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Updated: 2016-10-25T00:00:00-04:00


Central Intelligence Arabists


America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, by Hugh Wilford, Basic Books, 342 pages, $29.99 At a time when intelligence services have come to play an outsized role in American foreign policy, Hugh Wilford's informative and highly enjoyable book America's Great Game imparts some especially important lessons. Wilford, a historian at Cal State Long Beach, explores the Central Intelligence Agency's actions in the Middle East in the 1950s and, to a far lesser extent, the 1960s. His focus is a group of officials who developed a yen for the Arab world, among them two of President Theodore Roosevelt's grandsons, Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt and Archie Roosevelt, as well as Miles Copeland, better known now as the father of rock drummer Stewart Copeland. This group's brief period of influence illustrates the limits of letting spies play a defining role in a country's diplomacy. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States greatly expanded its intelligence capabilities, establishing the CIA on the foundation of the wartime Office of Strategic Services. People such as the Roosevelts, elite figures who had engaged in intelligence work during the war and saw government service as a duty, became prime recruits for the new agency. At the same time, despite their backgrounds and traditional Anglophile streak, the intelligence men focusing on the Arab world tended to favor the emerging nationalism and anti-colonialism there. Wilford's principal contention is that the CIA was far more sympathetic to Arab concerns and hostile to Israel than was Congress and, at times, the White House. This would serve the U.S. well in Egypt during the years after the 1952 coup against King Farouk, when the CIA developed a close relationship with the Free Officers Movement led by the country's new dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Arabist tradition in the United States owed a lot to the educational and religious institutions founded by American missionaries in the Middle East in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The jewel in that effort's crown was the American University of Beirut, in which the families of several U.S. intelligence Arabists played a prominent role. How strange this sounds to someone like me, who entered American University in the early 1980s. By that time the CIA was anathema to most Americans supportive of Arab political causes, including a large number of missionaries. They viewed the agency as a place of dirty tricks-one facilitating the American tilt toward Israel-and would have cringed to learn (or be reminded of) the missionary-intelligence nexus that an earlier generation of their compatriots had established in the region. Most would also have been surprised to learn that, during the 1950s, the CIA funded an anti-Zionist organization called the American Friends of the Middle East. This group included anti-Zionist Jews from the American Council for Judaism, who, Wilford writes, "questioned Zionism's insistence on a distinct Jewish national identity, seeing it as a denial of their Americanism and an invitation to persecution by anti-Semites." The CIA's Arabists were motivated by a combination of factors. They were afraid that support for Israel would alienate the countries of the Arab world, with its vast and valuable oil reserves. They felt it was necessary, as the Cold War gained momentum, to be on the right side of a region in transformation. And they had compassion for the plight of Palestinians. The embrace of Nasser was both a high point for the Arabists' influence and the reason they were eventually marginalized. When he was named to head Egypt's Revolutionary Command Council in 1955, he had already been Egypt's effective leader for three years. In a honeymoon period from 1953 to 1955, the CIA held regular contacts with Nasser and his entourage, even arranging training for officers in Egypt's General Investigations Directorate, which helped the regime consolidate itself and repress its enemies. In 1953 and 1954, Kim Roosevelt, who at the time headed the Near East and [...]

Christopher Hitchens, Romantic


Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, Twelve, 816 pages, $30 When polemicist and author Christopher Hitchens died in December of esophageal cancer at age 62, many of those mourning his death used the occasion to tell us something meaningful about themselves. Hitchens, they reported, had played a major role in their efforts to define themselves politically, morally, and socially. Such disclosures, even when bordering on the maudlin, were apt. Hitchens transcended the relatively narrow boundaries for public intellectuals in the United States by transforming himself into a media phenomenon and inserting himself into the fabric of daily life and deliberation through all the means at his disposal. Here was a man equally at ease in the university lecture room and the debating hall, on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.  Hitchens cultivated a flamboyant persona. Like many men moved by ideas, he also had a weakness for style, and for the louche men of action with whom he frequently crossed paths. Yet ideas generally won out. If there are any doubts, Arguably, Hitchens’ last collection of articles, should dispel them.  Arguably will be the best remembered of the four compilations Hitchens published for its sheer size and topical breadth—but also because the collection is a memento mori. He knew when the volume came out that he was dying. The cover of the British edition is evocative. It shows Hitchens standing in his Washington, D.C., apartment, a Kurdish flag on his lapel. Behind and around him are the tools of his trade: filtered coffee on a tray at his feet, an aureole of books, reading glasses, a computer, and next to it a Panama hat to cover hair ravaged by chemotherapy. Hitchens, with an expression dour and bulldog-like, appears to be taunting his illness. And for more than a year after being diagnosed, he kept up that front.   There were many paradoxes in Hitchens, but three stand out in Arguably. The first is that this man of sharp angles and muscular opinions could understand half-tones while appreciating, and even seeking out, the charms of ambiguity. This sensibility, almost Mediterranean in nature, was appropriate for someone always drawn more to the human than to the institutional.  Take Hitchens’ essay on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the British writer Rebecca West’s posthumously famous book about Yugoslavia during the 1930s. Hitchens praises the work over its shortcomings, seeing in West an “ardent woman who manifested a nice paradoxical sympathy for the honor, bravery, and pageantry of the past, and for the apparently more modern ideas of socialism and self-determination.” This sympathy pushed West to champion Serb nationalists, who did not merit the approval, yet never blinded her to the perils of fascism.  West, as Hitchens wrote, “had stepped onto the perfect soil for one so quixotic.” It was a quixotism born partly of a turbulent love life, that of a woman “whose feminism was above all concerned with the respect for, and the preservation of, true masculinity.” How concise, and how astute to pursue that in the Yugoslav context, given the way that sexual violence came to define the savage conflict of the 1990s. Hitchens’ sense of the counterpoint lying underneath is apparent in passages on other cosmopolitans. Of Karl Marx he noted, “the genius of the old scribbler was to see how often the sheerly irrational intruded upon the material and utilitarian world of our great-grandfathers.” Modern-day Marxist determinists will fail to notice that fact, the consequence of Marx’s own material deficiencies, which compelled him to engage in hack journalism to feed his family. And what better way to describe French intellectual André Malraux, with sarcasm and esteem, than as “a sort of impresario of the left” at the time that he embarked on his “finest hour” in defending Spain’s Republicans? Hitchens’ taste for the equivocal notwithstanding, Arguably is peppered with calls to arms. That’s not surprisin[...]

