Friday, October 26, 2007

On Choosing a Lebanese President

Any "consensus" candidate is sure to be a weak president. The reason is simply that if he wants to pursue some policy or make some decision that a party to the consensus disagrees with, he'll be accused of violating his legitimacy. A "temporary" president - one who takes office with the understanding that his exercise of Constitutional authority is limited until it can be exercised by the "permanent" president - is subject to the same constraints, only worse.

That is why I believe best course of action for Lebanese who want a strong president is to ignore calls for consensus completely and stick to the Constitution and its spirit as much as possible. It is a very American belief, so I don't know if it translates into the Lebanese reality.

The ultimate test is if all of Lebanon's dissident ethno-sectarian groups are willing to abandon their leader and follow the Government instead in case of some disagreement. The only other possible sources of legitimacy are the Constitution or force of arms - civil war.

No one in Lebanon wants to see civil war resume, so as long as the legitimacy of the government is considered dicey, conflict is being put off as long as possible by accomodating ethno-sectarian leaders like Hassan Nasrallah.

But Nasrallah doesn't represent Lebanese as much as Syria and Iran, who see the Shia as a paid tool of their policy of proxy war against the West and Israel. They are rearming and fortifying Hezbollah now to improve their tool for future use in war. When that war comes, it will be at the call of Syria and Iran, not the Lebanese will once more die by the thousands. And everybody, even the Hezbollah rank and file, knows this.

No one wants civil war, but clearly some parties are maneuvering for it. The only constraint is then establishing some sort of pretext, some way to say that "the other guy started it first, and the government isn't strong enough to deal with the problem." A weak president, then, favors such conditions, or better yet, creates the condition that the unarmed ethno-sectarian groups will surrender without a blow being struck at all.

Don't give in. Elect a president without qualifications, either "consensus" or "temporary", and prepare to live with the results: an exercise of power that will diminish all of Lebanon's ethno-sectarian leaders, not just those of Hezbollah, in exchange for eventually freeing the Shia and their captive allies from foreign domination, with the support of the U.N. and the West. It must be a pretty scary thought to Lebanon's ethno-sectarian leaders, as they will be exposed to government authority in a way they haven't in over a generation. But are Lebanon's leaders prepared to ask themselves, "Won't the consequences of not electing a real president be worse?"

Monday, October 08, 2007

Six Years Later: Moti's Thoughts

Mordechai Sorkin is a U.S. Army Ranger and platoon leader in Afghanistan. He explained "why I fight" on the anniversary of September 11th:
In any event, at one point during the day I was sitting about 15 meters away from a detainee, watching our Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) talk to him. Now I’m not completely cold-hearted, but I’m definitely not buddy-buddy when it comes to handling enemy suspects. As long as they’ve got food, water, and clothes, and haven’t soiled themselves, my interaction with them might involve an occasional glance. Maybe. Yet my ANSF counterparts sat close by, talking, smiling, and laughing. They held hands for a period, and if it wasn’t for the flex cuffs on the guy, you’d have thought they had been friends for years...

I’ll be honest: I didn’t joint the Army to make Afghanistan or Iraq into better places. I would like to help these countries, but that’s not why I’m here. I find some things about Afghans endearing, and there are parts of their culture that humble me. But I’m not an Afghan patriot. I am an American. I’m here to fight for the United States...

...ultimately, protecting America involves more than just killing bad guys. That means I’ve often got different missions than the ones I envisioned in my sleep-deprived days of Ranger school, where I dreamed of mowing down the Islamist horde with an endless belt of 7.62. Despite what Brian DePalma and his ilk might think, I don’t go around dictating law with the muzzle of my rifle, and neither do my men...Every mission we have is dedicated to helping Afghanistan, and to making this country a better place. For the only way Afghanistan will no longer be a threat to America is if it gets better...

As angry as our enemies make me, I did not join the Army to achieve retribution. I joined so that others would not have to face this threat in the future. I joined so that my friend’s daughters can grow up in an even better world than the one that I enjoy. It is for children like them that I fight; and it is for their future that we must remember the past.

Read it all
. Then read the rest of his blog, starting at his very first post, The Forgotten War.

Update, 10/10/07:

I contributed the following comment on Moti's latest post, which recounted this incident:
A few days ago we went to a village to investigate reports of heavy enemy traffic. I ended up with a big crowd of kids, who tend to be the best sources of information in this country: They're honest and they're curious. One child told me he wanted to grow up to be a Talib. When I asked my terp to clarify if he meant 'student' or 'crazy murderous fanatic', the child responded for me. The kid said that he liked ANP and ANA, and he liked the Taliban. He liked all of them compared to us, the non-Muslim American Army, who all just ought to be killed. Enemy fighters with body armor and chest racks [provided by the U.S. to Afghan forces] make me angry—children like this just take the wind out of my lungs.

