Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rafik Hariri

Time to Bring Justice to Hariri’s Assassin

Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese nationalist who served as that country’s prime minister between 1992 and 1998, and again between 2000 and 2004, was assassinated on February 14, 2005, after having stood up to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s demands that Lebanon extra-constitutionally extend the tenure of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud. Popular outrage in the wake of the assassination led to the Cedar Revolution, an uprising of the Lebanese people against Syrian domination. Alas, the fickleness of the March 14 coalition combined with the empowerment of Hezbollah that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blessed in the short-term pursuit of quiet ended hope that the Cedar Revolution would fundamentally transform Lebanese society. (Michael Young’s The Ghosts of Martyr’s Square, which I reviewed for COMMENTARY in May 2010, remains the best account of the period).

In subsequent years, Syria and its fellow-travelers at the United Nations managed to slow-roll the investigation and tribunal process meant to bring Hariri’s killers to justice. Now, the Beirut Observer has published photographs of the elusive main suspect, Mustafa Badr al-Din, Hezbollah’s second-in-command. The newspaper attributed the photographs to www.stop910.com, a website which purports to hound Hezbollah. Badr al-Din, like the late Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, has long sought to keep out of sight, and to keep any recent photographs from surfacing.

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Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese nationalist who served as that country’s prime minister between 1992 and 1998, and again between 2000 and 2004, was assassinated on February 14, 2005, after having stood up to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s demands that Lebanon extra-constitutionally extend the tenure of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud. Popular outrage in the wake of the assassination led to the Cedar Revolution, an uprising of the Lebanese people against Syrian domination. Alas, the fickleness of the March 14 coalition combined with the empowerment of Hezbollah that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blessed in the short-term pursuit of quiet ended hope that the Cedar Revolution would fundamentally transform Lebanese society. (Michael Young’s The Ghosts of Martyr’s Square, which I reviewed for COMMENTARY in May 2010, remains the best account of the period).

In subsequent years, Syria and its fellow-travelers at the United Nations managed to slow-roll the investigation and tribunal process meant to bring Hariri’s killers to justice. Now, the Beirut Observer has published photographs of the elusive main suspect, Mustafa Badr al-Din, Hezbollah’s second-in-command. The newspaper attributed the photographs to www.stop910.com, a website which purports to hound Hezbollah. Badr al-Din, like the late Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, has long sought to keep out of sight, and to keep any recent photographs from surfacing.

The new photographs should make it more difficult for the Lebanese government to shirk its responsibility to bring Badr al-Din to justice. The photos also suggest that Hezbollah is not as impermeable as the group pretends. Should Badr al-Din be active in neighboring Syria, let us hope that publication of his photograph will make every checkpoint and every passerby a mortal danger to a man who prefers to kill from afar.

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Who Is Najib Miqati?

So Hezbollah did it. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been replaced with Najib Miqati, a man billed as a “compromise” leader who is time zones away from being a Hezbollah member but who nevertheless agrees with Hezbollah on the few things — which ultimately add up to everything — that matter most.

Miqati says he’s an independent centrist who disagrees with Hezbollah as much as he disagrees with everyone else in Lebanon. I believe him, actually, so long as he’s referring to the number of things he disagrees with Hezbollah about. He’s a Sunni and therefore obviously not a cheerleader for the parochial Shia sectarian interests that Hezbollah champions. There’s no chance he endorses the Iranian government’s reigning ideology of Velayat-e faqih, the totalitarian theocratic system Hezbollah would love to impose on Lebanon if it had the strength — which it doesn’t. Miqati is a billionaire businessman and does not even remotely share Hezbollah’s cartoonish paranoia about global capitalism and how it’s supposedly a nefarious Jewish-American plot.

What Miqati will do, however, is safeguard “the resistance,” as he has promised — meaning he won’t ask Hezbollah to hand over its weapons to the authorities — which is one of only two things Hezbollah requires of him. The second is repudiate the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Everyone now expects the tribunal to indict Hezbollah for the assassination of the Sunni former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that may severely damage Hezbollah’s standing in the majority-Sunni Arab world even if it does have a prominent Sunni willing to provide some cover.

Hezbollah also needs, and will get, the same from Lebanon’s Christian president Michel Suleiman. Anything else these two leaders do in their official capacities is irrelevant from Hezbollah’s perspective.

Lebanon won’t likely ever resemble Gaza, which is under the complete control of an Islamist terrorist army. Hamas rules that beleaguered territory as the virtual Taliban of the eastern Mediterranean, but the Lebanese will blow their country to hell and gone all over again before submitting to something like that. Hezbollah knows it, as do the Syrians and the Iranians. They also know, or at least think they know, that they can bully the rest of the country into surrendering on the two most crucial items on its agenda, the ones that give Hezbollah the latitude to do whatever it wants in the Shia-majority areas that it does control directly.

We’re about to find out if that’s actually true. We’ll also most likely find out how true it remains if Israel takes the gloves off the next time there’s war.

So Hezbollah did it. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been replaced with Najib Miqati, a man billed as a “compromise” leader who is time zones away from being a Hezbollah member but who nevertheless agrees with Hezbollah on the few things — which ultimately add up to everything — that matter most.

Miqati says he’s an independent centrist who disagrees with Hezbollah as much as he disagrees with everyone else in Lebanon. I believe him, actually, so long as he’s referring to the number of things he disagrees with Hezbollah about. He’s a Sunni and therefore obviously not a cheerleader for the parochial Shia sectarian interests that Hezbollah champions. There’s no chance he endorses the Iranian government’s reigning ideology of Velayat-e faqih, the totalitarian theocratic system Hezbollah would love to impose on Lebanon if it had the strength — which it doesn’t. Miqati is a billionaire businessman and does not even remotely share Hezbollah’s cartoonish paranoia about global capitalism and how it’s supposedly a nefarious Jewish-American plot.

What Miqati will do, however, is safeguard “the resistance,” as he has promised — meaning he won’t ask Hezbollah to hand over its weapons to the authorities — which is one of only two things Hezbollah requires of him. The second is repudiate the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Everyone now expects the tribunal to indict Hezbollah for the assassination of the Sunni former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that may severely damage Hezbollah’s standing in the majority-Sunni Arab world even if it does have a prominent Sunni willing to provide some cover.

Hezbollah also needs, and will get, the same from Lebanon’s Christian president Michel Suleiman. Anything else these two leaders do in their official capacities is irrelevant from Hezbollah’s perspective.

Lebanon won’t likely ever resemble Gaza, which is under the complete control of an Islamist terrorist army. Hamas rules that beleaguered territory as the virtual Taliban of the eastern Mediterranean, but the Lebanese will blow their country to hell and gone all over again before submitting to something like that. Hezbollah knows it, as do the Syrians and the Iranians. They also know, or at least think they know, that they can bully the rest of the country into surrendering on the two most crucial items on its agenda, the ones that give Hezbollah the latitude to do whatever it wants in the Shia-majority areas that it does control directly.

We’re about to find out if that’s actually true. We’ll also most likely find out how true it remains if Israel takes the gloves off the next time there’s war.

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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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Incitement Kills — but Not Always Its Intended Target

The Israel Defense Forces has finally published the conclusion of its inquiry into the death of Jawaher Abu Rahmah, the woman allegedly killed by Israeli tear gas while protesting the security fence in the West Bank town of Bili’in last month. The official conclusion of the inquiry, based on Abu Rahmah’s hospital records, is medical error: a misdiagnosis leading to inappropriate treatment. But if that conclusion is correct, then what really killed Abu Rahmah is not mere error but the Palestinians’ own anti-Israel incitement.

The inquiry concluded that “doctors believed Abu Rahmah was sickened by phosphorous fertilizer and nerve gas. She was therefore treated with atropine and fluids, without Palestinian doctors realizing that she had in fact inhaled tear gas.”

Atropine is the standard treatment for poisonous gas. But it can be deadly if given in large doses to someone who hasn’t inhaled poison gas.

And this is where incitement comes in. Anyone who knows anything about Israel would know that the IDF doesn’t even use nerve gas against combatants armed with sophisticated weapons, much less against rock-throwing demonstrators.

But wild allegations of preposterous Israeli crimes are standard fare among Palestinians, and indeed throughout the Arab world. Israel has been accused of everything from poisoning Palestinian wells with depleted uranium to sending sharks to attack Egypt’s Red Sea resorts in order to undermine that country’s tourist industry. And one staple of this genre is the claim that Israel uses poison gas against Palestinians. Indeed, the claim was publicly made by no less a person than Yasir Arafat’s wife in a 1999 meeting with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton: Suha Arafat charged that “intensive daily use of poison gas by Israeli forces” was causing cancer among Palestinians.

Had it not been for the fact that such preposterous claims are so routinely reported as fact that they have become widely believed, Abu Rahmah’s doctors would never have entertained the possibility that her symptoms were caused by poison gas. They would instead have focused on plausible causes of her complaint, and thereby avoided the fatal misdiagnosis.

Palestinian incitement has cost Israel thousands of dead and wounded and contributed to the blackening of its image overseas. But the Abu Rahmah case underscores the fact that the ultimate victim of such lies is the society that perpetrates them. For when the distinction between truth and falsehood loses all meaning, a society becomes dysfunctional.

You can’t run a functioning legal system if rampant conspiracy theories mean key verdicts will be widely disbelieved, as may well be the case with the inquiry into former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. You can’t run an army if you fall so captive to your own propaganda that you misread both your own and the enemy’s capabilities — a fact that contributed to the Arabs states’ disastrous loss to Israel in 1967. And it turns out you can’t save lives if you let propaganda warp your diagnoses.

