Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michael Young

The Fall of Beirut

Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt now says he “supports” Hezbollah and the ghastly regime in Syria that murdered his father and his friend Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah’s fan boys should not kid themselves here. Jumblatt is under duress and is only saying what he must to ensure his own survival and that of his people.

Saad Hariri remains defiant, but Michael Young — the best analyst of Lebanon’s internal politics — thinks he probably won’t return as prime minister. If that’s the case, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution is well and truly cooked. Beirut is being cleverly reconquered by Damascus and Tehran, and is rejoining, against its will, the Iran-led Resistance Bloc.

Everybody in Lebanon needs to understand something: Israel is more likely than ever to target the entire country during the next round of conflict. Not since 1948 has Israel fought a war against the Lebanese government; its wars in Lebanon have always been waged against terrorist organizations that were beyond the control of the state.

But if Hezbollah leads the government, the government will be a legitimate target. That’s how it works. Regime-change in Lebanon would have been an insane policy with Hariri’s March 14 coalition in charge, but it won’t be if Hezbollah is calling the shots.

The next war will almost certainly be bloodier than the last.

Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt now says he “supports” Hezbollah and the ghastly regime in Syria that murdered his father and his friend Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah’s fan boys should not kid themselves here. Jumblatt is under duress and is only saying what he must to ensure his own survival and that of his people.

Saad Hariri remains defiant, but Michael Young — the best analyst of Lebanon’s internal politics — thinks he probably won’t return as prime minister. If that’s the case, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution is well and truly cooked. Beirut is being cleverly reconquered by Damascus and Tehran, and is rejoining, against its will, the Iran-led Resistance Bloc.

Everybody in Lebanon needs to understand something: Israel is more likely than ever to target the entire country during the next round of conflict. Not since 1948 has Israel fought a war against the Lebanese government; its wars in Lebanon have always been waged against terrorist organizations that were beyond the control of the state.

But if Hezbollah leads the government, the government will be a legitimate target. That’s how it works. Regime-change in Lebanon would have been an insane policy with Hariri’s March 14 coalition in charge, but it won’t be if Hezbollah is calling the shots.

The next war will almost certainly be bloodier than the last.

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A Good Choice for a Bad Job

I am not sure that the U.S. should be sending an ambassador back to Syria, which continues to play the old game of saying it wants better relations with the West while simultaneously meddling in Lebanese affairs, trying to acquire nuclear arms, stockpiling chemical weapons, repressing all internal opposition, working with Iran to arm Hezbollah and Hamas, facilitating Sunni terrorist operations in Iraq, and generally harming the overall prospects of peace and stability in the Middle East. Damascus is likely to see the appointment of a top American diplomat as a reward for its disruptive behavior — especially when, as Michael Young notes, the U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which could have put serious pressure on Syria to reform, is going nowhere fast. The Bush administration withdrew our ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest the Hariri assassination, which was undoubtedly engineered from Syria. No one in Syria has been held accountable, and yet here comes our ambassador calling.

That said, if we are going to send an ambassador to Damascus, it is hard to think of a better choice than Robert Ford. He is currently deputy chief of mission in Iraq, and it was in that capacity that I met with him on my visit to Baghdad last fall. I came away extremely impressed by this career diplomat, who speaks fluent Arabic and has previously served as the U.S. ambassador in Algeria. I realize that State Department Arabists have a checkered reputation — see Robert Kaplan’s fine book on that subject, which makes it clear that too often the Arabists have adopted a “see-no-evil attitude” toward the Arabs while displaying unremitting hostility to the Israelis. Bob Ford isn’t like that at all. I found him to be a singularly shrewd, insightful, and clear-eyed analyst of Iraqi politics. In fact, I left his office wondering why he wasn’t appointed ambassador in place of Chris Hill, who has no background in the Middle East.

Ford will be the best possible American representative in Damascus. I just hope he will not be forced to front for an Obama-esque policy of appeasement. It is possible that after the failure of engagement in Iran, the administration will now redouble its efforts to reach some kind of accommodation with Syria that will enhance rather than diminish the troublemaking capacity of the Alawite clique at the center of Syrian politics.

I am not sure that the U.S. should be sending an ambassador back to Syria, which continues to play the old game of saying it wants better relations with the West while simultaneously meddling in Lebanese affairs, trying to acquire nuclear arms, stockpiling chemical weapons, repressing all internal opposition, working with Iran to arm Hezbollah and Hamas, facilitating Sunni terrorist operations in Iraq, and generally harming the overall prospects of peace and stability in the Middle East. Damascus is likely to see the appointment of a top American diplomat as a reward for its disruptive behavior — especially when, as Michael Young notes, the U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which could have put serious pressure on Syria to reform, is going nowhere fast. The Bush administration withdrew our ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest the Hariri assassination, which was undoubtedly engineered from Syria. No one in Syria has been held accountable, and yet here comes our ambassador calling.

That said, if we are going to send an ambassador to Damascus, it is hard to think of a better choice than Robert Ford. He is currently deputy chief of mission in Iraq, and it was in that capacity that I met with him on my visit to Baghdad last fall. I came away extremely impressed by this career diplomat, who speaks fluent Arabic and has previously served as the U.S. ambassador in Algeria. I realize that State Department Arabists have a checkered reputation — see Robert Kaplan’s fine book on that subject, which makes it clear that too often the Arabists have adopted a “see-no-evil attitude” toward the Arabs while displaying unremitting hostility to the Israelis. Bob Ford isn’t like that at all. I found him to be a singularly shrewd, insightful, and clear-eyed analyst of Iraqi politics. In fact, I left his office wondering why he wasn’t appointed ambassador in place of Chris Hill, who has no background in the Middle East.

