The Magazine

UNDER A THATCHED ROOF, WITH WARREN CHRISTOPHER

May 6, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 33 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


What exactly were the Fijians doing there? Everyone knows about the Israeli shells that landed on the Fijian U.N. post in south Lebanon, hitting a crowd of refugees and killing over a hundred. And while the press was relentless in probing the reasons why Hezbollah was there, why the refugees were there, and why Israeli artillery ended up there -- the three deadly ingredients that led to this awful tragedy -- no one bothered to ask what the Fijians were doing there.


These Fijians, so very far from home, are part of a United Nations troop deployment that occurred not this year, not during the 1993 fighting, not during the raging battles between Israel and Hezbollah in the mid-1980s, not after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but as a result of a campaign so remote most Middle East experts cannot remember it: Menachem Begin's 1978 incursion into Lebanon to halt PLO attacks into Israel.


At the time, the U.N. exercised its reflex of expressing "grave concern" over Israel's act of self-defense and moved as swiftly as it could to undo it. It ordered Israel out and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in. The interim has turned out to be 18 years and counting. UNIFIEs mandate, according to the U.N., was "to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, to restore international peace and security and to assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area."


It has accomplished none of the above. Indeed, like the U.N. presence in Bosnia, also established out of mindless good intentions, UNIFIL has proved worse than useless. First, U.N. personnel loose in a war zone provide hostages for murderers: Canadian and other U.N. soldiers chained to fences by Serbs during NATO bombing runs; U.S. colonel William Higgins kidnapped, then cold-bloodedly hanged by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Moreover, U.N. forces in a war zone provide false refuge for refugees: thousands deliberately slaughtered in the grotesquely named "safe haven" of Srebrenica; one hundred accidentally murdered in the thatched-roof refuge of the Fijian camp in south Lebanon.


Yes, thatched roof, the farce amid the tragedy. Most of the refugees were huddled in a recreation building covered with thatch -- not the best protection against artillery (and, as it turned out, terribly flammable). What on earth are thatched roofs doing in a war zone? The Fijians had built them to remind themselves of their island home so far away.


II

 

The U.N. presence in south Lebanon has absolutely no purpose. It does not protect. It does not keep the peace even in those rare times when there is peace in the area. That is kept by the balance of power between Israel and Syria and mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah.


Nonetheless, the U.N. maintains a presence that is not trivial. UNIFIL has 169 (!) bases manned 24 hours a day by over 4,500 troops. Nor are these supposed to be merely binocular-toting observers with a side arm or two, like the observer force in Sinai. These are well-armed troops. They are supposed to be doing something.


What exactly were they doing during this round of fighting in south Lebanon? Taking cover. Their job is to cower during artillery barrages and to look the other way when Hezbollah violates cease-fire agreements with Israel.


It took long enough for the press to notice that the Israeli attack which killed the refugees at the Fijian camp had been provoked by Hezbollah rocket fire from 300 yards away. But no one asked the question: What are well-armed U.N. troops doing allowing guerrillas to fire rockets from within yards ofa U. N. camp? After all, the U.N. itself says that each UNIFIL post "is assigned responsibility for ensuring that hostile activities are not undertaken from the area surrounding it." If they cannot keep the general peace, they are at least supposed to keep the local peace.


The Fijians episode is only the most recent demonstration of the uselessness of the U.N.'s acting on its own as peacemaker. The most dramatic and tragic demonstration of this truth occurred not in Lebanon, nor even Bosnia, but Rwanda, from which the U.N. withdrew last April after ignominiously standing by while the worst mass murder since World War II occurred right before its eyes.


These operations are a direct consequence of the grandiosity of a U.N. apparatus that refuses to acknowledge its unsuitability to any kind of active warfare, its dearth of military expertise, its abject lack of independence, and its fractured command and troop structure. It is a disgrace that these forces are deployed around the world in places where they do more harm than good.


An expensive disgrace. It costs the U.N. about $ 130 million a year to keep UNIFIL going. It has cost more than $ 2.5 billion since 1978. Why not withdraw the troops and give the money directly to war victims on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon frontier for reconstruction and compensation? And let the good Fijians go home.


