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."

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Those interested in domestic Lebanese politics might want to look at this piece of mine on the current debate over how to subdivide the Mount Lebanon muhafaza (governorate) in the 2005 parliamentary elections.

The debate has been provoked largely by President Emile Lahoud and former Interior Minister Michel al-Murr, who are looking for ways (a) to ensure that Lahoud's presidential mandate, which ends next year, will be extended or renewed (through manipulation of the constitution); and (b) to water down the Christian protest vote in the Metn region, which gave them a spanking in a by-election last year for the seat of the late Albert Mukheiber.

What really happened on the Syrian border?
Thanks to Richard Sale for sending on this report he wrote for UPI on the border incident several weeks ago between U.S. and Syrian forces. It's not often that I'll post an entire story, but this is well worth it:

EXCLUSIVE: U.S. Syria raid killed 80
By RICHARD SALE, UPI Intelligence Correspondent

Depicted by the Pentagon as a mere border skirmish, the June 18 strike into Syria by U.S. military forces was, in fact, based on mistaken intelligence and penetrated more than 25 miles into that country, causing numerous Syrian casualties, several serving and former administration officials said.

Although diplomatic relations between the two sides have been frosty after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the two nations have close intelligence ties, which have become strained as a result, these sources said.

"I think this was a deliberate effort to disrupt cooperation between U.S. and Syrian intelligence agencies," an administration official said.

According to a report in The New York Times, administration officials said that attack, carried out by Task Force 20, a Special Operations force, was based on intelligence that a convoy of SUVs, heading for Syria, was linked to senior fugitive Iraqi leaders.

"The (intel) was that senior Iraqis, perhaps even (former Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein were getting out of the country," a State Department official told United Press International.

The ensuing raid "was conducted under the rules of hot pursuit," an administration official told UPI on condition his name not be used.

In the same Times report, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the attacks, saying it was based on "solid intelligence."

"We had good intelligence, and it indicated that there were people moving around during their curfew close to the border in a convoy of SUV's and our forces went in and stopped them," the Times quoted Rumsfeld as saying.

But one administration official described the intelligence as "totally false," and a former CIA official labeled it "flimsy" and another former U.S. intelligence official called it "almost non-existent."

One former senior CIA official with access to current intelligence information said he believed the source of the intelligence was Israel, which for months has said either Saddam or weapons of mass destruction were being smuggled into Syria.

"The Izzies (Israelis) have been pitching this to anyone who would listen," the former CIA official said. Chief Israeli Embassy spokesman, Mark Regev, said only: "I simply don't ever discuss such matters."

But Anthony Cordesman, national security expert that the Center For Strategic And International Studies, defended the intelligence and the attack it triggered: "You have to act quickly on rumors in that situation. You have zero time."

He also pointed out that U.S. means of intelligence-collection in the area suffers from "extremely serious limitations."

For one thing, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones "can produce only a limited coverage of patterns" while even signals intelligence "can be fragmentary and unreliable," he said.

And the question of Israeli intelligence? "Do we tend to over-rely on the Israelis? Probably, but you have to remember too that the CIA is permanently pissed by Israel and likes to discredit it," he said.

A former very senior CIA official told UPI: "Too often the Israeli intelligence product is hard to distinguish from Israel political messages." The Times report said Task Force 20, supported by helicopters and AC-130 gunships, struck the convoy and a housing compound "in a village not far from the Syria border." Task Force 20 captured 20 Iraqis, all of whom were later released, the Times and other news reports said.

But one senior administration official told UPI the attack crossed "25 miles or more" into Syria, and the Pentagon had initial reports of 80 Syrians "who were KIA (killed in action)."

Cordesman said he believed this to be possible because "the fighting between our forces and the Syrians was extremely intense."

But instead of capturing any high-value Iraqi targets, the Task Force destroyed "a gas smuggling ring," a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. This official labeled the attack "a colossal blunder." His view was supported by a half a dozen administration officials interviewed by UPI.