The War in Libya and the 'Arab Spring'


As the fighting in Libya shows no signs of abating and protests spread from Egypt and Tunisia to Syria, Yemen, and beyond, what comes next for the ossified dictators and entrenched autocrats of the Arab world? And what, if any, role should the United States play in the uprisings? Reason asks journalists and Middle East experts to assess the past and future of the “Arab Spring."   Brendan O’Neill Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere? I think there are many reasons for the Arab Spring. One of the key reasons is the decommissioning over the past decade of the Palestinian national question. Everyone asks: What impact will the Arab Spring have on the Israel-Palestine issue? I think a more pertinent question is: What impact did the Israel-Palestine "peace process" have on the Arab world? It is impossible to overstate how reliant Arab dictators were on the unresolved Palestinian national question as a way of justifying their authoritarian rule and controlling their own people's aspirations. They effectively offset their own peoples' desires for self-determination through the Palestinian issue, justifying Arab authoritarianism and brute coherence as a necessity for the "grand showdown" over Palestine. It was deeply cynical...and it fell apart following the winding down of Palestinian nationalism. The lack of pro-Palestine placards on the Arab protests has been striking. This time people are fighting for themselves. Also, there is the sheer corrosion of these regimes. They are simply old and withered and they have a serious crisis of succession. As we can see in Gaddafi's sons, and in Mubarak's too, there is no obvious person for these creeps to hand power to. So the very age of their regimes became a problem. I think this explains both Mubarak's and Ben Ali's obsession with hair dye and Gadaffi's penchant for botox. It's cosmetic surgery as a way of disguising political and physical exhaustion. Also, the speed with which the authoritarian yet flimsy regime in Tunisia fell revealed to the Arab people that their rulers—bereft of their Palestinian cause, lacking legitimacy, old, decrepit, caked in make-up—could be relatively easily pushed aside. Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones? I think the uprisings will remain in the Arab world for the time being. There are many unique political and historical trends in the Arab world that have nurtured this domino-style spread of thirst for freedom. If it shakes things up in Syria and Jordan, then I think things could get really exciting and unpredictable (but in a good way). Bahrain is a key theatre of conflict too: a tiny country that not many people had heard of, yes, but the Saudis and the Americans are terrified of change there because of the impact it could have in its close neighbor and close political cousin, Saudi Arabia. Hence the Saudis have, with Washington's blessing, desperately sent an anti-uprising gaggle of cops and soldiers into Bahrain. What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold? No role. The U.S. should back off entirely, as should Britain, France, Italy, Denmark, and all the other nations currently trying to win a few PR political points by hurling missiles at Libya. The intervention of the West in Libya is a disaster. The Arab uprisings are inspiring, but they are spontaneous and incoherent; they lack leadership—and the Libya intervention potentially sends the message that the best way for these peoples to liberate themselves is by agitating for Western intervention on their behalf. However, that would turn liberatory uprisings into international conflicts, robbing the Arab peoples of the democratic [...]

Rough Ride in the Middle East


The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, by Lee Smith, Doubleday, 256 pages, $26 For years the tag line on Lee Smith’s articles said he was writing a book on Arab culture. Instead, the longtime journalist has just published The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, the title reflecting a less neutral, all-purpose approach toward a region he sought to discover after the 9/11 attacks. Smith’s book will not please those who view the Middle East’s subtleties with uncritical sympathy. The author eschews the obligatory attempt to reconcile the region’s values with the West’s, and refuses to blame the United States for the Arab world’s predicament. “September 11 is the day we woke up to find ourselves in the middle of a clash of Arab civilizations,” Smith writes, “a war that used American cities as yet another venue for Arabs to fight each other.” Smith, a friend I first met in Beirut in 2003, has written a bold and significant book that refreshingly rejects the conventional wisdom about the Middle East. It is somewhat contradictory, but in an instructive way. Smith doesn’t try to conceal his developing uncertainties as his narrative progresses, so that what may sometimes seem like inconsistency becomes an honest reflection of his growing realization that his initial hopefulness about the Middle East was unjustified. Ultimately he falls back on an unabashedly American reading of the Arab world that reflects well why the American public has soured on its government’s involvement there. Smith’s thesis that the United States is caught up in an Arab civil war is not new, but it is substantially correct. Mainstream American thinking, he writes, has mistakenly regarded the Arab world as “a monolithic body, made up of people of similar backgrounds and similar opinions.” This view, Smith believes, is disturbingly close to the Arab nationalist belief that “Arabs, by virtue of a shared language, constitute a separate and single people.” For Smith, Arab nationalism is a by-product of Sunni supremacy in the region, which the Sunni community has defended through violence “for close to fourteen hundred years.” Violence, he writes, is “just the central motif in a pattern that existed before Islam and is imprinted on all of the region’s social and political relations.” The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun viewed history as “a matter of one tribe, nation, or civilization dominating the others by force until it, too, is overthrown by force.” Smith calls this the “strong horse principle,” alluding to a quote from Osama bin Laden: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” Smith alighted in the Middle East unencumbered by the guilt that so many young foreigners seem to bring with them. That guilt, the result of a particular interpretation of Western colonialism, is often accompanied by an embrace of prevailing local attitudes. Smith, by contrast, didn’t come to the region in pursuit of a new identity. He came here to understand, as an American, why Arab extremists had murdered his countrymen. “It was hard not to take 9/11 personally,” he writes in his opening sentence. Some may think this line betrays an author whose conclusions were fixed before his journey began. A familiar description of Smith, doubling as an accusation, is that he is a neoconservative, with his dual perch as a writer for The Weekly Standard and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. Yet that label conceals the extent to which Smith approaches his topic as any liberal would: by moving to, and trying to communicate with, a world very different from his own, while retaining his own identity. At first glance Smith’s “strong horse” conceit smacks of reductionism, since Middle Eastern societies are far more complex than the formulation suggests. But the nuances mean little when the principal factors underlyi[...]