III

 

There is only one other aspect of the current Lebanon affair that can rival Fijians in Lebanon for its farcical qualities. And that is Christopher in Damascus. Self-effacement in private citizens is a virtue. It may even be desirable in a presidential envoy sent (as Warren Christopher was by then-president Jimmy Carter) to negotiate a ransom for American diplomats held hostage in Iran, a national humiliation that Christopher, in his one published oeuvre, deemed a model of diplomatic success. But self-effacement in a secretary of state representing the greatest power on the globe in the face of humiliation by a bankrupt, isolated, friendless third-rate power like Syria is an embarrassment.


The United States enjoys its status as negotiator, mediator, and arbitrator in the Middle East not because the people of the region like it but because they fear it. They fear it because the Soviet Union is gone. They fear it because they saw what America did in 46 days to Iraq. Warren Christopher is a man almost designed by nature to abolish that fear, indeed to replace it with disdain.


What else can Hafez al-Assad, dictator of Syria, feel for a man who has come courting him in Damascus not once, not twice, but, as of this writing, 22 times? Of a man who meets rebuff without complaint--a grimace, if really pushed--and is always back for more? Assad's contempt for Christopher is such that during the latest peace shuttle he made Christopher wait two hours while Assad ostentatiously entertained Russia's foreign minister. As usual, Christopher took the insult with grace.


Having swallowed that humiliation, could Christopher have been surprised when two days later Assad upped the ante? Christopher flew in from Jerusalem, motored to the presidential palace for a meeting with Assad, only to be told that the meeting was canceled. It seems Assad had a prior dinner engagement with Benazir Bhutto! Graceful as ever, Christopher and his retinue returned for the night to Jerusalem--then back to Damascus the next morning when Assad could fit him in. Christopher took the slap with aplomb. His aides explained that compared with peace, "Assad's scheduling" is hardly important.


Indeed Christopher has allowed nothing---certainly not self-respect, let alone respect for American authority in the region--to stand in the way of his ever-receding pursuit of peace between Israel and Syria. His flattery, inflation, and propitiation of Assad deserves its own chapter in the history of diplomatic mindlessness. And leads ultimately, if tortuously, to the tragedy of the latest fighting in Lebanon.


IV

 

Israel has never had any designs on Lebanese territory. At those times in its history when it could have had for the taking as much Lebanese territory as it wanted--1967, for instance, when it defeated and captured territory from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, all with powerful armies--Israel fired not a shell into, nor took an inch of land from, defenseless Lebanon. Why not? For the simple reason that, at the time, Lebanon was on friendly terms with Israel and posed no security threat to its northern border.


The only time Israel has actually intervened in Lebanon was when forces outside the control of the Lebanese government--first the PLO, then Hezbollah- -seized territory in south Lebanon and used it to launch attacks on northern Israel. Hence, the 10-kilometer-deep Israeli "security zone" originally established by Begin in 1978. It has ever since remained more or less intact through every Israeli administration, hawk or dove. No government can leave its borders and civilians undefended.


Security is the reason, the only reason, Israel is in Lebanon. Dominion is the reason Syria is there. Syria has 35,000 troops occupying the country, dictating its politics, controlling it destiny. Why? There is no why. Syria simply considers itself the rightful hegemon of the area. It considers Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine part of the orbit of Greater Syria. Lebanon, being defenseless, was ripe for the taking. Syria took.


It was said during the Soviet period that Czechoslovakia was so peace- loving a country that it did not even interfere in its own internal affairs. So too with Lebanon. Assad rules Beirut. Lebanese politicians are puppets. Those who resist, like Bashir Gemayel, have a way of becoming quite dead.


Syria not only covets Lebanon; it uses south Lebanon to obtain territorial concessions elsewhere, namely the Golan Heights held by Israel. Syria cannot attack Israel directly because that would provoke a general war Syria would lose. Instead, it uses Hezbollah as its proxy.


