Across the Bay

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Idiotarians and Lebanon

You won't believe the kind of garbage that has surfaced in the wake of Hariri's assassination. I've already mentioned Cobban and Cole, but wait till you see what the reliably venomous Issandr el-Amrani had to say:

    This is obviously a huge deal and the sign of a worrying trend in Lebanon. Over the past few months I’d noticed that the old warlords, notably General Michel Aoun, several members of the Gemayel clan and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, were making more and more statements. People from Lebanon were telling me, in worried tones, that the situation was starting to look like the tensions in 1975 just before the civil war started (it ended in 1992, and Lebanon has only begun to recover and is still burdened with enormous foreign debt.)

    I note that the Daily Star, Lebanon’s leading English-language publication, has no more than an AFP story so far. (They were down a few minutes ago.) They may have more later on, although they are generally politically cautious on Lebanon. The big question is going to be whodunnit, and what consequences will there be for internal stability and inter-confessional relations. If this is a move by Maronites to prevent Hariri from securing help from outside Lebanon to regain the prime ministership, things could become very ugly. And in any case, it will deliver a blow to the country economically, as Hariri’s businesses account for a lot of activity.

This is simply stunning. Begin with the first paragraph: What does he mean that Aoun and Jumblatt were making "more and more statements"? He never tells you what those statements were. They were demands for full independence and sovereignty! That is reminiscent of 1975, why?! The ideological bias is unbelieveable, and he spills it out in the next paragraph: the Maronites might have done it! Of all the stupid, ill-informed bullshit, this has to be the worst! The Maronites? Man just shut the hell up, you don't know what the hell you're talking about! Hariri was joining the opposition! The Maronites were lobbying with Walid Jumblat to make sure Beirut doesn't get cut into smaller districts (which is what the government wanted) in order to maximize Hariri's influence in Beirut. The Maronites always get it from the Arabists and Third-Worldists (cf. Fisk and Cole). These are people who are running on pure ideology and know absolutely nothing about Lebanon or allow their ideology to severely blind their analysis and judgment.

This was precisely what I found ludicrous in Cobban's post (see my previous post). This statement says it all:

    It would be much, much easier for the Lebanese to prevent all these kinds of externally generated destabilization operations from succeeding if they could come to some kind of a durable national understanding among themselves. But they have never been able to do that yet. That has left their country extremely vulnerable to the often brutal machinations of their neighbors.

Really, Helena?! The foolish Cobban never factors in that Hariri (Sunni), Jumblat (Druze) and the Christians were forming precisely that cross-sectarian opposition which stresses the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon. Never for a minute does she assess who would be hurt by such a coalition. Ironically, she herself mentions that the Syrians' line was that they were indispensible for Lebanon's security and for preventing the Lebanese from killing each other! She never puts two and two together. Instead she falls on a cliche and utterly baseless innuendo against Israel. To get an idea of the absurdity, take a look at the comments by Leila Abu-Saba to el-Amrani's post. Abu-Saba, who runs her own blog, is infatuated with the likes of Cobban, Cole, Abu Khalil, and the rest of the crew. Her writing is so cliche, it's nauseating. It's like a tripped out Arabist Hallmark card. She added her wisdom in her comments to el-Amrani's garbage:

    Not that I think tourism is the best thing in the world. But the Lebanese do. And many Lebanese believe that their neighbor to the south wants to sabotage their tourist business, as well as their other efforts to prosper. They think Israel wants to squelch Lebanese creative entrepreneurial activity, as a competitor. Whether this is real or not, I don’t know. But you’ll see Lebanese saying this soon.

Mmmm, how interesting. Innuendo that the Israelis did it, and why? To disrupt Lebanese tourism! Try this statement, which smells of Cobbanism:

    On the plus side, he said (last week) that Lebanon is at a turning point, facing either disaster or great progress.
    I still have hope that this won’t devolve into disaster. Perhaps the Lebanese will unite in their grief and resolve some of their old issues.

The vague wisdom saying at the beginning (it can be great or go to hell! Wow, so deep!) aside, what the hell is the last point supposed to mean!? The Lebanese were establishing a growing national opposition. They were indeed resolving their old issues and the only ones saying no were Syria's cronies! So don't you think something more can be said about this!? No, it's those damn Lebanese divisions! Instead, she writes on her blog, "I don't think the Syrians did it." Well, that settles it! After all, they don't want to disrupt the Lebanese tourism sector like those damn Israelis! But given that there are so many other plausible possibilities, like Cole's mafia theory, and the funky Islamist group that suddenly came out of the woodwork, or Cobban's always reliable Israeli connection, Leila remarks that we might never know who's responsible, ever! This doesn't stop her from talking about another civil war, i.e., that it's somehow a Lebanese malady that's responsible! I mean, really...