Their Audacity to Hope


To judge by the gush of many commentators, President Barack Obama can do no wrong in the Middle East—in contrast, it is said, to George W. Bush, who supposedly could do little that was right. But when it comes to advancing political liberty in the region, the current president has been more ambiguous than his predecessor. Take Mr. Obama's recent speech in Cairo, hailed as a foundational moment for a new American approach toward Arabs and Muslims. Mr. Obama uttered generalities about democracy and political liberty. Some of it was confusing. He admitted that Iraqis were "ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein," but he added that the Iraq war had shown why diplomacy and international consensus were preferable. Yet since neither diplomacy nor consensus would have ever rid the world of savage Baathist rule—which war did—what lesson did Iraq hold for American policy? Mr. Obama could not explain. Such confusion is not new. Indeed, the Cairo speech inadvertently captured a long-standing problem of U.S. policy in the Middle East: America's allies and interlocutors in the region are often autocrats sitting atop decaying, illegitimate regimes. Mr. Bush, to his credit, removed a mass murderer from power in Baghdad and helped end 29 years of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Mr. Obama has shied away from endorsing any such action: "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone," he insists. Joshua Muravchik has no qualms about presuming that liberalism and democracy are best for everyone. In The Next Founders he offers admiring profiles of seven individuals who have thought and behaved as liberals in Middle Eastern societies where that kind of thing can be dangerous. The result is a engaging work of group portraiture that is especially welcome at a time when there is otherwise so little interest in making democracy an American priority overseas. Mr. Muravchik believes that "there is no reason why the democratic idea cannot have a rebirth in the Middle East," where democracy has been "upstaged by the false promises of utopian ideologies." A democratic rebirth, he says, will depend on courageous individuals, and America's role must be to "encourage and assist them and to protect them from persecution to the extent that we can." With help, he believes, democracy can come to the Middle East within a generation. If it does, the democrats he writes about may be among the region's "founders." Such a scenario may seem simplistic in its optimism, but Mr. Muravchik has caught just how simple the essence of the democracy debate really is. When all it said and done, it is really about individuals who have the audacity to hope that they can break free from the oppressive institutions governing them and who expect that they can count on assistance from like-minded comrades in democratic countries. Mr. Muravchik introduces us to Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a female Saudi activist who has fought for women's rights in the kingdom against hopeless odds; and Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human-rights activist and journalist who has investigated Israeli human-rights abuses over the years but also the abuses of the Palestinian Authority. There is also Rola Dashti, who played a key role in helping Kuwaiti women earn the right to vote in 2005; and Mohsen Sazegara, an Iranian once close to Ayatollah Khomeini. He turned against the post-Revolution system when he headed a state-owned conglomerate, where he saw the inefficiencies of a command economy. He came to reject Iran's statist economic principles and then moved to a deeper embrace of liberal thought in general. All the democrats in Mr. Muravchik's narrative have been harassed or threatened by the governments they live under, or indeed pressured by members of their own families. What The Next Founders says, without saying it, is that at the heart of Middle Eastern despotisms are stunted societies that never create a sense of shared purpose for their citizens.[...]

