Saturday, March 11, 2006

Michael Young Takes Umbrage

I just received this note from Michael Young, which he asked me to post. I reply below.

Dear Josh,

I just read your post on SC, and once again you never miss an opportunity to misread what you read. Let me start off by asking you to do two things. Apologize for your irresponsible comparison of me to Wafa Sultan, because frankly it is a serious charge, dangerous in this political climate, and suggests I have made comments on Islam and the Muslim clergy, when I have never, repeat, never even addressed this issue. I don't pretend to be an expert on Islam or any other religion.

Secondly, retract your phrase, "Michael would probably say that Israel is essentially a good power and a healthy democratic state which embraces the modern world ..." Had you bothered to properly read my article on the Palestinians, and my past articles on Sharon, particularly the one after his stroke, you would know I have never suggested such a thing. I consider, and always have, that the Palestinians have suffered major injustice, that the Israelis have virtually condemned themselves to generations of future conflict by unilaterally imposing facts on the ground in the occupied territories, and that Oslo was the best means to get out of that cycle. This is what I wrote in my recent piece you quote: "Israel has no solution to the Palestinian problem, and will face the existential consequences of its injustices in a generation or less." Was reading this too inconvenient to your argument?

Here's a passage from a recent piece on Sharon:

"Sharon’s legacy will outrun the ghosts of his Beirut victims [from Sabra and Chatila]. What it will not outrun, however, is the prospective calamities the prime minister cedes Israel. Sharon’s strategy of unilateral disengagement, by helping create an aborted, dependant, anarchic Palestinian entity, will ensure that Israel one day abuts a failed state. This state will only nourish Palestinian frustrations, making true peace with Israel illusory. A cornerstone of Sharon’s strategy since taking office has been his overseeing the systematic destruction of institutions of Palestinian statehood, allowing the Islamists and Fatah hotheads to fill the void. In this way, Sharon could claim he had no credible interlocutor to negotiate with."
Does this qualify as endorsement of Israel's "goodness"? Lest you forget, the post-Madrid process (which you implicitly sideswipe by turning my support for it into an effort to weaken the Palestinians) also happened to be one embraced by Hafiz al-Assad. I do not, repeat do not, believe Israel to be a "good power", avoid using such cretinous phraseology anyway, and consider your putting words into my mouth (not the first or even the second time you've resorted to this tactic) quite disturbing.

On the body of your criticism, you also misread my views on Aoun and Lahoud. Nowhere did I say that Jumblatt would support Aoun. In fact, I said he probably would not. Read again. The point of the piece was to say that Jumblatt played a key role in the selection process, and that Aoun was a major obstacle in the choosing of an alternative to Lahoud. That's all. The point was to analyze a situation, without drawing firm conclusions, something you have apparently done in my place. By the way, where did you get that I said that Aoun was better than Lahoud? I wrote a piece, that you actually cite, saying the exact contrary, that a powerful Aoun in the presidency may be worse than Lahoud. Do you actually read what you comment on?

Finally, your drawing a parallel between the Lebanese issue and the Palestinians not only again shows your carelessness in reading what I said, it is a stretch even by your unexacting standards. Where did I suggest that the Palestinians work with their occupier and oppressor? Or that they deserved assassination? (By the way, wasn't it you who essentially in our correspondence argued that Lebanon had to swiftly get over the assassination of Hariri, since they had, after all, benefited from it by getting the Syrian soldiers out?) What I said, since one needs to spoon-feed you everything, is that because the Palestinians have taken us repeatedly back to square-one on the issue of armed struggle, because they rejected the best offer made by the Americans (by Clinton in 2000), because they are again demanding that the Arab states bear the burden of Palestinian decisions, maybe its time to tell the Palestinians that they should pursue their efforts on their own, and not presume Arab and Western support for all their efforts.

Yes, that may be an unpopular decision in the region, but for someone like you who has become a spokesman of the Syrian regime in the past year, that stark realism was shared by the late Hafiz Assad; and as I recall, by Bashar Assad, who tried to resume the negotiation process with Israel in December 2002, as the second Intifada raged on, through an interview with the New York Times' Neil MacFarquhar.