After occupying Lebanon in the late 1980s, Syria disarmed every militia in the Lebanese civil war, save Hezbollah. Hezbollah's constant attacks on Israeli soldiers and sporadic Katyusha fire into Israel's northern towns causing civilian death, damage, and general disruption are Syria's equivalent of Egypt's 1969-70 war of attrition against Israel. This ability to bleed Israel gives Syria a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations in which it would otherwise be in a position of great relative weakness.


The astonishing thing about Syria's perfectly transparent strategy is that it is so totally glossed over by the United States. We know that Hezbollah is kept well armed with supplies coming directly from Tehran through Damascus and then by truck to Hezbollah camps in the Bekaa Valley and south Lebanon. Indeed, 400 Katyushas were shipped from Iran through Damascus into the hands of Hezbollah while the latest fighting was raging.


The U.S. government (indeed, the Israeli government too) knew that Assad was actually feeding Hezbollah the rockets that were raining down on Israel. It did not protest. It did not even publicly announce the fact. That might embarrass or, worse, anger Assad, and that would surely get in the way of appeasing him.


The beginning of appeasement is treating the warmaker as peacemaker. America does, and the world follows. For his warmaking in Lebanon, Assad enjoyed on April 21 a diplomatic prize other dictators only dream of: On this one day, the foreign ministers of Italy, Spain, Ireland, France, Iran, Russia, and the United States found themselves all in Damascus vying for an audience with Assad. Indeed, the diplomatic gridlock got so bad that the prime minister of Pakistan had to briefly postpone her state visit for fear, I suppose, that her limo would find no place to park at the presidential palace.


Syria plays this war/peace game and America plays along. Assad unleashes Hezbollah, watches serenely as Israel bleeds and Lebanese die, then waits to see what the grandees of the world, led by the American secretary of state, will offer him to call it off. At week's end, he found out. For the Israel- Hezbollah cease-fire, brokered Friday by Christopher, Syria got (1) resumption of Israel-Syria negotiations over Golan (suspended after four suicide bombings in Israel last month), (2) formal recognition of a Syrian role in south Lebanon, (3) general appreciation for Syrian cooperation, and (4) not a word of criticism from anyone for starting this whole affair. Not bad for 16 days of arms-length mayhem.


Assad is a man of sticks and carrots. For three years, Christopher has come bearing nothing but carrots. What possible incentive can Assad have not to periodically turn south Lebanon into a killing ground?


The Clinton administration hopes against all evidence that treating Assad with honor will induce him to moderation. It has lavished more attention on and offered more inducements to him than any other administration ever. "I've spent 15 years in therapy," Woody Allen once said. "One more year and I'm going to Lourdes." Warren Christopher has been 22 times to Damascus. Once more and perhaps he'll try Woody's therapist.


V

 

And what has he gotten for his pains? A Syria which knows that any provocation will elicit, at worst, yet another visit from this relentless man. The ultimate travesty was the administration's inviting Syria to the anti- terrorism summit last month in Egypt. Syria is on the State Department's list of terrorist states. It houses the leading terrorist organizations of the Middle East. Indeed, it hosts the headquarters of the very Hamas terrorists that carried out the suicide bombings that provoked the anti-terrorism conference in the first place!


The administration's propitiation of Assad is a moral disgrace that might conceivably be justified if it yielded results. The result has been the encouragement of a tyrant who sees his every cynical manipulation earn him not just immunity but the favorable attention of the United States.


What is most odd about the administration's attention is that Syria needs the U.S. far more than the U.S. needs Syria. If there must be a supplicant in this relationship, it should be Syria. Syria is a country deeply in need, and the U.S. is the only country that can help.


It is important to understand the depths of Syria's isolation. It is well known that Syria has been strategically orphaned by the loss of the Soviet Union. Less well known is Syria's isolation in two other respects: geographic and ideological.