Barack's Bitter Truth


Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has gotten much heat for suggesting that when people lose faith in Washington, they "end up voting on issues like guns and are they going to have the right to bear arms [and] gay marriage." How strange, then, that during his questioning last week of the two most senior American officials in Iraq, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama took a minimalist view of what America could do to help Iraqi citizens regain faith in their government. Instead, the Illinois senator lowered the criterion for American "success" in Iraq, declaring that he could live with "a messy, sloppy status quo" in the country. Obama's line of questioning was shrewd. With Petraeus he focused on al Qaeda, pushing the general to admit that the complete elimination of the group in Iraq was not necessary. Here's how Obama put it: "Our goal is not to hunt down and eliminate every single trace, but rather to create a manageable situation where they're not posing a threat to Iraq or using it as a base to launch attacks outside of Iraq. Is that accurate?" "That is exactly right," Petraeus replied. Obama then turned to Iran and questioned Crocker, the point man in the America-Iranian dialogue in Baghdad. As with Petraeus, Obama sought to lower the benchmark for what the United States should define as Iraqi "success." However, Crocker was less pliable. When Obama argued that it was unlikely that Iranian influence in Iraq could be terminated, Crocker responded: "[W]e have no problem with a good, constructive relationship between Iran and Iraq. The problem is with the Iranian strategy of backing extremist militia groups and sending in weapons and munitions that are used against Iraqis and against our own forces." Obama didn't offer a convincing rejoinder to Crocker's protest. Instead, his time almost up, he cut to the crux of the exchange: a summary of his position on the war for an electorate that, he knew, would be listening to his every word. Obama's views were best captured in this passage: And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi-sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years. If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like. As the Lebanese commentator Hussain Abdul-Hussain bitingly wrote: "Obama's description of a post-America Iraq looked pretty much like post-1991 Iraq under Saddam Hussein: a country 'struggling along' but that was no ‘threat to its neighbors' and was not 'an al Qaeda base.'" Indeed, but Obama was surely right in assuming that many Americans, perhaps a majority, have no problem with this. Saddam's brutality was never something they worried about. If you moved the goalposts a bit, Obama told them, failure would magically become success. The U.S. could head toward the exit in Iraq with its conscience clear. The difficulty with Obama's appraisal was not just that it was based on a selective reading of the situation in Iraq, so that his assertion of how the U.S. had to realistically accept continued Iranian influence in the country somehow morphed into tolerance for Iran's systematic undermining of American interests there. The difficulty was not just that Obama over-optimistically assumed that[...]

No miracles in Cana


A determined refrain heard among those thinking about or dealing with the Middle East is that the Gordian knot of the region is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cut it and conflict will recede everywhere, because the frustrations engendered by Arab-Israeli animosity will evaporate. Maybe. The Bush administration partly adopted that logic several months ago when it sponsored a regional peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. President George W. Bush promised that a final agreement would be signed between Israelis and Palestinians before he leaves office in January. Some don't buy into that deadline; many accuse Washington of being insincere in its efforts. But the real question is whether the United States can actually do anything when it comes to altering the outcomes. The Palestinians complain that the Bush administration leans too heavily in Israel's favor, and is therefore not a credible mediator. Most egregiously, the U.S. is allowing Israel to create facts on the ground in Jerusalem and the West Bank, complicating prospects for peace. As the Palestinian-American journalist Rami Khouri has written: "There is now only one real test of progress, or criterion of political seriousness, in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the short term: Can the United States make Israel stop expanding its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories? If not, talk of peace is a cruel hoax that will only raise and then dash expectations, leading to unknown consequences when the backlash occurs." The Israeli argument is that the Palestinians, divided between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, pose a persistent security threat to Israel. Unless there is a Palestinian interlocutor who can guarantee a positive outcome in negotiations, there is little need to offer vital concessions at present. The Palestinians respond that such an attitude only strengthens Hamas by discrediting the Palestinian Authority—which supports a peace deal with Israel—making a resolution even less probable. The Israelis come back that if the Palestinian Authority is so frail, then Israel has even less of an incentive to negotiate. And on and on the exchange goes, descending into proliferating circles of disputation—all of it very logical, all of it tightening further the Gordian knot. But what can the United States do? The reality is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so replete with minefields that even a concerted American push would almost certainly fail in the end. Yet no one can deny that there is a need to break out of the sterile cycle of rhetoric afflicting Palestinians and Israelis alike. Israel's obtuseness in dealing with the Palestinians, its uninterrupted expansion of settlements, and its reluctance to dismantle even those settler outposts successive governments have declared illegal, has strengthened its most dedicated enemies. Yet no Israeli government today is likely to survive the kind of concessions needed to revive the Palestinian Authority. At the first sign of dramatic change, the right-wing parties, perhaps even cabinet ministers, would oppose major concessions. This would likely lead to early elections that could bring about the victory of Likud, which is even less enthusiastic about giving up land. We would soon be back where we started. But then even the ruling Kadima and Labor parties don't believe in the Palestinian Authority enough to conduct serious business with it. On the Palestinian side, the situation is even more dysfunctional. The Palestinian leadership is divided between two rival governments, one dominated by Fatah, the other by Hamas, each claiming legitimacy. The president, Mahmoud Abbas, refuses to speak to Hamas unless the Islamist movement first reverses its takeover of Gaza last summer. Yet Abbas' control over armed Palestinian groups, even those opposed to Hamas, is tenuous. The international community, particularly the U[...]