The Israel Defense Forces has finally published the conclusion of its inquiry into the death of Jawaher Abu Rahmah, the woman allegedly killed by Israeli tear gas while protesting the security fence in the West Bank town of Bili’in last month. The official conclusion of the inquiry, based on Abu Rahmah’s hospital records, is medical error: a misdiagnosis leading to inappropriate treatment. But if that conclusion is correct, then what really killed Abu Rahmah is not mere error but the Palestinians’ own anti-Israel incitement.

The inquiry concluded that “doctors believed Abu Rahmah was sickened by phosphorous fertilizer and nerve gas. She was therefore treated with atropine and fluids, without Palestinian doctors realizing that she had in fact inhaled tear gas.”

Atropine is the standard treatment for poisonous gas. But it can be deadly if given in large doses to someone who hasn’t inhaled poison gas.

And this is where incitement comes in. Anyone who knows anything about Israel would know that the IDF doesn’t even use nerve gas against combatants armed with sophisticated weapons, much less against rock-throwing demonstrators.

But wild allegations of preposterous Israeli crimes are standard fare among Palestinians, and indeed throughout the Arab world. Israel has been accused of everything from poisoning Palestinian wells with depleted uranium to sending sharks to attack Egypt’s Red Sea resorts in order to undermine that country’s tourist industry. And one staple of this genre is the claim that Israel uses poison gas against Palestinians. Indeed, the claim was publicly made by no less a person than Yasir Arafat’s wife in a 1999 meeting with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton: Suha Arafat charged that “intensive daily use of poison gas by Israeli forces” was causing cancer among Palestinians.

Had it not been for the fact that such preposterous claims are so routinely reported as fact that they have become widely believed, Abu Rahmah’s doctors would never have entertained the possibility that her symptoms were caused by poison gas. They would instead have focused on plausible causes of her complaint, and thereby avoided the fatal misdiagnosis.

Palestinian incitement has cost Israel thousands of dead and wounded and contributed to the blackening of its image overseas. But the Abu Rahmah case underscores the fact that the ultimate victim of such lies is the society that perpetrates them. For when the distinction between truth and falsehood loses all meaning, a society becomes dysfunctional.

You can’t run a functioning legal system if rampant conspiracy theories mean key verdicts will be widely disbelieved, as may well be the case with the inquiry into former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. You can’t run an army if you fall so captive to your own propaganda that you misread both your own and the enemy’s capabilities — a fact that contributed to the Arabs states’ disastrous loss to Israel in 1967. And it turns out you can’t save lives if you let propaganda warp your diagnoses.

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Lebanese Must Do More to Help Themselves

So Hezbollah fears the United Nations tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. That is the obvious implication of its decision to withdraw its ministers from the Lebanese government in protest of what are said to be upcoming indictments that could link the Party of God to the murder of the most acclaimed  and successful political leader in Lebanon’s recent history. All the more reason for the U.S. and our allies to support the tribunal and the embattled prime minister of Lebanon, Rafki’s son, Saad Hariri, in their commitment to see justice done.

Not that Hariri has much of a choice. As my colleague Elliott Abrams notes on his terrific new blog: “If Hariri complies with Hizballah’s demands, he is in my view finished as a national and as a Sunni leader, having compromised his own, his family’s, and his country’s honor.” Actually, it’s not even clear that he could comply with Hezbollah’s demands, since he does not control the UN tribunal.

In any case, Lebanon is now in the midst of its umpteenth political crisis, and we have little choice but to hang tough even if there is little we can do to affect the outcome. Hezbollah is well-armed by Syria and Iran. It is undoubtedly the strongest military force in the entire country — stronger than the Lebanese armed forces. It could perhaps be defeated by a Sunni-Druze-Christian coalition with American-French-Israeli support, but the result would be to propel the country back into the throes of civil war — something no one wants.

But the desire to avert civil war can also work against Hezbollah because it constrains its ability to use force against its internal opponents. Its supporters were willing to go on a rampage in Beirut in 2008, but it is not clear how much further they will decide to go. Moreover, Hezbollah obviously feels vulnerable if it is so concerned about the rumored indictments from the UN. That can give leverage to the many Lebanese who do not want to be dominated indefinitely by this Iranian-backed terrorist organization. But to effectively resist Hezbollah will first of all require a united front from the opposition, something that has been hard to come by in Lebanon’s fractious politics, where Hezbollah has even succeeded in forging an unlikely alliance with the Christian general Michel Aoun. It is hard for outsiders to help the Lebanese unless they do more to help themselves.

So Hezbollah fears the United Nations tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. That is the obvious implication of its decision to withdraw its ministers from the Lebanese government in protest of what are said to be upcoming indictments that could link the Party of God to the murder of the most acclaimed  and successful political leader in Lebanon’s recent history. All the more reason for the U.S. and our allies to support the tribunal and the embattled prime minister of Lebanon, Rafki’s son, Saad Hariri, in their commitment to see justice done.

Not that Hariri has much of a choice. As my colleague Elliott Abrams notes on his terrific new blog: “If Hariri complies with Hizballah’s demands, he is in my view finished as a national and as a Sunni leader, having compromised his own, his family’s, and his country’s honor.” Actually, it’s not even clear that he could comply with Hezbollah’s demands, since he does not control the UN tribunal.

In any case, Lebanon is now in the midst of its umpteenth political crisis, and we have little choice but to hang tough even if there is little we can do to affect the outcome. Hezbollah is well-armed by Syria and Iran. It is undoubtedly the strongest military force in the entire country — stronger than the Lebanese armed forces. It could perhaps be defeated by a Sunni-Druze-Christian coalition with American-French-Israeli support, but the result would be to propel the country back into the throes of civil war — something no one wants.

But the desire to avert civil war can also work against Hezbollah because it constrains its ability to use force against its internal opponents. Its supporters were willing to go on a rampage in Beirut in 2008, but it is not clear how much further they will decide to go. Moreover, Hezbollah obviously feels vulnerable if it is so concerned about the rumored indictments from the UN. That can give leverage to the many Lebanese who do not want to be dominated indefinitely by this Iranian-backed terrorist organization. But to effectively resist Hezbollah will first of all require a united front from the opposition, something that has been hard to come by in Lebanon’s fractious politics, where Hezbollah has even succeeded in forging an unlikely alliance with the Christian general Michel Aoun. It is hard for outsiders to help the Lebanese unless they do more to help themselves.

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Hezbollah Threatens to Take Over Lebanon

Almost everyone thought that the Syrian government assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in central Beirut in 2005, but most evidence now points to Hezbollah. An investigation just published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation comes to that conclusion. The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon is widely expected to soon hand down an indictment against Hezbollah officials, and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is saying he may launch a coup d’etat or a putsch against Lebanon’s government if it happens. “Our options,” he said, “are anywhere between doing nothing and causing a major political change.”

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that Assad’s regime in Damascus is off the hook. Hezbollah is a Syrian and Iranian proxy militia, after all. Both Damascus and Tehran could be considered at least indirectly responsible, if not directly responsible, if it turns out that Hezbollah is, in fact, guilty. And if Nasrallah makes good on his threat and takes over Lebanon on behalf of his foreign masters, the temperature in the Middle East will rise dramatically. Israelis will no doubt be alarmed, as will the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and the Arab states in the Gulf.

I do not, however, expect Hezbollah will ever conquer and rule the whole country as Hamas does in Gaza. Hezbollah is the most powerful military force in Lebanon by a long shot, but it’s a sectarian Shia militia and is not likely powerful enough to rule hostile Christian, Sunni, and Druze regions.

The Lebanese army is neither powerful nor cohesive enough to disarm Hezbollah by force. It would surely mean war if it tried, and Hezbollah would quickly and decisively win a defensive conflict. That does not, however, mean that Hezbollah can win an offensive war in hostile cities and neighborhoods. Sure, Nasrallah could topple Lebanon’s government easily enough, but then what? He won the short civil war in 2008 when his men took over the western half of the capital, but he did not stick around to govern that area. Hezbollah is a guerrilla and terrorist army, not an occupation force. Counterinsurgency is hardly in its skill set.

If Nasrallah tries to make himself the dictator of Lebanon, he’ll probably learn the hard way what Americans learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when regime change is easy, the aftermath is ferocious.

There’s a reason Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, and Druze haven’t fielded their own militias to stand against Hezbollah. The lesson they learned from the 1975-1990 civil war was perhaps best summed up by former president Amin Gemayel: “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.” But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Hezbollah may well be all but unstoppable. Nasrallah talks as though his men are all but unstoppable, and he might even believe it.

It has been a long time since Israel has fought a war against a foreign government rather than against non-state terrorist organizations, but if my analysis here is wrong, if Hezbollah does in fact take over the country, war between Middle Eastern nation-states will likely resume. The next war between Israel and Hezbollah would be a war between Israel and the Lebanese government by definition, and it could happen even if the majority of Israelis and Lebanese would rather it didn’t.

Almost everyone thought that the Syrian government assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in central Beirut in 2005, but most evidence now points to Hezbollah. An investigation just published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation comes to that conclusion. The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon is widely expected to soon hand down an indictment against Hezbollah officials, and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is saying he may launch a coup d’etat or a putsch against Lebanon’s government if it happens. “Our options,” he said, “are anywhere between doing nothing and causing a major political change.”

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that Assad’s regime in Damascus is off the hook. Hezbollah is a Syrian and Iranian proxy militia, after all. Both Damascus and Tehran could be considered at least indirectly responsible, if not directly responsible, if it turns out that Hezbollah is, in fact, guilty. And if Nasrallah makes good on his threat and takes over Lebanon on behalf of his foreign masters, the temperature in the Middle East will rise dramatically. Israelis will no doubt be alarmed, as will the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and the Arab states in the Gulf.

I do not, however, expect Hezbollah will ever conquer and rule the whole country as Hamas does in Gaza. Hezbollah is the most powerful military force in Lebanon by a long shot, but it’s a sectarian Shia militia and is not likely powerful enough to rule hostile Christian, Sunni, and Druze regions.

