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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Is Lebanon coming out of its Cabinet Crisis that has been going on since June? Well just like the cabinet crisis itself no one has a clue what is going on. I just met someone from the Carter Centre who has done the rounds with the various political analysts who said their response was much the same. Each has their different theory but they are all speculating.

No Saudi – Syria gain

I still stick to my view that the essential dilemma is the vital telecommunications network. The interesting aspect of this particular cabinet crisis is that it has become increasingly clear, but far from crystal, that the delay is very much an internal affair. Despite the protestations from all sides as to the usual external interference this particular issue I think has a strong internal failure. There is no benefit for Saudi or Syria to have a cabinet crisis in Lebanon at the moment and both appear not to want confrontation; this given the recent open display of reconciliation and also the announcement from actors, such as France, that Syria is not to blame for the current paralysis. Syria and Saudi have an active interest to push the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons and the tribunal to a side for now, so why the delay?

What’s going on in Lebanon?

The internal dynamic is stressed by the bizarre intervention by Patriarch Sfeir. He stated in a interview, with al-Massira, that: Hezbollah acts in the interests of Iran and that Syria will return if not managed properly. In other words do not give in to any opposition demands regarding the cabinet formation because they are external demands. This statement, knee deep in hypocrisy, has unsurprising ruffled a few feathers on the opposition side that if we are to believe the media had almost reconciled with the government as to the make up the cabinet.

The Patriarch has over the years shown an active desire to involve himself in the political situation but only at vital moments. This was articulated just before the June Elections where the Patriarch made provocative statements against March 8 and Hezbollah in particular; the intervention by Sfeir was seen as vital part of the  March 14 victory.  So why make the provocative statement now? I cannot find a reason, it does not make sense. If you are stating a principal as to how to approach the cabinet crisis why do you wait until three months when signs appear that it may finally get resolved?!

Impact of the cabinet crisis

The most worrying aspect of this cabinet crisis is that it is beginning to lose meaning. No one can understand what is going on. This loss of meaning is creating a deep apathy in Lebanon (not that it was by any means shallow to begin with). The elections really created a buzz within Lebanon’s civil society as to the role of politics in the possibility of change and reform. The cabinet crisis and its laborious continuation has decidedly fizzed out every little bit of buzz there was. The impact for Lebanese politics in the ever-increasing apathy is that already rotting institutions will no doubt continue and the break down of the state will occur further. The result of this of course is that the fat cats get fatter….

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I have had the luxury of being able to read quite a lot lately and for those interested here is a quick review of some of it:

1. Ried-Henry, Simon. Fidel & Che: A Revolutionary Freindship, 2009

“Condemn me, it does not matter, history will absolve me!” Fidel (Hezbollah will surely be taking notes from Fidel)

Simon is an old tutor of mine at Queen Mary, so was excited for him to see his book in a bookshop in Beiurt! The book is great. Simon writes in beautifully descriptive way that brings the book to life. Not only do you learn that Che was a poet of great quality but such is the detail the book you even get to know his favourite Tango (‘Adios Muchachos’ by Carlos Gardel; in case you were wondering). While, giving minute details the book is never lost in it. The strange thing I found about reading about these two characters is that I came to like Fidel more than Che, even though it is Che with the ideals and Fidel is a kind of benevolent pragmatic megalomaniac. Also I found it fascinating that Fidel did not base the revolution on communism but it became a kind pragmatic political solution.

But Che is just so frustratingly cold as a character, he behaves disgustingly to his women and he is essentially a self obsessed loner with a vision to save the world. The only person he seems loyal to is Fidel, and of course Marx. The detail of going to Bolivia is also revealing and shows the limits of Marxism in understanding the power identity politics. Although Che was able to transcend identity politics with Fidel in Cuba when he led his own force to Bolivia he could not get the peasants to trust him, he was seen as an outsider and as such was eventually killed.

There are so many parallels with the situation in Cuba at that time and the Middle East today, especially with Hezbollah. The link is emphasised by the fact that Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury is quoted at the front, a book I am currently reading, about Palestinian refugees and their exile to Lebanon. I guess there are always commonalities in those that resist and attempt revolutions. But the use of history through symbols and historical figures is strikingly similar with both Hezbollah and Castro.

2. Obama, Barak. Dreams from my Father, 1995

This book gives a fascinating insight into Obama’s world. He does not talk a lot about his intellectual influences, which is a shame because I would love to know who gave him the idea in 1983. Obama makes it appear like the idea fell from the sky. This book really made me realise what Obama has achieved. Not only is only the first black President but he must also be the most left leaning since President Hoover or Roosevelt? His community organising is  a call for workers of the community to unite! “Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens…Through organising, through shared sacrifice, membership has been earned!” I mean even if this man was a certified WASP it would be amazing if he was elected President!

