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Iraq’s Murky Battle for Basra

Apr
1
2008

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.

(more…)

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 4:00 AM | Permalink

Presidential Picks in the Middle East

Feb
7
2008

Here in the Middle East, a region where politics, conspiracies and skullduggery are national pastimes, the American presidential race is keenly observed, if not always understood. Still, there’s a great deal of interest among Israelis and Arabs about who the nominees will be and what that person’s election will mean for the region.

So, let’s take a look at some of the regional attitudes toward the Big Three candidates.

John McCain

The senator from Arizona isn’t widely known here in the region, but what little opinion there is has settled on a single narrative: he’s no different from President George W. Bush, a staunch ally – Arabs might call him blindly so – to Israel, a hothead and the candidate most likely to get into a shooting war with Iran.

Given their druthers, most Arabs on the street would prefer not to see McCain in office.

“I think there is an instinctive aversion to any Republican candidate,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But she made it clear she was speaking about the so-called “Arab street” and not the governments of the region.

“There’s a substantial difference between the Arab street’s opinion and the Arab regimes,” she added. “I think for Arab regimes, perhaps they’d be uncomfortable with a Democratic candidate.”

The Lebanese are certainly uncomfortable with the Democrats, as evidenced by the unease that met Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Damascus last year.

Hillary Clinton

When it comes to Sen. Hillary Clinton, there’s a sense of relief in the region. Her presidency is seen as a return to her husband’s policies – although that harms her in some circles because of President Clinton’s support for Iraq sanctions throughout the 1990s. Others remember the Clinton presidency fondly for its efforts – though flawed – to hammer out a real peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

No matter; she’s considered a strong supporter of Israel – New York City’s large Jewish population and her Hollywood ties are often darkly fretted over – and her support for Israel during the July 2006 war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah hasn’t won her any friends among the so-called “Axis of Resistance”: Syria, Iran and its proxy militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas. For them, Hillary Clinton is seen as a hawk. Her vote in 2002 authorizing the Iraq war still angers many in the region.

The best thing about Clinton, from an Arab perspective, is that she’s a known quality. But between Clinton and McCain, most observers see little difference.

Barack Obama

The one candidate that elicits any kind of excitement is Sen. Barack Obama. An African-American who speaks in soaring rhetoric and who is (wrongly) assumed to have some Muslim ties is irresistible to many.

“I would say there’s a cautious optimism about Obama,” Saad-Ghorayeb said. “First of all, they (Arabs) expect a Democratic candidate to adopt a different policy, different means. They’re quite aware that the Democratic Party doesn’t endorse Bush’s methods.”

That said, no one thinks the Obama is going to abandon Israel any time soon. “Arabs know the constraints on every president,” she said.

Nonetheless, some circles in Israel are freaking out over the idea of an Obama presidency. Why? Because last year, in an off-the-cuff remark, he mentioned that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” This led David Adelman, a member of AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, to write a letter asking for clarification on this “deeply troubling” remark of Obama’s.

Obama explained in a debate last year that he was talking about the consequences of Palestinians’ failed leadership, but that hasn’t stopped the “Israel First” crowd from coming out of the woodwork.

He has also surrounded himself with, shall we say, “interesting” advisors – when it comes to Israel:

  • Samantha Power, a human rights activist and Harvard University professor sometimes accused of supporting the Walt-Mearsheimer view of American foreign policy – that the U.S. is hostage to Israel’s view of the region.
  • Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and who has ties to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan likes to toss out raging anti-Jewish statements and Obama has not seen fit to distance himself from Wright, whose church magazine last year gave Farrakhan an award.
  • George Soros, the philanthropic (and Jewish) billionaire, who is often accused as being hostile to Israel.
  • Robert Malley, a former Clinton administration official who the Jerusalem Post called a “Palestinian apologist.”
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski and Mark Brzezinski, who are assumed to be foes of Israel.
  • In each of these cases, his opponents are happily ginning up smear tactics against the Obama, seen in the region as the only person who might make significant policy changes for the U.S. policy. Significantly, the “Obama’s-a-Muslim” meme will not die. Look for it to reappear in a virulent form come the summer if he’s the nominee. When Arab media pick it up – it’s only a matter of time – the fictional association will become a reason for Arabs to support Obama and “proof” for Israel’s allies on the right that Obama is not presidential material.

