The Magazine

UNDER A THATCHED ROOF, WITH WARREN CHRISTOPHER

May 6, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 33 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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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.