Thursday, June 22, 2006

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.


At 6/22/2006 03:57:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

I just came out of Syria after spending wonderful 6 weeks, America is still hated there, USA will find it very hard to get someone cooperate with america, no hope for america there, the dollar is low 50:70 , people explain it saying the corrupt officials,afraid about there money get frozen in the west they brought it home, and they are buying real estate, that is why the dollar is low ,and real estate is getting very expensive. the people are not happy with their leader, but the change ,which appear a certainty, before the end of the year, will not start by angry people going out to the street, it will start in a different way, I accomplished a lot in this trip, and I am optimistic.

At 6/22/2006 04:10:00 PM, Blogger Syrian Nationalist Party said...

Moved from previous post to follow the comment string it belong to:

Mr. Landis said "I also think that Asad's being an Alawite, and thus vulnerable, makes it more difficult to compromise than if he were a Sunni."

We disagree, Being an Alawites or Sunni makes no difference when it comes to compromising Syrian rights. Being Sunnis it did not make Saddat, Mubarak, Mohammad descendants ( all the Hashemites rulers A-Z), not even the ruler of Qatar vulnerable to making deal, peace and compromises with the Jews.

The conditions existing now and for the immediate future points to immanent war not peace. These includes imminent Islamic revolution in Egypt and the scrapping of Camp David Agreement. A likely Islamic rebellion in Jordan and the relocation of a million Palestinians into its border with the Jewish Hagganeh State, Closely working with Hamas and other Moslem militants.

This is added to lack of interest on part of Petro-Arabs and their Western Allies in seeing the Levant at peace and prosperity. What does the Arabian hordes can gain from such a peace and they can easily use their oil as weapon to force a just peace, but they did not and will not, because it is not in their interests. Why would the West want to see peace in the Levant! When oil is very well secure and the marriage of convenience between Anglo-American Christian Capitalists and Jewish Banking conglomerates are racking up incredible wealth in the billions from the oil and arm profit, and added to it all the Iraq profit that is most of it is desperately seeking safe shelter.

Long, ugly and bloody way still ahead for the Middle East. Lets wait till Mahmood Ahmadi Nizhad call the next shot that may will set the middle East finally on its salvation journey.

At 6/22/2006 05:45:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

Yet another idiot who think he could secure a majority to destroy Lebanon (that is in Lebanon, not in Syria of course). Mounif you may be 50% or 25% Lebanese but I guess you didn't inherit your intelligence from your better half. Don't count on the destruction of the Lebanese state anytime soon - the overwhelming majorities of Christians, Druze and Shias would oppose that. Even better: I doubt that you could get a majority of the Lebanese Sunni to suppress the borders nowadays.

As Kamal Salibi said:
"The creation of the new Arab state system had hardly been completed by the late 1920s and early 1930s when political inertia and vested interests began to give it a reality. As men of political ambition began to compete for power and position in the different countries, and as each of these countries came to have its own ruling establishment and administrative bureaucracy, the lines of demarcation between them, hardly any of which was a natural or historical frontier, began to harden."

You and the other Arab fascists are on the losing side of history.

At 6/22/2006 07:25:00 PM, Blogger Enlightened One said...

I wont suggest any more solutions ( ie the loose federal like system and economic union, it seemed too touch off some sore points ; protagonists for and against )

Josh as a professor of history you must be aware of the ancient greek city states all joined by race as the Hellenes, yet all competing economically and militarily against each other ( but joint military threats from the Persians) only co-ordinated with each other when collectively they were threatened. As a collective they all fell under the influence of Philip of Macedon eventually a powerful unifying figure.

Hence i suggest the next topic for discussion i see some parallels here. The Arab people have historically looked at one unfying figure to unite them ( ie caliphs, Salahdin, Sultan etc ) . Can the people overcome historical challenges and the cult of personality to accept democracy? rather than defer authority to one central figure?

I have just have had family return from syria and lebanon, i cant wait to talk to them today. will get some first hand information.

regards all

At 6/22/2006 07:39:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

A union will not work ,Nasser and Saddam tried it,forign interference will not allow it ,the only chance for Arab unity is to axcept the boarders as they are and seek economic cooperation and open border policies and the chance for Arabs to live and work in other Arab countries and establish residence in these other states.Joshua ,your understanding to reason for Syria,s interference in Lebanon is what i remember of the events in Syria at that time in 1976.

At 6/22/2006 08:31:00 PM, Blogger trustquest said...

I noticed that the information about area and border length is completely different between the CIA information page about Syria and the official Syrian site. Can someone tell me why? Thank you

At 6/22/2006 09:38:00 PM, Blogger syrian said...


