Craziness on Display

One of the things writing the U.S. media roundup on IraqSlogger allows me to do is get a high dudgeon up over the crap that passes for analysis on op-ed pages … or sloppy writing in the middle of reporting. (Michael Gordon of the New York Times has been raked over the coals for his indiscriminate use of “al Qaeda” to describe most Iraqis with a Kalashnikov, but thankfully that seems to have been reined in.)

Others have been less careful. On Friday, Leslie Sabbagh of the Christian Science Monitor writes that Petraeus warned of “greatly increased sectarian violence” if the U.S. pulls out too soon. It’s a fairly run-of-the mill story, with stats showing a drop in attacks against civilians and an increase against U.S. troops. Pretty much what you’d expect, but there is some sloppy language in here. Sabbagh writes of a “quick withdrawal,” but few people in Washington are talking about anything hasty. They’re talking about the start of a withdrawal sooner rather than later — one that might take six months, a year, whatever — not a pell-mell rush to the border.

Sabbagh does it again, writing, “The prospect of any hasty removal of US troops has (Petraeus) concerned.” But the general actually said, “If we pull out there will be greatly increased sectarian violence, humanitarian concerns….” Petraeus makes no mention of the speed of the pullout; he questions the wisdom of a pullout altogether. The military command and the Bush White House seem to be envisioning a long-term presence in Iraq that will last years, but reporters are thinking of a evacuation, Saigon style. Those are two very different ideas. Reporters need to let the readers know when Petraeus, Bush, et al. are trying to reframe the debate as a choice between a hasty, unplanned retreat and an indefinite presence. What’s actually being talked about is either an indefinite presence or an orderly withdrawal with proper force-protection over a period of time, but which begins sooner rather than never.

But for an egregious example of high weirdness, check out the Monitor‘s publication of an op-ed by Andrew Roberts, author of “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900.” In this extraordinary op-ed, Roberts argues that “the English-speaking peoples” (ESPs) of the world are the ones best able to stand up to radical, totalitarian Islam because Anglophones have never been invaded or fallen under the sway of fascism or communism. “Countries in which English is the primary language are culturally, politically, and militarily different” — read, “better” — “from the rest of ‘the West,'” he writes. “They stand for modernity, religious and sexual toleration, capitalism, diversity, women’s rights, representative institutions — in a word, the future.” Yeah! Suck it, Germany, Spain and Italy! (Who have all committed troops and suffered casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere since 9/11.)

Seriously, this offensively nativist tract must come as a surprise to the those non-English-speaking peoples of the world (poor sods), but maybe they’ll be content to bask in the warm protectorate of the US-Canadian-British-ANZ imperium. There is just so much wrong with this op-ed — such as saying the invasion of South Korea by North Korea was a “surprise” attack for the world’s ESPs when it sounds like it was more a surprise to the South Koreans. And his repetition of the whole ESP phrase is grating. Finally, he just up and ignores the contributions of German soldiers in Afghanistan and the French Navy in patrolling the vital sea lanes throughout the Arabian and Indian oceans. And he trots out the old, “Al Qaeda can’t be appeased because the French would have already done so” trope. WTF? Is this a joke?

There’s much more — so much more. I’m leaving out the pablum from such luminaries as Bill Kristol — “the Bush presidency will be seen as a sucess” — and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. I mean, we all know what’s the score with those guys. But I expected a bit more from the Monitor.

Finally, my latest column for Spot-on.com is available. In it, I take up — what else? — the 1st anniversary of the Israel-Hezbollah war. (Some people call it the July War, but since half of it happened in August, I’ll stick with my appellation, thanks.)

That’s all. More to come!

Lebanese Army on the Move

BEIRUT — The Lebanese army is on the move toward Nahr el-Bared. For the last three hours, the army has been pounding Fatah al-Islam positions with artillery, tanks and mortars. Some believe this is a softening up of position before a full-scale assault on the camp, which would break a 37-year-old precedent keeping Lebanese troops out of the Palestinian camps.
Or it might be another one of the exchanges of fire that have peppered the almost two week stand-off. Although this one looks pretty big.

Going in?