The former senior U.S. intelligence official said the Task Force had destroyed SUVs "on both sides of the border" that had been fitted out as mini-gas tankers. The Task Force blew up "a great number of these vehicles," causing huge explosions and fireballs when they were hit, he said. "The explosions could account for the casualties," he said.

A spokesman from U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, said: "We are unable to comment on any cross-border raids, especially if they involved Special Forces."

Serving and former U.S. intelligence officials attributed a political motive to the attacks, alleging they were designed to disrupt cooperation between the CIA and Syrian intelligence.

"Syria has given us invaluable help on hunting down members of al-Qaida, and they were instrumental in ex-filtrating some major Iraqi fugitives back to Baghdad," one former senior CIA official said. "That is not to everyone's liking."

In early May, two top Iraqi biological scientists who had been hiding in safe havens in Syria were ex-filtrated back to Iraq where they were captured by U.S. military forces, former CIA officials said.

A U.S. intelligence official told UPI: "It was a gift to Secretary of State Colin Powell" and also an effort by Damascus to compensate for its apparent lack of cooperation with the United States in closing the Damascus offices of Palestinian militant groups, which are on Washington's list of terrorist organizations.

But CIA-Syria cooperation was far more extensive, former and serving U.S. intelligence officials said.

According to these sources, Syria and the CIA have a joint exploitation center based in Aleppo, plus Syria turned over to the agency all its intelligence networks in Germany as well as all of Syria's cover companies there. As a result, the agency learned that Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta once worked in Germany for a Syrian cover company, these sources said.

"Syria was not the only source, but they were very helpful in this matter," a former senior CIA official said.

The CIA was also grateful to Damascus for giving early warning of a planned al-Qaida attack on U.S. installations in Bahrain, using an explosives-laden glider, which would be invisible to radar, according to these sources. "The Syrians have been an incredible help in sharing intelligence," one serving U.S. intelligence officer said.

Senior Pentagon leaders, who administration officials describe as being very close to Israel, have been unhappy with the increasingly close CIA-Syria ties and used the June 18 attack to disrupt the CIA-Syrian intelligence relationship.

"I think that certain Pentagon officials want to see (Syrian president) Bashar Assad deposed and Syria sign a peace treaty with Israel," said former senior DIA official Pat Lang.

But other U.S. officials disagreed.

"Syria is playing a double-game," said one administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Hamas terrorists are returning to Damascus, a lot of towns in East Syria are nothing but transit points for Iraqi officials who are free to go in and out. I wouldn't put much trust in Syria." But a serving U.S. intelligence official disagreed.

"Syria is obviously making an effort. It has gotten the message of our military victory and our aim of democratizing the region." He added: "Syria clearly realizes that it has a great deal to gain by being a friend of America and everything to lose if it turns away from friendship."

As of now, the Pentagon had ignored State Department requests for additional details on the June 18 strike, administration officials said. Four days of phone calls to the Office of the Secretary of Defense brought no comment from any Pentagon official.

Friday, July 18, 2003

I privatize you
The New York Times has this interesting story on the Pentagon's consideration of a plan to establish a private force which would be made responsible for guarding pipelines, government buildings and hundreds of other Iraqi sites. Reportedly, a U.S. company, Kroll Inc., would be responsible for setting up the force.

The rationale is twofold: that the members of the force would be former soldiers, who could therefore be provided with employment; and that the force’s Iraqi makeup "could help ease tensions created by the atmosphere of foreign military occupation."

As a Kroll Europe executive put it: "Our sense is that the military has too much on their plate right now, and that these are issues that need to be addressed, and the way to do that is through the private sector."

I'm not one to oppose privatization, and there are aspects of the plan that are quite worthwhile. However, a few things come to mind: first, that the plan is a way to avoid too much interaction between American forces and Iraqis; second, that it's the Pentagon's way of avoiding sending new troops to Iraq, while also allowing disgruntled soldiers already there to be redeployed home; and third, that the Bush administration is looking for ways to avoid rising casualties.