    In the end, Obama’s voting record and more recent statements show him to be — like Clinton and McCain — a steadfast ally to the Jewish state. And Arab expectations and hope for the junior senator from Illinois are likely to be dashed on the rocky cliffs of reality should he find himself in the Oval Office.

    “There’s always the sense that African-Americans would be more sympathetic (to Arabs), because they’re oppressed too,” Saad-Ghorayeb said. “But that wasn’t really the case with Colin Powell or Condi Rice, was it?”

    Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:08 PM | Permalink

    Another Road To Damascus

    Nov
    24
    2007

    There’s a Middle Eastern proverb making the rounds these days: You can’t make war without Egypt and you can’t have peace without Syria. And if Syria’s sitting down at the table, as it’s indicated it will do at next week, it’s a safe bet that the fate of two key parts of the region — the Golan and Lebanon — are up for discussion.

    In two of the most intractable problems of the region — Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Syrian regime has been the immovable obstacle. Because outside the U.S., the Middle East isn’t just defined by the Israeli-Arab conflict. It’s a Gordian Knot of conflicts involving Israelis and Palestinians, Israel and Arabs, Arab Shi’ites and Arab Sunnis, Arabs and Iranians and the West and Iran. They’re all intertwined, but the common thread in this tangled skein is Syria and the regime of its President Bashar al-Assad.

    And in the past 48 hours, there has been signs of movement that might, just might signal some kind of accord that the Syrians will accept. The Golan, the uplands seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war, is reportedly on the table at the Annapolis conference which begins Tuesday. This was the precondition for Syria to attend the conference, said its foreign minister, Walid Muallem.

    That’s very good news for the Americans, the Israelis and possibly the Lebanese. Why? Because with Syria’s participation — along with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states at the ministerial level — a success in Annapolis might mean the beginning of a real discussion of a Grand Bargain for the region, not just another fitful start to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The thinking is that if the Syrians are shown some flexibility on the Golan, they might also show some flexibility in Lebanon, which is in the midst of its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War — a political crisis stoked in large part by Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

    Syrian assets in Lebanon, notably Hezbollah, had threatened “unspecified measures” that might have included forming a parallel government, staging a coup, putting the Army in control or occupying government buildings in a campaign of civil disobedience upon the expiration of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term at midnight Friday. Many Lebanese believed any such provocations could lead to a new civil war. But nothing’s happened in the wake of the failure to find a compromise candidate for the presidency

    Nothing yet, anyway. Even though Lahoud blustered and postured, promising never to hand over power to the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, a U.S. ally, he more or less did exactly that. He left office on schedule, leaving executive power to fall to Siniora’s cabinet. And while he said the conditions existed for a state of emergency and that the Army should maintain security, he didn’t actually turn the workings of the state over to the military. The commander of the Army even went out of his to announce that he would follow Siniora’s orders.

    The opposition raised nary a peep, other than some desultory protests about the illegitimacy of the government. But they’ve been doing that for a year now to no effect. It’s the same old, same old.

    Why? I think it’s because Syria told them to stand down while it figured out what to do and what it might get in Annapolis. Significantly, the Syrian-allied Speaker of Parliament has said the next round for selection the president will happen Nov. 30, after Annapolis is concluded.

    A look at the region’s history makes this theory click into place in an interesting and compelling way. Syria has two main concerns in the region. Lebanon and the Golan, and both relate to the survival of the Assad regime. During the Lebanese Civil War and the following occupation, Lebanon’s bustling, captive economy was the iron lung keeping the regime in Damascus afloat.

    After Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon following former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Assad’s regime has faced not only an economic hit but also an internal threat from the regime’s old guard who blame the young president for losing Lebanon, which many Syrians regard as historically part of “Greater Syria.”

    Should an agreement eventually be made concerning the Golan, the pressure on Assad to “retake” Lebanon could be lessened. What would be better for a president looking to buttress his credentials as the “Lion of the Golan” than to “liberate” the area from those who took it in the 1967 war?