The Short Goodbye


There is a passage in Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell, her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on how the United States dealt with genocide throughout the 20th century, worth pondering for what it says about hypocrisy in the formulation of foreign policy. It is also worth pondering for what it tells us about Power herself, an academic who resigned recently as an advisor to Barack Obama after calling his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton a "monster" in an exchange with a Scottish newspaper. Here, Power is writing about Anthony Lake, who in 1970 resigned from the National Security Council in protest against the Nixon administration's expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. A year after his departure, Lake and a colleague published an article describing what they viewed as a problem in the way America shaped its overseas behavior. Power quotes a paragraph from that article in her own chapter on the war in Bosnia, management of which landed in Lake's lap after he became national security advisor to President Bill Clinton in 1993. In their article, Lake and his colleague argued, "A liberalism attempting to deal with intensely human problems at home abruptly but naturally shifts to abstract concepts when making decisions about events beyond the water's edge. ‘Nations,' ‘interests,' 'influence,' 'prestige,' are all disembodied and dehumanized terms which encourage easy inattention to the real people whose lives our decisions affect or even end." Power follows this observation with an admonition. She reminds us that "When Lake and his Democratic colleagues were put to the test"—in other words when Lake was appointed a senior Clinton administration official—"although they were far more attentive to the human suffering in Bosnia, they did not intervene to ameliorate it." You have to wonder how Lake feels about Power's phrase today, because if Power was an advisor to Obama, Anthony Lake happens to still be one. In reading her criticism, what comes to his mind? That Power, even if what she said was partly justified, went a bit overboard in picking Lake as the exemplar of American lethargy in Bosnia? That she misleadingly depicted him as an armchair moralist, when the fact is he had written his article after years of being "put to the test" at the State Department, and had even interrupted a promising career out of a sense of moral compunction? That Power, though a journalist in the former Yugoslavia from 1993 to 1996, was herself perhaps something of an armchair moralist for having distributed stern moral verdicts from a safe perch at Harvard University, where she wrote her book, which included the type of uncompromising verdicts she would later measure and dilute once she had stepped into the pit of political calculation as an Obama confidante? The dilutions notwithstanding, weeks before her resignation Power had become a lighting rod for criticism directed against Obama. Her outlook on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had provoked the ire of supporters of Israel, amid signs that Obama was having trouble with Jewish voters. Obama's case was not helped any by the unearthing of a comment Power made in 2002, seemingly advocating American military intervention on the Palestinians' behalf. So bizarre was her proposal that Power later told an Israeli reporter, "Even I don't understand it...This makes no sense to me." Power's self-immolating comment on Clinton was made during a trip to the United Kingdom. She had the good grace to end it all quickly, though another Obama advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, insisted an apology would have been enough. However, Power showed more political acumen than he did. By hanging on, she would have only remained a magnet of controversy, detracting from Obama's homilies, with the likelihood that the campaign would have eventually jettisoned her anyway. But Power made a much more significant sta[...]

Nothing Left


When Hezbollah official Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated earlier this month in Damascus, the collateral damage was felt in academic departments, newsrooms, think tanks, and cafes far and wide. That's because it quickly became apparent how wrong many of the alleged "experts" writing about the militant Shiite organization had been. At Mughniyeh's funeral, Hezbollah leaders placed him in a trinity of party heroes "martyred" at Israeli hands. The secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed "open war" against Israel in retaliation. Tens of thousands of people attended the ceremony, and for days Hezbollah received condolences. Iranian officials stepped over each other to condemn the assassination, many of them affirming that Israel's demise was inevitable. In the midst of all this one thing was plain: Mughniyeh was a highly significant figure in Hezbollah, and the party didn't hide it. And yet over the years, an embarrassing number of writers and academics with some access to Hezbollah dutifully relayed what party cadres had told them about Mughniyeh: He was unimportant and may even have been a figment of our imagination. It was understandable that Hezbollah would blur the trail of so vital an official, but how could those writing about the party swallow this line without pursuing the numerous sources that could confirm details of Mughniyeh's past? Their fault was laziness, and at times tendentiousness. Hezbollah is adept at turning contacts with the party into valuable favors. Writers and scholars, particularly Westerners, who lay claim to Hezbollah sources, are regarded as special for penetrating so closed a society. That's why their writing is often edited with minimal rigor. Hezbollah always denied everything that was said about Mughniyeh, and few authors (or editors) showed the curiosity to push further than that. The mere fact of getting such a denial was considered an achievement in itself, a sign of rare access, and no one was about to jeopardize that access by calling Hezbollah liars. But there was more here than just manipulation. The Mughniyeh affair highlights a deeper problem long obvious to those who follow Hezbollah: The party, though it is religious, autocratic, and armed to the teeth, often elicits approval from secular, liberal Westerners who otherwise share nothing of its values. This reaction, in its more extreme forms, is reflected in the way many on the far left have embraced Hezbollah's militancy, but also that of other Islamist groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad—thoroughly undermining their ideological principles in the process. The primary emotion driving together the far-left and militant Islamists, but also frequently prompting secular liberals to applaud armed Islamic groups as well, is hostility toward the United States, toward Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, and, more broadly, toward what is seen as Western-dominated, capitalist-driven globalization. Fred Halliday, himself a man of the left, wrote scathingly of the dangers in the accommodation between Islamists and the left based on a perception of shared anti-imperialism: "All of this is—at least to those with historical awareness, skeptical political intelligence, or merely a long memory—disturbing. This is because its effect is to reinforce one of the most pernicious and inaccurate of all political claims, and one made not by the left but by the imperialist right. It is also one that underlies the U.S.-declared ‘war on terror' and the policies that have resulted from 9/11: namely, that Islamism is a movement aimed against 'the west.'" A bizarre offshoot of this trend has been the left's elevation of Islamist "resistance" to the level of a fetish. You know something has gone horribly wrong when the writer and academic Norman Finkelstein volunteers to interpret Hezbollah for you, befor[...]

