised the party profusely, but in several statements he took positions implicitly contrary to its strategy. For example he underlined that Iran did “not seek to contribute to an escalation of tension in the region or to…events shaking (regional) stability.” Hizbullah has avoided such rhetoric, which it believes smacks of appeasement when dealing with Israel.

Third, Khatami, while he criticized the U.S. presence in Iraq, also hailed Saddam's overthrow. He knows that going after the U.S. too harshly might damage Iran's relations with a new Iraqi government. He also knows that a majority of Iranians would welcome the removal of the conservative mullahs in Tehran and look towards Iraq as a possible source of domestic transformation.

Finally, Khatami's kind words on Lebanon's communal structure, his repeated opening to Christians, his talk of a "dialogue of religions", and his appearance at the Jesuit St. Joseph University, were all efforts to burnish his image as a moderate, but also to make a point that Islamist intolerance really isn't for him. Indeed, at St. Joseph's he pertinently noted: “Religion and belief should not come at the expense of freedom.”

So, for a few days the domestic struggle in Iran was transposed to Beirut. Will it change very much in Tehran? Probably not, since Lebanon's Shiites will accept whoever leads in Iran. But the visit did bring the Lebanese Shiites more squarely into the inter-Iranian equation, and it did weaken Hizbullah's status as gatekeeper in the Lebanese-Iranian relationship, and it did greatly enhance Khatami's reputation in Lebanon and the Arab world.

One cannot imagine that the petrified fire-eaters back home would have been pleased with this.

PS -- My comment in tomorrow's Daily Star will be on this, but I won't link it.
As a follow up to an earlier posting a few days ago, readers might want to look at this opinion piece for the Daily Star, in which I argue, as I did here, that the Bashar Assad interview with Lally Weymouth contained a serious concession in terms of negotiations with Israel.

Perceptive readers will notice that this link comes a trifle late. Chuck Freund has written a fine and original piece on how Arabic pop artists have responded to the war in Iraq, and more generally to what he refers to as the "Pan-Arabist paradigm."

Here are the opening paragraphs:

Earlier this month, an Arabic dance track called "Longing Brought You to Me" hit Number 1 for the sixth consecutive week on one of the region's leading music countdowns, the Beirut-based Top 20. The song is a slickly produced disco throwback, a kind of track that often does well in the region's music market. What makes its continued success noteworthy, however, is that the woman who performs it, a Kuwaiti singer named Nawal, had recently taken an interesting political risk.

Even as nearly every other popular Arab singer was still bewailing U.S. "aggression"—the inevitable term—against the Iraqi people, Nawal had publicly congratulated Iraqis on getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime. She was able to break with the Pan-Arabist line on the war —that the whole Arab world had been under attack by Western imperialism— which had totally subsumed the region's pop culture, while not paying any price in popularity.

For a longer piece by Chuck on the liberating impact of popular culture, read this from the March 2002 issue of Reason magazine.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Arabists and Christians
Have just finished, several years too late, Robert D. Kaplan's The Arabists, a fine book on those American missionaries and diplomats who in the past two centuries have in some fashion become experts on and/or sympathetic to the Arab world. The book perhaps suffers from the same shortcomings that any book would describing a miscellaneous group as a unified whole. However, it is also remarkably judicious, fair, and accurate, reflecting an attitude I was personally quite familiar with in the 1970s-80s when dealing with Americans in Beirut.

Particularly evocative is Kaplan's observation that the Arabists had particular antipathy for the Eastern Christians, especially Lebanon's Maronites. This was flagrant during the 1975-90 civil war. As one of Kaplan's sources, a younger Cuban-American diplomat, remarked: "It's true, Arabists have not liked Middle Eastern minorities ... I remember once going to a Foreign Service party and hearing people refer to the Maronite Christians in Lebanon as 'fascists.'"

I remember this attitude well, being the son of a Maronite and now married to one. In contrast, this animosity was never directed at Muslims, nor indeed should it have been; in the end, the Arabists were not in the Middle East to make lists of friends and enemies. I always saw this contempt as a gaping blind spot in the American community, an irrational unwillingness to understand how a Middle Eastern minority reacted to perceived threats. It was almost as if a country weaned on the mathematics of majority rule could not stomach a Maronite community (a) asserting its distinctiveness against the grain of the majority of Muslim Arabs, and (b) demanding a stake in the Lebanese state that was greater than its numbers.