    But there are also reasons to focus on the Golan other than national pride and pan-Arabism. The Sept. 6 attacks in northern Syria by Israeli jets shook both Iran and Syria, which had both just made large purchases of advanced Russian radar systems. That the Israelis were able to get to their target site almost without detection should seriously worry the Iranians, who now realize that their nuclear program — peaceful or otherwise — is more vulnerable than previously thought. And that, in turn, worries Syria, which has been banking on a the possibility of an Iranian nuclear umbrella for security. Facing the prospect of a U.S. bombardment of its ally, Syria might have decided it’s time to play ball a bit with the West and move away, ever so slightly from Tehran, adopting the more arm’s length approach taken by former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. This has the added benefit of mollifying those old guard elements, too, as they’ve never been as keen on such a tight Iranian alliance.

    Of course, there are wildcards in the mix. Lebanon was a cash machine for Damascus, but increased foreign investment from China, Iran, India and the Gulf States is taking the sting of losing that a bit. And if Syria loosens up on Lebanon, look for even more foreign investment to pour in. Syria wouldn’t actually need Lebanon anymore. There will be some Greater Syria proponents banging on the table but Golan’s a pretty consolation prize for Assad to have won for national honor.

    Secondly, Hamas and other Palestinian groups with no interest in a peace deal with Israel are led by officials in Damascus. This makes them either first-class irritants or, let’s be brutal, hostages should Annapolis foster any sort of accord. Should Syria get serious about this process, Hamas is going to find itself in an uncomfortable position.

    Lastly, there’s the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Hariri. It’s likely to finger high-level members of the Assad regime, including the president’s brother-in-law, which can cause real problems for the Syrians, in Lebanon but also with the international community. How will a ruling that Syria condoned assassination be dealt with? That’s the wildest card of all right now.

    And Lebanon? Syria’s allies in Lebanon are waiting to see what comes from Annapolis. If the conference kick-starts new talks between the Israelis and the Syrians, Lebanon’s problems might suddenly become a lot easier to manage. Unfortunately, the corollary is also true.

    So come Tuesday, it’s game on.

    Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 6:59 PM | Permalink

    Turkey’s Game of Chicken

    Oct
    19
    2007

    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

    Did He Really Just Say That?

