Sunday, February 4, 2007

Death, Lies and Politics

Whatever the true legacy of Rafiq Al-Hariri, it will be shredded and reassembled to fit the goals of others, writes Azmi Bishara

Eye of the storm

Voices of dissent

Trying times for Damascus

Spotlight on Syria

Lebanon on the brink

Al-Hariri assassination

Crimes such as the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister and entrepreneur Rafiq Al- Hariri send the mind spinning. Thoughts come fast, so fast that it is difficult to set them down in words. Nor am I interested in writing an obituary. There are specialists at that sort of thing, people who are good at patching together biographical sketches and enumerating -- inventing, if necessary -- the virtues of the departed. There are those who can fondly reminisce, among them former adversaries and political blackmailers of the wealthy businessman. And there are those who condense the many demands they had expected him to fulfil over the coming year and package them in a single somber speech appropriate to the occasion.

The death of a politician is ripe for political plucking. Even a politician who dies a natural death is powerless to control how his life will be summed up and then used in political debate. Everything depends on the nature of his political legacy, on who does the summing up and towards what ends. Assassinations complicate the matter. If the assassin is apprehended, as was the case with Robert Kennedy, analysts still have to agree on the motives of the assassin and the identity and motives of those who hired him. Worse yet are cases, such as the assassination of John Kennedy, where the identity of the assassin remains a matter of conjecture and attempts to weave the threads of the crime together continue for decades. (Until now no one has demanded an international investigation into this assassination and especially the validity of the rumours of CIA involvement.) And then there are cases such as the assassination of the Moroccan opposition leader Al-Mahdi Bin Baraka. His assassin was identified but never subjected to an official investigation.

Sadat and Rabin are among the few instances where the identity of the assassin and his motives are known. When this is not the case the personality and political role of the victim gets tossed into the tug-of-war between political interests and opposing agendas. And woe to the victim who ends up playing a larger role in death than in life, for they are never around to have any say in the postmortem. One would think that the deceased's very absence and inability to speak on his own behalf would give a moment's pause to those who keep on talking and talking. No such luck.

The assassination of Al-Hariri is something else again. The "modern", "underdeveloped" and "pre- modernist" aspects of Arab politics seem to be condensed into that dark vortex, to the extent that one is dumbstruck by the sheer difficulty of getting hold of the ideas that are swirling around.

Al-Hariri was the victim of the conflict between political forces in Lebanon, a conflict in which it is difficult to disentangle personal agendas, family and sectarian allegiances and national politics from the foul winds blowing over the region from the West. The external dynamic is such a potent catalyst in this brew that it melds together antitheses in each camp. Which sets of opposites are most important? Those within the factions or those between them?

Al-Hariri was killed before he had decided with which camp to align himself following his fourth term as prime minister. Although he was with the opposition -- he was not currently in office -- having served four terms as prime minister, and being a businessman by profession, he was hardly the opposition type, not in character, ideology or approach. He was far from revolutionary. He was a long and true friend of Saudi Arabia. Among those coming out as his current "friends" there are many that were so, and many who had liked him for his money. And there are those who hated him for the same reason, who regarded him as the root of corruption in the country. In their presence you couldn't say a good word about him. Among his current adversaries were erstwhile allies.

While alive volumes were written in his praise and rightfully so, for he deserved admiration as a political and entrepreneurial dynamo whose ambitions knew no bounds. But the fact that his blend of politics and business created problems -- as it does in every democracy -- also drew considerable venom against him, much of it set down in print. Politically, Al-Hariri was a pragmatic statesman and a champion of inter-Arab consensus. A pillar of the post-civil war phase, he was pivotal to Lebanon's relationship with Syria, pivotal to the class and denominational conflict over Lebanon's identity and pivotal to the economic debates over the extent of the market economy and the service sector and whether or not Lebanon was for sale. Al-Hariri agreed or disagreed on these issues with both those in power and those in opposition. He was central to the furor over Security Council Resolution 1559, publicly opposing it while his adversaries accused him of secretly engineering it. So much can be said about Al-Hariri and is being said about him, and about Lebanon. Terms and concepts are cited, principles spouted, bombast shouted as words are slotted together by professionals for the sake of slotting together words.

