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03 June 2008

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m savoca

Col Lang, thanks for this outstanding report from Kieran Wanduragala. Appears that Assad is an intelligent and dynamic leader.

i read many years ago that he had told his father in no uncertain terms he was dis-interested in following in the footsteps of leadership thus his brother was groomed to follow their father.

then with Basil's untimely death, Bashar evidently, reluctantly agreed to come forth, (from England where he was a student?).

the apparent emotional instability of several other players in the arena is frightening

this post, (your entire blog for that matter) should be required reading at state department..(maybe it was already!)

Ajit

This report is one of the best I ever read on any region. I prefer this kind of reporting by people who knows the region, Language and are honest about what they say.

One can easily see the guy who wrote this report is intelligent and humane and honest about what he is talking about.

This is a million times better than being lectured by the morons in Corporate Media who don't know a thing about what they are talking about and care even less. I remember it was Katie Couric who blathered "Navy Seals Rock".

Curious

That is some ground reporting being posted at this block. Thank You.

----------

Anyway, it's still too early to say about president Obama. I will put it at around 50-60% likelihood. But by september/October we should know better.

Next month would be interesting. Any major attack preparation would start then. A single big ship showing up at wrong schedule, oil price will jump like crazy. ($123-ish, right now)

But my general sense, nobody in the mood for major war. Iranian blockade talk also isn't in the media. (They should have started doing it before Aug-Oct, attack right?)

Me, personally, the entire idea of Iran/Syria-Israel war is pure fantasy and waste of money. It won't change a thing meaningfully. Few dead people, that's it.

Adnan Husain

It is amazing that a delegation of Harvard students would have such access to political leaders in the Lebanon and Syria--how's that for US Empire? Having noted this, I want to thank Kieran Wanduralaga for a fascinating and insightful report--really astonishingly good and possible only as a result of thorough preparation and background knowledge, clearly. I would suggest writing this up in a more organized and analytical way as a short article on how the principals view the consequences of the Doha accord and perhaps developing further the collapsing influence of the Bush doctrine.

Marion

"I spoke with Tony at a conference this past weekend. He is concerned about an Israeli attack on Lebanon-Syria."--Clifford Kiracofe

After reading his piece, which started out good and than basically went into what I would call an anti-Hezbollah propaganda piece with no facts to back up all of his claims, I think Tony should be more concerned about his credibility....

While I really appreciated the insight the piece "A visit to the Levant" gave, I found it strange that it didn't cover interviews of important figures of the March 8th group such as Michel Aoun and Nabi Berri...

Why?

Charles I

Arbogast, where is this spanner you speak of.

Debkafile's top story today on the spannerist:

"Obama: The danger from Iran is real and my goal is to eliminate this threat"

The Big O just promised Israel another $30 Bn - chump change for your grandkids what with the tax cuts, the war, the rebate they'll be paying off - but there it is right out of the starting gate.

The only spanner I see is the one he tossed into the "peace process" - the immediate promise of an undivided Jerusalem.

Erekat is quoted at Debkafile characterizing the APIIC grovel as Obama "shutting the door on the peace process" Ditto Abbas: "we will never surrender Jerusalem"

I know Debkafile is a bit over the top in their breathless, urgent pronouncements (my favourite is a constant theme: ". . . and the military may have to act if the government is too distracted to deal with this urgent threat. . .harumph ) and scoops, but how does any of that forgo any adventure?

January 20th is a long way away. I'm sorry to say "yeah what Paul said" re ignorance. Obama may be eaten alive for all we know, it seems fairly easy to manipulate the public with the grossest of lies and delusional imperatives. Rich must have tax cuts while poor pay for war as the constitution is pissed on for good measure.

Until the disencumbered New Day Paul predicts above, America is in it hook line and sinker.It is a long way from "rage" over gasoline and endless political bullshit - even rape - to overthrowing the present order. Electronic voting, demonstably effortlessly hacked(when it works, that is) is sold as a hanging chad cure-all while a court endorses voter disenfranchisement, er, I mean, voter ID.

