Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lebanon

The Problem with Turkey’s “Zero-Problem” Foreign Policy

With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

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With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

This worldview is what led him to actively support the flotilla, sponsored by a terror-affiliated Islamist organization, despite knowing violence might ensue; downgrade ties with Israel in a fit of pique after a UN investigation of the incident upheld the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza; and refuse to restore them even after President Obama personally brokered a reconciliation deal, since the deal didn’t include ending the blockade. Supporting his fellow Islamists in Hamas trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

This is also what led him to actively support the Sunni rebels–and particularly the most radical Islamists among them–against Syria’s Alawite regime, and why he’s never stopped denouncing the Egyptian coup, even as the rest of the world has long since accepted that it’s not only a fait accompli, but enjoys broad popular support. In these cases, too, loyalty to his fellow Islamists trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

Such a principled foreign policy might be admirable if it weren’t for one problem: The principle Erdogan is supporting–Islamism–happens to be a destabilizing one. Inter alia, the Islamist governments and movements he’s supported have produced nonstop rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, a brutal civil war in Syria, and governmental abuses and incompetence in Egypt on a scale that generated massive support for the coup. Hence Erdogan’s commitment to his Islamist foreign policy has only further destabilized an unstable region.

Iran, of course, is also committed to Islamism, albeit the Shi’ite rather than the Sunni variety. Indeed, its foreign policy has been even more aggressive and destabilizing than Turkey’s: Witness its support for the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria and for Hezbollah’s virtual takeover of Lebanon. And since Islamism is the Iranian regime’s raison d’etre, no deal with Washington is going to end its commitment to an Islamist foreign policy.   

The lesson for America ought to be that Islamists–even “moderate” ones, to quote the Washington elite’s favorite adjective for both Erdogan and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani–don’t make good foreign-policy partners. Unless, that is, one thinks even more instability in a volatile region is a good idea.

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Veteran Intelligence Pros for Syria’s Assad

Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

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Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

Their statement continues to push the bizarre conspiracy theory that Israel had a part in the chemical attacks. Let’s put aside how poorly this theory reflects on the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community, who count these conspiracy-mongers among their distinguished alumni, and instead focus on the “our former co-workers are telling us” portion. There are two possibilities here: One, intelligence analysts are readily violating their oaths to protect and secure the information with which they work by gossiping with colleagues; or, two, the VIPS are simply lying about their access in order to look more relevant to the media.

Either way, VIPS’s actions are worth considering. A quick Lexis search shows that their most recent letter was picked up by the New York Times, the International Business Times-Germany, the Toronto Star, Iran’s Fars News Agency, and a number of blogs. If the intelligence veterans involved in VIPS are bluffing about their access, then that should be the first issue journalists address when reporting on the letter.

Let’s assume that the journalists did determine that men—many of whom have been out of the intelligence community for years—still gossip openly with colleagues on the inside, colleagues who must now be fairly senior in a bureaucracy that rewards seniority more than ability. Their chatter raises more problems. W. Patrick Lang, one of the signatories, once served as a registered foreign agent for a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician; in effect, he was a lobbyist for the Syrian regime. That members of the intelligence community would leak to such a figure should raise concerns. Lang also once confessed that his intelligence colleagues leaked information to influence the outcome of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” the American Prospect reported Pat Lang as saying in the November 2005 issue. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man.’”

VIPS are pushing policy and in a quite dishonest way. Rather than simply report on the VIPS statements, the New York Times would do better to consider the implications of the group’s actions. So, too, should the internal affairs and security wings of the various intelligence communities whose alumni now are members of VIPS. For VIPS condones and represents not only a problem with leaking among the intelligence community, but also a malicious and politically driven kind of leaking that, as the Fars News Agency demonstrates, already provides comfort and propaganda to the enemy.

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Recalling the Last U.S. Strike on Syrians

As the Obama administration continues its foreign-policy schizophrenia, it’s useful to remember that any Obama strike on Syria will not be the first time U.S. forces have engaged Syrians. Just a few months shy of 30 years ago, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon fired on American reconnaissance planes supporting the U.S. and international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. In response, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Syrian positions hit. From a December 5, 1983 New York Times report:

Syria’s Minister of Defense said today that the American airman captured by Syrian troops after they shot down his aircraft on Sunday would not be returned until “the war” was over and American troops left Lebanon. He confirmed a report that the other American flier in the Navy attack bomber had died, and said the body was to be turned over to the United States Embassy in Damascus today… The American marines remained on alert in their compound at Beirut International Airport, although there was no resumption of the shelling that killed eight of them and wounded two on Sunday. The shelling occurred hours after an American air strike on Syrian targets east of the Lebanese capital in which two United States planes were shot down. (The Soviet Union “resolutely condemned” the American air raids against Syrian positions in Lebanon, terming them “a serious threat to peace in the Middle East, and not only in that region….”)

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As the Obama administration continues its foreign-policy schizophrenia, it’s useful to remember that any Obama strike on Syria will not be the first time U.S. forces have engaged Syrians. Just a few months shy of 30 years ago, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon fired on American reconnaissance planes supporting the U.S. and international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. In response, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Syrian positions hit. From a December 5, 1983 New York Times report:

Syria’s Minister of Defense said today that the American airman captured by Syrian troops after they shot down his aircraft on Sunday would not be returned until “the war” was over and American troops left Lebanon. He confirmed a report that the other American flier in the Navy attack bomber had died, and said the body was to be turned over to the United States Embassy in Damascus today… The American marines remained on alert in their compound at Beirut International Airport, although there was no resumption of the shelling that killed eight of them and wounded two on Sunday. The shelling occurred hours after an American air strike on Syrian targets east of the Lebanese capital in which two United States planes were shot down. (The Soviet Union “resolutely condemned” the American air raids against Syrian positions in Lebanon, terming them “a serious threat to peace in the Middle East, and not only in that region….”)

While I am on record favoring a limited strike against chemical weapons targets on both sides of the conflict, the opposition really isn’t better than the regime at this point and has certainly not become more moderate. Still, as much as history informs, let us hope that amongst all his flip-flopping, President Obama both remembers the danger of complications manned aircraft could pose if downed for whatever reason over Syrian territory. While Syria might not be able to down a U.S. aircraft unassisted, Obama should not put anything past Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has had enough time over the past several weeks to insert “advisers” wherever he might need. Here too, history informs. Putin’s mentality remains firmly in his KGB past and the Soviet heyday. Moscow’s condemnation now really is no different than it was in 1983. The only difference is in the character of the American presidency.

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In Syria, Partition Is Not the Answer

The Six-Day War in 1967 may have brought Israel victory over its Arab neighbors and shaped the modern Middle East, but it did nothing to stem the Palestinian desire to carry out terrorism against the Jewish state. Factions led by Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian terrorists consolidated on the Jordanian side of the Israel-Jordan boundary and used the area as a launching pad for anti-Israel violence. But as the movements picked up steam, the Palestinian encampments began behaving as a state within a state, brought Israeli retribution, and eventually destabilized Jordan enough for the Jordanian monarchy to force Arafat’s expulsion.

Arafat and his crew went to southern Lebanon, where they played the encore, once again creating a state within a state, destabilizing their sovereign host, and sparking regional armed conflict. Eventually Arafat would lose his base in south Lebanon as well, but there a new terrorist movement would sprout in his place. Hezbollah, fierce and bloodthirsty and determined to kill Jews, followed the script. First, the group developed and consolidated an area of influence. Then it began destabilizing its host state and sparking regional war.

This history, and the very clear pattern that has been established by combining weak states with transnational terrorist movements, should weigh heavily on the debate over what to do about the Syrian civil war. It’s why one scenario–partition–would likely only produce a brief spell of quiet as a prelude to more violence and state collapse. And it’s what should make Tom Friedman’s latest proposal, in which he anticipates a fragmented Syria and calls on the Obama administration to secure whatever part of that postwar state it can, a nonstarter:

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The Six-Day War in 1967 may have brought Israel victory over its Arab neighbors and shaped the modern Middle East, but it did nothing to stem the Palestinian desire to carry out terrorism against the Jewish state. Factions led by Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian terrorists consolidated on the Jordanian side of the Israel-Jordan boundary and used the area as a launching pad for anti-Israel violence. But as the movements picked up steam, the Palestinian encampments began behaving as a state within a state, brought Israeli retribution, and eventually destabilized Jordan enough for the Jordanian monarchy to force Arafat’s expulsion.

Arafat and his crew went to southern Lebanon, where they played the encore, once again creating a state within a state, destabilizing their sovereign host, and sparking regional armed conflict. Eventually Arafat would lose his base in south Lebanon as well, but there a new terrorist movement would sprout in his place. Hezbollah, fierce and bloodthirsty and determined to kill Jews, followed the script. First, the group developed and consolidated an area of influence. Then it began destabilizing its host state and sparking regional war.