In Stable Condition


For months, we've been hearing the presidential candidates promise American voters "change." But as the U.S. primaries move beyond their half-way point, here is a prediction: Whoever becomes president in 2008 will pursue the same policies as the Bush administration in the Middle East, because there is little latitude to do otherwise. Iraq is the rare regional issue about which one sees some sunshine between the candidates' positions. On the Republican side, John McCain's view is similar to that of the Bush administration. The war has to be won, and the military "surge", which McCain backed, has been a success. For the Republican frontrunner, "a greater military commitment now is necessary if we are to achieve long-term success ... [and] give Iraqis the capabilities to govern and secure their own country." McCain prefers honesty to deadlines, and believes Americans need to be told that the war will be a long one, because "defeat ... would lead to much more violence in Iraq, greatly embolden Iran, undermine U.S. allies such as Israel, likely lead to wider conflict, result in a terrorist safe haven in the heart of the Middle East, and gravely damage U.S. credibility throughout the world." Mike Huckabee's chances of being nominated are so slender as to make a rundown of his Middle East policies unnecessary. But on the whole, his approach to Iraq is little different than that of the administration. He too supports the surge, opposes establishing a withdrawal schedule, and sees the war in Iraq as part of the war on terror. The Democrats, in contrast, have focused their Iraq strategy on setting a withdrawal timetable. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton promise to begin an immediate pullout of troops after their election. Obama wants to do this at the rate of one or two brigades every month, to be completed by the end of 2009. Clinton is less specific, but promises to direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the defense secretary, and the National Security Council "to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home starting with the first 60 days" of her administration. Both candidates leave themselves wiggle room in the event they win the presidency. As Clinton understands, drawing up a plan to remove troops is different than setting a deadline for finalizing a withdrawal. The senator also intends to stabilize Iraq as American soldiers head home. But that link between stability and withdrawal can cut both ways. If a pullout generates instability, this would undermine the logic of Clinton's plan, justifying a delay. Indeed, both she and Obama have waffled on whether they would go ahead with a withdrawal in such a case. When the Illinois senator was asked by 60 Minutes whether he would stick to his timetable even if there was sectarian violence, he replied: "No, I always reserve, as commander in chief, the right to assess the situation." The candidates also differ over whether to engage Syria and Iran in assisting to normalize Iraq. Obama has often said he would talk to the two countries, while Clinton vows to "convene a regional stabilization group composed of key allies, other global powers, and all of the states bordering Iraq." McCain disagrees, refusing to enter into "unconditional dialogues with these two dictatorships from a position of weakness." He insists that "the international community [needs] to apply real pressure to Syria and Iran to change their behavior." Much of this is bluster. For Obama, the rationale to talk to Syria has declined since Iraqi tribes began defeating Al-Qaeda in Anbar province. The Syrian card in Iraq is much weaker than it was when the senator first formulated the idea, making the political cost of opening up to Damascus—at a time when it is actively undermining Lebanese sovereignty and is isolated in the Arab world—significantly hi[...]

Under Suspicion


In February 2005, the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated, along with 21 others, in a massive truck bomb explosion in Beirut. Most observers blamed Syria for the crime, and in the aftermath hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in what was later dubbed the "Cedar Revolution," demanding a Syrian military withdrawal from their country. The United Nations Security Council set up a special independent commission to investigate the murder and identify the guilty. Last year, the U.N. took the additional step of establishing, under Chapter VII of its charter, a special tribunal, currently being set up near The Hague, to try the suspects. The first commissioner of the U.N. investigation team was, Detlev Mehlis, a Berlin native who is now a senior prosecutor at the city's Superior Prosecutor's Office. His successor was the Belgian Serge Brammertz, who recently left the Hariri investigation to take up duties as prosecutor of the special tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. A Canadian, Daniel Bellemare, has replaced Brammertz, and once the investigation is completed he is expected to become the first prosecutor of the Hariri tribunal. After two years of virtual silence, Mehlis agreed to go on the record for a Wall Street Journal interview I conducted with him, in which he criticized the slow progress in the investigation. This is an expanded version of that interview, which took place in Berlin. reason: For a long time after you left your post as commissioner of the United Nations-mandated Hariri inquiry in December 2005, you refused to go on the record to talk about the case. Why do so now? Detlev Mehlis: My successor, Serge Brammertz, has just left after two years on the job, and a new commissioner, Daniel Bellemare, has been installed. So it's a good time for a summing up on my part. To have spoken up earlier would have created an impression of interfering in the investigation. I also feel I owe it to the people I worked with during my eight months as commissioner. This is my final statement, except for one exception when I will be interviewed by a German newspaper. reason: Recently, however, you did go on the record to tell a Frankfurt daily that you "regretted" having left the investigation in December 2005. Why did you say this? Detlev Mehlis: From what I am hearing, the investigation has lost all the momentum it had [when Brammertz took over] in January 2006. Had I stayed on, I would have handled things differently. But I couldn't stay because the U.N. told me that for security reasons I could no longer remain in Lebanon after January 2006. They offered to relocate me outside the country, but this was impossible for me. The permanent representative of Germany at the U.N. told the organization that it would be unacceptable for a German prosecutor to stay away from his team in Beirut. I fully agreed with this. I also left for professional and family reasons. reason: What would you have done differently than Brammertz? Detlev Mehlis: Above all I would have continued informing the U.N. Security Council and the Lebanese on progress in the investigation. When I arrived in Beirut, I said that participation of the media was central for democracy. The Lebanese public has to be informed, even if there are setbacks in the investigation. In a democracy people have the right to know, particularly when a prime minister was murdered and people don't trust the authorities. This was an opportunity to restore credibility to the justice system. There is also a practical rationale: To have the support of the public, to encourage witnesses to come forward with information, and for governments to send specialized investigators, you need to give them an idea of what you are doing. reason: What makes you think that Brammertz [...]