The Lebanese army is neither powerful nor cohesive enough to disarm Hezbollah by force. It would surely mean war if it tried, and Hezbollah would quickly and decisively win a defensive conflict. That does not, however, mean that Hezbollah can win an offensive war in hostile cities and neighborhoods. Sure, Nasrallah could topple Lebanon’s government easily enough, but then what? He won the short civil war in 2008 when his men took over the western half of the capital, but he did not stick around to govern that area. Hezbollah is a guerrilla and terrorist army, not an occupation force. Counterinsurgency is hardly in its skill set.

If Nasrallah tries to make himself the dictator of Lebanon, he’ll probably learn the hard way what Americans learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when regime change is easy, the aftermath is ferocious.

There’s a reason Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, and Druze haven’t fielded their own militias to stand against Hezbollah. The lesson they learned from the 1975-1990 civil war was perhaps best summed up by former president Amin Gemayel: “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.” But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Hezbollah may well be all but unstoppable. Nasrallah talks as though his men are all but unstoppable, and he might even believe it.

It has been a long time since Israel has fought a war against a foreign government rather than against non-state terrorist organizations, but if my analysis here is wrong, if Hezbollah does in fact take over the country, war between Middle Eastern nation-states will likely resume. The next war between Israel and Hezbollah would be a war between Israel and the Lebanese government by definition, and it could happen even if the majority of Israelis and Lebanese would rather it didn’t.

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Meanwhile, How’s the Syrian Outreach Going?

In the midst of the non-peace talk debacle, we shouldn’t lose track of another Obama blunder: his Syria policy. As this report explains:

Syria has bounced back from years of international isolation and is wielding its influence in crises around the Middle East, shrugging off US attempts to pull it away from its alliances with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah.

Damascus played a role in helping Iraq’s fractious politicians agree this month to form a new government after eight months of deadlock. Now with Lebanon’s factions heading for a possible new violent collision, Arabs have had to turn to Syria in hopes of ensuring peace, even as Damascus backs Lebanon’s heaviest armed player, the Shi’ite terrorist group Hizbullah.

It seems all those John Kerry suck-uppery sessions, the attempt to send a new ambassador, the look-the-other way response to violations of the UN resolution prohibiting rearming of Hezbollah, the indifference to Syria’s human-rights record, and our more generic Muslim Outreach plan haven’t done the trick in separating Syria from Iran’s orbit or in curbing Syrian mischief-making. Quite the opposite.

This is yet one more area (others being our relations with Israel and Europe and Obama’s shoddy human-rights record) in which the U.S. is in a much worse position than when Obama assumed office:

Syria’s emergence as a regional heavyweight is a reversal from just a few years ago. Rafik Hariri’s assassination prompted a wave of anti-Syrian protests that forced Damascus to withdraw its military from Lebanon and end its long control there. In 2006, relations with some Arab states took a dive when Assad called Saudi King Abdullah and other Arab leaders “half men” over their disapproval of Hizbullah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, which sparked a 34-day war between Hizbullah and Israel.

At some point, you would think the Obama team would learn that prostrating ourselves before despots is a losing proposition.

In the midst of the non-peace talk debacle, we shouldn’t lose track of another Obama blunder: his Syria policy. As this report explains:

Syria has bounced back from years of international isolation and is wielding its influence in crises around the Middle East, shrugging off US attempts to pull it away from its alliances with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah.

Damascus played a role in helping Iraq’s fractious politicians agree this month to form a new government after eight months of deadlock. Now with Lebanon’s factions heading for a possible new violent collision, Arabs have had to turn to Syria in hopes of ensuring peace, even as Damascus backs Lebanon’s heaviest armed player, the Shi’ite terrorist group Hizbullah.

It seems all those John Kerry suck-uppery sessions, the attempt to send a new ambassador, the look-the-other way response to violations of the UN resolution prohibiting rearming of Hezbollah, the indifference to Syria’s human-rights record, and our more generic Muslim Outreach plan haven’t done the trick in separating Syria from Iran’s orbit or in curbing Syrian mischief-making. Quite the opposite.

This is yet one more area (others being our relations with Israel and Europe and Obama’s shoddy human-rights record) in which the U.S. is in a much worse position than when Obama assumed office:

Syria’s emergence as a regional heavyweight is a reversal from just a few years ago. Rafik Hariri’s assassination prompted a wave of anti-Syrian protests that forced Damascus to withdraw its military from Lebanon and end its long control there. In 2006, relations with some Arab states took a dive when Assad called Saudi King Abdullah and other Arab leaders “half men” over their disapproval of Hizbullah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, which sparked a 34-day war between Hizbullah and Israel.

At some point, you would think the Obama team would learn that prostrating ourselves before despots is a losing proposition.

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Is There a Replacement for Syria’s Friend in the Senate?

As the calendar ticks off the last days of Arlen Specter’s 30-year reign in the United States Senate, it appears that one of his colleagues might be assuming a role that the Pennsylvanian had long cherished: that of the Assad clan’s American interlocutor.

For decades, Specter embarrassed the Senate and many of his Jewish supporters and donors with his regular visits to Damascus, where he schmoozed with Syrian dictator Hafez Assad and then, after the elder Assad’s death, his son Bashar, who succeeded his father as that country’s leader. It was a good deal for both the senator and the Syrians. Specter got to play diplomat, with the United States Treasury picking up the tab, while the Syrians had a permanent advocate for engagement with the Assad regime no matter how atrocious its behavior had been. To his credit, Specter did use his cordial relationship with the Assads to help rescue the remnants of Syrian Jewry, but that was accomplished 18 years ago. Since then, Specter’s frequent flyer miles to Damascus served no constructive purpose other than to further inflate the senator’s considerable ego.

But with Specter headed to retirement after losing his bid for re-election, Sen. John Kerry appears to be picking up the slack in the Syrian appeasement category. Today’s New York Times quoted the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate as saying that his recent trip to Damascus encouraged him to believe that engagement with Syria was a good idea. Syria’s return to control in Lebanon and successful efforts to undermine the international investigation of the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as well as its refusal to distance itself from Iran as the Obama administration had hoped, have discouraged many of even the most determined Arabists in Washington. But Kerry said, “I remain absolutely convinced there is an opportunity to have a different relationship with Syria.”

As Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, Kerry can muster up a better rationale for his international travels than Specter did, and reportedly went to Syria at the behest of an Obama administration that remains desperate to preserve the illusion that its engagement policies are not a complete bust even if it is evident that Syria has no interest in abandoning its ally Iran, allowing Lebanon to be free, or making peace with Israel.

While back-channel diplomacy can have its uses every once in a while, the sort of freelance diplomacy practiced by Specter served Syria’s interests more than those of the United States. Now that he’s out of the picture, it would be unfortunate if Kerry, or any of his other colleagues who love to spend congressional recesses on taxpayer-financed road trips, allowed the Assad clan to think that they can continue to bamboozle Washington. The message from everyone in the capital to Damascus must be crystal clear: if it wants better relations with the United States, it will have to alter its behavior.

As the calendar ticks off the last days of Arlen Specter’s 30-year reign in the United States Senate, it appears that one of his colleagues might be assuming a role that the Pennsylvanian had long cherished: that of the Assad clan’s American interlocutor.

For decades, Specter embarrassed the Senate and many of his Jewish supporters and donors with his regular visits to Damascus, where he schmoozed with Syrian dictator Hafez Assad and then, after the elder Assad’s death, his son Bashar, who succeeded his father as that country’s leader. It was a good deal for both the senator and the Syrians. Specter got to play diplomat, with the United States Treasury picking up the tab, while the Syrians had a permanent advocate for engagement with the Assad regime no matter how atrocious its behavior had been. To his credit, Specter did use his cordial relationship with the Assads to help rescue the remnants of Syrian Jewry, but that was accomplished 18 years ago. Since then, Specter’s frequent flyer miles to Damascus served no constructive purpose other than to further inflate the senator’s considerable ego.

But with Specter headed to retirement after losing his bid for re-election, Sen. John Kerry appears to be picking up the slack in the Syrian appeasement category. Today’s New York Times quoted the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate as saying that his recent trip to Damascus encouraged him to believe that engagement with Syria was a good idea. Syria’s return to control in Lebanon and successful efforts to undermine the international investigation of the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as well as its refusal to distance itself from Iran as the Obama administration had hoped, have discouraged many of even the most determined Arabists in Washington. But Kerry said, “I remain absolutely convinced there is an opportunity to have a different relationship with Syria.”

As Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, Kerry can muster up a better rationale for his international travels than Specter did, and reportedly went to Syria at the behest of an Obama administration that remains desperate to preserve the illusion that its engagement policies are not a complete bust even if it is evident that Syria has no interest in abandoning its ally Iran, allowing Lebanon to be free, or making peace with Israel.

While back-channel diplomacy can have its uses every once in a while, the sort of freelance diplomacy practiced by Specter served Syria’s interests more than those of the United States. Now that he’s out of the picture, it would be unfortunate if Kerry, or any of his other colleagues who love to spend congressional recesses on taxpayer-financed road trips, allowed the Assad clan to think that they can continue to bamboozle Washington. The message from everyone in the capital to Damascus must be crystal clear: if it wants better relations with the United States, it will have to alter its behavior.

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Don’t Let Extremists Define the Terms

Last week, I wrote that by fighting in Afghanistan, we were “honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.” Some people took offense at my (ironic) use of the Islamic term shaheed to describe the victims of Islamist terrorism. Andy McCarthy, for example, wrote: “Shaheeds are militants, and today they are guilty of the most barbaric acts imaginable. Applying the term shaheeds to those killed and wounded by shaheeds does not raise the cachet of the term, but it is certain to offend those who have been maimed or terrorized, as well as the families of those who have been murdered.”

