Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tony Badran

Hedgehogs and Foxes in the Middle East

The fox, as Isaiah Berlin wrote, knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Reagan was a hedgehog because his presidency was animated by a basic belief in the superiority of democracy and free markets to Communism. When it comes to the Middle East, President Obama is what could be called a reverse hedgehog: he is animated by one grand vision, and it is completely wrong.

In this vision, the conflicts, failures, and policy difficulties of the Middle East revolve around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All roads in the Middle East, for Obama, lead back to Israel, and probably to the West Bank and the Golan Heights. As Tony Badran notes, another high-level administration official has confirmed this fixation:

This was the first time that an official openly laid out what the administration’s end game is. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was the official testifying before the [congressional] subcommittee, outlined the administration’s conceptual framework as follows: The US is working to mitigate Iran’s regional influence, which Syria facilitates. But Syria is not Iran, and there’s a basic policy difference between them: Unlike Iran, Syria has an interest in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Therefore, the peace process is, in Feltman’s words, the “big game”. The administration believes that a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem would cure the Syria problem. …

Witness, for example, this statement by Feltman: “Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist groups is unlikely to change absent a Middle East peace agreement.” The logic of this statement is but one step removed from justifying the arming of Hezbollah. It’s the logic that holds Syrian policy to be reactive and grievance-based.

When it comes to national leaders, hedgehogs are almost always preferable to foxes. But the worst possible scenario is the reverse hedgehog — the leader who is possessed of a grand fantasy.

The fox, as Isaiah Berlin wrote, knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Reagan was a hedgehog because his presidency was animated by a basic belief in the superiority of democracy and free markets to Communism. When it comes to the Middle East, President Obama is what could be called a reverse hedgehog: he is animated by one grand vision, and it is completely wrong.

In this vision, the conflicts, failures, and policy difficulties of the Middle East revolve around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All roads in the Middle East, for Obama, lead back to Israel, and probably to the West Bank and the Golan Heights. As Tony Badran notes, another high-level administration official has confirmed this fixation:

This was the first time that an official openly laid out what the administration’s end game is. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was the official testifying before the [congressional] subcommittee, outlined the administration’s conceptual framework as follows: The US is working to mitigate Iran’s regional influence, which Syria facilitates. But Syria is not Iran, and there’s a basic policy difference between them: Unlike Iran, Syria has an interest in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Therefore, the peace process is, in Feltman’s words, the “big game”. The administration believes that a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem would cure the Syria problem. …

Witness, for example, this statement by Feltman: “Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist groups is unlikely to change absent a Middle East peace agreement.” The logic of this statement is but one step removed from justifying the arming of Hezbollah. It’s the logic that holds Syrian policy to be reactive and grievance-based.

When it comes to national leaders, hedgehogs are almost always preferable to foxes. But the worst possible scenario is the reverse hedgehog — the leader who is possessed of a grand fantasy.

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Playing with Fire in the Levant

The National, a paper in the UAE, fleshes out the Scud missile story:

Although US officials contacted by The National could not completely confirm that such technology had been transferred to Hizbollah by Syria, one official privy to intelligence briefings confirmed a story previously reported in the Israeli press that in the weeks before Senator John Kerry’s visit to Damascus on April 1, Israel almost bombed what it claimed was a convoy of advanced weaponry headed from Syrian military bases to Hizbollah along the shared border with Lebanon.

“I can’t promise you that planes were actually in the air, but it was close, very close,” said the official. “The White House had to talk them down from the attack and promised that Kerry would use strong language” with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.

When asked about the outcome of the meeting between Mr Kerry and Mr Assad on the issue, the source tartly responded: “In light of where we are now, what do you think?”

As Tony Badran points out, Bashar Assad “is known to have a penchant for brinksmanship.” In this case, he appears to have been saved from the consequences of a particularly foolish gambit by the Obama administration.

But this doesn’t mean the red line hasn’t been crossed. Syria is in fact now in more danger than the Israelis. The IDF’s Arrow missile-defense system can knock Scuds out of the sky with great reliability, so they don’t pose a tremendous a threat. What they do provide to Israel is an opportunity — and they impose a requirement. The fact that they were transferred to Hezbollah in violation of tacit but well-understood red lines gives Israel clear and credible casus belli, should hostilities break out, to expand any conflict to Syria.