I also believe it is one reason why to this day Lebanon's Christians regard the U.S. with deep suspicion.

Bashar concedes
There has been much interest in recent days in the interview Syrian president Bashar Assad gave to Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post. Assad is still dining out on the Sphinx reputation of his father, so whatever he says is regarded as not only important, but rare. A quick look at Arabic newspapers will reveal, however, that the lad quite enjoys speaking to the press--something occasionally useful, but hardly Sphinx-like.

Most important in the interview, to my mind, was the following largely-ignored interchange:

Weymouth: What is the basis on which you are offering to start talks with Israel?

Assad: U.N. resolutions, [the 1991] Madrid [conference] and the Saudi initiative.

Weymouth: Do you demand that Israel agree to give back [in advance] what [former Israeli] Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak offered, or will you negotiate without conditions?

Assad: If you want to negotiate, you need a basis. So the basis is the Madrid conference.

This confirms what we've been suspecting for quite some time, namely that Syria has abandoned its demand that past understandings reached with Israel after Madrid must be the basis for new negotiations. This is a fundamental difference with what Hafiz Assad demanded in his negotiations with successive Israeli governments: He always demanded that prior understandings be respected, particularly those to Syria's advantage. Among the most important of these are (a) Rabin's so-called "promise" of August 1993, and (b) the security non-paper agreed by Syria and Israel in May 1994.

The promise was a conditional proposal handed to the US in which Rabin agreed to a full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines on the Golan Heights, in exchange for what Israel considered acceptable security arrangements and genuine peace. The non-paper was an unsigned document that defined what the two sides saw as the guidelines for security arrangements accompanying a settlement. One thing it did was give Syria room to maneuver on the scope of its expected demilitarization on and around the Golan after an Israeli withdrawal.

Bashar's offer to return to Madrid essentially rendered these understandings null and void, as it did Barak's offer made through Bill Clinton in Geneva in 2000 that Syria could regain sovereignty over most of the Golan, but not stretch this to the shores of Lake Tiberias. Why have the Syrians conceded so much? They're afraid the success of the "road map" will make them the last major Arab party to negotiate with Israel, and that under those circumstances the Israelis will give them a bad offer, or none at all.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

A busy week has meant relatively few postings to BC. Several items are pending, but in the interim, readers might want to access this article I did for Slate on the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and this one on giving Syria a negotiating track with Israel, written for the Daily Star's Lebanon section on Saturday.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Round 2: Young on saving Pan-Arabism
Much of what Chuck says below I agree with. As I argued in a Daily Star commentary weeks ago, one thing the pervasively negative Arab reaction to the collapse of Saddam's regime has done is to build a rift between Iraqis and the Arab world in general, and between Iraqis and Arab intellectuals in particular. Indeed, how can even the most anti-American Iraqi who, nevertheless, suffered under the Ba'ath regime come to grips with an Arab world that sided objectively with his tormentor?

Nor can I disapprove when Chuck writes: "But no U.S. action can effectively overcome the excuse-making, blame-shifting victimology now endemic to the Pan-Arabist worldview..." However, I would like to take this in another direction by making a proposal, after this assertion: Pan-Arabism as it stands today, while it indeed reflects the pathologies Chuck describes above, should not necessarily be seen as contrary to Arab liberalism. Can we find a formula that blends the undeniable (if often toxic) power of Pan-Arabism with a liberalism whose vanguard Chuck has noticed in Iraq?

To answer that we must distinguish between modernization and reform. The two are often confused in the Arab world. The Arab urge to find "rebirth" in Pan-Arabism, as described by Albert Hourani in his Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1799-1939, did not specifically reject liberalism--or the West. As Chuck well knows, many of the early advocates of an "Arab idea" (who argued that Arabs had a common destiny) were, in fact, influenced by the West. However, what attracted them most was Western progress, so that modernization was often mistaken for reform, specifically liberal reform. Many of the problems of the modern Arab world can be encapsulated in that historical mix-up.

