Monday, October 30, 2006

Araftouna! ... Again

I once proposed a new Lebanese political party; “Araftouna” was meant as a “tongue in cheek” exercise. My idea was simple; since our political system is effectively gridlocked, humour may “unblock it”.

How Naïve.

Some approved, many did not; much of the reaction has been, at best, rabid.

Those of us who know the civil war have seen it all before. We have experienced first hand the self-imposed limitations of skewed Choices, and we have each worshipped our favourite Golden Calf.

Skewed Choices and Condorcet’s Paradox:

The most “moderate” of objection is simple; you need to make a choice.

I have two main problems with this position.

First, though I do not necessarily mind choosing an “off the rack” item while shopping, I do find it unpalatable that we should choose among the lousy offering at hand.

Second, the present offering, in the way it is presented, imposes an even lousier choice. This is partly because of Condorcet’s Paradox.

The way political choices are made deserves some attention. The limitation of such “choice” were best explained by the Marquis de Condorcet, who noted a voting paradox; Because conflicting majorities are each made up of different groups of individuals, their wishes can be in conflict with each other.

Essentially, when you limit the choices people have, they may never make the choice that is best for them. When you give too much choice, you can direct their choices, depending on how you pose the problem. Even in the best of systems, voters can be manipulated into making a choice that they do not really want.

To put it even more simply; I refuse to be limited to the current offer. We deserve better of our “leaders”. Or we deserve better leaders.

This leads me to the second problem.

The Golden Calf:

Plutarque once said: “l’ingratitude envers les grands hommes est la marque des peuples forts".

In this respect, Arabs, once a great nation, are acting like a weak people. The Lebanese, once great inspirers, are now following the trend towards the new “Jahiliyyah”.

We admire our leaders, faulty as they are, and elevate to levels of idol worship; our “Sayyed”, “General”, “Istez”, “Hakim”, “Beyk”, or “Sheikh” are not too far from their “Turkmenbashi”… Syria may be out, but their influence is still with us in this respect.

Tahya!

In turn, our leaders forget that any “great leader never sets himself above his followers except in carrying responsibilities”, and all too often succumb to the vanity of adulation.

Note how no election poster in the United States shows the picture of a single candidate, while emboss and beautify the pictures of our candidates, like so many Christian Orthodox Icons.

Sometime, being iconoclastic may not be such a bad thing.

Leaving the Whole World Blind:

We Lebanese have fallen, again, into the Civil War trap; we have destroyed ourselves in a series of "tit-for-tar" politics and “leader worship”. Now, this "eye-for-an-eye" has left us all blind to the consequences of our actions, our country destroyed, and our government rudderless.

If we cannot find a “custom-made” solution, we need to look at a larger offering. After all, we do have a Diaspora, and quite a few capable “mensh”.

This generation should learn from the misdeeds of the previous one, and not repeat its mistakes. In the context of the modern Middle East, however, anything non confrontational is viewed at worst as treason, at best as wishy-washy pacifism.

Follow-Up (Oct. 31st, 2006): Back to the Future?

It seems that we’re going back to square one. More precisely, we’re moving closer to April 13th, 1975.

Those who try to move the country forward are labeled as “Devils”, or accused of interfering with the country’s “special character”. No matter how misguided they have been in the past, their current actions do not deserve this honour.

This is just the sort of tit-for-tat that got us the Civil War. And true to form, supporters of “March 14” have pledged, in turn, that they are unlikely to “respond to bullets with roses”.

If it is blustering, then “si vis pacem, para bellum”; this blustering is only a sign that each is marking its territory, in preparation for a grand bargain.

Unfortunately for us, Middle East history is full of examples where many have though that, “si vis pacem, fare bellum”…

Saturday, October 28, 2006

On Statesmanship... And hopes of Reform

The Druze have just completed an “unprecedented” election that was barely noticed in Lebanon, and all but unnoticed in the wider Middle East. Yet it may prove to be a momentous event that demonstrates how the Middle-East sectarianism could be brought into the 21st Century.

