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Archives for Old World Disorder

Iraq’s Murky Battle for Basra


DUBAI — Has Moqtada al-Sadr blinked? Or has Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Teasing out what’s going on behind yesterday’s cease-fire is like reading tea leaves in a hurricane. The pieces move very quickly.

But it looks like this yet another negotiated settlement that al-Sadr excels at. The questions now are why did this happen, why did it stop and what does it mean for Iraq’s future?

Some background: On Sunday, the so-called “firebrand” cleric — who is currently in Iran — ordered his Mahdi Army fighters off the streets in Basra and Baghdad and called on Maliki to stop raids against his followers. He also called for the release of his men from Iraqi prisons and an amnesty.

Maliki welcomed this offer, in no small part because the Mahdi Army was poised to trounce government forces in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and heart of the country’s economy. (Ninety percent or so of Iraq’s revenues derive from the oil pumped through pipelines running through Basra.)

To get the stand-down, two of Maliki’s men, Ali al-Adeeb, a member of Maliki’s Da’wa Party, and Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization in Iraq, traveled to Qom to broker the cease-fire with al-Sadr — along with the help of the head of Iran’s Qods Force. So much for countering Iranian influence in Iraq.

With this truce offer, al-Sadr has short-circuited President George W. Bush’s fantasized-about final showdown with an old nemesis. But it’s not like it wasn’t predictable. Al-Sadr is very, very good at getting into scraps with the powers-that-be and then talking out an inconclusive end to the fighting that leaves nothing resolved. He did it in 2004 — twice! — and in 2006. Each time, the Americans and their Iraqi allies proclaim victory only to have to beat up on the Mahdi Army again some time later. And each time al-Sadr comes out looking better to his supporters and wavering Shi’ites who are looking for alternatives to the ISCI.

This time, he appears strong and statesmanlike. Maliki, by way of contrast, looks weak. After a week of chest-pounding about no negotiations and ultimatums, Maliki has to go to al-Sadr begging for peace. And what does he get back? Demands from al-Sadr for amnesty and a release of prisoners. Plus, no promises to disarm. As Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly wrote, “This sounds like it’s an offer to Maliki to declare victory and then leave town. Or else.”

The situation in Iraq right now is fluid and chaotic but the violence of the past week clarified one thing: Iraq’s security may be getting better, but it’s a tissue-thin veneer of protection against calamity. As this week’s demonstrated, one word from al-Sadr and Iraq can go up in flames.

American military commanders have known this for a while, although they rarely voice it in public. Perhaps even Bush knows it (although this is doubtful given his statements in the past few days.) He’s called this a “defining moment” for Iraq and claims the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the government forces — allied with the Mahdi Army’s rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — as a sign of strength for Maliki’s toddling government.


Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 4:00 AM | Permalink

Death in Damascus Raises Questions


At approximately 11 p.m. on the night of Feb. 12, the most wanted terrorist in the world, after Osama bin Laden, was blown up by a car bomb in Damascus.

Imad Mugniyah, head of Hezbollah’s Special Operations Command, thought he was safe in the Syrian capital, and with good reason. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, working closely with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, considered Mugniyah a valuable asset. He allegedly reported directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini in Tehran, putting him on the same level as Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. Protecting him was a high priority.

But his enemies were legion.

The most wanted terrorist after bin Laden – the FBI put him on its most wanted list and slapped a $25 million bounty on his head – Mughniyah was fingered for master-minding the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Maine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 servicemen, as well as numerous kidnappings of Westerners in the 1980s in the Lebanese civil war, including Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson. He may have been in contact with al Qaeda operatives in the 1990s, and was accused of being behind the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

Now the question arises: Who killed Imad Mughniyah?

The easy answer – and the one that most people have settled on – is that the Israelis did. Hezbollah’s television station, al Manar, outright accused the Jewish state. “The martyr was killed at the hands of the Israeli Zionists,” the group said via a statement read on air.

It would make sense. Car bombs are not attacks of opportunity; they require advanced knowledge of the subject’s locations and travel patterns, and it needs operatives on the ground to trigger the bomb. This attack has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated intelligence hit.

The explosion left a charred crater approximately 700 yards east of the Cham City Center in the Kafer Soseh area of Damascus. That’s right next to an Iranian school and a Syrian intelligence office, and Mughniyah was apparently meeting Hamas and Syrian intelligence. Whoever killed him knew where he was and who he was meeting. That means Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, or possibly the CIA, has penetrated Hamas, Syrian intelligence agencies, Hezbollah or possibly all of them.

If it was the CIA, this assassination would represent a delicious bit of revenge for the agency. The CIA has been gunning for Mughniyah since the 1980s. In addition to the Marine barracks bombing, Mughniyah is blamed for the attack on the U.S. embassy that same year that left 63 people dead – including eight senior CIA agents. He was also suspected of kidnapping and torturing to death Beirut’s CIA station chief William Buckley in 1984.

The method of his passing is significant, too. A car bomb makes a statement. It’s a terror tactic, frankly, and the goal is to show the Syrian regime as weak and incapable of providing security for its “guests.” If the CIA planted a car bomb, that’s a giant “screw you” to the Syrians, who are widely suspected of being involved a similar style assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri who was killed three years ago on Feb. 14. The timing of the Mughniyah’s car bomb death — just two days before the Hariri anniversary — is unlikely to be coincidental.

Another possibility is that Syria ratted Mughniyah out to CIA or Mossad, perhaps as part of a deal Syria offered up Mughniyah in exchange for flexibility in Lebanon or the Golan. While this idea is circulating in Lebanon’s political circles, along with the suggestion that the Syrians did the deed themselves, it strikes me as unlikely. Syria usually doesn’t blow up its gifts to the West. They commit suicide by putting several bullets in their heads, as in the case of Abu Nidal in Baghdad in 2002. – a “suicide” widely seen as an attempt by Saddam Hussein to turn over a wanted terrorist as a show of good faith to the West.

A third possibility is that Mughniyah isn’t really dead at all, and Hezbollah – which announced his death to the world – is making an already invisible man disappear even more. But why? What could they have planned? In recent weeks, there have been rumors of a new campaign of kidnappings against Westerners in Beirut to force concessions from the U.S.-backed government of Fuad Siniora, with whom Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon have been locked in a stalemate for more than year.