Why should a marriage between Pan-Arabism and liberalism matter? First, because transnational aspirations are natural in an increasingly integrated world. That Arabs should thrive on a sense of common purpose isn't their problem. What is is their tendency to transform Pan-Arabism into a despotic myth that enforces a stifling (and defective) unity over individualism and liberty. Second, liberalism will only have true meaning in the Arab world (a) when Arabs can integrate it into concepts with which they are familiar, and (b) when it becomes widespread, with Pan-Arabism perhaps offering an ideal vehicle for this.

I realize I may be inviting Chuck to mention, as he did in private conversation, Adeed Daweesha's argument that Pan-Arabism has far less basis in Arab reality than its ideologues claim (I have yet to read Daweesha's book). The best bullets, though, are the ones we save for ourselves. So fire away.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Freund-Young Round 2: Iraq's liberal urges

(Because these damned text boxes are too small, Chuck's comment runs over into the following box. Better than cutting)

By arguing (in his March 30 entry) that the future of Arab liberalism is so dependent on American actions, Michael does me a service: He legitimates my (American) presence in our exchange. I'm therefore loath to challenge the point. But while U.S. power is obviously the elephant in everyone's living room these days, I don't think it's capable of playing the central role Michael assigns it.

It's not that I necessarily disagree with the list of actions Michael requires. The U.S. has the moral responsibility of enabling legitimate (as defined by Iraqis) representative government to emerge in Iraq. If it fails, the cause of Arab liberalism will have been greatly harmed. But no U.S. action can effectively overcome the excuse-making, blame-shifting victimology now endemic to the Pan-Arabist worldview (as well as to the academic "Orientalist" critique and to street conspiracism) that Arab liberals are already challenging.

It is Iraqis who are necessarily at center stage in this process, and despite the wave of negative stories about civil disorder and incipient religious tyranny, there are promising indications that important segments of Iraqi society are organizing themselves along liberal lines with no input from the U.S. As I noted in a recent Reason Online story at least 40 political parties have organized in the capital; university faculties are preparing for an era of academic freedom; Iraqi writers are preparing to rebuild their wrecked literature; artists have begun meeting; newspapers have started to appear in Baghdad, and so on. Magazines, books, and TV are on their way. Iraq's national debate has yet to begin in earnest, but these are promising signs.

A particularly interesting event just took place in Sharjah in the UAE. Representatives of three Arab TV services appeared before a university audience to defend their war coverage. Charged with misleading viewers, Al-Jazeera's Faisal Al Qassem typically suggested that any misunderstandings were the fault of the audience. There were also claims that "Baghdad Bob" Al-Sahhaf was more accurate than were embedded U.S. reporters, and that Peter Arnett's firing was a case of censorship. On the other hand, Al Arabiya was accused of being a pro-Western tool. [Continued below]
I'm less interested in what a figure like Al Qassem actually said than in the staging of such a confrontation (it was sponsored by Sharjah's American University). This event, like the thunderous postwar editorials penned by some Arab liberal journalists, was actually about news narratives and the stories Arabs are telling themselves about their world. The more Pan-Arabists are forced to defend their versions against challenges from other Arabs, the more alternative views -- liberalism foremost among them -- are legitimized. [End]

Monday, May 05, 2003

Powell and Syria
A spot analysis of Colin Powell's visit to Syria and Lebanon seems in order. Officially, Powell came with a list of items for the Syrians that included putting an end to their support for Palestinian groups the Bush administration considers terrorist organizations, ending Hezbollah attacks against Israel in the disputed Shebaa Farms area of southern Lebanon, giving up members of the former Iraqi regime, and ending the development of weapons of mass destruction. Powell went further, saying the Syrians would be judged on their actions, not words. That was the official line.

Unofficially, things were different. Powell came to Syria to essentially tell Bashar Assad, "Look, I'm the best you have now. Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Otherwise, those cranks at the Pentagon will have a shot at you." What did Powell mean by having his back scratched? I suspect some relatively cosmetic action on the Palestinian groups that might include closing their Damascus offices, but not expelling their leaders. On Hizbullah, it might mean ensuring the party will cease its attacks against Israel, or make them rare indeed, while also beefing up Lebanese army troops in the border area.