Josh, you're usually fair enough to run this on your blog, anger and all. So let me be very blunt: I've lost great respect for you in the number of exchanges we've had in the past year, because on several occasions, and I've told you this, you simply didn't bother to check your facts, you shot from the hip, you seemed more taken up by the style of your comments than their substance. I know that those are the pitfalls of blogging, but your entry on me is so craven, so irresponsible, so unfair that I can only conclude that all this is just personal. This is not objective, open debate, and it certainly does not lend credence to your claims to be an academic.


My reply to Michael Young

Dear Michael.
I certainly did not intend to compare your views on religion, or anything else, with Dr. Wafa's. In making the transition to her article, I was merely suggesting that in being controversial you were outdone by Dr. Wafa. My attention was drawn to her fortuitously; I received at least 10 emails that morning from people who had googled her name and found a "Syria Comment" post published on her a year ago. I have never known you to be anything but tolerant on matters of religion.

Let me first address the suggestion that my article was motivated by personal animus. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I have always admired your writing and seen you as one of the best commentators on Lebanese politics. You have been able to explain what the present US administration should have been focusing on in its forward policy in the region, better than most administration leaders. I do not agree with you about the premises of that policy for Iraq or Syria, but I do appreciate your analysis, which you have always articulated more clearly than others and with greater insight. There is nothing personal in my criticism.

As for Jumblatt, yes, you do play it safe by writing, “So, does this mean Jumblatt is on the verge of backing Aoun? Most probably not, but…” Then you go on to give the many reasons why he might back him in the end – and, in the way I read it, should back him. You wrote:
don't put this [accepting Aoun as president] beyond the Druze leader if he finds all other paths closed… Aoun alone, because of the communal support he enjoys, can cut the Gordian knot around the presidency; he alone can bring the reluctant Shiites on board, even though Nasrallah is as reluctant to see Aoun in power as is Jumblatt; and he alone can discredit all other Maronite candidates whom the opposition might choose in his place (including the most interesting one of all, lawyer Chibli Mallat, the only contender who has had the gall to organize a full-fledged campaign, and who has doggedly harped on the imperative of removing Lahoud). Jumblatt, ever the realist, might yet decide that it's better to swallow the bitter pill of Aoun now and break Syria's hold over the presidency than to allow stalemate to persist - stalemate that could facilitate his own assassination by Syrian agents. Moreover, deep down Jumblatt may calculate that once Aoun is president, he would have no choice but to confront Syria and Hizbullah.
In order to … deny Berri and Hizbullah an opportunity to kill the momentum to oust Lahoud, Jumblatt must think fast. From one vantage point, the only option he may end up having is backing Aoun, even if he uses the delay in admitting to this as leverage to extract concessions from the general.
Here you put forward all the reasons why logic and realism dictate that Jumblatt may back Aoun – and should, “from one vantage point,” as the lesser of two evils. Perhaps I was reading too much into it, but I also took it to be your understanding of what some in the Future Movement are thinking, and will be urging Jumblatt to do in the coming weeks. They will argue that if Lebanon is to break out of its present impasse, it must get rid of Lahoud and purge the security forces. This is clearly the big question of the day, which is why we both found it worth highlighting in our articles.

Yes, you gave Aoun a broadside in a separate article in your more personal reading of his history and character, explaining how he was responsible for shattering the Christian community between 1988 and 1990, but I paid less attention to that article than the one I quoted above, precisely because it is more personal and, indeed, whimsical. You make clear that it is highly unlikely that Aoun will accept your didactic proposal that he adopt modesty as a policy and withdraw from the presidential race. As you state, Aoun is determined and immodest. More importantly, as “the most popular Christian,” he cannot be forced to withdraw by Sfeir or others. Given that Aoun is running for the presidency and popular, we must return to the more realistic and immediate choice of whether Aoun is better than continued gridlock. Should Lahoud remain in office to the end of his term?

You argued both sides of the coin very smartly in the two articles I linked to, which is why you must forgive me if I took your “realist” scenario to be more realistic. In your response to my post, you write: “I wrote a piece, that you actually cite, saying the exact contrary, that a powerful Aoun in the presidency may be worse than Lahoud. Do you actually read what you comment on?"

