The Near East in the aftermath of the Gemayel assasination
"It is too early to know who ordered this week’s assassination of the Lebanese cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, but there are many reasons to suspect Syria. Mr. Gemayel opposed Syria’s unrelenting campaign to dominate Lebanon’s fragile democracy. If the cabinet now loses even one more minister, through intimidation or worse, Lebanon’s pro-Western government will collapse — a collapse that Hezbollah, Syria’s ally and henchman, has been publicly seeking.
In a Middle East plagued by constant tragedy and defeat, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and the ousting of Syrian troops last year was a rare and precious victory. The United States and the international community must now rally to support Prime Minister Fouad Siniora — with cash, security advisers, and anything that might help him and his government survive.
Damascus must also be told that it will pay a high price — in scorn, isolation and sanctions — if it is found to have ordered Mr. Gemayel’s death, or the deaths or maiming of a half-dozen other anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. Hezbollah must be told that it will be shunned if it tries to grab power through further violence or intimidation.
The United Nations took an important step this week, approving the creation of a tribunal to prosecute the killers of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister. The only question there is which top Syrian official gave the order.
This page believes that the United States needs to begin a dialogue with Syria, about Iraq and regional peace. But President Bashar al-Assad needs to understand that neither the tribunal nor Lebanon’s independence will ever be on the bargaining table. Europe, Russia and all of Syria’s neighbors need to join Washington in delivering that message.
Hezbollah has been insisting on veto power over all government decisions, including whether it will participate in a U.N. tribunal. If there is any possible good to come from Mr. Gemayel’s death, it is that Hezbollah will now have to postpone its announced plan to call thousands of demonstrators into the street to bring down the government. We hope Mr. Siniora can use this time to rally the majority of Lebanese who still believe in national reconciliation and the spirit of the Cedar Revolution.
We would urge Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to go immediately to Beirut, except we’re not sure she would be welcome after President Bush’s failure last summer to restrain Israel’s disastrous air war. Ms. Rice might still do some good if she brought with her a large group of European and moderate Arab foreign ministers. That is a sad admission about the limits of American influence. But Mr. Siniora needs all the help he can get". Editorial in New York Times, 23 November. See: www.nytimes.com
The assassination of the Christian Maronite leader, and government Minister, Pierre Gemayel, earlier this week, has brought the ongoing power struggle in the Lebanon to renewed prominance. Since, the failure this summer past of the Israeli-American war to break the back of the Syrian-Persian backed Hezbollah; Damascus & Teheran with its allies in the Lebanon, have been straining evermore to bring about the downfall of the pro-Western (meaning pro-Franco-American-Saudi-Gulf Arab) Siniora government. The government formed, due to the downfall of the prior, pro-Syrian regime, in the aftermath of the assassination of Hariri. In the last two weeks, Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the Siniora Cabinet. Hoping to topple it, and force new elections, in which they hope to win and oust the current one. Instead, Siniora and his colleagues decided to continue, and even voted to co-operate in the UN's ongoing of Hariri. An investigation which Damascus fears might just point fingers and the very top of the Assad regime.
The above is the foreground, of the Gemayel assassination. The real, outstanding issues are: one, what are the stakes for each side and, two, who has the better cards to play with at this time? First, the stakes for the two sides are quite different. As the above editorial in the New York Times, or the Financial Times the day prior clearly show, per se, there are no real hard, Western, American interests at risk in the Lebanon (see: www.ft.com). For the Western powers, what is at stake is merely a prestige policy: that the Bush policy of Democratization's only success, not be reversed. Aside from that there will be no real costs to any decision, `a la that of 1984, to the Franco-American powers to just picking up their marbles and walking away. Even the Israelis, as long as the border with Hezbollah is quiet, will not be too much discontented with such a result. Particularly since, they were never adherents to the idea, espoused by the leading lights of the Bush regime, that the Assad fils, was ripe for being overthrown (See Charles Malik's article 18th November in Lebanese Political Journal in www.lebop.blogspot.com).
