Walid's Wanderings

Reflections on life, good-and-evil, family, humanity, and anything else that occurs to me, usually when I travel. Right now I am on a 6-year trip through Lebanon, the homeland I had never really lived in before.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Insomnia ...

It's finally sinking in. I am down to the level of detail where I ask questions like which American state gives the best trade-off between home prices costs employment opportunities, or which car brand gives the right trade-off between running and acquisition costs. So we are really leaving. It's pretty hard to leave a place where you have good memories not knowing when you will be able to come back. Everyone knows that. It is actually harder, in my experience, to leave a place where part of your identity was created, and then know with certainty that, even when you eventually go back there physically, it will never be the same. It will never be "home" again.

At least the sleep I'm losing over this will go towards a longer posting today.

Real Evil

It is easy to mistake ignorance for malice, I have always believed. So far in my posts, I have been analyzing what is happening in Lebanon based on a generous assumption of ignorance by the key players of each others' true motivations. This may well be a good assumption. We may still see an end game where Israel demonstrates that it does not want to geopolitically dominate Lebanon, a Lebanese consensus that includes Hezballah in some form demonstrates that it does not want to destroy Israel in the long run, and America demonstrates that the brand of democracy it wants is really one that includes everyone and not just politicians similar to George Bush and Tom Delay. Or was it Ken Lay? I get them confused.

Today, I want to focus instead on the converse assumption: that malice feigns ignorance and foments ignorance in others. A malice that can truly fan the destructive mutual ignorance of the immediate combatants in Lebanon must be something big indeed. And I have a woozie of a theory here. To mix a metaphor from Fukuyama, I am talking about no less than the restart of history. In everything from a DVD player to a printer, "restart" is the button you press to get out of "pause" mode. Usually the same button, but that's beside the point. So you might assume that, when I say "the restart of history", I must be implying that history paused when the Soviet empire folded and Fukuyama wrote "The End of History". That is not what I have in mind. Instead, I want to look back to the French Revolution in 1789.
Those of you familiar with David Brin's "Real Culture War" essay can skip the following paragraph.

The Very Very big picture

Journalists bandy about the word "empire" with ease. But who remembers what a real empire was like? Before the French Revolution, history was a tale of empire eating empire. Within each empire, there was invariably a version of monarchist France's First, Second and Third Estates. The First Estate was the aristocrats. They led armies, levied taxes, and held all manner of political power which they used to raise more taxes and fight off any rivals. And they handed power down to their offspring. The Second Estate was the clergy. They also collected wealth and were exempt from taxes. They talked about Good and Evil, but their main contribution to the structure of the empire was to convince people that it was right and good that the Aristocrats be in charge. The Third Estate, scared by the weaponry of the First and obedient to the ideas of the Second, paid all the taxes and did all the work. The French Revolution, and its close parallel American Revolution, were the first of many attempts to put into place an alternative idea. The idea of accountability of the rulers to all of the ruled equally. Liberty to criticize and equality between the critics' voices. (Fraternity was added to make the slogan more catchy.)

The old march of history, where empire ate empire, began to come to a pause in the 18th century. Both Communism and Democratic Capitalism emerged from the French Revolution, and both were aimed at stopping the past excesses and violence of the previously universal feudal system of competing emipres. Feudal empires the world over were no match for these two universally empowering ideologies. Understandably, the two eventually clashed, and in the end Democratic Capitalism proved flexible enough to survive a few decades longer. The ideals of universal economic equality that headlined the Communist model were more quickly transformed into a "Second Estate" of a new empire. Those ideals were proposed as the reason for the working majority to yield to the rule of a "First Estate" of Party Nomenklatura, who incidentally controlled the weapons and the KGB. Once that happened, it was Democratic Capitalism against just another empire, and guess who won?

Was this now the end of history? No one seems to think so anymore. In fact, it is becoming more clear to many that the Democratic Capitalist model was also susceptible to a slide into Feudalism. Perhaps less so than Communism was, but looking at what is happening inside the politics of the USA, flagship of the free world, is worryingly suggestive.

Political intrigue in the U.S.A.

Most of you know more about this than I do, but below is a summary of the points that support the neo-feudal leanings of the Bush regime:
  • Increased government secrecy.
  • Tax breaks for the rich.
  • Attempts to abolish estate and capital gains tax.
  • Rampant gerrymandering to lock in political incumbents.
  • Government borrowing on a scale that makes it potentially politically beholden to creditors.
  • Reversing gains in individual rights in favor of "group rights".
  • Adding religious rhetoric to the mix of money and incumbent power to gain future political power.
  • Monarchic powers to the President.
  • Haliburton, Diebold, Enron.
This is all domestic politics, and there are clearly forces fighting back on all fronts, in addition to forces that are clearly on the "good" side of true liberal democracy and capitalism but who have yet to join the good fight (I'm thinking of the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.)