This is the kind of victory you are winning, Moti:
As a child, Maseullah’s parents sent him to live and study at a madrassa, or religious school, in Pakistan. Maseullah returned home as a hafiz—one who can recite the whole Koran from memory. His instructor’s charge still rang in his ears, “America is the great Satan. Go forth from here and drive out the infidel occupiers, and God will sanctify you.”..

Under Commander Ron’s proactive implementation of the military’s policy of respect for local religious practices, Maseullah had begun to question aspects of his religious training and joined the Afghan Security Forces. When my assistant and I arrived in the Pesch Valley with a plan to employ local craftsmen to restore damaged and rundown mosques in villages that supported coalition efforts and invited Maseullah to be our special advisor, the idea of Americans as crusaders come to destroy Islam began to make even less sense to him...

One day, as I returned to Camp Blessing from a meeting with village elders about mosque reconstruction work, Maseullah jumped up to greet me from where he had been waiting at our dusty outdoor mess table next to the motor-pool yard. I had not seen him for some time.

He told me he had just returned from a trip to Pakistan to visit his old madrassa. He had hiked 40 miles through some of the most dangerous territory in the world to see his former teachers. Much of the ideological fuel sustaining the terrorists continued to pump out of the same sort of place Maseullah had gone back to.

He told me that in Pakistan he had sat down with his teachers. “I am working with the Americans,” he confided. “They have supported me as chaplain over the Afghan Security Forces in my valley, and we are doing great things together. They are not the crusaders you said they were.”

His astonished teachers replied to his tale, “We don’t believe you, Maseullah. Surely you have been duped by their crafty deceptions. All Americans do is try to destroy Islam.”

“Then why are they restoring mosques all over my valley, and why are they allowing me to make sure my soldiers pray five times a day?”

“Surely none of this is true, Maseullah,” they insisted. “You must be joking with us.”

“No, I am not joking. Come see with your own eyes. Come to my valley and see it dotted with the newly painted minarets the Americans have helped us restore. With respect, you were wrong about them.”...

“You see, Chaplain, whether I live or die is no matter. I will die when I die, and I hope to die while doing what is right—regardless of the dangers. It is all in God’s hands. We are working together, you and I—a Muslim and a Christian working together to conquer those who don’t like the idea of a Muslim and a Christian as friends here in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world. If God wills, we will prevail, so we need not fear.”

I want to add this thought: it was easy for the "greatest generation" of WWII soldiers to be hailed as heroes when the entire country was behind them. It is far more challenging for the soldiers of today to do so when the U.S. is split at home, and some Americans profess to despise your actions because they despise the very idea of America fighting a noble war.

Truly, men like yourself are the "greatest generation" of soldiers we have yet seen in the United States. The third stanza of America the Beautiful is floating through my mind; did the author forsee today's conflict?

Oh beautiful for heroes proved,
In liberating strife,
Who more than self the country loved,
And mercy more than life!

America, America,
May God thy gold refine,
‘Til all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Lebanon: The Missing Ingredients

I keep thinking of Charles Malik's post from late last year:

A core problem, and one of the reasons why Shia are so dead set against 14 March and support Hezbollah even though they don't support their entire agenda, is because of the sectarianism, classism, and tribalism of the 14 March parties. Sure, the Democratic Left is non-sectarian, but Future, the PSP, and the LF - the power 3 - carry the sectarian battle standards high and make no effort at winning the support of Shia on the ground. Despite popular opinion, the Shia are not driven solely by edicts from leaders.

I find it striking that none of you March 14 guys has anything to offer the Shia (as represented by Lover/Romeo in the previous two threads). What do Hezbollah supporters have to look forward to if they give up on Hezbollah? Will it be charges of exile and treachery, followed by fleeing abroad, as happened to the SLA? Will Sabra and Shatila occur in Shia communities? Everyone knows Hezbollah did nasty things during the last war, and the enmities of the civil war bubble just under the surface.

Is it too much to ask M14 to provide some sort of reassurance or program for the Shia so they can be comfortable with a disarmed Hezbollah? Maybe amnesty and a South African-style truth-and-reconcilation commission? Apparently it is too much to ask. This seems to guarantee that Lebanon is heading for a train crash.

However, I deem that striking a middle course right now is tantamount to asking for assassination. Whoever is propping Hezbollah with targeted assassinations certainly doesn't want anyone else to appeal to the loyalty of its captive population.

So what can be done? As near as I can figure, the thing to do is to ride it out until the next prez is elected, or executive authority by default passes to the cabinet. At that point, the executive must do a very un-Lebanese thing: he/they must act immediately and exercise their authority to the fullest possible extent immediately, without negotiations with the other side. Anything less and the new prez will soon become another martyr, but with matters in abeyance until (and if) a new executive can be selected. The president may still become a martyr, but if he exercises his authority before he is murdered - say by appointing new Army commanders, kicking out offensive "diplomats", etc. - he may make it much harder for Lebanon's enemies to kill his successor.

