August 15, 2009

Israel, Deterred?

Cheering Supporters of Hizbullah

"We do not seek a war, and we are not afraid, but it may well be that Israel wants a war (with Lebanon) of which it is frightened." This sums up the message of Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in his speech on August 14th marking the third anniversary of the exit of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon. Nasrallah gave a typical crowd-rousing speech; but his charisma to the Arab public is not a surprise. His counter-threats are. For a few weeks, Israeli officials, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, issued various threats against Hizbullah and Lebanon. They warned primeminister-elect Sa'd El-Hariri of including the Shi'a party in a national unity government, or else all of Lebanon's infrastructure will be fair game in a prospective war. Tel Aviv's hawkish rhetoric seemed to emanate, in part, from growing concern over Hizbullah's expanding armaments.

Nasrallah analyzed the situation differently, however. He claimed Israel wanted primarily to hamper the formation of the national unity government in Beirut by renewing internal controversy regarding the role of Hizbullah in Lebanon. Israel, according to Nasrallah, also wished to modify the mandate of the UNIFIL forces, so they can actively intercept the movement and operations of Hizbullah personnel and arms. On both accounts, Tel Aviv was disappointed. First, the controversy over Hizbullah's strategic posture in Lebanon does not appear to be an overriding concern for the March 14th bloc any more. They may have come to accept it as a fait accompli. Nasrallah shrewdly capitalized on that by reinforcing the concept of a new Lebanese national security that comprises both a strong national army, and the irregular guerrillas of Hizbullah. Even more significantly, representatives of virtually all Lebanese parties (ruling and opposition)and the Presidency attended Hizbullah's "Divine Victory" ceremony. It was especially telling to see Taymour Junblat, son of Druze Leader Walid Junblat (recently defected from March 14th) among the seated VIPs.

Perhaps last night's most important statements were the warnings that Tel Aviv will be bombed, should Israel target Beirut or its Southern Suburbs (Shi'a neighborhood considered Hizbullah's stronghold), and that the "Resistance's" missile can now reach any point on Israeli proper. Nasrallah went further to promise the Israeli Defense Forces a crushing defeat and a lot of "surprises", should they venture once more into Lebanon's south. All of this fiery rhetoric comes at the backdrop of intense speculation of Hizubllah's possession of high-precision missiles capable of carrying heavy war heads (600 kilograms of explosives), anti-air craft batteries and anti-ship guided missiles.

It may remain a mystery whether the Lebanese militia does in fact hold such advanced weaponry (their arms' sophistication exceeded most analysts' expectations in 2006). One thing is clear, however, Israel will think twice before marching into Lebanon. Israel's stated aim of war in 2006 to root out the "Islamic Resistance" from Southern Lebanon looks more distant than ever in 2009. More ominously for Tel Aviv, Israel's entire population is now at risk, as well as all of its industries. Hizbullah's strategic posture is unprecedented insofar that this is the first time, since its inception that Israel's home turf may suffer significant damages and losses. It used to be the case that Arab-Israeli wars were fought on Arab lands, and civilian casualties most confined to those of Arabs. This may no longer be the case.

August 9, 2009

The Irony of American History

I had the good fortune of reading a book praised by Dr. Andrew Bacevich as the "most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy." The Irony of American History is a book that does not fit neatly into a single genre. It is a work of philosophy, theology, foreign policy analysis, international relations theory and sociology written in impeccable prose. Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian, professor and writer, can be described as the founder of Christian Realism. Christian Realism is a conceptual framework which pursues a clear-eyed comprehension of world events, and principally recommends a humble approach to international relations and history.

The genius of Niebuhr's book rests less with its multi-disciplinary postulations, as impressive as those are, and more with its vision of man, the state and history. To Niebuhr, the individual human is virtually mystic by definition. Scientific and ideological approaches claiming to interpret/predict his/her behavior are bound to err. He laments the fact that "the realm of freedom which allows the individual to make his decisions within, above and beyond the pressure of causal sequences is beyond the realm of scientific analysis." Modern culture's tendency to behaviorize man prompts some to endeavor to manage human nature itself.