On the foreign policy side, we see a more pessimistic picture. Instead of a "Second Estate" from pre-Platonic old-testament Christians, we see a much more beguiling deployment of the principles of the Enlightenment itself as a "Second Estate" to lock in power and money for hereditary elites. People are easily fooled to root for the side that would do them the most harm in the long run. Not that s easy to decide most of the time:
  • Between Putin and the Oligarchs, it's hard to figure out whom to root for.
  • Between the disorganized feudal system of the Taleban and the entrenched feudal system of Saudi Arabia, it makes sense to side with the Bush Administration and root for Saudi.
  • Between China and North Korea, it's also easy to root for the more capitalist China along with the neo-feudalists in the USA.
The evidence that really brings historical empires to mind has to do with the trend in where American force is projected:
  1. Against Al-Qaeda and the Taleban, morally reprehensible and also guilty of attacking the USA.
  2. Against Saddam's regime, morally reprehensible but not guilty of attacking the USA.
  3. Now, the Bush administration is trying to turn an easily resolvable border spat into another protracted war against a foe who is neither universally condemned on the moral front nor guilty of attacks against America.
See the pattern?

One of the scariest things about Saddam's Baath party, as described in the pseudonymously authored "Republic of Fear", was that it openly stated that "the state chooses its enemies." In other words, good behavior was no guarantee against being singled out as an example by the state apparatus. Today, guess who chooses to call an individual an "enemy combatant" or to call a group of people "terrorist organization"? (P.S. the "legal definition" of a terrorist organization I cited in a previous posting applies to some federal agencies, but for others the designation granted and revoked case by case.)

Lebanese Politics

So far I had been acting simplistically, and probably antagonizing a lot of you, by letting Hezballah as an organization be defined by the words of their head politician. But in my last post I opened the proverbial can of worms by asking what happens if we follow to a logical conclusion the notion that politicians speak to get votes. No one took the bait. (Pause to dwell the unmixed nature of the extended metaphor.) A closer observation of Hezballah, which I may no longer be able to access once I leave Lebanon, suggests that they are actually pandering to multiple constituencies. The two I want to distinguish can be given two simplistic labels which, I want to impress upon you from the outset, are not meant to be suggestive of any ethnic, political, religious distinctions. I am talking more about competing philosophies: a "Sunni" audience that sees Israel as a blemish on the "empire", and a "Christian" audience that wants to be left alone to prosper economically without outside pressure. For the "Sunni" audience, Hezballah produces images of sneering Hasidim gloating over Lebanese dead bodies, and insists that any negotiations with Israel be "indirect" (as if Israel would negotiate directly with a non-nation.) For the "Christian" audience, Hezballah refuses to parrot open rhetoric about destroying Israel, and plays up the deterrent effect of Hezballah's unique military system, as well as the dire need for Lebanon to have this protection.

Now since Syria withdrew, precious few were left in Lebanon to constitute this "Sunni" audience. In the elections, no politicians who mis-read the mood badly enough to send this message won any seats. Instead, Hezballah had to deal with two political forces, neither of whom wanted Hezballah to remain outside the Lebanese consensus. The "Christian" audience wanted to hold Hezballah to its word, and have it shed the total independence of action that was a deterrent to foreign economic investment, while maintaining its independence of deployment. Oversight by a body that represents Lebanese consensus stops war from being initiated from the Lebanese side and satisfies investors. Independence of deployment is a vital component of the strategic mix that allows primitive missile technology to evade the seeing eye of a competing supreme air force, as I said before. This was well understood by all but the second force arrayed against Hezballah in Lebanese internal politics. One apt philosophical name for this group might be the "anti-Shiites". These people held the view that, even if a deterrent was nice to have, it was better to trust the Israelis to never hurt Lebanon than to let Hezballah have any responsibility for the deterrent. Since this view is overtly racist, it was unpalatable in raw form. The "cooked" version was to insist that Hezballah integrate into the armed forces of Lebanon.

This seems like a minute distinction from the previous view that Hezballah must have Lebanese consensus oversight. But the difference in end result is vast. In the armed forces, it is impossible to keep the weapons hidden. This is inherent in the way the military operates. You train people, indoctrinate them, and give them weapons that kill and officers to whom they are accountable. You trust them as far as these officers can see the weapons. This is key. If the officers do not know where the weapons are, then we have a gang. A gang is the correct term for what we in Lebanon called "militias" during the civil war. A set of petty local tyrants only beholden to their leadership by fear. No one can stop them stealing from civilians except by threatening them with a bigger gun. The genius of Hezballah's "well regulated militia" is that the soldiers' indoctrination is stronger than a regular army's. Officers can expect complete obedience even when the weapons and the soldiers are out of their sight. And thus out of sight of enemy spies and satellites.