The crossing of the Scud-missile red line carries its own inexorable logic: since Syria has chosen to become a provider of military-grade weapons to Hezbollah, Israel has little choice but to include Syria in any future war with Hezbollah. And if Israel goes to war with Syria, there will be little rationale, given the risks involved and the immense reward of ridding the region of Iran’s only ally, from going for regime change.

Badran:

The Syrian president made a telling remark at the last Arab League summit to the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. He observed that “the price of resistance is not higher than the price of peace.” And therein lays the problem. Assad has not been made to feel that the costs of continued destabilization can be prohibitive. Instead, all he gets from Washington are weak statements in response to his actions.

What Barack Obama appears not to understand is that the harder he presses Israel and the more he protects Syria, the more self-reliant Israel has to become — and that is going to involve things that Obama might discover he dislikes more than close relations with the Jewish state.

The National, a paper in the UAE, fleshes out the Scud missile story:

Although US officials contacted by The National could not completely confirm that such technology had been transferred to Hizbollah by Syria, one official privy to intelligence briefings confirmed a story previously reported in the Israeli press that in the weeks before Senator John Kerry’s visit to Damascus on April 1, Israel almost bombed what it claimed was a convoy of advanced weaponry headed from Syrian military bases to Hizbollah along the shared border with Lebanon.

“I can’t promise you that planes were actually in the air, but it was close, very close,” said the official. “The White House had to talk them down from the attack and promised that Kerry would use strong language” with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.

When asked about the outcome of the meeting between Mr Kerry and Mr Assad on the issue, the source tartly responded: “In light of where we are now, what do you think?”

As Tony Badran points out, Bashar Assad “is known to have a penchant for brinksmanship.” In this case, he appears to have been saved from the consequences of a particularly foolish gambit by the Obama administration.

But this doesn’t mean the red line hasn’t been crossed. Syria is in fact now in more danger than the Israelis. The IDF’s Arrow missile-defense system can knock Scuds out of the sky with great reliability, so they don’t pose a tremendous a threat. What they do provide to Israel is an opportunity — and they impose a requirement. The fact that they were transferred to Hezbollah in violation of tacit but well-understood red lines gives Israel clear and credible casus belli, should hostilities break out, to expand any conflict to Syria.

The crossing of the Scud-missile red line carries its own inexorable logic: since Syria has chosen to become a provider of military-grade weapons to Hezbollah, Israel has little choice but to include Syria in any future war with Hezbollah. And if Israel goes to war with Syria, there will be little rationale, given the risks involved and the immense reward of ridding the region of Iran’s only ally, from going for regime change.

Badran:

The Syrian president made a telling remark at the last Arab League summit to the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. He observed that “the price of resistance is not higher than the price of peace.” And therein lays the problem. Assad has not been made to feel that the costs of continued destabilization can be prohibitive. Instead, all he gets from Washington are weak statements in response to his actions.

What Barack Obama appears not to understand is that the harder he presses Israel and the more he protects Syria, the more self-reliant Israel has to become — and that is going to involve things that Obama might discover he dislikes more than close relations with the Jewish state.

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The Innocents Pack for Damascus

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

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Must We Waste Another Year?

The United States is re-establishing ties with Damascus and hoping to lure Syria away from Iran, but Lebanese scholar Tony Badran warns the Obama administration that Syria’s President Bashar Assad is laying a trap. The U.S., he writes in NOW Lebanon, needs to avoid making concessions until Assad “makes verifiable and substantial concessions on key Washington demands, not least surrendering Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Otherwise, Assad may dictate the avenues, conditions and aims of the engagement process.”

