One of the world’s best frontline reporters, Nir Rosen recently returned from a six week trip to seven of Iraq’s provinces. He discussed post civil war Iraq and also his experiences reporting on Sunni-Shiite strife in Lebanon and on the situation in Afghanistan at The University of Texas at Austin on November 17, 2010.
Twenty years ago, Harvard’s Joseph Nye famously coined the term “soft power” to describe what he saw as an increasingly important factor in international politics—the capacity of “getting others to want what you want”, which he contrasted with the ability to coerce others through the exercise of “hard” military and/or economic power. The question of soft power, when it comes to Iran, is contentious. Most analysts seem prepared to acknowledge that the Islamic Republic’s soft power in the Middle East rose significantly in the first several years of this decade. But many Western analysts now argue that Tehran’s regional soft power has declined over the last couple of years, following the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the fallout from the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election, and the imposition of new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.
Others—including the two of us—argue that Iranian soft power remains strategically significant and is perhaps even still growing. In this regard, we are struck by two developments today. First, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Beirut—the first visit by an Iranian president to the Lebanese capital since President Mohammad Khatami went there in 2003. Although White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the visit demonstrated that Ahmadinejad was continuing his “provocative ways” and that Hizballah “values its allegiance to Iran over its allegiance to Lebanon”, the Iranian president received what the Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford described as a “rapturous” welcome from tens of thousands of Lebanese who turned out to greet him on his drive into Beirut from the airport. We include photographs of Ahmadinejad’s reception in Beirut today at the end of our text below.
During his trip to Lebanon, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit Dahiya, a heavily Shi’a southern suburb of Beirut, and tour southern Lebanon. We would anticipate strongly positive and enthusiastic reactions from populations in both settings. As Rami Khouri aptly put it today, see here, in The Daily Star,
If Ahmadinejad, as planned, goes to south Lebanon and visits Hizbullah-controlled villages near the Israeli border, we should expect political emotions to go through th roof in both the pro-Iranian and anti-Iranian camps. This will not be a surprise, because Ahmadinejad overlooking the northern border of Israel in the company of his Hizbullah allies is a nightmare for most Israelis and many of their friends in the West, while for Hizbullah and its allies in the region this would be a prize-winning moment of defiance to be savored for a long time.
We do not believe that any Western leader—or even any Arab leader—could travel to Beirut today and move about in an open motorcade, as Ahmadinejad did, let alone do so and attract crowds of tens of thousands of eager well-wishers. Security concerns alone would preclude such a scenario. And this is the reality even though the United States and its European and Arab allies have put significant sums of money and political capital into trying to consolidate a “pro-Western” political order in Lebanon.
Defining what a terrorist is and isn’t is a major dilemma. What one may consider terrorism, another may consider resistance. So where does one draw the line? Reese Erlich tackles that topic in his latest book “Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence, and Empire.” Erlich is a veteran journalist who has covered U.S. foreign policy for decades. He has freelanced for National Public Radio, Radio Deutsche Welle, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio, and writes for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News.
Drawing on firsthand interviews and original research, Erlich argues that yesterday’s terrorist is often today’s national leader and that today’s freedom fighter may become tomorrow’s terrorist. By branding all of American’s opponents as “terrorists,” it makes it more difficult to look beyond the individual or the political group and understand what they are really all about. I caught up with Erlich recently and here’s what he had to say.
It happened twenty-eight years ago – 16 September 1982. A massacre so awful that people who know about it cannot forget it. The photos are gruesome reminders – charred, decapitated, indecently violated corpses, the smell of rotting flesh, still as foul to those who remember it as when they were recoiling from it all those years ago. For the victims and the handful of survivors, it was a 36-hour holocaust without mercy. It was deliberate, it was planned and it was overseen. But to this day, the killers have gone unpunished.
Sabra and Shatila – two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon – were the theatres for this staged slaughter. The former is no longer there and the other is a ghostly and ghastly reminder of man’s inhumanity to men, women and children – more specifically, Israel’s inhumanity, the inhumanity of the people who did Israel’s bidding and the world’s inhumanity for pretending it was of no consequence. There were international witnesses – doctors, nurses, journalists – who saw the macabre scenes and have tried to tell the world in vain ever since.
Each act was barbarous enough on its own to warrant fear and loathing. It was human savagery at its worst and Dr Ang Swee Chai was an eye witness as she worked with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society on the dying and the wounded amongst the dead. What she saw was so unimaginable that the atrocities committed need to be separated from each other to even begin comprehending the viciousness of the crimes. 