Yes, the Druze are a minority. But, as with the Christians, they set the tone of politics in Lebanon. Thanks to an ability to “augment” their own numbers, they matter even in “Greater Syria”; witness Sultan Basha El-Atrash and Salim Hatoum in Syria, as well as Kamal Joumblat in Lebanon

A move closer to secularism; as a first step, it defines the place of both the profane and the religious. Of a more immediate consideration, it shows how effective leadership can placate politicians, appease the religious, and unify a community.

The Politicians

The Druze had been uneasy about Syria’s increased heavy handed control of Lebanon; in this respect, their alignment with March 14th was unavoidable. There was a danger of the majority Joumblatis over playing their hand against the minority Yazbakis.

Joumblat proved his mettle here by treading carefully. True, many resent the role he played in hoodwinking the Christians by keeping alive Ghazi Kanaan’s election law (the new one does not look much better, anyway). Yet he managed well his own house, by bringing on board one Yazbaki/Arslan supporter among his “share” of Druze parliamentarians.

The Religious

The Druze “religious caste” has well done by staying away from the arcane details of politics.

They have avoided the path laid by Sheikh Bajhat Gaith; not that he chose to align himself with the Syrians, but that he towed their line too closely. It helped that the clerics resented a law passed under the auspices of Syria, which placed them under the authority of outsiders, but they did not overreact.

Whether it is Joumblat’s doing, or the act of the Druze spiritual authority, this is a masterstroke. The elected Sheikh Akl, Naim Hassan, is a Yazbaki, similarly to Bahjat Ghaith, the man he replaces. What placates Yazbakis further is that he was elected “unopposed”; he did not “run for office”, as much as “stood for office”.

The Statesmanship Part: A United Community

Some would say that, because their status as a minority forced them to look "outside", the Druze were able to better "import" and adapt new ideas... In this context, their religion may have become became one out of many sources of inspiration. But I see it more as a demonstration of Joumblat’s statesmanship.

Walid Beyk appears inconsistent outside his community, thanks to a confounding ability to exercise ruthlessness, demonstrate magnanimity, and commit perplexing shifts (to use a Politically Correct term). However, he has demonstrated to be fairly consistent towards his own Community. He has co-opted Arslan’s sympathizers, isolated Mir Talal, and unified his flock.

The Druze now stand united across borders; not behind a “leader”, but behind a system. As such, they are ready to face the nightmarish upheavals of the “new” Middle-East. By allowing room for all the diverse currents, they are unlikely to follow their leader as blindly as others.

Poor Mir Talal Arslan, he is not only aligned with the lost (?) Syrian cause, but he has to contend with such an intellect as Walid Beyk. Wait till November 5th, when Bahjat Ghaith is set to be relieved. No doubt some Yazbakis, under pressure from Syria, will want him to soldier on. Still, Joumblat’s smart maneuvering, and the election of Sheikh Hassan has not only created a split between Ghaith and Arslan, it has also effectively weakened pro-Syrians

The Reform Part: Can Others Emulate the Druze?

Christians, Maybe. Moslems, Unlikely.

It is notable to see that Druze are Christian clerics are not exclusively schooled in a single book, while the education of most Moslem clerics consists of rote memorization. Indeed, for 95% of the entire population of Islamic clerics, Arabic is the only foreign tongue they speak. Even then, most of it is memorized sections of the Koran and the Hadith. Incidentally, this compares well with the high proportion of Southern Baptist preachers who only speak English...

Maybe this explains why the religious establishment of Druze and Christian communities is comparatively less overbearing than others. Comparatively.

A note of caution; the present reform, though commendable, is Tenuous at best: recall that it had to be voted on by a parliament made up of a non-Druze majority. They aligned themselves with their Druze colleagues out of courtesy (something Lahouss ignores), This exposes systemic laws to Lebanon’s political morass; the country is still far away from a decentralized system…

In the meantime, a fruitful debate within Islam remains inexistent, and any hope at reformation still far away. Some have pointed out that, "Whilst [they are] deeply satisfied with Islam on an intellectual and theological level, much too often [they] have been far from happy in my experiences with fellow Muslims on a practical level".