I used to work across the street from the World Trade Center, and I was downtown on September 11, 2001. I saw the Twin Towers fall. The last thing in the world I would ever want to do would be to dishonor the memory of the victims or offend their friends and relatives. I apologize if I have inadvertently caused offense. But anyone who is offended is misreading the term shaheed.

Yes, al-Qaeda and its ilk describe dead terrorists as shaheeds. But as three different, well-respected scholars of the Middle East have confirmed to me, militants hardly have a monopoly on a word that literally means “witness” but generally denotes anyone who dies while fulfilling a religious commandment. Anwar Sadat, Rafik Hariri, and Ahmed Shah Massoud — all moderate Muslims slain by extremists — are referred to by their admirers as shaheeds, while to their enemies, their murderers are the shaheeds. The word’s elasticity should not be a surprise; it is also true of a term such as “sharia law,” which can connote everything from Indonesian democracy to Iranian theocracy. Extremists have their definitions of Islamic terms; moderate Muslims (who constitute the great majority) have differing interpretations. We should not make the mistake of assuming that the most extreme view is the “correct” one.

Last week, I wrote that by fighting in Afghanistan, we were “honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.” Some people took offense at my (ironic) use of the Islamic term shaheed to describe the victims of Islamist terrorism. Andy McCarthy, for example, wrote: “Shaheeds are militants, and today they are guilty of the most barbaric acts imaginable. Applying the term shaheeds to those killed and wounded by shaheeds does not raise the cachet of the term, but it is certain to offend those who have been maimed or terrorized, as well as the families of those who have been murdered.”

I used to work across the street from the World Trade Center, and I was downtown on September 11, 2001. I saw the Twin Towers fall. The last thing in the world I would ever want to do would be to dishonor the memory of the victims or offend their friends and relatives. I apologize if I have inadvertently caused offense. But anyone who is offended is misreading the term shaheed.

Yes, al-Qaeda and its ilk describe dead terrorists as shaheeds. But as three different, well-respected scholars of the Middle East have confirmed to me, militants hardly have a monopoly on a word that literally means “witness” but generally denotes anyone who dies while fulfilling a religious commandment. Anwar Sadat, Rafik Hariri, and Ahmed Shah Massoud — all moderate Muslims slain by extremists — are referred to by their admirers as shaheeds, while to their enemies, their murderers are the shaheeds. The word’s elasticity should not be a surprise; it is also true of a term such as “sharia law,” which can connote everything from Indonesian democracy to Iranian theocracy. Extremists have their definitions of Islamic terms; moderate Muslims (who constitute the great majority) have differing interpretations. We should not make the mistake of assuming that the most extreme view is the “correct” one.

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Middle East Chaos

It is not simply that Iran is moving steadily toward membership in the nuclear powers’ club. It is not only that the UN is plotting to carve up Israel. No, these are symptoms of an underlying problem: the U.S.’s retreat from the Middle East and the decline of American influence. There are other signs as well.

The administration has been demonstrating abject weakness with Syria. It mounted no meaningful response to violations of UN Resolution 1701. It has attempted to confirm and redeploy an ambassador to Damascus. Back in March, Elliott Abrams reeled off the list of “engagement” moves that bore an uncanny resemblance to appeasement:

* High level envoys have been sent to Damascus: Under Secretary of State William Burns visited Syria in mid-February, the highest ranking U.S. official to set foot there in more than five years, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell has visited three times. High-ranking Central Command officers have been sent to Damascus to discuss cooperation against terrorism.

* President Obama has now nominated an ambassador to Damascus, the first since Margaret Scobey was withdrawn in 2005 after the murder of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in Lebanon (which was widely blamed on the Assad regime).

* The president has also removed the American block to Syria’s attempt to join the World Trade Organization.

* The United States has eased some export licenses for Syria, mostly in the area of aircraft.

* Syria’s deputy foreign minister was invited to Washington in October, the first such visit in several years.

So how’s that working out? As we’ve seen, Bashar al-Assad has moved ever closer to Iran (the opposite reaction intended by the Obama team), even as he displays his contempt for the U.S.:

Syria’s president has accused the United States of sowing chaos overseas, snubbing Washington’s efforts to improve ties with Damascus. Syrian President Bashar Assad told Al-Hayat newspaper in an interview published Tuesday that the US “created chaos in every place it entered.” “Is Afghanistan stable? Is Somalia stable? Did they bring stability to Lebanon in 1983?” Assad asked, referring to US intervention in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

To this, the U.S. replied, “Are not.” In diplomatic terms: “Spokesman P.J. Crowley charged that Syria is destabilizing Lebanon by supplying arms to militants and issuing arrest warrants for Lebanese officials. ‘These activities by Syria directly undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty and directly undermine Syria’s stated commitments to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence,’ Crowley said. ‘We believe we’re playing a constructive role in the region, and we believe that Syria is not.”’ This “tough retort,” according to the press account, is what passes for the administration’s Syria policy.

And speaking of Lebanon:

The Obama administration, already struggling to stave off a collapse of Middle East peace talks, is increasingly alarmed by unrest in Lebanon, whose own fragile peace is being threatened by militant opponents of a politically charged investigation into the killing in 2005 of a former Lebanese leader.

With an international tribunal expected to hand down indictments in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in the coming months, the Hezbollah militia is maneuvering furiously to halt the investigation, or failing that, to unseat Lebanon’s government, which backs it.

The New York Times helpfully offers that the Obama team has, contrary to appearances, really (honestly!) not been obsessed with the failed Palestinian-Israeli non-peace talks. It has instead been focused on this looming crisis:

The administration’s worries go beyond Lebanon itself, and help explain why it, and not the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has been the major preoccupation of American foreign policy officials for the last few weeks. The diplomatic activity follows a splashy tour of Lebanon by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who got an ecstatic reception from members of Hezbollah, the Shiite movement financed and equipped by Iran. American officials were particularly struck by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip to a small town a few miles north of the Israeli border, where he called for the “Zionists to be wiped out.”

With unintended comedic effect, the dispatched U.S. envoy, Jeffrey D. Feltman, proclaims: “You don’t want the perception of a vacuum. … You don’t want the perception that Ahmadinejad is the only game in town.” Umm, it’s a little late for that realization, isn’t it? And if that’s the problem, then throwing ourselves at the mullahs’ feet in order to restart the charade of nuclear talks is hardly going to improve matters.

It is not simply that Iran is moving steadily toward membership in the nuclear powers’ club. It is not only that the UN is plotting to carve up Israel. No, these are symptoms of an underlying problem: the U.S.’s retreat from the Middle East and the decline of American influence. There are other signs as well.

The administration has been demonstrating abject weakness with Syria. It mounted no meaningful response to violations of UN Resolution 1701. It has attempted to confirm and redeploy an ambassador to Damascus. Back in March, Elliott Abrams reeled off the list of “engagement” moves that bore an uncanny resemblance to appeasement:

* High level envoys have been sent to Damascus: Under Secretary of State William Burns visited Syria in mid-February, the highest ranking U.S. official to set foot there in more than five years, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell has visited three times. High-ranking Central Command officers have been sent to Damascus to discuss cooperation against terrorism.

* President Obama has now nominated an ambassador to Damascus, the first since Margaret Scobey was withdrawn in 2005 after the murder of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in Lebanon (which was widely blamed on the Assad regime).

* The president has also removed the American block to Syria’s attempt to join the World Trade Organization.

* The United States has eased some export licenses for Syria, mostly in the area of aircraft.

* Syria’s deputy foreign minister was invited to Washington in October, the first such visit in several years.

So how’s that working out? As we’ve seen, Bashar al-Assad has moved ever closer to Iran (the opposite reaction intended by the Obama team), even as he displays his contempt for the U.S.:

Syria’s president has accused the United States of sowing chaos overseas, snubbing Washington’s efforts to improve ties with Damascus. Syrian President Bashar Assad told Al-Hayat newspaper in an interview published Tuesday that the US “created chaos in every place it entered.” “Is Afghanistan stable? Is Somalia stable? Did they bring stability to Lebanon in 1983?” Assad asked, referring to US intervention in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

To this, the U.S. replied, “Are not.” In diplomatic terms: “Spokesman P.J. Crowley charged that Syria is destabilizing Lebanon by supplying arms to militants and issuing arrest warrants for Lebanese officials. ‘These activities by Syria directly undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty and directly undermine Syria’s stated commitments to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence,’ Crowley said. ‘We believe we’re playing a constructive role in the region, and we believe that Syria is not.”’ This “tough retort,” according to the press account, is what passes for the administration’s Syria policy.

And speaking of Lebanon:

The Obama administration, already struggling to stave off a collapse of Middle East peace talks, is increasingly alarmed by unrest in Lebanon, whose own fragile peace is being threatened by militant opponents of a politically charged investigation into the killing in 2005 of a former Lebanese leader.

With an international tribunal expected to hand down indictments in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in the coming months, the Hezbollah militia is maneuvering furiously to halt the investigation, or failing that, to unseat Lebanon’s government, which backs it.

The New York Times helpfully offers that the Obama team has, contrary to appearances, really (honestly!) not been obsessed with the failed Palestinian-Israeli non-peace talks. It has instead been focused on this looming crisis:

The administration’s worries go beyond Lebanon itself, and help explain why it, and not the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has been the major preoccupation of American foreign policy officials for the last few weeks. The diplomatic activity follows a splashy tour of Lebanon by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who got an ecstatic reception from members of Hezbollah, the Shiite movement financed and equipped by Iran. American officials were particularly struck by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip to a small town a few miles north of the Israeli border, where he called for the “Zionists to be wiped out.”