Syria is surrounded on all sides (except for its Lebanese colony) by adversaries or enemies. There is Israel, with which it is still in a state of war; Jordan, which broke with Syria by virtue of its own full-fledged entry into the Israel-U.S. orbit; Iraq, whose hostility toward Syria is such that Assad held his nose to join the U.S.4ed Gulf War coalition against it; and, least noted, Turkey, which just three weeks ago acknowledged the establishment of a military cooperation agreement with Israel involving Israeli use of Turkish air space and bases. (Turkey is driven in its hostility to Syria in part by Syria's housing, arming, and protecting the PKK- -Kurdish guerrillas who operate against Turkey from Syrian bases, just as Hezbollah operates against Israel from Syrian-protected bases in Lebanon.)


Assad is, moreover, isolated ideologically. He is a dinosaur, the last of the Arab nationalists. In the early decades of Arab independence from Western colonialism, Arab nationalism--a mixture of watered-down socialism, native authoritarianism, anti-Westernism, and pan-Arabism--was the rage. Its exemplar was Egypt's Nasser. Its star began to dim with Nasser's ignominious defeat in the 1967 war. Its near-extinction occurred when Saddam Hussein, another prototype of the radical Arab nationalist, was routed in the Gulf War of 1991.


The ideological successors to Arab nationalism are two: Islamic fundamentalism (Hezbollah, Hamas, the Algerian rebels, Egypt's Moslem Brotherhood) and the more westward-looking, moderate authoritarianism exemplified by Mubarak of Egypt and Hussein of Jordan. Assad rejects both Westernization and Islamicization. He is the last of the pan-Arab nationalists. So much so that his only allies are non-Arab Iran (generally loathed throughout the Arab Middle East) and other partners of convenience, like Hezbollah and Hamas and the various terrorist groups that he houses in Damascus.


And beyond geographic and ideological isolation, Syria is economically bankrupt. It needs Western investment. It needs Western military modernization of its rusting Soviet inventory. It needs good diplomatic relations with the West. For all that, it needs the American connection. That is the great leverage we have over him--leverage that this administration has systematically squandered.


VI

 

What to do?


(1) Disillusion. The beginning of wisdom is disengagement from the fantasy of Assad's peaceful intentions. Assad is the most successful Machiavelli the Middle East has seen in 30 years. He is Saddam Hussein with brains, King Hussein with Scuds. Before he came to power, Syria had suffered 15 coups in its 25 years since independence. And he came to power 26 years ago.


He says he has made "a strategic choice" for peace, and President Clinton during his visit to Damascus (1994) declared that he buys it. On what evidence? In return for the entire Golan Heights, Assad has offered Israel essentially nothing: a cold peace, which is precisely what Israel already has--by virtue of its massive deterrent power--while retaining the Golan.


Assad's vague "peace" gestures should be treated for what they are: vague gestures. American policy toward him should be dictated by his actions. These include (a) rebuff of the most conciliatory Israeli regime ever, (b) rejection of Israeli offers for full return of the Golan, (c) fomenting of war in Lebanon, and (d) extraordinary displays of contempt for American interests, to say nothing of American authority, in the region.


(2) "Peace process" agnosticism. While recognizing that there will not be total peace in the Middle East without Syria, we must not be led to the illusory pursuit of a peace that is not there. If Israel wants to trade the Golan for some kind of paper peace with Syria, the U.S. should not stand in the way. Allies should be free to seek whatever path they believe might lead to peace. But the United States should neither urge nor pressure Israel into giving Assad the Golan. The U.S. can live with an Israel-Syria peace treaty, and it can--as it has for 50 years--live without one. We should let Assad know that his conduct has led us to this new policy of "peace process" neutrality and only a change in his conduct will induce us to change ours.


(3) Rogue-state hardball. Accordingly, we should begin treating Syria like the rogue state that it is. Warren Christopher's State Department declares Syria a terrorist state. He conveniently suspends that determination on the assumption that Syria has made a strategic choice for peace. It has not. Syrian warmaking in south Lebanon, support of terrorism, and intransigence in peace negotiations have given the lie to the illusion. The suspension of disbelief and the consequent indulgence of Syrian behavior must therefore cease. Syria should be subject to the same economic and diplomatic quarantine that its fellow terrorist4ist brethren--North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan--have earned from the United States.


Changes in Syrian behavior will bring changes in American policy. Nothing less. No more carrots.



By Charles Krauthammer