Bad Vilbel:


"Us March 14 supporters" (as you call us), DO have something to offer the shia: A sovereign, independent, democratic state. Where their voices would be equal to those of other Lebanese. A state where the rule of law applies to all: Shia and non-Shia alike. A state where everyone's loyalty is to Lebanon, first and foremost. Not Iranian mullahs, Syrian presidents or Saudi Kings. A stable and peaceful state, where they can turn their attentions to jobs, families, education, rather than being obsessed with fighting Israel or whatever other bogeyman they're told to focus on.

Does the entire M14 leadership get that? Probably not.
Does the shia population actually WANT that? I am not entirely sure.

BV, if I was a Shia, that might not be enough. I would wonder: once we have a law-and-order society, will I be punished for all the "bad" things I did for Hezbollah? If not, I might as well support Hezbollah to the very end, because the chance of me or my family losing property or life might be less.

I think an applicable historical comparison here is the Soviet Union. Even after Stalin was dead, tyranny remained, for just about all his henchmen had the blood of innocents on their hands. Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared and that freaked everyone out, and they recoiled from facing themselves, fearing they, too, would be strung up on lamp-posts.

The South Africans had a much more sensible approach, with their truth commissions and very selective prosecutions. All that was part of the negotiation process that led to full democracy. The South Africans are available for consultation, and I understand they have been a major influence upon the Irish peace process.

Justice, as much as we desire it, must be tempered with mercy, lest greater injustices result. Nor is justice always a matter of fair and equal treatment for everybody at all times and places. These are the missing ingredients of the Lebanese political debate.


I don't think you grasp how things work in Lebanon. I can't for the life of me imagine anyone "punishing" the Shia for supporting Hezbollah.

Just look at the post-civil-war era. Nothing changed. Did anyone punish the LF? The Druze? or any of the other factions or sides involved in the civil war? Not at all.
They all got rewarded for agreeing to stop fighting (except Geagea, but that's a different matter, and that was teh Syrians, not other Leb factions).

Lebanon doesn't work anything like the Soviet Union or South Africa. Trust me.

And i have to parrot Ghassan's endless comments here: If a stable, loyal and democratic state is NOT enough for the Shia community, then I don't think they (or anyone else with similar agendas that are in complete contradiction to the idea of Lebanon) can be offered anything by anyone.

I mean, you can only offer something to someone if it's in the general ballpark of what they're interested in. You guys in Israel can offer a peaceful and stable and independent Palestinian state to those Palestinians who are amenable to peace. Right?
But can you offer a peaceful stable and independent state to those who refuse your right to exist, for example? Does offering a sovereign state make sense to someone who's shouting about throwing you into the sea?

I think you understand my point.



A agree with your approach in principle, but the Lebanese have proven too immature for your suggestions. We had the Amnesty Law after the civil war, and it became absurd everytime something happened and folks got arrested and the usual solution from some pols was to extend the date of the amnesty law. I don't recall the specific incident, but 3 years ago or so the way to help heal after some kids demonstrated and were arrested (someone help me out here) was to say, "How about we make the amnesty law that forgave all crimes through 1991 go through 2003 so we can get these kids out of jail." The absurdity of that idea is beaten only by Lebanon's creed of No Victor/No Vanquished.

Again, I don't disagree with you. It's just that everytime someone has a good idea for a problem, we say, "Yeah, but in Lebanon we can't because..."

"I can't for the life of me imagine anyone "punishing" the Shia for supporting Hezbollah."

That's probably because you are not a Hezbolli who has to rationalize in his heart why his sectarian group has weapons whereas the others do not. You are asking him to give up weapons that if they don't protect him much from Israel, at least protect him from addressing any accusations leveled by non-Hezbollah Lebanese.

"Lebanon doesn't work anything like the Soviet Union or South Africa"

Probably the best historical analogy is the England of King Alfred: a small country split into many different ethno-sectarian factions, the power of each varying with the degree of foreign support to its fighters, and threatened by periodic invasions to boot. Sound familiar?

"A agree with your approach in principle, but...we had the Amnesty Law after the civil war, and it became absurd...the usual solution from some pols was to extend the date"

Then why not try again? Now you know one thing that shouldn't be done the next time. I'm not recommending specifics here, yet one of King Alfred's strangest stratagems was the repeated conquest, pardon, and conversion of his defeated enemies, even when everyone knew it was a sham. A joke that survived over a millenium that I recall from Churchill's The Birth of Britain was of the experienced warrior who complained that the ceremonial alb wasn't as good in quality as those from his previous "conversions".

Alfred and his successors fought many battles, but Churchill maintains it was partly by turning the hearts of his enemies that he became known as "Alfred the Great".

Always, always beware reinforcing a key Lebanese weakness of character: the willingness to accept paralysis, trust blind hope, and do nothing, leaving your declared enemies free to maneuver unopposed. The short-term risk to the individual or group is lessened, yes, but at the cost of long-term well-being.