But no where in your article did not write: “a powerful Aoun in the presidency may be worse than Lahoud.” Your clarification, or call it "spoon feeding" is helpful. But even so, with its loud “may” in the middle and qualifying “powerful,” you seem to be torn on the matter. No doubt most Lebanese are of two minds over the question of who is better for them – Lahoud or Aoun, which is one reason why the national dialogue has been fraught with such drama and indecision.

Lahoud may well serve out his term because of this indecision. The Syrians most likely prefer him to the unpredictable Aoun, in the hope that their position will strengthen once Chirac is gone and Bush is a lame duck. Syria believes time is on its side. Sfeir, as you write, will not take a determined stand. The Shiites are playing footsie with Aoun, not because they like or trust him, but in order to counter the opposition’s claim that they are traitors and Syrian agents. It allows them to claim a popular majority and call for new elections to threaten the Future Movement’s government majority. In the end, however, they may prefer Lahoud for the same reasons the Syrians do. If opinion makers, such as yourself, also believe Lahoud is better than Aoun because he can do less damage - and I presume, also, because you believe, time does not favor the Syrians, Lahoud may well become the consensus candidate. All the bluster about ousting him, may be just that, bluster.

The problem with allowing Lahoud to linger on is that the world will tire of Lebanon’s indecision. President Bush made this clear in his Lebanon interview most recently.

I thank you for bringing your Sharon article to my attention. It is good and I missed it. I whole-heartedly apologize for misconstruing you there.

As for your claim that I am “a spokesman of the Syrian regime,” I read this as pique on your part and perhaps a bit of vengeance in your wrong-headed belief that my criticism was personal. I have always maintained that Syria is very badly governed, that it is poor when it doesn’t need to be, that the country’s potential has been squandered under the Baath, and that the regime’s focus on Arabism to the exclusion of Syrianism is a terrible mistake that prolongs its identity crisis and retards the day it will move toward greater consensus and democracy. I have written about the stupidity of much of its Islamic education syllabus; I have interviewed opposition members and provided a platform for them to be translated into English. I have allowed my commentators to criticize my opinions and to bash the regime, even when I was living in Damascus and Syrian friends advised me to shut it down. I offered one of the earliest explanations for why internal power struggles may have led Syria’s leaders to move against Hariri. I have few illusions about the Asad regime.

Where we do differ is on how democracy should be fostered in the Middle East. I did not think America’s Iraq adventure would lead to democracy as you did. In the same vein, I do not believe that destabilizing and bringing down the Asad regime through the Hariri investigation or by economic sanctions will promote democracy in Syria or lead to anything positive. I have a rather bleak view of Syria’s potential to become democratic in the near future and a healthy anxiety about its potential for chaos and violence. This is not because I am trying to defend the regime, although many of my readers see it that way. It is because I don’t believe Syrian society has many of the prerequisites for building a stable democracy.

Many of my critics do not share my pessimism about Syria. Some claim that Syria will not go down the road to civil war as Lebanon did and Iraq is doing. Others say that if Syria is to face chaos, so be it; the Asad regime is the cause of its political backwardness because it stifles growth and civil society – the sooner it goes, the less political chaos will result. I can never discount this last argument entirely. I wrote about how the regime-induced, lack of civil society in the Alawite Mountains was a main contributor to the needless sectarian violence that tore Qadmus apart this past summer. Nevertheless, I have argued against externally induced regime-change because I do not believe the state is so powerful as to be able to stop development in the coming decade. You have written about how Hafiz al-Asad was able to preserve Syria’s underperforming socialist economy while at the same time preserving his country’s regional relevance. Bashar will not be able to do the same.

As Syrian oil runs out and neighbors do well, he will be forced to liberalize the economy and create an environment in which capital investment is welcomed and protected or face bankruptcy and internal revolt. The recognition that socialism has failed is pervasive within the government. This will change things in Syria, whether the president likes all the changes or not. Syria will be drawn along by the region, particularly now that the oil-rich Gulf investors are so much savvier about establishing businesses and promoting free markets than they were in the 1970s. In terms of strategic thinking, Bashar is no match for his father, but in terms of tinkering with the economy and wanting to attract investment, he may well turn out to be more advanced. Whether Bashar will be able to contain the forces that economic liberalization is bound to unleash, I don't know.