Until somebopdy says Hmmm, Iran is pretty far away, and far from deliverable capability, Israel looks pretty bulletproof, maybe we should try a new tack, give all that aid to the Pals until Israel sues for peace, might not take 60 more years. Or spend it on healthcare, New Orleans or some other folly. Let them kill each each other, as Paul suggests,they gotta sell the gas to get the big guns anyway.

But no, its sickening to hear the obeisient mantra, even if its mandatory tribute to a noisy and greedy censor, the're both on the news just now.

Kieran

Thank you all for your kind comments. Posting the story here was the least I could do after so many years profitably lurking.

The Obama issue is one with which I am still grappling. His speech to AIPAC today left no doubt that he is no foe of the 'new Middle East' or whatever you wish to call the agenda pursued over the last 7 years. However there is a difference between failing to oppose something and positively working for it. My perception is that he is not positively working for it.

Could this difference matter at a moment when the project looks precarious both strategically and domestically? The project seems to require some offensive action to sustain it. A period of benign neglect may see it collapse. To put it another way, I have a feeling that so much of present US involvement in the ME involves deception (of others and our own population), willful refusal to deal with rational actors, and the exploitation of a particular set of political networks, that a solidly pro-Israel but relatively straightforward President would catalyze major changes in policy.

Returning to the question as to why Obama may be going along with the tough rhetoric, there are a few possibilities. He may truly believe the rhetoric. Or he may have some bold new foreign policy ideas but think they cannot win him the election. Alternatively he may have no particular ideas on foreign policy, willing to be carried by the current. My money is on the last of these options. Unfortunately, that will make him easy to 'lock in' to the project with an escalation in the next few months.

Keep in mind that an event like an Israeli strike on Iran or US-Iran conflict, even if limited in scope, is likely to severely damage Obama. He will be caught between the need to appear tough and pro-Israel on the one hand and his antiwar base on the other. As this would hardly be an issue about which he could be ambiguous, it is likely that he would lose a chunk of his supporters no matter what. McCain supporters would rally.

Cieran

Kieran:

Excellent work! Excellent name, too!

Mike Adams

I could read 20 Mainstream Media articles and not get this much information.

zanzibar

Now that each of the Presidential candidates, Olmert, etc have paid homage at the AIPAC shrine I am convinced there is no "change" coming.

Neo-conism is too deeply embedded in the American political landscape.

This means that Bush and Cheney and Olmert get to have their last fling with shiny objects and fireworks. McCain will then try and squeeze Obama into the triangulation vice. I am afraid Mr. Change will get caught in the sticky trap of same story different cover.

JE

Thank you Mr. Lang for posting the letter, and thank you Kieran for writing it.

I have a question to Kieran. Why did you not visit General Michel Aoun who has the largest support within the Christian community and has made an understanding with Hezbollah?

Kieran

Alex

What I found absurd about the ‘Swiss model’ proposed was that, as far as I understood, it would involve basically dismantling Hezbollah’s militia and taking away their heavy arms while ensuring that every male citizen had a gun. I don’t think Lebanese would have fought very successfully in 2006 without rockets, mines, AT weapons, C4I, training, and esprit de corps. If you are allowing them to keep all that - well then, what is the difference from the present situation? The only solution that I can see is a state military that does what Hezbollah can do (perhaps incorporating some of its elements) in terms of resistance and deterrence, plus air defenses, while following the legitimate chain of command. This is exactly what Gemayel was refusing to address.

david

Thank you for highlighting that important perspective on Lebanese politics. It is certainly true that the bottom line for these people is their position on the ground in Lebanon - politics is local in that sense.

