Sanders Research Associates, February 21, 2005
Deception is the first rule of war. We are at war, therefore look where your own feet stand
Death in the afternoon
The assassination of Rafiq Hariri invited recollection of another Sidon native assassinated almost exactly thirty years ago in February 1975, Marouf Saad. The anniversary of Saadâ€™s death has a meaning that cannot have escaped the notice of Haririâ€™s killers. His assassination is generally accepted as the event that precipitated the Lebanese civil war.
Haririâ€™s funeral two days after his killing completed the humiliation of the government of Emile Lahoud, who was pointedly told by the family of the dead Hariri to stay away. Syria, backer of the Lahoud government, was predictably blamed for the assassination, the premise being that he had called for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon last October. The United States poured oil on the fire by recalling its ambassador to Syria, showing thereby who it blames for Haririâ€™s death and in the process upping the pressure on the Lahoud government and encouraging the Lebanese opposition.
Rush to judgment
Syria sensibly denied responsibility, equally sensibly pointing out that it had nothing to gain and a lot to lose by such an act. There is no doubt that the Syrian regime is ruthless enough to use assassination as a tool and competent enough to make it happen, but a rush to judgment is still just a rush and not a judgment. The most convincing argument we have heard is that Syria knows it will sooner or later have to bow to US, French and Israeli pressure to get out of Lebanon, and was unwilling to leave behind such a powerful and well-funded politician to fill the vacuum that Syriaâ€™s departure would leave. This is conceivable; the objective would be to leave behind a complete mess, the better to confuse and occupy the opposition. Without Hariri and his money it seems to us highly unlikely that the disparate groups that make up Lebanonâ€™s “oppositionâ€ will find it possible to remain united.
Conceivable maybe, likely, not. Tempting as it may be to believe this line of reasoning, doing so is fraught with problems. To begin with, it is a high cost, high risk strategy with the costs front-end loaded. There is virtually no way that Syria would not be blamed for such an act, which could only isolate Syria in the court of world opinion and which can only advance the cause of those in Israel and the United States who would like to see regime change in Damascus. And it is difficult to imagine any country with more to lose from an unstable Lebanon than Syria.
Lost in the welter of accusations and counter accusations is much if any analysis of Hariri himself. This usually stops with crediting the billionaire with the reconstruction of Lebanon in the wake of its bloody civil war. While he gets the credit, the money came from Saudi Arabia, and he doled it out to every group in the country. Even so, the tangible results are pretty thin. The country still does not even have enough electric power, and the high profile reconstruction of central Beirut is actually confined to quite a small area. The towering and empty wreck of the old Holiday Inn is a grim reminder of how far the country has to go to put the war behind it. But the most important thing is that there is no evidence that we are aware of that Hariri was in any way anti-Syrian; indeed he seemed to be groping for a way to defuse the escalating conflict between the US and Israel on one side, and Syria and the Lahoud government on the other. There is no reason other than conjecture to suppose that Syria wanted to escalate matters, but there is good reason to think that the Americans and Israelis would.
It has to be said that in spite of his good press, Hariri was not universally admired. In Saudi Arabia he was for many a symbol of the corruption that went hand in hand with the expenditure of hundreds of billions in oil revenue. His specialty was building palaces and his patron was the now semi-comatose king, Fahd bin Abdulaziz, who used a maintenance contract for his palaces as the pipe through which to funnel the money used to buy off Lebanonâ€™s factions. There is little wonder then that Haririâ€™s death is so universally mourned in that little country. He was the tap on the end of that pipe and competent to boot.
In retrospect his assassination should probably be less of a surprise than the fact that he survived as long as he did. He and his patron Fahd symbolise an old equilibrium in the politics of the region that became untenable once the United States decided on a global offensive informed by the regional priorities of its client Israel. The Taif Agreement of October 1989 legitimised the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon and committed Saudi largesse as part of a larger strategic plan to stabilize the region under the aegis of the United States, an important part of which was the commitment of the latter to bring about a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It was this basic framework that made possible the coalition assembled by the US during the Gulf War in 1990, which, be it not forgotten, included Syrian troops.
The adoption by Messrs. Cheney, Rumsfeld & Bush of a strategic plan that is basically Israeli in origin and orientation swept away the basis for the existing regional equilibrium. Indeed, sweeping away the equilibrium is exactly what that plan is intended to do. The Taif equilibrium bound Israel to find a settlement with the Palestinians toward which Israelâ€™s leadership was at best equivocal, because that equilibrium neutralised Israeli freedom of action to unilaterally define its role in the regional pol itical economy. With the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the assumption of power by Binyamin Netanyahu in the mid-90s, equivocation became open hostility. The Israeli, or rather Zionist, dilemma was and is really quite simple. A settlement with the Palestinians and regional peace means openness, openness means Palestinian access to Saudi funding, and Saudi funding plus the Palestinian birthrate spell the end, ultimately, of an Israeli state defined by a Jewish as opposed to a national identity.
In politics there are only interestsâ€¦
It is this basic alignment of interests that informs the behavior of the powers in the region. Israel talks the language of peace and democracy but cannot afford either because of the most basic issue of identity. The Arab states cannot win a war against a nuclear Israel with American resupply privileges, but they can win a peace. It is for this reason that Syriaâ€™s protestations of innocence in the Hariri affair are believable; applying the useful yardstick of the â€œcui bono?â€ principle it is difficult to see what the Syrians, whose behavior over the years has been nothing if not pragmatic, would gain.
Pragmatic too was the Russian-Syrian arms deal announced at the end of January, which will result in an upgrade of Syrian military capability that highlights the biggest challenge facing the American and Israeli offensive, time. In general, time is on the side of an offensive party as long as it can choose it. Delay only allows opposition to coalesce and organize. The US and Israel no longer have the advantage of strategic surprise and the clock is ticking, measured by the dollars the War on Terror is stripping from the US Treasury. Already, the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations have over two years surpassed $300 billion, making this the most expensive two years of warfare in American history. The Defense Departmentâ€™s operating deficit for FY2004 (ended in September last year) was $650 billion. And belying the current fashion for so- called â€œausterityâ€, the cost of Medicare has soared thanks to the passage of the administrationâ€™s Medicare Prescription Drug Plan, which adds a stupefying $8.12 trillion net present value to future federal liabilities. Four years ago the net present value of future net Medicare expenditure was equal to the net present value of future net Social Security liabilities. Today it is double the comparable Social Security number.
â€¦even if they are crazy interests
The message from Washington could not be clearer: damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. The financial implications of the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan will not be lost on China, whose purchases of US debt are financing so much of the governmentâ€™s deficit, and the strategic implications of its runaway military budget will not be lost on the other powers, who can only look at the financial and military mess in Iraq and shrug. After nearly four years of trying, the US has yet to score a real success in its War on Terror. It needs one badly, no matter what the price.
Pity poor Lebanon in the cross fire.