Will Lebanon gain by pursuing the Hariri investigation to Damascus and Asad himself? I wrote last summer that I believed that Lebanon would be better served to use the Hariri investigation to prosecute those responsible in Lebanon and to get rid of Lahoud and clean out his security system, rather than focus on Asad and his regime, a battle I did not believe Lebanon would win. I am not sure I was incorrect. In a sense, the national dialogue meeting, resuming today, revolves around that very question. If the Future movement accepts Aoun as president and concedes that Hizbullah’s “resistance” is legitimate for the immediate future, it will have made a serious concession to Syria and have decreased the chances that the Hariri probe will advance aggressively. But such a concession will win Lebanon the ability to move against Lahoud, purge the security apparatus which he oversees, and begin mending some of the internal divisions that now have stymied national progress on any front. Allowing Lahoud to clog up the presidency for another year and a half in order to spite the Syrians and stiff Aoun, who for strategic reasons is now protecting Syria, may not be worth it. You counsel Hamas members to give up their spite in order to move on. You urge Arab leaders to impress this on Hamas; this seems like sage advice. Arab leaders are now giving similar advice to their Lebanese allies; perhaps it is not unwise.

This is where our real differences lie.

With all respect, Joshua


At 3/13/2006 01:30:00 AM, Blogger observer said...

Is the Syrian Government systematically trying to evoke sectarianism?

There has been a series of events which are making one question the government's policy to advocating unity away from sectarianism. Considering the government's move closer and closer to Iran, one is wondering how much concession is being given to Iran.

Over the last 2-3 weeks, the Ministry of Islamic Trusts (Wazarat el-Awqaf) banned religious lessons from being conducted in Mosques in Damascus. Mosques are now supposed to close their doors and kick everyone out after prayers are conducted. After the bitter experience of the early eighties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the government ended all educational activities conducted in mosques. A few years later, these lessons stared sprouting in homes around the large cities. As a result, the government changed their policy and banned these lessons from homes and returned them to mosques. This way they could always have an undercover Mukhabarat agent sitting and reporting back all activities. This has been the case for now almost 20 years. The late Hafez Al-Assad even encouraged the establishment of Qoran teachings in every mosque under the name of the Assad Institute for Teaching the Qoran. Such policy made Syria a center for moderate Islam. Extremism was never taught. The Syrian inherent type of Islam (moderate Sufism) was given a chance to flourish while other types of Sunni Islam had no place to rise (Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Wahabism). Exceptions were rare.

About 20 days ago, the Ministre of Awqaf re-imposed a ban on lessons in Mosques. Even an incident is reported of Mohamad Habash (a sheikh and MP strongly considered affiliated with the government) getting kicked out of a mosque while filming a biography at a mosque under the pretext that mosques should close under strict orders after prayers are over. This has not been the case in Aleppo and lessons are still conducted in mosques, but people in Damascus are really complaining about this new situation. Such policy ending the teaching of moderate Islam under the ears of the government can leave the door open for radicals to enter.

At the same time, Iranians have funded a huge Shiite shrine in Arraqqa and this Saturday they inaugurated it with a huge celebration called The Memory of the Battle of Siffine. The battle of Siffine is the one where Imam Ali was tricked into leaving battle and his supporters tricked into splitting. The Ummayad (the other camp in the battle) ended up establishing their state and Shiites went into prosecution through history. Such celebration would criticize the camp of Sunnis and praise the other camp. Yielding to Iran to promote their version of Islam at this time does not seem to be the best thing to do to promote national unity. This event along with the closure of mosques to lesson is putting the advocates of modernity into a real difficult position with their supporters. The average Sunni is wondering whether there is a systematic plan to erase him out. Radicals can now come in with a convincing argument.

Considering the current situation in Iraq and the surge of sectarianism in the region, this would seem the least wise thing to do at this time. The event is being done at a time when Sunnis in Damascus are prevented from enjoying the kind of freedom enjoyed for the past 20 years.