While such milder voices are too often cowed into silence, Harder-hitting intellectuals such as Wafaa Sultan are coming to the fore. She is asking many right questions, but such style is unlikely to win many Arab Moslems to the cause of reformation, no matter their eloquence, or their support in the rest of the world.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

This Summer's Fashion: Nukilar

It is the new fad this season; Nukilar! Everyone wants to go Nukilar.

If the North Korean pseudo-tests have demonstrated anything, it is that a Nukilar Middle-East is still far away.

Iran’s designers appear to have accelerated in their race for the latest fashion. But Iran is likely to take the wrong lessons from the semi-failure of the North Korean program, and from Israel supposed arsenal. Its policies are serving Russia’s interests more than its own and, with its feeble Syrian ally; it is now mired in the Lebanese quicksand.

Israel’s Unproven Nukes.

There is much talk about the Israeli nukilar arsenal, but no clear determination has been made of the program’s extent. Mordechai Vanunu’s revelations uncovered much, but key doubts remain:

1- The Extent of the Arsenal: Any numbers can be based on indirect estimates of the potential production of the reactor at Dimona. If we consider that the operational average of the reactor is about 200 days annually, and that the capacity of the reactor does not exceed 200 MW (based on the size of the cooling towers), we can estimate a production of about 18 kg/yr of Plutonium. Since Israel’s vectors can carry, on average, a 200 Kg warhead capacity, this means that each nukilar bomb would use about 4 to 5 Kg of plutonium. So Israel may have no more than 100 deployable warheads.

2- Do the Nukes Work? No matter how good your technology is, this still requires testing. That is where the Israelis have a problem; there is only evidence for a couple of tests, if any. On November 2nd, 1966, the Israelis may have carried out a “zero-yield” or “implosion” test, at Naqab, in the Negev. And in September 1979, American satellites detected a suspicious flash off the Namibian coast, which could have been a joint South African-Israeli test. This is not enough for the designers to know for sure “whether or not they could count on the higher yield that they have presumably designed into the weapon”.

Iran’s Nukilar Program

As far as non-conventional forces, Iran’s is somewhat inspired by Israel; to the extent that Ahmadinejad can control his temper (that depends on Mojtaba), it tries to maintain a position of “Strategic Ambiguity”, neither confirming nor denying its pursuit of nukilar weapons.

This is as far as the similarity goes. Because of the lack of support for its program, it has to deal with a single technology supplier; Putin’s Russia. And it has to pay top dollar for the plant and the parts, as well as endure Russia’s endless “delays”… which can be sped up for the right price.

This is all money that could go on to develop the country’s much beleaguered economy; the experience of Soviet Russia taught us that the most performing missiles do not a country feed. In addition to all the money spent, Iran has been rearming, buying lotsa Russian weapons:

USD 1 Billion for a few refurbished Anti-Aircraft tanks that still need an integrated radar system (sold separately). Even more for a few used Russian submarines…

This frenzy suits Russia very well; it needs to retool an industry that, for the past 50 years, was focused on weapons development. The Russians can dump much soon-to-be-outdated euipment, in exchange for hard cash. Thanks to all this cash, the Russians are increasingly able to churn out more and better quality washing machines, PC’s, cars... etc. Those "additional" pumps and valves that teh reactors still need are going to be pricy.

Your petro-dollars at work for others. The British took the oil in exchange for supporting the Shah’s dream of Grandeur, the Russians are now taking the cash is exchange for supporting the Mullah’s dreams of Grandeur.

Different regimes, same delusion.

Syrian Nukes?

