Talisman Gate

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ashen Cedars

February 15, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Ashen Cedars

February 15, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/27659

Who among Washington's diplomats and spooks, will take responsibility for smashing Lebanon, should that be the consequence of their half-measures?

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the terrorist attack that targeted and killed former Prime Minister Hariri. It has been an eventful year for Lebanon: the murder heralded a public outcry that galvanized a nation into action, giving the world beautifully choreographed images of young Lebanese men and women defying 30 years of Syrian occupation. It was called the Cedar Revolution by the west, and gave much heart to the Bush administration, coming only two months after the president had, in his second inaugural address, articulated a fundamental shift in American policy in the Middle East towards democracy. Then there were elections, and the parliamentary majority was carried by those who had pushed for Syria's ouster. At the time, it seemed as if Washington had notched up yet another victory and had bet on a winning horse. Hundreds of thousands gathered to mark the occasion yesterday, and again it all looked wonderful on TV, giving everyone false comfort that all is well.

Yet, for all the enthusiasm generated by these sincere young Lebanese democrats in the making, there was no policy beyond the photo-op, no legislation beyond the rhetoric. The momentum generated last year was squandered as the country's politics were relegated to long-standing models of power-sharing among its sects, and the opportunity to build a unifying identity was missed by America's policymakers, who decided to place their trust in local leaders tactically disinterested in moving beyond factionalism. What Washington missed was the fact that the bad guys in the Middle East, such as the rulers of Iran and Syria, are far more adept at manipulating the sectarian game, acting through proxies that have been cultivated for decades.

Mysterious bombings, all against iconic figures of the anti-Syrian camp, began to go off as part of a wider campaign of destabilization. Most reflexively blamed Syria, but there is a dark harbinger that the labyrinthine machinations of Lebanese power politics are going to be get further twisted, and are to become even more relevant to America's regional policy. The policymakers are unprepared.

The new development revolves around speculation that an Al Qaeda cell that had been rounded up a little over a month ago may have had a hand in killing Hariri. One member of this cell, who managed to escape the dragnet, was Khalid Taha, who apparently was the handler of Ahmad Abu Ades, the suspected suicide bomber or at least the fall guy in the Hariri plot. Most of the detainees are Syrian nationals, but they also include a Saudi, a Jordanian and several Palestinians. According to one source I have spoken to, two of the detainees allegedly confessed to witnessing the car bomb being rigged with explosives in the 'Ain Al-Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp. Other published accounts say that one of them admitted to taping and editing the video made by Abu Ades in which he attributed the attack to a previously unknown jihadist group.

There is more to this story that will probably shift the United Nations investigation from the path previously followed by the outgoing investigator, Detlev Mehlis. His successor, the Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, has taken a keen interest in following up the Al-Qaeda lead.

However, as the Al-Qaeda connection comes further into focus, a key question will be whether Syria manipulated this Al-Qaeda cell to do its bidding? If so, then isn't this a matter as serious as the Taliban harboring Osama Bin Laden? It could make the liberation of Syria a natural extension of the war against terror. But would the internal American dynamic bear the weight of starting another war, and in an election year? And what would happen to how the Middle East perceives America's sincerity in propagating democracy and foiling terror if the administration decides to pass on punishing Syria?

Such a Syria-Al-Qaeda connection is exactly what is being peddled by America's allies in Lebanon, who are poised to release these talking points once this new track in the investigation is publicly disclosed. This camp is nominally led by the Saudi-born and raised, half-Iraqi, 30-something political neophyte and heir to his late father's legacy, Saad Hariri.

Hariri Junior was feted last month in Washington on the grandest of scales, even though at the time he was received in the White House, he had been AWOL from the Lebanese political scene for four months, hiding out in Paris and Riyadh while orchestrating his tasks as head of the parliamentary majority and by extension the governmental executive from the safety of distant capitals. He seems to be a nice guy, but there is a growing realization that he is not up to task. His Saudi and French patrons - suddenly trusted by Washington as the midwives for a new post-Syrian Lebanon - marketed him as a national leader, something his father never was in life as leader of Lebanon's Sunnis. But for the younger Hariri to amount to an all-inclusive leader the sectarian superstructure would have to be dismantled, something that early on in his parliamentary victory could have been done to unite a deeply divided country, but wasn't.

