Holiday and Marriage Break

BEIRUT — This will likely be the last post of the year on B2I, as in two days I leave for Australia to get married. There’s also the little matter of holidays and declining interest on the part of the major papers in Iraq. I figure it will pick back up next year once the campaign gets into full swing and Iraq is a major issue again. I hope so anyway.

Lebanon is a mess, but it looks like things are moving again. I suspect it will be sorted out in a week or so. Don’t look for a presidential vote tomorrow, though. The Lebanese have to amend the constitution first, and there could be some legal wrangling. At the very least, there’s some paperwork of some kind and that won’t be done by tomorrow.

Iraq is improving, for sure, on the security front and the Bush foreign policy team isn’t as abjectly horrible as it has been in the past. But the real question, still, is whether the security gains matter. Are we looking at another example of [Col. Tu’s comment to Army Col. Harry Summers]( There’s some evidence the various factions are merely taking a breather. I hope it is a lasting decrease in violence leading to actual peace, but I wonder. …

Anyway, like I said, this is probably it for 2007. It’s been a rough year in some ways, but a blessed one in others. Wish us all luck over here in this part of the world.

Journalism in Iraq is Very, Very Dangerous

figures.pngThe Project for Excellence in Journalism has [released the results of its survey of Western reporters working in Iraq](, and — for those of us who have been there — its results are unsurprising. (Link contains PDF file.)
From a survey of 111 Western journalists who worked or are working in Iraq, almost two-thirds of the reporters said most or all of their street reporting was done by local citizens. Yet, 87 percent said it wasn’t safe for their local staffers to carry notebooks, cameras, IDs or anything else that identified them as journalists. And two-thirds said they worried that their reliance on local stringers would produce inaccurate reports. (The right-wing bloggers are going to have a field day with this one. Charges of hotel journalism will ring out again and accusations of working with al Qaeda will soon be heard.)
Some excepts from the executive summary:

Above all, the journalists — most of them veteran war correspondents — describe conditions in Iraq as the most perilous they have ever encountered, and this above everything else is influencing the reporting. A majority of journalists surveyed (57%) report that at least one of their Iraqi staff had been killed or kidnapped in the last year alone — and many more are continually threatened. “Seven staffers killed since 2003, including three last July,” one bureau chief wrote with chilling brevity. “At least three have been kidnapped. All were freed.” …
“The dangers can’t be overstated,” one print journalist wrote. “It’s been an ambush — two staff killed, one wounded — various firefights, and our ‘home’ has been rocked and mortared (by accident, I’m pretty sure). It’s not fun; it’s not safe, but I go back because it needs to be told.”
Whatever the problems, a magazine reporter offered, “The press….have carried out the classic journalistic mission of bearing witness.”
“Welcome to the new world of journalism, boys and girls. This is where we lost our innocence. Security teams, body armor and armored cars will forever now be pushed in between journalism and stories,” one bureau chief declared.

I can attest to all these dangers. It was hell when I was there and the inability to tell the stories of Iraqis was one of the reasons I moved to Lebanon. ([There’s less interest from editors back home in those stories anyway](; 41 percent of respondents say editors have downplayed these kinds of stories.)
What’s going to drive some war opponents into rage, however, is the generally positive views of embedding the respondents hold.

More than eight-in ten journalists (85%) surveyed have embedded with U.S. troops. And most of them see the program as the best available way to report on the actions, both large and small, of U.S. troops. It also is often the only safe way to gain access to Iraqi civilians in cities and towns beyond Baghdad.
A majority of those surveyed (60%) tend to think embedding gives them access to places and people they could not otherwise reach. Only 5% say they see embedding as mostly helping the Pentagon control what is being reported. …
“There is no problem with embedded reporting, unless it is relied on as the primary source of info on Iraq,” wrote one bureau chief. “If used as it should be — to provide another layer of understanding of what’s going on there — it is a very useful tool. And we have to remember that not every embed will produce strong stories.”