There’s no doubt Mughniyah’s death raises a lot of questions, quite apart from who did it. Another one is why did Hezbollah proclaim his death as a martyr and hold a massive demonstration for him in southern Beirut today — the same day that Hariri’s supporters packed the city’s downtown to commemorate his death? After the Israeli pullout in 2000, Hezbollah claimed to be changing its ways, that it was no longer the terror group of the 1980s, that it was a legitimate political group. To tie itself again so tightly to a wanted terrorist with American blood on his hands is at once a cry of defiance and a worrying sign that more extreme Iranian influences are again on the upswing within the organization.

No matter who killed him or what happens next, one of Iran’s and Syria’s main chess pieces was just taken off the table. There are high-fives in Langley and Jerusalem these days.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 3:53 PM | Permalink

The Razor’s Edge Can Still Cut


The most interesting thing about Lebanon these days – given the continuing political upheaval in the region – is what hasn’t happened. And for many Lebanese, the absence of obvious headline-grabbing activity is the calm before a very bad storm.

The country hasn’t gone up in flames, as so many have tiresomely predicted every few days. I don’t care whether it’s the Christian cab driver who is convinced his Shi’ite neighbors will slit his throat the moment things get a little twitchier or the politicians who toss out incendiary accusations against entire sectarian groups, your average Lebanese is convinced that no Lebanese is to be trusted. As I said, in a land of many faiths, the people have no faith in each other.

But what else hasn’t happened? Well, there’s still no presidential candidate agreed upon. President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian stooge, is due to step down later this month but since Hezbollah and its allies walked out of the current government last year, he says he won’t turn over power to an “unconstitutional” cabinet. Since there are no Shi’ites in the current government, and the Lebanese constitution requires representation of all the various sects, he says the government is illegitimate. That Hezbollah and its allies voluntarily removed themselves from the system, in the collective mind of the pro-Syrian faction, is considered beside the point.

Lahoud’s blowing smoke. Because when his term is up near the end of November, that’s it. The Constitution is clear — assuming you read Arabic — so if the president’s term expires without a new president, the pro-Western majority bloc gets to call an extraordinary session of parliament and elect their guy with a simple 50 percent plus one vote. The more pressing problem is that legalities don’t play well in Lebanon. This is a delicately balanced country that operates on consensus, and neither the pro-Syrian bloc, led by Hezbollah, nor the pro-Western government, led by Fuad Siniora, can agree on a consensus candidate. The two sides are far, far apart on fundamental issues: the status of Lebanon’s relationship with Syria, its former occupier, and the status of Hezbollah’s weapons and its current state-within-a-state structure. The fear is that if the pro-Western bloc elects its own majority president, Hezbollah and its allies will form their own shadow government or possibly stage a coup.

The Army, which has so far shown remarkable unity and has been containing Lebanon’s centrifugal forces, is making plans to maintain security and order should there be a presidential vacuum. In my more paranoid moments this sure sounds like planning for a coup to me and it doesn’t reassure anyone when Michel Suleiman, chief of the Army, is talked up by Hezbollah as a “transitional president” for a military government. It also doesn’t help that Suleiman has been making pro-Syrian statements lately and that up to half the army is Shi’ite. No wonder many Sunnis and half the Christians in the nation are worried about their primary loyalty: Is it to the state or to Hezbollah, the separatist Shi’ite militia?

And so there are rumors and stories of the various factions arming up in preparation should the presidential decision go badly.

“The old weapons have been taken out, dusted and oiled up, and new weapons have been bought in alarming quantities,” said Omar Nashabe, who writes on security issues for the opposition Al-Akhbar. “They are ready to burn the country again.”

Even private citizens are getting in on the action. In downtown Beirut this week, two armed drivers argued over the right of way on one of Beirut’s many narrow streets. The argument ended with one of them shot dead.

Hezbollah is preparing for something. Last weekend, the group staged a massive military exercise on both sides of the Litani River, south of which the group is not supposed to wander while armed. So, the fighters didn’t carry weapons when they cross the river. Both Israeli military observers and members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) watched the exercise, which was personally overseen by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Hezbollah said the maneuvers were in response to similar exercises by the Israelis, who flew jets over Lebanon’s southern airspace in continued violation of UNSCR 1701, which ended last year’s war. “I hope that both friend and foe will realize that the resistance is totally ready to confront all kinds of Israeli threats,” Nasrallah said.

And all kinds of domestic threats as well. The demonstration of Hezbollah’s organization and manpower wasn’t lost on the pro-Western government faction in Beirut. Sure, Siniora dismissed it as a simulation on paper, but Hezbollah’s second-in-command warned of “measures” the group would take should a pro-Western president be chosen. And there are reports that Hezbollah is stronger than ever. Last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a report that said Israel worries that Hezbollah has rearmed with new long-range rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv, that the group has tripled the number of C-802 shore-based anti-ship missiles and established an air-defense unit armed with surface-to-air missiles. (I’ve highlighted the good stuff, on page 6.)

So to say people are nervous is an understatement. Newspaper columnists have even taken to saying that failure to elect a president in Lebanon — seeing as its tied in with geopolitics involving Syria, Iran, Israel and the United States — could spark a war stretching from Beirut to Tehran. Actually, the Cassandra columnist forgot Afghanistan, so such a war would stretch from Beirut to Kabul.

Will that happen? Hard to say. Lebanon’s poor fate is to be the punching bag for the bullies and battleground for the region’s various rivalries. And it’s been that way for centuries.

I guess a lot has happened after all — but nothing has changed.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 1:09 AM | Permalink

Piracy 2.0: Deadly and Dangerous


With our Hollywood images of swashbuckling heroes and fairytale villians the idea of taking pirate – pirates? – seriously sounds like a bit of a joke. But this ancient scourge is playing a role in the 21st Century global war on terror in an important part of the world: off the east coast of Africa, near Somalia to be exact.

These aren’t lovable ruffians of the high seas. Clan warriors from Somalia, they are bloodthirsty criminals in small motorboats that like to either kill or capture the crews of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) vessels trying to bring aid relief to Somalis scarred by war.