Unlike Israel, Syria found little support for the development of a potential nukilar arsenal. Indeed, Israel had strong support early on to develop its nukilar arsenal; notably from the French, strewn with guilt over their less than stellar record during the Second World War (Vel d’Hiv was a particularly low point). Indeed, “French premier Guy Mollet is even quoted as saying privately that France ‘owed’ the bomb to Israel”. In contrast, Syria’s supporter, Russia, is mostly interested in cash, and any political leverage that it can gleam from the United States.

Under its Atomic Energy Commission, Syria has made a few feeble attempts at developing a nukilar industry. In the past, earlier deals on purchasing nukilar reactors went nowhere. Under pressure from the United States, it lost deals on purchasing nukilar reactors from China, in 1991, and form Argentina in 1995. Then it signed an agreement with Russia, on 23 February 1998, in which the Russians would help them build a 25 MW light-water reactor. But Russians may rather use the contract as leverage with the Americans to secure more subsidies, or more work for Atomstroyeksport and Nikiet to fill the funding gap, as its industry retools.

And even if you have the reactors, where do you get the Uranium? The Syrians are hoping for extracting it from phosphates, using the Russian D2EHPA-TOPO process. They do have fertilizer plants at Homs that operated by the Atomic Energy Commission.

But this will yield too little; the Israelis tried something similar, with little effect, and soon had to resort to some creative gymnastics to supplement their paltry production. Back in November 1968, when the Liberian-flagged “Scheersberg A” left Antwerp with a cargo of 200 Tonnes of Uranium Oxide destined for Genoa, it ended up in Iskederun, Turkey, with a new crew and without its cargo.

Still, even if you could start the process, where do you get the funds? Geld ist er den Nerv des Krieges gesichert, and with Syrian oil set to run out by 2010, and Syria's economy in the doldrums, the shortage of funds is not far away. To recoupe all the investment in military hardware, there is still the option of selling ad space on their new equipment...

Lebanon’s Moving Sands

In Lebanon, Iran aims to divert attention from its Nukilar program. But it may be sucked in our own moving sands; the country’s politics are notoriously inhospitable to the Lebanese, let alone others.

So far, Iran has wasted more than 10 Billion dollars arming and supporting Hezb’s various charities in Lebanon. All for a “Divine Victory”. OK, Lebanon’s pro-Iranian Shiites are now in control of the country, but how can Iran benefit from such a prize, now that its leverage has been spent? And how can Hezb afford to “maintain” that victory, in the face of much internal Lebanese opposition, and much Arab hostility?

Recall that, in 1978, Bachir Gemayel was riding high after a similar “victory” against another foreign enemy. 4 years and much blood and destruction later, he was sacrificed on the altar of greater interests. Today, there is much Arab money shoring up Hezb’s rivals, and compensating for Iran’s largesse. In the short term, this may lead to some compromise, similar to what brought us this ineffective government. But it will not last.

The Hariri assassination has demonstrated plainly that no man can be “larger” than his country. In time, Hezb will similarly learn that no community can be “greater” than its country.

In time, even planets get demoted.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Et Tu, Brute?

Within all the “noise”, an interesting few comments by Berri sneaked in. Rumour mills in Beirut are indeed awash with a promise of “the Berri Spring”.

Tu quoque, Fili?

That guy may be placing himself as the Shiite alternative to Hezb; no doubt that, after his recent trip there, the Saudis are betting on this horse for leverage against Hezb. No doubt that they are betting that Nasrallah’s mistakes may have damaged his popularity among Shiites.

His “Landmark Visit to Saudi Arabia”, while formally aimed as an attempt to avert a Shiite-Sunni war, may have been a way to place himself outside Syria’s influence… And get plenty of greenbacks for his favourite charities.

Someone should tell Bashar to “beware the ides of March”. He has moved too close to Iran for the taste of most Arabs.

Mutassarifiya, Part Deux / Saudi Version?

In this case, a new sectarian alignment would see Shiite-Sunni dominance over Lebanon, with the Christians and Druze relegated to second roles.

