Monday, September 20, 2004

Lebanon 2.0: Selling Beirut to Baghdad

One of the more persistent and valid criticisms leveled at the neoconservative policy makers within the Pentagon, and the Bush administration in general, is their negligent disregard for history, context and expert input when formulating the strategies needed to successfully implement such a complex, nuanced and breathtakingly difficult task as nation building in the Middle East. To the detriment of the prospects for the emergence of a unified, stable, peaceful and at least nominally democratic Iraq, people in positions of influence, such as Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle to name a few, ignored the history of the region and the narratives of the various, and often competing, players involved in favor of the naively pollyannic predictions of dubious characters like Ahmed Chalabi and the exile group the Iraqi National Congress.

It was this ahistorical approach that led this group to accept as a premise that Iraq had little
history of ethnic strife. Under that assumption, they argued that Iraq could transition smoothly from a long history of totalitarian rule to a unified, stable democracy; a beacon in the Middle East from which democracy would spread like the tumble of dominoes. Sectarian differences, it was said, would seamlessly disintegrate in the melting pot of representative government and respect for minority rights.

It was under the spell of this ignorance that Wolfowitz argued before Congress that fewer troops than top military brass like General Shinseki recommended were needed because Iraq would not have the ethnic complications of other peacekeeping endeavors. In so doing, he ignored the fact that this country, a creation of the West with borders arbitrarily drawn with little regard for the splintered ethnic groups they encompassed, had all the requisite background for full-blown ethnic conflict - a pattern that has been repeated throughout the post-colonial world of artificial nation states. Did Wolfowitz and his compatriots not remember the decades of brutal leadership by a regime distinctly Sunni in makeup, or were they merely glossing over this troublesome fact? What about the dynamic by which a majority of Iraq's population, Shi'ia not Sunni, had been disempowered and routinely and violently oppressed by that same Sunni regime, left seething with bitter yet fresh memories of wrongs committed and crimes to be avenged. Or maybe Wolfowitz failed to recall that the Kurdish region, which had been semi-autonomous for over a decade and whose long suffering population overwhelmingly favors independence, was drifting ever away from Baghdad in the north. Whether it was ignorance or dishonesty, the results are the same.

Then there are the more
fanciful dalliances with historical purblindness, like the notion that Chalabi, once installed as the post-Saddam leader of Iraq, could develop diplomatic and trade ties with Israel, even going as far as to extend an oil pipeline from the Iraqi city of Mosul to the Israeli port of Haifa.
This was, of course, a pipe dream: The Shi'ia community in Iraq, like the Sunni community, is overwhelmingly anti-Israel, and the entire range of its leadership has close ties with Iran.
The belief that Chalabi would be able to muster a popular mandate in the nascent republic of Iraq, while at the same time improving relations with Israel was reckless naivete. In his pursuit of such a mandate, he has sidled up to the Shi'ia leadership in Iraq, as well as his allies in Iran, eschewing his rhetoric of reconciliation with Israel and secular nationalism in favor of increasingly religious and confrontational appeals. He even stands accused of passing on classified intelligence information to his Iranian contacts. Then again, trusting as notoriously untrustworthy a character as Chalabi is in itself an affront to the lessons of history.

Blatantly disregarding the preponderance of historical scholarship regarding the region at large and its inhabitants, the neoconservatives in the Bush administration have steered our foreign policy apparatus into Iraq toward numerous mistakes, and in so doing, they have unleashed a potential nightmare in the form of civil war and fragmentation. Despite Wolfowitz's claims to the contrary, Iraq is rife with ethnic conflict and a messy entanglement of intractably competing interests. The long term prospects for a unified, non-partitioned Iraq are bleak. That a break-up of the nation can be accomplished peacefully is also an increasingly remote possibility, as the Chatham House report (
summarized here), among others, has recently warned.

