Commentary Magazine


Topic: Fouad Siniora

Handshakes with the Enemy

Abe already blogged about this, but I wanted to follow up on Diana West’s fretting in the Washington Times about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Iraq, where he was supposedly given a warm reception by the Baghdad government. “[O]ur Iraqi allies have welcomed our Iranian enemies right into it.” Not so fast. Iraq and Iran are two Shia-majority countries. They share a long border and a terrible history, as Abe pointed out. They should be expected to have relations of some kind, and the more civil the better considering the depth of hatred Iranian Persians and Iraqi Arabs have for each other. Another full-blown war between Iraq and Iran is in the interests of no one.

In any case, a meeting, a few agreements, and a photo op don’t make these two countries an axis. Iran supports insurgents that for years have been trying to destroy the Baghdad government using terrorism, guerilla warfare, assassination, and sabotage. Who can seriously believe after all this–not to mention the centuries of conflict that preceded it–that the two governments actually like each other? Baghdad may formally welcome Ahmadinejad, but certainly not his proxy armies.

But let’s put that aside for the sake or argument and assume Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be a quiet Iranian sympathizer. What about Iraq’s president?

“Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with multiple kisses from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,” West notes before saying “Blech.” Talabani is not only Iraq’s president. He is also the political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the staunchly secular leftist political party with its home base in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya. The PUK provides funds and materials to at least two exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan whose explicit goal is the destruction of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran. Each of these parties has their own private army. One crossed into Iran recently and fought the regime in the streets during an uprising in the city of Mahabad. The idea that the secular, leftist, and Kurdish Jalal Talabani supports the theocratic, rightist, and Persian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while at the same time funding and supplying revolutionaries who cross the border, doesn’t make sense.

If you want to know the truth, pay close attention to what Middle Easterners do, not what they say. At least some elements in each of these governments hope to remove the other from power by force. Their making nice in front of the cameras is no more meaningful than Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn.

Middle Eastern leaders go through the motions of being nice to each other all the time when what they’d really like to do is pull out a dagger. Last May, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the international tribunal to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is not directed at “sister Syria.” Of course he doesn’t believe that, but that’s diplomacy for you. Almost everyone in Lebanon knows the Syrian regime was complicit in Hariri’s murder, as well as the murders that have picked off Siniora’s allies in parliament and the media one by one ever since.

I rented an apartment just around the corner from Siniora’s residence in Beirut, and I couldn’t walk anywhere near his house while using my cell phone. The signals are jammed. Cell phones can detonate car bombs. Siniora knows very well that he might be next and doesn’t think of Syria as anything like a brother or sister–at least not while the murderous Assad regime is in power.

In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman tells the story of Christian militia leader Camille Chamoun receiving flowers from his arch enemy Yasser Arafat while he was laid up in the hospital. During this time they both hoped to kill each other. “These two men,” Friedman wrote, “had sent so many young men to die in defense of their own personal power and status, and now they were sending bouquets. That was Beirut.”

It is not just Beirut. It is the whole Middle East where smoke, mirrors, and false friendships are normal.

Diana West correctly notes that some Middle Eastern leaders claim to be American allies while fomenting jihad. Well, yes. Of course. They do the same thing to each other.

Abe already blogged about this, but I wanted to follow up on Diana West’s fretting in the Washington Times about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Iraq, where he was supposedly given a warm reception by the Baghdad government. “[O]ur Iraqi allies have welcomed our Iranian enemies right into it.” Not so fast. Iraq and Iran are two Shia-majority countries. They share a long border and a terrible history, as Abe pointed out. They should be expected to have relations of some kind, and the more civil the better considering the depth of hatred Iranian Persians and Iraqi Arabs have for each other. Another full-blown war between Iraq and Iran is in the interests of no one.

In any case, a meeting, a few agreements, and a photo op don’t make these two countries an axis. Iran supports insurgents that for years have been trying to destroy the Baghdad government using terrorism, guerilla warfare, assassination, and sabotage. Who can seriously believe after all this–not to mention the centuries of conflict that preceded it–that the two governments actually like each other? Baghdad may formally welcome Ahmadinejad, but certainly not his proxy armies.

But let’s put that aside for the sake or argument and assume Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be a quiet Iranian sympathizer. What about Iraq’s president?

“Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with multiple kisses from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,” West notes before saying “Blech.” Talabani is not only Iraq’s president. He is also the political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the staunchly secular leftist political party with its home base in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya. The PUK provides funds and materials to at least two exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan whose explicit goal is the destruction of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran. Each of these parties has their own private army. One crossed into Iran recently and fought the regime in the streets during an uprising in the city of Mahabad. The idea that the secular, leftist, and Kurdish Jalal Talabani supports the theocratic, rightist, and Persian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while at the same time funding and supplying revolutionaries who cross the border, doesn’t make sense.

If you want to know the truth, pay close attention to what Middle Easterners do, not what they say. At least some elements in each of these governments hope to remove the other from power by force. Their making nice in front of the cameras is no more meaningful than Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn.

Middle Eastern leaders go through the motions of being nice to each other all the time when what they’d really like to do is pull out a dagger. Last May, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the international tribunal to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is not directed at “sister Syria.” Of course he doesn’t believe that, but that’s diplomacy for you. Almost everyone in Lebanon knows the Syrian regime was complicit in Hariri’s murder, as well as the murders that have picked off Siniora’s allies in parliament and the media one by one ever since.

I rented an apartment just around the corner from Siniora’s residence in Beirut, and I couldn’t walk anywhere near his house while using my cell phone. The signals are jammed. Cell phones can detonate car bombs. Siniora knows very well that he might be next and doesn’t think of Syria as anything like a brother or sister–at least not while the murderous Assad regime is in power.

In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman tells the story of Christian militia leader Camille Chamoun receiving flowers from his arch enemy Yasser Arafat while he was laid up in the hospital. During this time they both hoped to kill each other. “These two men,” Friedman wrote, “had sent so many young men to die in defense of their own personal power and status, and now they were sending bouquets. That was Beirut.”

It is not just Beirut. It is the whole Middle East where smoke, mirrors, and false friendships are normal.

Diana West correctly notes that some Middle Eastern leaders claim to be American allies while fomenting jihad. Well, yes. Of course. They do the same thing to each other.

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Assad Suckers Obama

Senator Barack Obama went on the record about the never-ending political meltdown in Lebanon, and for a moment there I thought he might have it just right.

“The ongoing political crisis is resulting in the destabilization of Lebanon,” he said, “which is an important country in the Middle East. The US cannot watch while Lebanon’s fresh democracy is about to collapse.” So far so good. “We must keep supporting the democratically-elected government of PM Fouad Siniora, strengthening the Lebanese army and insisting on the disarmament of Hezbollah before it leads Lebanon into another unnecessary war.”

This is all excellent, so let’s get something out of the way. Barack Obama is not a leftist. He is a liberal. The difference between an American liberal and an American leftist on Lebanon is enormous. I can’t tell you how many Western leftists I’ve met who ran off to Beirut where they endlessly excuse or even outright support Hezbollah. (They are “victims” of Zionism, they aren’t pro-American like those icky “right-wing” bourgeois Maronite Christians, etc.) Some of these Hezbollah supporters, tragically, are journalists. They put me in the right-wing “imperialist” and “orientalist” camp for no more than saying what Barack Obama just said.

Obama’s problem isn’t that he’s on the wrong side. His problem is he’s the latest in a seemingly limitless supply of naïve Westerners who think they can reason with Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad.

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Senator Barack Obama went on the record about the never-ending political meltdown in Lebanon, and for a moment there I thought he might have it just right.

“The ongoing political crisis is resulting in the destabilization of Lebanon,” he said, “which is an important country in the Middle East. The US cannot watch while Lebanon’s fresh democracy is about to collapse.” So far so good. “We must keep supporting the democratically-elected government of PM Fouad Siniora, strengthening the Lebanese army and insisting on the disarmament of Hezbollah before it leads Lebanon into another unnecessary war.”

This is all excellent, so let’s get something out of the way. Barack Obama is not a leftist. He is a liberal. The difference between an American liberal and an American leftist on Lebanon is enormous. I can’t tell you how many Western leftists I’ve met who ran off to Beirut where they endlessly excuse or even outright support Hezbollah. (They are “victims” of Zionism, they aren’t pro-American like those icky “right-wing” bourgeois Maronite Christians, etc.) Some of these Hezbollah supporters, tragically, are journalists. They put me in the right-wing “imperialist” and “orientalist” camp for no more than saying what Barack Obama just said.