Syria has been cunningly outwitting Americans and Europeans for decades, and most Western leaders seem entirely incapable of learning from or even noticing the mistakes of their predecessors. Assad is so sure of himself this time around — and, frankly, he’s right to be — that he’s already announced the failure of President Obama’s outreach program. Yesterday he openly ridiculed the administration’s policy in a joint press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Syria will not abandon its alliance with Iran, nor will it cease and desist its support for terrorist groups, until at least one of the two governments in question has been replaced. The alliance works for both parties. While Assad’s secular Arab Socialist Baath Party ideology differs markedly from Ali Khamenei’s Velayat-e Faqih, “resistance” is at the molten core of each one. Syria’s and Iran’s lists of enemies — Sunni Arabs, Israel, and the United States — are identical.

Understand the lay of the land. Syria is no more likely to join the de facto American-French-Egyptian-Saudi-Israeli coalition than the U.S. is likely to defect to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. It’s as if the U.S. were trying to pry East Germany out of the Communist bloc during the Cold War before the Berlin Wall was destroyed.

No basket of carrots Barack Obama or anyone else can offer will change Assad’s calculation of his own strategic interests. His weak military and Soviet-style economy would instantly render his country as geopolitically impotent as Yemen if he scrapped his alliance with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Today, though, he’s the most powerful Arab ruler in the Levant. Because he contributes so much to the Middle East’s instability and starts so many fires in neighboring countries, he’s made himself an “indispensable” part of every fantasy solution Western diplomats can come up with. He wouldn’t be where he is without Iranian help, and that help will be more valuable than ever if and when Tehran produces nuclear weapons.

Last month Obama admitted he was “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Prying Syria away from Iran won’t be any easier. As Tony Badran points out in his NOW Lebanon piece, the United States has been trying to drive the two countries apart now for more than 25 years.

Obama has not been paying attention if he thinks “engagement” with Syria hasn’t been tried. Badran alone has been documenting the futility of Western attempts to cut deals with Damascus ever since I started reading him, almost six years ago. The problem itself is much older than that, of course. It goes all the way back to the 1970s. Many of us who have been following Syria for some time were exhausted by the failure of “engagement” before we had ever even heard of Barack Obama.

The administration has already lost a year to the locusts with its “peace process” to nowhere and its “engagement” with Iran. A whole range of options exists between negotiating with murderers and invading their countries, and it’s long past time they were applied.

It won’t be Obama’s fault when his Syria strategy fails, but it is his fault that he’s wasting time trying. The president really ought to have learned by now that reaching out to terror-supporting tyrants in the Middle East is a mug’s game. His charm, sincerity, and inherent reasonableness count for little in a hard region where leaders almost everywhere rule at the point of a gun, and where the docile and the weak are bullied or destroyed by the ruthless.

The United States is re-establishing ties with Damascus and hoping to lure Syria away from Iran, but Lebanese scholar Tony Badran warns the Obama administration that Syria’s President Bashar Assad is laying a trap. The U.S., he writes in NOW Lebanon, needs to avoid making concessions until Assad “makes verifiable and substantial concessions on key Washington demands, not least surrendering Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Otherwise, Assad may dictate the avenues, conditions and aims of the engagement process.”

Syria has been cunningly outwitting Americans and Europeans for decades, and most Western leaders seem entirely incapable of learning from or even noticing the mistakes of their predecessors. Assad is so sure of himself this time around — and, frankly, he’s right to be — that he’s already announced the failure of President Obama’s outreach program. Yesterday he openly ridiculed the administration’s policy in a joint press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Syria will not abandon its alliance with Iran, nor will it cease and desist its support for terrorist groups, until at least one of the two governments in question has been replaced. The alliance works for both parties. While Assad’s secular Arab Socialist Baath Party ideology differs markedly from Ali Khamenei’s Velayat-e Faqih, “resistance” is at the molten core of each one. Syria’s and Iran’s lists of enemies — Sunni Arabs, Israel, and the United States — are identical.

Understand the lay of the land. Syria is no more likely to join the de facto American-French-Egyptian-Saudi-Israeli coalition than the U.S. is likely to defect to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. It’s as if the U.S. were trying to pry East Germany out of the Communist bloc during the Cold War before the Berlin Wall was destroyed.