With unintended comedic effect, the dispatched U.S. envoy, Jeffrey D. Feltman, proclaims: “You don’t want the perception of a vacuum. … You don’t want the perception that Ahmadinejad is the only game in town.” Umm, it’s a little late for that realization, isn’t it? And if that’s the problem, then throwing ourselves at the mullahs’ feet in order to restart the charade of nuclear talks is hardly going to improve matters.

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Hezbollah Can’t Pin Hariri Murder on Israel

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is now officially blaming Israel for assassinating former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in downtown Beirut on Valentine’s Day in 2005. I doubt he will convince many people.

I’ve been working in Lebanon on and off for years, and I’ve never once met a single person who thought Israel murdered Hariri. Not even the Hezbollah officials I spoke to before they blacklisted me thought so. Once in a while I met a Hezbollah supporter who said he didn’t know who killed Hariri and silently left open the possibility that Israel might have done it, but that’s the furthest even any of them were willing to go.

Hariri was one of the least anti-Israel Arab leaders on earth. His vision for Lebanon was one of peace and prosperity, not terrorism and war. Jerusalem had no reason at all to want him out of the picture. The Syrian- and Iranian-led Resistance Bloc, on the other hand, needed him out of the way, dead, or at least suppressed.

Almost everyone in Lebanon assumed from the very beginning that the Assad regime in Damascus ordered the hit, which is why Syria’s military occupation was terminated almost at once by a tremendous wave of multi-sectarian wrath. Most people, including me, didn’t entertain the idea for long that Hezbollah might be responsible, not because Hezbollah wouldn’t or couldn’t have done it, but because Syria had the greater of motives.

Speculation is now mounting, however, that the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon is about to name Mustafa Badr al-Din, a senior Hezbollah commander, as the chief suspect. We’ll have to wait and see if that’s actually true, but it will be explosive news if it is. It could easily start another round of sectarian bloodletting, and at the least it will bring Lebanon closer to the boiling point than it already is.

Nasrallah desperately needs to minimize the potential damage as much as he can in advance. Blaming the Jews often works in this part of the world, but this time it might not. His timing could not be worse. It wouldn’t have worked had he tried it five years ago, and that he’s trying it now only makes him look guilty.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is now officially blaming Israel for assassinating former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in downtown Beirut on Valentine’s Day in 2005. I doubt he will convince many people.

I’ve been working in Lebanon on and off for years, and I’ve never once met a single person who thought Israel murdered Hariri. Not even the Hezbollah officials I spoke to before they blacklisted me thought so. Once in a while I met a Hezbollah supporter who said he didn’t know who killed Hariri and silently left open the possibility that Israel might have done it, but that’s the furthest even any of them were willing to go.

Hariri was one of the least anti-Israel Arab leaders on earth. His vision for Lebanon was one of peace and prosperity, not terrorism and war. Jerusalem had no reason at all to want him out of the picture. The Syrian- and Iranian-led Resistance Bloc, on the other hand, needed him out of the way, dead, or at least suppressed.

Almost everyone in Lebanon assumed from the very beginning that the Assad regime in Damascus ordered the hit, which is why Syria’s military occupation was terminated almost at once by a tremendous wave of multi-sectarian wrath. Most people, including me, didn’t entertain the idea for long that Hezbollah might be responsible, not because Hezbollah wouldn’t or couldn’t have done it, but because Syria had the greater of motives.

Speculation is now mounting, however, that the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon is about to name Mustafa Badr al-Din, a senior Hezbollah commander, as the chief suspect. We’ll have to wait and see if that’s actually true, but it will be explosive news if it is. It could easily start another round of sectarian bloodletting, and at the least it will bring Lebanon closer to the boiling point than it already is.

Nasrallah desperately needs to minimize the potential damage as much as he can in advance. Blaming the Jews often works in this part of the world, but this time it might not. His timing could not be worse. It wouldn’t have worked had he tried it five years ago, and that he’s trying it now only makes him look guilty.

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UN Acknowledges Lebanon’s Culpability in Border Clash

Miracles will never cease. The United Nations, of all organizations, is actually backing Israel’s account of the border clash with Lebanese troops:

The United Nations peacekeeping force in South Lebanon, Unifil, said on Wednesday it had concluded that Israeli forces were cutting trees that lay within their own territory before a lethal exchange of fire with Lebanese Army troops on Tuesday, largely vindicating Israel’s account of how the fighting started.

A Lebanese Army spokesman had said on Tuesday that the skirmishes started after Israeli soldiers crossed into Lebanese territory to cut down a tree. Israel said that its forces were clearing brush, as part of routine maintenance work, in a gap between the so-called Blue Line, the internationally recognized border, and its security fence, and that it had coordinated its actions in advance with Unifil.

That should settle the issue of culpability, but it still leaves open the question of why this happened — why did the Lebanese army open fire? I hesitate to contribute to the incessant conspiracy-theorizing in the Middle East, but it does strike me that this incident has happened just as Hezbollah has raised fears that some of its members might be indicted by a UN prosecutor investigating the murder of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri in 2005. The Lebanese army is amply infiltrated by Hezbollah.

One wonders if this provocation isn’t designed to distract attention from what Hezbollah fears will be a real legal problem.

Miracles will never cease. The United Nations, of all organizations, is actually backing Israel’s account of the border clash with Lebanese troops:

The United Nations peacekeeping force in South Lebanon, Unifil, said on Wednesday it had concluded that Israeli forces were cutting trees that lay within their own territory before a lethal exchange of fire with Lebanese Army troops on Tuesday, largely vindicating Israel’s account of how the fighting started.

A Lebanese Army spokesman had said on Tuesday that the skirmishes started after Israeli soldiers crossed into Lebanese territory to cut down a tree. Israel said that its forces were clearing brush, as part of routine maintenance work, in a gap between the so-called Blue Line, the internationally recognized border, and its security fence, and that it had coordinated its actions in advance with Unifil.

That should settle the issue of culpability, but it still leaves open the question of why this happened — why did the Lebanese army open fire? I hesitate to contribute to the incessant conspiracy-theorizing in the Middle East, but it does strike me that this incident has happened just as Hezbollah has raised fears that some of its members might be indicted by a UN prosecutor investigating the murder of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri in 2005. The Lebanese army is amply infiltrated by Hezbollah.

One wonders if this provocation isn’t designed to distract attention from what Hezbollah fears will be a real legal problem.

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The Age of the Zipped Lip

Paul Berman takes the thesis of his outstanding new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and dubs the age we live in that of the Zipped Lip.

“You are not,” he writes, “supposed to observe that Islamism is a modern, instead of an ancient, political tendency, which arose in a spirit of fraternal harmony with the fascists of Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. You are not supposed to point out that Nazi inspirations have visibly taken root among present-day Islamists, notably in regard to the demonic nature of Jewish conspiracies and the virtues of genocide.”

As he said to me on the phone when I interviewed him in May, the mere mention of Nazi Germany’s foreign policy in the Arab world and its lingering effects in our day “gets people red in the face.”

Lest you think there aren’t any lingering traces of Nazism in the Arab world, along comes Wiam Wahhab, a former member of Lebanon’s parliament, and confirms that there are. “I like the Germans,” he says in an interview on Al-Jadid/New TV, “because they hate the Jews and they burned them.” Then he laughs like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard in a week.

Now, this man isn’t mainstream. He belongs (of course) to the Hezbollah-led “March 8″ coalition, which is apparently incapable of winning an election or getting its way except by using or threatening violence. And he claims that the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon — which was set up in 2005 to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri — is an Israeli-American plot to destroy the country. He’s firmly in the minority camp.

Still, can you imagine any American politician from either the House or the Senate, from either the Republican or Democratic party, saying something like that and yukking it up on TV? It would be the instantaneous mother of all career-enders. Wahhab’s career, though, won’t suffer one bit as a result of his saying this.

It’s not that everyone in Lebanon approves of the Holocaust, but enough people do that he’s not embarrassed or ashamed to say that he does. Supporting Hitler’s “Final Solution” isn’t taboo there the way it is here. Supporting Israel is a far bigger offense. Some Lebanese people do support Israel, and some have even taken up arms alongside Israelis; but if they don’t keep quiet about it in public, they’ll suffer serious consequences.

A country where you’ll get in more trouble for supporting Israel than for supporting the Holocaust is a country with serious political problems. Lebanon is among the least anti-Semitic of all the Arabic-speaking countries. Most and possibly all the others are worse.

I understand why many of the intellectuals Paul Berman takes to task have a hard time dealing squarely with this. It’s disturbing. The implications are frightening. And it’s doubly disturbing to those of us who have some affection for the Arab world and wish it well. I’ve spent more time in Lebanon than in any country in the world after the United States, and it’s the only country aside from America that I briefly called home. Yet the facts are the facts. Those of us who would rather see the Middle East flourish than suffer will not see that happen until these poisonous ideas are stamped out or shunted aside. Pretending it has already happened will not make it so.

Paul Berman takes the thesis of his outstanding new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and dubs the age we live in that of the Zipped Lip.

“You are not,” he writes, “supposed to observe that Islamism is a modern, instead of an ancient, political tendency, which arose in a spirit of fraternal harmony with the fascists of Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. You are not supposed to point out that Nazi inspirations have visibly taken root among present-day Islamists, notably in regard to the demonic nature of Jewish conspiracies and the virtues of genocide.”

As he said to me on the phone when I interviewed him in May, the mere mention of Nazi Germany’s foreign policy in the Arab world and its lingering effects in our day “gets people red in the face.”

Lest you think there aren’t any lingering traces of Nazism in the Arab world, along comes Wiam Wahhab, a former member of Lebanon’s parliament, and confirms that there are. “I like the Germans,” he says in an interview on Al-Jadid/New TV, “because they hate the Jews and they burned them.” Then he laughs like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard in a week.

Now, this man isn’t mainstream. He belongs (of course) to the Hezbollah-led “March 8″ coalition, which is apparently incapable of winning an election or getting its way except by using or threatening violence. And he claims that the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon — which was set up in 2005 to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri — is an Israeli-American plot to destroy the country. He’s firmly in the minority camp.

