Friday, August 22, 2003

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 21, 2003

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

Sunday, August 17, 2003

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

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

Saturday, August 09, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 08, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 03, 2003

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 02, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 01, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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