Speaking of the Carribean, it seems a pleasure cruise of a different sort is underway in the Gulf and is likely to continue for several weeks. With the good people who brought us Iraq facing a possible “disintegration of thought,” is it any wonder things have heated up in Lebanon?
I remain confident that the conflagration at Nahr al-Bared was not orchestrated or planned for political effect. Whether you chant “death to America” or “death to Syria,” the simple fact remains that both sides have a lot to lose if Lebanon goes bad. The triple bombing (Sassine, Verdun, Aley) is sobering and indeed suggests that someone might very much want the militias back on the streets, but neither side can afford such a development. It’s is simply too risky, and while it is fun to imagine that warlords are maniacal in machination, they are very much petty merchants — bean counters who just happen to trade in death (I would add here that Aoun is very much the non-warlord and this very much explains his lunatic reputation among the Lebanese).
Even the dim-witted Americans appear to be aware of this. Notice how the State Department did not want to make much political hay out of Lebanon’s recent troubles, although the OVP did, as is its way, try and throw gasoline on the fire.
And now let me offer words of hope to any nail-biters like myself concerned that we are at the edge of the precipice. While events on the ground are worrisome and the human costs should be of utmost concern to all, there are several reasons for optimism:
1) TAIF’S LOSERS ARE STILL LOSERS.
The post-Taif order has been very good to some (Hariri, Hizbullah, pro-Syrians Christians, etc.) and thus the major players are likely to be united in not rocking the boat too hard. Our eyes should be trained like lasers on Taif’s losers as they are the most likely groups to go for or at least be recruited to start a shake up. And thus while Geagea and his ilk send chills down my spine upon sight, they still lack sufficient resources for an outright power grab on the streets, no matter how many USG or Saudi dollars may be flowing into their pockets.
2) POLITICAL GHETTOIZATION OF THE CAMPS
As a result of dramatic changes in the regional and international order over the last 25 years, the camps in Lebanon are no longer a flashpoint for upheaval in Lebanon. The progressive marginalization of refugees has come at enormous social and human costs to the refugees themselves, but from a political and security point of view, the camps, and what they represent, are now little more than pentitentiaries. While it makes me want to vomit when the PLO in Lebanon applauds the shelling of the camps, this reality very much speaks to the fact that there no longer is a formidable “resistance” that can alter the course of events in Lebanon. Moreover there exists too much consensus among Lebanese players for any factions within the camps to find Lebanese allies. Thus while isolated acts of violence may occur, the camps cannot and will not send Lebanon under. Those harkening back to the eve of the civil war are either delusional or merely providing a convenient cover for the highly immoral and completely insane assault by the LAF.
3) TRIBES, NOT TRIBUNALS
The tribunal will not alter the current political tensions in Lebanon or the region. To be sure, certain Lebanese groups might benefit a bit, some might lose a bit, but it is impossible to imagine how such a trial would alter the fundamental dynamics that divide Lebanon. Ever heard of an event that could not be politicized in Lebanon?
This is also true with respect to the Americans and the Syrians. While the Americans no doubt enjoy have an international stick to hammer the Syrians with, they are not interested in any development that would seriously undermine or destabilize the regime (I would add here that I think this is the cause of Jumblatt’s depression over the last year — he simply never came back from the White House with enough goodies to feel at ease). The US is far too hamstrung in Iraq and far too pre-occupied with Iran to go for everything at once. This, of course, should give pause to those who want to put too much weight on the work of Sy Hersh. While the Likudnik wing of the OVP may very well want to go from broke by doubling down in the region, they face way too much domestic opposition, in Congess and at the Pentagon and in Foggy Bottom. It is thus my sense that while their rhetoric suggests the Michael Leedens of the world are running the show, the horrible debacle that is Iraq suggests that what we are seeing is the triumph of the Kissingerian theory of irrational compellence. It is in many ways a brilliant strategy as it lets one’s opponents, domestic and international, to do all the work for you.