At the same time, while Aleppo is celebrating its status as Capital of Islamic Culture where the direction is 90% emphasis on Aleppo and 10% only emphasis on Islamic Culture (judging by the signs all over the city).

These events raise a few questions: Is the government trying to suffocate moderate Sunnis and automatically pushing the teachings underground at the risk of flipping it to the Takfiri side? Would a rise of Takfiris give further credit to the government in face of Western media to legitimize the government into being the only solution to stop these radicals? Would such a rise in radicalism (indirectly instigated by the government) give the government reasons to stop the current calls for democracy? Is the government trying to promote one sect of Islam over the other? Is the government trying to play the Sunni / Alawi game to divide the country once more into these lines after long years of discontent over the poor performance of the government helped unite the people in their opinion over need for urgent change? Is Syria now left without any allies so it is trying its best to appease the only possible allay it can maintain (Iran)?

At 3/13/2006 03:03:00 AM, Blogger Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

- Josh,

You’re too nice to that Saudi-sponsored second-tier Lebanese-American journalist!

In his reply to your initial posting, Michael Young is proving to be a Major League liar and a shameless one for that matter: not only does he backpedal bluntly from his original stance by criticizing your allegedly “faulty interpretation” of his oh-so-subtle thought (unworthy of a “real” academism whatever that means- professorship in Kuffar-Language Propaganda at the King Saud School of Journalism? but I’m digressing…), but he also has the nerve to accuse you of “holding a personal grudge against him” as if his (frankly, rather) insignificant person meant anything in itself- beyond his prose’s bellwether Pravda-like indicative quality that gives us a taste of the “ideology” of his Harirista paymasters!

At 3/13/2006 06:23:00 AM, Blogger ugarit said...

Dr. Landis:

The dual posting of Michael Young's and Wafa Sultan's articles highlights the need of separating postings that are unrelated.

At 3/13/2006 11:02:00 AM, Blogger t_desco said...

U.S. hints at plans for new measures against Damascus

By Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz Correspondent and Reuters

WASHINGTON - The Syrian issue will resume top priority in coming weeks on the international and American agendas. In another few days, the special investigator appointed by the United Nations to find those responsible for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is due to report his latest findings. The investigator, Serge Brammertz, is expected to visit Damascus early this week, and then to travel to the United States to present all the evidence he has collected since visiting Damascus three weeks ago.

A senior U.S. official told Haaretz last week that "if the Syrians think they've managed to get off the hook because there are other things on the agenda, they are mistaken. The Syrians have not been punished yet for their actions and we are continuing to study their conduct. Their luck will run out eventually."

Another senior U.S. official said that Syria will "soon" receive extra attention when new measures against it are unveiled.

Several senior U.S. administration officials have stressed to Haaretz in recent days that "we have not forgotten about Syria." Several hinted in recent weeks in conversations with colleagues that further plans might soon be implemented with the aim of increasing pressure on Syria.

Sources at the U.S. Department of Defense and at intelligence agencies say that Syria is continuing to allow terrorists to use it as a conduit to Iraq and to support terrorist organizations that undermine American policy in the Middle East.

"They are aiding directly in the killing of American soldiers, and we have still not settled accounts with them on that score," a U.S. official told a colleague from a foreign country two weeks ago.

A diplomatic official explained this weekend that the Syrian issue is bound up with the Iranian situation, as Tehran's apparent objective is to destabilize the entire region. The fact that Syria has "a weak leadership," the source said, gives the Iranians an advantage they never had before. "[Former president] Hafez Assad always held the Iranians as a card in his pocket, but in the case of [current President] Bashar Assad, the Iranians are the ones holding him as a card in their pocket."

The following report suggests that the eight arrested members of a terrorist cell are somehow connected to Usbat-al-Ansar:

Group tied to Al-Qaida holds position near Lebanese border

By Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondent

Usbat-al-Ansar, the Lebanon-based Palestinian organization that maintains close ties with some of the Al-Qaida networks, has a front-line command post relatively close to the border with Israel, in the Ain el Helweh refugee camp.

