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.