The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Landis contra Young

Something of a nasty fight has emerged between two of the most prominent commentators on Syria and Lebanon, Joshua Landis and Michael Young. The two seemed to be on cordial terms before, with Landis frequently referring to Young's writings on Lebanon, even though it's always been clear that they had opposite attitudes. Young has long been critical of Syrian meddling in Lebanon and supportive of the March 14 movement, as well as generally critical of Hizbullah. Landis, who writes more from a Syrian perspective, has defended Syria from some of the more spurious attacks against it while still providing critical coverage of its domestic politics.

In a March 10 post discussing efforts at obstructing a deal between the US, France and Syria over Lebanon, Landis counts Young as one of the intellectual obstructionists of such a deal (political obstructionists include Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt and US Ambassador to Beirut Jeffrey Feltman). Landis goes on to attack the obstructionist line as one that is dangerous for Lebanon and the region as a whole as well as one that puffs up a "Shia crescent" threat and gives Lebanese Shias "slave" status in a Christian and Sunni-dominated polity:

The only problem with this analysis is that it is has led to a long list of failures and the needless death of thousands of Iraqis and Americans. Michael Young recommended the invasion of Iraq in 2003, claiming that the "consociational" Lebanese model of government that has served his country so well would bring peace and happiness to Iraq and quickly be replicated throughout the Middle East. It has taken the West four long years of watching Iraq descend into ferocious civil war to come to grips with the short comings of this analysis. In 2006, Young advocated keeping the incompetent Lahoud as president of Lebanon rather than giving Michel Aoun a chance at elections. (Aoun was the most popular candidate in Lebanon at the time.) This obstructionism led directly to the summer war between Lebanon and Israel. With no prospects of a non-violent adjustment to Lebanon's lopsided power-sharing formula, Hizbullah and its opposition allies fell back on the old formula of "resistance" and demonstrations. When war broke out, Young began excitedly prognosticating that Israel could break Hizbullah and international forces disarm it. He insisted the Shiite party did not represent authentic Lebanese demands, being merely a creature of Iran and Syria. Again, Young's dreams didn't materialize. Instead, the inconclusive war led to paralysis in Lebanon as Hizbullah and the Siniora government stand face to face, each unwilling to bow to the demands of the other. Rather that admit that he has misjudged the opposition or the ability of American and Israeli power to reshape the hearts and minds of Middle Easterners, Young continues to insist that Syria and Hizbullah will buckle if only the US will inflict a bit more pain on them.

Rather than come to grips with the real flaws of Lebanon's democracy, Michael Young, like many other Lebanese, believes that the use of force by foreign powers can preserve the skewed status quo in Lebanon. He wants international forces to disarm the Shiites in the South, and the US to inflict more pain on Syria. The Lebanese obstructionist solution is to import violence into Lebanon and the region. They refuse to allow a "typically muddled but non-violent solution to the impasse." Importing foreign armies to keep the Shiites in their place will only lead to further war and extremism on both sides.

What is wrong with the "consociational" system that is held up as the epitome of Lebanese democracy and power-sharing? Quite simply, it treats Shiites like slaves. In pre-civil war America, black slaves were counted as half a white person. In Lebanon they are accorded the same political weight. Although Shiites are estimated to make up some 40% of the population, the Taif Accords, Lebanon's constitutional arrangement, permit the Shiites only 22% of the seats in parliament.

The defenders of Taif will scoff at this analogy between Lebanese Shiites and American slaves. They will say, "But we don't treat Shiites as slaves. They can vote and they are allocated the third most powerful political office in the land: the President of the Parliament. All true, I admit, but this doesn't obscure the simple fact that Shiites are accorded only half the political worth of other human beings in Lebanon.
That post (which is longer than what's excerpted above) was obviously provocative and generated a lot of comments on Landis' blog. He eventually posted a follow-up with some reader responses and said he wanted to let passions cool. He did mention that Young had responded but did not put up his response.