Again, that was my experience with embedding. I found it useful but I had to bear in mind it wasn’t the whole story. It was the story of the U.S. military doing whatever it was they were doing at that time. Sometimes it was useful, other times it sucked. Such is war.
*(Full disclosure: I participated in this survey, but none of the quotes are I’ve seen in the survey are based on my responses. Nor do I know who the other people are, but I can guess.)*

A Memory of Things to Come

BEIRUT — Well, well… It appears at first blush that things must have gone well for Syria in Annapolis. [Army Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman has gotten the nod from Hariri camp inside March 14]( as a consensus candidate for Baabda Palace. This is curious because many in the pro-March 14 press have been labeling him as sympathetic to Syria.
Hezbollah, too, seems to be inching toward Suleiman, [giving only lukewarm objections on procedural grounds]( “To me, at the personal level, I believe a constitutional amendment in parliament is possible after resignation of Fouad Saniora from the government which is neither constitutional nor legitimate,” said MP Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc. But he stressed his views were entirely personal. “We will not block any consensus possibility if the intro to it is a constitutional amendment, provided that all opposition factions have agreed on it.”
Even that old warlord Samir Geagea, one of the most anti-Syrians of the March 14 coalition said the constitutional amendment allowing Suleiman into the presidency was “an option.”
So what happened? Well, as [I wrote on Sunday](, Syria got the Golan Heights on the table at Annapolis. And I predicted then:

A success in Annapolis might mean the beginning of a real discussion of a Grand Bargain for the region, not just another fitful start to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The thinking is that if the Syrians are shown some flexibility on the Golan, they might also show some flexibility in Lebanon, which is in the midst of its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War — a political crisis stoked in large part by Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

And by “success” I meant some signs of thawing on the part of Syria, the United States and Israel.
Now, it’s too soon to tell what is going down, but the fact that everyone started talking nicely to each other here in Lebanon *the day after Annapolis* is pretty significant. Does it mean Syria has had a change of heart regarding Lebanon? Not likely. The international tribunal is still a Sword of Damocles over Bashar al-Assad’s head, and the Golan hasn’t been returned yet.
But my feeling is that the Americans softened their support for Lebanon’s March 14 alliance a bit. There wouldn’t be this talk of Suleiman otherwise. Still, he’s not totally pro-Syrian and the opposition has its doubts about him, so no one got a total victory if this thing goes through. What’s this mean for U.S.-Syrian relations? Sounds like the hints of a thaw, which can be a good thing for almost everyone but anti-Syrian factions in Beirut.
And what’s next? Ah, I have a text message that [Serge Brammertz just delivered his final report on the assassination of Rafik Hariri to Prime Minister Fuad Siniora]( and he allegedly names names. Wanna bet it’s the four he named last year — a list that includes Assad’s brother-in-law?
Hang on, we’re not out of the woods yet.

Bush, Maliki pave way for permanent U.S. presence

BEIRUT — With all eyes turned to Annapolis, [another significant development happened regarding Iraq]( President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a “[Declaration of Principles](” that would pave the way for a Status of Forces Agreement ([SOFA]( on a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq. (And by “long-term” I mean longer than 2013.)
Coincidentally — or not, giving the political season upon us — the deadline for finalizing the agreement, which would include the number of U.S. troops as well as the length of their deployment, is set for July 31. That’s just in time for heating up the 2008 presidential campaign! Ah, I can see it now. Victory parades, bilateral agreements with a sovereign Iraq, Democrats on the defensive. Nicely played, Mr. President.