Pop Goes the President


History, even trivial history, does indeed repeat itself as farce. In December 1995, Francois Mitterrand traveled to Aswan in southern Egypt to spend his Christmas holidays. It was a fittingly Wagnerian ending for the dying former French president—a last communion with timelessness through contact with a timeless culture, before Mitterrand met the real thing in Paris a week later. Cut to last Christmas. French President Nicolas Sarkozy also decides to holiday in Egypt. He stays at Luxor—not Aswan but close enough. Descending from a private jet, Sarkozy, his Ray Bans tilted forward, his shirt opened an extra button, looks more like a Corsican hoodlum than the president of a venerable nation. At his arm is new girlfriend Carla Bruni, whom no one seems quite sure what to describe as. Model? Singer? Next First Lady? This is their first overseas expedition together, after the media discovered they were an item during an outing to EuroDisney. "Vulgar!" was how many Frenchmen described their president after witnessing all this. And vulgar Sarkozy surely is. There is little gravitas to a hyperactive man present everywhere and nowhere, with a strong opinion on just about everything; someone evidently enjoying his recent divorce, who seems as bored with high culture as he delights in the favors and company of the affluent, of pop singers and actors. But that's missing the significant point that Sarkozy has skillfully used his relentless presence in the media as a source of political advantage, while redefining what the presidency can be all about. By being a pop figure himself, ever-present in the minds of his countrymen, publicly and personally, Sarkozy has managed to retain the initiative. With much in the media about Sarkozy, his leadership has turned into a reality show and the president is writing the script. So ubiquitous is Sarkozy that he is the state and the state is he. How better to define political power? Those now moving through the U.S. primaries might want to investigate. Sarkozy, often referred to as the most "American" of French politicians, has until now juggled paradoxes. He was elected as the candidate of a conservative party, peddling a message that France needed to return to traditional values. Yet he is anything but conservative in his avidness for luxury and attention; and anything but an agent of traditional morality in his private life. However, that doesn't much differentiate him from, let's say, the former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, still Europe's archetype of schlock. What does is that Sarkozy is who he is in France, where presidents invariably act like republican monarchs There is more to that kind of presidential behavior than old Europe stuffiness. To act like a monarch without being one, to play the members of their court off against each other, is a way French presidents have had of maintaining control over an unruly political class and society. Mitterrand was an expert at dividing his supporters to boost his authority; Charles de Gaulle so naturally behaved like a man of destiny that the French created a new republic to accommodate him. Even Jacques Chirac, who earlier in his career had also sold himself as an "American" politician because of his fondness for pressing the flesh and his informality, by the end had morphed into a detached royal in the public consciousness—stuck in a gloomy palace with a wife he could neither stomach nor divorce, whom he was said to address with the formal "vous." Sarkozy has taken a different tack. He's still all-dominating and has demoted his prime minister to little more than an assistant's role. But that domination comes not from pulling the strings from a high perch, but from the president's getting personally involved in the muck [...]

Soundbite: Al Queda's Forerunner


Not many people can tell you much about the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist militants in November 1979. The Saudi authorities kept a tight lid on information during that fateful two-week period when the regime’s survival seemed to be in danger. They didn’t grow much more transparent afterwards. That is why Yaroslav Trofimov’s just-published The Siege of Mecca (Doubleday) is so valuable, not only as a description of the murky events surrounding the takeover but as a backgrounder on the depth of fundamentalist tendencies in Saudi Arabia and the later emergence of Al Qaeda. Contributing Editor Michael Young spoke with Trofimov, an Asia-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal, in September. Q: What was the Grand Mosque siege? A: The group that took over the mosque was led by Saudi preacher Juhayman Al-Utaybi, a former corporal in the Saudi National Guard, and consisted of several hundred gunmen from many countries. The group abhorred the Saudi state and other Arab regimes as infidel and bitterly objected to any Western presence in the Arabian Peninsula. The battle for the Grand Mosque started on November 20, 1979—at the first dawn of Islam’s year 1400—and lasted precisely two weeks. The total number of officially reported deaths, including the rebels, stands at about 330. But many believe that the true number of fatalities is significantly above 1,000. Q: Though Juhayman and his co-conspirators were executed, their ideas paradoxically triumphed. Can you explain why? A: As Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, the governor of Asir province and son of King Faisal, put it a few years ago, “We have eliminated the individuals who committed the Juhayman crime, but we have overlooked the ideology that was behind the crime. We let it spread in the country as if it did not exist.” He said this because in order to secure religious assent from the clergy, or ulama—assent without which many Saudi troops refused to fight in the holy shrine—the royal family had to promise the clerics that it would reverse the slow modernization that had been occurring in the kingdom up until then. In the weeks after the siege ended, female newscasters were taken off television; the enforcement of the ban on alcohol became much more severe; and vast amounts of oil money started flowing into the clerics’ Wahhabi proselytizing campaign around the world. And it’s precisely this missionary effort all over the Muslim world that subsequently created a pool of eager recruits for Al Qaeda. Q: What was Osama bin Laden’s reaction to the takeover? A: Osama bin Laden was deeply scarred by these events. In an audio message to the Muslim world released in 2004, he spoke at length about how the Al Saud had “defiled” the shrine. To him, Juhayman’s gunmen may have made a mistake in occupying the Grand Mosque, but the Al Saud committed an unforgivable crime by retaking the shrine by force. Q: It must not have been easy to find sources for your book, given that the Grand Mosque takeover remains a taboo subject in Saudi Arabia. A: The hardest part was tracking down surviving gunmen. Almost all the adult ones were killed after the siege, either in public beheadings or secret executions. I found a few who were 15 or 16 years of age at the time of the uprising. Having survived long prison terms, many of them were too scared to talk. But some opened up, with one staying in my hotel room the entire night and recounting the horrors of the siege blow by blow as he emptied my minibar of its (strictly nonalcoholic) contents. Q: Ultimately, who was the net loser in the Grand Mosque affair? A: The net losers were the forces of secularism and liberalism within Saudi Arabia. [...]

