Arab Nationalism, Secure Borders, and Democracy
Some Thoughts on Arab Nationalism, Secure Borders, and Democracy: a Response to Readers
A number of readers criticized my previous article: “Why Lebanon is Not Likely to Win Full Sovereignty Soon.”
Here is my response: (I have moved it from the comment section and given it a separate post because it is long and hopefully worthy of discussion.)
Mounif complains about artificial borders. He writes:
Please tell me why do you advocate the strengthening of the artificial borders and barriers that were established by the colonialist French and British. This is at a time when the European Union is abolishing them, the Latin Americans have Mercosur, the East Asian have the Shanghai cooperation council, and the Americans have NAFTA and Cafta and the like. My own family is divided between Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria by arbitrary borders. If you were to take a poll you would find the vast majority of the people want to abolish separations and divisions. Lebanon and Syria are NOT countries, please remember this. They are clans and families masquerading as countries.
This gets to the heart of the question raised by many of the comments. Why are borders important? Isn't Arab nationalism the answer to the woes of the Middle East?
I am in sympathy with those idealists who want an EU for the Arab world and some kind of practicable unity.
I would argue, however, that before any successful measure of unity or real cooperation on the scale of the EU can succeed in the Middle East, clear and respected borders will be a prerequisite.
Why? First, this was necessary in Europe as a forerunner of the EU. So long as Pan-German, Pan Slavic, and Pan Whathaveyou ideologies dominated, there was no possibility for cooperation and every incentive for war and mistrust among the peoples of Europe. The second 30-year war - 1914-1945 - was fought in Europe over border issues and questions of national dominance. Pan-national ideologies brought war not cooperation.
The same has been true in the Middle East. The rejection of the foreign imposed borders in the Middle East has led to a terrible and largely destructive identity crisis and jockeying for primacy and unity schemes. These have all caused distrust and enmity, rather than promoting fraternity and cooperation.
Only when national borders are internalized, accepted, and respected, will each Middle Eastern country be in a position to begin compromising on its sovereignty, as was the case in Europe.
Only by accepting borders will unity be possible. This will take lots of time and hard work. The Middle East is far from that point. Iraqi borders and national identity may be redrawn and shaped. Israel and several of its neighbors have yet to settle on their borders - Palestine, Syria, Lebanon. There are other nasty border disputes, one doesn't have to list, including the Lebanon-Syria dispute, which is our concern here.
That is how I see the future of Arabism. It can help with establishing an EU-like confederation, but only once each state fully recognizes the sovereignty of the other. Only then, will the shared history, language, and culture of the peoples of the region be able to work its magic in dismantling the barriers of tariffs, travel, bigotry, and work restrictions.
Did Syria go into Lebanon for the Golan? Or, as Nafdik put it: "Dr Landis' thesis that Syria's entry into Lebanon is motivated by the desire to increase its chances of getting back the Golan Heights is hilarious."
I did not argue that Syria entered Lebanon to get back the Golan. It entered to keep the "Leftist-Muslim" forces from wiping out Christian power, which, it was feared, would result in Israeli intervention into Lebanon. (This was not a stupid concern. Israel did intervene in Lebanon in 1982 with an American green light for this very reason. It hoped to shut down the PLO, secure its border, and reestablish a Maronite leadership that could police its interests. On the way, it hoped to wipe out Syrian missiles, reduce the size of the Syrian air force and military capacity (which it did) and isolate it so Israel could sign peace agreements with Lebanon and Jordan and lock in control of Golan and Occupied territories (which it failed to do at that time).
What I do argue, however, is that once Syria was in Lebanon and had mastered it, the Golan became the major bargaining chip for reaching understanding. Hizbullah was used as Syria's proxy army to keep pricking Israel. Why does Syria keep pricking Israel? To get back occupied land. Yes, there is also an ideological element - Pan Arabism, Pan Syrianism, help the brother Palestinians, you name it - but these are lesser goals and might be sacrificed for land. The 1973 war was fought for the return of the Golan, not to liberate the Palestinians. The Syrian-Israeli peace talks were about the Golan.