No basket of carrots Barack Obama or anyone else can offer will change Assad’s calculation of his own strategic interests. His weak military and Soviet-style economy would instantly render his country as geopolitically impotent as Yemen if he scrapped his alliance with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Today, though, he’s the most powerful Arab ruler in the Levant. Because he contributes so much to the Middle East’s instability and starts so many fires in neighboring countries, he’s made himself an “indispensable” part of every fantasy solution Western diplomats can come up with. He wouldn’t be where he is without Iranian help, and that help will be more valuable than ever if and when Tehran produces nuclear weapons.

Last month Obama admitted he was “too optimistic” about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s “just really hard.” Prying Syria away from Iran won’t be any easier. As Tony Badran points out in his NOW Lebanon piece, the United States has been trying to drive the two countries apart now for more than 25 years.

Obama has not been paying attention if he thinks “engagement” with Syria hasn’t been tried. Badran alone has been documenting the futility of Western attempts to cut deals with Damascus ever since I started reading him, almost six years ago. The problem itself is much older than that, of course. It goes all the way back to the 1970s. Many of us who have been following Syria for some time were exhausted by the failure of “engagement” before we had ever even heard of Barack Obama.

The administration has already lost a year to the locusts with its “peace process” to nowhere and its “engagement” with Iran. A whole range of options exists between negotiating with murderers and invading their countries, and it’s long past time they were applied.

It won’t be Obama’s fault when his Syria strategy fails, but it is his fault that he’s wasting time trying. The president really ought to have learned by now that reaching out to terror-supporting tyrants in the Middle East is a mug’s game. His charm, sincerity, and inherent reasonableness count for little in a hard region where leaders almost everywhere rule at the point of a gun, and where the docile and the weak are bullied or destroyed by the ruthless.

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War and Peace in the Levant

The dramatic scale of Hezbollah’s rearmament will not be without consequences. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told Haaretz yesterday that “he was growing increasingly worried by reports describing the quantity and types of weapons being smuggled to the terrorist organization.” The Washington Post reports that Hezbollah has dispersed its rockets throughout Lebanon, ensuring a conflict that will engulf the entire country. Tony Badran wonders whether Bashar Assad has foolishly convinced himself that he will again be held harmless if another war breaks out.

The war calculations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah involve an estimation of how much time the Obama administration will give Israel to fight. In 2006 — very much owing, of course, to Israel’s poor performance — the IDF fought for only a month before accepting terms from the UN. There are good reasons to believe that next time, Israel will have even less time.

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

How many days — much less weeks — would pass before Obama began criticizing the Israeli operation and refusing diplomatic protection at the UN?

The resistance groups are surely counting on America to enforce a short conflict that restricts the IDF’s ability to strike back forcefully at Hezbollah. But it is not clear, given Obama’s declining political fortunes, how much leverage he will have over Israel. In private, the Arabs will be telling Obama to let Israel finish the job. What Nasrallah is counting on, Obama may not be able to deliver. Or may choose not to. Or F-16s may begin sorties over Damascus. The uncertainty about where America stands is dangerous.

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict. Obama imagines that his presidency allows the United States to transcend old choices — “false choices” as he calls them — but one decision he will always have to make is where he stands between friends and enemies. Not to choose is also a choice.

The dramatic scale of Hezbollah’s rearmament will not be without consequences. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told Haaretz yesterday that “he was growing increasingly worried by reports describing the quantity and types of weapons being smuggled to the terrorist organization.” The Washington Post reports that Hezbollah has dispersed its rockets throughout Lebanon, ensuring a conflict that will engulf the entire country. Tony Badran wonders whether Bashar Assad has foolishly convinced himself that he will again be held harmless if another war breaks out.

The war calculations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah involve an estimation of how much time the Obama administration will give Israel to fight. In 2006 — very much owing, of course, to Israel’s poor performance — the IDF fought for only a month before accepting terms from the UN. There are good reasons to believe that next time, Israel will have even less time.

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

How many days — much less weeks — would pass before Obama began criticizing the Israeli operation and refusing diplomatic protection at the UN?

The resistance groups are surely counting on America to enforce a short conflict that restricts the IDF’s ability to strike back forcefully at Hezbollah. But it is not clear, given Obama’s declining political fortunes, how much leverage he will have over Israel. In private, the Arabs will be telling Obama to let Israel finish the job. What Nasrallah is counting on, Obama may not be able to deliver. Or may choose not to. Or F-16s may begin sorties over Damascus. The uncertainty about where America stands is dangerous.