In the case of Damascus, the stakes are quite different. Assad and his inner circle, view their withdrawal from the Lebanon, in 2005, and the election of the Siniora Cabinet, as being an unmitigated defeat of the very first magnitude. Indeed, such was the after shocks of this defeat, that to a degree, the whole stability of the regime appeared to be at stake. Especially when the former First Vice-President, and long-time, Lebanese 'Viceroy', Abdel-Halim Khaddam, resigned in June 2005, and, attempted to overthrow the Assad from abroad (see the 30 December 2005 issue of www.lebop.blogspot.com). This threat to the regime appears to have been over by the end of the Israeli-Lebanese war of this summer. Israel's failure to crush Lebanon, resulted in an enormous prestige victory throughout both the Levant and the Near East for Damascus, and its Persian allies and Hezbollah (see the July / August 2006 issues of www.Lebop.blogspot.com). As we have shown above, in recent weeks Hezbollah and its allies on the Lebanese political scene: General Aoun, and Parlaimentary Speaker and head of the Amal party, Nabib Berri (see the 11th November issue of www.Syriacomment.com). In combination with this political offensive, were diplomatic trial balloons, going on, about the need for, if not reapprochment, than at least pourparler between Damascus and Washington & its allies. The subject of any such parler being what Syria could contribute to stabilizing Iraq, and, possibly, what would be the price, for doing so. Perhaps as a first step in such a diplomatic maneuver, was the re-establishment of relations between Damascus and Baghdad this week, with the visit of the Syrian Foreign Minister to the same (on this and the possible repercussion therein see the article in LeFigaro on this: www.Lefigaro.fr). With the re-establishment of Syria's de facto, if not de jure hegemony over the Lebanon, being seen, as part and parcel of any such quid pro quo agreement with Washington. The other one being that Washington will definitely abandon, its goal of overthrowing the Assad regime, once and for all. Something that realpolitikers, around the incoming Defence Secretary, Mr. Gates, such as the very influential Mr. James A. Baker III, and his Iraq Study Group (on this see a report in the Council on Foreign Relations,'Daily Brief' on 15th November in www.cfr.org).
So, gentle reader, where are we now? On the surface, it would appear that Syria and its allies, while temporarily blocked by the killing of Gemayel, from taking to the streets, to bring down the Siniora Cabinet, as previously promised, are still in the drivers seat overall (on this prior threat see the Roma based online journal 'Power and Interest report: "Intelligence Brief: Pierre Gemayel Assassinated in Lebanon" in www.pinr.com) . However, aside from diplomatic outrage, which by its very nature tends to be temporary in scope, it would not appear that Washington and Paris have either the staying power, or the will, to actively and consistently back, with aid, overt, concrete assistance and diplomatic support, the 14th of March coalition. Already, at a summit meeting with French President Chirac in Lucca, Italia, Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, restated his recent view that:
"The Syrians must be confronted with their responsibilities, clearly and openly. Pressure must also be brought to bear on them. Not to speak with the Syrians is no solution. The prime objective is to guarantee Lebanon's independence. This also means Syria's independence" (in www.Lefigaro.fr).
Which is of course, merely a sotto voce, way of saying that push comes to shove, that in any type of grand bargain with Syria, the Lebanon is a tradeable commodity. Sad, but it would appear true. And, unfortunate, because the Lebanon, is by virtue of history and its rich population mix, part and parcel of Western, Chrisitian society. To abandon it, to the tender mercy of the Syrians and their local allies, with their violence, criminality, Islamic fanaticism and corruption, is the last thing that Lebanese society needs and wants. This all of course being the end result of the American debacle in Iraq, which means that the USA, is left holding very few cards, in the entire region. Perhaps as Michael Young recently put it in Beirut 'Daily Star' a few days prior to the Gemayel murder in an article titled: "Kiss Goodbye to a Liberal Middle East", with the neo-realists back in control in Washington, the words 'back to the future' takes on a new meaning:
Kiss goodbye to a liberal Middle East
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, November 16, 2006
"Amid the joy surrounding the defeat of the Republicans in last week's midterm congressional elections, I might be forgiven this dissenting observation: With George W. Bush so roundly beaten, don't expect much American interest, in the foreseeable future and probably beyond that, for liberalism in the Middle East. We're returning to the days when the United States put its regional hopes mainly in leaders who were reliable thugs.
