Across the Bay

Friday, July 06, 2007

Some Levantine Clarity

Pierre Habshi wrote an interesting article in response to a laughably horrific and pisspoor piece on Lebanon by Anthony Sullivan that, incredibly, was published in The National Interest in May:

At a time when the need for solid analysis of developments in the Middle East has become crucial, it has paradoxically become easier to publish far-fetched and puzzling reports masqueraded as thoughtful insights generously shared with the American public by the "experts." Antony Sullivan’s "Levantine Labyrinths" is a prime example of such a trend.
Sullivan’s other gaffes are too many to fully examine, but I will address the following:

First, according to Sullivan, Hizballah and the Maronites are both "distressed" by the growing presence of Sunni fundamentalist groups in Lebanon. Sullivan sees in this "a possibility for Maronite-Hizballah cooperation and a potential opening for the United States." Recent events in Lebanon have shown otherwise: In response to attacks by the fundamentalist Fatah al-Islam, the United States chose to support the Sunni prime minister, who is backed by the Maronite-led, but multi-sectarian, Lebanese military. Hizballah, meanwhile, has been sidelined and left to utter unheeded warnings to the Lebanese government not to enter Palestinian camps to root out Fatah al-Islam. Hizballah’s principal Maronite ally, Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party in the Lebanese parliament, has fully supported the Lebanese army.

Second, Sullivan claims that Syria has become "emboldened, having returned as a Lebanese kingmaker." He adds that for this and other reasons, "it is surely in the U.S. national interest to open a direct dialogue with Syria, as recommended in the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report." But if Syria is kingmaker in Lebanon, what evidence does he have to prove it? The anti-Syrian Lebanese prime minister is still in office and has proven more tenacious than many believed. The pro-Syrian Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, even according to Sullivan’s implausible sources, "is currently under intense pressure from his children to quit office and retire in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia." Regardless, Lahoud’s term ends in September. Finally, the last major pro-Syrian politician holding office is Nabih Berry, the speaker of parliament. But he has been reduced to refusing to call parliament to session for fear that its anti-Syrian majority would ratify the UN tribunal on Hariri’s assassination. So much for Syrian kingmakers.

And finally, while Sullivan advises direct dialogue with Syria, he fails to provide tangible policy recommendations to the U.S. government. Syria’s influence in the region is chiefly reflected in its ability to create or fuel conflict, not resolve it. Syria has been unable or unwilling to seal its borders with Iraq, cease its weapons shipments to Hizballah in Lebanon, cooperate with the UN investigation into Hariri’s murder, prevent the infiltration of groups like Fatah al-Islam from its territory into Lebanon, or influence Hamas to make a meaningful gesture to the Arab-Israeli peace process. The only time Syria had a role in bringing peace was when it imposed Pax Syriana on Lebanon, ending a conflict that raged from 1975 to 1990. What "experts" rarely mention, however, was that Syria had a major hand in fueling the conflict for so long, assassinating Lebanese leaders of all sects (too many to list here), and even scuttling conflict resolution efforts that did not suit its interests. Its takeover of Lebanon in 1990 was the result of the senior President Bush’s perceived need for Syria as an Arab ally in the Gulf War—James Baker was then his secretary of state; the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria’s main benefactor, which pushed the latter temporarily closer to America’s orbit; and Lebanese exhaustion and fear of further Syrian ruthlessness. But the result of Pax Syriana in Lebanon ultimately culminated in 2005 in an unprecedented Lebanese show of unity, following Hariri’s brutal murder, supported by international demands for Syria’s withdrawal. Predictably, Syria is destabilizing Lebanon through continued assassinations and the use of fundamentalist groups that it manipulates at will. But the vast majority of Lebanese who continue to oppose Syrian influence in their country, at the risk of their lives, have decided that such brutal tactics should not be rewarded and that a newly revived Lebanese democracy must be preserved. What would Sullivan, and those who hold his views in the United States, say to them? Negotiations with Syria must not come at the expense of democratic—though weak—Lebanon.

The problem with articles like Sullivan’s is not the views they present, but their lack of credibility. American foreign policy practitioners need serious analysis, not a regurgitation of coffee-house gossip from Beirut.

Alas, much too much of the writing on Lebanon is just absolutely dreadful. Some is uncritical and shallow, but much is also malicious, intentional misinformation.