Ford will be the best possible American representative in Damascus. I just hope he will not be forced to front for an Obama-esque policy of appeasement. It is possible that after the failure of engagement in Iran, the administration will now redouble its efforts to reach some kind of accommodation with Syria that will enhance rather than diminish the troublemaking capacity of the Alawite clique at the center of Syrian politics.

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Lebanon Recriminations

To add to Eric’s great post below, and to the thoughts of Michael Young and David Schenker, I think it’s appropriate, in the midst of the false denouement of the latest crisis, to take a moment and look at the dreadful behavior of the United Nations.

Remember UN Security Council Resolution 1559? It was passed way back in 2004, and it required the disarmament of Hezbollah. It was ignored. Then there is UNIFIL, the special UN blue-helmet force that, since the end of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, has sat in southern Lebanon doing little other than timidly dissuading Hezbollah from rebuilding its infrastructure in plain view on Israel’s border. When Hezbollah wants UNIFIL to leave, UNIFIL will leave. Before the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, UNIFIL did even less, and in one famous case actually collaborated with Hezbollah in the murder of Israeli soldiers. The 2006 war ended under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which authorized an “enhanced” UNIFIL that was tasked with preventing Hezbollah’s re-armament. That resolution was violated before its approval made it into the morning papers, and continues to be ignored with impunity by everyone from Iran and Syria to UNIFIL itself; Hezbollah today is better-armed than it was before the 2006 war.

Whatever else one wants to say about the Doha meeting, at least it didn’t involve the United Nations.

To add to Eric’s great post below, and to the thoughts of Michael Young and David Schenker, I think it’s appropriate, in the midst of the false denouement of the latest crisis, to take a moment and look at the dreadful behavior of the United Nations.

Remember UN Security Council Resolution 1559? It was passed way back in 2004, and it required the disarmament of Hezbollah. It was ignored. Then there is UNIFIL, the special UN blue-helmet force that, since the end of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, has sat in southern Lebanon doing little other than timidly dissuading Hezbollah from rebuilding its infrastructure in plain view on Israel’s border. When Hezbollah wants UNIFIL to leave, UNIFIL will leave. Before the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, UNIFIL did even less, and in one famous case actually collaborated with Hezbollah in the murder of Israeli soldiers. The 2006 war ended under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which authorized an “enhanced” UNIFIL that was tasked with preventing Hezbollah’s re-armament. That resolution was violated before its approval made it into the morning papers, and continues to be ignored with impunity by everyone from Iran and Syria to UNIFIL itself; Hezbollah today is better-armed than it was before the 2006 war.

Whatever else one wants to say about the Doha meeting, at least it didn’t involve the United Nations.

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Statehood for Hezbollah?

Michael Young has a characteristically terrific column in the Beirut Daily Star about Hezbollah’s latest power play.

Since last January, when Hizbullah and Amal [a Hezbollah-aligned Shia group--NP] used the pretense of social dissatisfaction to obstruct roads in and around Beirut, the opposition has, quite openly, shown itself to be limited to Hizbullah. Michel Aoun, once a useful fig leaf to lend cross-communal diversity to the opposition, has since become an afterthought with hardly any pull in Christian streets. . . .

Aoun will doubtless find an excuse to explain why the calls for a strike were ignored in predominantly Christian areas. But Hizbullah has to be careful. Now the party’s every move is one of the Shiites against the rest. The sharp decline in Aoun’s popularity, not to mention the pressure being felt by other Hizbullah allies like Elie Skaff in Zahleh, all emanate from a single source: Most Christians, not to mention vast majorities of Sunnis and Druze, see no possible coexistence between the idea of the Lebanese state and a Hizbullah that insists on demanding veto power over any decision that might limit its political and military margin of maneuver.

Exactly right. Hezbollah has been attempting to increase its power — and hence Iranian-Syrian power — in Lebanon with great urgency since the March 14 triumph and the 2006 war with Israel. Until now, it has been able to do so with a sectarian flourish through its alliance with Michel Aoun, and to pretend that it was merely fighting for its fair share of political influence. This was always a cynical charade, but it was one that a lot of people were willing to believe, and it gave Hezbollah (and its foreign patrons) cover and talking points to deflect attention from their real agenda.

There are now three messy options: capitulate to Hezbollah; fight Hezbollah by force of arms; or seek the separation of Shia Lebanon from Christian, Sunni, and Druze Lebanon. Young ends his column on the latter note:

If [Hezbollah] wants its semi-independent entity, it is now obliged to state this plainly. The masks have fallen. And if Hizbullah does decide to reject Lebanon, then we shouldn’t be surprised if some start speaking of an amicable divorce between Shiites and the rest of Lebanon.

The problem with this thinking is that it is hard to imagine a divorce between the Shia and the rest of Lebanon taking place amicable. It would actually be a bloodbath — a horrendous, awful war, involving extensive intervention from outside powers and the transfer of entire populations between regions within Lebanon.

War would be required because the last thing Hezbollah and its sponsors want is a divorce. The dysfunctional marriage protects Hezbollah, insofar as to go to war against Hezbollah requires going to war against Lebanon itself. And Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanese politics, however cynical and manipulative it may be, gives the group one of the major justifications of its existence — that it is a legitimate political party representing the Shia of Lebanon. Being pushed into sovereignty is one of the last things that Hezbollah, Syria, or Iran want, and they will fight hard to prevent it from happening.

Michael Young has a characteristically terrific column in the Beirut Daily Star about Hezbollah’s latest power play.