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict. Obama imagines that his presidency allows the United States to transcend old choices — “false choices” as he calls them — but one decision he will always have to make is where he stands between friends and enemies. Not to choose is also a choice.

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Two Great Quotes on Mughniyah

The first from David Schenker:

The fact that Mughniyah was killed in Damascus highlights the Asad regime’s increasing difficulties in protecting the terrorists they provide with “safe haven.” In 2004, another guest of the regime, Hamas leader Izzeddin Subhi Sheikh Khalil, was killed by a car bomb in Damascus. The Israelis bombed an Islamic Jihad training camp in 2003, buzzed Asad’s Latakia palace in 2006, and destroyed a presumed North Korean-supplied nuclear facility in 2007. As Mughniyah’s aunt told AFP earlier today, “We were shocked to learn that he was killed in Syria. We thought he was safe there.”

And the second, from Tony Badran, rounding out Schenker:

Zbig Brzezinski was in Damascus today. And, according to SANA, Zbig told journalists that the US and Syria have a shared interest in stability in the region. Now, we all knew that Zbig was a buffoon, but to say this on the day that Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus is really a proud moment for the man on whose watch Mughniyeh’s bosses took over Iran.

A shared interest in stability in the region, by giving safe haven to an all-star team of global terrorists? Buffoon might be too weak a word to describe Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser.

The first from David Schenker:

The fact that Mughniyah was killed in Damascus highlights the Asad regime’s increasing difficulties in protecting the terrorists they provide with “safe haven.” In 2004, another guest of the regime, Hamas leader Izzeddin Subhi Sheikh Khalil, was killed by a car bomb in Damascus. The Israelis bombed an Islamic Jihad training camp in 2003, buzzed Asad’s Latakia palace in 2006, and destroyed a presumed North Korean-supplied nuclear facility in 2007. As Mughniyah’s aunt told AFP earlier today, “We were shocked to learn that he was killed in Syria. We thought he was safe there.”

And the second, from Tony Badran, rounding out Schenker:

Zbig Brzezinski was in Damascus today. And, according to SANA, Zbig told journalists that the US and Syria have a shared interest in stability in the region. Now, we all knew that Zbig was a buffoon, but to say this on the day that Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus is really a proud moment for the man on whose watch Mughniyeh’s bosses took over Iran.

A shared interest in stability in the region, by giving safe haven to an all-star team of global terrorists? Buffoon might be too weak a word to describe Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser.

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Did Israel Do It?

By a simple process of elimination, it seems implausible that anyone other than Israel was behind the operation that killed Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus last night.

For starters, the Syrian regime can be eliminated. If the bombing had happened anywhere other than Damascus, there might be a slight chance that Syria, as so many people are speculating, knocked off one of its own heroes as part of a secret deal with America. But the bombing happened in the heart of Damascus–“the car bomb exploded . . . in Tantheem Kafer Souseh, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, close to an Iranian school and a police station,” reports the NYT — and the embarrassment today to the Assad regime and its allies, Hizballah and Iran, could not be greater. Damascus is an extraordinarily well-surveilled city, and the Assad regime is fanatical about internal security. Even if somehow the Syrians did decide that they needed to kill Mughniyeh, doing so in Damascus, or even elsewhere in Syria, would be an unimaginably stupid way to carry it out.

So did a group of Lebanese Christians do it in retaliation for years of Syrian assassinations of March 14 leaders? There is motive — but there isn’t much in the way of means. As Tony Badran told the New York Sun, “To say that any faction in Lebanon is behind this is to greatly misstate reality. They don’t have the operational capacity. They don’t have the intelligence capacity. It is extremely unlikely that anyone in Lebanon has anything to do with this.” Moreover, had Lebanese Christians been able to do it, they would have bombed Damascus three years ago, when Syria started killing people in Beirut.

