Across the Bay

Thursday, March 27, 2008

True Believers

Read the following excellent pieces by Michael Young on the issue of Islamists, including Hezbollah.

The first, a post at Reason's Hit & Run blog, trashes an idiotic piece by the Islamist-hugger Alastair Crooke.

The second, Michael's weekly Daily Star column, focuses a little more on Hezbollah, and is really well worth the read:

Why is the topic important? Because over the years academics, analysts, journalists, and others, particularly the Westerners among them, who write about militant Islamist groups, have tended to project their own liberal attitudes and desires onto such groups, misinterpreting their intentions and largely ignoring what these groups say about themselves. Inasmuch as most such observers cannot really fathom the totalitarian strain in the aims and language of armed Islamists, totalitarian in the sense of pursuing a total idea, total in its purity, they cannot accept that the total idea can also be apocalyptic. Where Nasrallah and the leaders of Hamas will repeat that Israel's elimination is a quasi-religious duty, the sympathetic Westernized observer, for whom the concept of elimination is intolerable, will think much more benignly in terms of well-intentioned "bargaining." Hamas and Hizbullah are pragmatic, they will argue, so that their statements and deeds are only leverage to achieve specific political ends that, once attained, will allow a return to harmonious equilibrium.

This argument, so tirelessly made, is tiresomely irrelevant. No one has seriously suggested that Hizbullah or Hamas are not pragmatic. But one can be pragmatic in the means and not in the ends. If anything, pragmatism is obligatory in the pursuit of an absolute idea. And what characterizes those pursuing the absolute idea? In his essay "Terror and Liberalism", Paul Berman provides a partial answer, writing how French author Albert Camus noticed that out of the French Revolution and the 19th century had grown a modern impulse to rebel. That impulse, Berman wrote, "mutated into a cult of death. And the ideal was always the same. It was not skepticism and doubt. It was the ideal of submission ... it was the ideal of the one, instead of the many. The ideal of something godlike. The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement."
Their motivating force is submission to the pursuit of the just idea, and this goes to the very heart of Islam itself, indeed denotes its very meaning, which is based on the embrace of total submission to God. Nasrallah may rarely employ religious terminology, but everything about the way he structures his thoughts, contentions, or vows reflects a deeply religious mindset.

One thing eternally confusing outside observers is that Hamas and Hizbullah are what have come to be described as "nationalist Islamists." Because nationalism started essentially as a Western notion, because its reference point is something reassuringly tangible like territory, not Armageddon, the Westernized writer will see something of himself or herself in such Islamists groups, and will resort to the terminology of modern nationalism to describe their actions. Hizbullah liberated South Lebanon, Hamas is trying to do the same in Palestine; their goals are no different than those of courageous patriots everywhere who have fought against foreign occupation.
But what the observers won't grasp is that nationalism does not necessarily disqualify religion; time and again the two have advanced hand in hand, even in unlikely settings.
For outside observers to ignore or reinterpret their words in order to justify a personal weakness for these groups' revolutionary seductions is both self-centered and analytically useless.

For older, related pieces by Young, see here on Hezbollah and the Left, and here, for a review of a book on Nasrallah's speeches.

Still on the subject of Hezbollah, check out this sharp piece by Elie Fawaz about Hezbollah's current dilemmas and constraints:

This war consummated the divorce between Hezbollah and the majority of Lebanese. Since then, domestic tensions in Lebanon have gradually risen to the brink of an explosion. Violence has erupted in the streets of Beirut between Hezbollah's opponents and its supporters. As a result, the image and aura of Nasrallah, which he tried to forge for himself and his party along inter-communal lines, has become a thing of the past.

Today the Party of God is out of options. By trying to avenge the murder of the party's military commander, Nasrallah would bring disaster upon Lebanon and the Shiite community. He cannot deliver on his vow to wage an open war and will have to backtrack on his threats.

You could see these dilemmas in Nasrallah's pathetic speech the other day where he tried to pull some bogus poll done by the Hezbollah shop called The Beirut Center for Research and Information, which is run by Hezbollah card-carrying member Abdo Saad, who happens to be the father of Hezbollah flack Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. That place churns up tailor-made polls to be used for disinformation and to be disseminated by said flack Saad-Ghorayeb who still gets quoted in the media as an "expert."