Over the course of 2007, there have been at least 26 actual and attempted pirate attacks on large vessels in international waters of the east coast of Africa, up from eight in 2006. The real number is undoubtedly much higher. Pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increase off the coast of Somalia through which more than half of the world’s crude oil and 95 percent of the cargo trade between Asia and Europe crosses.

“This is a very serious security problem on the African coast,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. “These are not pirates who will remind you of Johnny Depp. These are quite different kinds of pirates.”

In February, the MV Rozen, a U.N.-chartered cargo ship was hijacked, drawing the attention of American warships attached to Combined Task Force-150, the maritime adjunct to Operation Enduring Freedom which the United States launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Other incidents are even more serious. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Criminal Crime Services Web site, On Oct. 28, a Japanese chemical tanker called the Golden Nori and possibly carrying highly flammable benzine put out an “undesignated distress” signal as it was sailing in the Gulf of Aden. It went silent soon after, and Coalition ships in the area guessed it had been hijacked and taken into Somali territorial waters.

Now, normally, ships attached to the CTF-150 aren’t allowed to enter the Somali waters because there’s no U.N. mandate or request from the government of Somlia to enter. After all, there’s not really a Somali government. But that didn’t stop the guided missile destroyer, the USS Porter from chasing a hijacked ship into Somali waters and even opening fire on skiffs tied up to the Golden Nori. As I write, the Porter and the pirates are in a standoff, with the Somalis demanding the Navy ship move off while the Navy is determined to remove the pirates from the ship.

But what does all this have to do with the war on terror? Plenty.

CTF-150 was established in the months after 9/11 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

I was able to accompany some of the men and women of the FGS Bremen, detailed to CTF-150, last May as it patrolled in the Gulf of Aden near Djibouti, right where the tip of Arabia reaches to meet the Horn of Africa. To the south of us, for miles, the Somali coastline stretched. It is a dangerous stretch of land and water infested with pirates, traversed by jihadis and trafficked by smugglers. No ship is immune.

The Bremen was part of the 10-ship task force from 10 nations, which has responsibility for a 2.4-million square-mile patch of ocean that covers the Arabian Sea, the northern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden, an area about the size of the continental United States. Around the 7,480-mile-long rim of the area of operations lie 14 nations ranging from the friendly Bahrain and Qatar to the chronically disintegrating Somalia — a basket case of a country that is much of CTF-150’s raison d’être.

The CTF-150’s area of operation is a maritime crossroads – a kind of floating Dodge City – where massive amounts of legitimate trade intersects with narcotics traffic headed to Europe from Pakistan to Yemen and Kenya. Weapons are smuggled from Yemen to Somalia, fueling the violence there. Even more worrisome is the movement and trafficking of people from Sudan and Eritrea into Saudi Arabia, refugees and economic migrants from Somalia to Yemen and “people of particular interest” moving from Yemen to Somalia.

In many ways, this battle is a return to the original mission of the U.S. Navy. The war on the Barbary pirates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the first war on terror the United States ever fought, and was also the first protracted overseas war fought to protect the personal and commercial interests of Americans abroad. As today, the pirates were ruthless and unconventional enemies, much like al Qaeda. And there is growing evidence al Qaeda is learning from, and influencing, today’s pirates, aiming to interfere as much as possible with the flow of crude oil traffic.

Oil and chemical tankers like the Mori are increasingly targeted, both for their cargo and for the possibility the ship itself can be turned into a floating bomb. Offshore oil terminals like those dotting the Persian Gulf are vulnerable to hijacked supertankers set on collision courses. And don’t forget the USS Cole – a picture of which hangs in the gangway of the Bremen – which was attacked by suicide bombers on an explosive laden speedboat. Seventeen crew members died.

While on the Bremen, some of its sailors told me they didn’t feel they were at war. They’re wrong. The maritime battlefield affects everyone who buys things or puts gas in their car, and Europe is especially vulnerable to trade interruptions. Piracy has always been with us, but now it’s part of a larger struggle – one that is moving off the sands of the Middle East and into the azure waters of the world’s oceans.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:06 AM | Permalink

Turkey’s Game of Chicken


So. The Turks voted on Wednesday to invade northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) militants. What now? Probably nothing more than more border skirmishes, a bit of diplomatic posturing and more confusion – as if there could be more – over Iraq.

But it would be unwise to dismiss the Turks’ saber-rattling as nothing more than a school-yard test of nerves. This is a very serious problem for the U.S. since 70 percent of all American air cargo bound for Iraq passes through Turkey, mainly through the Incirlik Air Base, a crucial logistical hub for U.S. forces.

And the Turks clearly know who their friends are. Or at least they’re saying they do. Ankara has said that just because Wednesday’s vote in parliament authorizes cross-border incursions, they’re not imminent. All the big players involved – Iraq, Turkey and the United States went to great pains to play down an immediate invasion. “I sincerely wish that this motion will never be applied,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Passage of this motion does not mean an immediate incursion will follow, but we will act at the right time and under the right conditions. This is about self-defense.”

Still, there’s little doubt that Turkey is royally pissed off and resentful of the United States and have decided to warn the Americans with what they see as a legitimate security measure to protect their borders. More than two dozen Turkish soldiers have been killed by PKK rebels in the last two weeks. “Those who criticize us in regards with the motion, should explain what they’re looking for in Afghanistan,” said Mehmet Ali Sahin, the Turkish justice minister. “Turkey applies the same international law that granted the right and authority to those who entered in Afghanistan in connection with some organizations with which they had linked the attacks on twin towers. Therefore, nobody has the right to say anything.”

Well, Iraq’s Kurds won’t take any movements against them lying down. They have no fond memories of the previous 24 incursions from Turkey over the past 23 years, but this one is different. For one, the Americans are in Iraq now, and the Kurds have an economic success story they – and to some extent, the Americans – want to protect. Yesterday, Kurds in Irbil, in northern Iraq marched by the thousands to protest the Turkish vote. Some threatened “resistance” should there be any cross-border funny business on the part of NATO’s second largest military.