The realization that an impending sectarian conflict is an ever increasing possibility has apparently crept into the group-think of the Bush administration's upper echelons. The response, however, is consistent with the overall failure to appreciate the history of Iraq and the region in which it exists. Middle East expert
Ronald Bruce St John noted, with some degree of unease, that:
Increasingly desperate to find a winning formula in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials are promoting Lebanon as a political model for Iraq.
That any serious political thinker would advocate the creation of another Lebanon should cause more than a pause for concern. It is only through a truncated view of history that this suggestion is even barely palatable. But history should not be compartmentalized in such a manner.
The vice president appears to have in mind a pre-1967 Lebanon in which an elite of notables presided over a pluralistic republic, open to foreign capital, and free enterprise. Beirut in those days was known as the Paris of the Orient.

Predictably, time did not stand still in 1967, and the ephemeral successes of the "Lebanese model" gave way to the tragic realities of instability, violence and perpetual conflict. St John recalls:
The Lebanon I have in mind is the one I worked in for several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s after the collapse of the Lebanese political system in the 1975-76 civil war. Torn by ethnic strife and bloody struggles for power, communally based militias presided over sectarian murder and other acts of terror. Foreign powers intervened to turn the conflict to their own strategic advantage as all sides abducted outsiders as bargaining chips.
When viewed in its entirety, the Lebanese model seems like one hardly worth endorsing. The devil is in the details, and as such a further analysis of the mechanics reveals the structural flaws of such a system of governance. The Lebanese model was based on a "National Pact" concocted to balance the power between the diverse ethnic populations inhabiting the newly formed borders (like Iraq, Lebanon's borders were drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire resulting from the conflict of World War I).
Composed of widely different secular and religious groups, the Lebanese elites negotiated among themselves an unwritten National Pact in 1943, which proved far more significant than the written laws of the country. It provided for a sectarian political system designed to minimize conflict among religious confessions or communities.

The National Pact was based on a census conducted in 1932 that established the numerical superiority of Christians over Muslims in Lebanon. Consequently, the Maronite Christians of Lebanon, the single-largest confessional group, were guaranteed the presidency of the republic. Sunni Muslims, the second-largest group, were given the office of prime minister. In turn, the speaker of the unicameral house of parliament was a Shia Muslim, his deputy a Greek Orthodox, the defense minister a Druze, and the commander of the armed forces a Maronite Christian.
The Iraqi version would seek to emulate a similar apportionment of offices based on the ethnic background of the candidate in order to assuage the concerns of the various players in Iraqi society.
... a Shiite would presumably be guaranteed the presidency since the Shia community constitutes approximately 60% of the population. Representatives of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities would occupy the much less powerful positions of prime minister and speaker of the national assembly. Whether a Sunni or a Kurd was guaranteed the prime ministry would depend on the outcome of a national census since both communities constitute roughly 20% of the population. Lesser components of Iraq's religious and ethnic patchwork would be guaranteed even less powerful positions in the political system.
That the Lebanese model proved unworkable in Lebanon was not an anomaly. The very structure of such a system invites failure and collapse. The reasons are myriad, yet the defenses are few. One obvious area of concern is the fact that such a system relies on a snapshot of the ethnic make-up of the nation's population which could, and probably would, change over time. If there are no mechanisms in place to address the evolving composition of the population, then the government will become increasingly unrepresentative. Iraq is like Lebanon in this regard, and the story of Lebanon should serve as a warning.
First of all, the Lebanese political system proved inflexible. Based on a census completed in 1932, it froze political power in a highly dynamic society at a specific point in history. Over time, Shia Muslims came to outnumber the Maronite Christians; however, there was no process in the National Pact to accommodate and adjust to shifting power balances. With the Kurdish and Sunni communities in Iraq enjoying roughly equal numbers, at least until an authoritative census is completed, a similar situation would likely develop in Iraq. The population problem in Lebanon was compounded in 1948-49 by the emigration of some 140,000 Palestinians refugees, most of whom were Muslim. A growing Palestinian military and political presence in southern Lebanon threatened by the 1970s to result in a state within a state. Kurdish demands for autonomy in Iraq, coupled with large Kurdish populations in neighboring Turkey and Iran, could eventually produce a related situation in northern Iraq.
Still, the biggest impediment to the success of a newer version of the Lebanese model resides in what is at the root of the need to craft such a compromise in the first place: the competing interests and historical grievances underlying the simmering ethnic tensions. The Lebanese model owed its initial success to the will of the parties implementing it, but even that cooperation could not preserve its viability. In Iraq, there is not even the pre-existing resolve or spirit of cooperation. On the contrary, the interests of the various groups are in many ways in opposition to such a power sharing scheme. If this is the environment in which such a structure is birthed, without even the initial enthusiasm needed in the near term, the resulting stability will likely be more short-lived than even in Lebanon.