Since last January, when Hizbullah and Amal [a Hezbollah-aligned Shia group--NP] used the pretense of social dissatisfaction to obstruct roads in and around Beirut, the opposition has, quite openly, shown itself to be limited to Hizbullah. Michel Aoun, once a useful fig leaf to lend cross-communal diversity to the opposition, has since become an afterthought with hardly any pull in Christian streets. . . .

Aoun will doubtless find an excuse to explain why the calls for a strike were ignored in predominantly Christian areas. But Hizbullah has to be careful. Now the party’s every move is one of the Shiites against the rest. The sharp decline in Aoun’s popularity, not to mention the pressure being felt by other Hizbullah allies like Elie Skaff in Zahleh, all emanate from a single source: Most Christians, not to mention vast majorities of Sunnis and Druze, see no possible coexistence between the idea of the Lebanese state and a Hizbullah that insists on demanding veto power over any decision that might limit its political and military margin of maneuver.

Exactly right. Hezbollah has been attempting to increase its power — and hence Iranian-Syrian power — in Lebanon with great urgency since the March 14 triumph and the 2006 war with Israel. Until now, it has been able to do so with a sectarian flourish through its alliance with Michel Aoun, and to pretend that it was merely fighting for its fair share of political influence. This was always a cynical charade, but it was one that a lot of people were willing to believe, and it gave Hezbollah (and its foreign patrons) cover and talking points to deflect attention from their real agenda.

There are now three messy options: capitulate to Hezbollah; fight Hezbollah by force of arms; or seek the separation of Shia Lebanon from Christian, Sunni, and Druze Lebanon. Young ends his column on the latter note:

If [Hezbollah] wants its semi-independent entity, it is now obliged to state this plainly. The masks have fallen. And if Hizbullah does decide to reject Lebanon, then we shouldn’t be surprised if some start speaking of an amicable divorce between Shiites and the rest of Lebanon.

The problem with this thinking is that it is hard to imagine a divorce between the Shia and the rest of Lebanon taking place amicable. It would actually be a bloodbath — a horrendous, awful war, involving extensive intervention from outside powers and the transfer of entire populations between regions within Lebanon.

War would be required because the last thing Hezbollah and its sponsors want is a divorce. The dysfunctional marriage protects Hezbollah, insofar as to go to war against Hezbollah requires going to war against Lebanon itself. And Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanese politics, however cynical and manipulative it may be, gives the group one of the major justifications of its existence — that it is a legitimate political party representing the Shia of Lebanon. Being pushed into sovereignty is one of the last things that Hezbollah, Syria, or Iran want, and they will fight hard to prevent it from happening.

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Daniel Levy, Making Stuff up Again

Ah, Daniel Levy. He is the far left’s favorite analyst of the Israeli-Arab dispute, and he is possessed of some very strange ideas. Several months ago I wrote a long piece laying out a few of his mendacities for NRO.

I happened upon his big-think Middle East piece in the current Prospect, and couldn’t help but take a quick look. It’s more or less a long tour of foreign policy fantasy-land. But this item in particular jumped off the page:

Recalibrating policy toward Hamas has become central to progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Contrary to popular misperception, Hamas and al-Qaeda are adversaries, not allies. Hamas is about ending the occupation and reforming Palestinian society; al-Qaeda, about opposing the West per se and spreading chaos in the Muslim world and beyond. One is reformist, the other revolutionary; one nationalist, the other post-nationalist; one grievance-based, the other fundamentalist.

Amazing! The leaders of Hamas have, in Levy’s telling, been lying for decades about what they want. You thought Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh wish to destroy Israel, because that’s what they’ve promised to do over and over again? Well, you must be a simpleton. Or maybe you read the Hamas charter: “The Islamic Resistance Movement . . . strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” Is it possible that Levy doesn’t understand that when Hamas leaders talk about “the occupation,” they mean Tel Aviv, not the West Bank? No — he certainly knows this. Maybe he received a secret communiqué in which Hamas rescinded its most basic principles?

And Hamas as a nationalist movement? Also a figment Levy’s imagination. Here’s the Charter again:

As for the objectives: They are the fighting against the false, defeating it and vanquishing it so that justice could prevail, homelands be retrieved and from its mosques would the voice of the mu’azen emerge declaring the establishment of the state of Islam, so that people and things would return each to their right places and Allah is our helper.

“The state of Islam.” Note to Levy: this is different than the state of Palestine.

All of this reminded me of Michael Young’s most recent column in the Beirut Daily Star, which perfectly anticipated Levy’s essay. Young’s topic is the foolishness of western apologists for Islamist groups:

Why is the topic important? Because over the years academics, analysts, journalists, and others, particularly the Westerners among them, who write about militant Islamist groups, have tended to project their own liberal attitudes and desires onto such groups, misinterpreting their intentions and largely ignoring what these groups say about themselves. Inasmuch as most such observers cannot really fathom the totalitarian strain in the aims and language of armed Islamists, totalitarian in the sense of pursuing a total idea, total in its purity, they cannot accept that the total idea can also be apocalyptic. Where Nasrallah and the leaders of Hamas will repeat that Israel’s elimination is a quasi-religious duty, the sympathetic Westernized observer, for whom the concept of elimination is intolerable, will think much more benignly in terms of well-intentioned “bargaining.” Hamas and Hizbullah are pragmatic, they will argue, so that their statements and deeds are only leverage to achieve specific political ends that, once attained, will allow a return to harmonious equilibrium.

This argument, so tirelessly made, is tiresomely irrelevant.

Young concludes: “For outside observers to ignore or reinterpret their words in order to justify a personal weakness for these groups’ revolutionary seductions is both self-centered and analytically useless.”

I don’t know how self-centered Levy is. But analytically useless? Most definitely.