In an opinion piece, the Daily Star's Young had already warned the Christians not to stay on the sidelines too long, lest they be sidelined (If, by sidelines, he means Aoun’s alignment with Hezb, then it comes oddly after his earlier advice to do just that). Now that the United States may be preparing its exit from Iraq, a new grand bargain may be in the offing.

I am not sure how it will all work out, however.

The Fate of Best Laid Plans.

On one hand, a 21st Century Lebanon need more than a new version of the 19th Century “Mutassarrifiya”. The Lebanese have outgrown the vassal status, especially the most economically productive among them.

On the other hand, if the last war demonstrated anything, it is Von Moltke’s dictum that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Especially a plan among such unreliable allies.

Expect another surprise from Walid Beyk.

If Berri is successful (he already looks very presidential), Walid is unlikely to remain on the sidelines, lest he be swept aside with the divided Christians.

He has already cleaned up the Druze house, with an organising law passed with unanimity in a divided Lebanese Parliament, and a successful election that satisfied the Joumblatis, reassured the Yazbakis, and sidelined the house of Arslan.

Now that the Druze house is in order, another of Joumblat’s trademark shifts may already be in the works.

In the Meantime…

Expect more manoeuvring, and a resumption / interruption / postponement of the “National Dialogue”. That may be the best “surprise” Berri can really deliver. At least, it will bring some badly needed business to Downtown stores.

In the meantime, as our “leaders” are distracted, we better “get the hell outta Dodge” while we still can, like so many others have done already.

Dead men (and women, and children… and Lamas…) tell not tales.

Follow-Up (Oct. 27, 2006): A Damp Squid

Nabih Berri made his announcement; He “invited Wednesday rival political leaders for a consultation session to be held October 30 aimed at resolving demands for the formation of a national unity government”.

Apparently, the “surprise” he promised is that there will be no surprise.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Defeated by Marijuana?

An interesting thread “chez Abu Kais” got me thinking about the evolution and economics of the current “war on terror”. One post by Fubar discussed a story about “Canadian troops” facing “an unexpected and potent enemy; almost impenetrable forests of 10-feet-high marijuana plants”.This is not as “off-topic” as at it first seems. Drugs are key in those conflicts; the West is ignoring both Darwin and Adam Smith at its own peril. In Lebanon, such misguided policies only reinforce Hezb.

Darwin

On one level, it is an excellent example of Darwin's evolution at work. With human help, hallucinogenic and toxic plants evolved to increasingly adapt to our needs, and grew ever more effective.

Marijuana has evolved into the mutant plant that we know today (some of us more than others). Initially, its hallucinogenic properties were an adaptation to ward of "predators". Any herbivores that ate it were confused and either became easy prey, or forgot where they found the plant. When apex predators (that would be us) came along, the plant's unique adaptation were put to different uses. It was then selectively selected for higher yield, much like wheat and barley were.

The “war on drugs” created another evolutionary pressure. With the extensive use of defoliants and other crop removal techniques, there was an increasing need for uniquely resistant plants that grew higher and ever faster. This created a wide variety of “strains”, some which are a far cry from their humble ancestor. As a result, the crop continues growing...

Tobacco is another interesting example; its active ingredients are poisonous to most insects. A few species of insects have evolved to feed on the plant; they can be immune to the toxic substances, or can avoid them while feeding, or can store them to become poisonous themselves. Much like humans, who inconvenience and kill many of their brethren with toxic fumes of second hand smoke.

Adam Smith

On another note, it highlights the failures of Western policies. The best example is the "war against the Taliban" in Afghanistan.

The real funding for war in Afghanistan has always been drugs; in the absence of adequate infrastructure to bring farming goods to markets, farmers have little choice but to grow crops with high cash value. This can better compensate for Afghanistan's higher costs in packaging, transportation, and marketing.

As long as the West does not address those issues, Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan will not be stabilized. And NATO forces will ultimately be defeated by drugs and economics; not only are Western drug users are funding the same forces killing Western Soldiers, Western policies are effectively subsidizing the growers.