But what would any military action on Turkey’s part look like? Are we looking at a major invasion? Probably not. Here’s why: northern Iraq is very inhospitable terrain. (I know; I’ve walked it.) It’s a maze of mountain passes and gullies, of treacherous peaks and loads of spots for ambushes. It is prime PKK territory. Also, winter is coming on, making a tough area even tougher. Many of the camps with the main body of PKK leadership and hardened fighters are in the Qandil Mountains, among the most rugged in the Middle East and on the Iranian border. Getting there is going to be a major challenge for the Turks. These raids would likely accomplish little by way of military objectives.

But faced with the difficulties of conducting effective precision strikes, the Turks will likely do what all militaries do when confronted with a wily foe: overreact with disproportionate force. That means the establishment of a buffer zone, manned by thousands of Turkish troops. And what happens when you put a foreign invading force on top of a resentful population in Iraq? Ask the Americans.

Of course, the Turks realize all this. This is their backyard after all. So it looks like the real game is not cowboys and indians, but the school-yard test of nerves called chicken.

What Turkey is really attempting to do is to force the U.S., Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to act against the PKK to pre-empt any action by Turkey. The Turks figure that the KRG and its American backers will choose to crack down on Kurdish rebels if they’re faced with the prospect of a Turkish invasion and the collapse of the Kurdish economic miracle in the north – much of which relies on trade with Turkey and Iran. It would be the lesser of two evils.

But if the U.S. and its allies don’t or can’t tackle the PKK, Turkey will be forced to act. Right now, there seems to be no great thirst for incursions that almost inevitably would lead to a larger and more permanent ground force and the Kurdish insurgency that almost certainly would follow.

Chicken is a dangerous game. The hardest part is knowing when to blink. Do Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds know the rules?

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 11:43 PM | Permalink

War Without End, Amen


Last week I talked about the alternate ways of dealing with Iran in the Middle East, one that didn’t involve violent confrontation. The idea was to bow to reality and negotiate with Iran, smoothing the lines of friction by bowing to some of its demands, while getting some changes in behavior out of the regime in Tehran.
But that’s not what’s happening. The U.S. and the West are backing Iran into a corner, forcing it to push back. This makes it almost inevitable that Iran would foment chaos and instability in the region while surging toward nuclear arms as a means of deterrence.
If this confrontation continues, there are two possibilities, neither of which are good for the U.S. Let’s take a look at them.
One possibility is a large-scale withdrawal by the United States from Iraq, although that would leave Iran as the dominant military power in the Gulf. It has the largest military in the region (even if it’s poorly equipped) and its Revolutionary Guards Corps is capable and trained in asymmetric warfare. It has reach, a deep bench and good weapons. (Exhibit A: Last year’s war between Hezbollah and Israel.) So what are we looking at?
First, southern Iraq and its oil fields will likely become an Iranian vassal state in all but name. While Iraqi Shi’ites have been patriotic in the past — large numbers of them died in the battle for the Fao Peninsula in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War — Iran has tentacles in every major Shi’ite party in Iraq. Even Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which exhibits a form of Iraqi/Arab Shi’ite nationalism, is not immune. His militia has been splintering for months now, and there are credible reports that rogue elements under the influence of the IRGC are operating in Iraq.
And al-Sadr has an uneasy alliance with Iran. He’s perfectly happy to take their money and weapons, but by no means is he a lapdog. That means he’s in danger. Should Iran make a solid play for southern Iraq — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — al-Sadr could end up dead, with the blame falling on retreating Americans. That will drive Shi’ites loyal to him bonkers, so look for harassment attacks on the withdrawing U.S. forces to escalate to a full-on rout and scramble for the relative haven of Kuwait. Other Tehran-backed militias would quickly take care of their rivals in southern Iraq and it’s likely that after a short, sharp civil war within a civil war, those parties would emerge triumphant in Baghdad and in the south. The Kurds will be threatened in the north by both Turkey and Iran — who already seem to have a de facto alliance against the upstart Kurds — leaving the Sunnis to fend for themselves against foreign *jihadi* elements in Anbar and other majority Sunni provinces. This effective partition won’t take long.
That positions Iran in a dominate position in the Gulf and should it acquire nuclear weapons, other countries will have to follow suit. Saudi Arabia will nuke up, as would Egypt. Syria would benefit from Iranian nuclear technology or simply be given bombs. Israel would be pressed on all sides and would likely drop all pretense and declare itself a nuclear state. The Middle East — and much of the world’s oil supply — would be hostage to one of the most unstable balances of terror the world has ever known. It wouldn’t take much to spark off a regional, nuclear war. Oil prices will rise and plateau at God-knows-what because of the constant, hair-trigger tension and a world-wide recessions or even depression might ensue as prices rise because of cascading costs in the distribution chains. Food would cost more, business travel would drop, jobs would be lost, public transportation would become more expensive, etc., etc. The era of cheap oil and the lifestyle it affords would be over.
Meanwhile, as oil prices rise, the very Middle Eastern countries staring eyeball to eyeball would reap the benefits and be able to buy more modern weapons. It would be an oily, vicious cycle.
That’s one scenario but, unfortunately, it’s the less likely of the two. It’s predicated on the idea that Iran will be left to do as it pleases in Iraq and no one will interfere. But as has been shown, the U.S. is not going to just up and leave Iraq; It will have 35,000 to 50,000 troops there for the foreseeable future even with a drawdown, as well as its considerable over-the-horizon assets (ships and jets) in the region. This means that the U.S. continues to plan for for a possible military confrontation with Iran. And that means Iran intends to build a bomb.
They can’t not try to build a bomb now thanks to the breakdown in talks over Iraq. There’s some dissension within foreign policy circles whether Iran wants an actual, working bomb or merely the capacity to build one quickly, but neither is the least bit palatable to Israel, the surrounding Arab states, the United States or anyone in the Western world, really.
What might a war with Iran look like? Initial strikes would come from the Gulf in the form of a barrage of cruise missiles and fighter jets from the carrier groups there and the surrounding air bases. The Bushehr nuclear plant is certainly on the hit list, as is the Natanz uranium enrichment center. Struck, too, will be the heavy water plant and radioisotope facility in Arak; the Ardekan Nuclear Fuel Unit; the Uranium Conversion Facility and nuclear technology center in Isfahan. And that will only be the first wave of sortie after sortie striking targets that, after the initial nuclear facilities, will grow to include Revolutionary Guard positions and eventually infrastructure points such as bridges, power stations and oil refineries. It would be an attack designed to bring the Iranian economy — and, hopefully, the regime — to its knees.
The Iranians aren’t defenseless, of course. They have robust anti-aircraft defense systems, so there likely would be casualties among the pilots. And they have good surface-to-ship missiles that can take down tankers and smaller ships stationed in the Gulf. There’s a good chance they would try to choke off the Strait of Hormuz, through which a vast amount of the world’s oil flows. It would only take a couple of hits on tankers in the Gulf for all traffic there to stop.
Warships can be further taken down by swarms of suicide speed boats, tactics the Iranians have been perfecting for just this occasion. While the damage to Iran would be severe early on, the repercussions to American forces in Iraq, the Gulf and even Europe could be as bad. Shi’ites in Iraq, goosed by Iranian-backed militias, could inflict heavy losses on the 160,000 troops there.
The Iranians have already thought of this. On Sept. 1, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced the commander-in-chief of the country’s elite military corps with Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, a former IRGC commander from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. By placing their top Iraq hand in charge of their most potent military force, the Iranians are signaling they mean business in the event of an attack.
At sea, a few warships might be lost, with who knows how many casualties. If Israel is involved in the attack, look for Hezbollah in Lebanon to jump in, pummeling the Jewish state’s north with hundreds of Katyushas in a playback of last summer’s war. That will bring Syria, Israel and Lebanon into the fight. If it drags on, Pakistan could fall to an Islamist coup d’etat, again stoked by Iranian agents. Elsewhere, in Europe, South America and North America, members of the al Quds Force — Iran’s elite international paramilitary unit — could wreck their own brand of havoc with terror attacks.
War would rage from the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, a continuous swath of fury and violence. It would be the end of the world as we know it.
Oil prices would skyrocket, well over $100 barrel, China, the U.S. And Europe, the world’s top producers and consumers, would suffer economic pinches as the oil economies ground to a halt. The Western standard of living would rapidly fall, thank to a similar cascade of squeezes that I mentioned above.
This is the likely outcome of a war, and it’s not at all clear the West would win this one. Yes, Iran would be devastated, but the West would stand hated and impoverished, starved for oil. It would take years to recover, and the simmering resentment of the Muslim would would be stoked for another generation.
Is that what the White House wants? As I mentioned last week, negotiations are the best way forward.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 6:22 PM | Permalink