    Aug
    23
    2007

    This week, President George W. Bush stood up before the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and unspooled a whole lot of odd analogies to make the case that we need to stay in Iraq for… well, forever, I guess. I’ve not been in Iraq for more than a year but it’s still a central focus of my reporting here in the Middle East. So, this week, let’s step away from Lebanon — which is depressing anyway — and focus on Bush and his fantasies about Mesopotamia.
    Because some days he makes it just too easy.
    Bush’s VFW speech has received a lot of ink. Everyone’s been reporting on it, but what’s bizarre is that Bush was pointing to past wars in Asia — World War II against Japan, Korea and, most enigmatically, Vietnam — as lessons to learn from. For this White House, Imperial Japan was the al Qaeda of its day. The Korean War was a war to instill democracy on the Korean peninsula. And Vietnam was muffed up by Defeatocrats at home – pulling the plug lead to the deaths of millions.
    “One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields,’” the president said.
    Really, it’s hard to know where to start.
    In his initial comparison, Bush describes Japan as a a nation run by a man who “despises freedom, and harbors resentment at the slights he believes America and Western nations have inflicted on his people. He fights to establish his rule over an entire region. And over time, he turns to a strategy of suicide attacks.” Well, the war in the Pacific was primarily one of great powers jostling over economic interests, which is way more serious than most ideological struggles. Japan was oil-poor and had its eyes on the Dutch East Indies. The United States and the West had engaged in economic tit-for-tat with Tokyo since the 1937 invasion of China and by 1941, the United States had slapped an oil embargo on the Empire of the Rising Sun in the escalating trade battles. The Japanese Navy was certain any attempt to seize the Dutch colonies would bring the United States into the war, so they needed to neutralize the U.S.’s Pacific Fleet first. Hence, Pearl Harbor.
    Bush’s view of Korea is an even more interesting comparison: “Without Americans’ intervention during the war and our willingness to stick with the South Koreans after the war, millions of South Koreans would now be living under a brutal and repressive regime,” Hm, let’s see. The Korean War started in 1950. Democracy came to South Korea in the late 1980s, mainly because the military governments — which massacred democracy protesters in 1980 — were supported by … the United States.
    But the Korea analogy is apt for reasons other than those Bush intended. Bush sees the Korean War as an example of the U.S. historical commitment to fight aggression and spread democracy. But the liberation of South Korea had been achieved by October 1950, four months after the war started, and the North Koreans had been pushed back. On October 19, United Nations and U.S. forces pushed north, past the 38th parallel and quickly triggered a Chinese intervention in the war. The coalition was rolled back and after three years and hundreds of thousands dead, a stalemate was achieved and an armistice signed with the original border in place. It was an outcome that could have been achieved in four months and many fewer people dead.
    In short, invading Iraq in 2003 looks a lot like the decision to invade North Korea in October 1950: a monumental case of overreach. Don’t his speechwriters check this stuff? Or do they just rely on the historical ignorance of many Americans?
    And finally Vietnam. In one speech, Bush had managed to drag out the knuckleheaded, right-wing argument that if only we’d stayed in Vietnam a little longer, we’d have won that sucker. If only the media and Democrats hadn’t been so hell-bent on undermining the troops…
    This is a tricky subject for Bush, considering he spent the Vietnam years partying and “protecting” the Gulf of Mexico from the Viet Cong in a champagne unit of the Texas Air National Guard. It’s also tricky because war critics have spent the past four years comparing the quagmire or Iraq to the quagmire of Vietnam — which, I might remind you, we lost.
    “In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution,” said the president. “In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.”
    Yes, millions of innocent people died in Vietnam — a fair number of them from U.S. bombs. Yes, there was a massive refugee crisis following the American exit in 1975, but the U.S. threw open its doors and took the “boat people” in. It has not done the same thing for Iraqis, instead forcing them to stay in a deadly cage or face the instability of life in Jordan and Syria.
    And the killing fields of Pol Pot were not in response to the U.S. leaving too early. Pol Pot came to power and started his murderous rampage because of the destabilization of the region brought on by the U.S. staying too long. In much the same way, the war in Iraq is creating more terrorists who are killing more innocent civilians. Again, apt analogy, just not the way Bush intends. (Furthermore, the Khmer Rouge were eventually crushed by, yep, the Communist Vietnamese in 1979.)
    Today, Vietnam is a stable nation with good relations with the United States. East Asia didn’t fall to the Communists and the free world wasn’t imperiled by our withdrawal. “Vietnam was not a bunch of sectarian groups fighting each other,” said Vietnam historian Stanley Karnow. “Does he think we should have stayed in Vietnam?” It sure sounds like it.
    Now, fact-checking the president is fun and all, but this is hardly the first time he’s gone off on some boneheaded direction with history. For instance, in 2004 Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld et al. began reminding people of the rampaging insurgency in Germany after World War II? Don’t remember that? That’s because there wasn’t one. Not a single Allied soldier died as a result of enemy action after the Germans surrender.
    The VFW speech was a noxious attempt at playing to Bush’s base of “America First” conservative Republican support, a blatant attempt to play on the politics of fear by demonization the media, liberals, Democrats and anyone who questioned the Iraq war. The Vietnam portions of the speech were red meat to the right wing that has, for years, argued that the U.S. didn’t step into an unwinnable war — it was stabbed in the back by traitors at home. That this is the subtext for a major positioning speech by the president suggests that even he thinks Iraq is unwinnable and now is the time for finger-pointing, buck-passing and blame-shifting.
    What a great legacy.

    Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 9:02 PM | Permalink

    One War: Four Glasses. Who Won?

    Aug
    17
    2007

    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”?

    Hezbollah

    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.

    Israel

    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.

    Lebanon

    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

    Lebanese Whines

    Aug
    10
    2007

    Lebanon is known for its wines. The Bekaa Valley produces some truly excellent vintages. But what’s the favorite wine of the Gemayel political dynasty? “Michel Aoun won the election with Armenian votes, waaaaah!” (Say it out loud, it’s funnier.)

    The reason for such angst is the pro-Syrian opposition forces won a special election in the mostly Christian district of Metn on Sunday, dealing a blow to the pro-American government of Fuad Siniora and its political coalition in parliament. The opposition, which includes the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, ran Camille Khoury, a political unknown loyal to the renegade Maronite Christian Gen. Michel Aoun, of whom I wrote last week. Khoury beat former president Amin Gemayel, head of the powerful Gemayel political dynasty with power reaching back generations.