Ah, Daniel Levy. He is the far left’s favorite analyst of the Israeli-Arab dispute, and he is possessed of some very strange ideas. Several months ago I wrote a long piece laying out a few of his mendacities for NRO.

I happened upon his big-think Middle East piece in the current Prospect, and couldn’t help but take a quick look. It’s more or less a long tour of foreign policy fantasy-land. But this item in particular jumped off the page:

Recalibrating policy toward Hamas has become central to progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Contrary to popular misperception, Hamas and al-Qaeda are adversaries, not allies. Hamas is about ending the occupation and reforming Palestinian society; al-Qaeda, about opposing the West per se and spreading chaos in the Muslim world and beyond. One is reformist, the other revolutionary; one nationalist, the other post-nationalist; one grievance-based, the other fundamentalist.

Amazing! The leaders of Hamas have, in Levy’s telling, been lying for decades about what they want. You thought Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh wish to destroy Israel, because that’s what they’ve promised to do over and over again? Well, you must be a simpleton. Or maybe you read the Hamas charter: “The Islamic Resistance Movement . . . strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” Is it possible that Levy doesn’t understand that when Hamas leaders talk about “the occupation,” they mean Tel Aviv, not the West Bank? No — he certainly knows this. Maybe he received a secret communiqué in which Hamas rescinded its most basic principles?

And Hamas as a nationalist movement? Also a figment Levy’s imagination. Here’s the Charter again:

As for the objectives: They are the fighting against the false, defeating it and vanquishing it so that justice could prevail, homelands be retrieved and from its mosques would the voice of the mu’azen emerge declaring the establishment of the state of Islam, so that people and things would return each to their right places and Allah is our helper.

“The state of Islam.” Note to Levy: this is different than the state of Palestine.

All of this reminded me of Michael Young’s most recent column in the Beirut Daily Star, which perfectly anticipated Levy’s essay. Young’s topic is the foolishness of western apologists for Islamist groups:

Why is the topic important? Because over the years academics, analysts, journalists, and others, particularly the Westerners among them, who write about militant Islamist groups, have tended to project their own liberal attitudes and desires onto such groups, misinterpreting their intentions and largely ignoring what these groups say about themselves. Inasmuch as most such observers cannot really fathom the totalitarian strain in the aims and language of armed Islamists, totalitarian in the sense of pursuing a total idea, total in its purity, they cannot accept that the total idea can also be apocalyptic. Where Nasrallah and the leaders of Hamas will repeat that Israel’s elimination is a quasi-religious duty, the sympathetic Westernized observer, for whom the concept of elimination is intolerable, will think much more benignly in terms of well-intentioned “bargaining.” Hamas and Hizbullah are pragmatic, they will argue, so that their statements and deeds are only leverage to achieve specific political ends that, once attained, will allow a return to harmonious equilibrium.

This argument, so tirelessly made, is tiresomely irrelevant.

Young concludes: “For outside observers to ignore or reinterpret their words in order to justify a personal weakness for these groups’ revolutionary seductions is both self-centered and analytically useless.”

I don’t know how self-centered Levy is. But analytically useless? Most definitely.

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Hezbollah’s Media Relations

Michael Young has a terrific article in Reason magazine about the collateral damage (as he put it) in think tanks, academia, and the media after the assassination of Hezbollah Commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. He zeroes in on leftist icons Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein for their full-throated support for the Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist militia. (Be sure to watch Finkelstein’s performance on Lebanon’s Future TV here, and note how exasperated his interviewer Najat Sharafeddine is with his views.) The absurd alliance of violent Islamists and leftists has been covered elsewhere at length. At least Finkelstein and Chomsky are honest with their audience about what they believe and where they’re coming from.

Young also points out what may be a more serious problem, one much harder for most observers to see. Certain things are expected of those who want to maintain access to groups like Hezbollah. As Young points out,

Hezbollah is adept at turning contacts with the party into valuable favors . . . Writers and scholars, particularly Westerners, who lay claim to Hezbollah sources, are regarded as special for penetrating so closed a society. That’s why their writing is often edited with minimal rigor. Hezbollah always denied everything that was said about Mughniyeh, and few authors (or editors) showed the curiosity to push further than that. The mere fact of getting such a denial was considered an achievement in itself, a sign of rare access, and no one was about to jeopardize that access by calling Hezbollah liars.

Young is correct. And I’ll add that is there is nothing “special” or difficult about getting a quote from Hezbollah. I’ve done it. All I had to do was call their press office and take a taxi down to their headquarters. Every journalist in Lebanon has the phone number. What’s difficult is preserving access to Hezbollah. Doing so is not necessarily impressive, however. It took me five minutes and a press pass to gain access, but it lasted less than a week. I was threatened for writing this blog post, and I was blacklisted for publishing this article in the LA Weekly.

My experience isn’t unusual.

A journalist friend–whom I’ll keep anonymous because his comment to me was not on the record–was severely upbraided by Hezbollah’s “media relations” liaison for a neutral and entirely innocuous article he wrote for a left-wing American magazine I’m sure you’ve heard of or read. It wasn’t enough for them that his article wasn’t anti-Hezbollah. It also was not pro-Hezbollah. The party line was not toed.

During the July 2006 war in Northern Israel and South Lebanon, Beirut-based Time magazine reporter Chris Allbritton wrote the following on his blog: “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loath to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”

Reporter Charles Levinson wasn’t particularly impressed with them last August. “My experience with Hezbollah this week has left an unpleasant taste in my mouth,” he wrote on his blog Conflict Blotter. “I had heard this from other journalist friends who have recently returned from Lebanon, but discovered it for myself this week: their interaction with the press borders on fascist.”