However, I don’t agree that the parties’ external alliances are ephemeral and insignificant - I think that is a caricature of sorts that Lebanese history does not actually justify. Look at how long some of these relationships have been in place: Hezbollah has been with the Iranians since 1982, Amal with the Syrians for even longer, Geagea and Gemayel with various Western powers for a similar length of time. True, people like Aoun and especially Jumblatt appear to have successfully navigated shifts. Aoun’s switch came after a 15 year absence from the political scene and at a tumultuous time in Lebanon. Jumblatt’s case should be seen in the context of a wider power struggle in both Lebanon and Syria between Khaddam, Kanaan, Shihabi, and Hariri (the ‘Lebanon wing’ of the Syrian regime, if you like) and the Assads.

Without committed and powerful allies one lacks finance, weapons, and diplomatic support without which one’s local position will fast be undermined. Perhaps some of this is not always visible. I don’t believe that the ‘local politics’ you refer to is autonomous or sustainable, as though it were the usual old village politics with the benefit of some occasional manna from clueless foreigners. This ‘local politics’, murky and parochial as it seems, is still very much a product of external powers and their struggles, and as such the players in Lebanon have to watch those powers and struggles very closely. Their bets on these issues and obvious preoccupation with them are not just hot air for the benefit of visiting Westerners but matters of life and death (truly!) for them. Look at the number of high profile assassinations in Lebanon over the past few decades. How many do you imagine were homegrown?

The fact that players in Lebanon may be expecting a strike on Iran does not mean it is going to happen. But those who have placed bets on that basis will have hell to pay if the alternative scenario of collapsing US power in the region transpires (and I have come to think that the choice is coming or being pushed to such a duality.)

Marion

We were originally scheduled to meet with both Aoun and Berri. However, the chaos in Lebanon, the negotiations in Doha, and the subsequent politicking threw a spanner in the works. I am not one of the organizers so I can’t tell you definitively, but I understand that the two of them (particularly Aoun) were not very flexible with scheduling.

All

I have been thinking about the contours of a possible US/Israeli war with Iran. It occurs to me that both sides may be able to keep the violence from escalating too far, accomplishing a kind of negotiation through violence - you lose your nuclear sites, we start heading for the exit in Iraq.

I have also been thinking about the consequences of no US/Israeli strike. My take thus far has been that US power in the region would decline precipitously. Bush and Cheney are holding things together because everyone worries they might be crazy enough to push the button. People are not going to feel the same way about Obama, and the fear that is now keeping Iran and co. in line (and the trust that is keeping Israel/the Gulf on board) will dissipate.

Clifford Kiracofe

Marion,

At the conference, Tony's presentation was focused more on a general assessment of the regional situation with some critique of US policy in the area rather than Lebanon specifically. The danger for war, Israel attack scenario, was highlighted.

The information presented on Hizbullah in the Sullivan piece, irrespective of any slant one way or the other, indicates the powerful capabilities, sophistication, and effectiveness of the organization. To me, this ties into Kieran's observations on the ground and helps make the case that the US should engage Hizbullah (and Aoun) rather than attempt to isolate them (and the Opposition). I think Col. Augustus Richard Norton's new book on Hizbullah is quite useful for overall context.

Per Aoun, I found the recent interview with him in L'Orient Le Jour (thanks to Friday Lunch Club posting) revealing. Particularly Aoun's revelation that US Ambassador Feltman "offered" him the presidency if he would break with Hizbullah.

Kieran,

How do you assess General Aoun and the March 8 opposition coalition?

Jean

Great account of your meetings with different politicians, thank you for sharing it with everyone!

I however have a question about your trip: how come you did not meet with General Michel Aoun, Geagea's archrival on the christian scene in Lebanon? His insight on the situation would have been really interesting given his current alliances and stances about Lebanese and foreign politics, and given that he was one of the main architects of the Doha agreement.

david

Kiernan,

Thanks for your response (again astute). In some ways, I was merely trying to 'temper' the ever constant need to see all things Lebanon as a function of regional power plays (so in some ways, my comment was directed to some of the commenters here rather than you). Part of this effort on my part stems from my sense that US policy in Lebanon is often a lost cause because it refuses to account adequately for the domestic motivations of the parties.

