Wednesday, December 31, 2003

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

A year of living dangerously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 29, 2003

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

Sunday, December 28, 2003

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

He writes:

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

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

Shammas also writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 25, 2003

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

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

So, here it is:

Saddam, alas, was no Hitler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sez in one passage:

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

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

But some think Wolfowitz is out of his league:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 14, 2003

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

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

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

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