You’ll notice that Allbritton and Levinson are speaking both for themselves and other journalists. Hezbollah didn’t single me out. Nor did Hezbollah single out Allbritton and Levinson. Despite their reputation for being media-savvy, the obstruction, harassment, and bullying of journalists is Hezbollah policy. Access is a meager carrot next to all that.

Some of us resist. Many do not. Some, like Chomsky and Finkelstein, don’t even have to. Michael Young is right to draw attention to those with access who will not call Hezbollah liars when they clearly are lying. It doesn’t matter if they do it to get a bite at the carrot or in fear of the stick.

Michael Young has a terrific article in Reason magazine about the collateral damage (as he put it) in think tanks, academia, and the media after the assassination of Hezbollah Commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. He zeroes in on leftist icons Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein for their full-throated support for the Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist militia. (Be sure to watch Finkelstein’s performance on Lebanon’s Future TV here, and note how exasperated his interviewer Najat Sharafeddine is with his views.) The absurd alliance of violent Islamists and leftists has been covered elsewhere at length. At least Finkelstein and Chomsky are honest with their audience about what they believe and where they’re coming from.

Young also points out what may be a more serious problem, one much harder for most observers to see. Certain things are expected of those who want to maintain access to groups like Hezbollah. As Young points out,

Hezbollah is adept at turning contacts with the party into valuable favors . . . Writers and scholars, particularly Westerners, who lay claim to Hezbollah sources, are regarded as special for penetrating so closed a society. That’s why their writing is often edited with minimal rigor. Hezbollah always denied everything that was said about Mughniyeh, and few authors (or editors) showed the curiosity to push further than that. The mere fact of getting such a denial was considered an achievement in itself, a sign of rare access, and no one was about to jeopardize that access by calling Hezbollah liars.

Young is correct. And I’ll add that is there is nothing “special” or difficult about getting a quote from Hezbollah. I’ve done it. All I had to do was call their press office and take a taxi down to their headquarters. Every journalist in Lebanon has the phone number. What’s difficult is preserving access to Hezbollah. Doing so is not necessarily impressive, however. It took me five minutes and a press pass to gain access, but it lasted less than a week. I was threatened for writing this blog post, and I was blacklisted for publishing this article in the LA Weekly.

My experience isn’t unusual.

A journalist friend–whom I’ll keep anonymous because his comment to me was not on the record–was severely upbraided by Hezbollah’s “media relations” liaison for a neutral and entirely innocuous article he wrote for a left-wing American magazine I’m sure you’ve heard of or read. It wasn’t enough for them that his article wasn’t anti-Hezbollah. It also was not pro-Hezbollah. The party line was not toed.

During the July 2006 war in Northern Israel and South Lebanon, Beirut-based Time magazine reporter Chris Allbritton wrote the following on his blog: “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loath to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”

Reporter Charles Levinson wasn’t particularly impressed with them last August. “My experience with Hezbollah this week has left an unpleasant taste in my mouth,” he wrote on his blog Conflict Blotter. “I had heard this from other journalist friends who have recently returned from Lebanon, but discovered it for myself this week: their interaction with the press borders on fascist.”

You’ll notice that Allbritton and Levinson are speaking both for themselves and other journalists. Hezbollah didn’t single me out. Nor did Hezbollah single out Allbritton and Levinson. Despite their reputation for being media-savvy, the obstruction, harassment, and bullying of journalists is Hezbollah policy. Access is a meager carrot next to all that.

Some of us resist. Many do not. Some, like Chomsky and Finkelstein, don’t even have to. Michael Young is right to draw attention to those with access who will not call Hezbollah liars when they clearly are lying. It doesn’t matter if they do it to get a bite at the carrot or in fear of the stick.

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Samantha Power: the Salon Interview

It might be time that I downgraded my opinion of Samantha Power from someone who I believe holds naive and mischievous opinions on the Middle East to someone who for the most part simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She gave a must-read interview yesterday to Salon.com.

What is the biggest foreign policy challenge for the next president?

The next president is really going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time, because no long-term peace in the Middle East is possible until we get some kind of modus vivendi in the Arab-Israeli situation.

Remarkable. Neither the Iraq war, nor the Iranian nuclear program, nor North Korean nuclear proliferation, nor the situation in Pakistan, nor the ascendant Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, in Power’s assessment, is comparable to “the Arab-Israeli situation.” This is, of course, the view of the world one gets from watching too many Christiane Amanpour specials on CNN; but it is also one that has virtually no currency among serious people.

You recently wrote in Time magazine that the U.S. needs to “rethink Iran.” What did you mean?

…To neutralize the support Ahmadinejad has domestically, we need to stop threatening and to get in a room with him — if only to convey grave displeasure about his tactics regionally and internationally — and then try to build international support for measures to prevent him from supporting terrorism and pursuing a nuclear program. If we’re ever going to actually put in place multilateral measures to contain Iran, the only way we’re going to do that is if we do it in a more united way with our allies.

To this, one can only reply: “Donny, you’re out of your element.” For starters, Ahmadinejad essentially has no domestic popularity in Iran. He is aggressively detested by everyone in the country with a reformist cast of mind, and he is widely blamed for crippling the Iranian economy through his imposition of some of the most half-baked centralized planning that exists in the world today. This Washington Post piece delves into Ahamadinejad’s domestic unpopularity; this piece from the Asia Times discusses his abysmal poll ratings. If Power thinks that we’re going to get anywhere with Iran by undermining Ahmadinejad’s “domestic support,” let me be the first to inform her: he doesn’t have any domestic support to begin with.