    Aoun’s man won by only about 400 votes in a mixed district. Voters included a lot of Christians, a few Sunnis and Shi’ites and a fair number of Armenians. Busloads of Syrians who had been naturalized as Lebanese citizens during the Syrian occupation were driven in from Damascus to vote for Aoun’s candidate as well.

    Aoun predictably heralded it as a major win for his anti-U.S. alliance and used the victory to claim a boost in his political standing. Only he is able to unite Lebanon by crossing the sectarian border fences that have mentally cantonized this place, he said. Only he can smash the feudal system of leaders that run Lebanon from their various strongholds.

    Puh-leeze. The general won with fewer votes than George Bush did in 2000, so a little humility would be in order here. The Maronite Christians voted overwhelmingly for Gemayel. In part it was out of sympathy for a grieving father (He was running to fill the seat left by the murder of his son, Pierre, who was killed in November last year.) Others voted for him because they were loyal to the Gemayel clan. And yet others voted for him — and I suspect this is by far the largest segment — because they’re disgusted by Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah.

    Of course, the United States has gotten in on the action. On Aug. 1, President George W. Bush signed an executive order freezing the assets of any person or group in the United States trying to undermine the stability of Lebanon. “Political and economic instability in that country and the region … constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat,” the order said. It’s aimed squarely at Syria, Hezbollah and their allies in Lebanon — and that includes Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement. I have no idea if this order scared any of Aoun’s people from voting for him — he commands a bit of a personality cult — but there’s little doubt that was the intention.

    It may have been unnecessary though. Aoun’s support among the Christians has been dropping since January, undercutting his claim that he is the rightful leader of the Christians — not Gemayel or Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. The March 14 camp, which is pro-Western and currently holds the government, has spun up the fact that he lost Christian support and has lashed out at the Armenians (who have been Christians since A.D. 301) in ugly statements verging on racism. Gemayel went so far as to accuse them of vote-rigging and warned that Tashnag, the Armenian party, would regret their support of Aoun. By his statements, he also implied that the Christian votes are the only ones that really count, so while Khoury won the seat, the pro-government partisans say, it’s a hollow victory for Aoun because they won the Christian vote.

    The key to understanding Aoun is understanding his ambition. The general wants to be president above all else. If he had won the election decisively, he might have improved his political standing. As it is, he lost votes among the Maronites – for whom the presidency is constitutionally reserved in Lebanon – and just squeaked out a win. With the government’s slim majority in parliament reduced even further now and Aoun’s claim to Christian leadership in tatters, I’d say it’s a bit of draw.

    So after a bitter campaign with threats of violence and apocalypse, nothing has changed on the ground in Lebanon. The country is still split, the presidency is still up for grabs and both sides in this power struggle for control of this little patch of land still have their fingers on their respective triggers. We’ll go through this all over again in September when the president is selected by a deeply divided parliament.

    If Lebanon is ever going to get over its distrust and hatred held by the 18 different religious communities recognized here, the country needs a unifying figure. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately), neither Gemayel, with his Christians-first emphasis, nor Aoun, with his objectively pro-Syrian agenda is that man.

    Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 4:00 AM | Permalink

    Ain’t Nothing But a Family Thing

    Aug
    3
    2007

    Lebanon of late has been seized by what, in the West, is a routine function of democracy: a special election. And how the country handles the Aug. 5 event, which has blown up into the latest crisis, is quite telling.

    But first, some background. Lebanon’s a complicated political place and its insider politics have wider implications beyond its own small territory. These politics have deep roots, based on dynasties and warlordism, and the old families — which would be called “mafia” in less polite circles — that run this place believe that this democracy business, grafted on somewhat awkwardly after the end of the French Mandate in the 1940s, should ensure that seats to which people are “elected” should be kept in the family.

    The election dispute brings this into sharp focus, revolving around the district of Metn, a Christian enclave in the hills north of Beirut. One of its representatives in parliament was Pierre Gemayel, who was assassinated last November by an ambush in the street. He was also the Industry minister, one of the youngest members of parliament and solidly in the pro-Western faction that controls the government here in Beirut. His death was a major blow to the so-called March 14 alliance as the coalition of Druze, Sunni Muslims and about half the country’s Christians has but a slender majority in Parliament and in the cabinet. If just a few more pro-government parliamentarians die or resign, the pro-Westerners will lose their majority in Parliament and the government will fall.