This history, and the very clear pattern that has been established by combining weak states with transnational terrorist movements, should weigh heavily on the debate over what to do about the Syrian civil war. It’s why one scenario–partition–would likely only produce a brief spell of quiet as a prelude to more violence and state collapse. And it’s what should make Tom Friedman’s latest proposal, in which he anticipates a fragmented Syria and calls on the Obama administration to secure whatever part of that postwar state it can, a nonstarter:

Thus, the most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest. But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-Al Qaeda jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.

That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.

Friedman’s suggested course of action is unworkable more than it is unlikely. As I wrote in May, Bashar al-Assad’s forces are on pace to lose only parts of the country. Assad has enlisted the help of Hezbollah, and as a result will gain more control over land in Lebanon and be better able to entrench his loyalist power base. If the war ends in a stalemate, I wrote, the divided country would probably be a menacing presence from day one:

Such a division would collapse whatever nominal independence Lebanon has because the Assad regime, buoyed by its military alliance with Hezbollah, would control areas that border on Lebanon. It would give Syria renewed control over Lebanese territory and expand Hezbollah’s reach as well. That might be a fair trade for Assad, but it wouldn’t be for Western interests. If Assad loses territory in Syria’s north or east, those areas may become Islamist operating bases near American allies–Iraq and to some extent Jordan to the east and southeast, Turkey to the north. The latter is a NATO ally with a predilection for funding some Islamic terror groups while fighting others.

Again, the watchword here is destabilization. Jordan thought it could host Palestinian militants while still ruling over them. It was wrong. The Palestinians even briefly declared themselves independent of the monarchy before their expulsion. Lebanon had the same experience with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah. If al-Qaeda prospers in some part of Syria, it will probably follow the same pattern, first by securing a state within a state and then expanding, destabilizing the entire country.

That’s why Friedman’s advice to accept partition would be a long-term mistake. Unless the U.S. installs a puppet regime it is willing to go to war for in the moderate rebel section of the postwar partitioned Syria, those moderate rebels won’t fare much better against the al-Qaeda affiliates just because the West fabricated a “border.” The impulse to want to bring an end to the bloodshed is understandable, but pretend sovereignty and pretend peace won’t make that happen.

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The Consequences of Syrian Chaos

The firing of four rockets from Lebanon into Northern Israel today immediately set off speculation that Hezbollah might be looking to distract its supporters from the debacle in Syria that many are calling the terrorist group’s “Vietnam.” However, that thesis was soon to be discredited. Rather than the signal for another round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, it appears the attack was something else entirely. According to the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, the incident was a “one-time event” rather than the latest chapter in the long history of conflict with Hezbollah. But that news shouldn’t provide much comfort for Israelis or Westerners concerned about the instability in the Middle East.  While some experts are dismissing this as an example of how a small jihadist group fires off a few missiles “to show that they exist,” there is another more sinister interpretation.

If the rockets were the work of a Salafist Sunni terror organization operating out of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, this may be a sign that Hezbollah’s iron grip on the region may be slipping. While anything that weakens a group that is a vital ally of Iran and a perennial adversary of Israel may be thought of as a good thing, the ability of such a group to act with impunity in this manner may be a sign that the war in Syria isn’t just weakening Hezbollah; the chaos there is spreading with unknown consequences but which is likely to lead to more violence against Israel and more blood spilled on both sides of the border.

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The firing of four rockets from Lebanon into Northern Israel today immediately set off speculation that Hezbollah might be looking to distract its supporters from the debacle in Syria that many are calling the terrorist group’s “Vietnam.” However, that thesis was soon to be discredited. Rather than the signal for another round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, it appears the attack was something else entirely. According to the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, the incident was a “one-time event” rather than the latest chapter in the long history of conflict with Hezbollah. But that news shouldn’t provide much comfort for Israelis or Westerners concerned about the instability in the Middle East.  While some experts are dismissing this as an example of how a small jihadist group fires off a few missiles “to show that they exist,” there is another more sinister interpretation.

If the rockets were the work of a Salafist Sunni terror organization operating out of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, this may be a sign that Hezbollah’s iron grip on the region may be slipping. While anything that weakens a group that is a vital ally of Iran and a perennial adversary of Israel may be thought of as a good thing, the ability of such a group to act with impunity in this manner may be a sign that the war in Syria isn’t just weakening Hezbollah; the chaos there is spreading with unknown consequences but which is likely to lead to more violence against Israel and more blood spilled on both sides of the border.

The rules that once seemed to govern the combatants in the region may be breaking down. As vicious as Hezbollah may be toward both Lebanese opponents and Israelis, it chose to observe the cease-fire that has existed along the border with the Jewish state since 2006. The reason for that is that an organization that was more intent on consolidating its influence in Beirut and aiding Iran’s effort to bolster the Assad regime in Syria understood those interests would be damaged by daring the Israelis to retaliate for attacks on its people. Though Israelis look back at the 2006 Lebanon War as a disaster because of the inept leadership of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF as well as for the devastating impact of Hezbollah rocket barrages on northern Israel, the Lebanese wanted no rerun of the ferocious Israeli efforts to take out the terrorist group’s infrastructure. Similarly, the government of Syria kept the cease-fire lines with Israel quiet since 1973 lest it be humiliated by the spectacle of yet another defeat at the hands of the IDF.

Though with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war against Syrian rebels, the virtual collapse of that country is breaking down any semblance of stability. As the Times of Israel speculates today, the regime’s use of barbarous tactics against opponents such as the reports of chemical weapons being used outside Damascus could influence Syrian Sunnis and their allies in Lebanon to strike out in any direction in a vain attempt to gain revenge for the atrocity. And that means that “when all else fails, target Israel.”

Due to anti-missile batteries like the Iron Dome system, Israel’s ability to deal with such attacks is greater than it was in the past. One of the four rockets fired by the jihadists was reportedly shot down by Israel fire. But the kind of chaos that may have produced this incident will also test Jerusalem’s intelligence capabilities and make it harder to know where to deploy the few such batteries. Moreover, the goal of the jihadists is not just to strike blindly at the Jews. They hope to start an exchange of fire that will prompt Hezbollah to escalate the fighting and start another war.

This is just one more consequence of the Western decision not to deal with the Syrian problem two years ago when it could have been resolved cheaply and without ceding half the country to the control of groups that may have links to al-Qaeda. The costs of America choosing to lead from behind may be just starting to add up.

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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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What Ehud Barak Taught the Middle East

Today’s announcement that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not compete in the country’s upcoming election in January can’t be considered much of a surprise. Barak, who broke away from the Labor Party in 2011, knows that the odds are against his small Independence Party gaining enough votes to send him back to the Knesset. Thus, his statement that he is stepping down from electoral politics is more of a concession to reality than anything else. But this doesn’t mean he won’t continue in his current job.

Since the law allows the prime minister to appoint individuals who are not members of the Knesset to cabinet posts, it is more than likely that Barak will still be giving the orders at the Kirya in Tel Aviv next year. Yet, as Aluf Benn notes in Haaretz, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does bring him back, his influence in the next government will be diminished since, unlike cabinet colleagues like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, he will have no political constituency at his back. This means that although the 70-year-old former prime minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces is probably not actually retiring from public life, it is an appropriate moment to ponder the significance of his career.

Barak is one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history and his legacy as chief of staff and then later as defense minister is one that has generated wide and deserved praise. But he has also been the author of some of the biggest blunders in the country’s history without which his political failures would not have been explicable. While Barak will hope to be remembered chiefly for his exploits as a commando and then for successful military operations like the recently completed Operation Pillar of Defense, his role in ordering the IDF’s precipitate retreat from Lebanon and the diplomatic fiasco at Camp David in 2000 that led to the second intifada continue to loom large in his biography. Those who lament the demise of the peace process need look no further than Barak’s experiences as prime minister to understand why the country has rejected the policies of the left.

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Today’s announcement that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not compete in the country’s upcoming election in January can’t be considered much of a surprise. Barak, who broke away from the Labor Party in 2011, knows that the odds are against his small Independence Party gaining enough votes to send him back to the Knesset. Thus, his statement that he is stepping down from electoral politics is more of a concession to reality than anything else. But this doesn’t mean he won’t continue in his current job.

Since the law allows the prime minister to appoint individuals who are not members of the Knesset to cabinet posts, it is more than likely that Barak will still be giving the orders at the Kirya in Tel Aviv next year. Yet, as Aluf Benn notes in Haaretz, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does bring him back, his influence in the next government will be diminished since, unlike cabinet colleagues like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, he will have no political constituency at his back. This means that although the 70-year-old former prime minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces is probably not actually retiring from public life, it is an appropriate moment to ponder the significance of his career.

Barak is one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history and his legacy as chief of staff and then later as defense minister is one that has generated wide and deserved praise. But he has also been the author of some of the biggest blunders in the country’s history without which his political failures would not have been explicable. While Barak will hope to be remembered chiefly for his exploits as a commando and then for successful military operations like the recently completed Operation Pillar of Defense, his role in ordering the IDF’s precipitate retreat from Lebanon and the diplomatic fiasco at Camp David in 2000 that led to the second intifada continue to loom large in his biography. Those who lament the demise of the peace process need look no further than Barak’s experiences as prime minister to understand why the country has rejected the policies of the left.