I agree with you that clear border need to be established as the way forward. I think it is more important for Syrians to learn how to trust other Syrians in the context of a state than it is to remain suspecious of each other and identify outselves as Arabs. What I had some trouble with was the idea that we had to accept Colonial borders. As you are well aware, colonial borders were drawn to satisfy the interests of the great powers at the time and they do not correspond to any coherent set of characteristics that aim to provide the inhabitants with a sense of identity and relationship to each other. Having said that, I can see how accepting the colonial border can be the expedited way by which we can get over this hurdle.

The bigger problem that is raised by accepting the colonial border is it begs the question of how long it would take before we, Syrians, have to accept the current border of the Golan. Simply because we do not have the military power does not mean we have to give up our right; even if the Golan was to remain occupied for 1000 years, no Syrian has the right to tell its inhabitants, who make a choice to identify themselves as Syrians, that they are not Syrian anymore. If you accept the idea that a free individual cannot be forced to give up his or her rights, then how can we justify negotiating over borders as if they are lines in the sand that do not affect people.

At 6/22/2006 10:10:00 PM, Blogger Fares said...

Great comment and post Josh. Great comments as well and for a change debates is going on in a civilized manner

Fellow readers, I just posted my 2 cents on relations of Syrian regime with Lebanon, and how is it related to the arrests!

When is the right time? Time to expose Syrian Regime lies!!!

Please make sure to comment on it, I promise I won't report you to anyone haha

For a better Syria

At 6/22/2006 10:12:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

Syrian ,Syrians will never axcept the border with Israel without the Golan hights but borders with other Arab countries should be axcepted ,i see the Arab nation as i see the American nation many states of many diffrent ethnic and religous groups all call themselves American as Arabs from diffrent states call themseleves and called by others (ARABS)every state will have it,s laws and governer it,s house of represenative and it,s senate where all Arabs can live in any states under that state,s laws as long as does not contradict the federal law that is the Arab nation and united states that i see posible and needed .

At 6/22/2006 11:30:00 PM, Blogger Enlightened One said...


Just read your two cents piece, its an ORWELLIAN prose.

Remember Fares 2 cents is better than one cents and even better than no cents! ( my aplogies to rapper 50 cents here ).

I suppose like orwells 1984, information and disinformation, lets keep the public confused, therefore

1. Who is the enemy? ( note the enemy always changes)
2. Dont be caught by the thought police. ( alternative or free) thinking is seditious.
3. If caught you will be interoggated and rehabilitated! ( note this is an unpleasent process and not recomended for those with heart conditions)
4. Once rehabilitated you will be free to join the numbed population!

The Baath Party ( and remember they need some serious cleansing here , forgive the pun!) adhere to the orwellian branch of information/misinformation dissemination.

I am stopping here because i am getting confused..............

Damn it still works that theory, I hate ORWELL!

Keep writing Fares a single voice can become a roar

At 6/23/2006 04:53:00 AM, Blogger t_desco said...

On a side note, this may have been the reason why the German government withdrew Mehlis from the Hariri investigation:

Lebanese-German Describes CIA Ordeal in Afghanistan

Al-Masri identified "Sam" (with "90% certainty") as Gerhard Lehmann, close friend of Detlev Mehlis and "chief investigator" of the commission.

At 6/23/2006 06:55:00 AM, Blogger ugarit said...

Borders will become less relevant when the arab world is no longer being colonized and threatened. The EU would not have succeeded if one or many sides were interested in changing the borders or is being aided by an outside entity to do so.

Without security the arabs will not be able to achieve anything like the EU. The arabs are threatened internally and externally. It's a recipe for disorder and angst. Perhaps calm will come when we Arabs run out of petroleum.

At 6/23/2006 08:12:00 AM, Blogger Innocent_Criminal said...


I agree with most of what you state but our opinions depart in your last paragraph. You assume that the US is actually interested in securing boarders of Pro-American democracies (key word here is democracies) and that’s where I would ask you to give me ONE Middle Eastern democratic example???

The US policy there has always been about strategic interests above all else. Anyone remember what the US did after liberating Kuwait from Saddam? Put back the same dictators that were there in the first place. When was the last time the US really pushed/punished the Saudi’s, Egyptians or Jordanians on human rights issues? So why frustrate yourself on why they are not treating their enemies “fairly”? Instead, I ask why should the Americans really push for peace? Who would gain from a comprehensive peace plan, democracy promotion and strong economic ties between the countries in the region? Well I’ll tell you who the hell wouldn’t gain from such scenarios; Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, all energy firms, people like these etc. etc. so in short people who control much of the modern world. So why would they want to lose market share/control in return for something as trivial as peace??? Israel will also be a major loser since peace will diminish any basis for billions in monetary and military support annually.

I think the trick is how to convert peace to become THE strategic interest for the US and more importantly its key ally in the region. Call me a looney but that’s how I see it.

At 6/23/2006 09:20:00 AM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

Besides the Palestinian territories, whose borders are not respected?