...the National Pact was based on a political consensus negotiated by competing parties in 1943. No such consensus exists in Iraq today. The Kurds remain concerned that local autonomy provisions in the transitional constitution would soon be eroded if majority Shia rule took effect. Shiites oppose a provision that gives the 20% Kurdish minority an effective veto. In central Iraq, the insurgency is driven in part by the desire of the long dominant Sunni minority to retain some vestige of power. It is also fuelled by crosscurrents of Arab pride, Iraqi nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the tribal loyalties long cultivated by Saddam Hussein. The tendency of U.S. occupation forces to cut separate deals with Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis in a fruitless effort to keep the peace and project an image of consensus where none exists has only exacerbated the problem.

In Lebanon, post-independence prosperity was not shared equally among competing groups, aggravating existing socioeconomic disparities. With strong ties to both East and West, the Christian community was the primary beneficiary of the transformation of the country into a banking, trade, and tourism center. The Sunnis benefited to a lesser degree from economic development; however, the Shia community became something of a permanent underclass in Lebanese society. The Shiites in Iraq were also the underclass under Saddam, but they would become the privileged political and economic community if the Lebanese model were applied to Iraq. The Sunni minority, which has dominated Iraqi politics since independence, would likely find this intolerable. In turn, the Kurdish minority, in conjunction with demands for autonomy, has shown interest and determination in preserving some element of control over the oil resources in northern Iraq.
The story of Lebanon's descent into instability and violence does not end with the internal warring of the various factions. The conflict in Lebanon took on a regional and international character, with various external agents interfering to further their respective, and frequently divergent, foreign policy goals. Iraq presents a situation ripe for similar foreign intervention, but the overall risks of Iraq becoming such a vortex are greater than Lebanon. Iraq could set off a regional conflict of mammoth dimensions, pulling in Iran, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Britain and others.
The competing political forces in Lebanon, unable to accommodate conflicting demands with the existing political system, eventually turned to outside forces for assistance in maintaining or enhancing their domestic political positions. Both Israel and Syria intervened in Lebanon, and the United States and Western Europe later participated in a multilateral peacekeeping force. Iran and Iraq also supported proxy forces in the country. After the U.S. embassy and marine barracks were targeted by suicide bombers in 1983, the United States withdrew its forces; but Syria remains today a dominant player in Lebanese politics. A Balkanized Iraq would present similar threats to and opportunities for the vital interests of Arab states (Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria) and non-Arab states (Iran, Israel, Turkey), together with Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. An extensive period of foreign intervention in the domestic politics of Iraq would destabilize the entire region.
Peaceful resolution in Iraq is becoming an increasingly elusive goal. As the situation on the ground drifts toward possible internecine conflict, as the insurgency persists and the various ethnic groups become more polarized at the expense of nationalism, there will be many proposals for solutions and quick-fixes. Any endorsement of the adoption of the Lebanese Model must be met with firm resistance from all quarters. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. If the nation elects George Bush to a second term, or his challenger John Kerry to replace him, it is imperative that the foreign policy team dominant in the next four years be enriched with an infusion of experts, realists and, above all, students of history.

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