Mosaic Intelligence Report: 2010 is far from over, yet the Middle East has witnessed a series of close encounters with major wars. What are Arabs afraid of? And why is Barack Obama’s popularity sinking fast?
My interview with David Hirst, author of Beware of Small States, reviewed here, was done on behalf of the indispensable Electronic Intifada.
Veteran Middle East correspondent David Hirst, author of the seminal work on the Palestinian plight The Gun and the Olive Branch, has a new release: Beware of Small States, an equally important book on Lebanon’s complex tragedy. The Electronic Intifada contributor Robin Yassin-Kassab interviewed Hirst on his work and views.
Robin Yassin-Kassab: You did your national service in Cyprus and Egypt just before the 1956 Suez War. What effect did your first experience of the Middle East have on you? Why did you end up spending your life in the Middle East, particularly in its more violent corners? Have kidnappings and bannings discouraged you?
David Hirst: Yes, I was one of the last generation of British 18-year-olds obliged to do two years of military service. Politically speaking, it had virtually no effect on me; I was an immature youth from a thoroughly apolitical middle class background, and knew next to nothing about international affairs, and hardly knew, for example, the difference between Arabs and Israelis. But — unusually for a mere private soldier — I sought and secured permission to use a fortnight’s leave to travel round Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. I enjoyed the experience. After three years at Oxford, I could not think of a career to embark on. Remembering the American University of Beirut, I wrote and asked them if there were any kind of introductory course about the Middle East that I could follow there. There was. With a vague idea of staying there for a couple of years or so, I found myself drifting into journalism, and, taking to it, I ended up staying fifty.
Increasingly, despite its early military and political successes, Israel cannot for long endure as a colonial project. It must choose between wars – and destruction – or transition to a state for all its peoples.
In order to firmly secure its existence – as firmly as that is possible for any state – a settler state has to overcome three challenges. It has to solve the native problem; break away from its mother country; and gain the recognition of neighboring states and peoples. It can be shown that Israel has not met any of these conditions.
Consider Israel’s native problem. In 1948, in the months before and after its creation, Israel appeared to have solved its native problem in one fell swoop. It had expelled 80 percent of the Palestinians from the territories it had conquered. In addition, with the rapid influx of Arab Jews, Palestinians were soon reduced to less than ten percent of Israel’s population.
So, had Israel licked its native problem for good? Not really.
The Palestinians inside Israel pushed back with a high natural rate of growth in their numbers. As a result, despite the continuing influx of Jewish immigrants, the Palestinian share in Israel’s population has grown to above 20 percent. Increasingly, Jews in Israel see Israeli Arabs as a threat to their Jewish state. Some are advocating a fresh round of ethnic cleansing. Others are calling for a new partition to exclude areas with Arab majorities.
The Palestinians expelled from Israel in 1948 did not go away either. Most of them set up camp in areas around Israel – the West Bank, Gaza, southern Lebanon and Jordan. In 1967, when Israel conquered Gaza and the West Bank, it could expel a much smaller fraction of the Palestinians from these territories. In consequence, with more than a million additional Palestinians under its control, Israeli had recreated its native problem.
The chaos of Lebanon has thrown up an Arab horror paralleled only in post-invasion Iraq. It has also produced the Arab world’s most urgent intellectual life, and its first victory against Israel. Lebanon is the most contradictory of countries, “a more open, liberal and democratic society than any of its Arab neighbours” precisely because of “its vulnerability to domestic dissension.” So, with its seventeen sects and constantly shifting allegiances, who would dare to explain Lebanon?
No better candidate than David Hirst, whose 1977 book “The Gun and the Olive Branch” was one of the very first to sympathetically present the Palestinian plight in English. Hirst’s latest work “Beware of Small States” is a panoramic study of Lebanon’s difficult history which strikes exactly the right balance between close detail and broad interpretative sweep. The writing is precise, penetrative and elegant. For sober, logical analysis, “Beware of Small States” outstrips even Robert Fisk’s magisterial “Pity the Nation.”
Hirst explains Lebanon, and especially the fifteen-year maelstrom of the civil war, its pogroms, set battles, kidnappings and car bombs, by delineating patterns of cause and effect. The civil war is interpreted as “the intertwining of the socio-economic, the sectarian and the Palestinian, those three characteristics of the whole, ever more noxious brew.”
Palestinian refugees are living in miserable conditions across Lebanon due to many factors such as scarce financial resources. Shunned by many employers, not allowed to own property and facing discrimination, Palestinian refugees are reduced to a miserable existence in overcrowded and unsanitary camps. On Sunday, thousands are expected to march to highlight their plight.