Obama’s problem isn’t that he’s on the wrong side. His problem is he’s the latest in a seemingly limitless supply of naïve Westerners who think they can reason with Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad.

“Washington must rectify the wrong policy of President George Bush in Lebanon and resort to an efficient and permanent diplomacy, rather than empty slogans,” he said.

“What is bizarre about this sentence,” Lebanese political analyst Tony Badran said to me in an email, “is that the Lebanon policy has been precisely that. While Sen. Obama’s statement — and indeed conventional wisdom — tries to paint all Bush administration policies with the old brush of arrogant unilateralism, in reality, the Lebanon policy has always been a multilateral policy of consensus, through the UN security council, through international law, and through close partnership with European and regional allies like France and Saudi Arabia. It is unclear how Sen. Obama wishes to ‘replace’ that. The current policy is as consensual, multilateral and internationalist as you can get. What you need to replace ‘hollow rhetoric,’ as he put it, is not more ‘diplomatic engagement,’ it’s more tools of pressure.”

This is exactly right. Pressure of one kind or another is the only thing Bashar Assad, or his more ruthless father Hafez Assad, ever responds to.

Syria has exported terrorism to almost all its neighbors – to Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. So far only Turkey has managed to put an end to it once for all, and did so by threatening to invade. Turkey could smash Syria to pieces almost as quickly and easily as the Israelis were they so inclined. So that, as they say, was that.

Likewise, Assad withdrew all his occupation troops from Lebanon in 2005 after a million Lebanese citizens – almost a third of the total population – protested in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square and demanded their evacuation. It wasn’t the protest, though, that forced Assad out. It was what he felt was extraordinary pressure from the international community, most pointedly from the United States. “I am not Saddam Hussein,” he said at the time. “I want to cooperate.”

I doubt the Bush Administration threatened an invasion of Syria. It wasn’t necessary. The United States had just pulled the trigger in Iraq.

“We have,” Tony Badran continued, “as have our allies and friends, tried talking to the Syrians and the result is always the same: disastrous failure. Mr. Obama might think that his own personal charm is enough to turn Assad into a gushing 14 year old girl at an N’Sync concert, but he should pay close attention to the recent experience of one of our closest trans-Atlantic allies, French president Nicholas Sarkozy.”

Sarkozy thought he could achieve what Obama says he’ll achieve. After finally getting over the learning curve he decided, as have all others before him, that the only solution is a united Western front against Syria. That united Western front would join the already existing united Arab front against Syria. Every Arab government in the world is aligned against Syria already. The only Assad-friendly government in the region is the (Persian) Islamic Republic of Iran. All Arab governments are ahead of Obama, just as they were ahead of Sarkozy, who refused to listen when they warned him.

Assad is not going to break the Syrian-Iranian-Hamas-Hezbollah axis because Obama talks him into it over tea after everyone else who has ever tried has failed utterly. Obama could be counted on to iron out at least some differences with European diplomats and Republicans in Congress, but that’s because they’re democratic, civilized, and basically on the same side. Syria is an enemy state and acts accordingly. Assad isn’t a spouse in a troubled marriage on the Dr. Phil show. Obama is no more able to flip Syria into the Western camp than Syria can convince the U.S. to join Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

Common ground does not exist. We have nothing to talk about because what Assad wants first and foremost – Syria’s re-domination of Lebanon and its absorption into its state-sponsored terrorist axis – is unacceptable for everyone involved from Barack Obama to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

A united Arab-Western front against Syria might be effective. That’s what Assad is afraid of, and it’s the reason he continues to pretend what he wants is just “dialogue.” As if he just wants a friend and Bush is mean for not listening, as if “dialogue” is a cry for help so someone can help him kick his terrorist habit. There is always another sucker, somewhere, who thinks he or she can talk sense into the man and is willing to sabotage a united front in order to try.

Everyone who has ever tried to reason with Assad at length will tell you what I’m telling you now. It’s not a “liberal” or “conservative” thing, it just is. Obama is like the smart and popular college kid with a bright future, yet who still needs time to learn how the world works. He hasn’t acquired any foreign policy experience or expertise, and unfortunately his advisors are failing him here. They, of all people, should know this by now, yet they do not.