But that’s just a nitpick. The real swindle here is Power’s implication that the U.S. has yet to pursue a multilateral strategy for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, a fascinating rewriting of history. Between 2002 and 2006, the Bush administration delegated Iran diplomacy to the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the UK), specifically in pursuit of the cultivation of an international consensus against Iran’s nuclear program. The EU-3, working extensively through the IAEA — another of those international bodies that Power believes has been sidelined by the Bush administration — demonstrated nothing more than the ease with which it could be repeatedly manipulated and thwarted.

By the summer of 2006, the matter was handed over to the UN Security Council, another multilateral lever. The Security Council has since then produced a series of wrist-slaps on Iran. Power’s complaint — that the U.S. hasn’t acted multilaterally — is a fantasy. The real problem with the past six years of Iran diplomacy is that the multilateral channels through which our diplomacy has found expression have proven themselves utterly incapable of dealing with the problem. But I suppose it’s much easier to give interviews to credulous Salon reporters and pretend that we never tried, rather than confront the much thornier problem — that we have been trying, and failing.

Samantha Power believes that people like me, who raise perfectly legitimate questions about her judgment and knowledge of the Middle East, are trafficking in “fabrications” and a “smear campaign” against her and the Obama campaign. In everything I’ve written about her, including this post, I have always linked to what Power herself has said, so that readers could judge for themselves whether I’ve treated her fairly. Is it a smear to accuse someone of a smear, when none has been committed?

UPDATE: Michael Young weighs in here: “the egghead smells a foreign policy post.

It might be time that I downgraded my opinion of Samantha Power from someone who I believe holds naive and mischievous opinions on the Middle East to someone who for the most part simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She gave a must-read interview yesterday to Salon.com.

What is the biggest foreign policy challenge for the next president?

The next president is really going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time, because no long-term peace in the Middle East is possible until we get some kind of modus vivendi in the Arab-Israeli situation.

Remarkable. Neither the Iraq war, nor the Iranian nuclear program, nor North Korean nuclear proliferation, nor the situation in Pakistan, nor the ascendant Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, in Power’s assessment, is comparable to “the Arab-Israeli situation.” This is, of course, the view of the world one gets from watching too many Christiane Amanpour specials on CNN; but it is also one that has virtually no currency among serious people.

You recently wrote in Time magazine that the U.S. needs to “rethink Iran.” What did you mean?

…To neutralize the support Ahmadinejad has domestically, we need to stop threatening and to get in a room with him — if only to convey grave displeasure about his tactics regionally and internationally — and then try to build international support for measures to prevent him from supporting terrorism and pursuing a nuclear program. If we’re ever going to actually put in place multilateral measures to contain Iran, the only way we’re going to do that is if we do it in a more united way with our allies.

To this, one can only reply: “Donny, you’re out of your element.” For starters, Ahmadinejad essentially has no domestic popularity in Iran. He is aggressively detested by everyone in the country with a reformist cast of mind, and he is widely blamed for crippling the Iranian economy through his imposition of some of the most half-baked centralized planning that exists in the world today. This Washington Post piece delves into Ahamadinejad’s domestic unpopularity; this piece from the Asia Times discusses his abysmal poll ratings. If Power thinks that we’re going to get anywhere with Iran by undermining Ahmadinejad’s “domestic support,” let me be the first to inform her: he doesn’t have any domestic support to begin with.

But that’s just a nitpick. The real swindle here is Power’s implication that the U.S. has yet to pursue a multilateral strategy for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, a fascinating rewriting of history. Between 2002 and 2006, the Bush administration delegated Iran diplomacy to the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the UK), specifically in pursuit of the cultivation of an international consensus against Iran’s nuclear program. The EU-3, working extensively through the IAEA — another of those international bodies that Power believes has been sidelined by the Bush administration — demonstrated nothing more than the ease with which it could be repeatedly manipulated and thwarted.

By the summer of 2006, the matter was handed over to the UN Security Council, another multilateral lever. The Security Council has since then produced a series of wrist-slaps on Iran. Power’s complaint — that the U.S. hasn’t acted multilaterally — is a fantasy. The real problem with the past six years of Iran diplomacy is that the multilateral channels through which our diplomacy has found expression have proven themselves utterly incapable of dealing with the problem. But I suppose it’s much easier to give interviews to credulous Salon reporters and pretend that we never tried, rather than confront the much thornier problem — that we have been trying, and failing.

Samantha Power believes that people like me, who raise perfectly legitimate questions about her judgment and knowledge of the Middle East, are trafficking in “fabrications” and a “smear campaign” against her and the Obama campaign. In everything I’ve written about her, including this post, I have always linked to what Power herself has said, so that readers could judge for themselves whether I’ve treated her fairly. Is it a smear to accuse someone of a smear, when none has been committed?

UPDATE: Michael Young weighs in here: “the egghead smells a foreign policy post.

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A Neocon No Longer?

Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut, has written a must-read opinion article for Reason’s website. In it, he points out the blindingly obvious: that, contrary to myth, so-called neocons are not in control of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, especially when it comes to the Middle East.

The level of “neocon” influence has always been wildly exaggerated, as I argued in this Foreign Policy article all the way back in early 2004. Any “neocon” orientation is especially hard to find now outside of Bush’s grandiose speeches, which have little connection to policy. As Young points out:

Since 2006, the Bush administration has all but abandoned the democracy agenda to rally the despotic Arab regimes against Iran. Containment is the new catchword and, no surprise, it is pretty much what the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations spent two decades applying to post-revolution Iran…. Similarly, the Bush administration now finds itself back in the oldest gig in town: the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Young concludes: “That should please quite a few of Bush’s domestic critics. He’s returned to the futile routine in the Middle East that they always urged him to.” Yet Bush isn’t getting much credit from his political foes for his shift in policy. Perhaps that’s because the new approach is proving less successful than the dreaded neocon policies of the past, which, lest we forget, cracked open the A.Q. Khan proliferation network, led Libya to renounce its WMD program, and, if the latest National Intelligence Estimate is to be believed, caused Iran temporarily to suspend its own nuclear work in 2003. We are still waiting for any comparable achievements of the newly “realistic” second-term Bush administration.