Would Syria like to get back the Golan and keep Lebanon too? You bet. This is natural. But the nature of politics is the trade. I think Syria knows a lot about trading and deal making. This was Hafiz al-Asad's hallmark. It is what kept him in power for 30 years. I think Bashar is not immune to deal making. His problem is that everyone thought he was an easy mark, when he first came to power. No one feared him or thought much of the "blind eye doctor's" political skills. He has had to win respect the hard way. He may have his daddy's name, but the respect couldn't be inherited.
He had to learn to be a dictator and brute in a world where power gets you respect. (Let me indulge in a few "Orientalist" generalizations.)
Syria is beset with factionalism, identity confusion, contradictions, and fuzzy thinking - all of which militates against deal making and clarity in its bargaining. All the same, it does have one leader and one state. At the end of the day, this makes deal making possible. Bashar will use Arabism, Syrianism, Godism, and whatever works to keep the Syrian people behind him as he navigates the difficult market place of Middle East politics. He is learning to be an accomplished demagogue.
OK - With that said, I do think that pan-Arab and Syrian ideologies make it very difficult to sign peace with Israel or quit Lebanon, as many have argued. I also think that Asad's being an Alawite, and thus vulnerable, makes it more difficult to compromise than if he were a Sunni.
All the same, I think these fears, so often put forward as fact by parties that do not want to give up the Golan or who urge regime-change in Syria, are not convincing.
Asad, the father, was a realist above everything else. He was certainly constrained by ideology, which he understood was important to his survival and legitimacy, but he wasn't ruled by it.
Perhaps the most revealing proof of this was given in a long al-Arabiyya interview with George Hawi, the leader of Lebanon's Communist Party, just before his murder last year. Hawi explained how he and a number of fellow leftist leaders from Lebanon had come over to Damascus during the later years of the civil war to ask Hafiz to unite the two countries and hold one set of elections in both "brotherly" states.
Of course, Hawi and his friends may have just been suggesting this as a form of madiih and mujammila for the big man in Sham, but Hawi didn't laugh when he explained this to the al-Arabiyya interviewer.
Asad answered him something like this: "No, Lebanon is its own entity (kiyan). We cannot do this. It would not work." This is how Hawi reported Asad's words. Hawi was explaining to his Arab viewers that not even Asad believed that Lebanon and Syria could be united or were psychologically prepared to be one country. Each had its own identity and set of problems.
Asad did not say that Lebanon was a different nation or had the right to full sovereignty - but he did recognize that he could only push the Lebanese so far or there would be revolt. We have seen that revolt most recently.
All of this is to say that - Yes, Arabism and Syrianism are still important ideologies which constrain Syrian deal making over Lebanon and with Israel. Much as the ideology of "democracy promotion" constrains how the US does politics in the Middle east. But I do not believe it is the only, or has to be the major factor in guiding those relations.
Just as Bush made peace with Libya, I think Asad could make peace with Lebanon or Israel, if the price were right. So long as the price is not right, Asad will sing Arabism, Palestinian rights, one people in two countries, and all the other slogans that have meaning, but are not the only meaning.
I do not think peace is a lost cause, in theory. In fact, I think it is the only way forward. I do not understand why the United States is not pushing border consolidation, harder. It is pushing it for its friends, but not for its enemies. This is a mistake justified by faulty ideology. The democracy ideology is getting in the way of clarifying borders. As things stand, only pro-American democracies have the right to US support in claiming that their borders be respected. If the US would help its enemies - Syria and the Palestinians - secure internationally recognized borders, Washington would undo one big source of the ill will directed against it. Most important, however, it would set the stage for the Middle East to transcend its fixation with nationalist mistrust and recrimination. Middle Eastern states might actually be able to find the wherewithal to move forward and concentrate on internal reform, development, and other good things that the people of the region demand. Nothing would help break the cycle of violence and justification for thuggery more than recognized and secure borders. Rather than arguing that democracy is a prerequisite for American assistance, Washington should promote respect for international borders in the hope this will promote democratization. Secure and recognized borders are not the only prerequisite for democratization, but they are one thing that Washington can actually help establish and which will help facilitate the transition to democracy.