The identity of his assassins remains unknown. Yet the political extremes in Lebanon have named both the killer and his victim. The latter belongs to "their" camp and his killer to its opponent -- proof enough of the intensity of the conflict and the fragility of the arena within which it takes place.

Sometimes it appears that Lebanon's government is less an arena for the conflict than it is an immediate party to it. It also seems that the party most vulnerable to assault and intrigue, the one that is the real target of the campaigns against Lebanon and Syria, is the one -- Hizbullah and the Lebanese resistance -- that is trying to mediate between the government and the opposition. Every time it tries to defend itself it finds its arms pinned as though in a wrestler's bear hug. Moreover, as the opposition is reluctant to go on the attack, the government is painted as the adversary and gets propelled into the other corner of the ring.

Even if it is in the higher interests of the state -- and it most certainly is -- to mount an investigation into the assassination of Al-Hariri, if it did so and identified the culprits and proved their guilt beyond any reasonable doubt no one would believe the verdict if it was not in their interest to do so. What matters to them is how right they are and how wrong the other side is. All facts, including the identity of the killer, are assessed on the basis of a single criterion: the extent to which they serve their own cause.

One look at the Israeli press on the day after the death of Al-Hariri, who was no great friend of Israel, is enough to know what Israel is after. Although Damascus has its compass set on stability with almost classical resolve, and although Israel occupies Arab lands in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, Israeli commentators paint Syria as the agent of destabilisation. Syria supports Hizbullah and refuses to disarm it. Syria acts through the headquarters of Hamas and Jihad in Damascus in order to obstruct the efforts of Israel and the PA and render the ceasefire fragile and unstable. Syria is involved in Sunni terrorism in Iraq which has killed hundreds.

The logical conclusion of these outpourings is simple -- strike Syria.

"The assassination of Al-Hariri and Syria's refusal to respond to all international demands [talk about pots calling kettles black!] does not leave the world many diplomatic options. The US should study the possibility of using force to deter the Syrian regime [to serve as a lesson to other Arab countries that refuse to bow first to Israeli and then to American hegemony in the region, we read between the lines]." So editorialised Yediot Aharonot on 15 February 2005.

Yediot Aharonot 's amazing Arab affairs correspondent comes right out and accuses Syria of masterminding Al-Hariri's assassination. "Bashar Al-Assad's crocodile tears will not save him," she warns. Nor will anything else for that matter, not even the facts, for her masters have decided it was Al-Assad who "assassinated his greatest opponent". Al-Assad is "the prime suspect and the prime loser".

What matters, of course, is that Al-Assad is the loser regardless of whether he is the perpetrator and regardless of who stands to gain. Politics is all the cleaner for such upstanding probity on the part of the press. The Israeli press is not clamouring to get Syria out of Lebanon, it is clamouring for a war against Syria. The identity of the assassin is not the issue, nor is whether or not Syria was behind the killing, not when the opportunity is at hand to set the international community against Syria. Such an opportunity is too good to waste, which is why the following day -- 17 February -- a Yediot Aharonot headline proclaimed that Israeli military intelligence suspected Hizbullah.

And what of the truth? It pales into insignificance against the dictates of Carl Schmitt's dialectic of friend and foe. But even this German political theoretician would be aghast at how integral the bald lie has become to contemporary politics.

Eyal Zisser, an Israeli expert on Lebanese and Syrian affairs, rejects the spin of his colleagues who get their information directly from Israeli intelligence. In his opinion it was "totally illogical" that Syria would want to assassinate Al-Hariri. The operation was not at all in keeping with its current policy in Lebanon and its interest in removing foreign intervention there. It also conflicted with its desire to maintain stability, for Syria stands to lose politically and economically from stirring up chaos. Nevertheless, Professor Zisser says in Maariv of 15 February, it is "Syria that will pay the price (for the assassination".

Nothing Zisser said comes as news to those in Lebanon who have pointed their fingers at Syria with nothing to back their allegations beyond political allegiance and personal agenda. And while there is a significant difference between "holding Syria responsible", as the opposition forces in Lebanon put it, and accusing Syria outright, to their public and the rest of the world they boil down to the same thing, which is precisely what is intended.