Actually the administration has achieved something pretty impressive in the past year in Iraq, though that is the exception to the rule, perhaps because, when it came to the “surge,” the President reverted to his first-term instincts; he ignored the Washington establishment consensus that called for rapid troop drawdowns and instead listened to a few…neocons.

Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut, has written a must-read opinion article for Reason’s website. In it, he points out the blindingly obvious: that, contrary to myth, so-called neocons are not in control of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, especially when it comes to the Middle East.

The level of “neocon” influence has always been wildly exaggerated, as I argued in this Foreign Policy article all the way back in early 2004. Any “neocon” orientation is especially hard to find now outside of Bush’s grandiose speeches, which have little connection to policy. As Young points out:

Since 2006, the Bush administration has all but abandoned the democracy agenda to rally the despotic Arab regimes against Iran. Containment is the new catchword and, no surprise, it is pretty much what the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations spent two decades applying to post-revolution Iran…. Similarly, the Bush administration now finds itself back in the oldest gig in town: the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Young concludes: “That should please quite a few of Bush’s domestic critics. He’s returned to the futile routine in the Middle East that they always urged him to.” Yet Bush isn’t getting much credit from his political foes for his shift in policy. Perhaps that’s because the new approach is proving less successful than the dreaded neocon policies of the past, which, lest we forget, cracked open the A.Q. Khan proliferation network, led Libya to renounce its WMD program, and, if the latest National Intelligence Estimate is to be believed, caused Iran temporarily to suspend its own nuclear work in 2003. We are still waiting for any comparable achievements of the newly “realistic” second-term Bush administration.

Actually the administration has achieved something pretty impressive in the past year in Iraq, though that is the exception to the rule, perhaps because, when it came to the “surge,” the President reverted to his first-term instincts; he ignored the Washington establishment consensus that called for rapid troop drawdowns and instead listened to a few…neocons.

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Iran’s Hegemonic Drive

Following on the recent release of the NIE, Michael Young, an editor of the Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star, sheds light on the real game awaiting us with Iran. According to Young, the main issue is not the report’s accuracy, but rather Iran’s push for hegemony in the region and the reaction of the U.S. to that push. Iran’s rhetoric gives plenty of reason to believe that rationality is not the strongest feature of its rulers. On the other hand, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is very rational, given the country’s ambitions: a bomb (or the capacity to build it) would greatly enhance its power over the Gulf, the Caspian Basin, and the Levant. As Iran gained power, it would become an unignorable player in the complex game of Palestinian-Israeli peace.

The intelligence community has now concluded that the Iranians are no longer building a bomb. But is Iran, then, harmless? Of course not. The NIE shows that the Iranians were building a bomb in the first place, something that no official document asserted conclusively until now (the IAEA never went so far, saying only that it could not confirm the Iranians were NOT building a bomb). Given that the NIE says the Iranians halted the weaponization part of their program under pressure (while they kept working on the two more difficult elements of the program, enrichment and ballistic missiles), why should that pressure be let off now?

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Following on the recent release of the NIE, Michael Young, an editor of the Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star, sheds light on the real game awaiting us with Iran. According to Young, the main issue is not the report’s accuracy, but rather Iran’s push for hegemony in the region and the reaction of the U.S. to that push. Iran’s rhetoric gives plenty of reason to believe that rationality is not the strongest feature of its rulers. On the other hand, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is very rational, given the country’s ambitions: a bomb (or the capacity to build it) would greatly enhance its power over the Gulf, the Caspian Basin, and the Levant. As Iran gained power, it would become an unignorable player in the complex game of Palestinian-Israeli peace.

The intelligence community has now concluded that the Iranians are no longer building a bomb. But is Iran, then, harmless? Of course not. The NIE shows that the Iranians were building a bomb in the first place, something that no official document asserted conclusively until now (the IAEA never went so far, saying only that it could not confirm the Iranians were NOT building a bomb). Given that the NIE says the Iranians halted the weaponization part of their program under pressure (while they kept working on the two more difficult elements of the program, enrichment and ballistic missiles), why should that pressure be let off now?

Even if one assumes the NIE to be accurate, the basic questions about Iran do not change. Can the U.S. afford to let the Iranians become the dominant regional power and have a say over all the crises the West wishes to solve in the Middle East? Can the U.S. afford an outcome in Lebanon solely dictated by Tehran? How Does Iran’s desire to be a player in the “peace process” square with that process’s nominal goal? And what about Iran’s support of insurgents in Southern Iraq ? And Iran’s bullying of other Gulf states? Young says that

Iran would gladly draw the U.S. into a lengthy discussion of everything and nothing, and use this empty gabfest as a smokescreen to advance its agenda. But diplomacy is not an end in itself; to be meaningful it has to achieve specific aims and be based on confidence that both sides seek a mutually advantageous deal. Nothing suggests the Iranians have reached that stage yet.

Focus on the bomb has led some to ask the wrong questions about Iran. Iran’s current agenda is a threat to Western interests—the bomb is just a tool to advance that agenda more effectively. Instead of accommodating Iran in exchange for a temporary reprieve in its pursuit of nuclear power, American foreign policy should focus on containing Iran’s push for hegemony.