Barak is likely to be asked to stay on at the Defense Ministry next year for two reasons.

One is that his competence in military affairs stands head and shoulders above any of the politicians who would like to add the crucial post to their resumes. The example of Amir Peretz, a union hack whom Ehud Olmert appointed to the position in 2006, and whose incompetence materially contributed to the disasters of the second Lebanon War that year, means that no Israeli prime minister is likely to ever again treat the job as just a patronage plum.

The second is that Barak’s presence in the cabinet gives Netanyahu political cover. Barak makes the government, which is otherwise dominated by figures from Netanyahu’s Likud and other factions in the country’s national camp, appear more centrist. It also allows Netanyahu to fend off any initiatives from Lieberman or other right-wingers by letting Barak oppose them. Though Barak has at times been critical of the government’s stands on the Palestinians and has been notable for his friendly relationship with the Obama administration (especially when compared to the prime minister), he has been a good partner for Netanyahu and has generally acted in concert on the big issues. Without Barak, it is impossible to imagine that the prime minister would even contemplate a strike on Iran or other controversial military moves.

However, if we are to understand why Barak, who was once Netanyahu’s immediate commander in the army when they were both young men, wound up his subordinate in politics, we have to go back to his brief tenure as prime minister. In 1999, Barak routed Netanyahu in a direct election for prime minister. Netanyahu’s first term was not without its successes, but by the time he was defeated for re-election he had worn out his welcome. Barak was seen as a technocrat rather than a Labor Party ideologue and therefore better qualified to lead the country. But in just 20 short months (the shortest tenure of any prime minister in the country’s history), Barak conclusively proved that skeptics about the peace process were right.

Barak was applauded for bringing to an abrupt end Israel’s 18-year-old military presence in southern Lebanon in 2000. Israelis were as sick of the quagmire there as the Lebanese were. But by bugging out in a fashion that allowed Hezbollah to represent the move as a defeat for Israel and a victory for terrorism, Barak laid the foundation for future disasters such as the even more spectacularly disastrous pullout from Gaza that Ariel Sharon orchestrated in 2005.

However, Barak’s decision to try and end the conflict with the Palestinians in one stroke at the Camp David conference in July 2000 was even more problematic. Barak offered Yasir Arafat an independent state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, terms that most Israelis thought too generous. When Arafat rejected the offer, Barak sweetened it the following January in Taba only to get the same response. By then, Arafat had answered what he and the Palestinians thought was Barak’s weakness by launching a terrorist war of attrition known as the second intifada.

Though 12 years later many American Jews and most of the Washington foreign policy establishment still haven’t absorbed the lessons of this debacle, the overwhelming majority of Israelis drew conclusions about the Palestinians from these events that continue to shape Israel’s political future.

Barak taught the Palestinians to think that terrorism will cause Israel to back down and retreat, leading them to think that more violence and intransigence rather than moderation and negotiation will get them what they want. At the same time, he taught Israelis that retreats like his Lebanon bug-out and the Gaza withdrawal it inspired, as well as the concessions that he made at Camp David, only lead to more sorrow for the country. Almost single-handedly (though it must be conceded that he couldn’t have done it without Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas), Barak inculcated in the Israeli public the understanding that they have no partner for peace and that the intractable conflict can only be managed rather than solved.

Though Barak is rightly seen as being as much a failure as a politician as he was a success as a soldier, his mishaps in office have probably done more to influence the country’s politics than anything any other Israeli has done. While he may continue at the Defense Ministry for years to come, it is these lessons that he taught both Israelis and the Palestinians that may be his most lasting legacy.

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Can Israel Restore Deterrence?

With Israeli aircraft pounding selected targets in the Gaza Strip and Israeli troops preparing for a ground incursion, Operation Pillar of Defense, now three days old, is beginning to look a lot like Operation Cast Lead, the three-week war in the winter of 2008-2009 in which the Israel Defense Forces entered the Gaza Strip, demolished some Hamas infrastructure, and then left. That operation was a success in the limited but real sense that it brought some respite from rockets emanating from the Gaza Strip. But, as Daniel Byman notes at Foreign Affairs, “As the memory of Cast Lead faded, the number of attacks coming from Gaza began to rise once more. Israel claims that over 200 rockets struck the country in 2010. The number climbed to over 600 in 2011. And 2012 has seen even more — over 800 before the current operation began.”

Clearly that is an unsustainable state of affairs. No country could possibly tolerate its soil being attacked with rockets and not act militarily to defend its citizens. Those who criticize the Israeli action–already one hears the tired old accusations of “disproportionate response” (what would a proportionate response look like–lobbing random missiles into Gaza indiscriminately?)–have no better alternative to offer beyond sucking it up and living with terror raining down over the southern part of the country. But however justified and necessary, Operation Pillar of Defense is unlikely to achieve results much more lasting than those of Cast Lead. Hamas has shown it will not cease and desist from its attacks because of an occasional Israeli counteroffensive and it has shown that it can easily replace militant commanders such as Ahmed Jabari, killed in an Israeli air strike Wednesday.

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With Israeli aircraft pounding selected targets in the Gaza Strip and Israeli troops preparing for a ground incursion, Operation Pillar of Defense, now three days old, is beginning to look a lot like Operation Cast Lead, the three-week war in the winter of 2008-2009 in which the Israel Defense Forces entered the Gaza Strip, demolished some Hamas infrastructure, and then left. That operation was a success in the limited but real sense that it brought some respite from rockets emanating from the Gaza Strip. But, as Daniel Byman notes at Foreign Affairs, “As the memory of Cast Lead faded, the number of attacks coming from Gaza began to rise once more. Israel claims that over 200 rockets struck the country in 2010. The number climbed to over 600 in 2011. And 2012 has seen even more — over 800 before the current operation began.”

Clearly that is an unsustainable state of affairs. No country could possibly tolerate its soil being attacked with rockets and not act militarily to defend its citizens. Those who criticize the Israeli action–already one hears the tired old accusations of “disproportionate response” (what would a proportionate response look like–lobbing random missiles into Gaza indiscriminately?)–have no better alternative to offer beyond sucking it up and living with terror raining down over the southern part of the country. But however justified and necessary, Operation Pillar of Defense is unlikely to achieve results much more lasting than those of Cast Lead. Hamas has shown it will not cease and desist from its attacks because of an occasional Israeli counteroffensive and it has shown that it can easily replace militant commanders such as Ahmed Jabari, killed in an Israeli air strike Wednesday.

The only thing that could possibly stop Hamas from regenerating after this current round of fighting is if Israeli troops stay in Gaza and maintain some degree of security, as they have done in the West Bank since Operation Defensive Shield dealt a major blow to the Second Intifada in 2002. Israel has been helped too by the emergence in the West Bank after Yasir Arafat’s death of more moderate leadership, especially Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Unfortunately, neither a reoccupation nor the emergence of moderate leaders is likely in Gaza.

Ever since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it has had scant desire to return. No doubt Prime Minister Netanyahu is afraid of the international opprobrium–especially from the United States under the leadership of Barack Obama–that “reoccupation” of Gaza would bring. It could also bring major headaches by exposing Israeli troops to the kind of guerrilla attacks they faced in southern Lebanon before withdrawing in 2000. As for the possibility of a more “moderate” Hamas emerging–that seems even more farfetched. Hamas is and remains an organization dedicated to Israel’s eradication in a holy war.

The best that Israel can hope for is to reestablish a measure of deterrence and win a few years of relative quiet. The model, in many ways, is the Second Lebanon War in 2006, which was widely derided at the time as a fiasco but which convinced Hezbollah to refrain from attacking across Israel’s northern border. The years since have been remarkably quiet in the north. Although Hezbollah has rebuilt its strength and then some–it has seized effective control of the Lebanese government and stockpiled more than 50,000 missiles–it has shied away from fighting Israel. It is not, for example, taking advantage of Israel’s battle with Hamas to launch a second front in the north. The experience of 2006 suggests that even terrorist organizations animated by a martyrdom complex can be rational enough for deterrence to work. Israel must hope it can achieve similar results in the south.

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Is This the End of Land for Peace?

The Camp David Accords aren’t even 35 years old, but the latest violence between Hamas and Israel shows the fallacy underlying the principle of land for peace. Bluntly speaking, “land for peace” is dead; any diplomatic effort to revive it is likely doomed to fail. That does not mean that there cannot one day be peace, but Hamas’s actions—long planned for with equipment acquired even under the embargo—show how territory ceded brings not peace, but greater violence and vulnerability.

Just a back of a napkin sketch:

The Camp David Accords aren’t even 35 years old, but the latest violence between Hamas and Israel shows the fallacy underlying the principle of land for peace. Bluntly speaking, “land for peace” is dead; any diplomatic effort to revive it is likely doomed to fail. That does not mean that there cannot one day be peace, but Hamas’s actions—long planned for with equipment acquired even under the embargo—show how territory ceded brings not peace, but greater violence and vulnerability.