Iranian Hegemony: What’s Not to Like?


This week’s kerfuffle over Iranian President Ahmadinjad’s speech to Columbia University and his request to go to Ground Zero indicates that we, as a country, have indeed bought tickets to absurdistan. I was in New York City for the dustup, rousting editors from their desks and pitching stories, so I got to see the crazy headlines and massive mediagasm.

“The Evil Has Landed” screamed the New York Daily News. “NYers In Rage over ‘Tehran’ting Lunatic” exclaimed the New York Post. (Why not “‘Iran’ting Lunatic?) Overall, it was a week of ugly intolerance for even the idea of discussion. Apparently some things are out of bounds even to talk about, and allowing the Iranian president to present his views was well beyond the pale.

Which is a shame, considering how necessary Iran is to the United States’ plans in the Middle East. Iran is a major power that has its own interests which could be brought in line – a little, at least – with America’s. So, just to be a little bit naughtier than the New York tabloids, let’s talk about an idea that’s probably beyond discussion. Given the charges that Iran is on the march across the Middle East, is looking to “take it over” and drive the United States back into its own hemisphere what’s so bad about Iranian hegemony?

To answer that question, we first have to ask a more basic one: What does Iran really want? Most observers, including the noted Iran scholar Vali Nasr, believe Tehran wants Washington to accept Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf as its “near abroad” – “a zone of influence in which Iran’s interests would determine the ebbs and flows of politics unencumbered by American interferance.” Tehran also wants its presence in in Syria and Lebanon recognized.

It’s not like it’s never happened before. More than 2,500 years ago, Persia was the world’s first superpower and threatened Greece for its upstart refusal to bow to Xerxes, king of kings. Its empire stretched from the Ganges to Macedonia – the greatest empire the world had known. Rich and powerful, it brought culture and civilization to millions. It wasn’t an enlightened rule and Xerxes was a tyrant, but neither was it as bad as it could have been; subject people had considerable autonomy. (The Phoenicians, for example, were particularly nettlesome for the Persians, given they were the best sailors around and more or less ran the Persian navy in the Mediterranean. An invasion of Sicily was scuttled because the upstart Levantines decided they didn’t feel like doing it. Sicily never fell into the Persian orbit.)

Today’s Iran is, of course, a different thing. The knee-jerk response among the neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz set is that they’re a terrorist regime, so screw ‘em. But it’s a bad idea to dismiss Iranian concerns over their influence in a region where they have traditionally had a great deal of sway. Imagine if someone tried that with, say, Latin America and the U.S. So again, what would be so bad about Iranian hegemony or, more accurately, the accommodation of Iranian interests and influence throughout the region? Can working with the Iranians instead of against them be a form of diplomatic jujitsu?

First of all, Iran already has more influence in Iraq and Afghanistan than America does. Especially in Iraq, it’s got more chips in the game and more players on the field, able to move them at will and check American ambitions to turn Iraq into a friendly bulwark against Iran. (Under Saddam Hussein it was an unfriendly bulwark against Iran.) But if President Bush continues on his quest to reformulate his Middle East policy as one that promotes stability instead of democracy, the U.S. and Iran will have a joint interest.

“The Iranians are very eager to replace the United States as a regional leader,” says Trita Parsi, an Iranian specialist and author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.” “But that’s not necessarily bad news.”

Much of American policy in the Middle East has been a zero-sum, balance of power arrangement, where the U.S. supported regimes such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while Iran backed Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. Each country is the leader of its own bloc of allies, but it’s a costly form of leadership, Parsi says, because it doesn’t allow for any kind of collective security like you find in Europe. And while he admits the Middle East is “a long, long way from that, so was Europe in 1945, but we did it.” War between European states is now inconceivable.

“The balance of power has created wars,” he says. “There hasn’t been peace in the region.”