The Maronites saw through the charade, and their voting pattern showed that they overwhelmingly picked one of their own, the maverick Michel Aoun, rather than their coreligionists running on the Hariri slate. The Shias, who form the plurality of Lebanon's population, sensed that the coalition of Sunni, Druze, and non-Maronite Christian factions led by Hariri and blessed by America, Saudi Arabia, and France had played them out of the game and into Syria's arms, thus fortifying Hezbollah's grip on the community. Thinking that Hariri had matters under control, Washington did not bother to cultivate either Aoun or the Shia bourgeoisie who may have challenged Hezbollah and sold their increasingly prosperous kinsmen on an alliance in support of democracy, mimicking the line set down by the faith's leaders in Iraq's holy city of Najaf.

But Hariri is unable to hold down the fort, as demonstrated when his prime minister semantically got Hezbollah off the hook by classifying them as "resistance" rather than a "militia" and thus immune to U.N. resolutions calling for disarmament. Spurned by Hariri and America, Aoun last week cemented an alliance with Hezbollah, turning Lebanese politics on its head through a Maronite-Shia alliance in the face of everyone else. And to make matters worse, the recent burning of the Danish Embassy in Beirut by angry Sunnis disclosed that Hariri has lost ground on the fringes of his community to Islamist radicals.

So what happens next? Hariri has failed to deliver, while Syria's chief proxies, huddled around Hezbollah, have emerged supreme. The U.N. investigation is probably veering into identifying an Al Qaeda cell as the culprit behind Hariri's murder, which would either get the Syrians off the suspects list and back in force, or lead to a war should it turn out that Damascus furthered its agenda by acting through the jihadist murderers. Lebanon is a mess in the making that touches on every single aspect of the Middle Eastern conundrum: sectarian warfare, Iranian-Syrian networks, Al-Qaeda havens, dark Saudi designs and threats to Israel's security.

Lebanon is the case study that America's strategy cannot be subcontracted out to "allies" who are out of step with its vision for democracy. The Bush administration must quickly re-assess this volatile situation and reassert control.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

February 15, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Malevolent Effervescence

February 8, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Malevolent Effervescence


February 8, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/27245

What connects Hamas's recent parliamentary victory with the havoc that was wrought by Lebanese demonstrators over a provocative Danish cartoon, and with the recent release of a big-budget Turkish movie in which renegade American soldiers indiscriminately kill Iraqi babies? There is a dark spiritual effervescence that sputters out periodically from the Middle East in fits of mayhem stemming from a revenge fantasy that has been festering for 300 years. It gets couched in convenient "us" versus "them" diatribes to explain away failure, whereby the eternal enemy is the Christian West - besting the Muslim East for several centuries on the battlefield and in all walks of life, and actively subjugating it.

The three top terrorists in the world originally hail from America's three best regional Arab allies; Osama Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia, Ayman Zawahiri from Egypt, and Abu Musa'ab Al-Zarqawi from Jordan. These three countries typify the realist vision that attaches stability to autocracy. But seemingly, that is not enough to console restive jihadists. On the other hand, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority, the three areas where George Bush's vision for democracy as the provider of enduring stability was supposed to initially take root, have been effectively ceded through the ballot box to political proxies that make common strategic cause with a dangerous bully to the east, Iran. Again, something went wrong in the calculus, leaving yesterday's pariahs in control of the destinies of these newly empowered nations.

So what is going on? Why is it that supposedly stable autocracies have produced the world's most determined terrorists, while when the relatively free people of the Middle East are given a chance to vote, they elect those associated with Iran's mullah-cracy?

Sure, there are all sorts of complex local vectors that produce these outcomes. A vote for Hamas was a protest vote against Fatah's corruption, and Iraqi Shias voted along confessional lines because they fear an impending civil war, while their coreligionists in Lebanon feel that Hezbollah provides the best bulwark within the stratified sectarian make-up of that troubled country. But why didn't Palestinians vote for secular democrats untainted by corruption or Fatah? Similar questions can be asked about Iraq and Lebanon: Why is it that the masses prefer to err on the side of radicalism rather than reason?