He also gives some fascinating insight as to why he became quickly disillusioned with black nationalism.”[Rafik]…was less interested in changing the rules of power than in the color of those who had it and who therefore enjoyed the spoils. There was never much room at the top of the pyramid, though; in a contest framed in such terms, the wait for black deliverance would be long indeed.” Then what he goes on to say speaks really highly for this region. “It was the distance between our talk and out action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as people.” This makes me think of Hezbollah and how they always ensure that their talk is always close to their action, and self-consciously so. In some ways it is so obvious that action to the purpose you talk about gives you dignity. The unrealistic expectations that your everyday politician gives you, for whatever reason, may also be cause for the political apathy.

While, I have also been reading a bit of fiction to quickly sum up:

Hage, Rawi. Cockroach, 2008. An angry book. A Marxist post-colonial look at the world. An angry nameless young man gives us a swirling tale of the depravity of powerlessness. A good read but I found it a bit one dimensional. You are a pissed of exile, OK but I need more than that.

Salih, T. Season of Migration to the North, 1969. This is what Cockroach should have been. This is a beautiful book and is rightly part of the vanguard of post-colonial literature:

Yes, I know that in the rough wisdom that issues from the mouths of simple people lies our salvation. A tree grows simply and your grandfather has lived and will die simply. That is the secret. You are right, my lady: courage and optimism. But until the meek inherit the earth, until the armies are disbanded, the lamb grazes in peace beside the wolf and the child plays water-polo in the river with the crocodile, until that time of happiness and love comes along, I for one shall continue to express myself in this twisted manner.

Meanwhile, there is a great bibliography that has been created by Qifa Nabki over at his blog http://qifanabki.com/lebanon-bibliography/

 

A British military man who had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq gave me his views on whether we should get out of Afghanistan or not, his argument was this in a nut shell:

We can still win in Afghanistan, if we are given enough resources; if we withdraw it will be a disaster of global proportions  and will allow the Taliban and al-Qaeda back in.

But what exactly are the right resources? In the middle of a financial crisis do you think the general public in Britain, the US or any of the contributing countries are going to pour even more money in? Take the US on its own, as Steven Walt has pointed out:

The United States has spent more than $223 billion on the Afghan war since 2001, and it now costs roughly $65 billion annually. The actual bill will be significantly higher, however, as these figures omit the replacement cost of military equipment, veterans’ benefits and other war-related expenses. Most important, more than 850 US soldiers have already been killed and several thousand have been seriously wounded.

The army guy responded to my arguments saying that this is the cost of war and the public needs to accept this if they are going to send us out there. I agree and which is why we have to get out. Over a 1000 British and Americans have lost their lives fighting a war that has a beginning but no clear end/objective not to mention the thousands upon thousands of Afghan civilian casualties.  I would love to here a clear argument for the stage in which the Western allies are wanting to achieve in order for the “job” to be done. Would a state of stability like Pakistan do? Or are we aiming for Saudi? Lebanon? So until realism sets in the lack of an objective will set in and ambiguous harmful policies will reign.

So what about the final objective in Afghanistan from the army point of view, what does he think we are fighting for? A liberal democratic state? Certainly not he told me, to sum up an elongated argument that he gave: he basically wanted a stable centralised authoritarian state, with the complete eradication of the enemy (i.e. Taliban/al-Qaeda). This was of course a personal view but I think can be seen as representative of a large segment of the army who appreciate that the establishment of a liberal democracy in Afghanistan may be a little of the mark. This view I think points to an important point: the public is being sold the utopian idea that the Western forces are setting up a liberal democracy when actually maybe without even fully realising it the West is actively setting up a military state to ensure stability.

Rory Stewart sums up this reality up brilliantly:

US generals have spoken openly about wanting a combined Afghan army-police-security apparatus of 450,000 soldiers (in a country with a population half the size of Britain’s). Such a force would cost $2 or $3 billion a year to maintain; the annual revenue of the Afghan government is just $600 million. We criticise developing countries for spending 30 per cent of their budget on defence; we are encouraging Afghanistan to spend 500 per cent of its budget…We should not encourage the creation of an authoritarian military state. The security that resulted might suit our short-term security interests, but it will not serve the longer interests of Afghans. ..We should not assume that the only way to achieve security in a developing country is through the restriction of civil liberties, or that authoritarianism is a necessary phase in state-formation, or a precondition for rapid economic development, or a lesser evil in the fight against modern terrorism.