Just a back of a napkin sketch:

  • 1956: The Eisenhower administration forces an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai; war erupts 11 years later, and six years after that at the cost of thousands of lives.
  • 1982: Israel completes its withdrawal from the Sinai after Camp David; three decades later, Egypt actively helps to arm terrorists dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
  • 1994: As the result of the Oslo Accords signed the previous year, Israel acquiesces to the creation of a Palestinian Authority. Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasir Arafat takes his diplomatic gains, but never abandons terrorism as his chief means of extracting concessions. Hundreds more die in terrorist attacks as Israelis for all practical purposes become less secure.
  • 2000: Israel leaves southern Lebanon, a withdrawal the UN certifies as complete. In response, Hezbollah fills the vacuum, and claims not only the Shebaa Farms/Har Dov, but also seven villages in Israel’s Galilee. Six year later, Hezbollah launches thousands of missiles deep into Israel.
  • 2005: Ariel Sharon, perhaps hoping to end his life as a dove rather than a warrior, unilaterally leaves the Gaza Strip. Almost immediately, terrorists begin their rocket barrage of Israel, striking not only at Sderot, but also at the Ashkelon Power Plant and, now, Tel Aviv.

Even the most dovish Israelis recognize the problem, and understand just what is at stake should Israel withdraw completely from the West Bank. Land for peace was good in theory, but not when Israel’s opponents seek land as the end goal, rather than peace.

Now more than ever Dore Gold’s “Defensible Borders” is a must read.

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Afghanistan Confirms: Withdrawal Deadlines Don’t Work

The situation in Afghanistan is quickly deteriorating, as President Obama has confirmed that U.S. troops will depart “on schedule.” The loss of the Afghan war dates back to December 1, 2009 when President Obama announced a timeline for withdrawal. Telegraphing to enemies how long they must last before you throw in the towel is never wise. The logic that planting firm deadlines would force Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his cronies to take responsibility for the war shows the arrogance of Obama’s Afghanistan team. After all, Afghanistan is not a petulant child, and there are other players in the sandbox beyond the United States and Afghanistan. Afghans are survivors, and all Obama accomplished was convincing them that it was time to pivot away from NATO and into the welcoming hands of Pakistan, Iran, or the Taliban.

Obama should have known better. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a similar mistake when he announced ahead of time, for purely political reasons, a withdrawal date to end Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon. Rather than end Hezbollah’s pretext for war, he simply enabled the terrorist group to expand its claims into the Shebaa Farms/Har Dov, if not the Galilee. What Barak saw as an honorable end to a war turned into a “Mission Accomplished” moment that empowered Hezbollah and led directly to renewed military conflict there just six years later.

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The situation in Afghanistan is quickly deteriorating, as President Obama has confirmed that U.S. troops will depart “on schedule.” The loss of the Afghan war dates back to December 1, 2009 when President Obama announced a timeline for withdrawal. Telegraphing to enemies how long they must last before you throw in the towel is never wise. The logic that planting firm deadlines would force Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his cronies to take responsibility for the war shows the arrogance of Obama’s Afghanistan team. After all, Afghanistan is not a petulant child, and there are other players in the sandbox beyond the United States and Afghanistan. Afghans are survivors, and all Obama accomplished was convincing them that it was time to pivot away from NATO and into the welcoming hands of Pakistan, Iran, or the Taliban.

Obama should have known better. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a similar mistake when he announced ahead of time, for purely political reasons, a withdrawal date to end Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon. Rather than end Hezbollah’s pretext for war, he simply enabled the terrorist group to expand its claims into the Shebaa Farms/Har Dov, if not the Galilee. What Barak saw as an honorable end to a war turned into a “Mission Accomplished” moment that empowered Hezbollah and led directly to renewed military conflict there just six years later.

The same pattern also applies to Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were close to throwing in the towel when the Nixon administration did it first, announcing the American path to withdrawal. With the slow-motion collapse of Marxism, it’s easy to shrug one’s shoulders today, but the fall of South Vietnam was, for millions, a human tragedy.

Those arguing that the trajectory in Afghanistan is positive are not seeing the forest through the trees. The problem has never been American forces, however, but rather an insurmountable obstacle needlessly created by navel-gazing politicians. The Afghanistan mission is essential, and the United States will pay the price for Afghanistan’s reversion to civil war, if not Taliban control. Terrorists love a vacuum, and that is what President Obama promised them. If there is any silver-lining to the Afghan fiasco, however, it should be to put to rest the notion once and for all that political timelines and battlefield metrics are interchangeable.

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Extremists Filling Power Vacuum in Syria

The Syrian civil war is not only continuing to claim a ghastly toll within Syria, with a continuing regime assault on Aleppo–it is also now sucking Lebanon into the muck too. Shiite clans within Lebanon are kidnapping Syrian rebel fighters who are said to be holding their clansmen prisoners. In retaliation Lebanese Sunnis are threatening to kidnap Lebanese Shiites. Thus Syria’s instability is upsetting the delicate balance of power within Lebanon, raising concerns that, two decades after the end of its bloody civil war, which claimed 100,000 lives, there could be a recurrence of fighting within Lebanon.

This is yet another indictment of the understandable but misguided hands-off policy the U.S. and its allies are following in Syria, where we appear to be content to stand by and let the fighting take its course–much as previous administrations did in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The terrible consequences of our inaction can be measured not only in regional destabilization but also in a growing vacuum of power within Syria which extremists are trying to fill. Former journalist Bartle Bull, who recently visited Syria, offers this revealing exchange with a rebel commander:

Mohamed said he would happily accept help from Washington. “We need everything.” He is not interested in help from Al Qaeda. Still, America’s refusal to get serious about military aid provides the extremists with their only opening. “I can take Al Qaeda’s money,” another irate commander told me. “Is that what you want me to do?”

It would be a tragedy if this and other rebel commanders were in fact driven into Al Qaeda’s camp by neglect in the West. It does not have to be this way. As Bull writes: “Providing the rebels with as few as 500 Stinger missiles and 1,000 tank-busting R.P.G.-7’s could potentially cut the conflict’s length in half. And grounding Mr. Assad’s air force, keeping his tanks off the roads, and neutralizing his command-and-control would be likely to bring him down within a couple of months.”

I would hesitate to provide sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to the rebels, given the danger that they could wind up in the wrong hands. But we should provide better anti-tank weapons and, in lieu of Stingers, the U.S. and its allies should simply declare a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s air force. As Bull notes, this, along with some targeted air strikes of the kind that NATO mounted in Libya, could hasten Assad’s ouster and speed attempts to reimpose a semblance of authority in Syria. Allowing the conflict to take its course, by contrast, virtually guarantees that it will foment dangerous extremism inside Syria and out.

The Syrian civil war is not only continuing to claim a ghastly toll within Syria, with a continuing regime assault on Aleppo–it is also now sucking Lebanon into the muck too. Shiite clans within Lebanon are kidnapping Syrian rebel fighters who are said to be holding their clansmen prisoners. In retaliation Lebanese Sunnis are threatening to kidnap Lebanese Shiites. Thus Syria’s instability is upsetting the delicate balance of power within Lebanon, raising concerns that, two decades after the end of its bloody civil war, which claimed 100,000 lives, there could be a recurrence of fighting within Lebanon.

This is yet another indictment of the understandable but misguided hands-off policy the U.S. and its allies are following in Syria, where we appear to be content to stand by and let the fighting take its course–much as previous administrations did in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The terrible consequences of our inaction can be measured not only in regional destabilization but also in a growing vacuum of power within Syria which extremists are trying to fill. Former journalist Bartle Bull, who recently visited Syria, offers this revealing exchange with a rebel commander:

Mohamed said he would happily accept help from Washington. “We need everything.” He is not interested in help from Al Qaeda. Still, America’s refusal to get serious about military aid provides the extremists with their only opening. “I can take Al Qaeda’s money,” another irate commander told me. “Is that what you want me to do?”

It would be a tragedy if this and other rebel commanders were in fact driven into Al Qaeda’s camp by neglect in the West. It does not have to be this way. As Bull writes: “Providing the rebels with as few as 500 Stinger missiles and 1,000 tank-busting R.P.G.-7’s could potentially cut the conflict’s length in half. And grounding Mr. Assad’s air force, keeping his tanks off the roads, and neutralizing his command-and-control would be likely to bring him down within a couple of months.”

I would hesitate to provide sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to the rebels, given the danger that they could wind up in the wrong hands. But we should provide better anti-tank weapons and, in lieu of Stingers, the U.S. and its allies should simply declare a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s air force. As Bull notes, this, along with some targeted air strikes of the kind that NATO mounted in Libya, could hasten Assad’s ouster and speed attempts to reimpose a semblance of authority in Syria. Allowing the conflict to take its course, by contrast, virtually guarantees that it will foment dangerous extremism inside Syria and out.