Speaking of Hezbollah flackery, revisit my rundown on bad Hezbollah scholarship here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

An Odor of Mildew from Carnegie

Following up on my critique of the dreadful and sinister Carnegie report, NOW Lebanon's editorial kicks it up a couple more notches:

Carnegie appears very much locked into an old template in analyzing Syrian behavior. We are offered a long section explaining how “pragmatic” Syria was in the past vis-à-vis the United States, which is supposed to make us deduce that Syria is still pragmatic today, hence worthy of US engagement. Based on Carnegie’s conclusions, however, the larger implication is more sinister: Syria has interests in Lebanon, can impose its will in the country, therefore, Washington has an interest in granting it some room to maneuver here because Syria is practical enough not to hold an ideological grudge against the Americans and can assist them elsewhere in the region.

As for the Lebanese who oppose Syria, Carnegie maliciously implies that they’re not really worthy of American salvation...

Carnegie is blinded by the past, technically incapable of updating its memory bank on Syria and the Middle East.
When the report’s authors realize this, they will finally be able to pen a document that can be taken seriously.

Read the whole thing.

I have just one quibble with a point raised in the editorial. While their treatment of "realism" addresses it merely as a conceptual framework, I feel the authors still concede too much to Carnegie on the "realism" issue. My point in my critique was that Carnegie's proposals are anything but realist (or internationalist for that matter). They're just stale, counterproductive recommendations that would recreate a balance of power antithetical to US interests.

The point is, as evident from the naval deployment, to name but the latest move, that Lebanon is viewed strategically. Secretary Rice put it well: "[The naval deployment] is simply to make very clear that the US is capable and willing to defend its interests and the interests of its allies."

The split in the region on an international and regional level, between the US, the UN, Arab allies on one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other, reflects a struggle for a favorable balance of power in the region as a whole, especially in the Gulf: either to Iran's advantage or to that of the Pax Americana.

The notion that the abandonment of Lebanon to Iran and its satellites, and the undermining of allied Arab states, and the reopening of the Lebanese southern front, and the restoration of Hezbollah's operational freedom somehow creates a better balance of power for the US is laughable.

And so Carnegie doesn't deserve the realist label. Nor does it deserve the internationalist label either. It's why I dubbed it a call for defeat and abandonment of interests, allies, principles and international law. It's a set of terrible, ill-informed and often ludicrous -- not to mention dated -- recommendations any way you look at it, and it should be safely discarded.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

One Wright Makes a Wrong

I'd like you to take a look at this pathetic report by Robin Wright in the WaPo yesterday about the US naval deployment off the coast of Lebanon.

First problem, laziness and factual error: "The proposal led to serious debate within the administration, which held back its plan from key European and Arab allies, the officials said."

It's unclear what Wright is talking about here, as this graph comes after she said that the administration coordinated with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, France declared yesterday that the US move had been coordinated with it in advance. Does this reporter even read her own copy? Furthermore, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe intimated in his press briefing yesterday that the move was coordinated with European and regional allies.

Second, the use of an "expert" who merely regurgitates Syrian and Hezbollah one-liners: "'U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Lebanon did not, does not and will never work. If there is one way how not to help your allies, this is it,' said Bilal Y. Saab of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center."

Mmm, yes, deep. And as it so happens, he sounds like he's reading from Syrian and Hezbollah talking points. It's a regurgitation of an official Hezbollah statement (which used those exact words: "gunboat diplomacy") and it's what Syrian FM Walid Moallem said as well. That, or he just reached for the first cliché he could remember, which is probably the case. More bizarrely yet, two paragraphs earlier, Wright quotes a Hezbollah MP saying essentially the exact same thing.

Third, baseless editorializing and dishonest use of expert quotes: "Some Middle East experts and both European and Arab allies doubt that the U.S.-Saudi effort will have serious impact on Damascus. 'The Syrian regime is playing for time, and reasons that a new administration will be forced to jettison the current policy of isolation,' said Emile el-Hokayem of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a defense think tank."

Who and where, pray tell, are these "Middle East experts and both European and Arab allies" who "doubt" that the effort will have any impact? Not a single source is quoted to that effect -- except of course in Wright's imagination.

The only person who is quoted, ostensibly to corroborate this ridiculous conclusion, is Emile Hokayem. But Hokayem's quote is dishonestly framed. He says no such thing. He merely explains what he thinks the Syrian regime is calculating: to wait out the Bush administration until an Obama or Clinton presidency "reengages" them, and that somehow, that would translate into renewed hegemony over Lebanon, or so the delusional Syrian thinking goes.

Instead, Wright makes it seem as though this is Hokayem's expert judgment on the issue of pressure, which it isn't, and contextualizes it as a corroboration of her ridiculous and baseless, unsubstantiated assertion that experts, European and Arab allies have doubts about the US move.