Obama desperately needs an advisor who understands Syria, and if he wants one who isn’t conservative he could could far worse than bringing on board political analyst and blogger Abu Kais, a Lebanese Shia who moved to Washington and is a critic of the Bush Administration.

“Murder has been profitable in our country, and in the region,” he wrote last month after assassins murdered anti-terrorist investigator Wissam Eid with a car bomb. “No one is going after the killers – their harshest punishment to date took the form of ‘initiatives’ and ‘dialogue.’ Lebanon, once again, is where anything goes, a free killing zone sanctioned by its enemies, and by friends who talk too much and do nothing.”

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Sarkozy Shows Us Up

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is showing up the United States, and not just because he has a far better looking girlfriend than any Commander-in-Chief of recent memory. In stark contrast to the uncharacteristically silent Bush administration, Jacques Chirac’s successor has demonstrated impressive toughness in addressing the deepening Lebanese presidential crisis, in which the Hezbollah-led opposition has blocked the parliamentary majority from electing a new president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended in November.

While visiting Egypt earlier this week, Sarkozy announced that France would suspend contacts with Syria as punishment for Syria’s political interference in Lebanon. Sarkozy compounded this blow by prompting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to declare his support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora; Mubarak said that Egypt “supports the election of a president for Lebanon as soon as possible”—an implicit dig against the Assad regime. On Wednesday, Syria responded with a far-less-convincing suspension of contact with France, oddly conceding, “Syria can’t dispense with France’s role in Europe.”

The Bush administration has long seen itself as having few good options vis-à-vis Syria. Though Washington views Syria as a key player in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, it has been hesitant to normalize relations with Damascus while the U.N. probe into Rafik Hariri’s assassination—in which the Assad regime has been implicated—is ongoing. In short, the administration has correctly refused to exchange the pipedream of Arab-Israeli peace for Lebanese stability, to which the completion of the Hariri investigation is essential. But Sarkozy’s breaking of ties with Syria provides the Bush administration with a key opening through which it can promote another essential regional interest: prying Syria from Iran.

As Iranian state television reported on Wednesday, in the aftermath of soured Syrian-French relations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “The pressures exerted by certain countries will never undermine the strong relations between Tehran and Damascus.” Au contraire! Only three days earlier, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly told U.S. Senator Arlen Specter that he was ready for peace talks with Israel, a move that would dampen Iranian-Syrian cooperation for years to come. With Sarkozy’s brilliant strike against Damascus, the Bush administration is now able to offer Assad a stark choice: normalization with western states that are broadly united on Lebanon and Arab-Israeli peace, or an isolated alliance with Iran. The former offers the political, strategic, and economic benefits of relations with the west and possible peace with Israel in accordance with Assad’s stated desires; the latter offers Syria’s continued confinement as a rogue state—a prospect made more costly by Sarkozy’s announcement. Most importantly, Lebanese stability—which has severe consequences for Arab democratization, Iranian ascendancy, Arab-Israeli peace—would no longer be on the table thanks to the leverage provided by Sarkozy’s move.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is showing up the United States, and not just because he has a far better looking girlfriend than any Commander-in-Chief of recent memory. In stark contrast to the uncharacteristically silent Bush administration, Jacques Chirac’s successor has demonstrated impressive toughness in addressing the deepening Lebanese presidential crisis, in which the Hezbollah-led opposition has blocked the parliamentary majority from electing a new president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended in November.

While visiting Egypt earlier this week, Sarkozy announced that France would suspend contacts with Syria as punishment for Syria’s political interference in Lebanon. Sarkozy compounded this blow by prompting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to declare his support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora; Mubarak said that Egypt “supports the election of a president for Lebanon as soon as possible”—an implicit dig against the Assad regime. On Wednesday, Syria responded with a far-less-convincing suspension of contact with France, oddly conceding, “Syria can’t dispense with France’s role in Europe.”

The Bush administration has long seen itself as having few good options vis-à-vis Syria. Though Washington views Syria as a key player in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, it has been hesitant to normalize relations with Damascus while the U.N. probe into Rafik Hariri’s assassination—in which the Assad regime has been implicated—is ongoing. In short, the administration has correctly refused to exchange the pipedream of Arab-Israeli peace for Lebanese stability, to which the completion of the Hariri investigation is essential. But Sarkozy’s breaking of ties with Syria provides the Bush administration with a key opening through which it can promote another essential regional interest: prying Syria from Iran.