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All of Israel is Terrorist Target

An often-overlooked aspect of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is the second stage in what officials expect to be a two-pronged response from the Islamic Republic: the unleashing of thousands of rockets and missiles from Hezbollah’s stronghold in south Lebanon. When Israeli officials speak openly about a looming conflict, it is often to prepare the public for any eventuality, especially unpleasant ones. So it is notable that former Mossad head Danny Yatom spoke frankly today about that second phase.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Yatom was trying to avoid predicting too much doom and gloom, but the reality is not a particularly sunny forecast:

While acknowledging that Iran has a few hundred missiles that can reach Israel, and that the price would be horrible if those missiles were equipped with either nuclear or chemical warheads, Yatom said the central concern are the tens of thousands of rockets in Hezbollah and Hamas storehouses in Lebanon and Gaza.

Those rockets, he said, can “cover all of Israel, and that is the main problem.”

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An often-overlooked aspect of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is the second stage in what officials expect to be a two-pronged response from the Islamic Republic: the unleashing of thousands of rockets and missiles from Hezbollah’s stronghold in south Lebanon. When Israeli officials speak openly about a looming conflict, it is often to prepare the public for any eventuality, especially unpleasant ones. So it is notable that former Mossad head Danny Yatom spoke frankly today about that second phase.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Yatom was trying to avoid predicting too much doom and gloom, but the reality is not a particularly sunny forecast:

While acknowledging that Iran has a few hundred missiles that can reach Israel, and that the price would be horrible if those missiles were equipped with either nuclear or chemical warheads, Yatom said the central concern are the tens of thousands of rockets in Hezbollah and Hamas storehouses in Lebanon and Gaza.

Those rockets, he said, can “cover all of Israel, and that is the main problem.”

There are, as Yatom suggests, very few places—if any at all—in Israel that are out of range of Israel’s enemies. Some new threats have emerged, such as the arsenal of rockets (which may or may not include Scuds from Syria) currently aimed at Israel from Hezbollahland, an area spitting distance from Israeli villages.

There are also perennial threats, such as the rockets coming from Gaza. And there are old threats re-emerging, as well. Once upon a time, the hot-and-cold standoff between Israel and Egypt along Israel’s southern border made the Negev a relatively dangerous place. Until the Sinai became a true buffer zone, in fact, terrorist infiltration was a common concern and cross-border shootings and skirmishes occurred outside of wartime, too–the so-called war of attrition, during which Egyptian air raids from the south and PLO incursions from the west were common, until Egypt began preparing in earnest for the Yom Kippur War.

In and around Israel, any period of perceived quiet is usually preceding a storm (or following one, but the nature of the cycle means it is probably both). And so it was with the Sinai. While Hamasniks in Gaza were lighting fuses and Hezbollah commandos in Lebanon were rattling sabers, terrorist networks quietly began filling the vacuum in the desert. And now Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, has a modest crisis on his hands. And a crisis on Israel’s border means a crisis for Israel. When the first wave of post-Mubarak terrorism in Israel’s south occurred, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer noted dryly that it “did not come as a surprise to Israel’s senior security officials. They had expected it would occur at some stage or another.”

Israeli leaders are often criticized in the media for having a “siege mentality,” but even a child can see that the threats are real–and in fact the child sees this best, because Israeli children are the preferred target of Hamas rockets as the children attempt to get to school alive each morning. Years ago, I talked to a longtime, fearless Middle East journalist and author who has put himself routinely in danger and has some great stories of survival for his memoirs. But he told me the one thing that would make him pick up his family and leave Israel is the prospect of rockets falling over his children’s heads. That is the reality Danny Yatom is describing for the entire country.

Of course, that threat exists independent of a theoretical attack on Iran. Hezbollah has never acquired a missile it didn’t plan to use, and the same goes for Hamas. This isn’t lost on Israelis; on my last visit there, almost everyone I spoke to in the north admitted they expect war from south Lebanon. The point of Yatom’s warning was not just to prepare the public but to offer his own warning as well. Israel, he said, will have to employ the lessons learned from the summer of 2006, and move to immediately stop the rockets:

To do this, he said, Israel would have to “act with great force against infrastructure in Lebanon and Gaza, and it is possible that the price that Lebanon and Gaza will pay will be horrible. We are liable to destroy, or likely to destroy, parts of Lebanon, and parts of Gaza, so that our citizens will not suffer and be killed.”

There will be predictable howls from the left and the media, but Israel has both a right and a moral imperative to defend itself. Yatom is trying to convince Israelis just how seriously their leaders take that responsibility.

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What’s Next if Assad Falls?

Bashar al-Assad increasingly appears on the ropes, unable to contain the violence his brutal regime unleashed. The government’s violence has not been indiscriminate but has sectarian cleansing overtones, as Sunni Arabs are forced from towns and villages which the minority though dominant Alawites hope to make their own.

Behind its rhetoric, the Obama administration hopes the Syria problem will simply resolve itself. If there was any move behind-the-scenes to stop the worst atrocities, this ended the moment a bomb went off in Syria’s national security headquarters. Deep down, the Obama team hopes a coup or an assassin’s bullet will head off the need for any action.

Assad’s fall, however, will mark the end of one chapter and the start of another that could be far bloodier in the region.

What could come next?

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Bashar al-Assad increasingly appears on the ropes, unable to contain the violence his brutal regime unleashed. The government’s violence has not been indiscriminate but has sectarian cleansing overtones, as Sunni Arabs are forced from towns and villages which the minority though dominant Alawites hope to make their own.

Behind its rhetoric, the Obama administration hopes the Syria problem will simply resolve itself. If there was any move behind-the-scenes to stop the worst atrocities, this ended the moment a bomb went off in Syria’s national security headquarters. Deep down, the Obama team hopes a coup or an assassin’s bullet will head off the need for any action.

Assad’s fall, however, will mark the end of one chapter and the start of another that could be far bloodier in the region.

What could come next?

Expect a Radical Opposition: Whatever hopes are placed in the White House or the State Department on the Syrian National Council filling the vacuum are likely misplaced. They are an exile organization based in Istanbul and increasingly tainted by Turkish penetration; it seems the Turkish government hasn’t learned the lessons from its attempt to hijack opposition groups ahead of the Iraq war. The real influence on the ground will increasingly be with more radical factions, including al-Qaeda affiliates. The issue is not popularity and broad appeal, but rather the willingness to use unbelievable cruelty to seize power and repress opposition.

The Chemical Weapon Conundrum: The Syrian government now acknowledges what has been, for decades, an open secret: Syria has manufactured and possesses chemical weaponry. If the White House believes they can utilize SEAL Team 6 or other special forces to secure these, they are sorely mistaken. Securing chemical weapons is not just the matter of parachuting in and guarding a door for 24 hours, but can take days if not weeks. Just ask the intelligence teams which rushed to secure Libyan WMD in 2003 before the mercurial Muammar Qaddafi could change his mind. Simply put, the United States will be hard pressed to secure chemical weapons without a lengthy occupation. The United Nations will provide no solace: Just remember all that armament Hezbollah achieved under the UN nose. This raises the possibility that the unconventional munitions could fall quickly into al-Qaeda or Hezbollah hands.

The Flight of the Christians: If you think Iraqi or Egyptian Christians have had it rough in recent years, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Christians are perhaps 10 percent of the country. As a strategy of sectarian survival, they have collectively been as pro-Assad as the Alawi community. And many Sunni Muslims resent them for it. Just as Islamist terrorists targeted churches in Baghdad, expect terrorists to target Christians in Damascus with the goal of pushing them out of Syria. Motivation may not only be religious but also economic. Many Christians have leveraged their political ties into business success, and dispossessed Sunni Muslims will figure that now is the time to redistribute the wealth.

Lebanon: So where will the Christians go? Many will flee into nearby Lebanon where those with greater foresight have already bought apartments and squirreled away money. Lebanon has always been a sectarian tinderbox, though. Whenever demography shifts, the communal relations fray. Renewed fighting is always just around the corner.

Kurdistan Redux: The Turks have long played a double game with Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was for Bashar al-Assad before he was against him. While Erdoğan has darkly warned of international action, he has resisted proposals to create a safe haven in northern Syria for the simple reason that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Turks sympathize with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has for almost three decades led a separatist insurgency inside Turkey. Turks fear that any safe haven will bring the region one step closer to a greater Kurdistan, of which what now is southeastern Turkey would form the core. In effect, yesterday Erbil, today Qamishli, and tomorrow Diyarbakir. Of course, the Turks are now between a rock and a hard place because, with Syrian government control evaporating along the frontiers, the PKK and its sympathizers may effectively get the safe haven they crave with or without Turkey.

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Despite Attack, Hezbollah Is Vulnerable

Hezbollah’s alleged role in carrying out the Burgas bombing shows how dangerous the organization remains. Not for nothing did the former American defense official Rich Armitage once call it the “A-Team” of terrorism. It is not as professional as it was in the days when terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyah (who was killed in 2008, almost certainly by the Mossad) was running its international operations; in fact it can be downright amateurish at times as seen in its plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. It is certainly not as good as it once was about covering its tracks, assuming that it was behind the Burgas bombing, given that the Israeli and U.S. governments immediately traced the operation to it. But the Bulgaria operation shows that Hezbollah (along with its prime backer, Iran) maintains the desire and capacity to kill Israelis in particular and Jews in general around the world, and that, when push comes to shove, it will employ suicide bombers to do so–a tactic it hasn’t used in many years because it didn’t need to.