Instead of attempting to lead rival blocs against one another, the U.S. should work with Iran to take its interests into account while at the same time demanding changes in behavior for that accommodation. For instance, in exchange for allowing it a large degree of influence in Baghdad and Lebanon, Washington could demand that Iran cease its military support for Hamas in Gaza and work to disarm Hezbollah so that it could turn into a full member of Lebanon’s political culture.

The losers in such an arrangement? Israel and Saudi Arabia, mostly. American and Israeli positions would no longer automatically be the law of the land, he says. “The Israelis would not be able to impose unilateral peace deals on the Palestinians.” And that, too, is a good thing in the long run. Instead of dictating peace terms to a resentful people, Israel would be forced to deal with the Palestinians on a more equal level. And a less aggressive Israel would take the wind out of the sails of the more militant anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who draw much of their support for their anti-Israeli stance.

Saudi Arabia would lose because when it’s not allied with the United States to contain Iraq, it’s trying to counter Iran. A U.S. and Iranian rapprochement means Riyadh can say goodbye to some of those sweetheart arms deals.

It should be noted that a similar arrangement with Iran was offered, by Iran, in 2003. Iran offered to end military support for Hezbollah and Hamas and work to stabilize Iraq in exchange for an end to hostility from the U.S. and an end to sanctions. The State Department was reportedly keen to followup on the offer, but Vice President Dick Cheney nixed it.

So while there’s no easy answer or path forward to working with Iran, accepting that they have legitimate interests in the region could go a long way toward calming the place down. But Iran has to accept that the U.S. has interests, too, and those need to be taken into account as well. If the U.S. steps away from the zero-sum politics of the last 28 years, then Iran has a responsibility to do so as well.

If this is the cuddly, fuzzy Iran as hegemon, next week, we’ll look at everything that could go wrong with an ascendent Iran.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 5:00 AM | Permalink

A Razor’s Edge


Again. It’s happened again. Yesterday, while I was in meetings here in NYC, I received a phone call from my fiancée in Beirut. Another pro-government member of parliament, Antoine Ghanem, had been killed in a savage assassination. This one has the Syrians’ fingerprints all over it and it was designed to make an impression.

Ghanem, a member of the Phalange party which lost Pierre Gemayel back in November, was killed by a massive car bomb in the largely Christian neighborhood of Sin el-Fil. Ghanem had fled Lebanon out of fear for his life after the slaying of Lebanese MP Walid Eido, killed in a similar car bomb slaying in June. Ghanem had returned to Lebanon just two days before his death.

The explosion killed four other people and wounded scores. Up to 15 cars were destroyed. A car booby-trapped with explosives was apparently detonated when Ghanem was driving by, indicating a deep knowledge of his schedule and route. His was the sixth killing of a pro-government figure since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which plunged Lebanon — and the region — into a political crisis.

What’s going to be the fallout of this killing? And what might it mean for the region? Precious little good news.

Ghanem was a Maronite Christian, and a potential candidate for the presidency, the election for which is scheduled for Sept. 25. Under Lebanon’s Byzantine election laws, the parliament must convene with a two-thirds quorum and agree on a president. But without a quorum, the pro-government March 14 coalition — currently the parliamentary majority — argues that a simple majority vote should be held for the president. With the death of Ghanem, their majority has been cut to just four seats.

A simple majority vote is sending the pro-Syrian opposition groups, led by the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, into paroxysms of fury. Syria really, really needs to have a pro-Syrian president in Beirut. That’s Damascus’ best chance to keep stalling the International Tribunal looking into Hariri’s death. While the United Nations Security Council has already blessed the tribunal’s work — without Lebanon’s explicit OK — the current president, Emile Lahoud has been pretty effective in slowing down the investigation. So, more than two years after Hariri’s death — and a number of other killings — the tribunal barely even begun to be set up.

Why is the Syrian government so hot to keep the tribunal on ice? Because previous investigators have tied Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law and other high-level figures within his regime to the slaying. An internationally recognized ruling claiming that the Syrian president signed off on a murder of a statesman in another nation would lead to international sanctions, asset freezings of regime figures and a travel ban. In short, all the things that make life worth living for a Middle East dictator would go away. But more importantly, it would cripple Syria’s economy, which is starting to boom a bit. Hurt the economy and you hurt the regime, perhaps even topple it.

This is why the United States, Lebanon’s pro-Western bloc and many other countries are pushing hard for a) a pro-Western president in Lebanon b) the tribunal and c) punishment of the guilty parties. That’s why Syrian-backed groups in Lebanon such as Hezbollah (which relies on Syria as a logistical route for its traffic in Iranian weapons) are pushing so hard to keep the heat off Assad.

And that’s why Ghanem had to die. With a slim majority made even slimmer by his demise, members of the majority bloc know they’re under threat of death if they go out too much. Many are still out of the country and may not be persuaded to come back in time for the opening of Parliament next week. If the March 14 bloc elects a president from its own ranks using a simple majority vote outside of parliament, Lebanon could be facing the creation of two governments and little hope of compromise. In a country as divided as Lebanon, that could move the nation a step — a big step — closer to civil war.

And let’s be very clear: Any civil war in Lebanon would surely not stay in Lebanon. Too many issues in the Middle East are connected now, from Iraq, to Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Pressure on one leads to reaction in another place, like poking a balloon to watch it bulge on the other side. Civil war in Lebanon could trigger another Israeli intervention, bringing the Jewish state eyeball to eyeball with Syria — again.

We’re on a knife’s edge.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:33 PM | Permalink

That Way Madness Lies…


Are we headed for a shooting war with Iran? These rumors have popped up over and over again (in fact, every time an aircraft carrier moves into the Arabian Gulf) but this speech from Bush at the American Legion’s 89th annual national convention last week caught my eye.

It’s worth quoting some sections in depth first, with my emphasis added:

The other strain of radicalism in the Middle East is Shia extremism, supported and embodied by the regime that sits in Tehran. Iran has long been a source of trouble in the region. It is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Iran backs Hezbollah who are trying to undermine the democratic government of Lebanon. Iran funds terrorist groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which murder the innocent, and target Israel, and destabilize the Palestinian territories. Iran is sending arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan, which could be used to attack American and NATO troops. Iran has arrested visiting American scholars who have committed no crimes and pose no threat to their regime. And Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.

Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late.

Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people. Members of the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are supplying extremist groups with funding and weapons, including sophisticated IEDs. And with the assistance of Hezbollah, they’ve provided training for these violent forces inside of Iraq. Recently, coalition forces seized 240-millimeter rockets that had been manufactured in Iran this year and that had been provided to Iraqi extremist groups by Iranian agents. The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased in the last few months — despite pledges by Iran to help stabilize the security situation in Iraq.

Some say Iran’s leaders are not aware of what members of their own regime are doing. Others say Iran’s leaders are actively seeking to provoke the West. Either way, they cannot escape responsibility for aiding attacks against coalition forces and the murder of innocent Iraqis. The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops. I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.

This speech is worrying on many levels. For one, it’s eerily reminiscent of the early speeches given by Bush before the Iraq war in which he warned of an imminent threat from Iraq that must be confronted because of Saddam Hussein’s support for al Qaeda and the threat of WMD.

Admittedly, there does seem to be more evidence of Iranian malfeasance than there was of Iraq’s. I helped report a story in 2004 for TIME Magazine laying out Iranian involvement in Iraq, Iran has openly boasted of its nuclear program and its aid to Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad is no secret. But is another war in the Middle East the answer?

An attack on Iran before the end of Bush’s term in office would likely not involve ground troop — mainly because they’re just not available. The troops next door have their hands full there and you can’t just roll them across the border on a dime. So if it’s going to happen, it will be a blitz of cruise missiles and bombing runs from aircraft in the region. Indeed, the Times of London reported Sunday that the Pentagon has prepared a 1,200 target, “three-day blitz” designed not only to take out nuclear installations but “the entire Iranian military,” said Alexis Debat, director of terrorism and national security at the Nixon Center.

This would be disastrous. The shockwaves from such an attack would be wide-ranging and unpredictable, but some things can be estimated.

From a military standpoint, it might wreck devastation on Iran and its military, but Iran’s strength doesn’t lie in a conventional military response or deterrence but from an unconventional response. Furious Shi’ites, goosed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps provocateurs in Iran would immediately place the 130,000 to 160,000 American troops in jeopardy from massive IED attacks and suicide bombings. Entire forward operating bases could be overrun. The surge would immediately become a defensive operation protecting troops rather than an offensive one providing security for Iraqis. The civil war there between Sunni and Shi’ites, and Shi’ites and Shi’ites, would likely escalate. And that’s just in Iraq.

The American 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, which has an oppressed but sympathetic-to-Iran Shi’ite majority population that can make life difficult for the U.S. Navy. And in the Gulf, Iran has tested new torpedos and is perfecting techniques for swarming suicide speedboats that conceivably could take down a few naval vessels. (Remember the U.S.S Cole?)

In Saudi Arabia, Iran has another potential asset. The richest oil fields are underneath a Shi’ite population, which is also oppressed by the Saudi government and Wahabi clerical establishment. A few sabotage attacks to the oil production infrastructure there and say hello to skyrocketing oil prices on top of general market panic from a regional war in the Middle East.

Farther from home, Iran has already shown it can attack targets across the Atlantic Ocean, with its 1994 attack against the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in Buenos Aires. And don’t forget about Lebanese Hezbollah, which has also shown it can stage impressive rocket attacks against Israel. Any such attack on Israel would provoke a response from the Jewish state, which might bring Syria — an Iranian ally — into the conflict. Just today as I wrote this column, Israel jets violated Syrian air space as a show of strength.

Then there’s the possibility of attacks in the United States itself. There are reportedly Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard cells operating there that could stage suicide attacks.

In short, attacking Iran in such a way would be madness.

And that’s exactly what the Bush administration could be banking on. We already know the White House has taken its obsession with secrecy and expanding presidential power to Nixonian levels. What if it’s also taking a book from Nixon’s foreign policy manual and applying the “Madman Theory”?

“I want the North Vietnamese to believe,” Nixon told H.R. Haldeman, “that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry, and he has his hand on the nuclear button, and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Nixon was so crazy that at one point he put the whole U.S. military on global war readiness and flew nuclear-armed bombers near the Soviet Union’s borders for three days to freak them out — right at the time that war tensions were simmering between Beijing and Moscow. It was a dangerous, crazy gamble, and perhaps Bush is doing the same with Iran. After all, Henry Kissenger is an advisor to Bush, too.

Bush’s plan could be an attempt to get the Iranians to back off in Iraq, of course, but it could also be an attempt to scare Russia and China into backing strong sanctions against Iraq on the Security Council. No one wants to see a regional war in the Middle East involving a wounded, enraged superpower.

If this is the plan, it’s as dangerous as Nixon’s October 1969 gambit was. In the end, the Soviet Union didn’t take the bait and pressure North Vietnam to sue for peace. Will a similar plan work on the mullahs of Tehran? Can we trust the Bush administration to pull off such a subtle combination of bluster and diplomacy?

If this is the plan, Bush is playing poker and bluffing. But the Iranians aren’t playing the same game. They’re playing chess, and they invented that game.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 1:58 AM | Permalink

One War: Four Glasses. Who Won?


This week marked the anniversary of the end of last summer’s war between Hezbollah and Israel. It was a stupid war, as most wars are, but the end of the conflict on Aug. 14, 2006 after 34 days of fighting saw a defiant Hezbollah and a chastened Israeli military. The day also saw a flattened Lebanon and a United States policy for the region in tatters. It was a disaster for almost everyone involved.

But a year later, it’s a good idea to come back and take a look at who really won the war and who lost. Where do all the major players stand and how significant was the “divine victory”?


There’s little doubt that Hezbollah came out of the war politically stronger, at least initially. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had Lebanon in the palm of his hand, which is another way of saying he had it by the balls.

Hezbollah was roundly criticized for capturing two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006, a reckless and unilateral act that dragged Lebanon into a war with Israel it didn’t want to fight. But Hezbollah’s never been one to worry about the rest of Lebanon. Despite all its bluster about being a “national resistance movement,” Hezbollah is still a Shi’ite militia that draws its main support from the mainly poor Shi’ite communities of the south and the Bekaa Valley — that is, when it’s not getting money and weapons from Iran and Syria. And while Hezbollah can claim a technical victory — they survived a furious Israeli air bombardment and denied Israel the completion of its stated objectives — in a masterful bit of managing expectations they set the bar very low, with survival as their only objective.