Attempts to manage human nature engender delusions about managing history as well. In the author's words, "[m]odern man's confidence in his power over historical destiny prompted the rejection of every older conception of an overruling providence in history. Modern man's confidence in his virtue caused an equally unequivocal rejection of the Christina idea of ambiguity of human virtue. In the liberal world the evils in human nature and history were ascribed to social institutions or to ignorance or to some other manageable defect in human nature or environment." It follows from this reasoning that human nature and history are improvable. Such a task, Niebuhr would argue, is a fool's errand. The irony is we are as guilty as our foes of that charge. The irony is also glaring in the contradiction between preaching and practice. In Niebuhr's era, for example, the Communists sought to establish a just, free and classless society that would eventually supplant the state through a coercive totalitarian state. The United States, furthermore, was (and is) the vanguard of free liberal nations through the most powerful army in the world. The former failed to found such a community, and the latter sacrificed a lot of its liberty.

The Irony of American History, Bacevich contends, contains four compelling "truths." These are the "persistent sin of American Exceptionalism, the indecipherability of history, the false allure of simple solutions, and, finally, the imperative of appreciating the limits of power." First, the idea that whatever America does must, in essence, be virtuous and right is derived from the way the national myth was devised. Niebuhr explicates America was, in many ways, the new Israel of the chosen people, or rather people who chose to discard the "vices of Europe" and start afresh "in a corrupt world." Washington's emergence as the zenith of world power after World War II did not seem to alter the way Americans perceive their providentially-favored country. Niebuhr himself does not cringe from using such terms as "imperialism" and "hegemony" to describe America's superpower status. In the Niebuhrian paradigm, there is no room for terms like "reluctant intervention" or good vs. evil. Virtue is a lot more ambiguous than we are likely to confess.

Second, the forces of history are far greater than our oft-misguided attempts to manipulate its outcome. These forces are virtually impossible to quantify or neatly delineate. Niebuhr decries that "[m]odern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management." He further admonishes that even superpowers are "caught in a web of history in which many desires, hopes, wills, and ambitions other than their own are operative." Also, "the recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning." The unfortunate example of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq comes to mind. All the arms and contractors of the world's sole superpower failed to render Iraq the type of a safe democratic nation, Washington may have envisioned. This points ties to the following "truths;" power, particularly its military component, is less efficacious (and less desirable) than we may think. Niebuhr advised equilibrium rather than coercive change. The nation's leader must find the common areas where national and international interests meet, not diverge. This is the "art of statecraft." He finally recommends "a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of [history's] perplexities."

So what is so ironic about America's history? I'll leave you with Niebuhr's definition of irony, and it'll probably make you reflect on our nation's history. "Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous…If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits—in all such cases the situation is ironic." Niebuhr is correct about the irony inherent in these situations, but the irony is universal to all great powers, not merely America.


* Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

August 5, 2009

Between a Rock and a Hard Place!

Abbass Overshadowed by Arafat!

On its second annual conference this week in Bethlehem, Fatah has no good options. It is squeezed between an occupation that demands that Palestinian territories be pacified and neutralized, and a populace skeptical of the Palestinian Authority's relationship with Washington and Tel Aviv. This “paradox of representation,” as Political Scientist Tamim Al-Barghouti coins it, came to the fore with Abbass’ takeover of power in Ramallah.

Arafat, the main founders of Fatah/ the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), spent much of his time in Ramallah balancing between the two opposites, however unsuccessfully. He signed several peace agreements, intermittently cracked down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, and offered major concessions regarding Palestinian "rights" to historical Palestine. On the other hand, he aided and funded Fatah's militia "Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades," turned down the Camp David Agreement (for arguably good reasons) and turned a blind eye to the eruption of Al Aqsa Intifada. The promise of establishing an independent Palestinian state was the foundation of his regime’s popularity, and for that he was, in effect, parachuted back to the Palestinian Territories from his Tunisian exile. His reign ended in besiegement, destruction of West Bank infrastructure and an ongoing occupation.

Since Arafat's death, Fatah has opted for better relations with America and Israel, even when a peace agreement could not be any further. Fatah consistently refused to join hands with the Gaza-based Hamas government, arrested Hamas militants in the West Bank, all but ended Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades’ operations and launched numerous unsuccessful talks with Israeli officials. Seeing no material improvement in their living conditions, let alone a cessation of the Israeli occupation, Palestinians predictably turned towards the "resistance" paradigm of Hamas.