One cannot help but recall those fraught days when, to compound the 10 lies that the US used to justify its war against Iraq, Tony Blair came out with his famous 16 word statement: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." This lie was exposed even before the war began. But beyond these lies are lies of another sort, of the type that play on the public's emotions, feeding their worst nightmares and stoking the kinds of sectarian hysteria we see today. The most ready to hand, easily disseminated and hardest to refute are those heartrending testimonies of personal suffering. Perhaps the most famous is the story of the Iraqi woman, which first appeared in the Washington Post of 21 July 2003 which was then taken up by other newspapers and later revived on the eve of the war. The woman said she was an Oxford graduate and that she had been raped in front of her husband for several days in a row in an Iraqi prison because he was Indian. Even after the war the story was used to justify an aggressive hunt for Baathist leaders. Wolfowitz referred to "that courageous woman" when seeking congressional approval of his policy in Iraq. Only much later was the fiction exposed. She had never studied at Oxford. She had spent only a few days in prison on the charge of adultery. She had not been raped. The Enquirer, which made this revelation in its January 2005 edition, had initially set out to glorify the woman only to discover that the trail it followed from Oxford to Iraq led to a pack of lies.

This story, in turn, brings to mind that of the Kuwaiti woman who on 10 October 1990 testified to Congress that while working as a volunteer in a Kuwaiti hospital she saw Iraqi soldiers stabbing pregnant women with bayonets in order to kill the babies in their wombs. The story inflamed American public opinion. In 1992 a Canadian television programme revealed that the woman was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington and had never been to the hospital in her life. Yet the revelation did nothing to change the popular mood her story had aroused, a mood fired by images of Hollywood heroes charging off to settle scores with the bad guys.

The Iraqi regime was mercilessly brutal and bloodthirsty. But this had nothing to do with Jessica Lynch. Nor did the exposure of this third fiction stop Hollywood from going ahead with shooting a film of her rescue from captors who were none other than the very solicitous medical staff at an Iraqi hospital.

With regard to the assassination of Al-Hariri we can picture a cunning conspirator, perhaps some demonic foreign intelligence agency, masterminding the crime as proof of the explosive instability in Lebanon, for which Syria is as responsible as Washington is for the security of New York. We might also imagine a mad killer, stupid enough to believe he was carrying out some personal vendetta against Al-Hariri. Or we might picture him as a crazed fanatic, driven by hatred and contempt, hoping to trigger a devastating sectarian war. The fact is, however, that we do not know who was behind the assassination. Although it is our right to make conjectures as to who stands to benefit from this crime this does not prove guilt. The US and Israel, for example, may have seized upon the opportunity after the fact, joining all the other parties who scrambled to exploit it politically.

Opposition forces may have had militias during the civil war but it is not civil war they want today. They have cast their lot in with political operations of a different sort. Lebanon's opposition does share the same goals as the Americans though it has adopted the US-UN approach as its means, just as a portion of the opposition adopted Syria's ends for its own means in the past. The opposition has every right to be sceptical of the intentions of outside powers. On 17 February, in the course of outlining his aims for the Greater Middle East, Bush reiterated his criticisms of, and demands on, Syria. The US and Israel want Lebanon and Syria to change their tune on US policy in the region, and in Lebanon and Palestine in particular. This is what matters to Washington, not how democratic Lebanon is. Lebanon, even under Syria's guardianship, is the most democratic country in the Middle East. It is certainly more democratic than Syria, and than Egypt, Jordan and all the US's other allies in the region. Syria's guardianship of Lebanon is far more favourable to democracy than America's guardianship of the Gulf and other places where American forces are stationed.

It would be disastrous to believe that the US, with its agenda in Syria and Lebanon, might be of help in resolving Lebanon's domestic crisis. The power best equipped to wage war is also the best equipped to spread lies. The truth may out eventually, but only after the lies have done their damage and only after the truth becomes of interest only to scholars. Moreover, those who have lied successfully once, even if their lies are eventually exposed, have no compunction against lying again as long as they can rest assured that the truth will come to light only when it is no longer relevant.

Are the Arabs going to let lies determine the fate of their societies? No society in the fullest sense of the word -- i.e. a polity in which the cohesive factors outweigh the divisive ones -- wants that. Nor do we presume that the government or opposition in Lebanon want it either.