So if the true "anti-shiites" are so few, how come the politicians that pandered to them were able to stop Hezballah and the "Christian" audience from uniting and properly legitimizing Hezballaj's status in a way that maintained its greatest strength? My interpretation of Lebanese politics from 2005 to now is that the anti-democratic forces of the Bush administration regarded them as sufficiently like-minded and were giving them support. These Lebanese politicians were all Bush-style would-be aristocrats. Saad Hariri, Walid Junblatt, and Amin Gemayel all inherited wealth, power and influence from fathers who were, in vastly different ways, successful products of an enlightenment meritocracy. Rafiq Hariri was, as you all know, a self-made billionaire who became Prime Minister of Lebanon after he despaired from fixing it any other way, and steered Lebanon's Sunnis away from extremism. Kamal Junblatt was born a feudal scion, died leader of the Socialist movement in Lebanon, and famously referred to his own mother when she died as the last of the feudal line. Pierre Gemayel was influenced by fascism, but he can be credited with saving Lebanon from communist take-over in the days of the PLO.

These great men had foibles and differed and fought but at least had principles. Today, their children are part of the great march backwards towards the feudalism with a democratic-capitalist face for which the Bush administration is chief proponent. For example, their first act on assuming a parliamentary majority in gerrymandered elections was to sack Lebanon's Constitutional Court (local version of the Supreme Court.) No one was left to look into voting irregularities that may have reversed the majority. And until today, the newly appointed justices have yet to agree to convene.

So these are the men with whom Condi Rice is meeting in Rome to plot the next step. They will set conditions tailored to sound reasonable to the Lebanese, but which will keep Hezballah fighting to the finish. Unless someone decent-minded like Fouad Seniora discovers an allegiance to his country greater than his allegiance to his ex-employer's son, and finds a way to save Lebanon and Hezballah by making Hezballah do what it promised half its audience to do.

Politics of Israel-Arab Negotiation

I have maintained in the past, and still do, that Israel can only have lasting peace when it negotiates with an opponent that has a sense of security. This happened with Egypt in 1977 after Egypt was able to fight to a standstill in 1973. Jordan publicly made peace after Egypt signed on, but the initial and openly-secret agreement was reached after Jordan's Arab Legion was the only military left standing outside Israel in 1948. Syria has not signed a peace yet, but few people seem to know why. All rhetoric aside, and there is a lot of rhetoric coming out of those masters of the Arabic literary tradition in Syria, Hafez El-Asad was about ten feet of land away from a peace agreement with Israel before Sharon's first term as Prime Minister. Ten feet of land. The width of a strip on the northern bank of the biblical Sea of Galilee, now known as Lake Tiberias. Israel wanted to maintain sovereignty on just that strip when it withdrew from the Golan heights in exchange for lasting peace with Syria. By doing so, Israel denied Syria any legal claim to irrigation water from the lake. Syria would not have it, and Israel would not budge. Lacking any real military or political strength to push any harder, Syria left the table without a peace deal.

The irony is that there was nothing inherently zero-sum about the deal. Having once been employed by a company that built desalination plants in Kuwait, I happen to know that it takes less than half a billion dollars to build such a plant. With a billion dollar budget, one can easily not only set up a plant to make drinking water from the salty Mediterranean, but also endow a fund to pay for the fuel to run the plant. A billion dollars. How much more has been spent on weapons alone, never mind the destruction caused by the weapons, since then?

So if I were an Israeli leader who wanted peace, I would go out of my way to convince my Arab negotiating partners that they had something I feared. Even if it means pretending. If this worked, no one would want nuclear weapons programs. And if this happened, then the various politicians on the Arab side who want the peace-with-dignity vote would be free to band together and negotiate a lasting peace. The politicians who want the war vote would lose at the ballot box and abandon the idea. The true Jew-haters left standing would then be few enough to ignore or to hold properly accountable if any act on their rhetoric.

So far it has been hard to even pretend that the Palestinians had anything that Israel feared. Now Hezballah is making a bid to be a deterrent force against Israeli violence in Lebanon. The obvious and decent thing to do is to hold them to their word before the voters that they attracted with that claim. Let them be a deterrent, but one that exists within the mosaic democratic institutions of multi-sectarian Lebanon, and hence not a spearhead for initiating violence into Israel. And then, milk the feeling of security that comes with this deterrent for all it is worth. In other words, hammer out a final peace deal with both Lebanon and the Palestinians. I don't know enough about Iran to speculate, but I can only assume that the combined rejection of Iran's nuclear option by every single nation in the region, bar none, can only help the case of the US and Europe. (This would be, to those who need a crash course, the case for preventing Iran from pursuing any technical pathways to peaceful nuclear power that happen yield militarily deployable side products.)

Conclusion

In my mind, the real battle has yet to be joined. People the world over who want to see the final triumph of the Enlightenment ideals of democracy, accountability, rule of law, and free markets must step in to stop this restart of history. Arrayed against them, and making their move in broad daylight as it were, are the forces intent on changing these ideals into the "ruling ideology" of a new world empire not unlike everything in history before the French Revolution. An empire, it must be made abundantly clear, no more immune from invasion by other empires run by alternate hereditary elites, than any other in history. History as usual. Except with Nukes.

Can reasonable people in Lebanon, the USA and Israel save the day?

Disclaimer: Then again, maybe it's just ignorance. Condi reading the script for "birth of a chicken egg" while witnessing the birth of an elephant.

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