But Lebanon was devastated. More than 1,000 civilians dead (a third of them children), a million displaced from their homes and billions of dollars in damage to private and public properties. Bridges, gas stations, roads, power plants… All were destroyed by the Israeli Air Force.

And soon, Hezbollah’s political position began to erode. Before the war, the group was looked on with a degree of suspicion by Lebanese Sunnis and Christians but not outright hostility. There was a bit of gratitude even for the group’s guerilla war against the Israeli occupation of the south that finally ended in 2000. I know a number of Christians who, before the war, openly expressed admiration for Nasrallah and thought him a tough, but fair leader. They didn’t agree with the Islamist politics of the group, but neither did they see it a threat to Lebanon.

No more. Since the end of the war, Hezbollah has overplayed its hand time and again. It has walked out of the government. With backing from Syria and, possibly, Iran, it has led an opposition that has so far been unsuccessful in all of its objectives: removing the pro-Western government from power; scuttling the international tribunal that’s investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; and claiming for the Lebanon’s Shi’ites a greater share of political power. The government is still in power despite nine months of protests and an economic paralysis; the tribunal is moving ahead as planned and the Shi’ites are more marginalize and powerless than ever.

This week, in a bid to boost the morale of his supporters, Nasrallah gave a 90-minute speech to a crowd of tens of thousands in the Hezbollah stronghold in the south of Beirut. But significantly, Nasrallah didn’t deliver his speech in person. He was in Dick Cheney-like seclusion, and his speech was displayed on large video screens around the square. This is the behavior or a man who led his people to a “divine victory,” hiding from Israeli warplanes on the anniversary of his big win?

Verdict: With points for surviving Israel’s onslaught but deductions for its crippled political judgement, a year after the war Hezbollah’s glass is both half-empty and half-full.


Things don’t look quite as good for Israel. It accomplished none of its objectives when it went after Hezbollah: It didn’t demolish the organization, it didn’t cripple its ability to fire rockets into Israel and it didn’t get its two soldiers back.

Israel had the bad luck of being caught unaware and then having Dan Halutz, a former chief of the Air Force, run the war. A a devotee of the theory that air power can win wars, he chose an aggressive strategy of bombing runs against civilian infrastructure in an attempt to split the Lebanese Christians and Sunnis from Hezbollah in the hopes they would turn on the Shi’ite group.

Israel also had its strongest weapon damaged: the idea of the invincibility of the Israeli military. Arabs opposed to Israel now see that the most advanced military in the region could be fought to at least a standstill and maybe even beaten.

But Israel isn’t all down. With Ehud Barak as defense minister, it has a proven warrior on deck who’s experienced in fighting Hezbollah. Israel is reemphasizing training for ground and guerilla combat (in the Golan, unfortunately, causing Syria to get a case of the jitters). And it’s also the recipient of an extra $30 billion in U.S. military aid as a means of building its deterrent back up. And there is a growing idea that Israel didn’t “lose” the war so much as muck it up. The strategy was terrible and its leaders inept. But if there’s one thing the Israeli military is good at, it’s learning from its mistakes. So if there’s another war with the Shi’ite militia, don’t expect the Jewish state to wait to send ground troops in. The assault will be massive, bloody and they’ll be up to Beirut before Hezbollah knew what hit them. Israel will take the casualties if they think they have a chance of winning.

Verdict: Mostly a loss, but also a learning experience. Glass half-empty.

The United States

The United States’ response to this war was shameful. On the one hand, the White House cheered it on because America has scores to settle with Hezbollah and better Israel do the dirty work than American GIs. On the other hand, the White House had adopted Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora as sort of a mascot for democracy — the scrappy little politician who could stand up to Syria and take over after the death of his boyhood friend Rafik Hariri.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected calls for an early cease-fire as a return to the status quo ante and that the war was the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” she put the final nail in the coffin housing America’s positive image in the much of the region. To pick up the pom-poms while Israel blasted possibly the weakest Arab state in the region — and one that it had championed in the past — was confirmation that when it came to Israel, America has no other priority. Democracy, human rights, none of that mattered.

Through its aerial bombardment, Israel caused horrendous civilian casualties (almost all of the 159 Israeli deaths were military ones compared to the 1,000+ deaths of Lebanese civilians) and Americans watch wars on TV. They got to see awful images of fleeing refugees packed into cars with mattresses and household goods tied down on top. They didn’t look at all like terrorists.

Had the U.S. used its clout to get the Israeli military to stand down, on humanitarian grounds, it could have won back much of the good will lost because of Iraq. It might have convinced some Arabs that it could be an honest broker in the Israeli-Arab conflict. When Hezbollah survived, they were able to claim they had not only resisted Israel, but also thwarted the United States’ “plan” for the Middle East.

Just truly dumb all across the board.

Verdict: The U.S. was left with a shattered, empty glass, like you’d find after a bar fight. But Washington was too drunk with power to realize what the fight was about or that its wallet had been stolen.


Finally, Lebanon. Its economy has been shattered for two summers now. First, by the war and then by Hezbollah’s sit-in in downtown Beirut. Politically, it’s at a standstill, with pro-Western ministers being picked off one at a time by an assassination campaign. Hezbollah owns parts of the country and declares them no-go areas for anyone, including the Lebanese Army. Fuad Siniora is still in power, but he’s a weakened premier and his faction just lost an election to an opposition candidate.

It’s facing billions of dollars in infrastructure damage as well as additional billions added to its astronomical public debt that is 182 percent of its GDP, according to Citigroup. The economy is just now coming out of downturn but it’s not roaring back. It’s expected to grow only 1.8 percent in 2007 and 2.9 percent in 2008. The only thing keeping the economy afloat is the strangely robust banking sector and millions of diaspora Lebanese sending remittances.

The country is split almost exactly in half between the pro-government and opposition factions, and a civil war can’t be ruled out. Most Lebanese I’ve talked to expect one later this year or next. Lebanon was the true loser of the war.

Verdict: Out cold after a beating. There’s no glass to even drink from.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 1:17 AM | Permalink

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