Readers Responses to my Last Post

I have received many responses to my last post. Many are in the comment section of the post itself. Others, were send to me by email, and I have selected a cross section here. Michael Young responded. I will not respond to it now, believing it wiser to let passions cool. Many of the issues he raises are also raised by other readers:

A Syrian Alawite woman writing from Damascus:

Thank you Josh. I believe, we have learnt to live as much solid as we can. It is our fate to live and fight, but in most cases we get nothing! Let (them [the Lebanese]) get what they want. We are the real slaves.

A Lebanese American in Lebanon:
Dear Josh, I often read your blog with interest. I have a major criticism about your last piece about “Counting Lebanon Shiite’s as Slaves.”  You seem to assume that only Shiite MPs can represent Shiites! This is completely erroneous. While the percentage of Shiite seats in Parliament are less than today’s percentage of Shiites, that does not mean that their votes counts as less. Christians, Sunnis, other denomination (you can have your pick), represent Shiites as well in their districts.

The line of argumentation you offer is quite dangerous (and slippery). It is an argument often used by the Maronite church (most notably in Patriarch Sfeir’s complaint that Christian MPs are being elected by non-Christians)… The solution to Lebanon’s problems is not in making the system even more confessional (by making members of a religious community) chose only MPs from their religion – but rather in a slow and steady deconstruction of the system.

From Charles Coutinho, Ph.D., Realestate mogul and writter of The Diplomat of the Future
Dear Professor Landis, I agree with most of the premises of your last post. I only have one caveat really and, that deals with your (mostly / somewhat) negative response to the Lebanon's current form of Democracy. It is true of course that an arrangement in which forty percent of the population, has only twenty-two percent of the political representation in Parliament, is problematic, both now and in the long-term.  The issue for me (and I suppose for Michael Young perhaps, and many others who have a mostly positive view of the Lebanon as a political model for the Near and Middle East), is that will obtaining justice for the Shiite population, have the end result of potentially destroying Lebanon's demographic and political pluralism (the real meaning of Young's statement about emigrating).
One of the remarkable aspects of Beirut for example is that it is probably the most pluralistic city in the entire Near East, remarkably so.  Whereas say, fifty or seventy-five years ago, that was probably not the case. Which is really my larger point (and perhaps Young's?): namely that in the 20th century, the entire region, with a few exceptions, witnessed a process in which most of the cities in the region (and this is probably true of Syria as well), became much more, demographically homogeneous. With in many cases this homogeneity an end result, of political violence, enforced.  For example: Baghdad circa 1945, had very large Jewish and Christian populations, where are they now? The same could be said for Tripoli, Alexandria, Damascus, et, cetera, et cetera.
And, it could very well be argued, it is this enforced demographic homogeneity, which in part helps to explain the economic backwardness of the entire region in the last one hundred plus years.  Much more so than say 'colonialism', or imperialism, et cetera (if the latter two were the problems, one wonders what to make of the economic transformations of say Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan).  As you know, many economic theorists posit that cities are really the motors of economic transformation, and, insofar as most of the Near East, has seen an exodus of most of its wealthy, and energetic economic minority groups, from its major cities in the last seventy-five years, well that points up to a key variable in the related problems of economic backwardness and political stagnation and absence of pluralism.
Obviously, it is not the only variable, but, I do think that it may be a major one. And, it could be argued, that insofar as the current constitutional arrangements in the Lebanon, hold together a fabric, which if not tended to, will witness the same (negative) transformation that has been undergone by the rest of the region, then in that sense Michael Young does have a good point to make. Sad but true.
Thanks and take care, Charles Coutinho
Landis replies: Many respondents to my article have pointed out that Syrians have few political rights in comparison to Lebanese. This is the sad truth. Lebanon presents the best example of political liberties in the Middle East and the best prospect for showing the region a way out of its authoritarian quagmire. All the more reason why reforming the system to better reflect demographics is the right thing to do, especially at this time when the entire world's attention is focused on it. A universal problem in the Middle East is finding a way to encourage reform. Some believe that violence is necessary. I believe that it will not hasten change, but, in most cases, retard it.

Martin Kramer, the Wexler-Fromer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose most recent article I referred to:


My article is not about a "Shiite Crescent," and I don't use the term. It is about the "Islamist Axis" (that even appears in the title), and throughout the piece, the argument is that it includes both Shiites and Sunnis. Also, you give as title of the article the title of the conference panel I shared with Dr. Paz. The title of my own article is "Israel vs. the New Islamist Axis."

