Monday, May 26, 2008

New president inaugurated in Lebanon. Can Bush keep his hands off?

As this report/analysis makes clear, Lebanon is not out of the woods, by a long shot. The opposing sides remain armed and intent on asserting themselves. Also telling here will be whether the Bush administration, which indeed suffered a defeat with Hezbollah's vindication in this deal, will take a clue, lie low, and let the Lebanese and interested regional parties try to work out a modus vivendi, or try to shake things up in its insistence that its war against "terrorists" (i.e., Hizbollah, Iran, Syria) takes precedence.
General Takes Office As President Of Lebanon
Vote Marks Symbolic End Of Government's Crisis

By Anthony Shadid and Alia Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 26, 2008; A12

BEIRUT, May 25 -- Lebanon's parliament elected the army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman, as president Sunday, filling a post vacant for six months and bringing a symbolic if tenuous end to the country's worst crisis since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

The vote for Suleiman was virtually uncontested, already agreed to in a deal negotiated in Qatar last week that ended an 18-month confrontation between forces allied with the government and the opposition led by the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah. Postponed 19 times, the election marked the first step in reconstituting what had looked more and more like a failed state in past months: an unfilled presidency, a cabinet deemed illegitimate by the opposition and a parliament that had not met since 2006.

After Suleiman's election, by 118 votes of 127 possible, a flag-waving crowd that had gathered in his home town of Amchit erupted in cheers. Fireworks detonated over Beirut, cars blared their horns and church bells tolled. Staccato bursts of celebratory gunfire rattled across a capital that, less than two weeks ago, witnessed pitched gun battles redolent of civil war.

"I call upon all of you, politicians and citizens, to begin a new stage that is called Lebanon and the Lebanese," Suleiman, who forewent his military uniform for the civilian suit of a politician, told parliament. To repeated rounds of applause, he said the country had paid dearly for what he called national unity. "Let us preserve it hand in hand."

The deal that brought Suleiman to power represented another setback in the region for the United States, which has long sought to isolate Hezbollah, a group backed by Syria and Iran. Under the agreement, Hezbollah and its allies will have veto power in the coming cabinet -- the group's demand since the crisis began after a war with Israel in 2006 -- demonstrating its clear role today as the single most powerful force in Lebanon.

The vote represented a rare moment of consensus across the political, social and ideological divide that still fractures Lebanon -- from the country's posture toward Israel to which foreign patron will play the greatest role in Lebanese politics, long vulnerable to regional crises. The foreign ministers of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and France attended the parliamentary session, as did the emir of Qatar, who was seated at the podium of parliament in recognition of his government's role in the negotiations, which nearly collapsed twice. In a telling sign, the United States was represented only by a congressional delegation.

"This last crisis ended with a winner and a vanquished," said the emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani. "The winner is Lebanon, and the vanquished is the feud, and this needs to be clear to all -- today, tomorrow and forever."

Streets in the capital and elsewhere Sunday were awash in Lebanese flags and posters celebrating Suleiman's presidency. "The leader, the president," one read. "Congratulations, Lebanon," said another. Weary of almost continuous crises that have beset Lebanon since former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in a 2005 car bombing in Beirut, many residents, regardless of their stance on the crisis, have greeted the agreement and election of Suleiman with relief that the country averted civil war, consolation perhaps muted by frustration that the confrontation lasted as long as it did.

Reservations have surged at hotels here, the stock market has rebounded and life has returned to a downtown paralyzed by an 18-month opposition sit-in.

Often heard in Lebanon, though, is the idea that the country has embarked on a truce, and no more. The question of Hezbollah's arsenal remains pressing for government supporters, who tried to address the issue in the Qatar talks. Suleiman is expected to lead a dialogue over the issue with rival leaders.

The cabinet will remain in power through next summer, when parliamentary elections are expected to again enshrine in power the same leaders, some of them veterans of the civil war with almost-feudal influence over their followers.