BEIRUT — In my previous post, I mentioned that Maj. Gen Ashraf Rifi, the head of the Internal Security Forces told me, he “thinks the army will have to go in” to Nahr el-Bared to uproot the militants of Fatah al-Islam.
“They are very dangerous,” he told me in his plush office. “We have no choice, we have to combat them.”
Perhaps I underplayed his comments, because if he’s right, “going in” would be a huge development. The Palestinians have run their own security in the 12 camps under a 1969 agreement brokered by the Arab League. Now, that agreement was allegedly revoked in 1987 by the Lebanese Parliament, but there’s still at least a tacit agreement that the Palestinians mind their own store.
That’s not really a viable security option anymore, as we can see just north of Tripoli.
Now, what was Rifi trying to say? Was he merely repeating the phrase of my question — “Will the army have to go in?” — because his english isn’t so good, as he protested a couple of times? (He spoke well enough to conduct an interview, mind you.) Was he trying to emphasize the point that there are elements in the government that are rarin’ to go get those Fatah al-Islam guys while others, perhaps Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, are willing to take a slower approach?
Or was he trying, in his own locution, to emphasize the importance for Lebanon of winning this battle? Because this is make or break time for Lebanon as a sovereign state.
If the army fails at this task of defeating Fatah al-Islam — and I’m not talking about some mealy-mouthed “arrangement” where a few of the militants are hauled in — it will undermine the legitimacy of the army as a state institution. And that will very much play right into Hezbollah’s hands.
See, Hezbollah has often said it is needed as an armed resistance because the army is too weak to stand up to Israel. (True.) But the Shi’ite group won’t put itself under the command of the army because to do so would mean that any attack it launched on Israel such as, say, capturing and killing Israeli troops, would mean _Lebanon_ was the aggressor and as such would bring down the wrath of the Israeli military on _Lebanon._
Of course, this is exactly what happened last summer, but let’s not quibble. In Lebanese politics, there are apparently no limits on hypocrisy.
If the army fails and is seen as weak or illegitimate, Hezbollah has a strong argument for saying it must keep its arms for the defense of Lebanon. Now, one of the definitions of sovereignty is the “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopoly_on_the_legitimate_use_of_physical_force, or violence. Since Lebanon’s government and weak army would be unable to claim that following a loss at the hands of Fatah al-Islam, there would be no real sovereignty here. Hezbollah 1, Lebanon 0.
One can argue whether a sovereign Lebanon is a good or bad thing in the grand scheme of things, an argument I can’t address on this humble blog, although I favor the former. But it’s vitally important to the Lebanese government.
It’s so important that some elements of the government, including Rifi’s former boss, cabinet member Ahmad Fatfat, “are calling for storming the gates of Nahr el-Bared.”:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070526.LEBANON26/TPStory/International
There is some buzz that this will be resolved in 48 hours. That may be true, or it might not be. A lot can happen in this small country in that time.
By the way, the donations are working again, and covering this place ain’t cheap. Fixers, rented cars, hotel rooms, etc. all cost money and freelancing for newspapers only covers part of it. If you’d like me to keep blogging the developments in Lebanon’s latest crisis, please consider dropping some coin in the donate link below and to the right. Thanks.