As Iranian state television reported on Wednesday, in the aftermath of soured Syrian-French relations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “The pressures exerted by certain countries will never undermine the strong relations between Tehran and Damascus.” Au contraire! Only three days earlier, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly told U.S. Senator Arlen Specter that he was ready for peace talks with Israel, a move that would dampen Iranian-Syrian cooperation for years to come. With Sarkozy’s brilliant strike against Damascus, the Bush administration is now able to offer Assad a stark choice: normalization with western states that are broadly united on Lebanon and Arab-Israeli peace, or an isolated alliance with Iran. The former offers the political, strategic, and economic benefits of relations with the west and possible peace with Israel in accordance with Assad’s stated desires; the latter offers Syria’s continued confinement as a rogue state—a prospect made more costly by Sarkozy’s announcement. Most importantly, Lebanese stability—which has severe consequences for Arab democratization, Iranian ascendancy, Arab-Israeli peace—would no longer be on the table thanks to the leverage provided by Sarkozy’s move.

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Where’s the Middle East?

Few magazine covers are more iconic than Time’s annual “Person of the Year” issue, which commemorates the individual who has had the greatest impact on world events, for better or worse. This year’s choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a decent one. Putin has reasserted Russia’s role in international affairs—Russia has played a frustrating role vis-à-vis Iran, and is vying for an increased role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—while his domestic maneuvering has all but insured that he will be named prime minister upon leaving the presidency next year. For better or worse, Putin has been critically influential in world affairs, and will likely remain so for years to come.

But beyond selecting a “Person of the Year,” Time usually names a few runners-up, as well as roughly 15-30 “people who mattered.” In years past, Middle Eastern leaders have almost always fallen into these subsidiary categories. Last year—following Iran’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons and critical support for terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a runner-up. Ahmadinejad was also named a “person who mattered” in 2005, shortly after being elected. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon shared the distinction of “person who mattered” with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in 2004, and with Hamas in 2002; Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat “mattered” in 2000; and Jordan’s Queen Noor “mattered” in 1999. If we factor in Time’s reported decision to forgo Osama Bin Laden as “Person of the Year” in 2001 in favor of Rudy Giuliani, and accept that 2003’s selection of the American soldier as “Person of the Year” was an explicitly Middle East-relevant story, 2007 is the first year in nearly a decade in which the Middle East has been entirely shutout.

While we should avoid placing too much weight on these distinctions, the absence of Middle Eastern leaders from the list of “people who mattered” suggests that the Middle East is sorely lacking in compelling figures. Consider this remarkably uninspiring roster: Ehud Olmert (severely unpopular in Israel); Mahmoud Abbas (weak and unpopular); Fouad Siniora (fears assassination and lives in his parliamentary office); King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (biggest accomplishment: brokering the failed—and costly—Hamas-Fatah truce); Hosni Mubarak (renewed crackdowns against liberal dissidents); King Abdullah II of Jordan (M.I.A.); and Bashar al-Assad (passively sticking with Iran). Indeed, none of these leaders inspires much excitement, for better or worse.

Of course, the absence of newsworthy Middle Eastern leaders is not necessarily a bad thing. One can hardly be too nostalgic for Yasir Arafat’s shared “Man of the Year” designation in 1993, or King Faisal’s “Man of the Year” designation in 1974 during the OPEC price hikes. Still, the absence of a single compelling Middle Eastern leader suggests that the region is directionless. In this way, Time’s failure to recognize the Middle East speaks volumes.

Few magazine covers are more iconic than Time’s annual “Person of the Year” issue, which commemorates the individual who has had the greatest impact on world events, for better or worse. This year’s choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a decent one. Putin has reasserted Russia’s role in international affairs—Russia has played a frustrating role vis-à-vis Iran, and is vying for an increased role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—while his domestic maneuvering has all but insured that he will be named prime minister upon leaving the presidency next year. For better or worse, Putin has been critically influential in world affairs, and will likely remain so for years to come.

