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.
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.
It’s been a bad couple of days for Islamic Jihad and Hamas. In response to increased rocket fire from IJ and mortar fire from Hamas, the IDF has conducted air and ground operations in Gaza that demonstrate an impressive combination of precision firepower and deadly accurate intelligence.
Ten Islamic Jihad terrorists were killed in two airstrikes Monday night and early this morning, including Majed Harazin, a high-value target, the head of IJ’s kassam rocket squads. You can watch infrared UAV video of his car getting blown up here (and note that the secondary explosions are larger than the explosion caused by the air strike—no doubt about what was in the trunk). Good riddance.
Meanwhile, four members of an IJ rocket crew were killed by IDF ground forces, and another high-value target, IJ’s Jenin commander, was killed in the West Bank. As a contributor to the Israellycool blog points out, the IDF has accomplished all of this without causing a single Palestinian civilian casualty. What other military in the world takes such pains to operate like this?
Islamic Jihad has of course threatened a terrible response:
“We have a long arm. You will soon [experience] strikes similar to those we carried out in Tel Aviv, Netanya, and Eilat,” Abu Hamza said in a message to residents of the towns broadcast on Hamas television, warning that his organization would step up Kassam attacks on Sderot, Ashkelon, Yad Mordechai, and Netivot.
Earlier, in an e-mail sent to reporters, Islamic Jihad said it would retaliate for its losses with suicide attacks inside Israel, threatening “a wave of martyrdom operations.”
Earlier this week, Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party held its annual conference, which closed with President Hosni Mubarak’s declaring that Egypt is “on the road to reform and development.” Naturally, not everyone agreed with his assessment. Given political conditions in Egypt, however, only a small group of protesters braved the ever-looming threat of violent crackdowns to protest the conference, where they were typically outnumbered four-to-one by armored riot police.
Restraints on freedoms of speech and association have been well-documented in Egypt, deplored by everyone from Condoleezza Rice to the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet there is one area in which speech in Egypt is remarkably free: vilification of Israel. In limiting the scope of free speech to this small area, Egypt has built a potent strategy for deterring Western efforts to promote greater liberty.
Consider the recent history of the Kifaya movement, which spearheaded the mass protests in 2005 that paved the way towards theoretically competitive—though ultimately rigged—elections that September. But after the elections, as a consequence of disappointing results and the absence of a unifying platform, Kifaya quickly fizzled.
In this country we’re not used to thinking of our politicians as heroes. And they seldom are—with some notable exceptions, such as Reagan, who cracked jokes after getting shot, or FDR, who grinned and bore his paralysis, or Lincoln, who directed the war effort with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Our politicians don’t have to be heroes; the Founders created a system in which average men and women could govern themselves.
But in other countries, especially in emerging democracies or in countries still oppressed by a dictator’s whims, being a politician can be a very heroic act. One thinks of Ayman Nour in Egypt, imprisoned for daring to run against Hosni Mubarak. Or Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, imprisoned in her homeland, separated from her husband as he was dying, because she dared challenge the junta that rules Burma.
The latest to join the ranks of heroic politicians is Garry Kasparov, who has announced that he will take on the thankless task of challenging Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor in Russia’s presidential elections. Kasparov—the subject of a long New Yorker profile by David Remnick last week—is widely considered to be the greatest chess player of all time. He is a rich man who could easily live a life of leisure in New York, London, or Tel Aviv. He has instead chosen to seek political office in Russia even though he knows the odds of victory are nonexistent. The odds of getting killed by the Kremlin’s thugs are considerably higher.
Yet he is running nevertheless simply because he believes in democracy and wants to preserve some sparks of freedom in a country increasingly falling under dictatorial control.That doesn’t mean that he is a political sage or that he is right about every decision he makes. I’ve had discussions with Kasparov (whom I know slightly) in the past where I disagreed with his arguments. And it is certainly possible to question the wisdom of his current alliance with Edward Limonov of the National Bolshevik Party, the closest thing Russia has to a fascist party. Kasparov wants to unite all the opposition groups under one banner, but there are some opposition elements which are too odious to be tolerated by civilized people.
But that’s a matter of tactics on Kasparov’s part. No one could possibly imagine that he is sympathetic to fascism himself or has any but the highest motives for his actions. It is easy to be cynical about the motives of most politicians. But it is hard, if not impossible, to think of any self-interest that Kasparov has in doing what he is doing. He is truly a hero. I only hope he does not become a martyr.