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The Abandoned Revolution

The news from Lebanon is getting worse and worse. On Wednesday, François Hajj, a prominent general in the Lebanese Army, was killed in a massive car bombing near Beirut. He is the ninth Lebanese political figure to be murdered since the car-bombing of Rafik Hariri in 2005 kicked off Syria’s killing spree.

The rationale behind Hajj’s murder is the same rationale that has been behind every such assassination, save for a few small strategic details. As Walid Phares notes,

the slain commander had in past months and years refused to accept Hezbollah’s exclusive areas of control in south Lebanon and in the Bekaa valley. Moreover he was credited for coordinating the Lebanese Army offensive against the Fatah [al-] Islam Terror group in Nahr al Bared camp in north Lebanon over the summer. The strike can be understood as a message to the Lebanese Army not to attempt to confront terror groups in the future, including Hezbollah.

Michael Young, who is always required reading on Lebanon, adds that

The Syrians are accelerating their return to Lebanon, and the disastrous French initiative on the presidency only confirmed to them that the international community would readily engage Syria on Lebanon. As for the United States, it has been comatose. . . . The French and the Americans have been neutralized in Lebanon. . . . Creating a [political power] vacuum is not a strategy; it is a tactic designed to bring someone to power on Syria’s terms. Damascus wants exclusivity in the next Lebanese president, but without its armed forces in the country to impose this, a new officeholder might prove too independent.

Those are the specific reasons, but the larger reason is Syria’s dedication to regaining its former prominence in the eastern Mediterranean. As Tony Badran writes in an excellent post about the assassination,

Assad wants an American and regional (read Saudi) mandate for his colonization of Lebanon. This is the same reason why he wants talks with the Israelis, as he believes that would be his ticket to the U.S., and consequently, for his return to Lebanon. The Europeans and Arabs thought, and some might still think, that if you offer Syria the prospect of the Golan, then they would leave Lebanon alone.

The problem with the way America and France view Syria is in thinking that the Assad regime is possessed of a set of discrete interests, each of which can be isolated and placated on its own terms. It would make our job easier if the Syrians actually thought this way, but there is no evidence that they do. The Syrian “interests” that we fret over are only the tips of an iceberg, a grand vision in which Syria pursues what it believes is a rightful ambition to regain its former glory as a preeminent regional power. Suddenly it doesn’t look like another Nancy Pelosi listening tour of Damascus is going to make much of a difference, does it?

One of the fundamental tasks of American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era should have been the establishment in the Middle East of a very simple principle: that the United States will defend its friends and punish its enemies. In Lebanon, as Syria methodically murders the leaders of the Cedar Revolution, we are again sending the wrong signals — that we will abandon our friends if loyalty to them becomes inconvenient or costly, and we will reward our enemies when we tire of their intransigence. Nothing good will come of this, either for us or for the brave and beleaguered Lebanese patriots whom we promised not to abandon.

The news from Lebanon is getting worse and worse. On Wednesday, François Hajj, a prominent general in the Lebanese Army, was killed in a massive car bombing near Beirut. He is the ninth Lebanese political figure to be murdered since the car-bombing of Rafik Hariri in 2005 kicked off Syria’s killing spree.

The rationale behind Hajj’s murder is the same rationale that has been behind every such assassination, save for a few small strategic details. As Walid Phares notes,

the slain commander had in past months and years refused to accept Hezbollah’s exclusive areas of control in south Lebanon and in the Bekaa valley. Moreover he was credited for coordinating the Lebanese Army offensive against the Fatah [al-] Islam Terror group in Nahr al Bared camp in north Lebanon over the summer. The strike can be understood as a message to the Lebanese Army not to attempt to confront terror groups in the future, including Hezbollah.

Michael Young, who is always required reading on Lebanon, adds that

The Syrians are accelerating their return to Lebanon, and the disastrous French initiative on the presidency only confirmed to them that the international community would readily engage Syria on Lebanon. As for the United States, it has been comatose. . . . The French and the Americans have been neutralized in Lebanon. . . . Creating a [political power] vacuum is not a strategy; it is a tactic designed to bring someone to power on Syria’s terms. Damascus wants exclusivity in the next Lebanese president, but without its armed forces in the country to impose this, a new officeholder might prove too independent.

Those are the specific reasons, but the larger reason is Syria’s dedication to regaining its former prominence in the eastern Mediterranean. As Tony Badran writes in an excellent post about the assassination,

Assad wants an American and regional (read Saudi) mandate for his colonization of Lebanon. This is the same reason why he wants talks with the Israelis, as he believes that would be his ticket to the U.S., and consequently, for his return to Lebanon. The Europeans and Arabs thought, and some might still think, that if you offer Syria the prospect of the Golan, then they would leave Lebanon alone.

The problem with the way America and France view Syria is in thinking that the Assad regime is possessed of a set of discrete interests, each of which can be isolated and placated on its own terms. It would make our job easier if the Syrians actually thought this way, but there is no evidence that they do. The Syrian “interests” that we fret over are only the tips of an iceberg, a grand vision in which Syria pursues what it believes is a rightful ambition to regain its former glory as a preeminent regional power. Suddenly it doesn’t look like another Nancy Pelosi listening tour of Damascus is going to make much of a difference, does it?

One of the fundamental tasks of American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era should have been the establishment in the Middle East of a very simple principle: that the United States will defend its friends and punish its enemies. In Lebanon, as Syria methodically murders the leaders of the Cedar Revolution, we are again sending the wrong signals — that we will abandon our friends if loyalty to them becomes inconvenient or costly, and we will reward our enemies when we tire of their intransigence. Nothing good will come of this, either for us or for the brave and beleaguered Lebanese patriots whom we promised not to abandon.

Read Less




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