Actually, UN officials are on the record more than a month ago hoping for precisely such a move by the US. Here's what anonymous UN officials were quoted as saying in a Haaretz report I posted in early January:

The main problem, as the UN officials see it, is that not enough pressure is being placed on Assad. "He will only move if he senses a threat to the stability of his regime," they said. "If the Americans were, for example, to send ships close to Lebanon's beaches, that would send a clear message to Assad, but they're not doing that."

What seems to be at work is the kind of journalism that falls in the gap between reality and what the press imagines – or hopes – is reality. That the Bush White House coordinated with its international and regional partners just doesn't fit the narrative of an ideological White House eager to trash historical alliances running roughshod over multilateralist principles (for a critique of this, see my latest op-ed). So, it's no surprise to see glaring factual omissions and Wright's inability to correctly report US policy toward Lebanon and Syria – never mind analyze it.

But there's something else going on here too. It is as though Wright, like much of the US press corps and many in the policy community (again, see my post on the egregious Carnegie report), has internalized the nearly hypnotic mantra of the totalitarian message delivered by the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbollah – all pressure on us is futile. We are winning. We will win. We have won. Capitulate now before it's too late and you really get hurt.

It's hardly any surprise that the same regime Pinocchio who masquerades as a US university professor and openly threatens the US and warns it to abandon all hope, is a source for Wright's work on Syria. Here she quotes him as she put forward the same message in her report about the Rami Makhlouf designation and explained it away by saying that he didn't have assets in the US. Like it matters – we are talking about the US banking system here. How many financial institutions around the world are eager to deal with a regime fixture if it is going to cost them with the US banking system?

For a breath of fresh air, this editorial in NOW Lebanon the other day presents a different picture, analyzing the latest US moves, including the designation of the Syrian jihadist network of Abu Ghadiyah:

[T]he fact is that once a businessman becomes a pariah in American eyes, international financial institutions are far less willing to deal with him, and Makhlouf knows this.
By going after Makhlouf, Washington was touching at the financial heart of the Syrian regime. The designation of Abu Ghadiyah and his acolytes, in turn, was an effort to warn the Syrians that keeping open the Al-Qaeda tap in Iraq would cost Damascus more in the coming months. Given that Syria’s intelligence services are closely involved in the movement of militants in and out of Iraq, and given that President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Chawkat, is indubitably the most powerful of the intelligence chiefs in the country, the US Treasury’s decisions could be interpreted as specific strikes against two of the principal pillars propping up Syria’s ruling family: money and the intelligence apparatus.

The Abu Ghadiyah designation, following the revelation that Mughniyeh was being patronized by Bashar's inner-most circle, only puts the spotlight on how Syria is a state sponsor of al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as of Mughniyeh, one of the terrorists most wanted by the US, and confirming that Syria is Terror Central (Sunni, Shi'a, Islamist, secular, makes no difference) and an enemy state.

And that's the context that we should understand Nicholas Burns' statement: "We have been disturbed to see the union between Syria and Iran in support of some of the most vicious terrorist groups in the Middle East."

While this may be difficult for some members of the press to understand, given their professional commitment to "objectivity," the US has interests in the region, which are not in line with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah's project for the Middle East, including Lebanon. And so, far from stopping the pressure, Burns said the US is going to keep it up: "We have every reason to believe that continued pressure on the Syrian government, in the type that was announced by the US Treasury Department, is the right way to go for our country."

Addendum: In stark contrast to Nicolas Burns, marvel at this pitiful pontification by Richard Murphy:

Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Syria, told Al Jazeera that the move was a sign that the US did not know what to do about Lebanon.

"It is gunboat diplomacy. I think it would be more useful for the US to find a way to engage with the conflicting parties in Lebanon.

"We have no dialogue with Syria and this is a moment for dialogue."

You'd think that someone who presided over the collapse of US policy in Lebanon as assistant secretary of state from 1983 to 1989 would refrain from lecturing the rest of us about what we should be doing now.

Murphy's term also witnessed Saddam's gassing of the Kurds. None other than Samantha Power, in her book A Problem from Hell, wrote about Murphy (pp. 209-10 in the Perennial paperback edition) at the time.

She described how as head of Near East in late 1988, Murphy remained unconvinced of Iraqi chemical attacks against the Kurds, even though there were intercepts of the Iraqis admitting to use of those weapons, and plenty of evidence of Kurds having been gassed. In contrast, Intelligence and Research at State was arguing that the evidence was overwhelming.

Murphy argued later: "I think that we did what we are supposed to do with intelligence. We challenged it. We said, 'Where did you get it?'; 'Who were your sources?'"

Given this proud and shining record of impeccable advice, I think the sound and wise thing to do is to completely ignore pretty much anything Murphy says. Come to think of it, that's precisely the case, thankfully.