No one of these guys for instance ever commented on the harrassment all the opposition figures were under in Lebanon by Syria and its Lebanese cronies. Take this story from a couple of days ago for instance:

    Authorities are at loggerheads with ex-Premier Hariri, trying to crackdown on his supporters in advance of the May parliamentary elections, the Beirut media reported on Sunday.

    The state prosecutor's office summoned four administrators of a Hariri charity organization for a day-long interrogation into an ongoing distribution of food rations and olive oil cans on Saturday.
    They were released late in the night under pressure from outraged Mufti Rashid Kabbani, spiritual head of the Sunni sect, who charged the move was an intolerable offence to Islam's Zakat charity assistance to the needy.
    Acting State Prosecutor Rabia Kaddoura, however, has scheduled another interrogation session of the four Harirists at Beirut's Justice Palace for Monday in what the ex-Premier's press office termed as a 'new link in a chain of malicious pre-elections
    Harirists charged that President Lahoud's regime was using the judicial system to prevent the ex-Premier from repeating his sweep of 18 from Beirut's 19 seats  in Parliament in the 2000 elections.
    "They're stupid," Hariri told An Nahar in response to a question about the affair of the Charity organization, which was denounced by the opposition nationwide.
    "This is just the beginning," said Walid Jumblat. "The talons of the police state are bared and more attacks on the opposition are in store, but we will fight them to the bitter end." 

So once again the elections are mentioned. No one even considers that one of the messages of the hit (which are directed at internal as well as external audiences) could be the intimidation of the Sunnis who were thinking of joining the opposition, and the scattering of the Hariri bloc (Naharnet mentioned elsewhere a reported quote by a Lebanese official loyal to Syria that the Syrians won't start redeploying their troops until they secure a pro-Syrian government in the upcoming elections.) I'm not saying this is necessarily the correct reasoning, but it's simply amazing to see people come up with the most absurd theories (the Maronites!? The freakin' mafia?!) just so that no finger is pointed at Syria! Unbelievable.

AbuAardvark was seemingly agnostic and neutral. Nevertheless, he hinted at something from Al-Jazeera that no one of the above-mentioned luminaries (most of whom relied on Al-Jazeera for this story anyway) bothered to mention:

    The only tidbit that I can add which I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere is that, according to al Jazeera, Syrian state television totally ignored the assassination for several hours.   Rather than shift to the breaking news, it kept playing a children's show and then turned to a nature documentary.   Shades of al Hurra, which famously kept airing a cooking show rather than cover the assassination of Ahmed Yassin!   Only after a few hours did it begin coverage, blaming it on external elements looking to damage Arab interests and to harm the Lebanese-Syrian relationship.   Whether that is an indication of possible Syrian complicity, or just another indication of the completely useless nature of Arab state-run television stations, I do not know. 

Nevertheless, it's not clear whether AbuAardvark's comment in the beginning of his post ("I just hope that this doesn't foreshadow a breakdown of Lebanon's domestic peace") is to be read as a result of Syrian interference or as a result of the supposedly irrepressible Lebanese impulse to kill each other, as in the case of el-Amrani and Cobban. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Otherwise, what this says about Arabist prejudices when it comes to Lebanon (and Syria) is amazing. (Even when the Arabists are Lebanese! I mean after all, As'ad Abu Khalil -- and his angry hair -- has written in his Historical Dictionary that one cannot speak of a specifically Lebanese culture!)

Finally, on a separate but related note, Lee Smith posted a comment to my previous post:

    I think your hopefulness is getting in the way of your analysis. While most of the world wants the Syrians out of Lebanon, the one party which strongly disagrees just made a very powerful counter-argument. In effect, the Syrians thumed their nose at the "international community"--which of course doesn't have much of a bite anyway without someone to enforce its threats. Unless you really believe the French are willing to do this, or that UN forces now in South Lebanon are going to do something about the Syrian presence, the US is the one party that can do something. Except Asad and the regime calculated, probably correctly, that the US can't do anything: no troops, no domestic political credibility. Sure they can carpet bomb Damascus, but without troops on the ground it doesn't matter. The regime will gain prestige and the US will lose prestige. We can, and of course should, hate the regime but I don't think we should confuse this with thinking the regime is stupid. It was a gamble to be sure but these guys don't have much else going on--Russia? So unless the White House can pull off some sort of military political and diplomatic miracle the Asad regime probably bought themselves some time with this. It's awful, but I don't know how else to see this.

That's another matter that I have not yet thought through. However, I think that Rich Anderson said something relevant in a comment to my "Thugs for Life" post. Rich wrote:

    Whereas Saddam Hussein was able to split coalitions against him and manipulate international opinion in such a cynical and ruthless way, al-Assad has demonstrated that he is clearly incapable of doing either. Like you said, he's trapped in such a way that no matter how he maneuvers, he damages his own position and strengthens the position of his new-found enemies, if indeed he is not creating new ones as we speak (i.e. a united Franco-Euro-American front, for instance).