You are asking the U.S. to help its enemies secure internationally recognized borders. .

When did the U.S. threaten the territorial integrity of Syria? I must be missing something.

At 6/23/2006 10:49:00 AM, Blogger Innocent_Criminal said...

I think you are missing something. When the US, the sole influence on Israel supports its occupation of 2 neighbors (Lebanon for 2 decades and Syria's for longer) while pressuring Syria to leave Lebanon is double standard if I have ever heard one. I know two wrongs don’t make right but if I would categorize which is more blatant then Israel's is obviously worse.

At 6/23/2006 10:58:00 AM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...


The Golan must be returned to Syria. If it is not, there will be very little possibility for a real solution to Syria-Lebanon-Israel problem. It will also continue to complicate all Arab relations because those states that have signed peace agreements with Israel will want to move beyond the Samoud wa tahaddi tactics of Syria.

Only the application of UN resolutions and application of internationally recognized borders presents a way out of regional enmities.

Of course, the Palestinian case presents the biggest difficulty because of the 400 thousand settlers which have been established across the 1967 borders. It is politically impossible for any Israeli government to remove them.

This makes it very difficult for the US to line up behind the UN in the region. It complicates the Golan return. If the principle is applied to the Golan, it should also be applied to Palestine.

Other border issues are the Iran - Kuwait struggle over Islands in the Persian Gulf.

Will Kurdistan become independent? It practically is already.

Any attempt to redraw the 1922 borders in the Middle East opens up the possibility that they will be redrawn in other countries.

The Syrian regime uses this fear to justify itself. It argues that America went into Iraq to divide it and redraw the borders.

If Syrians side with the US, it suggests, they will also be siding with the potential division of Syria.

The government even goes a step further when it implies that democracy in Syria is an American conspiracy to divide the country and redraw borders.

By backing away from its initial support of respecting international borders and UN resolutions on Palestine, Washington has done itself a monstrous disservice because it raises doubts about Washington's intentions in the rest of the Middle East.

It allows anti-Americans throughout the Middle East to argue that the US is not for justice and international law, but secretly harbors desires to redraw the map of the region in its and Israel's favor.

Because most of the borders in the region were artificial in 1922, redrawing any one of them today, reopens the question of all the borders.

In 1990, Washington took the stand that Kuwait's borders and sovereignty were sacred. In Palestine it takes the opposite stand. This not only looks like hypocrisy, it is hypocrisy.

If the US does not stand for the return of the Golan, why shouldn't every country grab some land?

Consistency is important. So is international law. It is the only thing that separates us from the law of the jungle.

At 6/23/2006 11:17:00 AM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

I actually did not understand your earlier reasoning. Clearly, others did.

It is Friday, so I must be excused.

What in effect you are asking for is for the U.S. to take away the infamous Israel CD from the desks of all Middle Eastern leaders so they do not have the opportunity to play this track again.

With the CD destroyed, the major excuse that has been given to explain our lack of progress and development is removed.

Mr. Bush................Are you listening?

At 6/23/2006 01:37:00 PM, Blogger Innocent_Criminal said...

Mr. Bush and his buddies are listening. But, excuse my repetition, they do NOT want to take that CD off or for the region to progress or develop

At 6/23/2006 05:13:00 PM, Blogger Alex said...

All true ... but the key idea is that these are all interdependent problems.

Have you used project management software before? If you did, you should have no trouble visualizing the different objectives of “fixing the Middle East” as one massive, complicated, long-term project that needs to be properly planned and managed in an objective way.

You need to know your resources, the obstacles, the costs involved, the expertise you can rely on, and most importantly: the sequence in which you should tackle those challenges, keeping in mind which one is sensitive to failures or delays in its pre-requisites.

So when it comes to the question of Mideast borders, I wish I can say anything here, but the only way I can say it is through a big project management timeline.

Joshua, if you are interested, I have an idea for an academic paper on this topic.

At 6/24/2006 07:37:00 AM, Blogger Butrous said...

Borders may have been established by foreigners, but they have been maintained by Arabs. This we cannot dispute. Foreigners have simply taken advantage of our own disunity and pettiness to continue exercising control over the Arabs.

A border means nothing when people seek to unite. If the Lebanese saw a better future united with Syria, they themselves would erase the border. After all, it is nothing more than an artificial line. Border crossings are only fought when the party crossing the line is seen as hostile, not when it comes as a friend.

In 1982, Lebanon was glad to have the Syrian army cross the border. In 2005, it was glad to see it go. What changed? Not the border.

As a descendant of both Lebanese and Syrian grandparents, I also believe the division is destructive, but it will only disappear when both sides see that they are better together than apart. When that point is reached, not even George Bush's army will be able to separate the people.


At 6/29/2006 09:30:00 PM, Blogger Fares said...

Syrian Dead Canaries


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