Continue reading “Bush, Maliki pave way for permanent U.S. presence”

Lebanon’s Operating System

lebanon-as-vista.pngMy friends will tell you I’m an unabashed Mac guy. I love [Apple]( products for their smoothness, their workability, their [iconic and reassuring workflows]( The Soon-to-be Mrs. Back-to-Iraq rolls her eyes at my obsession… Likewise, as you can imagine, I’m no great fan of [Windows](

This morning, as I listened to my friend’s complaints about the unpredictability of Windows — sometimes things stop working and then start again for no apparent reason whatsoever — I realized that Lebanon works exactly the same way. And with the current, stupid crisis in Lebanon paralyzing this place — locking it up, so to speak — it occurred to me that Lebanon, such as it is, must be using Windows as its operating system. Some similarities:

  • It doesn’t feel well put-together. It’s a house of cards with an inconsistent, incongruous interface. Where Mac OS X feels all of a piece, Windows (and Lebanon) feels cobbled together. It’s as if someone just slapped some legacy religions and/or code together and said, “Go to town, play nice.” Well, .dll files aren’t always compatible, and, Sunnis and Shi’ites, for example, don’t always get on together. Usually they do, but when they don’t, look out.
  • Following that, both Windows and modern Lebanon were designed not with the users in mind, but the designers. In Microsoft’s case, Windows primarily exists to make money for Bill Gates and Microsoft. Its reliable cash stream come from big business, which tends to lock its employees into using an OS that is obviously on its last legs. Same for Lebanon. It was designed by the French using legacy Ottoman code which it stole — much like Microsoft did a shady deal to get MS-DOS — and set up to serve colonial interests, rather than that of the Lebanese.
  • Modern Lebanon is, specifically, like Windows Vista. It’s shiny, nice to look at and easily seduces. But the moment you actually try to work with it, the nasty underpinnings — whether it’s sectarianism or that damned Windows registry — come up and bite you in the ass.
  • It’s prone to viruses/outside interference by foreign powers that gum up the works. These can lead to…
  • … Lock-ups that paralyze the entire computer and/or country. One difference: In the case of Lebanon, rebooting is a total hassle.
  • It can be used to spew out junk email and/or jihadis if taken over by a hostile outsider.
  • And finally, when it crashes, it crashes hard. Blue Screen of Civil War, anyone?

I know, I know… I’m opening myself up to fans of Windows who will tell me they’ve never, ever had a computer crash or a virus. Likewise, I’m opening myself up to partisans of Lebanon who tell me that the place works just fine if you know how to work it. Obviously, I don’t or I’d be happily ginning up my [*wasta*]( and/or bleakly submitting to the mess that’s Microsoft Office.

That’s not to say Lebanon and Gates’ little piece software don’t have their charms. The biggest one: In both cases, whether it’s politics or software, there are more [games](

Damascene Diversion

My last column of the year is [up at Spot-on now](, looking at the dynamics of Syria’s participation in the Annapolis conference. An excerpt:

There’s a Middle Eastern proverb making the rounds these days: You can’t make war without Egypt and you can’t have peace without Syria. And if Syria’s sitting down at the table, as it’s indicated it will do at next week, it’s a safe bet that the fate of two key parts of the region — the Golan and Lebanon — are up for discussion.
In two of the most intractable problems of the region — Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Syrian regime has been the immovable obstacle. Because outside the U.S., the Middle East isn’t just defined by the Israeli-Arab conflict. It’s a Gordian Knot of conflicts involving Israelis and Palestinians, Israel and Arabs, Arab Shi’ites and Arab Sunnis, Arabs and Iranians and the West and Iran. They’re all intertwined, but the common thread in this tangled skein is Syria and the regime of its President Bashar al-Assad.
And in the past 48 hours, there has been signs of movement that might, just might signal some kind of accord that the Syrians will accept. The Golan, the uplands seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war, is reportedly on the table at the Annapolis conference which begins Tuesday. This was the precondition for Syria to attend the conference, said its foreign minister, Walid Muallem.
That’s very good news for the Americans, the Israelis and possibly the Lebanese. Why? Because with Syria’s participation — along with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states at the ministerial level — a success in Annapolis might mean the beginning of a real discussion of a Grand Bargain for the region, not just another fitful start to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The thinking is that if the Syrians are shown some flexibility on the Golan, they might also show some flexibility in Lebanon, which is in the midst of its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War — a political crisis stoked in large part by Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

You might be surprised at my conclusions.