This is significant because it gives the US options it didn't have with Iraq. If this will spark a negative UN report, which it will in all likelihood, it might trigger sending UN troops or NATO troops if only to monitor the elections at first. Then, based on Larsen's report, the US and France can push for another UN move to force a Syrian withdrawal, monitored by international troops as well. I really don't know of course, but these are all possibilities that can be done through the international body. After all, 1559 is a UN resolution. If Bashar messes with that, then he would seal his fate as that might indeed trigger an air strike or the sort. I mean, you could use the Serbian analogy in that case. It all depends on the resolve of the international community on this matter, and even Lee agrees that this is a challenge and a snub to the UN, France, and the US. But France and the US are in agreement about Lebanon.

In the end, and this is a point that Lee makes, all Bashar can buy is a little time. But that doesn't contradict what I said: it's borrowed time. This in fact is precisely the strategy of a bankrupt regime. Doing desperate things just to buy time. It's not a strategy! Does Bashar really think that if he blows up Hariri he'll be left alone in Lebanon!? It's over. As Rich said, "no matter how he maneuvers, he damages his own position." The WINEP analysis made a similar point that either way, the lack of stability in Lebanon (be it Syrian inspired or out of Syrian control) denies the rationale of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon! Bashar's move is only cementing that, whether action is taken now or 6 months from now. If anything, this will make the international community monitor the elections even more closely, as the French have said. (Also, it will be interesting to see if the move will backfire on Bashar if the Sunnis, or at least Hariri's bloc, side with the opposition in the elections. But maybe the Maronites will just kill them all like the idiotic Issandr el-Amrani wants us to believe!)

Either way, the jig is up.

Update: Tim Cavanaugh of Reason magazine adds his two cents. I have lots of respect for Cavanaugh, and I read him faithfully (I read Reason faithfully, even though the only two I agree with on the ME are Young and Freund!). At the same time, I find myself in constant disagreement with him on most things regarding the ME. In this case, it's a bit of both: agreement and not quite! Nevertheless, here's a very true statement that I hinted at in my first post but never spelled out as I should have:

    If the Syrians did kill Hariri, one thing is clear: In order to hang on to Lebanon, Bashar Assad is willing to drain the country of whatever actual value it has.

I think this explains my emotional reaction to the assassination. It's incredibly frustrating. It's like the "If I'm going down, I'm taking you with me" line! That's precisely what it is. He's been out-maneuvered, and now all he has is this, knowing full well that it's not a strategy and no one will cut a deal with him after this. This is not simply a political move, this is pure destruction. As Tim writes:

    Lebanon racked up $35 billion in debt, and to a large degree, Hariri's continuing role in the economy (even after he left office) has helped keep international financial institutions from punishing the country for his own wastrelsy. The debt, so the argument went, wasn't so important as the continuing progress Hariri was making in turning the country into a bankable resource. Without adult supervision, it's no longer clear just what is going to prop up Lebanon's absurd economy. It may seem crass to talk about money in the face of this grisly murder, but money was Hariri's genius. His death is a tragedy for Lebanon, and a horror for anybody still foolish enough to be an optimist about the Middle East.

While I don't agree with the conclusion (although I understand the sentiment), I am indeed worried about the economic repercussions, and that's what I meant when I said that this wasn't a political move, it was a purely destructive act on all levels. And furthermore, Tim omits the detrimental role the Syrians -- and their support of Hizbullah -- played in the stalling of the economy. Their backing of Lahoud against Hariri, stacking up institutions with corrupt cronies, embezzelment, and the destabilizing effect of a southern front with Israel, all were key points that Hariri, and more importantly the IMF and World Bank were incredibly frustrated with.

Tim's point about why Hariri was targeted, and not Jumblat, is also worth pondering:

    [U]nlike Jumblatt and Maronite ex-president Amin Gemayel (who joined today in a statement holding "the authorities in Lebanon and Syria, the guardian power, responsible for this crime"), Hariri was not a scion of an ancient family and had no natural constituency in Lebanon.

Rich Anderson made a similar point here. But I think the destructiveness -- the threat that if you push us too far we'll simply burn everything behind us -- implicit in the choice of Hariri, is part of it. Also, there's the more immediate issues of the elections and where the Hariri bloc will place its chips (and perhaps a large segment of the Sunni community more broadly). But like I said, it will be interesting to see how they will react after this. The Druze were infuriated with the Syrians after the attempt on Hamade. We'll see if Hariri's background (not being from a traditional family) will matter in that regard.

More importantly, we'll have to wait and see how the US and the international community react to this direct challenge. This was Lee Smith's point. Let's see.