Young decided not to wait and wrote up his response in the Daily Star's opinion pages, of which he is the editor. The response was much more aggressive in tone than anything Landis wrote against him, although arguably Young was the injured party thus far. The column was titled "the blogosphere's foreign informant" and in it Young accuses Landis of being soft on the Syrian regime (he compares him to Patrick Seale, Hafez al-Asad's biographer, whose book does rather soft-pedal criticism of the late Asad, although it remains a very good read.) He defends himself from some of the charges Landis made, notably denying that he ever said that he would leave Lebanon if Muslims were given more power in the confessional system. More seriously, Young accuses Landis of willfully putting Syrian dissident Michael Kilo in danger by revealing that he met with Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members in Morocco to strike a deal against the regime. Again, you should read the whole thing, but here is the most vitriolic part of Young's article:

My theory, and take it for what it's worth, is that Landis' ambition is to be the premier mediator with and interpreter of Syria in American academic and policy-making circles - a latter-day Patrick Seale. In this context, and again this is just a coagulating hypothesis, Landis has frequently used his blog to prove his worth to the Syrians - perhaps to enjoy better access. He has also maligned those offering perspectives different than his own. In the post where he went after me, Landis harshly attacked the An-Nahar Washington correspondent, Hisham Melhem, as well. My conviction is that Landis felt he had to discredit us both, mainly because we fear that Lebanon will pay if the US engages Syria. As he once, revealingly, put it to me: "Your anti-Syrian line is the most coherent and best packaged." I would dispute the term "anti-Syrian" and find his use of the word "packaged" peculiar. Perhaps I'm just not partial to Syria's leadership.

Is court scribe really a role an academic should aspire to? And what does it say about Landis that he has consistently promoted the idea that the United States should sign off on renewed Syrian control over Lebanon in exchange for a deal with Damascus in Iraq? What kind of esteem does a scholar invite by wanting to return a recently emancipated, fairly democratic country to its former subjugation by a foreign dictatorship?
Now, some of the attacks on both sides seem a bit petty (but then again petty attacks and score-keeping appear to be a mainstay of Lebanese punditry) and some of the allegations are rather serious. It's too bad to see two of the more influential opinion-makers on Syria and Lebanon (in the West, of course, they are non-entities in the Arabic-language media) get into a personal catfight like this.

I'm not going to take sides -- not that either would care. I've long had concerns about bias in the writing of both, but still read both regularly and have learnt much from them. Being biased doesn't mean you're not interesting. I do think Landis, whose blog is an excellent resource, sometimes comes across as an apologist for the Syrian regime, although I don't think he actually is and also airs negative opinions about it. Similarly, Young occasionally comes across as an apologist for the 14 March movement (or the Siniora government).

I actually do like the overall intent of Landis' argument about Shias still being viewed by many Lebanese Sunnis and Christians as an underclass. Young appears to be saying that he agrees the Taif accords need to be scrapped, but he hasn't exactly taken warmly to the way Shias (or at least those represented by Hizbullah) have pushed for that change, i.e. the street protests and occupation of Downtown Beirut. He's also been an advocate of sectarianism of sorts. I remember this column (Daily Star subscribers can find it here) he wrote last December that surprised me:

Every few years the Lebanese must cope with an individual, party or community that ignores, disastrously, sectarian conventions. When the Maronites, the Sunnis and the Druze couldn't get it right during the 1970s, the country descended into a 15-year war. Today, it is Hizbullah, as prime spokesman for the Shiite community, that is making a similar miscalculation. If conflict can be averted, then the party's learning a lesson will have been worthwhile: better a weak Lebanese state where communal alignments can counterbalance the hegemonic tendencies of one side to a strong, purportedly non-sectarian state that will consistently drift toward a disputed, therefore unstable, authoritarianism.
That said, permanent, rigid sectarianism is not ideal. For any truly democratic order to emerge, the Lebanese must ultimately think as citizens, not as members of religious tribes. But wishing that away will not work. The only solution is to modify sectarianism from within, to provisionally accept its institutions while making it more flexible and opening up space for non-sectarian practices. The Taif agreement outlines the means to reach this end, and just as soon as Lebanon can break free of Syrian and Iranian manipulation, just as soon as Hizbullah agrees to a process leading to its disarmament, no matter how lengthy, sectarian negotiations will become possible and the road to reform can be taken.
That column was criticized here, but the point I would like to make about it is that it is hard to understand how Shias (who are, for better or for worse, mostly represented by Hizbullah nowadays) can make a push for a greater role within a sectarian system without going after some entrenched interests. Power is taken, not given freely.

Update: Landis has published a response to Young's column.