At the same time that Hezbollah is baring its fangs, however, it is also displaying its vulnerability. It has wound up in a no-win situation with regard to its patron in Syria: either Hezbollah embraces Bashar al-Assad and thereby alienates the Arab world, which has turned against this Alawite ruler–or it abandons Assad and risks losing its major source of weapons if Assad remains in power. Hamas, a Sunni terrorist group, has chosen to abandon Assad. But Hezbollah is a Shi’ite organization and remains true to the Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam. In fact, Hezbollah is doubling down in its support for Assad–and their mutual patrons in Tehran. As the New York Times notes:

In a televised address on Wednesday night, the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, offered eloquent condolences for the deaths of the three high-ranking Syrian officials killed earlier in the day. “These martyr leaders were comrades in arms in the conflict with the Israeli enemy, and we are confident that the Arab Syrian Army, which overcame the unbearable, will be able to persist and crush the hopes of the enemies,” he said.

He credited Mr. Assad and his government with the victory that Hezbollah claimed against Israel in the 2006 war in Lebanon and with saving Gaza during the 2009 Israeli incursion. “The most valuable weapons we had in our possession were from Syria,” he said. “The missiles we used in the second Lebanon war were made in Syria. And it’s not only in Lebanon but in Gaza as well. Where did these missiles come from? The Saudi regime? The Egyptian regime? These missiles are from Syria.”

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Hezbollah’s alleged role in carrying out the Burgas bombing shows how dangerous the organization remains. Not for nothing did the former American defense official Rich Armitage once call it the “A-Team” of terrorism. It is not as professional as it was in the days when terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyah (who was killed in 2008, almost certainly by the Mossad) was running its international operations; in fact it can be downright amateurish at times as seen in its plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. It is certainly not as good as it once was about covering its tracks, assuming that it was behind the Burgas bombing, given that the Israeli and U.S. governments immediately traced the operation to it. But the Bulgaria operation shows that Hezbollah (along with its prime backer, Iran) maintains the desire and capacity to kill Israelis in particular and Jews in general around the world, and that, when push comes to shove, it will employ suicide bombers to do so–a tactic it hasn’t used in many years because it didn’t need to.

At the same time that Hezbollah is baring its fangs, however, it is also displaying its vulnerability. It has wound up in a no-win situation with regard to its patron in Syria: either Hezbollah embraces Bashar al-Assad and thereby alienates the Arab world, which has turned against this Alawite ruler–or it abandons Assad and risks losing its major source of weapons if Assad remains in power. Hamas, a Sunni terrorist group, has chosen to abandon Assad. But Hezbollah is a Shi’ite organization and remains true to the Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam. In fact, Hezbollah is doubling down in its support for Assad–and their mutual patrons in Tehran. As the New York Times notes:

In a televised address on Wednesday night, the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, offered eloquent condolences for the deaths of the three high-ranking Syrian officials killed earlier in the day. “These martyr leaders were comrades in arms in the conflict with the Israeli enemy, and we are confident that the Arab Syrian Army, which overcame the unbearable, will be able to persist and crush the hopes of the enemies,” he said.

He credited Mr. Assad and his government with the victory that Hezbollah claimed against Israel in the 2006 war in Lebanon and with saving Gaza during the 2009 Israeli incursion. “The most valuable weapons we had in our possession were from Syria,” he said. “The missiles we used in the second Lebanon war were made in Syria. And it’s not only in Lebanon but in Gaza as well. Where did these missiles come from? The Saudi regime? The Egyptian regime? These missiles are from Syria.”

Give Nasrallah points for honesty about the source of his weapons–but his embrace of the Assad henchmen who are killing thousands of their largely Sunni countrymen should dispel whatever appeal Hezbollah managed to win in the Arab world as a result of its wars against Israel, most recently in 2006. When Assad falls–it now seems more a matter of “when” rather than “if”–Nasrallah is going to have a big problem on his hands dealing with whatever regime comes next in Damascus. Assad’s foes will remember the way Hezbollah embraced the hated dictator.

Seen in this context, Hezbollah’s attack in Bulgaria–and its attempt to carry out similar murder plots elsewhere–is a sign of weakness, not strength. It is desperately trying to embrace the role of Israel-fighter even if it is not willing to risk a confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces–all it can do is slaughter unarmed tourists far from Israel.

Once Assad is gone, it will be imperative for the U.S. and its allies to once again turn their attention to Hezbollah and do what they can to undermine this murderous organization which has gained a stranglehold in Lebanese politics. By its own actions, Hezbollah is leaving itself vulnerable in the future. Let us hope we can exploit that vulnerability to allow Lebanon’s fragile democracy to reassert itself.

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Israel Builds a Wall in the North

Israel just began construction of a high cement wall on its northern border between the Israeli town of Metulla and the Lebanese town of Kfar Kila. The wall will only be a kilometer long, so it’s clearly not being placed there to prevent anyone from crossing the border per se. It’s being placed there to prevent anyone from crossing the border—or shooting across the border—at that specific location.

In 2005, I drove down there from Beirut with a Lebanese woman who grew up in the area. I was thunderstruck when we arrived at Kfar Kila. Israeli houses were mere feet from the border fence. Some of those homes are so close to it that a person could walk right up to an Israeli backyard and, while remaining inside Lebanese territory, throw a hand grenade through somebody’s window. And remember, this is the part of Lebanon that’s controlled by Hezbollah.

If you’re an American, how would you feel if the Taliban set up shop a few feet from your yard? Comfy?

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Israel just began construction of a high cement wall on its northern border between the Israeli town of Metulla and the Lebanese town of Kfar Kila. The wall will only be a kilometer long, so it’s clearly not being placed there to prevent anyone from crossing the border per se. It’s being placed there to prevent anyone from crossing the border—or shooting across the border—at that specific location.

In 2005, I drove down there from Beirut with a Lebanese woman who grew up in the area. I was thunderstruck when we arrived at Kfar Kila. Israeli houses were mere feet from the border fence. Some of those homes are so close to it that a person could walk right up to an Israeli backyard and, while remaining inside Lebanese territory, throw a hand grenade through somebody’s window. And remember, this is the part of Lebanon that’s controlled by Hezbollah.

If you’re an American, how would you feel if the Taliban set up shop a few feet from your yard? Comfy?

The border here used to be open. Until the Israeli army withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, Lebanese who passed security clearances could cross through Fatima Gate to visit Israel as workers or even tourists. The mayor of Rmeich, one of the handful of Christian towns near the border, told me that nearly every single person who lives there has been to Israel.

Fatima Gate is now shuttered and wrapped with cyclone fencing. No one has been through it for years. Furious tourists like to go down there, though, and throw rocks into Israel.

Frankly, it’s amazing that aside from the war in 2006, rocks are the only projectiles so far to go over that fence. Hezbollah hasn’t picked anyone off in Metulla with sniper rifles, nor has anyone else. It wouldn’t be hard.

I don’t know the precise reason the Israelis have decided to erect a wall now, but I can guess. According to Beirut-based correspondent and author Nicholas Blanford, Hezbollah hopes the next war will be fought more in Israel than in Lebanon.

He quotes its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah in his most recent book, Warriors of God. “The resistance leadership might ask you to lead the resistance to liberate Galilee [in Northern Israel].” “God willing,” a Hezbollah fighter told Blanford, “we will go into Palestine next.” “Next time,” said another, “maybe the UN will ask us to withdraw from Northern Israel rather than Israel withdraw from South Lebanon.”

There’s no chance Hezbollah can seize and hold ground for long without getting smashed, but its fighters can still inflict a considerable amount of damage while martyring themselves on the bayonets of the Israel Defense Forces. If they try, they’ll almost certainly do so in Metulla.

The Israelis are lucky it has not happened yet and should have built the wall a long time ago.

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Is Diplomacy a Threat to Airline Security?

Media scrutiny boils airline security down to X-ray machines, pat downs, and perhaps some psychological profiling. Even the most thorough American passenger screening, however, does not address the problem of terrorist baggage handlers or employees overseas. In an age of airline alliances and increasing international travel, the real vulnerability to air travel may be overseas.

I have written here before about the problem at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, destination for many European airlines and a frequent hub which I often use during vacations in Beirut or onward travel to Iraq. Hezbollah’s aborted putsch in Beirut in 2008 involved, among other things, control over the lucrative airport. One of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s more short-sighted compromises was to agree to the Doha Accords which empowered Hezbollah in Lebanon’s domestic scene in exchange for quiet. Along the way, Hezbollah regained sway over airport operations, even if its members wear Lebanon Army Uniforms when at the facility. It should give every American chills that many of the airport workers handling Lufthansa, Air France, and other flights which transfer luggage to the United States swear fealty to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Read More

Media scrutiny boils airline security down to X-ray machines, pat downs, and perhaps some psychological profiling. Even the most thorough American passenger screening, however, does not address the problem of terrorist baggage handlers or employees overseas. In an age of airline alliances and increasing international travel, the real vulnerability to air travel may be overseas.