So what's wrong? A few things, most importantly that the decision is based largely on a negative reading of what the U.S. should be doing in Iraq. The catchword is "avoidance." Rather than engage the Iraqis, the Pentagon is disengaging, which is at least partly an admission of failure of America's ability to win Iraqi hearts and minds. Some might argue that it's not up to soldiers to do that, anyway. If so, then why hasn't the occupation administration worked on setting up more effective liaisons with Iraqi citizens? Why is it that an invisible wall continues to divide the coalition and the Iraqi people?

Unlike Niall Ferguson, I don't think the U.S. should embrace an imperial destiny. However, at this point the question is moot: the Americans are in Iraq, and the only way to make the situation there better is to show the Iraqis that they have made a long-term national (not private sector) commitment to Iraqi stability, democracy and prosperity--something that has been sorely lacking since the war ended.

A privatized force really doesn't do that. It can solve some problems, but unless the Americans rebuild a non-Baathist army and use it as an instrument to help bring about national integration, there seems little point asking Americans to foot the bill--as they will be doing for this supposedly private force.

I wrote this article on the inadequacy of the left's critique of the Iraq war for the Daily Star. Tim Cavanaugh was kind enough to pick it up for the Reason website, provoking what I see was a rather spirited exchange.

One of the things that made it spirited was a glaring error, namely my reference to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier as "novels." Under the circumstances, a reader might assume I was mentioning two books I had never read. I can confirm, wiping egg off my face, that I read Homage once and Wigan Pier twice.

Will that change anything? We're invariably viewed by the light of our latest erratum.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

In tomorrow's (Thursday) Daily Star I look back on Christopher Hitchens' shift from left to right on Afghanistan and Iraq, and determine that all this time he has, in fact, remained a radical--in stark contrast to his liberal critics who somehow think that the overthrow of a tyranny by the U.S. is in and of itself tyrannical.

One of my points is to show the bankruptcy of the left's critique of the Iraq war, and I cite this article by one Ammiel Alcalay in Al-Ahram Weekly. I will link my comment tomorrow, but in the meantime read Alcalay's genuinely pathetic, confusing, contradictory and, let's not beat around the bush, mediocre article. Incidentally, he teaches in New York, where, I'm sure, he imagines himself a dissident.

Back with some links
To say I've been lax updating this blog would be roughly equivalent to saying that a corpse is lax with respect to hygene. Indeed, this entire blog may soon metamorphose into a running commentary on my laxity, with apologies thrown out between empty postings.

Truth be told, the bulk of my efforts are currently directed at editing the Daily Star's op-ed page, with the remainder devoted to cranking out articles owed to patient people several generations ago. And all this in a hot summer climate that is as conducive to reflecting about politics as would be a Tyson half-nelson.

In that case, perhaps I can at least link readers to some of the Star's commentaries that strike me as off the beaten track, though I'm assuredly playing no favorites:

Chuck Freund has written a fine piece on Leon Uris's death and how his book Exodus shaped perceptions of Israel for a long time. Chibli Mallat was in Germany last week for a Bertelsmann conference and brings back this comment on a George Weidenfeld proposal. Turkey specialist Philip Robins offers this view of four contending Turkish approaches to the US. And Nermeen al-Mufti offers this interesting look at Iraq's Turkmens, though she didn't do this for us, but for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting

Monday, July 07, 2003

Thanks to Nick Gillespie for this link to a story from the Cincinnati Inquirer on the plan to build a $100m amusement park in Lebanon.

This passage is noteworthy:

"There is a Wild West section - even though Speigel recommended against it.

"You don't want to Americanize your theme park, he told the investors, with culture and scenes from an American history that might not appeal to a broad cross-section of Middle East customers.

"No, no, they told me. 'We know the Wild West. We watched Maverick on TV, Bonanza.' They said we want the Old West area," Speigel said."

Not sure what the cosmic significance of that is, but for a clue, check out Chuck Freund's commentary on Arab music videos in Lebanon's Daily Star, and what it says about the prospects for character reinvention, or "individuation", in the Middle East.
Here is a link to an article of mine published earlier this week in the Daily Star, on the issuing of honorary doctorates to a number of Arab celebrities, including Edward Said, Amin Maalouf, Helen Thomas, Carlos Ghosn, and Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi.