But beyond selecting a “Person of the Year,” Time usually names a few runners-up, as well as roughly 15-30 “people who mattered.” In years past, Middle Eastern leaders have almost always fallen into these subsidiary categories. Last year—following Iran’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons and critical support for terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a runner-up. Ahmadinejad was also named a “person who mattered” in 2005, shortly after being elected. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon shared the distinction of “person who mattered” with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in 2004, and with Hamas in 2002; Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat “mattered” in 2000; and Jordan’s Queen Noor “mattered” in 1999. If we factor in Time’s reported decision to forgo Osama Bin Laden as “Person of the Year” in 2001 in favor of Rudy Giuliani, and accept that 2003’s selection of the American soldier as “Person of the Year” was an explicitly Middle East-relevant story, 2007 is the first year in nearly a decade in which the Middle East has been entirely shutout.

While we should avoid placing too much weight on these distinctions, the absence of Middle Eastern leaders from the list of “people who mattered” suggests that the Middle East is sorely lacking in compelling figures. Consider this remarkably uninspiring roster: Ehud Olmert (severely unpopular in Israel); Mahmoud Abbas (weak and unpopular); Fouad Siniora (fears assassination and lives in his parliamentary office); King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (biggest accomplishment: brokering the failed—and costly—Hamas-Fatah truce); Hosni Mubarak (renewed crackdowns against liberal dissidents); King Abdullah II of Jordan (M.I.A.); and Bashar al-Assad (passively sticking with Iran). Indeed, none of these leaders inspires much excitement, for better or worse.

Of course, the absence of newsworthy Middle Eastern leaders is not necessarily a bad thing. One can hardly be too nostalgic for Yasir Arafat’s shared “Man of the Year” designation in 1993, or King Faisal’s “Man of the Year” designation in 1974 during the OPEC price hikes. Still, the absence of a single compelling Middle Eastern leader suggests that the region is directionless. In this way, Time’s failure to recognize the Middle East speaks volumes.

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Talk of the Town

Is Seymour Hersh credible? Is the New Yorker?

Haaretz has a story by Emmanuel Sivan today taking apart an article Hersh wrote for the New Yorker some months ago with a fantastical—and false—claim that the U.S. was funneling money to the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, even though we allegedly knew some of it was going to the al-Qaeda affiliated Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam. The New Yorker article in question, Sivan notes, appeared two months before fighting erupted between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army.

Lebanese reporters, tracking down Hersh’s source for this sensational finding, found it to be Robert Fisk, another journalist with a less than impeccable record, who in turn had heard it from yet another questionable source. “Thus are reports about the Middle East generated,” sardonically writes Sivan.

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Is Seymour Hersh credible? Is the New Yorker?

Haaretz has a story by Emmanuel Sivan today taking apart an article Hersh wrote for the New Yorker some months ago with a fantastical—and false—claim that the U.S. was funneling money to the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, even though we allegedly knew some of it was going to the al-Qaeda affiliated Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam. The New Yorker article in question, Sivan notes, appeared two months before fighting erupted between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army.

Lebanese reporters, tracking down Hersh’s source for this sensational finding, found it to be Robert Fisk, another journalist with a less than impeccable record, who in turn had heard it from yet another questionable source. “Thus are reports about the Middle East generated,” sardonically writes Sivan.

This episode brings to mind the New Yorker piece that Nicholas Lemann, Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, wrote back in January in which he brazenly pawned off the falsehood that it was the White House that sent Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger in February of 2002 to investigate claims that the country had shipped yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Of course, it was not the White House, but Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA officer in the agency’s counter-proliferation division, who suggested that her husband undertake the mission. The White House did not learn about Wilson’s mission to Niger until after his return.

Did the New Yorker publish a correction? Not yet. And I am not holding my breath.

Then, of course, there are other allegations leveled by the New Yorker’s national-security correspondent that have not checked out. As was first reported by the New York Observer, and as I noted in the December 2004 issue of COMMENTARY, Seymour Hersh, on the lecture circuit, has offered up gory details of U.S. atrocities in Iraq. Quoting one of his anonymous “sources,” a soldier in the field, Hersh informed one audience that

orders came down from the generals in Baghdad: we want to clear the village, like in Samarra. And, as [the soldier] told the story, another platoon from his company came and executed all the guards, as his people were screaming, “Stop!” And he said they just shot them one by one. He went nuts, and his soldiers went nuts. . . . And the company captain said, “No, you don’t understand. That’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents.”