Nobel Obama is quite rightly taking a long time to think over what to do in Afghanistan. It has been over a month and a half since General McChrystal submitted his report to Obama that requested as many as 45,000 extra troops. The Washington Post have obtained the report submitted by McChrystal that outlines the strategy for the fight in Afghanistan. Rory Stewart in his article The Irresistible Illusion gives a brilliant argument for why the US should forget about this liberal utopianism that you can create a liberal democracy and stable state, with economic development, in Afghanistan  (the “irresistible illusion”). Stewart argues that:

This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state. … The power of the US and its allies, and our commitment, knowledge and will, are limited. It is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban. The ingredients of successful counter-insurgency campaigns in places like Malaya – control of the borders, large numbers of troops in relation to the population, strong support from the majority ethnic groups, a long-term commitment and a credible local government – are lacking in Afghanistan.

The argument over Afghanistan is very much like that post World War One when realists, such as E. H. Carr, were lamenting liberal utopians who believed that if transformations in the internal order of states (i.e. to liberal democracies) were made a democratic peace would rule. However, even Kant (the father of democratic peace) realised that no state has the right to interfere in another and even if they did, if you are to argue the case for Afghanistan, it would be difficult if not impossible to impose liberal democracy or carry out a state building project and achieve economic development. Kant understood that the causes of war are both internal and external (Waltz). I wonder if the US and their Western allies realise this? That their actions alone are not enough to achieve their end objectives…

Even if they were able to achieve some sort of stability in Afghanistan what about the regional context? Would the elimination of the Taliban (and al-Qaida the actual objective of the war in the first place) be the end of the problems in Afghanistan? I am suspicious that even if the remarkable feat was achieved of defeating the Taliban was done that a stable and economically developed Afghanistan would result. The Taliban are not the root of all of Afghanistan “evils”.

What is the alternative, again I revert to Stewart who has a excellent suggestion:

The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.)

Realities and realism is a harsh view of the world and sounds far off from the lyrical arguments for establishing a liberal democracy in Afghanistan. But after the electoral farce and its continuation; the continued failures after eight years…can any take seriously the suggestion by McChrystal that, “Success is achievable,” particularly when he never (quite wisely) defines when success can be deemed to have been achieved.

Borrowing from Walt’s blog I will also conclude with Robert Kaplan who actually argues against withdrawal but then sums up the argument with this:

“history suggests that over time we can more easily preserve our standing in the world by using naval and airpower from a distance when intervening abroad. Afghanistan should be the very last place where we are a land-based meddler, caught up in internal Islamic conflict, helping the strategic ambitions of the Chinese and others.”

The only way is out.

We (this is the royal we) all love Obama. No doubt about it. I have just finished reading Dreams from my Father that left me with an even greater admiration for the man. But he is not the messiah and giving him a Nobel Peace Prize for achieving absolutely nothing on the ground is as stupid as giving Sadat and Begin a Nobel….oh wait. So the jury of the Nobel does not have a great record but this award really does put it in a category of its own.

Apparently Obama got the prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Great but getting a Nobel Prize for Peace should be for “exiting US troops from Iraq while also maintaining a strong and stable Iraq” or “making a substantial contribution to the ending of Israeli apartheid policies” or “Not fucking up Afghanistan and Pakistan so badly.”

A Nobel Peace Prize should not be awarded for creating one of the most ambitious foreign policies in modern US history, it is not a prize for theoretical policies (at least that was what I thought!) .

A Nobel Peace Prize should not be awarded for the remarkable feet of being elected President of the US and replacing the war criminal that was G W Bush.

A Nobel Peace Prize should not be awarded “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

Obama has got so much to achieve in Foreign Policy terms. The policy route that is decided by Obama with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan is going to show what he is really made of. Here there is a real risk of all out disaster the US, as in Iraq, have tried strategy after strategy and they have all failed. Far from bringing enlightenment and states the US has pushed Afghanistan and Pakistan further into the “darkness” with their policies. He has thus far failed to successfully change the current narrative on how to “deal” with these states. A lot of work still needs to be done before awards start being handed!! As for Israel Obama’s the less the said the better on the performance of the Obama team. A bit of a joke but I am all for the give them time argument. They are not going to solve things in an instant. He is not a prophet after all….

While I 100% am personally for supporting Obama this is stupid. I am sure Obama turned to Michelle and said “Are they taking the piss?” (I admit this is what Obama would have said if he was from London but anyway something expressing the same utter flabbergasting confusion.)