I do not for a second discount the importance of external parties, but I would insist that all alliances (domestic, regional and international) be viewed as transactional in nature. Perhaps 'ephemeral' was a poor word choice, but I believe that all of these 'alliances' must be seen as 'transactions' located in their particular context, which like any marketplace evolves and changes over time due to the interaction of endogenous and exogenous factors. Even HA's relationship with Iran is very contextual and subject to political contingencies and some of that reality is lost if one only considers them 'allies' moving in lockstep or allows the political rhetoric to obscure the political economy of the relationship, which is a more complex affair.

To flesh this out a bit in another context as I am not privy to the fleshy details of the HA-Iranian 'alliance,' consider the M14 coalition. Its cohesiveness as a political faction is very much a function of external benefactors, but its weakness stems from its own divisions, which are a (largely) a function of domestic realities. Thus its constituent parts come together for a transaction they see beneficial, but other transactions are impossible due to fundamental antagonisms within its moving parts. They are 'allies' in an extended anti-Syrian information operation, but there is little else to their political agenda. Indeed when pushed by the US decision to twin the removal of the Syrian presence with HA weapons, the coalition fell apart, quite literally on the streets of Beirut. If some exogenous force alters the dynamics of the market place (an attack on Iran), M14 may or may not be able to agree to a further transactions, but that to me is idle speculation as the Lebanese are quite good at rearranging the deck chairs when need be.

Similarly, the Syrian role in Lebanon is often subject to gross distortion by simplifying the matter. Even the loudest anti-Syrian barkers in the M14 coalition have maintained ties to elements in the Syrian regime or circles of influence in Syria. Close family ties and business relationships often survive the political calamities of the day. Indeed, the Israelis probably failed in Lebanon because they did not marry in, metaphorically speaking, to Lebanese scene (for some obvious reasons).

Am I trading in cliches with respect to Lebanon or dabbling awkwardly in the good Col.'s least favorite science? Yes, to a certain extent (merchant republic, etc.), but it is only an effort to provide an additional (and necessary in my book) analytical perspective to understand the Lebanese scene. To answer your question and provide an example, consider assassinations in Lebanon. When they happen, I begin a five-step analysis: personal, local, national, regional, international. And then when I am done, I reverse the order to see what I have missed, and then apply Occam's razor to the more unsightly possibilities.

Anyway before this gets to long, let me say I agree with you in the main and applaud your insights. Again, well done.

Jay McAnally

Once again, thanks for a hugely insightful piece of reporting.

Clifford Kiracofe

<..."paid homage at the AIPAC shrine I am convinced there is no "change" coming.">

Zanzibar makes a realistic point. What the American people want in terms of foreign policy is not relevant to the political elite. The elite sees its role as providing foreign policy "leadership" for the masses.

The signficant issue is the foreign policy of the dominant political elite in this country as expressed through the White House and Congress. This is what the outside world must contend with.

Obama's public statements on Israel, and on what his policy will be, have not varied significantly from Clinton's or McCain's. The world, particularly the Arab and Islamic worlds, no doubt will draw the conclusion that it will be business as usual inside the Beltway with no changes in the Israeli-American "strategic" partnership/alliance/axis or whatever.

One could posit more of the same for the next 4 years with McCain and sort of more of the same with Obama. Thus, by 2012, this republic will be in a bigger pickle than at present. Perhaps if the situation then is catastrophic enough in terms of body counts, price of crude and refined hydrocarbons, US economic downturn (stagflation or whatever) some changes might be possible. Or maybe by 2016.

The establishment foreign policy consensus for the next Administration, whichever, seems to be embodied in the Princeton Project for National Security headed by George Shultz and Tony Lake. Its reports were online for a while. McCain's "League of Democracies" outside the UN was one of their ideas, for example. Sort of warmed over British Liberal Imperialism of the 19th and early 20th century. Some "bi-partisan consensus."

jon

Thank you Kieran for some great and timely reporting. In a remarkably efficient post you've been able to convey the essence, nuance and dimension of some of the region's key players, far better than we have been served by our professional media.