Without a doubt, a massacre so reminiscent of My Lai was a sensational allegation. Without a doubt, it was almost certainly false, a fabrication cavalierly pawned off by Hersh as fact. An army of foreign journalists in Iraq, not exactly diffident when it comes to exposing American abuses, has thus far failed to unearth a single corroborating bit of evidence for this “atrocity,” and the U.S. military has no reports from the field attesting to an incident even faintly resembling it. Is this a journalist whose views, let alone whose facts, are to be trusted on anything?

The New Yorker’s fact-checking department is world renowned. The New Yorker’s fiction department is also world renowned. But one wonders, when it comes to stories bashing the Bush administration and/or the United States: have the two departments merged?

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Farewell Fatah al-Islam

“A crime of especial notoriety,” is what the Guardian called it in 2002 when Israel entered a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin to root out terrorists who had organized a suicide bombing that killed 29 at their seder tables in a hotel in Netanya on the first night of Passover. In all, 52 Palestinians, almost all of them terrorists, died in this supposed genocide, while Israel, in a costly effort to to conduct itself in the most humane fashion possible, lost 23 soldiers of its own.

In Tripoli right now, the Lebanese army is pounding a Palestinian refugee camp with tank shells and other heavy weapons far less discriminating in their lethal effects than anything fired by Israeli ground troops in Jenin—and many Lebanese are cheering them on. The choir of Europeans and American leftists who routinely champion the Palestinian cause is strangely silent—or maybe not so strangely silent. Perhaps their real interest lies not in defending Palestinian rights but in bashing Israel—and Israel, of course, is not engaged in this particular fray.

Whatever explains the silence, we should welcome it as an opportunity and join the Lebanese civilians who are cheering the Lebanese army on. On September 20, 2001, George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and laid out a strategy for protecting our country from another disaster like September 11: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda,” he said, “but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

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“A crime of especial notoriety,” is what the Guardian called it in 2002 when Israel entered a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin to root out terrorists who had organized a suicide bombing that killed 29 at their seder tables in a hotel in Netanya on the first night of Passover. In all, 52 Palestinians, almost all of them terrorists, died in this supposed genocide, while Israel, in a costly effort to to conduct itself in the most humane fashion possible, lost 23 soldiers of its own.

In Tripoli right now, the Lebanese army is pounding a Palestinian refugee camp with tank shells and other heavy weapons far less discriminating in their lethal effects than anything fired by Israeli ground troops in Jenin—and many Lebanese are cheering them on. The choir of Europeans and American leftists who routinely champion the Palestinian cause is strangely silent—or maybe not so strangely silent. Perhaps their real interest lies not in defending Palestinian rights but in bashing Israel—and Israel, of course, is not engaged in this particular fray.

Whatever explains the silence, we should welcome it as an opportunity and join the Lebanese civilians who are cheering the Lebanese army on. On September 20, 2001, George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and laid out a strategy for protecting our country from another disaster like September 11: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda,” he said, “but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

Although the U.S. is not involved, the fighting in northern Lebanon between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, a Palestinian group affiliate of al Qaeda, is nonetheless a potentially important testing ground for the Bush doctrine of denying “safe haven to terrorism.”

Parts of Lebanon, like Afghanistan under the Taliban, have become lawless sanctuaries for terrorist groups of global reach. The Iranian-backed Hizballah is the most significant of these. Not only does this Shiite movement retain powerful influence throughout Lebanon, but it is organized to strike abroad and is widely believed to have sleeper cells in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.

Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, however, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has never welcomed the terrorists in Lebanon’s midst. Rather, the terrorist presence is a consequence of his country’s chronic weakness, which flows from deep ethnic and religious divisions and continuing Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs.

Unwilling and unable to confront Hizballah directly, Siniora has deployed some 15,000 troops in Lebanon’s south, where the Shiite militia had enjoyed unlimited freedom of action until it provoked last summer’s war with Israel.

If Siniora successfully manages to extinguish Fatah al-Islam and the threat it represents to Lebanon, perhaps he will be emboldened to check more resolutely and ultimately disarm the Iranian-backed Hizballah. Movement in that direction could certainly be counted as a critical interest of the United States. We should be bending every diplomatic and military effort to help him accomplish it.

“We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest,” said President Bush on September 20, 2001. Time is running out on his administration. Let’s hope he keeps his word.

 

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