Still, can you imagine any American politician from either the House or the Senate, from either the Republican or Democratic party, saying something like that and yukking it up on TV? It would be the instantaneous mother of all career-enders. Wahhab’s career, though, won’t suffer one bit as a result of his saying this.

It’s not that everyone in Lebanon approves of the Holocaust, but enough people do that he’s not embarrassed or ashamed to say that he does. Supporting Hitler’s “Final Solution” isn’t taboo there the way it is here. Supporting Israel is a far bigger offense. Some Lebanese people do support Israel, and some have even taken up arms alongside Israelis; but if they don’t keep quiet about it in public, they’ll suffer serious consequences.

A country where you’ll get in more trouble for supporting Israel than for supporting the Holocaust is a country with serious political problems. Lebanon is among the least anti-Semitic of all the Arabic-speaking countries. Most and possibly all the others are worse.

I understand why many of the intellectuals Paul Berman takes to task have a hard time dealing squarely with this. It’s disturbing. The implications are frightening. And it’s doubly disturbing to those of us who have some affection for the Arab world and wish it well. I’ve spent more time in Lebanon than in any country in the world after the United States, and it’s the only country aside from America that I briefly called home. Yet the facts are the facts. Those of us who would rather see the Middle East flourish than suffer will not see that happen until these poisonous ideas are stamped out or shunted aside. Pretending it has already happened will not make it so.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Eric Cantor blasts Obama’s change in Israel policy: “While Israel continues its search for a reliable partner in peace, Palestinian terrorism is still celebrated in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite this reality, since day one the White House has applied a severe double standard that refuses to hold the Palestinians accountable for their many provocations. It makes one wonder where the responsible adults are in the administration? The administration’s troubling policy of manufacturing fights with Israel to ingratiate itself with some in the Arab world is no way to advance the cause of Mideast peace.  What kind of message is sent to the world when our country appears to turn its back on key strategic allies who share our values?”

Michael Rubin dissects Daniel Kurtzer’s defense of Syria engagement: “Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and a proponent of engagement, argues that recent concerns about Syrian behavior should not stop the Obama administration from sending its ambassador nominee to Syria. … The simple fact is that restoring an ambassador legitimizes Syria and its stonewalling into the investigation surrounding Rafik Hariri’s assassination as well as its support for Hezbollah, a terrorist group responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other but Al Qaeda. The simple fact is that engagement with the Assads of Syria is a fool’s game with a record of consistent failure (in contrast to a spotty but still more positive record of coercion against Syria).”

John McCain unloads on Obama for his “whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower” comment: “That’s one of the more incredible statements I’ve ever heard a president of the United States make in modern times. We are the dominant superpower, and we’re the greatest force for good in the history of this country, and I thank God every day that we are a dominant superpower.”

Voters in New Jersey want to uproot ObamaCare: “Fifty-one percent (51%) of voters in New Jersey, a state Barack Obama carried handily in 2008, now favor repeal of the recently-passed national health care bill. That includes 41% who strongly favor repeal.”

More bad news for Democrats in 2010 (subscription required): “Red states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming will once again have Republican Governors, while bluer states like Hawaii seem on track to elect a Democrat. At the end of the day, though, it appears that Republicans will gain between three and five governorships, giving them a majority.”

This has been clear for some time: “companies aren’t on a hiring binge.”

Sens. Judd Gregg and Ron Wyden propose a tax-simplification plan that “reduces the number of tax brackets for individuals from six to three – namely, 15 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent — and eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax, which forces millions of taxpayers to calculate their taxes twice and pay the higher amount. This simplification will save taxpayers the considerable time and money they currently spend on tax compliance.”

Creative: “An Ohio death row inmate is attempting to postpone his imminent appointment with the lethal injection gurney by claiming a possible allergy to the anaesthetic used by the state to dispatch its condemned prisoners.”

Eric Cantor blasts Obama’s change in Israel policy: “While Israel continues its search for a reliable partner in peace, Palestinian terrorism is still celebrated in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite this reality, since day one the White House has applied a severe double standard that refuses to hold the Palestinians accountable for their many provocations. It makes one wonder where the responsible adults are in the administration? The administration’s troubling policy of manufacturing fights with Israel to ingratiate itself with some in the Arab world is no way to advance the cause of Mideast peace.  What kind of message is sent to the world when our country appears to turn its back on key strategic allies who share our values?”

Michael Rubin dissects Daniel Kurtzer’s defense of Syria engagement: “Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and a proponent of engagement, argues that recent concerns about Syrian behavior should not stop the Obama administration from sending its ambassador nominee to Syria. … The simple fact is that restoring an ambassador legitimizes Syria and its stonewalling into the investigation surrounding Rafik Hariri’s assassination as well as its support for Hezbollah, a terrorist group responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other but Al Qaeda. The simple fact is that engagement with the Assads of Syria is a fool’s game with a record of consistent failure (in contrast to a spotty but still more positive record of coercion against Syria).”

John McCain unloads on Obama for his “whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower” comment: “That’s one of the more incredible statements I’ve ever heard a president of the United States make in modern times. We are the dominant superpower, and we’re the greatest force for good in the history of this country, and I thank God every day that we are a dominant superpower.”

Voters in New Jersey want to uproot ObamaCare: “Fifty-one percent (51%) of voters in New Jersey, a state Barack Obama carried handily in 2008, now favor repeal of the recently-passed national health care bill. That includes 41% who strongly favor repeal.”

More bad news for Democrats in 2010 (subscription required): “Red states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming will once again have Republican Governors, while bluer states like Hawaii seem on track to elect a Democrat. At the end of the day, though, it appears that Republicans will gain between three and five governorships, giving them a majority.”

This has been clear for some time: “companies aren’t on a hiring binge.”

Sens. Judd Gregg and Ron Wyden propose a tax-simplification plan that “reduces the number of tax brackets for individuals from six to three – namely, 15 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent — and eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax, which forces millions of taxpayers to calculate their taxes twice and pay the higher amount. This simplification will save taxpayers the considerable time and money they currently spend on tax compliance.”

Creative: “An Ohio death row inmate is attempting to postpone his imminent appointment with the lethal injection gurney by claiming a possible allergy to the anaesthetic used by the state to dispatch its condemned prisoners.”

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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’s Third Civil War

The third civil war has begun in Lebanon.

The first war was a short one. Sunni Arab Nationalists in thrall to Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to attach Lebanon to the United Arab Republic – a brief union of Egypt and Syria. An even larger bloc of Maronite Christians resisted. A nation cannot hold itself together when a large percentage of its population – roughly a third – wish to be annexed by foreign powers.

The second war was a long one. This time, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization formed a state-within-a-state in West Beirut and South Lebanon and used it as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel. Again, Lebanon’s Christians resisted, as did Lebanon’s Shias. The second civil war was actually a series of wars that were merely triggered by that first fatal schism.

The third civil war resembles both the first and the second. With Iranian money and weapons, Hezbollah has built its own state-within-a-state in South Lebanon and South Beirut which is used as a base to wage war against Israel. Hezbollah also wishes to violently yank Lebanon from its current pro-Western alignment into the Syrian-Iranian axis. Roughly one-fourth of the population supports this agenda. No country on earth can withstand that kind of geopolitical tectonic pressure. For more than a year members of Hezbollah have tried unsuccessfully to topple the elected government with a minimal use of force, but their patience is at an end and they have turned to war.

My old liberal Sunni neighborhood of Hamra near the American University of Beirut – the best in the Middle East – is now occupied by the private army of a foreign police state. Masked gunmen take up positions in a neighborhood of five star hotels, restaurants, and cafes (including a Starbucks) where students like to hang out while reading books by authors like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They burned down Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s Future Movement headquarters building. They stormed the offices of TV and radio stations and threatened to dynamite the buildings if the reporters refused to stop broadcasting. They seized the property of Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – and they control all the exits. Member of Parliament Ammar Houry’s house is now occupied. Al Arabiya says they attacked the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the current prime minister’s office.

Hezbollah used automatic weapons, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper rifles to seize all, if not most, of West Beirut. The only weapons its gunmen haven’t deployed are its Katyusha rockets, which are useless in urban warfare, and car bombs, which aren’t.

“Hezbollah is not mounting a coup,” Charles Malik writes from Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal. “They do not want to control ALL of Lebanon. They have no interest in controlling state institutions.”

This is mostly right. As long as Hezbollah gets what it wants, taking over all of Lebanon is unnecessary, as well as most likely impossible. But this is still a coup d’etat of a sort. What happened is, literally, a blow against the state. Until this week, Hezbollah existed both inside and beside the state. Hezbollah now exists above the state, the parliament, the police, and the army. No member of Hezbollah will be arrested or prosecuted as they would in a normal and properly sovereign country.

The army is too weak and divided along sectarian lines to protect Lebanon from internal or external threats. It was sabotaged for more than a decade during Syria’s military occupation and was staffed at the highest levels with Damascus loyalists who have yet to be purged. It is a make-believe army at best, and a part-time tool of the Syrian state at its worst.

The erstwhile prevailing mentality of fragile coexistence and anti-war has all but evaporated. The restrained rhetoric Lebanese people are accustomed to hearing from their leaders is gone. “We are in war and they wouldn’t be able to predict our reaction,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said. “Hezbollah has gained control over Beirut,” said Member of Parliament Ahmad Fatfat, “and has caused a Sunni-Shia conflict that will be extended for years.” “If no compromise is reached, we will be facing a long internal war,” said Suleiman Franjieh, Jr., a former member of parliament and leader of the small Marada militia in North Lebanon aligned with Hezbollah and the Syrians.