Long, Gone Neocons


Maybe 2008 will be the year when we will finally be rid of that vacuous belief that "the neocons" are in control of the Bush administration's foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Habits are hard to break, particularly lazy ones, but if anyone bothered to look more closely, they would see that the United States has not really engaged in what we might call a neoconservative approach to the region since at least 2004, when the situation in Iraq took a sudden turn for the worse. What are, or were, the highlights of a neocon approach to the Middle East and the world before 2003, when American forces invaded Iraq? Looking back at that most prominent post-9/11 neocon statement of purpose, the administration's National Security Strategy released in September 2002 (an assemblage of contradiction in which neocon ideas were recorded alongside classical liberal internationalist ones), they were roughly the following: a desire to maintain American paramountcy at the expense of the more traditional concept of a balance of power; greater reliance on the use of force and unilateralism in America's defense, through preemptive measures if necessary; and a more activist bent in spreading democracy, freedom, and free markets throughout the world. But the truth is that soon after the takeover of Iraq, the administration gradually began acting in the Middle East pretty much like its predecessors. It was compelled to rely on the multilateral institutions it had spurned in the run-up to the Iraq war, implicitly accepting that U.S. military might was not enough to resolve all problems. As for its commitment to an agenda of democracy and freedom, while officially this was at the heart of American concerns after Bush's second inaugural address, in reality by then it was already in decline as a policy guide. For example, in May 2003, the U.S. was compelled to seek an international resolution to govern its military presence in Iraq. While the Security Council, in Resolution 1483, recognized Coalition forces as a ruling authority, it labeled them an "occupying authority", with both the legal obligations under that status, and the stigma. The resolution was a compromise: the U.N. pragmatically acknowledged that it had to work with the U.S. in Iraq, and used this to try shaping political outcomes in its favor; the Bush administration realized that it needed international cover, even if in September 2004, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan again reminded Washington that its invasion had been "illegal." Only days after the Security Council authorized the creation of a United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq on August 14, 2003, a bomb attack targeted U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing the organization's representative there, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and almost 20 other people. The U.S. was then still trying to rule over Iraq on its own, with Paul Bremer as high commissioner. Yet it was immediately clear to the Bush administration that the attack had harmed American efforts to normalize the situation on the ground in Iraq. The subsequent dramatic drawdown of U.N. personnel denied the U.S. a valuable partner in distributing much-needed aid to an impoverished Iraqi population, as well as an often useful mediator with Iraqi leaders who refused to meet with American officials. By 2004, the U.S. was resorting to the U.N. in other Middle Eastern crises as well. For example, the Security Council was the preferred route for U.S. efforts in 2004 to push for a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon. Far from going it alone, the Bush administration, in collaboration with France, its bitterest foe over Iraq, sponsored a Security Council resolution to that end. The U.S. didn't try to impose t[...]

Love Thy Enemy


It's not often that one has the stomach to call on political realists—all too frequently purveyors of foreign policy stalemate and pals of despots worldwide. However, realism was called for last week when American intelligence agencies released a National Intelligence Estimate claiming that Iran had halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Even half-hearted assessments of the national interest would have produced more insightful responses to the NIE than the ones that we got. With everyone focusing on the nuclear issue, few noticed that regardless of whether Iran produces atomic weapons or not, its acrimonious rivalry with the United States in the Middle East is bound to escalate. Given that the U.S. went to war in 1991 to prevent Iraq from imposing its hegemony in the Persian Gulf area, does it make sense to assume that Washington would readily allow a threatening Iran to do what the Iraqis failed to? There were two types of reactions to the NIE, both inadequate for dealing with the real stakes in American-Iranian hostility throughout the Middle East. The first focused on the fact that President George W. Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, had in recent months amplified their war rhetoric against Iran, even though Bush was told last August by the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, that Iran's nuclear program "may be suspended." This seemed to contradict an earlier statement by the president that McConnell had told him no such thing. The second reaction was rather different. With the nuclear threat allegedly on hold, politicians and commentators suddenly began advising the administration to engage Iran in some sort of discussion. Senate majority leader Harry Reid called on Bush to do what President Ronald Reagan had done with the Soviet Union and push for "a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran." Republican senator Chuck Hagel asked the administration to show the same flexibility toward Iran that it had shown toward North Korea. Rand Beers, who served as national security advisor to John Kerry's presidential campaign, observed: "Simply put, we have an imminent need for a real dialogue with Iran, not a military confrontation." It was certainly unsettling that Bush and Cheney were talking about a war with Iran when they knew, or should have known, that their stated justification for war was no longer valid. However, the rush toward advocating dialogue and flexibility was equally incomprehensible. A dialogue over what? No one seemed particularly clear on that point. Suddenly, it seemed, the problem was not power politics and the thrusts and parries of the U.S.-Iranian quarrel, but the Bush administration's stubborn refusal to be conciliatory. During the 1980s, in the midst of the debate over nuclear missiles in Europe, French President Francois Mitterrand famously declared: "The pacifists are in the West but the missiles are in the East." Of course there were missiles in the West then, just as there are those in Washington now who still favor war against Iran; but it's also undeniable that those wanting to open up to Iran are mostly on the American side, while Iran's leaders continue to relentlessly pursue strategic advantage in their own neighborhood. The Iranian's are playing three-dimensional chess in the Middle East, while the U.S. is playing with its hankie. American policy in the region suffers from a lack of ideas. The administration's disorientation after the release of the NIE report showed that in the absence of a war option (and an unpersuasive war option at that), the U.S. remains unsure what to do about Iran. But the Democrats are equally[...]