Similarly, I believe the Syrians are convinced that they can weather the tribunal. To be sure, they may say ominous things about the tribunal, but this only suggests that they too are aware of the benefits of irrational compellence and don’t mind using it where useful, especially if they feel the Russians and the Chinese are listening. The Syrians remained deeply entrenched in Lebanon’s political and economic life, and it is beyond stupidity to think that they will surrender that asset by dramatically opposing the tribunal. No, instead, they will do as the Syrians always do, hang on and play the long game and this will be sufficient to attract enough Lebanese allies.
4) GENUG IZ GENUG
Israel is not interested in Lebanon going sideways or in seeing the regime in Damascus seriously wounded. Like the Americans, they will support any effort to embarass the Syrian regime, but they are very much hostile to any American or Saudi plan whose unintended consequences might end up on their doorstep. This is the unspoken part of the Winograd Commission. There exists currently considerable anger within the Israeli military over the heavy-handedness of the Americans pushing for total war on Lebanon last summer. While the Netanyahus of the world may be able to score political points calling for armageddon, the government itself is much less inclined currently to pay the price for America’s vision of the “new middle east.” Whether or not talks with the Syrians over the Golan are being seriously considered, Israel position vis-a-vis Syria remains one of benign neglect.
As for Israel’s position on developments on the Lebanese scene, this is much less clear. On the one hand, some in Israel might be happy to see Hizbullah dragged into civil strife, but I believe that last summer’s war has given most Israelis cause to doubt that they can control events in Lebanon. And again, they are likely to be very hostile to any American promises about what will be up north. There is nothing more fun than reading what Israelis thought of their Lebanese allies during the civil war — ever have a girlfriend so crazy you cannot remember why you ever dated her?
5) SITTING PRETTY
Iran, Syria and Hizbullah are in pretty good shape and can play the long game by sitting and waiting. Moreover, if anyone in the region has shown some intelligence in reading developments, it has been these three. Whatever you think of the three, they have done well for themselves and bolstered their domestic, regional and international positions. While at times I would say it seems that Hizbullah is just simply smarter and more disciplined than everyone else, the reality is that they have strategic depth. The path to their continued success remains the easiest as all they really need to do is avoid being bated by their enemies. Same for Iran and Syria. They simply do not need hostile posturing or bloated rhetoric.
6) SMALL FISH EAT LESS
The Lebanese players who stand to gain the most or lose the most right now are for the most part veterans of the Lebanese game and know how to play it. For example, Jumblatt has needs (he more than anyone benefitted from post-Taif Syrian order in Lebanon and thus has the most to lose in a post-Syrian order), but these can be met without a major shake up in Lebanon. While some might accuse him of being mortally afraid of a deal between Hariri and Hizbullah, this ignores the extent to which in Lebanese politics, there is always room for one more at the table. I would say the same for some of the more notorious Syrian apparatchiks in Lebanon. Moreover, it is not for nothing that these factions are small players and thus their ability to stir the pot is limited by their reliance on other larger players in the Lebanese game, i.e. the PSP and SSNP can have fist fights but nothing more.
CONCLUSION: THE TRUTH
So what does it all mean? It means that the falcons can still hear the falconer, but that things will continue at a low simmer as long as the region remains tumultuous. And yes, if you were curious, the status quo is sometimes a good thing, no matter whether you want Lebanon to be a confrontation state or a disneyland for rich gulfies. To be sure, this will not satisfy all, but it will satisfy enough.
Anyway, the work of improving Lebanon for all Lebanese and importantly all those who find themselves in Lebanon will not come in the space of a few years or at the Security Council or at the end of a gun barrel. It will be tortoruously slow, with dangerous side tracks at every turn. That slow hard work to eliminate the political and economic injustices in Lebanon, however, is the only path to redemption. So, lovers of life, consider your judgment served, because that is the real “truth.”
*All of this is just off the top of my head, so this will be edited, updated, and linked. Comments welcomed and perhaps required.