My take away from this is that the US and it's allies are in some disarray, and rather unfocused and half hearted in their efforts. Also, that Lebanon is gathering itself together and sintering itself back together with a fair amount of success.

I was a little surprised at your reaction to people's point of view in the Palestinian refugee camp. Their passion and desire to return to their former homes seems entirely reasonable.

Your conclusions, however, don't seem to flow from the body of your report, particularly in terms of US policy and actions.

Also, any new US president will be probes and tested by other nations generally. It's not just about Iran or other adversaries. Obama doesn't project strength in the way that McCain does, but he might also be less brittle, more resilient and nimble, and more clever in strategy and negotiation. Obama is ultimately a center-right Democrat, cut from the same cloth as Hillary. Don't mistake him for a lost ing the '60's, wooly headed sociology prof.

frank durkee

As one who has done it, let me point out that any one who actually is able to organize a portion of a community to produce change that engages the full spectum of the power in that community has to be a deep realist. Has to be thoughtful, and has to be able to have a genuine sense of the possible [ not the usual ], a steady nerve and the capacity to generate both trust and enable others to be clear about their self interest. Obama has done that and I see clear signs of it in his campaign so far. He is not perfect by any means and he is probably more different than many of us either recognize and/or wish to acknowledge. The difference is not rhetorical so much as of temprament and modes of action. He may lose but he did take down one of the premier establishment political organizations of our time. I would suggest that he not be underestimated.

sophia

The author should work in the lebanese press - this is a perfect example of the mondanite-type of coverage, packed with the yawn-provoking cliches: appearance over substance, little historical perspective and absolutely no analytical skills.

Youssef Haddad

Did Kieran and his friends ask Bashar, the dictator, about his jails full of prisoners of conscience?
Instead of admiring Hezbollah's "reconstruction" efforts did they ask the party's leaders why they could trigger a devastating war at will in a sovereign nation?
Did they know that Hezbollah's mission statement includes a clause for turning Lebanon into an Islamic state if the "majority wants to do so"? Would they wish for Lebanon to become a mini Iran?
These young people should be the first to expose the criminal beliefs and actions of the Syrian regime and of the Iranian Hezbollah instead of trying to find the silver lining in their evilness.
Regretfully, another bunch of well meaning Americans have been manipulated by the well prepared public relations machines of a dictator and a totalitarian party.

Kieran

david

I agree with your basic perspective. The transactional nature of alliances is something I will have to think carefully about (the nature of the transaction is sometimes opaque.)

I think we probably disagree slightly as to how simple rearranging the deck chairs is going to be for some of these M14 people. There could be a very bitter climate with different people jumping ship at different times.

jon

You're quite right. I didn't write this as analysis, just as a snapshot of my impressions.

Kieran

Youssef, I find your lack of faith...disturbing. You think we were manipulated by 'well prepared PR'? The PR machines of Syria and Hezbollah do not compare to those of the March 14 people, as you would have understood had you read the article properly. I have some Hezbollah leaflets to hand at the moment. They would be genuinely comic if they were not so sad.

Of course we asked about those things. We interrogated Bashar about Michel Kilo in particular, and a great deal if not the majority of the conversation with Hezbollah revolved around the issue of their weapons. However, you don't establish much by going into a conversation hoping to establish the other party's "evilness".

Regarding Hezbollah and the Islamic State, that is a canard. The Higher Shia Council has rejected it. Nasrallah himself has said it would take 'not just a majority, but an overwhelming majority.' Hezbollah clearly and publicly recognizes an Islamic State as an unrealistic goal.

Rex Brynen

Great trip report, Kieran (and thanks, Pat, for posting it)

harper

Kieran, Just curious: Did you not meet with Aoun or his people? If not, I am curious why not? Seems this would have been a useful addition to your picture, and would have added one further note to an excellent tour d'horizon. Thanks.

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