Lebanon is a country based on consensus between its more or less demographically balanced Christians, Sunnis, and Shias, and its smaller population of Druze. No sect is allowed by law or social contract to rule over the others. The system, when it works, provides checks and balances. Hezbollah has overthrown all of it. And when the system is overthrown, as it has been in the past, Lebanese have demonstrated that they can and will fight as viciously as Iraqi militias in Baghdad. Lebanon has no shortage of people from every sect and most political movements who will fight dirty urban warfare with little regard for unarmed civilian noncombatants.

Though Hezbollah still occupies West Beirut, the city is reportedly calm at the moment – but don’t expect that to last long. Hezbollah is a Shia army in league with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while West Beirut is mostly made up of hostile Sunnis aligned with Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. Lebanese blogger Mustafa at Beirut Spring put it plainly: “Expect the fight for Beirut to begin in earnest later with the distinct trademark of an occupied population: Hit and run.”

Even if Hezbollah does withdraw and real calm prevails in the near term, Lebanon has crossed a threshold from which there likely will be no recovery. Quiet may resume, but it will be the quiet of cold war rather than peace.

Hezbollah has always said its weapons were pointed only at Israel, though many knew better. Hezbollah even brags (although it’s not true) that they did not turn their weapons against Lebanese during the last civil war. Both of these lies have now been exposed before the whole world.

There may be lulls in the violence, but there will be no real peace in Lebanon until Hezbollah is disarmed or destroyed.

The third civil war has begun in Lebanon.

The first war was a short one. Sunni Arab Nationalists in thrall to Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to attach Lebanon to the United Arab Republic – a brief union of Egypt and Syria. An even larger bloc of Maronite Christians resisted. A nation cannot hold itself together when a large percentage of its population – roughly a third – wish to be annexed by foreign powers.

The second war was a long one. This time, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization formed a state-within-a-state in West Beirut and South Lebanon and used it as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel. Again, Lebanon’s Christians resisted, as did Lebanon’s Shias. The second civil war was actually a series of wars that were merely triggered by that first fatal schism.

The third civil war resembles both the first and the second. With Iranian money and weapons, Hezbollah has built its own state-within-a-state in South Lebanon and South Beirut which is used as a base to wage war against Israel. Hezbollah also wishes to violently yank Lebanon from its current pro-Western alignment into the Syrian-Iranian axis. Roughly one-fourth of the population supports this agenda. No country on earth can withstand that kind of geopolitical tectonic pressure. For more than a year members of Hezbollah have tried unsuccessfully to topple the elected government with a minimal use of force, but their patience is at an end and they have turned to war.

My old liberal Sunni neighborhood of Hamra near the American University of Beirut – the best in the Middle East – is now occupied by the private army of a foreign police state. Masked gunmen take up positions in a neighborhood of five star hotels, restaurants, and cafes (including a Starbucks) where students like to hang out while reading books by authors like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They burned down Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s Future Movement headquarters building. They stormed the offices of TV and radio stations and threatened to dynamite the buildings if the reporters refused to stop broadcasting. They seized the property of Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – and they control all the exits. Member of Parliament Ammar Houry’s house is now occupied. Al Arabiya says they attacked the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the current prime minister’s office.

Hezbollah used automatic weapons, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper rifles to seize all, if not most, of West Beirut. The only weapons its gunmen haven’t deployed are its Katyusha rockets, which are useless in urban warfare, and car bombs, which aren’t.

“Hezbollah is not mounting a coup,” Charles Malik writes from Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal. “They do not want to control ALL of Lebanon. They have no interest in controlling state institutions.”

This is mostly right. As long as Hezbollah gets what it wants, taking over all of Lebanon is unnecessary, as well as most likely impossible. But this is still a coup d’etat of a sort. What happened is, literally, a blow against the state. Until this week, Hezbollah existed both inside and beside the state. Hezbollah now exists above the state, the parliament, the police, and the army. No member of Hezbollah will be arrested or prosecuted as they would in a normal and properly sovereign country.

The army is too weak and divided along sectarian lines to protect Lebanon from internal or external threats. It was sabotaged for more than a decade during Syria’s military occupation and was staffed at the highest levels with Damascus loyalists who have yet to be purged. It is a make-believe army at best, and a part-time tool of the Syrian state at its worst.

The erstwhile prevailing mentality of fragile coexistence and anti-war has all but evaporated. The restrained rhetoric Lebanese people are accustomed to hearing from their leaders is gone. “We are in war and they wouldn’t be able to predict our reaction,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said. “Hezbollah has gained control over Beirut,” said Member of Parliament Ahmad Fatfat, “and has caused a Sunni-Shia conflict that will be extended for years.” “If no compromise is reached, we will be facing a long internal war,” said Suleiman Franjieh, Jr., a former member of parliament and leader of the small Marada militia in North Lebanon aligned with Hezbollah and the Syrians.

Lebanon is a country based on consensus between its more or less demographically balanced Christians, Sunnis, and Shias, and its smaller population of Druze. No sect is allowed by law or social contract to rule over the others. The system, when it works, provides checks and balances. Hezbollah has overthrown all of it. And when the system is overthrown, as it has been in the past, Lebanese have demonstrated that they can and will fight as viciously as Iraqi militias in Baghdad. Lebanon has no shortage of people from every sect and most political movements who will fight dirty urban warfare with little regard for unarmed civilian noncombatants.

Though Hezbollah still occupies West Beirut, the city is reportedly calm at the moment – but don’t expect that to last long. Hezbollah is a Shia army in league with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while West Beirut is mostly made up of hostile Sunnis aligned with Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. Lebanese blogger Mustafa at Beirut Spring put it plainly: “Expect the fight for Beirut to begin in earnest later with the distinct trademark of an occupied population: Hit and run.”

Even if Hezbollah does withdraw and real calm prevails in the near term, Lebanon has crossed a threshold from which there likely will be no recovery. Quiet may resume, but it will be the quiet of cold war rather than peace.

Hezbollah has always said its weapons were pointed only at Israel, though many knew better. Hezbollah even brags (although it’s not true) that they did not turn their weapons against Lebanese during the last civil war. Both of these lies have now been exposed before the whole world.

There may be lulls in the violence, but there will be no real peace in Lebanon until Hezbollah is disarmed or destroyed.

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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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Olmert’s Contradictory Strategy

For the first time since Syria withdrew from Lebanon over three years ago, Arab states are in broad consensus that Damascus is still meddling in Lebanese politics.

Indeed, Lebanon has been without a president since November because Hezbollah–with Syria’s political backing–is demanding cabinet veto power in exchange for approving Gen. Michel Suleiman as president.  In response, Egypt and Syria threatened to boycott the upcoming Arab League conference in Damascus, while Gulf states withheld their decisions to attend the conference until Syrian President Bashar al-Assad formally invited Lebanon.  Still, only 12 of 22 Arab heads-of-state have announced that they will attend.  Of course, this unity against Syria’s involvement in Lebanon has profound implications for Hezbollah, which depends on Syria’s political support for domestic leverage.

If you were prime minister of Israel, you would probably see this as a good thing.  After all, in the aftermath of Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced preparations for another war against Israel, further hinting that Hezbollah would target Israeli interests abroad.  Moreover, Hezbollah is a key conduit for delivering Iranian weapons to Hamas in Gaza. As Hezbollah’s al-Manar reported on Wednesday, Iran is attempting to transport anti-aircraft systems to Gaza that could hit Israeli airbases in the Negev.  If Syrian support is threatened, Hezbollah will have to redouble its domestic political efforts, potentially stalling its strategy against Israel.

Yet during a cabinet meeting earlier this week, Olmert called for opening negotiations with Syria–throwing the Assad regime a potential lifesaver as Arab consensus against Damascus developed.  Indeed, negotiating with Syria would undermine western attempts to hold Assad accountable for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri–providing a significant boost to Hezbollah’s March 8th Alliance.  In short, at the very moment that Olmert should be most focused on weakening Hezbollah, he is advocating a policy that would do the opposite.

Apparently, Olmert believes that, through peace negotiations, Israel can induce Syria to abandon “its involvement in terrorism and extricate it from the axis of evil.”  However, yesterday’s events should convince him that this is a fantasy.  For starters, Palestinian Islamic Jihad–whose operatives often receive training in Syria–attacked an Israeli jeep operating along the Israeli-Gaza border, using a sophisticated device likely made in Iran.  At the same time, Assad received the Iranian first vice-president in Damascus, with the two sides agreeing to link the Syrian electricity network to Iran’s grid.

Make no mistake: these Iranian-Syrian links will not be broken any time soon.  Olmert should recognize this reality, and take advantage of the rare opportunities that Arab consensus against Damascus provides for weakening Hezbollah politically.

For the first time since Syria withdrew from Lebanon over three years ago, Arab states are in broad consensus that Damascus is still meddling in Lebanese politics.

Indeed, Lebanon has been without a president since November because Hezbollah–with Syria’s political backing–is demanding cabinet veto power in exchange for approving Gen. Michel Suleiman as president.  In response, Egypt and Syria threatened to boycott the upcoming Arab League conference in Damascus, while Gulf states withheld their decisions to attend the conference until Syrian President Bashar al-Assad formally invited Lebanon.  Still, only 12 of 22 Arab heads-of-state have announced that they will attend.  Of course, this unity against Syria’s involvement in Lebanon has profound implications for Hezbollah, which depends on Syria’s political support for domestic leverage.

If you were prime minister of Israel, you would probably see this as a good thing.  After all, in the aftermath of Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced preparations for another war against Israel, further hinting that Hezbollah would target Israeli interests abroad.  Moreover, Hezbollah is a key conduit for delivering Iranian weapons to Hamas in Gaza. As Hezbollah’s al-Manar reported on Wednesday, Iran is attempting to transport anti-aircraft systems to Gaza that could hit Israeli airbases in the Negev.  If Syrian support is threatened, Hezbollah will have to redouble its domestic political efforts, potentially stalling its strategy against Israel.