As politicians focus on short term policies, and ill-equip their forces, much valour goes wasted.

In Lebanon: Reinforcing Hezb

A similar effect is at play in Lebanon. In Lebanon, Hezb’s popularity is not due to its “Divine Marketing”, but is only reinforced by it. The party is benefiting from both direct and indirect support.

As far as direct support, Iranian Oil is the first element that comes to mind, contributing more than 500 Million US$/year

The Indirect support is less obvious. Drugs were always important in the context of the Lebanese Civil War. In 1980-1981, Syrians and their allies fought unites of the "Lebanese Forces" in the battle of Zahleh; at stake was a road that would connect directly to the town, and bypass Syrian-controlled drug export routes.

Towards the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the West has aggressively sponsored drug eradication in Lebanon, with some success. The Beqaa valley does not produce as much drugs as before, and farmers tried to revert to substitutes. With little success.

However, with the country’s woeful infrastructure, and with a farming policy that largely favours Syria, Lebanese farmers face high costs in bringing their goods to market.

They cannot compete with the merchant classes of the cities who find it more profitable to import Syrian produce. They also had to compete with farming goods coming from as far as Jordan and or Turkey. Even Israel had better access to the Lebanese market.

For many, drugs were the only cash crop. With that option gone, they have little choice but poverty. And they fall into the clutches of whoever has the cash, or whoever can protect them and keep government forces at bay. During their occupation, Syria played a pivotal role in this and became “Hooked on Lebanon”, especially in the Beqaa and many regions of the South

In the increasingly fragmented Lebanon of today, Hezb is more than able and willing to fill that gap. To some, bombs may be more "glamorous" than beans, but you need a combination of both to "win".

Hezb understands this. Give and take, and a few hypocritical tears do not hurt...


Friday, October 13, 2006

The Ig's are in!

This year, the Ig-Nobel award for Peace had many nominees. Personally, I was routing for a joint prize Olmert-Nasrallah.

They Were Both Inspired by God...

We all know Hassan’s claim. Yet Ehud also considered that “the Holy One, blessed be He, performed a miracle forIsrael, by “giving us a wake-up call a moment before it would have been too late”. Indeed, the war was “all Divine Providence […] what the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to happen now. It could be that He wanted to put me to a test

OK, it is a different divine thing; a Divine Wake-up, or a Divine Test… Contrary to us Lebanese, Israelis have a choice; they can vote their leaders out. Even if those assure them that, “as long as I'm prime minister, I am certain the Golan Heights will remain in our hands for all eternity”.

At this rate, better prepare an application for membership in the Arab League, or start reading up on that Velayati Faqih thing.

Back to the Ig's: Electromechanical Teenager Repellent

Still, the Igs went to a better contender. One can hardly be disappointed. This being the prestigious “Igs”, the video of the august ceremony is (barely) available on line (watch nominations for site designs).

The Ig-Nobel award for Peace was awarded to Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, for a device that “makes annoying noise designed to be audible to teenagers but not to adults”. Another application is that it can “make telephone ringtones that are audible to teenagers but not to their teachers”.

I prefer the first application. Students who want to get even with their professors have another, more useful outlet.

The winner is in august company; Last year’s award went to Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University, in the U.K., “for electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust while that locust was watching selected highlights from Star Wars".

Further research demonstrated similar patterns of the brainwaves of the masses crowding around the ex-warlords of Lebanon, and other wannabe “Leaders”. Like moths to a flame.

A Tool of Many Uses.

Anyone interested to market it in Lebanon, go to the company’s website. Provided it works., you have the support of those who know what war really is. We could use the device will keep at bay all those braying teenagers who, born and raised after the horrors of the civil war, are too young to realize how stupid their “Leaders” really are.

So next time you see a mass of prepubescent warrior wannabes (do not be fooled by the beards) gathering to devoutly applaud their new prophets, zap’em! Maybe, in the commotion, they will run over the clamouring idiot standing at the podium.

As they ran home to mommy, we could, maybe, avoid the next war.