What about America? This is probably the likeliest scenario other than the Israelis, as Mugniyah’s fingerprints are on a litany of terror operations spanning well over two decades that have killed hundreds of Americans. But it’s also true that America appears to have largely given up the hunt for Mugniyah, and has also downgraded its confrontation with Syria and Iran. It is also not clear that the CIA today is enamored of the spirit of daring necessary to carry off such an operation, or that it even maintains the kind of resources in Syria that would enable it to assassinate someone if the interest arose.

And that leaves Israel, which has many obvious reasons for conducting such an operation combined with the intelligence capabilities necessary for carrying it out. We know from the 2006 war with Hizballah that Israel has reliable networks of operatives within southern Lebanon and Syria which enabled Israel to monitor the medium- and long-range missiles that were supplied to Hizballah, almost all of which Israel was able to destroy in the opening hours of the war.

Ultimately, it almost doesn’t matter who did it, because Israel will remain the presumed culprit. And that is a very good thing.

By a simple process of elimination, it seems implausible that anyone other than Israel was behind the operation that killed Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus last night.

For starters, the Syrian regime can be eliminated. If the bombing had happened anywhere other than Damascus, there might be a slight chance that Syria, as so many people are speculating, knocked off one of its own heroes as part of a secret deal with America. But the bombing happened in the heart of Damascus–“the car bomb exploded . . . in Tantheem Kafer Souseh, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, close to an Iranian school and a police station,” reports the NYT — and the embarrassment today to the Assad regime and its allies, Hizballah and Iran, could not be greater. Damascus is an extraordinarily well-surveilled city, and the Assad regime is fanatical about internal security. Even if somehow the Syrians did decide that they needed to kill Mughniyeh, doing so in Damascus, or even elsewhere in Syria, would be an unimaginably stupid way to carry it out.

So did a group of Lebanese Christians do it in retaliation for years of Syrian assassinations of March 14 leaders? There is motive — but there isn’t much in the way of means. As Tony Badran told the New York Sun, “To say that any faction in Lebanon is behind this is to greatly misstate reality. They don’t have the operational capacity. They don’t have the intelligence capacity. It is extremely unlikely that anyone in Lebanon has anything to do with this.” Moreover, had Lebanese Christians been able to do it, they would have bombed Damascus three years ago, when Syria started killing people in Beirut.

What about America? This is probably the likeliest scenario other than the Israelis, as Mugniyah’s fingerprints are on a litany of terror operations spanning well over two decades that have killed hundreds of Americans. But it’s also true that America appears to have largely given up the hunt for Mugniyah, and has also downgraded its confrontation with Syria and Iran. It is also not clear that the CIA today is enamored of the spirit of daring necessary to carry off such an operation, or that it even maintains the kind of resources in Syria that would enable it to assassinate someone if the interest arose.

And that leaves Israel, which has many obvious reasons for conducting such an operation combined with the intelligence capabilities necessary for carrying it out. We know from the 2006 war with Hizballah that Israel has reliable networks of operatives within southern Lebanon and Syria which enabled Israel to monitor the medium- and long-range missiles that were supplied to Hizballah, almost all of which Israel was able to destroy in the opening hours of the war.

Ultimately, it almost doesn’t matter who did it, because Israel will remain the presumed culprit. And that is a very good thing.

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Assad Suckers Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Norman Finkelstein Roadshow

Norman Finkelstein, freshly liberated from the humdrum of academic life by way of being denied tenure at De Paul University, has taken his hate-Israel routine on the road. He has gone to Lebanon to give lectures and to “hold two workshops in Palestinian refugee camps.”

At a press conference on Friday — Finkelstein must surely savor having the kind of attention lavished on him in Lebanon that few can be bothered to provide in America — he channeled Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, in describing the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war:

However, it is also true to say that the Lebanese resistance inflicted a historic and well-deserved military defeat on the invading foreign army and its chief supporter.

He continued:

It should also be mentioned that after the war the US-based organization Human Rights Watch whitewashed Israeli war crimes and made false accusations against Hizballah. This cowardly and mercenary act deserves contempt.

Ah yes, Human Rights Watch, that steely defender of the Jewish state.