Yet during a cabinet meeting earlier this week, Olmert called for opening negotiations with Syria–throwing the Assad regime a potential lifesaver as Arab consensus against Damascus developed.  Indeed, negotiating with Syria would undermine western attempts to hold Assad accountable for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri–providing a significant boost to Hezbollah’s March 8th Alliance.  In short, at the very moment that Olmert should be most focused on weakening Hezbollah, he is advocating a policy that would do the opposite.

Apparently, Olmert believes that, through peace negotiations, Israel can induce Syria to abandon “its involvement in terrorism and extricate it from the axis of evil.”  However, yesterday’s events should convince him that this is a fantasy.  For starters, Palestinian Islamic Jihad–whose operatives often receive training in Syria–attacked an Israeli jeep operating along the Israeli-Gaza border, using a sophisticated device likely made in Iran.  At the same time, Assad received the Iranian first vice-president in Damascus, with the two sides agreeing to link the Syrian electricity network to Iran’s grid.

Make no mistake: these Iranian-Syrian links will not be broken any time soon.  Olmert should recognize this reality, and take advantage of the rare opportunities that Arab consensus against Damascus provides for weakening Hezbollah politically.

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Gulf News: “Obama Is Good for Israel”

Everyone who was on the fence about the Obama-Israel question can now breathe easy. “Obama is good for Israel.” Or so reads the headline of an editorial in yesterday’s Gulf News, a major newspaper in the United Arab Emirates. The writer is Patrick Seale, who was a friend of the late Syrian dictator Hafiz Assad and who tried to pin the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Israel. Here are some highlights from Seale’s endorsement:

At an anti-war rally in Chicago on October 26, 2002, [Obama] declared: “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration, to shove their own ideological agenda down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne”.

Perle was then chairman of the Pentagon’s advisory Defence Policy Board and Wolfowitz was deputy Secretary of Defence. As everyone knows, their “ideological agenda” was to enhance Israel’s strategic environment by overthrowing and “reforming” Arab regimes.

They were, indeed, among the leading advocates of the view that the Arab world needed to be reshaped and remodelled by the power of the United States in order to suit Israeli strategic needs.

Name by Jewish name, Seale castigates the evil neocons before getting to why Obama is the best man for the Jewish state:

Is not overseeing Israel’s peaceful integration into the Arab world far better for its long-term security and prosperity than Bush’s bankrupt policies of making war on Iraq, threatening Iran and Syria, encouraging Israel’s wars on Hezbollah and Hamas – policies which have done nothing but create a thirst for revenge and hate for the US and Israel throughout the Arab and Islamic world, and beyond?

So: Obama will oversee “Israel’s peaceful integration into the Arab world” and there will be no more of “Israel’s wars on Hezbollah and Hamas.” I see no evidence that Obama is of like mind with Seale (though I’m not sure he’d be as outraged by these sentiments as one would like, considering they’re identical to the kind of things one hears from this country’s Left). The important thing is that this is Obama’s image in the anti-Semitic world: a toothless, jihad-friendly corrective to George Bush. Every liberal who’s ever complained that President Bush has done untold damage to American soft power should consider the views of papers such as the Gulf News. And every friend of Israel should be worried.

Everyone who was on the fence about the Obama-Israel question can now breathe easy. “Obama is good for Israel.” Or so reads the headline of an editorial in yesterday’s Gulf News, a major newspaper in the United Arab Emirates. The writer is Patrick Seale, who was a friend of the late Syrian dictator Hafiz Assad and who tried to pin the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Israel. Here are some highlights from Seale’s endorsement:

At an anti-war rally in Chicago on October 26, 2002, [Obama] declared: “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration, to shove their own ideological agenda down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne”.

Perle was then chairman of the Pentagon’s advisory Defence Policy Board and Wolfowitz was deputy Secretary of Defence. As everyone knows, their “ideological agenda” was to enhance Israel’s strategic environment by overthrowing and “reforming” Arab regimes.

They were, indeed, among the leading advocates of the view that the Arab world needed to be reshaped and remodelled by the power of the United States in order to suit Israeli strategic needs.

Name by Jewish name, Seale castigates the evil neocons before getting to why Obama is the best man for the Jewish state:

Is not overseeing Israel’s peaceful integration into the Arab world far better for its long-term security and prosperity than Bush’s bankrupt policies of making war on Iraq, threatening Iran and Syria, encouraging Israel’s wars on Hezbollah and Hamas – policies which have done nothing but create a thirst for revenge and hate for the US and Israel throughout the Arab and Islamic world, and beyond?

So: Obama will oversee “Israel’s peaceful integration into the Arab world” and there will be no more of “Israel’s wars on Hezbollah and Hamas.” I see no evidence that Obama is of like mind with Seale (though I’m not sure he’d be as outraged by these sentiments as one would like, considering they’re identical to the kind of things one hears from this country’s Left). The important thing is that this is Obama’s image in the anti-Semitic world: a toothless, jihad-friendly corrective to George Bush. Every liberal who’s ever complained that President Bush has done untold damage to American soft power should consider the views of papers such as the Gulf News. And every friend of Israel should be worried.

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Hezbollah and Mughniyeh

Hezbollah’s very public display of affection for assassinated terrorist Imad Mughniyeh represents a stunning about-face. As Martin Kramer notes on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog, Hezbollah has broken from previous denials regarding its connections to Mughniyeh, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah eulogizing him and a Hezbollah flag draping his coffin—clear symbols that Mughniyeh ranked highly in the Hezbollah chain. Indeed, its ties to Mughniyeh were so profound that Hezbollah appears prepared to fight Israel in response to his killing, hinting that it will attack Israeli interests abroad.

But Hezbollah isn’t the only Levantine player willing to engage Israel over Mughniyeh’s death. Yesterday, at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “Whoever assassinated Imad Mughniyeh has assassinated any peace efforts”—a statement clearly aimed at Israel. Critically, al-Moallem seemingly echoed Mottaki, who had proclaimed at Mughniyeh’s funeral earlier in the day, “The freedom-seeking nations … have millions of such fighters, who are ready to join the fight against the terrorists who perpetrate such the unmanly crimes.” Following the funeral, Mottaki had arrived in Damascus for “brotherly talks,” meeting with al-Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to discuss the developing situation in Lebanon.

In the days and weeks ahead, it will be important to monitor whether Hezbollah-Syrian cooperation is strengthened as a result of their unified defiance in the wake of Mughniyeh’s assassination. Of course, sustained Iranian involvement makes this quite likely.

Still, domestic Lebanese politics could intervene and force Hezbollah to downplay its Damascus contacts. At a massive rally held to commemorate the third anniversary of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination yesterday, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri castigated the Syrian regime as an “Israeli product.” Yet even as he lashed out against Syria—the regime that murdered his father—Hariri showed rare respect for Hezbollah, ending his rally at 2 PM so as to not interfere with Mughniyeh’s 2:30 funeral. Hariri further appealed to Hezbollah to negotiate a peaceful solution to the ongoing presidential crisis—a sharp break from his comments last week, when he accused the Hezbollah-led opposition of “destroying Lebanon.”

The big question is thus whether Hezbollah might see itself as having enough popular Lebanese support in the aftermath of Mughniyeh’s assassination to avoid relying on Damascus, a regime that is still reviled by a substantial portion of the population. Or, alternatively, Hezbollah could quickly return to Levantine politics as usual, taking its cues from Iran with Syria’s active consent.

Hezbollah’s very public display of affection for assassinated terrorist Imad Mughniyeh represents a stunning about-face. As Martin Kramer notes on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog, Hezbollah has broken from previous denials regarding its connections to Mughniyeh, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah eulogizing him and a Hezbollah flag draping his coffin—clear symbols that Mughniyeh ranked highly in the Hezbollah chain. Indeed, its ties to Mughniyeh were so profound that Hezbollah appears prepared to fight Israel in response to his killing, hinting that it will attack Israeli interests abroad.

But Hezbollah isn’t the only Levantine player willing to engage Israel over Mughniyeh’s death. Yesterday, at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “Whoever assassinated Imad Mughniyeh has assassinated any peace efforts”—a statement clearly aimed at Israel. Critically, al-Moallem seemingly echoed Mottaki, who had proclaimed at Mughniyeh’s funeral earlier in the day, “The freedom-seeking nations … have millions of such fighters, who are ready to join the fight against the terrorists who perpetrate such the unmanly crimes.” Following the funeral, Mottaki had arrived in Damascus for “brotherly talks,” meeting with al-Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to discuss the developing situation in Lebanon.

In the days and weeks ahead, it will be important to monitor whether Hezbollah-Syrian cooperation is strengthened as a result of their unified defiance in the wake of Mughniyeh’s assassination. Of course, sustained Iranian involvement makes this quite likely.

Still, domestic Lebanese politics could intervene and force Hezbollah to downplay its Damascus contacts. At a massive rally held to commemorate the third anniversary of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination yesterday, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri castigated the Syrian regime as an “Israeli product.” Yet even as he lashed out against Syria—the regime that murdered his father—Hariri showed rare respect for Hezbollah, ending his rally at 2 PM so as to not interfere with Mughniyeh’s 2:30 funeral. Hariri further appealed to Hezbollah to negotiate a peaceful solution to the ongoing presidential crisis—a sharp break from his comments last week, when he accused the Hezbollah-led opposition of “destroying Lebanon.”

The big question is thus whether Hezbollah might see itself as having enough popular Lebanese support in the aftermath of Mughniyeh’s assassination to avoid relying on Damascus, a regime that is still reviled by a substantial portion of the population. Or, alternatively, Hezbollah could quickly return to Levantine politics as usual, taking its cues from Iran with Syria’s active consent.

Read Less




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