On both counts, however, the essence of power relations would not change: Syria would still harbor Palestinian groups, and would still retain Hizbullah as a pressure point for the future. Things would only seem to change so that Powell could tell his administration colleagues he succeeded, allowing him to move forward on the Palestinian-Israeli "road map". A perception of success is important because Powell will need Bush's full support to force Israel to end its settlement activities and get the "road map" up and running.

Noticeably, Powell did not describe the Syrian presence in Lebanon as an "occupation" as he did last March. This was both an incentive to the Syrians and an effort at consistency, since the U.S. cannot ask Syria to both control Hizbullah and pull out of Lebanon. He did mention possible resort to economic sanctions against Syria for noncompliance with his conditions, through the Syria Accountability Act. However, Powell is not keen to see the Act activated (probably through votes in the Senate and House), as it would undermine his policy of engaging Arab states in a Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

More perniciously, Powell also knows that once the Act is activated, it will revive debate on the Syrian presence in Lebanon, since the legislation also aims to force a Syrian pullout from the country. Powell doesn't want to get bogged down in this since he considers it a diplomatic dead end. Powell, by engaging Syria, has momentarily knocked a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon off the Bush administration's agenda. But he also made clear that if Syria didn't play ball, he would not oppose the Act's resurrection in Congress.

Here is a useful, if ultimately unsatisfactory, effort (in the Chronicle of Higher Education) by Robert J. Lieber, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, to debunk the myth that the Iraq war was a conspiracy by a "small band of neoconservative (read, Jewish) defense intellectuals, led by the "mastermind," Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (according to Michael Lind, writing in the New Statesman), has taken advantage of 9/11 to put their ideas over on an ignorant, inexperienced, and "easily manipulated" president (Eric Alterman in The Nation), his "elderly figurehead" Defense Secretary (as Lind put it), and the "dutiful servant of power" who is our secretary of state (Edward Said, London Review of Books)."

The effort is useful because there has indeed been a lazy propensity to simply assume a neo-con conspiracy without actually getting bogged down in checking out the details possibly contradicting it; unsatisfactory, because (a) Lieber artificially pastes together different views of different people (as the above passage shows) in such a way that he attributes a unity of purpose when none might exist (why should Alterman be made to speak in the same voice as Said?); and (b) as in most debunking efforts, Lieber often tends to overstate his own thesis, to the extent that those aspects of the conspiracy theory which might be relevant, are instead lost in his general criticism.

Back in business. Readers might want to waste a couple of minutes with my weekly review of the Middle East press for Slate. This week it's mainly on Colin Powell's visit to Lebanon and Syria last weekend, though you'll also find a paragraph on possible new U.S. plans for Iraq, and another on Amram Mitzna's resignation from the leadership of Israel's Labor party.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Garner sticks it in
This from a New York Times story on Donald Rumsfeld's tour of Iraq on Wednesday:

Mr. Rumsfeld got an upbeat report, however, from Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant general, his handpicked choice to lead the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

Before his meeting, General Garner scolded reporters with Mr. Rumsfeld for dwelling on the shortcomings of the effort to restore civilian order and services to Iraq.

"Yeah, there are some demonstrations, but that's the first step in democracy," General Garner said. "You're allowed to demonstrate."

As reporters were leaving, he called them back to make one last point: "We ought to look in a mirror and get proud, and stick out our chests and suck in our bellies and say, `Damn, we're Americans!' "

Mr. Rumsfeld avoided such comments on his triumphal day.

BC will be off the air for three days as I'll be out of town. Should resume Monday to reflect on Colin Powell's trip Saturday to Syria and Lebanon. Reportedly, he intends to warn the Syrians and Lebanese to cease supporting Hizbullah and Damascus-based Palestinian groups opposed to a settlement with Israel. Some background to the trip can be found here.

My opinion piece in Saturday's Daily Star will be on the same topic. More also next week from Chuck Freund as the debate on Arab liberalism continues.

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