Saad Cafe

Political affiliations are very personal in Tripoli and during the June elections throughout my travels in Lebanon the visual battle of dominance was most intense in Tripoli. Images of the big men were everywhere, making the city a peculiar site of thousands of heads staring confidently and reassuringly at you or just above you.

Then yesterday in Tripoli the support for the big man reached a new level….yes you guessed it….the Cafe Saad.

Personally the Rafik Cafe, although maybe a bit macabre, I think would not only have more of a ring to it but love or hate the guy he has achieved/done enough in his life to warrant someone naming a Cafe after him. But the Saad Cafe?? You are giving the man his glory before he has even entered the battle field! And on his way to the battle field has not been the most classy of entrances …. but credit to the man he brushed him self off and the fall was enough to keep most of his grace.

Surprisingly enough I did not share my views with the goateed regulars of Cafe Saad. I have heard that political debate among the regulars can be a bit one sided but you can get great deals on real estate!

Architecture and politics are very much interconnected. Looking at Lebanon through it’s built environment illustrates the political system of the country and how much it is both shaped and shapes the people around it.

The most prominent architectural symbol in Lebanon is the reconstruction of Downtown Beirut. Solidere have remarkably and rapidly reconstructed the once ruined Downtown area of Beirut a defiant gesture against the destruction of the civil war. A mark of Lebanese resilience to what has happened to them during the civil war but also an illustration of what is still happening to them. Solidere is of course mired in scandal after scandal as to misappropriation of land and of course the major issue that many Lebanese (living in Lebanon) can neither afford to buy/rent/shop in their own central district. It is intriguing to walk around Downtown Beirut to find it is almost built for Gulf and European tourists and used as such. An articulation of Lebanese politics and politicians who practice, or maybe perfect, political realism par excellence.

Currently, Lebanon is experiencing a real estate bonanza; massive towers of glass and steel are rising everywhere and uncontrolled development is rampant. What the built environment tells you about Lebanon is that the private sector here is flourishing able to build large scale high quality developments but the floundering state leaves a sense of anarchy about the environment. The individual can flourish, the family can flourish but the national collective cannot.

The lack of planning laws is evident; huge buildings being built completely out of context from its surroundings and effectively destroying the urban fabric. Here the big man rules. If you happen to live in a four story building then enjoy the view, the sunlight and the air while you can because it could be taken away from you at any moment. The only way to be safe from the terror of construction is to be high and to be big.

The intellectual prowess of the Lebanese also shines through in the built environment but also the nihilism. Only Egypt can compete in the nearby states to Lebanon’s recent architectural heritage. The Egg is one such example of this substantial contribution; designed by Lebanese architect Joseph-Philippe Karam, who also trained in Lebanon, this unique example of Lebanese modernist architecture lays in tatters with the threat  destruction for another tower that tells of another side to Lebanon. Although many Lebanese want to save the Egg and see it as a battle of what they rightly call the Dubaification of Lebanon, Solidere effectively sold away to Abu Dhabi Investment House the chance for the Lebanese tohave a say in the preservation or destruction of the Egg.

This is yet another story of Lebanese politics tied into the built environment: Foreign Interference and Foreign Investment. The Habtoor Hotel in Sin el-Fil (just outside Beirut) and the Ain Mresseih area are just two of the most obvious visual expression of how Gulf capital is transforming Lebanon where the large amounts of foreign capital are enabling massive developments of steel and glass that are wiping away previous architecture mainly of Ottoman and French heritage. One foreign master’s legacy is wiped away by the next. While the Gulf masters build their mega-structures the Iranian masters also make their contribution to Lebanon’s built environment through financing the reconstruction in the Southern Suburbs.

The Gulf and Iranian investments into the Lebanese built environment reveal one very interesting fact that both build predominately in the Western style. The idea of reinventing an Islamic or Arab architectural language or even one that makes reference to such an idea has been done away with. However, my interview with Rifat Chadirji, for Bespoke magazine, tried to articulate that a vision for this fusion or more reflective architectural language has been created by the architectural movers and shakers it just needed developers with the will to implement such a style.

In the built environment the “West is Best” is being followed in Lebanon but not always ensuring that the “Best of the West”. Originality is certainly a force that drives the “West” and this is not something that is being strived for enough in the built environment and much the same can be said for the political sphere. Maybe one here or there. In Solidere an unofficial list of international architects, of which there are no Lebanese and only a small number of Arab architects, that are allowed to design buildings in the Solidere area gives an upsetting account of the lack of confidence of the sons and daughters of Lebanon. This has been described to me by one of Beirut’s most prominent architects as policy as a throw back to the darkest days of colonialism.

This is some of what I have found from the brick and mortar, the steel and glass of Beirut and its environs….