Strange doings in Tripoli

TRIPOLI — What the heck is going on up here? That seems to be the big question at the moment. Last night around 9 p.m., fighting started up again between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam. This prompted speculation that the push against the jihadi group had come, and I raced back up to Tripoli from my spot of being stuck in a checkpoint just outside Beirut. (The capital is locked down after three bombs this week, so security is tight.)
Atop the building where the television crews have set up, the owner of the building — a tightly wound guy in the best of times — carried around a Kalashnikov and threatened to shoot anyone who turned on their television lights.
In the darkness, you couldn’t see who was who, and a rumor — goosed, apparently by Lebanese military intelligence — swept through the gang that Fatah al-Islam had sent suicide bombers throughout the nearby area and one might be on the roof. A quick evacuation ensued.
This morning it’s quiet again. The fighting stopped around 6 a.m., and we’re back to waiting for something to happen.
My feeling is that Fuad Siniora’s government is a bit confused, as the Palestinian issue is a tricky one. The status of Palestinians in Lebanon is not a purely internal affair, but one belonging to the Arab League thanks to a 1969 agreement that keeps Lebanese authority out of the 12 camps scattered around the country. Further complicating matters, the camp isn’t empty. There has been a more or less steady trickle of refugees getting out of the camps, either on foot or in cars, but there are still about 18,000 civilians in the camp, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
The humanitarian situation is growing worse by the hour inside the camp, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and scattered demonstrations in other camps have already occurred. More casualties among civilians is going to inflame the Palestinians in Lebanon — an already seething people who make up about 10 percent of Lebanon’s population. Sultan Abu Aynan, the head of Lebanon’s branch of Fatah — the main group in the PLO — has warned of a general uprising among the Palestinians could occur. Other Arab governments have also expressed concern over the casualties (even while they pledge a rush shipment of weapons to the Lebanese army.)
So a long siege is untenable to the Palestinians and Arab governments around the region. But leaving Fatah al-Islam alone is equally untenable to the Lebanese government. Going into the camp, no mater how carefully, will result in horrific casualties among both the Palestinians and the Lebanese army, perhaps the only state institution almost widely admired by all of Lebanon’s quarreling confessional groups. Further complicating matters, members of the opposition, led by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, camped out in downtown since Dec. 1, have started making political hay out of this situation by accusing the U.S.-backed government of incompetence and dithering — charges which aren’t entirely untrue.
I mention the various backers because solving the problem of Fatah al-Islam has implications far beyond the borders of Lebanon. While mass casualties on the army’s side would be bad, in Lebanon, the fear of the “other” overrides all. It’s highly unlikely Siniora’s political allies in the Christian and Druze camps would desert him no matter how bad a military assault might be.
(On a side note, Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, urged his supporters — of which there are many in this conservative Sunni area — to help the army. Allegedly, some have taken that to heart because I’ve heard stories from Palestinians who say Future Movement followers are shooting into the camp at anything that moves. How do they know the bullets are from Future Movement supporters? Who knows, but the truth is almost irrelevant in this case; the suspicions indicate the depth of distrust between Palestinians and local residents up here.)
So while army casualties would be bad, large numbers of dead among the Palestinians would be worse. Arab governments in the region such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf sheikhdoms would be seen by their own restive populations as helping a government massacre Palestinians — and it would be an _Arab_ government doing it. Talk about betrayal! (Al Jazeera, by far the most popular news channel throughout the Middle East, “is allegedly pushing this narrative”:http://beirutspring.com/blog/2007/05/23/why-many-lebanese-are-shunning-aljazeera/, although I can’t verify this just yet.) So Cairo, Amman and others are watching this situation very closely.
This would be bad for Siniora because he relies not only on support from the West, but from friendly Arab governments who want to check the Iranian-Syrian axis. Weakening Siniora means strengthening Hezbollah in Lebanon’s zero-sum politics, which would further strengthening Syria, right when it’s facing a possible United Nations Security Council resolution that would set up the Hariri tribunal under Chapter 7.
The common thread in all of this is Syria. Fatah al-Islam is suspected of being a Syrian marionette and Hezbollah is a Syrian ally. With threats from the north, south and east, the little prime-minister-that-could is rapidly running out of room to maneuver.

White House criticizes Democrats, gives GOP a pass

BEIRUT — U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi came under fierce criticism from the White House for her proposed trip to Syria tomorrow, but, oddly, a Republican congressional delegation yesterday to Syria was given a free pass by the same White House.
As Dana Perino, White House spokeswoman, “said”:http://newsblaze.com/story/20070331153944tsop.nb/newsblaze/TOPSTORY/Top-Stories.html:

I do think that, as a general rule – and this would go for Speaker of the House Pelosi and this apparent trip that she is going to be taking – that we don’t think it’s a good idea. We think that someone should take a step back and think about the message that it sends, and the message that it sends to our allies. I’m not sure what the hopes are to – what she’s hoping to accomplish there. I know that Assad probably really wants people to come and have a photo opportunity and have tea with him, and have discussions about where they’re coming from, but we do think that’s a really bad idea.

Fair enough. But Reps. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Joe Pitts, R-Penn., “met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday.”:http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/n/a/2007/04/02/international/i083853D66.DTL&type=printable
The Republicans released a statement that said, “We came because we believe there is an opportunity for dialogue … We are following in the lead of Ronald Reagan, who reached out to the Soviets during the Cold War.”
_Quelle horreur!_ Dialogue? Crickets were the only response from the White House.
Again in fairness, I spoke with a source at a Western embassy in Beirut about this, and the source said the Republicans had been discouraged from going, just as Pelosi and her delegation had been. But, the source said, if a Congressional delegation is determined to go to Damascus, the U.S. embassy in Beirut would help them out. (He asked for anonymity because he’s not authorized to talk to the press — he also committed the unpardonable sin of calling Congress a “co-equal branch of government.”)
Pelosi is the highest U.S. official to visit Syria since President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s.