It’s probably impossible to put Finkelstein’s swindles and perversions (to borrow an Orwell phrase) into a ratings system, and I am by no means a person who wastes much time following the man’s deluded utterances. But here he has clearly sunk to a new low: He openly sympathizes with Hizballah, a group which seeks the genocide of the Jewish people; he openly wishes for Israel’s military defeat at the hands of an enemy whose primary ambition is the state’s annihilation; and he does all of this while hiding behind the fig leaf of his own Jewishness so as to deflect the charge that he is an anti-Semite.

It is normal to say that Finkelstein’s are the views of a self-hating Jew. But by all appearances, the man does not hate himself, and in fact views his role as that of a hero — a brave truth-teller fighting against the imperial forces of Zionism and Americanism. Finkelstein is a hustler and a coward because he trades off his Jewishness to lend credibility to starkly anti-Jewish rhetoric. It’s time we stopped calling Finkelstein a self-hating Jew and started calling him what he actually is: an anti-Semite.

UPDATE: Tony Badran emailed me a link to a Haaretz article with fresh details. Touring southern Lebanon and meeting with Hezbollah’s regional commander, Finkelstein said: “I think that the Hezbollah represents the hope.” No word yet on whether Finkelstein is going to pose for photos manning a Katyusha rocket launcher…

Norman Finkelstein, freshly liberated from the humdrum of academic life by way of being denied tenure at De Paul University, has taken his hate-Israel routine on the road. He has gone to Lebanon to give lectures and to “hold two workshops in Palestinian refugee camps.”

At a press conference on Friday — Finkelstein must surely savor having the kind of attention lavished on him in Lebanon that few can be bothered to provide in America — he channeled Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, in describing the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war:

However, it is also true to say that the Lebanese resistance inflicted a historic and well-deserved military defeat on the invading foreign army and its chief supporter.

He continued:

It should also be mentioned that after the war the US-based organization Human Rights Watch whitewashed Israeli war crimes and made false accusations against Hizballah. This cowardly and mercenary act deserves contempt.

Ah yes, Human Rights Watch, that steely defender of the Jewish state.

It’s probably impossible to put Finkelstein’s swindles and perversions (to borrow an Orwell phrase) into a ratings system, and I am by no means a person who wastes much time following the man’s deluded utterances. But here he has clearly sunk to a new low: He openly sympathizes with Hizballah, a group which seeks the genocide of the Jewish people; he openly wishes for Israel’s military defeat at the hands of an enemy whose primary ambition is the state’s annihilation; and he does all of this while hiding behind the fig leaf of his own Jewishness so as to deflect the charge that he is an anti-Semite.

It is normal to say that Finkelstein’s are the views of a self-hating Jew. But by all appearances, the man does not hate himself, and in fact views his role as that of a hero — a brave truth-teller fighting against the imperial forces of Zionism and Americanism. Finkelstein is a hustler and a coward because he trades off his Jewishness to lend credibility to starkly anti-Jewish rhetoric. It’s time we stopped calling Finkelstein a self-hating Jew and started calling him what he actually is: an anti-Semite.

UPDATE: Tony Badran emailed me a link to a Haaretz article with fresh details. Touring southern Lebanon and meeting with Hezbollah’s regional commander, Finkelstein said: “I think that the Hezbollah represents the hope.” No word yet on whether Finkelstein is going to pose for photos manning a Katyusha rocket launcher…

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The Abandoned Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syria’s Useful Israeli Idiots

The Syrian state-run propaganda organ Cham Press published a fake story about Lebanese Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt’s supposed plan to meet Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the United States last weekend to coordinate a regime-change in Syria. No Western media organization I know of took this non-story seriously. Israeli media, though, scooped it right up. Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Infolive TV published their own articles about the imaginary meeting between Jumblatt and Barak. None had a source for their story other than the Syrian government’s website.

It goes without saying that Israeli journalists aren’t in cahoots with the Baath Party regime in Damascus. Many Israeli reporters and editors, however, are frankly clueless about Lebanese and Syrian politics.

First of all, it is illegal for a Lebanese citizen to speak to an Israeli citizen no matter where in the world their meeting takes place. Even quietly waving hello to an Israeli on the border is treason.