Suleiman, 59, was appointed army commander in 1998, when Syria still exercised tutelage over Lebanon. He rose through the ranks of an army that, particularly in the 1990s, worked closely with Syria and Hezbollah, which fought a guerrilla war against Israel in southern Lebanon until its withdrawal in 2000. He emerged as a candidate of the opposition, then drew on the backing of government supporters to fill a post vacant since the term of Emile Lahoud, a Syrian ally and former general, ended in November.

Both sides had their grievances with Suleiman: The opposition was critical of the military for shooting on protesters in January; government supporters were angry at what they saw as the military's acquiescence in allowing fighters of Hezbollah and its allies to enter predominantly Muslim West Beirut this month, where they routed government-backed militiamen in hours, forcing the government into the eventual compromise.

"The gun should only be pointed against the enemy," Suleiman said. "We will not allow it another direction."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Rebuilding US foreign policy

The new president come 2009 will be faced with a monumental task in rebuilding America's role as a significant player in Middle Eastern developments, not to mention international relations in general, thanks to Mr. Bush and his pals. On the other hand, much of the world may welcome a new US approach that stresses global cooperation over Bush's unilateralism (which boiled down to US-firstism, as it were) especially in a new era blooming with possibilities of massive instability that may have global repercussions: global warming, the threat of food shortages, intense (potentially violent?) competition over increasingly scarce and costly resources like petroleum and natural gas, as well as the ongoing threat from groups like al-Qaeda.

But what will the US be able to bring to the table if the world wants to sit down and work out consultative, cooperative means of dealing with crises? Because of the world's awe of the US's military might, trust in the stability of the US economy (and dollar), and confidence in the efficacy of the US's diplomatic outreach and experience, the US had traditionally been counted on as both leader and ultimate enforcer - the "backstop," as it were, to keep crises in the ballpark. But now, the US economy is being pummeled onto the ropes: foreclosed mortgages, plummeting dollar, skyrocketing fuel prices (which, in my own home area, are contributing to a new round of teacher layoffs and possible school closings), US automobile manufacturers on life-support (Ford Motors just yesterday announced a cutback in US production; nobody's buying those Explorers and Expeditions anymore), national assets being gobbled up by China and the new "sovereign wealth funds" of petrodollar-rich nations.

As Strobel's essay (below) suggests, the confidence in US diplomacy is toast - thoroughly scorched toast, at that - thanks to the idiocy and arrogance of Mr. Bush's policies (and the sense of divine mission that impelled them), with a major assist from Condi Rice, who (as Elizabeth Bumiller's recent biography of her makes clear) has likely been the least qualified, least substantive (as opposed to stylish), and least effective national security advisor and secretary of state in the modern era. As for its military might, the US still possesses overwhelming firepower and technology-based weaponry, as well as a massive nuclear deterrent. But its land forces are in crisis: overstretched to the point of recruiting undereducated social and psychological misfits (and worse) to fill its ranks, and demoralized by the effects of multiple combat tours, stop-loss measures by its Pentagon commanders, and the refusal of increasing numbers of the Army's field and non-commissioned officers to re-enlist. Meanwhile, residents of Iraq's cities and villagers in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and now the world, thanks to the testimonies of "Winter Soldiers" and countless journalists) have learned that soldiers and contractors from the United States of America - a country long respected around the world for its democratic, humane values - have the prerogative of inflicting on them and their families sudden, indiscriminate murder, be it by an overreacting Marine patrol, the cowboys of a Blackwater security squad, an Air Force pilot in his (or her) F-16, or even a soldier, in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee at the ready, obliterating them and their families with a drone-borne Hellfire missile by pushing a button on a console on an air base in Colorado. The brutal termination of their lives is chalked up as "collateral damage" in the fight to eliminate the "bad guys" (many of whom are, after all, nationalist resistance fighters whose chief aim is simply to expel foreign occupiers - and their allies - from their homeland); their killers remain unknown or, if identified, largely unpunished. The US military is indeed still feared, and because of that fear, respected, but the larger point is that, where it once was seen as the agent of a nation that used its military might to fight for the Good, it now is perceived across much of the globe (and increasingly, here at home) as that nation's avatar of wanton destruction and domination.