According to reports over the weekend, the Lebanese army arrested, in various locations around the country, eight members of a terrorist group. Half are Palestinians, and the other half are Lebanese. Security sources in Lebanon said that the members of the network are believed to be responsible for the most recent round of Katyusha rocket fire on the Galilee last December.

Following the rocket fire, Al-Qaida in Iraq, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, published an announcement in which it claimed responsibility for the action. It was the first time an organization affiliated with Al-Qaida had taken responsibility for a direct attack on Israel.

Immediately after the Katyusha fire, Israel had only partial intelligence with regard to those responsible for the attack. In response, the Israel Air Force bombed a base belonging to Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, and it was subsequently claimed that members of Usbat al-Ansar had trained at the base and had received instruction from PFLP-GC activists.

Meanwhile, it emerged that the organization has a command post in the Ain el Helweh refugee camp also. This command post has not been attacked on the grounds that it lies in a densely populated area and that bombing it is likely to lead to numerous civilian casualties.

Israeli security sources say that the Usbat al-Ansar members are Palestinians who initiated ties with al-Zarqawi's activists in order to receive assistance.

Given the fact that Usbat-al-Ansar was founded in Ain al-Hilweh, this is not exactly "breaking news"...

At 3/13/2006 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

Brazilian federal police arrested Rana Abdel Rahim Koleilat, 39, Sunday evening at the Parthenon Accor Hotel in Sao Paolo- see link below:

You may remember that, back in the roaring 1990’s, Ms Koleilat was a Lebanese Mata-Hari of sorts allegedly working for various Middle-Eastern intelligence agencies.

Knowledgeable people say she had (concomitant!) love affairs with numerous Lebanese and Saudi politicians: she’s wanted by the Lebanese ministry of justice in conjunction with the “Bank Al-Madinah Scandal”, a political-financial scandal of Gargantuan proportions involving the Hariri clan and their generous Saudi backers.

Rafic Al-Hariri and King Fahd Ibn Saud are said to have used Bank Al-Madinah throughout the 1990’s as a legit financial front behind which they concealed massive money laundering and political corruption activities notably discreet cash transfers to diverse causes such as the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, the fundamentalist Taleban regime of Afghanistan, as well as covert funding of the anti-Asad wing of the Syrian regime led by former Vice-President A.H. Khaddam and Gen. Ghazi Kanaan…

Anyhoo, it seems this corrupt chick has finally come to roost: I hope she’ll spill the beans on the Hariri-Kanaan-Khaddam mafia triumvirate that ruled and pillaged Lebanon from 1990 to 2004

I’m starting to like “Al-Haqeeqah”!

At 3/13/2006 01:12:00 PM, Blogger 10452 said...

Bravo to Michael Young! As usual, weak reply by Landis.

At 3/13/2006 02:40:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

How can you let a low life like this called Lebanese Bride writ these supid comments,may it says what kind of person he is.

At 3/13/2006 05:53:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

I was going to comment on your last post, but I rightfully thought that Young or Badran would do a better job in replying to you. Living in Syria is no excuse for lowering yourself to Syrian standards.

At 3/13/2006 05:56:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

And by the way, Wafa Sultan's interviews are outstanding.

At 3/13/2006 06:23:00 PM, Blogger Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Cher Joshua,

Ne prenez pas des types comme Monsieur Young au sérieux.
Votre lectrice,


At 3/13/2006 10:15:00 PM, Blogger zobahhan said...

haha first of all you moron vox, Josh no longer lives in syria. And please clarify these "lowered" syrian standards as opposed to your hightened lebanese ones.

pfff. If only the lebanese would look at themselves first before complaining.

At 3/13/2006 11:07:00 PM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

Interesting article here. Poor online machine translation to English, but you will survive it. You are too emmersed in the little picture.

At 3/13/2006 11:08:00 PM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

UUUHHH. Forgot the link

At 3/14/2006 12:44:00 AM, Blogger ForFreedomOfExpression said...

Please let us hear more like this:

"It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality.
It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship.
It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on other hand.
It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."


My sister from Banias in Syria, I am in love with you.


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