I have written here before about the problem at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, destination for many European airlines and a frequent hub which I often use during vacations in Beirut or onward travel to Iraq. Hezbollah’s aborted putsch in Beirut in 2008 involved, among other things, control over the lucrative airport. One of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s more short-sighted compromises was to agree to the Doha Accords which empowered Hezbollah in Lebanon’s domestic scene in exchange for quiet. Along the way, Hezbollah regained sway over airport operations, even if its members wear Lebanon Army Uniforms when at the facility. It should give every American chills that many of the airport workers handling Lufthansa, Air France, and other flights which transfer luggage to the United States swear fealty to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Alas, Beirut is no longer alone. Turkish Air, a member of the Star Alliance and a partner to United Airlines and USAir, has initiated service to Mogadishu, Somalia. Bags checked in Mogadishu can now find their way to New York, Washington, and Los Angeles among other destinations. Simultaneously, Turkey has announced that it is brokering talks with Ash-Shabaab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda’s affiliate, in a move which would see it join the central government and integrate into Somalia’s national security service. What could ever go wrong here?

Diplomats do not want to undermine Lebanon’s shaky political situation by voicing concerns over its airport, nor do they want to undercut their desperate hope for resolution in Somalia by questioning the wisdom of Turkey or its state airline. It seems history, therefore, could very well repeat. The Lockerbie bombing occurred when Libyan agents smuggled a bomb onto a Pan Am feeder flight in Malta. The Malta leak may be plugged, but do American security officials truly believe the same is true in either Beirut or Mogadishu? American airlines remain vulnerable, and despite the TSA’s approach, patting down four-year-olds and strip searching grannies will not be enough to plug the holes.

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Sharansky: Reagan Right, Critics Wrong

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.” Read More

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Later in 1981, a bitter fight was played out in Congress between the White House and supporters of Israel over Reagan’s determination to follow through on the Carter administration’s decision to sell Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. The sale was finally approved by a narrow margin, but the confrontation left bruised feelings and egos on both sides.

Ironically, Israeli military leaders were never in the forefront of the AWACS opposition; according to Raviv and Melman, “the commanders of the Israeli air force — the officers most directly concerned — were willing to live with AWACS flying over Saudi Arabia. They did not see them as a serious threat to Israel’s security.”

The U.S.-Israel relationship was strong enough by then to survive a series of mini-crises during the Reagan era, including Washington’s dismay at the scope of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the failure of the so-called Reagan Plan, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and the eventual creation of a quasi-independent Palestinian entity; the visit by Reagan to a German cemetery that contained the remains of SS soldiers; the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Israel played a major role; the arrest and conviction of an American citizen, Jonathan Pollard, on charges of spying for Israel; and the administration’s 1988 decision to talk to the PLO after Yasir Arafat made the requisite noises about recognizing Israel.

Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors. Washington also worked closer with Israel on the economic front, and in 1985 the administration signed a landmark Free Trade Area agreement, long sought by Israel, which resulted in a hefty boost in Israeli exports to the U.S.

Beyond the Middle East, the plight of Soviet Jews was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Reagan.

“The Soviet leaders,” recalled former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir,  “told me that every time they met with [Secretary of State George] Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry.”

The Reagan administration was instrumental in gaining the release in 1986 of prominent Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up treason charges. Sharansky has written of his reaction when, in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, he saw on the front page of Pravda that Reagan — much to the ridicule and outrage of American and European liberals — had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

As Sharansky describes it:

Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. I never imagined that three years later I would be in the White House telling this story to the president. … Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.

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Lebanon: To Encourage the Others

John Bolton has a superb opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times today reminding us that Lebanon is a nearer prospective loss to liberalism than Egypt. Today’s concern for Egypt is about the opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power. The nature of the potential stakes remains uncertain; Mubarak and Omar Suleiman have made explicit declarations of intent, but there is no clarity or political coherence from the opposition forces.

In Lebanon, by contrast, Hezbollah has already made its move. It has run the course the Muslim Brotherhood could in Egypt, first securing a role in the coalition government — without renouncing terrorism or political thuggery — and then leveraging that role to install the government of its choice. The choices for foreign governments are clear in Lebanon: either reject Hezbollah’s control of the country or accept it.

Ambassador Bolton is categorical: “We must refuse to recognize any Hezbollah-dominated government as legitimate, at least until Hezbollah fully disarms and becomes a real political party.” The timetable for concrete action will be driven in part by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, whose next public event, on February 7, is a hearing related to the confidential indictments issued in January for the 2005 assassinations. That timetable is a good thing; an independent process with scheduled events is guaranteed to present public decision points for foreign leaders. If a new Hezbollah-backed government terminates Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal, the reaction of the U.S. and other nations, one way or another, will be impossible to spin.

There is grave danger, as Bolton suggests, in failing to counter Hezbollah’s effective coup in Lebanon. Conversely, the payoff from countering it would be particularly high. Hezbollah’s method of government infiltration is a model for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements across the Arab world. It can be allowed to stand or it can be opposed and reversed; either response will encourager les autres — encourage the others.

The number of others who need “encouraging,” one way or the other, is growing with the unrest in Egypt. In their different ways, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen have all, in the past 48 hours, joined Tunisia in opening doors formerly closed to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a great deal at stake, but the timing could hardly be better for making an example of Hezbollah. Its takeover of Lebanon, opposed by the Arab world, adds urgency to the theme retailed by the Muslim Brotherhood that the old governments are corrupt and ineffective. If we want the Arab nations to have breathing room in which to take genuine steps toward pluralism and democracy, one of the best things we could do is decisively block Hezbollah’s assault on those elements in Lebanon.

John Bolton has a superb opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times today reminding us that Lebanon is a nearer prospective loss to liberalism than Egypt. Today’s concern for Egypt is about the opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power. The nature of the potential stakes remains uncertain; Mubarak and Omar Suleiman have made explicit declarations of intent, but there is no clarity or political coherence from the opposition forces.

In Lebanon, by contrast, Hezbollah has already made its move. It has run the course the Muslim Brotherhood could in Egypt, first securing a role in the coalition government — without renouncing terrorism or political thuggery — and then leveraging that role to install the government of its choice. The choices for foreign governments are clear in Lebanon: either reject Hezbollah’s control of the country or accept it.

Ambassador Bolton is categorical: “We must refuse to recognize any Hezbollah-dominated government as legitimate, at least until Hezbollah fully disarms and becomes a real political party.” The timetable for concrete action will be driven in part by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, whose next public event, on February 7, is a hearing related to the confidential indictments issued in January for the 2005 assassinations. That timetable is a good thing; an independent process with scheduled events is guaranteed to present public decision points for foreign leaders. If a new Hezbollah-backed government terminates Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal, the reaction of the U.S. and other nations, one way or another, will be impossible to spin.

There is grave danger, as Bolton suggests, in failing to counter Hezbollah’s effective coup in Lebanon. Conversely, the payoff from countering it would be particularly high. Hezbollah’s method of government infiltration is a model for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements across the Arab world. It can be allowed to stand or it can be opposed and reversed; either response will encourager les autres — encourage the others.

The number of others who need “encouraging,” one way or the other, is growing with the unrest in Egypt. In their different ways, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen have all, in the past 48 hours, joined Tunisia in opening doors formerly closed to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a great deal at stake, but the timing could hardly be better for making an example of Hezbollah. Its takeover of Lebanon, opposed by the Arab world, adds urgency to the theme retailed by the Muslim Brotherhood that the old governments are corrupt and ineffective. If we want the Arab nations to have breathing room in which to take genuine steps toward pluralism and democracy, one of the best things we could do is decisively block Hezbollah’s assault on those elements in Lebanon.

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Sputnik, Egypt, and the Consensus

I do agree with Ted Bromund’s conclusion on the default mentality of the center-left: it’s both a symptom and a cause of our educational system. Ted puts it this way:

The consensus on the value of often-politicized expert opinion — a consensus that derives from the Progressive Era — is so strong that even when the Cold War ended, and the so-called experts were demonstrably proved to have been wrong about it, the consensus endured.  It’s not really a belief, per se. It’s a default mentality.

This is one reason I have sympathy and concern for the Obama administration as it tries to grapple with the problems piling up in 2011. Its highest hurdle may be the default mentality Ted refers to: a mentality that has a reflexive way of seeing everything but admits little audit from reality.

The divorce between the conventional-left consensus and reality has been startlingly clear over the past few weeks. Confronted with reality, the consensus — or the Consensus — is out of ideas. To drum up enthusiasm for new deficit spending, a 20th-century Consensus remedy with the track record of 16th-century medical procedures, President Obama reached backward past decades of left-wing “debunking” to invoke Sputnik. Soon he’ll be rallying us with the cry of “Better dead than Red!” The Consensus knows only that the spending must be done; selling it need not be accomplished with thematic consistency.

Faced now with the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama is simply silent. It’s as if he and his advisers are waiting for a new consensus to form. The old, reliable Consensus would tell them only that popular unrest is noble and positive, and the American government invariably does the wrong thing about it when it erupts abroad. These can be satisfying conclusions in an academic or editorial environment, but they offer no useful framework for official policy.