That's not to suggest that Bush was particularly consistent in his democratic preaching, or that he formulated his message in the most convincing of ways in Iraq. However, the historic mistake of Arab liberals was to stand elbow to elbow with the despots oppressing them in condemning the American democratic project for the region, instead of exploiting it. Rather than drawing on the Americans' presence in their midst for their own benefit, far too many of liberals fell back on a restricting cliche that the US was practicing a new form of imperialism. Perhaps it was, but early on it became painfully clear that that imperialism was as soft and malleable as a warm slug; that if the Americans could bend before the frail figure of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, they would probably listen to, even assist, those like the Lebanese who had decided to rid themselves of previously unassailable oppressors.
There was considerable hypocrisy in the Arab liberal reaction to Bush's wars. For decades, an unwavering lament of the liberals was that the US had abandoned democrats in favor of autocrats. That was true, particularly during the Cold War, when administrations pushing for greater openness on the part of their Arab allies were reminded by the latter that pushing too hard might induce them to lean toward the Soviet Union. In an era of superpower competition, the "realist" paradigm accepted such blackmail: It was better for the US to deal with states primarily on the basis of interests as opposed to values, even if values were never abandoned in Washington's public rhetoric.
That's where we are heading again today. American realists are making their comeback, most recently through Robert Gates at the Defense Department. However, Gates is part of a larger confederacy of old government hands rebounding thanks to the chaos in Iraq: "We told you so" is their leitmotif, and while many of these individuals can blend in an occasional value with their estimates of interests, their expectations remain decidedly low when it comes to the Middle East.
Prepare for more of what a realist paragon, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, told The New York Observer in summer 2004. "It's not that I don't believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me."
In that phrase lies much contempt and a fundamental justification for tying America's wagon to Arab dictators. That is perhaps why Scowcroft, his colleague James Baker, who now co-chairs the Iraq Study Group, and their boss, the elder President Bush, never expressed noticeable remorse for two of their more callous decisions in the Middle East. One was their irresponsible encouragement of Iraqis to revolt against Saddam Hussein's regime in early 1991, after its army's defeat in the Gulf War. Bush's unwillingness to follow up on that invitation with American assistance led to a savage Baathist counterattack that killed tens of thousands of Shiites. And, prior to that, in October 1990, the Bush administration effectively ceded Lebanon to Syria so that President Hafez Assad would agree to join the international coalition convening to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
There are two problems with a return to realism past. The first is that 9/11, whichever way you cut it, was a by-product of that approach. Because militant Islam thrives in repressive Arab societies, because America can only appear more hateful to peoples who see it bolstering their absolute rulers, nothing prevents another terrorist attack against the US. That is the fatal flaw in the realists' approach. For them 9/11 was a glitch in the international order, albeit a substantial one, an event that should have merely brought retaliatory police action designed to re-establish an equilibrium. Realists were incapable of gauging the importance of ideas, of understanding that militant Islam is perilously eschatological in its ambitions. In their fixation on power, realists never see beyond the dry instruments increasing or lessening power.
The second problem is that America's traditional Arab allies, those many prominent realists continue to serve in sundry ways, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are fast being marginalized by the region's non-Arab peripheral states - Iran, Turkey and Israel. Within the next decade, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but also Jordan and Syria, are liable to face considerable instability unless they can reform and become more democratic. To regard the Arab state system as stable in its mediocrity is to misread the recent past. On even the most basic of political issues, namely leadership succession, secular republics have regressed by resorting to dynastic ploys. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has no obvious successor today, and is trying to maneuver so his son can take over from him. In Syria, Hafez Assad had no alternative when his eldest son, Basel, was killed except to pick son number two. The poverty of such choices will only discredit secular nationalist leaders more than they already are, making revolutions, especially Islamic ones, ever more likely.
But American realists can't see that either, because in their deference to the natural order of states, to sovereignty, they cannot bring themselves to deplore what's happening inside states. That's why it's ironical that Arab liberals should now applaud the onset of a realist American foreign policy toward the Arab world. After all, the liberals always argued that unless the West preoccupied itself with the domestic evils of Arab regimes, they would be vulnerable to the policemen and intelligence agents tormenting them. They can now rest assured: The "neo-imperial" US has increasingly less of an intention to defend their cause, and with realists back in the forefront, ample philosophical justification not to do so".
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.