Muslim males, who have had it well for many centuries and who took to seeing themselves as masters of the world, have not been doing all that great since the second time the Ottomans made a go at Vienna. Once, nations to the east, west, north, and south cowered before mighty and oft-resurrected Muslim empires. Now they offer prime destinations for Muslims refugees escaping the miseries of home. Back in the old days, there were setbacks here and there, but nothing that a return to the original zeal of the first Muslims did not set right, turning unfolding events into an outright rout of the infidels.

Those sneaky Europeans would come up with half-hearted efforts to turn back the tide, launching Crusades or recapturing Spain, but these were temporary affairs, since Islam is mightier in spirit and carries the blessing of the divine. This thinking still lingers, even though it has been a while since the last rejuvenation of the faith, and throughout this delay a sense of emasculation has crept into Muslim consciousness. What should be considered passing slights are thus magnified beyond any sense of proportion; every move is a conspiracy, every word a lie, and everything adds up to the final tally of defeat or victory.

But is it logical that a cartoonist would be able to shake Islam to its foundations? Why would a great faith be so quick to anger when provoked by so insignificant a stimulus? There is no logic to it. If Arabs were thinking logically, then they would have deduced that their boycott of Danish goods is ridiculous given that Denmark probably exports more stuff that the whole club of Arab countries combined, if one discounts fossil fuels. But Denmark is part of the West, and its flag a representation of the crucifix. Torching its embassies and canceling trade contracts provide an opportunity to show some flex yet in the Muslim spiritual muscle.

Furthermore, radicalism is being actively bankrolled, and its message disseminated, by advancing technology. Today, with chat rooms and text messaging, mobs can be coordinated and incited to riot after watching inflammatory images on Saudi-owned satellite channels. Hamas and Hezbollah, flush with Iranian petrodollars, can build clinics and schools, while American and European taxpayer money arriving as aid disappears into corrupt pockets. Secular democrats counseling moderation and taking a hard look at the wretched state of affairs - the potholes in the streets and potbellies behind idle desks - are drowned out by cries of jihad propagated in part by autocratic regimes that put this battlecry to use in distracting the masses from their real problems.

This malevolent effervescence claimed many would-be avengers over the years. They were disappointed because the Christian West was not decisively destroyed and crippled. Granted, the West has not always come out smelling of roses, and a big chunk of its legacy in dealing with the modern Middle East is shameful. Thus, there is something to the image of an Englishman kissing the boots of a Muslim dictator, Idi Amin, that so intoxicates the Eastern masses. Myths are cobbled together in one form or another for every Middle Eastern schoolboy to recite: Orabi, Zaghloul, the tribes of the Middle Euphrates, Al-Atrash, Ataturk, Omar Al-Mukhtar, Nasser, Mossadaq, Qassim, Asad, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Saddam, and many others - a jumble of adventurers that left the region unhinged and unfulfilled.

And that is why the Middle East is languishing and sending up all these irrational messages: The people of the East are waiting for an avenger, not a savior. They long for whoever will wash away the humiliation of having their principal cities, once seats of far flung empires, now roamed by infidel troops or their perceived lackeys. "More schools, hospitals, and functioning sewers? Better Copenhagen burning to the ground!" And these days, the names most talked are those of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Zarqawi. They provide the fantasy of victory: American soldiers in body bags, and American diplomats in retreat. The mujaheddin toughing it out in the mountains, or flicking off scorpions in the desert, while huddled down with rusty rifles to waylay a tank or helicopter - shaping the battlefield and expanding the writ of havoc - conjure up powerful images and role models for idle youths. They project the heady aroma of masculine virility: It used to be about nationalizing the Suez, but now it is about bombing trains in Spain. It is now about the nation of Iran, forgetting about its massive economic and societal ills, wanting to reequip itself with a nuclear weapon.

This dangerous vengeful energy will expand to recruit more jihadists and mark out more victims over the next decade. But maybe when the flames on TV begin to lap up at the curtains of the Middle East's middle class, and their blood-lust is drenched with their own blood, then enough momentum will be unleashed for sober politicians to re-orient the Orient toward self-improvement, rather than self-immolation.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

February 8, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >