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Required Reading

NOW Lebanon columnist Michael Weiss is on fire. His entire piece, Between Sisi and Morsi, is magnificent, so go read it all.

Here is but a taste.

In a way, it’s hard not to sympathize with former anti-Mubarak agitators turned army nostalgics such as Mohammed Badr, now the de facto leader of the Tamarod (“rebellion”) movement to unseat Morsi. If his ideology weren’t a big enough problem on its own, Morsi’s tone-deaf incompetence surely was. Presented with a national complaint that exceeded in both size and scope the one that ousted his predecessor, Morsi has done everything to legitimate the opposition’s argument that, at a time of emergency, Egypt is being lorded over by an authoritarian nincompoop who thinks he’s got all the time in the world. (One way to make the word “coup” suddenly palatable again is to appoint a member of a terrorist group the provincial governor of the region where that group once perpetrated it worst terrorist attack.)

Morsi has indeed treated his opponents as if they simply do not exist, surely a reflex response of decades of having kept only the counsel of his fellow subscribers of a cult movement that seems to borrow from both Bolshevism and Heaven’s Gate. Even as half a dozen or so members of his own cabinet tendered their resignations, even as Brotherhood heavies were being seized and placed under house arrest, and even as Brotherhood HQ was being set alight, the president was neither seen nor heard from. When he finally took to the airwaves at midnight last night to reject Sisi’s ultimatum, Morsi affirmed that the price for his maintenance in power could be his own life – not realizing that this was a price many are eager to see paid.

[…]

President Obama has said recently, though only discovered belatedly, that democracy must not be confused with the mere holding of elections. Whatever happens from here, one lesson that should be learned from Egypt’s latest round of convulsions is the sentimental pieties and determinisms with which we continue to approach history require a serious rethink. The image of an ink-stained finger or an old man arriving at a polling station to participate in the first free election of his life are undeniably more captivating for viewers of CNN or Al Jazeera than the latest report from the International Monetary Fund or Human Rights Watch. And yet, because the more significant bricks-and-mortar work that goes into building a functioning state and safeguarding an independent civil society is so easily ignored, that work is usually the first victim of the aspiring tyrants of the ballot box. Critical journalists can thus be fired from their jobs, NGO workers can be put on trial for phantom conspiracies, women can be characterized as Adam’s rib, opposition leaders can be beaten or locked up – all in the name of a concept “democracy” that been fetishized to near meaninglessness. Put it this way: if the ruling party in a true democracy is shown to be running torture facilities out of the official residence of the chief executive, it will not take a new election to remove that party from power.

Read the whole thing at NOW Lebanon.

A Study in Contrasts

Two days after rampaging mobs sexually assaulted 91 women at demonstrations in Egypt, Libya is preparing to make rape during armed conflict a war crime.

A Prediction

Terrorism is coming to Egypt.

Armed Forces Control Egypt

Egypt's Mohamed Morsi is now officially overthrown by the military. Adly Mansour, the head of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, is the new president.

Military commanders say they don't wish to govern, but they're clearly the real power in Egypt.

This, by the way, is why Iran's Revolutionary Guard was created after the Shah was overthrown in 1979. State armies everywhere in the Middle East are allergic to radical political Islam even though the armies are made up of Muslims.

Genuine liberals exist in the Middle East. In some places, such as in Egypt, they're a tiny minority. Seriously, don't kid yourself. The millions of people out in Cairo's streets are not all Jeffersonian democrats. Some of them are, but those crowds also include a motley collection of Nasserists, communists, socialists, anarchists, reactionaries, garden variety hooligans, and gang rapists.

In other countries, such as Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco, civil society institutions flourish and liberals are much more numerous.

In most of the region, however, this isn't their moment. The contest for power is still being waged between the regimes and the Islamists.

Egypt is right back where it started. I’m reminded of something Lebanese President Amine Gemayel said during the civil war in the 1980s. “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.”

Here We Go

Egypt is No Place for Women

Every woman I know who has visited Egypt was sexually harrassed there over and over again. It’s relentless. It’s extremely aggressive and it never stops. Attractive women can't go outside for even five minutes.

And I’ve lost track of how many stories like this I’ve read lately.

A young female journalist was gang-raped during violent mass protests in Egypt on a night that saw 44 sickening attacks on women.

Five men attacked the 22-year-old Dutch woman in Tahrir Square, Cairo, leaving her in a “severe condition” and needing surgery.

[R]eports also claimed a grandmother and a seven-year-old child were sexually assaulted.

[…]

Last night Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, tweeted: “Sadly #tahrir revolutionary atmosphere of people behaving well with common purpose long gone. Sexual assault common. No cops in sight.”

[…]

Activist group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment recorded 44 cases of sexual assaults and harassment against women on Sunday night alone - the highest number it has encountered since the group formed in November 2012.

My wife has traveled with me to Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, and Libya, and she visited Morocco with her parents when she was a teenager. She had to deal with a few minor incidents in Tunisia and Libya, but nothing worth writing about and nothing that would deter her from going back. (She was with me, though, which may have discouraged men from bothering her.) In Morocco she ran into a man who jokingly offered her father a dozen camels if he could marry her, and that was it. She had no trouble in Turkey or Lebanon. I don’t know any women who have trouble in Lebanon. Men there know how to behave.

I don’t know why Egypt is so much worse, but for whatever reason, it is. I will never take my wife there. Never. She would not go there anyway. She knows how bad it is, but a lot of women apparently don’t. That needs to change.

Bluffing in Cairo?

Most of us mortals, when trying to figure out what’s next for Egypt, would be no worse off analyzing goat entrails and tea leaves than reading the news. But take a look at what Egyptian-born scholar Samuel Tadros has to say. He thinks the army and the president are bluffing. Maybe!

Morsi has a bad hand. His performance in actual governance has been miserable and he has managed to alienate many of his initial supporters. After the high expectations of the revolution, he has failed to deliver. The protests against him are massive and larger than he expected, though not as large as his opponents may be dreaming. He recognizes that this is a make-or-break moment for him, but, more important, for his organization.

Morsi is not an independent player on the table; he represents and is guided by a larger entity, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has waited for this moment for 80 plus years. It saw its future brighten unexpectedly with the fall of Mubarak only to find another danger awaiting it at the corner. It is obsessed with conspiracy theories and cannot see or interpret the world outside of it; it cannot allow this moment to slip from its hands. This is it: victory or death. The Brotherhood knows that in the event of a coup, no matter how hard it fights, the odds are not high for it. A prolonged civil war following in the footsteps of Algeria is not in its interests, and, contrary to expectations, the Brotherhood really isn’t a revolutionary movement. It accepted working in stages through the system for 80 years.

The Brotherhood has to act in the same manner the military is acting. It has to bluff. It knows the United States will not be enthusiastic about a coup and it knows the military is unsure of how much support the Brotherhood still has or what other Islamists might do. It has called for its supporters to demonstrate in the millions tomorrow and aims to show that Morsi still has a street backing him. It hopes that both the fear of the American reaction and the fear of clashing with Islamists will force the army to reconsider. It realizes it will have to give some concessions, but it does not want to share power in any serious manner.

Maybe there is some hope after all in Egypt. An actual balance of power may be in the making, not in constitutional articles but on the ground. All parties need to recognize that the country is larger than them and a bit of humility on their parts is badly needed.

There is, however, a perfect storm in the making here. Neither player has actually played poker before in his life. They may end up raising each other to the point of no return.

Egypt on the Brink

Extraordinary events are unfolding in Egypt.

Millions of people (millions!) surged into the streets of Cairo and demanded President Mohamed Morsi resign. Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm claims this was the biggest demonstration in thousands of years of Egyptian history.

Egyptian activist and blogger Sandmonkey posted the following on Twitter: “Dear World, pay attention: Muslims protesting in the millions against Islamism. This is Historic.”

It certainly is.

And the army is on side with the demonstrators. Commanders have given Morsi 48 hours to share power or be overthrown.

Meanwhile, protestors ransacked Muslim Brotherhood offices and a handful of people, including an American student named Andrew Pochter, were killed in clashes between Islamists and secularists.

I don’t have a clue where all this is heading. Not a clue. Just about anything could happen at this point.

It might all blow over. I’d be surprised if that happened, but I’m also surprised this is happening.

The army might actually remove Morsi from power. This is exactly how Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Protesters took to the streets and demanded he be removed, and the army took care of it.

Political Islam may be in the process of being discredited in Egypt before our very eyes. Then again, the Salafists may win hearts and minds by saying the Muslim Brothers were too moderate, that the only solution to what ails Egypt is their stern and unyielding and total imposition of political Islam.

Egypt could revert to its age-old default condition and be ruled again by a military dictatorship.

Civilian technocrats might take over.

Morsi could purge the army again and impose a vicious police state of his own.

Egypt could cycle through a rapid series of new presidents like Argentina did some years back when its economy collapsed.

Egypt isn’t prone to communal civil war like Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, and Iraq, but there’s a first time for everything.

Maybe none of the above scenarios will come to pass, but all of them are possible.

If Morsi is replaced, the new president will not have an easier time governing Egypt even if he does everything right. Egypt’s economy, an emergency room case to begin with, is imploding. Half the population lives on less than two dollars a day because they have no education or skills. That’s not a problem that can be fixed any time soon. Tourists won’t return any time soon, and Egypt desperately needs tourist dollars and Euros.

Nor will Egypt’s authoritarian political culture instantly become Jeffersonian. That could eventually happen, but it’s not going to happen before Wednesday morning.

Whatever comes next, the misnamed “Arab Spring” appears to be moving to a new phase.

Lebanon's Israel Syndrome

The Tower, an outstanding new magazine about the Middle East edited by David Hazony, has just published one of my long essays. Here’s the first half.

Lebanon has a serious problem with Israel.

The country has technically been at war with its southern neighbor since the Jewish state declared independence in 1948. Israeli citizens are banned. Even foreigners are banned if they have Israeli stamps in their passports. Lebanese citizens aren’t allowed to have any communication of any kind with Israelis anywhere in the world. If citizens of the two countries meet, say, on a beach in Cyprus or in a bar in New York, the Lebanese risks prison just for saying hello. Israel doesn’t even exist on Lebanese maps.

At the same time, with the possible exception of Morocco, Lebanon is in important ways the least anti-Israel country in the Arab world. Indeed, decades ago many Israelis assumed it would be among the first Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state. It made sense at the time. With its enormous one-third Christian minority (it used to have an outright Christian majority), it’s the least Muslim and most religiously diverse of all the Arab countries. And since a huge number of its Christians insist they aren’t even Arabs, Lebanon might be the least Arab of the Arabic-speaking countries. Its capital, Beirut, has more in common with Tel Aviv than with any Arab city, including those in Lebanon itself. Put simply, Lebanon is just about the only Arab country where Israel can find natural allies.

Yet today it is widely assumed that Lebanon will be the last Arab country to make peace with Israel.

To understand this paradox, you have to try to understand Lebanon. To say Lebanon is a nation of contradictions is a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it is true. It is simultaneously Western and Eastern, Christian and Muslim, modern and feudal, democratic and illiberal, secular and sectarian, cosmopolitan and parochial, progressive and reactionary, tolerant and aggressively hateful. This is because there is more than one Lebanon.

Lebanon is divided roughly into Christian, Sunni, and Shia thirds, with a ten percent Druze population, as well. The Christians have had ties with the West for centuries. Most of the Shiites look to Iran for leadership and support. The Sunnis are generally aligned with the more liberal and moderate forces in the Arab world, as well as with the Saudis. Thanks to all of this, as well as Lebanon’s location between Israel and Syria, Lebanon tends to get sucked into regional conflicts.

And because Lebanon was (and to some extent still is) a vassal state of Syria, even discussing peace and normal relations with Israel can get you imprisoned or killed. That’s been the case since the middle of Lebanon’s civil war when international peacekeepers withdrew from Beirut, and Syria’s ruling Assad family came to dominate Lebanese politics.

Lebanon is a more-or-less free country that protects freedom of speech, but on the Israeli question, it is effectively a police state. Lebanese are afraid to talk to each other about it. They’ll talk to me, though, because I’m an outsider. They’re extremely careful, of course, and much of what they say is strictly in confidence, but once in a while someone will talk to me on-the-record, knowing perfectly well that I’m going to publish what they have to say.

*

I’ve been working in Lebanon on and off for eight years, and I’ve noticed that things have changed since the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011.

The red line on Israel isn’t as bright as it used to be. Except for the usual warmongering rhetoric from Hezbollah, I sense more moderation and sanity than I used to. It doesn’t surprise me. Peace between Israel and Lebanon is still a long way off, but the possibility is now at least conceivable, mainly because the end of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad will be the beginning of the end for Hezbollah. And they’re the ones who enforce the red line on Israel.

This became clear to me when I had lunch with Mosbah Ahdab, a Sunni politician and former member of parliament from Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city.

“The post-Assad transition is going to be tough,” he said as we shared a bottle of wine in his living room, “because we have Hezbollah still around. But Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size. They will still have their weapons, but they can’t continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they’ve been aggressive to all these years.”

Indeed, Hezbollah will be surrounded by enemies. With the Assad family out of power in Syria, Hezbollah will be left exposed as a Shia minority in a Sunni majority region. Their immediate neighbors are Jews, Christians, and Druze, none of whom have the time, patience, or tolerance for an Iranian proxy militia in the eastern Mediterranean.

“There will be the real possibility of development,” Ahdab said. “We could have train service all the way down to Cairo. It could be fantastic.”

Michael Young, the opinion page editor of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, once said that Lebanon is a place where what isn’t said matters just as much as what is. This was one of those times.

Look at a map: The only way a train can travel from Beirut to Cairo is by passing through Israel. Lebanon and Israel will need an open border and normal relations before something like that could even get started. Yet a former member of parliament—not a Christian, but a Sunni Muslim—is openly, if a little obliquely, discussing it.

But he can’t discuss it with the Israelis. He can’t talk about anything with Israelis or he’ll go to jail. And he isn’t happy about that at all.

“I was once invited to a European Union conference,” he told me. “There was an Israeli guy from the Web site bitterlemons.net sitting near me and trying to talk to me. There was a camera around and I couldn’t respond. When the session started he said to the president that he didn’t know why he was invited to a place where people from Arab countries are present and refuse to speak with him. When it was my turn to speak, I addressed the president. I said, the previous gentleman is totally right. It’s ridiculous to be unable to communicate, but the laws in my country forbid me from speaking to him. I’ll go to jail.”

I’ve heard lots of stories like this over the years from Lebanese and Israelis. Israelis are offended when they run into Lebanese people who refuse to acknowledge them, but Ahdab isn’t kidding when he says he’ll go to prison. He used to be part of the government, but he’s afraid of his own government’s laws. And if he had tried to change the law when he was in the parliament, he almost certainly would have been killed by Hezbollah or another of Syria’s allies.

I told Ahdab I think that law is insane.

“Absolutely,” he said.

But what if there’s a new regime in Damascus? What if, as he said, Hezbollah gets cut down to size?

*

Samy Gemayel, in a long-standing family tradition, serves as a member of the Lebanese parliament. He’s the son of former President Amine Gemayel and the nephew of Bashir Gemayel, who was Lebanon’s president-elect in 1982 before he was assassinated. Samy’s brother Pierre was an MP in 2006 when men wielding automatic pistols shot him to death through the windshield of his car.

The Gemayels founded the Kataeb Party, which had a militia best known as the Phalangists during the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a hard-right party back then, but like most parties in Lebanon (except for Hezbollah) it has mellowed with age. Today, the Kataeb has more in common with European social democratic parties than with its militant and ruthless old self.

I met Samy Gemayel in his office in the mountains above Beirut and asked what he thinks might change in Lebanon without the Assad regime next door, especially if it also means a chastened and weakened Hezbollah. And, I added, “will there be any possibility that people might at least start discussing a Lebanese-Israeli peace track with a new government in Syria? Nobody even talks about it now even though Israel and Syria have negotiated repeatedly.”

“It’s a syndrome of the Lebanese people,” he said. “For twenty years anyone who even opened his mouth and said we should think about having a peace treaty with Israel went to prison or was killed.”

That was because of the Syrians and Hezbollah.

“People are afraid,” he said. “It’s like someone who has been in prison for thirty years. When he gets out of prison, he’s afraid to walk on the street and talk to people. It’s the same for the Lebanese people. They haven’t gotten over this syndrome. Especially since Hezbollah is here to remind them.”

A peace treaty is a long way off, of course, and will certainly require the destruction or transformation of Hezbollah before it can happen. But the first step will be getting over this syndrome and dissolving the red line. And there may be a relatively simple way to accomplish it.

“What if,” I said to Gemayel, “people from Washington came here and said, ‘Hey, you need to talk to your neighbors.’ Would things change?”

“Yes, it can change,” he said.

And why shouldn’t it? The syndrome is simple. It’s based on fear, silence, and punishment. If the United States pressures Lebanon to negotiate with Israel, the Lebanese will at least be able to discuss the fact that they’re being pressured by the United States to negotiate with Israel. And those who think it’s a fine idea will be given international cover. Just as the red line was imposed from the outside, it can be erased from the outside.

Indeed, powerful Lebanese people are walking right up to the red line right now without pressure from outside.

“Remember,” Gemayel said, “when Hezbollah had indirect talks with Israel through the Germans? I went on TV. It was the first time someone talked about this. I said, ‘how come Hezbollah is allowed to talk to the Israelis indirectly through the Germans to get their prisoners back while the Lebanese state is not allowed to do indirect talks like Hezbollah to get back Shebaa Farms?’”

Hezbollah didn’t respond to that challenge. What could they possibly say?

The Gemayels and their party were allied with Israel during Lebanon’s civil war. Samy Gemayel’s uncle, Bashir, swore to vanquish Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon, to throw out the Syrian army, and to sign a peace treaty with Jerusalem. Naturally the Israelis backed him to the hilt in 1982 when they invaded and he was elected president.

According to Thomas Friedman’s account in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, one of the last things Bashir Gemayel ever said was, “To all those who don’t like the idea of me as president, I say, they will get used to it.” A few moments later, he was blown to pieces by terrorists from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Bashir’s brother Amine replaced him as president. Lebanon’s civil war raged on—it was only half-way through at that point. And the Kataeb’s alliance with Israel began to wane. Jerusalem’s peace partner was dead and replaced with his more cautious brother. Hezbollah was on the rise in the south—from which Arafat’s PLO had been evicted—and in the northern Bekaa Valley. The Assad regime’s military forces weren’t planning to leave Lebanon anytime soon. The Israeli dream of a friendly and terrorist-free Lebanon was premature and would have to be deferred for a generation at least.

I asked Samy Gemayel about his party’s former alliance with Israel, and I did it carefully. “You can answer me twice,” I said, “on the record and off the record. I can turn off my voice recorder because I want to know what you really think, but I also want to know what you would say publicly.”

“Let me be very clear,” he said, “and this is my answer publicly and non-publicly. We believe we had no choice back then but to have an alliance with Israel. I’ve said it on TV. And if we find ourselves in the same position today, we would do it again. I also said that on TV. We couldn’t do anything else. The Syrians were against us. The Palestinians were against us. The Lebanese Muslims were against us. The entire Arab world was against us. What were we supposed to do? Say, please kill us? We would take support from anywhere, and the only country that supported us at that time was Israel. We really don’t have anything to hide on this matter. And we believe that there should come a day when we negotiate with Israel on all pending and disputed issues in order to have permanent peace on our southern borders. We should end this. We should have stability.”

He went on. I thought he might be careful and cautious, that he’d rather discuss something else, but no, he walked right up to the red line and told me I could print all of it.

“There is no excuse,” he continued, “why Egypt is allowed to have a peace treaty with Israel while we cannot negotiate for an armistice. Why can Jordan have a peace treaty while we also cannot negotiate for an armistice? Even Syria, without a peace treaty, has had peaceful relations with Israel since 1974. Why can’t we? More, why can Hezbollah, a paramilitary group, negotiate with Israel twice through German mediators in 2004 and 2009 to release its prisoners, and the official Lebanese state is not allowed to?”

How many Lebanese people agree with Gemayel? Who knows? They aren’t really allowed to discuss it. There certainly aren’t any polls on this question, and they wouldn’t be reliable if there were.

When I asked how many people he sensed agreed with him, he put it this way: “We have to take into consideration that a lot of people were killed here by Israel. We have to be very careful when we talk about it because people died. But it’s the same for Syria. Syria also killed a significant number of Lebanese from 1976 onward; more than what Israel killed, it may be argued. So if you want to have this attitude toward Israel, why not have the same toward Syria? Syria has done more harm to Lebanon than Israel.”

There are two reasons it’s considered acceptable to be a Lebanese ally of Syria but not of Israel. First of all, Syria is a “brother” Arab country. And second, Syria conquered Lebanon, transformed its political system, and still has agents and proxies inside.

“We just want peace in this country,” Gemayel said. “We want to build this country that has been destroyed for the last forty years. And we can’t build this country as long as it is at war. We don’t want to be at war anymore. It’s as simple as that.”

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.


Luxor in Revolt

Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi is destroying the country with a toxic mix of ideology and incompetence, and the city of Luxor is now in open revolt after he appointed a terrorist as the governor.

MEDINAT HABU, Egypt — Muhammed Hassan vividly remembers the November day in 1997 when six Gama'a Islamiyya gunmen charged a 3,400-year-old mortuary temple in Luxor.

“My cousin was a guard and was sitting in the police kiosk, and they took their guns out of their jackets and killed him,” he recounts.

A temple custodian, Hassan hid as the Islamists slaughtered 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians. He crept out 45 minutes later to find “a bloodbath … puddles of blood everywhere.”

Helping to remove the bodies, he saw “one woman holding her child … when they died, they were stuck together. That was the most difficult thing for me to see.”

[…]

In Luxor, protests erupted last week when Morsy named Adel Al Khayat, a leading Gama'a Islamiyya figure, as the local governor; Al Khayat withdrew when residents barred his office door and burned tires in the street.

Many here resented his connection to the group behind the 1997 massacre. Many believe his selection reflected an Islamist assault on tourism, near collapse since Egypt's 2011 revolution.

In the past, Hassan says, 20,000 tourists visited Luxor daily. “Now we are lucky to get 400, 500.” Only five of the normal 320 tourist cruise ships sail the Nile, according to guides.

Hassan calls out to a fellow guide, Adel Asad, to ask his opinion about the state of things. “Luxor is dead,” Asad yells back, and the ousted governor “is an idiot, like the president.”

That's a sentiment heard often here.

Within living memory, Egyptians have tried monarchy, Arab Nationalism, socialism, and military dictatorship. None of those government models worked, so now they’re trying Islamism.

It won’t work either. It will fail more spectacularly than even the others.

Egyptians might eventually see the virtues in political liberalism—a small minority of Egyptians already do—but it won’t likely become the dominant philosophy until it’s pushed by people who haven’t been born yet.

Hezbollah's Disneyland

Hezbollah now has a theme park.

The Tourist Landmark of the Resistance promises a fun-filled day for the entire family celebrating the holy Islamic “resistance” against the perfidious Zionist Entity. The Syrian- and Iranian-backed Party of God built it on top of a mountain overlooking South Lebanon and the Israeli border area, and they bus in school kids from all over the country to look at it.

Anti-American propagandist Noam Chomsky attended the inauguration.

It’s open to visitors from everywhere in the world except Israel, so I had to see it. My friend and occasional traveling companion Sean LaFreniere joined me, and we set out in a rental car from Beirut.

Getting there was a bit tricky. The museum-park was built on an old Hezbollah combat base that sits 3,400 feet above the rolling hills of South Lebanon. The nearby village of Mleeta is nowhere near a main road, nor is it on any maps, not even the huge and otherwise comprehensive map I bought for twelve dollars. But Google Earth knows where it is, and I could see online that it’s just four miles south of the Christian town of Jezzine at the southern tip of the Mount Lebanon range.

So I figured Sean and I could go there via Jezzine, which is on every map and is not at all hard to find. Jezzine isn’t exactly a hot spot for tourists, but Westerners do wind up there once in a while to soak in the mountainous scenery, to admire the Ottoman architecture of the old downtown area, and to escape the heat and humidity down at sea level.

But I knew in advance that driving south from Jezzine might be tricky and potentially…interesting. Hezbollah has been snapping up property there for years and using it for some secretive purpose that still isn’t entirely clear. Whatever they’re doing, it’s almost certainly part of their battlefield preparation for the next round of armed conflict with Israel.

Reporter Nicholas Blanford visited the area south of Jezzine in 2010 and was stopped by a Hezbollah fighter with an AK-47. “What are you doing here?” the gunman said. “This is a military zone. You should not be here.”

Jezzine is not along the low-lying Israeli border where most of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has taken place. It’s a Christian town thousands of feet up. Immediately to the south of it, though, is one of the highest elevation Shia regions in all of Lebanon. It’s somewhat protected by geography from ground invasions, and because it’s at a high elevation, it’s an excellent and rather obvious place to dig in and launch surface-to-surface missiles.

So I felt a bit of trepidation about driving through there, but it’s the easiest route to Mleeta and Hezbollah’s theme park, and the journalist in me was curious if I’d see anything.

Sean and I had coffee in one of Jezzine’s cafes. An oblivious person would have no idea they were a mere handful of miles from either a closed terrorist military zone or a terrorist Disneyland. Jezzine is a mountain town that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Eastern Europe, but it’s in Lebanon where quasi-Western outposts in the East co-exist very uneasily next to Iran’s state-within-a-state on the Mediterranean.

Only one road leads south out of town, so there was no question which way Sean and I were supposed to go.

Lebanon’s mountains are overwhelmingly Christian and Druze and have been for a thousand years, but almost immediately outside Jezzine we passed Hezbollah billboards and flags. I tensed up a bit and scanned the countryside for signs military activity even though I doubted I’d see much. Hezbollah expertly hides its rocket launchers and bunkers. Its engineers built vast underground tunnels right under the noses of the Israelis by smuggling unearthed rocks out of the ground one or two at a time and by smuggling cement into caves one teaspoon at a time. It took years, but that’s how they did it. So while I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see anything Hezbollah wanted to hide, I couldn’t help looking.

And Hezbollah can’t help being paranoid.

A Lebanese army soldier stopped me and Sean on the road. He was a kid, hardly a day older than twenty, and he seemed affable enough like nearly all soldiers at Lebanese checkpoints, but a man in his fifties in a nearby building barked an order at him, and the kid told us to get out of the car.

We stepped out of the car.

“You need to go inside,” the kid said, “and answer some questions.”

This checkpoint was ostensibly staffed by the Lebanese army, but I later found out Hezbollah took control of it a couple of years ago. It was one of their demands during negotiations after they invaded Beirut in 2008. But I didn’t have to be told that. It was obvious. The man Sean and I were ordered to see was clearly not an officer in the army.

He wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket. He had a beard that looked like mine would if I didn’t trim it or shave for three weeks. (No one in the military wears beards.) If I showed you a picture of him, you’d think he was American or European with his white skin and blue eyes and his casual Western attire. His attitude, though, and his general bearing, reeked of authority and of Hezbollah.

“Where are you going!” he barked as if it was a command instead of a question.

“Nabatieh,” I said, referring a Shia city down off the mountain that is not in the hands of Hezbollah.

“No!” he said and wagged his finger in my face like I was a naughty child about to be punished. “Nabatieh, no!”

The Lebanese army command in Sidon told me and Sean we could go anywhere we liked north of Nabatieh, that only the Israeli border region was closed, but that turned out not to be true.

I’ve been to Nabatieh plenty of times. It is not controlled or administered by Hezbollah. Going there is not a big deal. There’s nothing sensitive in Nabatieh, nor is it dangerous or really even unfriendly. This man in the black leather jacket had no reason to care if Sean and I ended up in Nabatieh. What he didn’t want was for us to drive to Nabatieh from there.

“Turn around and go back!” the man said. “Back to Jezzine!”

“Okay,” I said.

If I defied him, he’d lay hands on me. That came across. He wasn’t carrying a weapon that I could see, but the young man on the road was. And it was obvious that the man in the black leather jacket was the king of that inch. Sean and I were not getting past him.

So we returned to the car.

“Back to Jezzine!” he yelled again, his face flushed with anger at our existence.

I don’t know what he wanted to hide, but whatever it was, it’s roughly two miles south of Jezzine and two miles north of Hezbollah’s Disneyland.

*

Sean and I had to drive all the way back down to Sidon and up to Mleeta from the coast. The distance to Mleeta from Sidon is only twenty miles or so, but the route passes through an intricate web of unmarked and mostly unmapped back roads over rolling terrain. Once in a while I saw a sign pointing us in the right direction, but only one turn in five was marked, so we made a ridiculous number of wrong turns.

We drove through village after village, often turning at random, having no idea if we were going to the right way or not, constantly doubling back and second-guessing ourselves. I asked for directions a couple of times, but no one had the first clue how to get there or how to explain it. Everyone told us something different, which is what happens throughout the country no matter where I’m trying to go. There’s hardly any point in asking, really. Some people, if they don’t know the way, will just guess.

But we finally found the right road up the mountain and climbed through unlabeled and unmapped Shia villages until eventually we reached the top and had a commanding airplane view of South Lebanon. Israel was off to the left through the haze. The azure Mediterranean shimmered like an ocean before us.

And then we were at the Tourist Landmark of the Resistance. Two hours earlier we were but a handful of miles away at the checkpoint.

Hezbollah’s museum-park was practically empty.

It’s not on the list of sites promoted or managed by the Ministry of Tourism. No. This is, I believe, the only tourist attraction in the world built and managed by a terrorist organization.

Admission is thankfully free. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect it’s against the law for me to conduct economic business of any kind with Hezbollah. It’s against the law for diplomats at the American Embassy in Lebanon to even speak to anyone from Hezbollah. Either way, I don’t want to give them my money.

Sean and I picked up our free tickets at the gate and walked in.

I didn’t want to poke around in Hezbollahland with my big and obvious journalist camera, but Sean brought his tiny one and took some pictures. All the photos you see here are his.

“How weird is this?” I said as we approached. “Nothing like this will ever be built by Al-Qaeda.”

A slightly scruffy young man in a baseball cap saw us and approached. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties. Apparently, he was our guide. 

How was this going to go? Would he think we were useful idiots who ran off to Lebanon to cheerlead the resistance? A miniscule percentage of Americans think Hezbollah is awesome, but a lot of them wash up in Lebanon. The place is a magnet for such people. I’ve met some. They have issues.

Or did our guide-to-be suspect Sean and I were as hostile to Hezbollah as they are to us? Would he think we were spies or Israelis who sneaked in on dual passports?

Turns out he was suspicious. He didn’t actually say “ugh” when he figured out who we are, but I could read it all over his face.

“Welcome,” he said stiffly.

I made eye contact with him for only the briefest of moments. “Thank you,” I said, and I said it coldly.

And so we made it clear what we thought of each other.

“Do you…know where you are?” he said, as if we were dolts who just happened upon the place randomly.

Of course I knew where we were. It took a lot of effort and most of the day to get there. But I pretended like I had only a vague knowledge of even which country I was in, let alone which part of it.

“I sort of know where we are,” I lied, “but not really, so why don’t you tell us what this place is.”

He correctly explained that Israel occupied South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 and that Hezbollah resisted and expelled the occupation. He did not say that Hezbollah is a creature of the Syrian and Iranian governments. Nor did he say it’s a sectarian militia in a state of cold war with the rest of the country and in a state of hot war with the bulk of the people in Syria. He certainly didn’t say Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that operates on six continents. No, in his version, Hezbollah is the Lebanese branch of the French Resistance.

But of course he would put it that way. He was talking to an American.

Sean wandered off while the Hezbollah guy spoke. I know why Sean did it without having to ask. He was giving me an excuse to break away later without being rude or looking suspicious. But I did not want to break away yet. I wanted to hear how Hezbollah explained itself to Americans.

The way the guy told Hezbollah’s story, the period of resistance was all in the past. He did not say the Party of God is still active. He certainly didn’t tell me Hezbollah is guarding something secret just up the road. He didn’t know that Sean and I had tried to approach from that direction, but he had to know it was possible. I thought about asking him what the checkpoint was for, but he was wary enough already and I didn’t drive all the way to Mleeta just to get kicked out or interrogated right at the gate.

“Thanks for the welcome,” I said, “but I need to go find my friend.”

He nodded, relieved. He was no more interested in spending time with me than I wanted to hang out with him. “I’ll be here if you have any questions,” he said coldly.

We didn’t shake hands.

I wandered off in Sean’s direction. The man who would have been our guide didn’t follow.

“They’ve got a theater in that building,” I said and gestured with my thumb when I caught up with Sean. “They’re showing propaganda in there. We should go watch it.”

We went inside. The film was not long. It was all about Hezbollah’s insurgency from the mid-1980s through the year 2000. It ended with a wild boast from the now-dead Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi. He claimed, “Israel has fallen.”

Um, no. Israel has not fallen.

Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in Iraq, as did Moammar Qaddafi’s in Libya. Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt. Bashar al-Assad may yet fall in Syria. But Israel hasn’t gone anywhere.

On the outskirts of Cairo is a monument to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 where, after launching initially successful sneak attacks, Egypt and Syria got their asses kicked by the Israelis.

According to Cairo’s ludicrous narrative, Egypt emerged as the victor.

The monument was built by the North Koreans. An architecturally identical propaganda installation exists in Pyongyang.

I have no idea, really, if such hysterical claims of victory against all evidence and reality are taken seriously by those who make them. It’s no secret that failed leaders conceal the truth from their subjects, but at the same time the human mind is capable of extraordinary self-deception.

Hezbollah’s museum-park, though, is better than Egypt’s. It’s more creative and interesting to look at, the propaganda less obvious.

An extraordinary diverse array of Israeli and Hezbollah ordnance is on display to satisfy every war nerd’s curiosity. Some of it is set up in labeled orderly rows and some if it is used in post-modern set pieces.

Take the pit, for instance, described on a sign as “structural scenic art.” Blown-up Israeli tanks and helmets are “artistically” scattered about in a giant hole in the ground. It’s supposed to symbolize Israel’s defeat when Israeli troops left in 2000.

Beyond the pit are tunnels and bunkers. I couldn’t tell how much of what I was looking at was real and how much was built for the park. After all, the Tourist Monument of the Resistance was erected atop one of Hezbollah’s old military bases. Some of what I was looking at was probably real.

And since I couldn’t always tell where the real ended and the fake began, it was worth a visit and a look regardless of what I think about Hezbollah’s politics. It’s worth seeing. And per Dr. Johnson, it’s worth going to see.

I was able to momentarily divorce myself from the politics and recognize that, aside from the subject matter, it’s the kind of museum-park I’d expect to see in Europe or the United States. The experience could have been—should have been—creepier than it was. The fact that I wasn’t creeped out left me feeling uneasy. Why wasn’t it much more disturbing?

That’s when it hit me.

Hezbollah completely and utterly sanitized itself on top of that mountain.

Nowhere on the grounds is any mention whatsoever of the airplanes Hezbollah hijacked. Hezbollah pioneered suicide-bombings in the Middle East. Such things were unheard of before the Lebanese civil war. That’s a crucial part of Hezbollah’s history, and of the modern Middle East generally, but you wouldn’t know it from their museum. No exhibit chronicled the invasion of Beirut in 2008. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war is ignored. Acts of mass murder carried out in Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Bulgaria are conspicuous blanks.

Visitors are not told about the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Americans in the 1980s. An honest Hezbollah museum would have a wax figure of a journalist chained to a radiator. No history of Hezbollah is complete without noting that the Party of God kidnapped the CIA’s Beirut station chief William Buckley and tortured him to death, but Hezbollah wants everyone to forget about that. Hezbollah destroyed the American and French Embassies in Beirut and leveled the US Marine base near the airport, but they left that stuff out, too.

Don’t get the wrong idea. They did not leave it out because they’re ashamed of it. These people are terrorists, not guilt-ridden liberals. They left it out because they know other people hate them for what they have done, yet they yearn to be popular.

And here’s the interesting thing about that: I’m not the target audience. Neither are you. Hezbollah isn’t sanitizing its history for Western consumption. Hezbollah is sanitizing its history for internal consumption.

Lebanese citizens are the target. Westerners can hardly even find the damn place. It’s not advertised anywhere, not in Beirut and certainly not in travel agency brochures. The Ministry of Tourism, which is of course geared to foreigners, completely ignores it. You have to know it’s there. A low-information visitor from Europe or the United States would have no idea it exists.

Hezbollah is selling itself as a patriotic guerrilla army that fought a war for liberation on behalf of the entire country. It has to because it’s otherwise feared and loathed as a foreign-backed militia that a single sect uses to bully all others.

The Party of God knows perfectly well that’s how it’s perceived. Hezbollah defensively argues against that perception on its very own plaques.

Hezbollah has repeatedly dragged the country into armed conflicts that no one else wants. In 2008 it started an internal war that no one else wanted. And it’s threatening to do it again by bringing home the Syrian war. An exhaustive catalogue of Hezbollah’s behavior would make it look no less monstrous at home as it does abroad.

There’s something else, too. If you were to visit this place without knowing anything about the relentless war against Israel except what Hezbollah told you, you’d think the war was long over. But just a few miles up the unmarked road to the north, the checkpoint manned by a paranoid irregular officer denying access to a military zone is proof that it’s not.

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Iran's Rowhani Backed Terrorist Attack in Argentina

The Washington Free Beacon has a damning report about the new Iranian president that everyone's so excited about.

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani was on the special Iranian government committee that plotted the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, according to an indictment by the Argentine government prosecutor investigating the case.

The AMIA bombing is considered the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history, killing 85 and wounding hundreds more. The Argentine government had accused the Iranian government of planning the attack and Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah of carrying it out. Numerous former and current Iranian officials are wanted by Interpol in connection with the bombing.

Former Iranian intelligence official Abolghasem Mesbahi, who defected from Iran in the late 1990s, testified that the decision to launch the attack was made within a special operations committee connected to the powerful Supreme National Security Council in August 1993.

According to the 2006 indictment, Mesbahi testified that Rowhani, who was then serving as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, was also a member of the special committee when it approved the AMIA bombing.

The idea that Rowhani is a moderate is just as delusional as the notion that Syria can be pried away from its alliance with Iran, that the Muslim Brotherhood stands for democracy, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of the Middle East's problems. Retire it already.

Syria's Fight to the Death

My new essay in the print edition of World Affairs is now available online.

“We Arabs,” the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi once said to me in Beirut, “are not a warring people. We are a feuding people.” That’s generally true. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks far more like a Northern Ireland–style feud than a real war of the sort that tore apart the former Yugoslavia. The same goes for the chronic yet sporadic clashes in parts of Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon.

The civil war in Syria, though, is different. It is an existential fight to the death. It’s a real war with a real body count that already exceeds the butcher’s bill from the Bosnian war. What could have been a bloody but short Libyan-style revolution to oust the tyrant Bashar al-Assad has instead metastasized into a grotesque sectarian war between the Sunni Muslim majority and the ruling Alawite minority. And what could have been a major blow for the West in its cold war against Iran—Syria is Iran’s only state-sized ally in the Middle East—has instead morphed in part into a protracted red-on-red fight between an anti-American state sponsor of terrorism and the anti-American jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, which is fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad.

It’s not always true that the devil we know beats the devil we don’t. Last summer I wrote in these pages that the United States should back the Free Syrian Army against Assad’s government. What, I asked at the time, were we worried about? “That Syria will become a state sponsor of terrorism? That it will be hostile to the US and to Israel? That it will be a repressive dictatorship that jails and murders thousands of people? That it will be an ally of Iran, our principal enemy in the region? Syria is already all of those things.”

Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States recently designated a terrorist organization, didn’t exist at the time. Then, the fight was between the Free Syrian Army and what was left of the regular Syrian army. The United States could have armed, funded, and trained the FSA and done its best to ensure that assistance flowed only to the opposition’s moderate and secular factions, thereby drastically increasing the odds that whatever order emerges after regime change would be friendly or at least not actively hostile to the West.

Instead, as we stood back and allowed a vacuum to occur, governments on the Arabian Peninsula got involved in Syria and backed their own proxies. And they’re giving money and guns to bearded jihadists instead of to secular and moderate forces. “In the absence of Western involvement,” says Eli Khoury, co-founder of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, “that’s how it works. Washington shouldn’t make the mistake of dropping its support for liberals, moderates, and minorities in the Middle East. Because what you’re going to get instead, if you do, is something you are really going to hate. You’ll have one, two, or even three additional Irans. Where is that going to take everybody?”

It’s not too late to arm politically and religiously moderate Syrians opposed to the government, but it’s getting close. Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of the Free Syrian Army. They’re separate organizations. But as they’ve long said in the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra are currently fighting shoulder-to-shoulder, but the alliance is temporary. They’ll fight each other when Assad falls. Think of it like the United States teaming up with the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany, only to face each other in a cold war for the next four and a half decades.

But if FSA fighters had been armed, funded, trained, and politically backed by the United States from the very beginning, they would have had no need to work with al-Nusra. The war could have been finished by now. Al-Nusra would have had no time to grow. Syria would not have become a magnet attracting freelance jihadists from all over the region who are always on the lookout for times and places like this to show their stuff.

But that’s not what happened. We failed to clinch with the Free Syrian Army. Now we face a much greater likelihood that the new Syria will be ruled, or at the very least severely destabilized, by Islamist fanatics with guns. The Obama administration recently announced that it will increase aid to Syrian rebels, but it's still not clear if weapons and ammunition will be part of the package. At least for now, the US appears to remain more or less on the sidelines while prospects continue to dim.

*

Assad is doing everything he can to turn the revolution into a sectarian war between Sunnis and Alawites. He needs this war to be an existential fight to the death to keep his allies on his side. His family, his clan, and nearly all his loyalists in the army, the intelligence agencies, and on the streets are at least nominal Alawites, a heterodox religious minority that makes up only twelve or so percent of Syria’s population, who for a thousand years have been considered infidels by Sunnis.

The Sunnis, by contrast—along with the substantial Syrian Christian, Kurdish, and Druze minorities—have been ruled by the Assad family’s totalitarian Soviet-style regime for decades. There isn’t room enough in the country for everyone anymore. Members and supporters of the Free Syrian Army will be jailed, murdered, and tortured to death if they lose. And the Alawites—even the powerless innocents who have nothing to do with the government—fear being driven from the country or at least persecuted should the Sunnis seize power and go on a bloody revenge binge.

Transforming a revolution into a sectarian war is Assad’s internal strategy. His external strategy from the very beginning was to make the rest of the world think he’s fighting an anti-terrorist war.

Ever since former US President George W. Bush pulled the trigger on Iraq, Assad has feared that he’s next. (That’s why he did his worst to destabilize post–Saddam Hussein Iraq by sending al-Qaeda terrorists over the border to blow up Americans and murder Iraqis.) And since current US President Barack Obama helped topple Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Assad had every reason to believe that he’s still next once the uprising against him began. So he tried to frame the Syrian revolution as a war between a secular reformist government and al-Qaeda before the Free Syrian Army—let alone Jabhat al-Nusra—even existed, before the opposition had fired even one single shot, when Assad’s own armed forces massacred peaceful protesters who asked for nothing more than reform. He even staged scenes on television to look like terrorist attacks because that’s what he needed.

“It’s exactly the same thing the Syrian regime did in Lebanon,” says Chatham House scholar Nadim Shehadi. “It’s a mind game. If you want to beat Assad, you have to disassociate yourself from his make-believe reality just as he has disassociated himself from everyone else’s. Listen to his speeches. They have no bearing on the real world. None at all. But people believe him. That’s the mind game. The Washington Post wrote that he’s strong because they listened to his speech and he sounded strong. There are idiot journalists in the West who will go to Aleppo, meet a guy with a beard who says he’s going to start an emirate, and they’ll put it in a headline.”

The trouble, of course, is that jihadists really are active in Syria now. This conflict has gone on for so long that Assad’s mind game about making a stand against terror groups has actually become part of reality. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it.

I spent much of February and March in Beirut. Almost every single person I interviewed thinks Assad won the mind game and that the White House is allied with Damascus. “The United States has more soft power in the region than before,” Shehadi says, “but you’re going to lose it in Syria because Barack Obama is seen as a supporter of Bashar al-Assad.”

Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of Parliament from Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, put it to me this way when I met him for lunch: “Assad is receiving arms from Iran and Russia and the Nusra extremists are receiving arms from the Gulf. Why shouldn’t the Free Syrian Army receive weapons? Everybody here is wondering what’s going on.”

*

The truth is that Washington is just cautious. The Obama administration is horrified by the prospect of another war such as the one in Iraq and only joined the war in Libya because Europe led from in front and Qaddafi didn’t have any friends. Assad has powerful friends in Lebanon and Iran. Widening the war could set the whole region ablaze, especially if Iran and Hezbollah decide to drag in the Israelis, which could be accomplished in all of ten minutes. The US is also afraid of the Syrian aftermath and seems to have no idea what it should do.

'Samy Gemayel, son of Lebanon’s former President Amine Gemayel and a current member of Parliament, senses Washington’s confusion. “Before you can know what to do,” he told me in his office in Lebanon’s mountains above Beirut, “you have to know what you want.”

The way he sees it, the US has three strategic options in the region.

First, support the status quo regimes.

Second, support change. “Put your money on the democratic process that could evolve after a period of instability,” he says. “It’s risky. After decades of dictatorship, things can’t evolve rapidly into stable democracy after just one or two years. It takes time to build a real democratic system that puts moderate people in charge. Extremists always take the lead after dictators fall. So this is a long-term option.”

The third strategy, he says, “is to look at the social tissue of these countries and determine if they’re even viable. And if they are not, you partition the region.”

The first option isn’t really an option, at least not in Syria. The US can’t back Assad. He’s a sworn enemy of Americans and a state sponsor of terrorism.

The third option isn’t realistic either. The United States is not going to redraw the map of the Middle East the way the British and French did in the early twentieth century.

Doing nothing likewise isn’t an option. Superpowers can’t do nothing at all when their interests are at stake, not even superpowers with instinctive non-interventionists as president.

“Americans need to decide which strategy they want,” Gemayel says. “Maybe Washington wants a different strategy in each country. But in order to know what you should do, you need to know what you want. If you don’t know what you want, you won’t know what to do. But if you have a strategy and you know where you want to be in twenty years, you’ll know exactly how to deal with someone like Assad.”

Read the whole thing.


Iran's New President is Lipstick on a Pig

Bigoted buffoon Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has finally been fired as the president of Iran and replaced by the supposed moderate reformer Hassan Rowhani, who just won a landslide victory with more than fifty percent of the vote in a crowded field of eight candidates.

“The sun of my moderation has risen,” announced Arman, a reformist newspaper. The election, according to another reformist newspaper called Shargh, signifies “the return of hope and victory for reformers and moderates.”

Some journalists in the West are swooning, as well. Rowhani’s election, writes Karl Vick at Time magazine, “may bring the country out of the severe economic and diplomatic isolation imposed by world powers intent on Iran’s nuclear program.” “Hassan Rouhani's victory in the Iranian election is truly stunning,” writes Jonathan Steele at The Guardian. “It opens a window of hope for an easing of tension between Iran and the west on the strained nuclear file but also on the more urgent issue – the self-destructive clash between Shia and Sunni Islam that is killing thousands in Syria and Iraq and threatens the entire Middle East region.”

Well, maybe, but probably not. It’s way too early to get carried away.

First of all, Rowhani is not the head of state. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is. Rowhani is basically a powerless figurehead. So there’s that.

Second, Iran’s election only looks democratic and meaningful if you squint hard enough at it. So stop squinting and look at it squarely. Khamenei, Iran’s actual tyrannical ruler, wasn’t elected. He was hand-picked by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. And Khamenei and his claque of appointed jurists hand-picked all the presidential candidates who just stood for election. Those they didn’t approve of (and they were legion) did not get to run.

How would you feel about the next American election if Barack Obama or Dick Cheney were to select all the candidates you could choose from? Iranian elections are a little like Henry Ford’s first line of Model-T cars. His customers, he famously said, could have their cars painted any color they like as long as it’s black.

Iranian expat Sohrab Ahmari put it bluntly, and aptly, in The Wall Street Journal. “This is what democracy looks like in a theocratic dictatorship. Iran's presidential campaign season kicked off last month when an unelected body of 12 Islamic jurists disqualified more than 600 candidates. Women were automatically out; so were Iranian Christians, Jews and even Sunni Muslims. The rest, including a former president, were purged for possessing insufficient revolutionary zeal. Eight regime loyalists made it onto the ballots. One emerged victorious on Saturday.”

But let’s pretend, for the sake of argument and analysis, that none of those things are true or that none of them matter. However he got the job, Rowhani is being billed as a moderate and a reformer. But the problem with the word “moderate” is that its meaning is entirely relative. The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate compared with Al Qaeda. Bashar al-Assad is moderate compared with Saddam Hussein. Fidel Castro is moderate compared with Josef Stalin. General Franco was moderate compared with Adolf Hitler.

But are the Muslim Brothers, Bashar al-Assad, Fidel Castro, and Francisco Franco moderates compared with Western political figures who are labeled as moderates? No, no, no, and no.

It’s not even clear that Rowhani is a moderate compared with Ali Khamenei, the only comparison that actually matters.

“Hassan Rouhani is a regime pillar,” notes Lee Smith. “As an early follower of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rouhani joined him in exile in Paris, and over the last 34 years, the 64-year-old Qom-educated cleric has held key positions in the regime’s political echelons, and served in top military jobs during Iran’s decade-long war with Iraq. As Iran’s chief interlocutor with the West on the regime’s nuclear portfolio, Rouhani boasted of deceiving his negotiating partners. Domestically, he has threatened to crush protestors “mercilessly and monumentally,” and likely participated in the campaign of assassinations of the regime’s Iranian enemies at home and abroad, especially in Europe. Currently, Rouhani serves as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative on the supreme national security council.”

Even if Rowhani was a genuine reformer, it’s not at all clear that he’d be able to change anything. Remember Mohammad Khatami? He was Iran’s moderate reformist president from 1997 to 2005. He racked up a grand total of zero reforms in eight years.

It’s not even clear that he was a moderate or a reformer.

In July 1999 thousands of university students demanded the hard-liners in the regime resign from the government. They didn’t, of course. And Khatami and Rowhani—the old and new “moderate reformers” respectively—brazenly sided with the hard-liners. You can read all about it Countdown to Crisis by Kenneth R. Timmerman, but here’s the relevant passage quoting Rowhani, the new president.

“Addressing the crowd [of regime loyalists], Hassan Rouhani, one of Khatami’s vice presidents, promised to arrest pro-democracy protesters and execute them. ‘Two nights ago we received decisive instruction to deal with these elements,’ he announced. ‘And at dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunistic elements wherever it may occur. From today our people shall witness how our law-enforcement force and our heroic Bassij [militia] shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces.’”

Rowhani has a track record of thuggishness abroad as well as at home. John-Paul Pagano dug up some old reports from Iranian state media detailing Rowhani’s support for the region’s terrorist organizations and his opposition to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

IRNA news agency (Tehran, in English 1910 gmt 4 Apr 94) reported that Rohani, who is also the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, reiterated “Iran's firm support for Islamic resistance in southern Lebanon”.

According to an IRNA news agency report (2036 gmt 4 Apr 94), Rohani told the leaders of the 10 Palestinian factions that “what Yasir Arafat has signed with the Zionist regime as an agreement is ‘self humiliating’ and will not realize any of the goals and rights of the Palestinian nation”.

If Rowhani goes on record right now as president retracting his support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and proclaiming his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that would be interesting. It would be even more interesting if Ali Khamenei did these things instead since he’s the one with the power. Neither are likely to happen, nor would we be wise to trust the sincerity of such statements until we see them backed up with action because Rowhani as well as Khamenei has a track record of deception in foreign affairs.

Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and of the outstanding book The Shah, read Rowhani’s recent memoir and had some interesting things to say about it a few months ago in The New Republic. “The recent memoir by Hassan Rouhani,” he wrote, “who was for several years Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and is now a possible compromise candidate in the upcoming presidential election, offers a more objective account of Iran’s nuclear strategy and what happened during the negotiations. More than once Rouhani admits that Iran’s strategy was to buy time and thereby to create a new reality on the ground. More than once he reiterates the view that Iran was willing to make concessions—such as the temporary suspension of enrichment activities—only if it would not delay their overall goal of achieving a full fuel cycle and of advancing the other relevant technologies (such as building more sophisticated centrifuges).”

So what do we have here in Iran? A man who barely won fifty percent of the vote in a rigged electoral system, who supports vicious repression of Iranian democracy activists as well as international terrorist organizations, who opposes Middle East peace, and who freely admits to deceiving Western diplomats about his country’s nuclear program to buy time.

There is nothing encouraging here whatsoever, so don’t be a sucker.

Is Obama Arming the Syrian Rebels or Not?

If you’re confused about whether or not the White House has decided to arm the Syrian rebels, don’t feel bad. I’m confused too. So is everyone else. Even the government seems confused about what it is or isn’t doing.

A few days ago The New York Times reported that President Barack Obama has decided “to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.” But The Daily Beast reported another administration official saying that “lethal arms are not part of the new items Obama has now authorized.”

I took my wife out of town for a few days for her birthday so I haven’t been able to track this very closely, but I’m not sure I’d have been able to work out the contradiction even if I could have stayed on it full time.

Here is Lee Smith in The Weekly Standard:

So is the White House arming the rebels or not? There’s been confusion since Thursday afternoon when Sen. John McCain said on the Senate floor that Obama “will announce that we will be assisting the Syrian rebels by providing them with weapons and other assistance. I applaud the president’s decision.” Shortly after, McCain retracted his remarks, explaining that “the president has not made the final decision on arming.” Afterward, McCain’s spokesman, Josh Rogin reported, said the senator had been told by reliable sources that Obama was planning to arm the rebels.

[…]

What we know then from the administration’s public and on the record statements is this: the White House is going to do more than what it was doing before. But we don’t know if that includes weapons or just more non-lethal aid and equipment because the White House’s point man for strategic communications won’t say—he can’t inventory—what’s being sent. All of the reporting asserting that the administration is sending arms was sourced not to Rhodes’s public remarks but to officials who because they are unnamed have no reason to fear that their credibility is on the line should their information prove inaccurate or false. 

In other words, we still don’t know whether the White House is going to arm the Syrian opposition, or if Obama just means to create the impression that he is indeed enforcing his red lines. In either case, it’s a mess.

I guess it’s possible that the administration wants its policy to be ambiguous, but either way, it won’t be ambiguous for long. If Washington is supplying weapons, we’ll know sooner or later.

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