A significant portion of the Lebanese people sided with Israel during the first Lebanon War in 1982, including Lebanon’s president-elect Bashir Gemayel before he was assassinated. The South Lebanese Army was Israel’s proxy militia in what is now Hizballah-controlled territory, until then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli occupation forces from their “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. The draconian law is in place precisely to prevent such sympathizers from working with Israelis against Lebanese.

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The Syrian state-run propaganda organ Cham Press published a fake story about Lebanese Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt’s supposed plan to meet Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the United States last weekend to coordinate a regime-change in Syria. No Western media organization I know of took this non-story seriously. Israeli media, though, scooped it right up. Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, and Infolive TV published their own articles about the imaginary meeting between Jumblatt and Barak. None had a source for their story other than the Syrian government’s website.

It goes without saying that Israeli journalists aren’t in cahoots with the Baath Party regime in Damascus. Many Israeli reporters and editors, however, are frankly clueless about Lebanese and Syrian politics.

First of all, it is illegal for a Lebanese citizen to speak to an Israeli citizen no matter where in the world their meeting takes place. Even quietly waving hello to an Israeli on the border is treason.

A significant portion of the Lebanese people sided with Israel during the first Lebanon War in 1982, including Lebanon’s president-elect Bashir Gemayel before he was assassinated. The South Lebanese Army was Israel’s proxy militia in what is now Hizballah-controlled territory, until then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli occupation forces from their “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. The draconian law is in place precisely to prevent such sympathizers from working with Israelis against Lebanese.

The law is absurd from the West’s point of view, and from the point of view of many Lebanese, too. Lebanon is “the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world,” as Lebanese political consultant and analyst Eli Khoury told me last year. But Lebanon, despite its moderation outside the Hizballah camp, is still under the shadow of the Syrian-Iranian axis, and remains threatened with de facto re-annexation. The reactionary law is still on the books, and even a leader as prominent as Walid Jumblatt dare not break it.

Jumblatt traveled to Washington this past weekend to give a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which you can read here. After Cham Press published its fabricated story, his office phoned the institute to make sure the Israeli Defense Minister would not be attending. He needed to be sure the two could not even run into each other by accident and make Syria’s bogus assertion look true.

Israeli journalists who “reported” this non-story should have noticed that they published a claim that Jumblatt and Barak will meet in the United States after the meeting was supposed to have already happened. Cham Press said the meeting would take place on Sunday, and Israeli media placed the alleged meeting in the future tense the following Monday.

Re-reporting Syrian lies in the Israeli press makes Cham Press look almost legitimate, its lies almost plausible. This should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t. The Damascus regime knows what it is doing and has been using gullible foreign journalists to its advantage for a while now.

“Regime flacks fed New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh outrageous propaganda about how the United States supposedly supported the Fatah al-Islam terrorists in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp in Lebanon,” said Tony Badran, a Lebanese research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Then they quoted his New Yorker story to get themselves diplomatically off the hook for their own support of those terrorists in the camp.”

And here we go again. Cham Press now says Israel’s Omedia reported that Jumblatt met with Barak and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington. Cham Press no longer quotes only itself; it quotes Israeli websites as backup. But the only reason Israeli media reported any of this in the first place is the initial false story appearing in Cham Press. Syrian media is still just quoting itself—only now it does so through Israel.

Jumblatt is near or at the top of Syria’s hit list. No Lebanese leader opposes Syrian terrorism and attempts at overlordship in Lebanon as staunchly as he. His pro-Western “March 14” bloc in parliament is already accused of being a “Zionist hand” by Hizballah and the Syrians. He was the second person Syrian ruler Bashar Assad threatened by name shortly before former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others were assassinated by a truck bomb in downtown Beirut. (“I will break Lebanon over your head and Walid Jumblatt’s,” Assad said to Hariri.) As Tony Badran pointed out to me, the Syrian regime has a habit of planting false stories about Lebanese leaders just before dispatching them with car bombs. The idea of Jumblatt meeting with Barak may seem innocent in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but it marks him for death in Lebanon and in Syria.

Syria is at war with both Israel and Lebanon. Journalists who wish to write about a conspiracy between Israel and Lebanon to destroy the regime in Syria need a better source for that story than the manipulative and murderous Syrian state.

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