I mention only Said and Maalouf in the piece, arguing that both men in different ways (through their lives, but in Maalouf's case expressed as well through his novel The Rock of Tanios) embody the hopelessness of the intellectual in the Middle East: Said because his rants never propose a solution; Maalouf because he had to exile himself from a Lebanon descending into civil war to be able to flourish, and then was lucid enough to express this in a novel.

In this context I must point readers to Fares Sassine's brilliant review of The Rock of Tanios in the Fall 1994 issue of the Beirut Review, which I edited. I can provide no link, but the Review is available at some U.S. university libraries, or from the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

It's one of those rare things: a review that gives value to the book being examined, and that in many respects is better than it.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Noah's lark
Thanks to my friend Tony Badran, I can report that the New York Times weekly book section is highlighting Noah Feldman, the ghostwriter of Iraq's future constitution, in particular his book After Jihad. Jonathan D. Tepperman has written what seems a lucid review of the book (which, admittedly, I haven't read), or at least of the issues raised.

According to Tepperman, Feldman's point is to argue that Islam and democracy are not incompatible, but then he adds: "Where [Feldman] parts company with the right, however, is in his unflinching insistence that democracy in the Arab world should be Islamic in character (although he hedges on just what that will mean)."

I can't judge a book I haven't read, but from a reading of the excerpt provided by the Times, two things come to mind: first, that Feldman has taken a conscious decision to see the glass a quarter full rather than three-quarters empty: he's right that Islam and democracy are not incompatible in theory, but the particular social contexts existing in the Middle East makes it far more likely that Islamist governments that are the by-products of decades of frustration and, often, repression will not be democratic and will not reflect the fact that, as Feldman writes, "Islam has a rich if imperfect tradition of tolerating intra-Islamic diversity of opinion on matters of religion."

Nor do Islamist movements that consider themselves morally in the right and sanctioned by God have any qualms about crushing perceived enemies.

Secondly, Feldman seems to have not a thing to say (again in the very slight window provided by the Times) about non-Muslim minorities in Arab countries. In a key passage he writes:

"If there is to be any way out of the impasse, it will have to come from imagining some kind of Islamic democracy. A democracy of Muslims with Islamic content need not be Islamist democracy, governed exclusively by Islamic law. It is far more likely to draw on Islam's values and ideals while simultaneously incorporating democratic principles, legal protections, and institutions. But even Islamist democracy, if it can be imagined, might have some advantages over autocracy."

But what about non-Muslims? Are they to be shoehorned into this rather convenient intellectual construct, no matter how progressive Feldman makes it sound? The Christian will legitimately ask: "Why should I pay the price for an Islamic democracy? Because Feldman thinks I will be respected as a second-class citizen; as a dhimmi?"

Maybe Feldman provides an answer later on in his book, but this formulation doesn't leave him much room to do so.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Silvio tongued
Silvio Berlusconi has made a grand entry as Italy takes over the six-month presidency of the EU, saying this to a German member of the European Parliament who accused him of having conflicts of interests between his political role and media interests:

"Mr Schulz, I know there is in Italy a man producing a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I would like to suggest you for the role of Kapo. You'd be perfect,'' Berlusconi exclaimed to jeers in the chamber."

Guess that means Berlusconi's Lega Nord ally, Umberto Bossi, won't be doing a screen test for the role as expected.

FYI -- Blogger has updated many of its blog sites, and one of the ensuing advantages is that BC permalinks now function. One of the perennial problems had been that I had no way to link readers with specific entries. Hopefully this will take us out of the Ice Age, where the blog had been languishing.
Shame, shame, shame. I've been lax in my postings, largely because I have taken on editorial chores at the Daily Star, where I am settling in as op-ed editor, a situation still to be finalized.

More soon, I promise. Meanwhile, why not look at this piece from the Reason website on literary mythmaking in the Middle East by Chuck Freund.