As the world faces a terribly uncertain future as a new president is inaugurated in 2009, then, what reason has it any longer to look to the US for leadership, even with the promise of a new president in January, 2009?

Analysis: In week of dramatic Mideast developments, Washington was largely reduced to watching

By Warren P. Strobel - McClatchy Newspapers
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, May 24, 2008

WASHINGTON – In a week of dramatic developments in the Middle East, the most dramatic of all may have been the fact that the United States, long considered the region's indispensable player, was missing in action.

As its closest allies cut deals with their adversaries this week over the Bush administration's opposition, Washington was largely reduced to watching.

More painfully for President Bush, friends he has cultivated – and spent heavily on – in Lebanon and Iraq asked the United States to remain in the background, underlining how politically toxic an association with the United States can be for Arab leaders.

Over the past few days:

• The Lebanese government, which has received $1.3 billion and political support from the Bush administration, compromised with the Hezbollah-led opposition, giving the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group, which Washington considers a terrorist organization, a greater role in running the country.

• Israel ignored U.S. objections and entered indirect peace talks with Syria through Turkey, another longtime U.S. ally.

• The U.S.-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deployed military forces to Baghdad's Sadr City slum under an agreement that specifically excluded U.S. troops.

• Saudi Arabia, a crucial oil supplier and long a major buyer of U.S. weapons, is quietly closing what could be a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Russia, according to a U.S. defense official.

State Department officials scoffed at the notion that the United States has been relegated to the sidelines.

Private analysts and some foreign diplomats, however, said leaders in the Middle East, both friend and foe, are now calculating with an eye to the era after President Bush – who visited Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt this month with little visible effect.

Others said that by refusing to talk to adversaries and using bristling "with-us-or-against-us" rhetoric, Bush has cut his administration out of the game. Under Bush, U.S. diplomats have had few substantive discussions with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah or the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which in 2006 won elections that the White House had pushed for.

"In that sense, we've dealt ourselves out of the picture," said Richard Murphy, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria and an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration.

Three years ago, Lebanon was a symbol of the kind of Arab democracy the Bush administration envisioned. A Western-backed reform movement, spurred by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, drove out a generation-long Syrian military presence and made electoral gains against Syrian-backed factions such as Hezbollah.

But every year since Hariri's death, America's sway in Lebanon has diminished and Hezbollah's has increased.

An 18-month political stalemate erupted in violence this month, with Hezbollah and its allies taking over much of Beirut but stopping short of laying siege to the government.

The strategy paid off this week, when Arab mediators in Doha, Qatar, negotiated a peace agreement that fulfilled Hezbollah's three main goals: keeping its vast arsenal intact and untouchable; winning veto power over all government decisions; and tweaking election laws to better reflect the growing Shiite population.

U.S. and European powers could do little but watch. Murphy, referring to Lebanon, said: "Maybe we didn't do quite enough, and said too much."

Similarly, in the talks between Israel and Syria, it was Turkey that stepped into the role of "honest broker" once played by the United States.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Bush were aware of Israeli-Syrian contacts in recent months, U.S. officials said. But they made little secret of their deep skepticism about the worth of talking to Syria, which Bush has shunned far more than any of his recent predecessors.

"It's like I'm from Missouri. … Show me," the State Department official said.

Israel, though, appears to have decided that it's worth trying to peel Syria away from its larger patron, Iran, which is also Israel's principal adversary. For its part, Syria seeks to retrieve the strategic Golan Heights, which it lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

Into the vacuum stepped Turkey, a large, pro-Western Muslim nation that has strong ties to Israel and Syria. It gained credibility in the region for refusing to allow U.S. troops to use its territory to invade Iraq in 2003.

"Turkey has carved out the middle ground," said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "It's a success story."

The proposed arms deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia is yet another example of a country trying to make inroads on traditional U.S. turf. Russia's state-controlled arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, has been marketing aggressively in the Arab world, according to a senior State Department official. News reports from Moscow value the deal at $4 billion, although U.S. officials said it might be smaller.

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