    And for many people here in Lebanon, that’s the goal. The opposition forces, led by the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah and supported by Syria and Iran, take a decidedly anti-government, anti-U.S. and anti-Western stance. The opposition also, curiously, includes the Free Patriotic Movement, supported by the other half of the country’s Christians and headed by Maronite Christian and former Gen. Michel Aoun, one of Lebanon’s most controversial figures.

    Bear with me on this digression; it’s important. Aoun is by all accounts a national hero, an unbalanced megalomaniac and, if he gets his way, the future president. At the tail end of the vicious 1975-90 civil war, Aoun was appointed prime minister of a caretaker military government by none other than Amin Gemayel, the slain Industry minister’s father, who was the outgoing president then and no consensus could be reached on who should succeed him. Aoun seized the opportunity and in 1989 declared a “war of liberation” against the Syrians then occupying most of Lebanon. By 1990, he had received the support of Saddam Hussein (who bore no great love for the rival Ba’ath dictatorship in Damascus) and this proved to be his undoing. When the U.S. went to war against Saddam in 1990, America let it be known that Syria could have Lebanon if it would ally against Iraq. And so, Syrian jets drove the general from the presidential palace and into a 15-year exile in France. He didn’t return to Lebanon until May 2005, following the retreat of the Syrians after a 29-year presence here.

    So who is running to replace the late Pierre Gemayel as the Metn MP? His father, Amin, of course, the very man who appointed Aoun as Prime Minister back in 1988.

    In a somewhat unprecedented challenge to Lebanese traditions of “hereditary elected offices,” Aoun — who is sometimes called NapolAOUN” for his messiah complex — is running one of his own candidates, upsetting the apple cart and splitting Lebanon’s Christian community even deeper. “In Lebanon, we don’t have laws, we have ethics,” said the pro-Western son of a prominent Shi’ite politician to me the other night as we discussed the Aoun-Gemayel spat in Metn. “It is not right that he tries to take the seat from the father.”

    The Maronite Patriarch, kind of a local-level pope with an almost equal level of influence among Maronite Christians has also called for Aoun not to contest the election and stop dividing the Christians. “The Lebanese are used to letting emotions prevail over legitimate rights in situations like this, particularly tragic situations,” he said.

    This casual attitude toward the holding of elections should distress anyone who claims to believe in and desire democracy in general and for Lebanon in particular. And it should really distress the Bush administration, which has pointed to Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” of 2005 as a win in its desire to promote freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East as an antidote to extremism. But now, the very factions allied to the United States are looking to scuttle a democratic election, all in the name of preventing a further “split” within one of Lebanon’s sects. Well, I’m sorry, but public splits are almost the definition of democracy. And even more offensive is talk from the Gemayel clan that the seat “belongs to the family.” As one columnist for the pan-Arab London-based al Hayat newspaper said, “it is also the kind of village-based attitude that makes others nauseous.”

    For while Aoun and his alliance with the enemies of America are dubious, shirking the necessary foundations of democracy — actual, fair elections — for a fake consensus among Lebanon’s Christians does little to resolve any of the real issues of Lebanon or of the Middle East. Democracy is not an add-on to a society, but a fundamental basis for one. For the government — which came to power democratically — to attempt to bully political opponents out of a race shows that Lebanon is not the showcase of progress that Bush thinks it is.

    At the same dinner with the Shi’ite scion, another woman told me, “It is this way in the United States, too. Look at Bush and his father. Look at Mrs. Clinton. Soon you will have 28 years of two families controlling America. It is normal.”

    No, it’s not. Sure, Lebanon has one of the most robust democracies in the Arab world. It doesn’t have a king or a pharaoh as Egypt does in President Hosani Mubarak. The Lebanese people pride themselves on their sophistication and like to look down on the authoritarian regimes around them as throwbacks to the Arab tribal mentality of the past. But even here, politics ain’t nothing but a family thing. And until that changes, the Bush administration, itself a political dynasty, will have little hope of pressing for democracy here, much less in the greater Middle East.

    Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 3:27 AM | Permalink

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