There is still great inertia behind the Consensus. It has been proclaimed dead often throughout the last 30 years, but the continuation of the Pax Americana — with everything that means at home and abroad — has just as often rescued it. Coexistence with an often antithetical reality has been possible because, for the most part, the Consensus has thrived as a self-appointed dissenting opposition, in a stasis maintained on the principles of others.

As the Consensus would have it, Team Obama is now on the hook for choosing the “wrong” thing America does about Egypt. That intellectual limitation certainly poses a challenge to policy. We’ll see in the coming days if the administration can transcend it. Alana Goodman notes that Obama has invited Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams to participate in his deliberations, which is a good start. Obama has sometimes proposed to listen to conventional, “neoconservative,” or hawkish voices in foreign-policy matters, rather than hear solely from an ideologically unified core of advisers. But the Consensus long ago adopted the views of Marxism on the meaning and utility of national responses, traditional diplomacy, alliances, and the defense of national interests. Having seen these concepts devalued for decades, those schooled in the Consensus are likely to find the learning curve steep.

I do agree with Ted Bromund’s conclusion on the default mentality of the center-left: it’s both a symptom and a cause of our educational system. Ted puts it this way:

The consensus on the value of often-politicized expert opinion — a consensus that derives from the Progressive Era — is so strong that even when the Cold War ended, and the so-called experts were demonstrably proved to have been wrong about it, the consensus endured.  It’s not really a belief, per se. It’s a default mentality.

This is one reason I have sympathy and concern for the Obama administration as it tries to grapple with the problems piling up in 2011. Its highest hurdle may be the default mentality Ted refers to: a mentality that has a reflexive way of seeing everything but admits little audit from reality.

The divorce between the conventional-left consensus and reality has been startlingly clear over the past few weeks. Confronted with reality, the consensus — or the Consensus — is out of ideas. To drum up enthusiasm for new deficit spending, a 20th-century Consensus remedy with the track record of 16th-century medical procedures, President Obama reached backward past decades of left-wing “debunking” to invoke Sputnik. Soon he’ll be rallying us with the cry of “Better dead than Red!” The Consensus knows only that the spending must be done; selling it need not be accomplished with thematic consistency.

Faced now with the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama is simply silent. It’s as if he and his advisers are waiting for a new consensus to form. The old, reliable Consensus would tell them only that popular unrest is noble and positive, and the American government invariably does the wrong thing about it when it erupts abroad. These can be satisfying conclusions in an academic or editorial environment, but they offer no useful framework for official policy.

There is still great inertia behind the Consensus. It has been proclaimed dead often throughout the last 30 years, but the continuation of the Pax Americana — with everything that means at home and abroad — has just as often rescued it. Coexistence with an often antithetical reality has been possible because, for the most part, the Consensus has thrived as a self-appointed dissenting opposition, in a stasis maintained on the principles of others.

As the Consensus would have it, Team Obama is now on the hook for choosing the “wrong” thing America does about Egypt. That intellectual limitation certainly poses a challenge to policy. We’ll see in the coming days if the administration can transcend it. Alana Goodman notes that Obama has invited Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams to participate in his deliberations, which is a good start. Obama has sometimes proposed to listen to conventional, “neoconservative,” or hawkish voices in foreign-policy matters, rather than hear solely from an ideologically unified core of advisers. But the Consensus long ago adopted the views of Marxism on the meaning and utility of national responses, traditional diplomacy, alliances, and the defense of national interests. Having seen these concepts devalued for decades, those schooled in the Consensus are likely to find the learning curve steep.

Read Less

Some Unfashionable Thoughts About Egypt

Few moments in recent history have put political conservatism to the test like the ongoing uprising taking place in Egypt today. There are, after all, two different approaches to foreign policy that can be called “conservative”: one points to the spread of democracy as an expression of American greatness and seeks to sweep aside dictatorial rulers in order to promote democratic values, institutions, and elections wherever possible. The other is more strictly power-based: if America’s the good guy, then first we have to make sure that America’s allies are strong and its enemies are weak. Both approaches will point to Ronald Reagan as the ultimate example: the former for his unflinching fight against Soviet totalitarianism; the latter for his willingness to sometimes support less-than-democratic allies when the alternative was the further expansion of Soviet political and military dominance.

So what are we to make of Egypt? On the one hand, if the U.S. abandons Mubarak, it embraces democracy but loses heavily in the power calculus. By showing itself to be a fickle friend in times of need, America further erodes the confidence of all the other authoritarian allies in the Arab world who are forever fearful of the Iranian threat and who need to believe that the U.S. will really stand behind them.

At the same time, if America stands with Mubarak until the end, it risks (a) looking hypocritical in the face of what looks like a genuinely democratic (i.e., popular, spontaneous) uprising, and (b) repeating the mistakes made during the Iranian revolution, when the U.S. bet on the wrong horse, alienating the Iranian people by supporting the Shah, thus setting the stage for a whole generation of militant anti-American hostility in the Islamic Republic that emerged. Americans don’t want to make that mistake again.

Here in Israel, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm about the potential overthrow of Mubarak. Nobody has any illusions about his regime. And yet, the alternatives appear far worse. It’s true that there’s no single organized leadership behind the revolt. Both the more liberal and the Islamist oppositions were taken totally by surprise. The revolution is first of all about bread and jobs, much less about democratic ideals. In terms of ideas guiding it, there are very few other than “throw the bums out.” And this is exactly the problem. Read More

Few moments in recent history have put political conservatism to the test like the ongoing uprising taking place in Egypt today. There are, after all, two different approaches to foreign policy that can be called “conservative”: one points to the spread of democracy as an expression of American greatness and seeks to sweep aside dictatorial rulers in order to promote democratic values, institutions, and elections wherever possible. The other is more strictly power-based: if America’s the good guy, then first we have to make sure that America’s allies are strong and its enemies are weak. Both approaches will point to Ronald Reagan as the ultimate example: the former for his unflinching fight against Soviet totalitarianism; the latter for his willingness to sometimes support less-than-democratic allies when the alternative was the further expansion of Soviet political and military dominance.

So what are we to make of Egypt? On the one hand, if the U.S. abandons Mubarak, it embraces democracy but loses heavily in the power calculus. By showing itself to be a fickle friend in times of need, America further erodes the confidence of all the other authoritarian allies in the Arab world who are forever fearful of the Iranian threat and who need to believe that the U.S. will really stand behind them.

At the same time, if America stands with Mubarak until the end, it risks (a) looking hypocritical in the face of what looks like a genuinely democratic (i.e., popular, spontaneous) uprising, and (b) repeating the mistakes made during the Iranian revolution, when the U.S. bet on the wrong horse, alienating the Iranian people by supporting the Shah, thus setting the stage for a whole generation of militant anti-American hostility in the Islamic Republic that emerged. Americans don’t want to make that mistake again.

Here in Israel, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm about the potential overthrow of Mubarak. Nobody has any illusions about his regime. And yet, the alternatives appear far worse. It’s true that there’s no single organized leadership behind the revolt. Both the more liberal and the Islamist oppositions were taken totally by surprise. The revolution is first of all about bread and jobs, much less about democratic ideals. In terms of ideas guiding it, there are very few other than “throw the bums out.” And this is exactly the problem.

Leadership abhors a vacuum, and in the past 24 hours, we’ve seen that vacuum filled by Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize–winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who’s taken to the streets insisting that Mubarak pack up before he’s ridden through Cairo on a rail. He’s recently allied himself with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist militant organization closely allied with Hamas and up till now the leading opposition party to Mubarak. ElBaradei has repeatedly referred to Israel as the “number one threat to the Middle East” and has supported Hamas violence against Israel, saying that “the Israeli occupation only understands the language of violence.” As head of the IAEA, he’s been accused of doing more than anyone else to facilitate Iran’s nuclear efforts. And as Andrew McCarthy has pointed out, in the grand battle between American and Iranian influence in the region, a coalition of ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood looks grim indeed.

It’s impossible to predict the future, not just what will happen a year from now, when Egypt could well go through a second revolution (as did Iran, indeed as did Russia way back when), but even whether Mubarak’s regime is in fact over. For now, the army is holding tight. Mubarak’s appointment of Omar Suleiman as the country’s first-ever vice president, and heir-apparent, was tailored to maintain support of the military for the regime. Nobody should be counting Mubarak out just yet.

Both the strength and weakness of political ideals is that they push heavily toward optimism. They allow us to see possibilities when everything looks grim. But they can also lead us to delusions about what can happen in the face of all evidence to the contrary. The fact is that Egypt doesn’t have much of a democratic tradition. Less so even than Lebanon, postwar Iraq, or the Palestinian Authority. If I had to make a guess about what will happen if Mubarak falls, I think it’s foolish to assume that a real democratic regime will emerge there, as opposed to a new dictatorship that is far less amenable to American interests. And if he doesn’t fall, the U.S. will have egg on its face for not backing him. That, too, will strengthen Iran.

None of the options looks terribly pleasing to Western eyes. But then again, Egypt isn’t a Western country, is it?

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