In its annual conference, Fatah appears perplexed, irrelevant and weak. First, Hamas banned Fatah members from travelling to the West Bank to attend the conference (until Ramallah has released Hamas detainees). Second, Farouq Al-Qaddumy, a senior Fatah official in Tunis, launched an unexpected attack on President Abbass prior to the conference, in which he accused him (and Fatah tycoon, Mohammed Dahlan) of collaborating with the Israelis to poison Yasser Arafat. Qaddumi blasted the Palestinian President, furthermore, for being corrupt, and having his forces trained by U.S. General Keith Dayton. Qaddumi's words mirror the substantial disenfranchisement felt by Palestinian refugees, particularly those who are members of Fatah. Third, many Fatah members are dismayed with the appointment of the non-partisan Salam Fayyad, as head of the West Bank Palestinian government. This appointment denied them many of the benefits associated with running a government that relies financially on foreign aid. The discontent goes beyond Fayyad, to be sure. There is an old guard-new guard rivalry within Fatah, and, more significantly, there is disenchantment with Abbass' seemingly futile all-dialogue all-the-time approach towards Israel.

On its part, Hamas not only blocked Gazan Fathawis from travelling, but launched severe criticisms of its rival in the West Bank. Most of the criticism, nonetheless, was directed at Abbass who was accused of abandoning the "Palestinian national project... and national goals." Fawzi Barhoum, senior Hamas official, claimed Fatah assisted Israel in its recent war on Gaza. Abbass had, in fact, attacked Hamas on the conference's first day, accusing it of "darkness and terrorism" as well as plotting to assassinate him. Fatah’s predicament is Palestinians are more likely to find more truth in Hamas’ accusations of Abbass than the other way around.

The overarching question the Palestinian President (whose constitutional term in office ended last January) had to answer in the conference is: what is the future of the national liberation movement of Palestine? On that, his answer, for many Palestinians, left a lot to be desired. Abbass emphasized principally diplomacy, and, to a lesser extent, the exclusive concept of "legitimate" resistance. The foregoing concept is unlikely to find much popular backing, as they have come to see the West Bank government forces, as instruments to crack down on the classical resistance model of “armed struggle.” The President’s outspoken attack on Hamas, and implicitly other militants, reveals Abbass' desire to mend his own fences before solidifying a united national front. To be sure, a Fatah divided house cannot make peace with Hamas. Nevertheless, Abbass sounded more like a partisan figure than a national leader. This does not bode well either for the future of Fatah or that of the seemingly endless Cairo reconciliation talks with Hamas.

During the Gaza war, Tel Aviv and Washington quickly realized the full extent of Fatah's irrelevance. Hamas was calling the shots. Fatah could not be relied on to topple Hamas, or even assume power, if Israel did the job. If Israel wants a solution to the missile crisis in Gaza, it must negotiate with the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. After the conference ends, Fatah would be as irrelevant as ever. It will continue to suffer the debilitating legitimacy crisis it has been experiencing, since Arafat’s death. The Palestinian electorate may not be so kind to Abbass’ party in the next parliamentary elections next year. If Fatah is to make gains, it seems it would be the fruit of Hamas’ own making.

Here is the full text of Abbass' conference speech.

August 1, 2009

America in Retrospect

John Quincy Adams

How can America’s foreign policy be assessed? This series of weekend blog entries contends that some of the best criteria against which Washington’s international relations could be judged have already been laid by the founders’ expectations and prescriptions. This week, we examine some writings and speeches by John Quincy Adams, Alexis De Tocqueville and James Monroe.

What has America done for the benefit of mankind? As odd as the question may sound, John Q. Adams found himself compelled to come up with an answer about two centuries ago. The inquiry, at the time, pertained to America’s very rationale for independence. European powers were interested in subjugating the erstwhile American colony. It is still now relevant insofar that we observe how much the United States conformed to or deviated from President Adams’ answer.

To Adams, America since its founding has extended a “hand of honest friendship, equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.” America has also defended equal liberty, equal justice and equal rights. More crucially, America, unlike the hitherto European states, respects the independence of other nations, abstains from “interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings.” “America is the champion and vindicator only of her own,” as she does not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”

President James Monroe delivered an equally unequivocal assertion regarding Washington’s intentions and policies. “It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparations for our defense.”On that very later point, De Tocqueville once noted that due to her geographic position and weak neighbors, America does not have much “foreign interests to discuss.”

The questions now are: 1) has America’s foreign policy lived up to Adams’ and Monroe’s expectations? If not, 2) did she reluctantly or willingly abandon those principles? Does Washington really lack foreign interests because of her unique geography? Finally, if we had to change course from what John Quincy Adams avowed were America’s benign policy, the original question remains unanswered: 3) what has America done for the benefit of mankind?