Best, Martin

Landis Replies: Thanks for the correction Martin. Perhaps there are too many axis to grind? In arguing "that the reversal of the tide driven by the Iranian Revolution is the only way for a new Middle East to come about," you refer only to an "Islamic" Axis. It is George Bush who refers to the Evil Axis, and the two Abdullahs who worry about the Shiite Axis.

Philip Weiss, a Journalist and blogger in New York:

The article is great, and underlines your other point, all these polities, including Israel, are struggling with related issues, of minority rights.

Marlin Dick, former Editor in Chief of the Beirut Daily Star, writes: 

Did you ever see this?

Is there proof in these articles that great minds think similarly? Lebanon is truly crappy these days… and one of the crappiest things about Iraq has to be the – who in the hell exactly was it? LBC/al-Hurra staff-types… or whoever, who thought that if Maronite-Shiite-Sunni has worked so well in Lebanon, Kurd-Shiite-Sunni would be perfect for Iraq?

Landis replies: Marlin Dick's article, originally written for the Fresno Bee, is a must read. He said all the things I did, only less confrontationally and with considerable depth. Here are the first lines:

The United States is wrong to envisage its Lebanese policy as an opposition between pro and anti-Syrian groups. The fundamental problem is of a socio-political nature: No solution can be found as long as the Shiite majority will not be properly represented by the institutions…

Ehsani2, a Syrian born American:

As you know, I have long maintained that Bashar made the strategic mistake of not working with America from day one of the invasion of Iraq. Were he to have helped in Iraq from day 1, he would have gotten a free pass in lebanon de facto. If it were me, by late 2002 and after the events of Sept. 11th, I would have guessed that America changed forever after that event. By early 2003, I would have expected the Americans to be in Iraq soon. I would have worked to be their man in the region. Going against them was not smart long term strategy. Yes, he was right that the invasion was not going to go smoothly but so what? What has it changed from a strategic perspective?

Even if the US said they don't need my help, I would have done everything in my power to make my shift then. I would have hinted about a deal with Israel. I would have handed Saddam loyalists. I would have stopped the Sunni insurgency. UN resolution 1559 of late 2004 would not have taken place. The 2005 killing of Hariri would not have been necessary. The subsequent weak position of the country was not the ideal time to ask for an Israel deal. I know that I am in a minority here.

Landis response to Ehsani2:

I believe the US should have made a deal with Syria, much as Baker made a deal with Hafiz in 1990. Bush didn't understand the Middle East and set his sights irresponsibly high. He wanted to change the Iraqi regime and create democracy there; he wanted to take Lebanon away from Syria and isolate Syria in the hope of later changing the regime, not to mention reform of the Greater Middle East. By shooting too high, the US sacrificed whatever chances it had of avoiding civil war in Iraq. He should have concentrated on Iraq – even at the price of placating Syria, a regime the administration detests, in order to increase the chances of a favorable outcome in Iraq. Who knows whether it would have worked, but once the US decided on invasion, it was incumbent on it to to do everything to make its gamble succeed, for the sake of Iraqis and for the sake of the American soldiers that are giving their lives in Iraq.

By refusing to deal with Syria, the US guaranteed that Asad would not police mujaheddin going in and out of the country and would work to undermine the US in Iraq.

Now Iraq is a mess. Bashar is still there and still refusing to do all he can to help the US in Iraq. The US will eventually have to deal with him if they want to make progress in the region. He has his finger in too many pies. In the mean time, what have we gained by refusing to work with Syria? Very little, I would say. On the contrary, we have lost a lot. Both Lebanon and Iraq are a mess and radicalism has flourished throughout the Middle East and our relations with most countries of the region are in shambles.

The US has won nothing from its anger and resentment. Neither has Syria – on that you are right. Certainly Syria has made its share of mistakes, but that is no excuse for the US doing the same. Secretary of State Powell has dismissed those who claim that Syria refused to deal. He recently said that Syria "offered a lot." Most likely he was referring to his and Armitage's trips to Syria in late 2003 and early 2004, when I believe Asad was trying to make a deal. Of course Asad wanted to trade Syria's help in Iraq for America's acceptance of the status quo in Lebanon, which Bush refused to countenance. Many Lebanese, and particularly Lebanese Americans, did not want such a deal to be struck. In the interest getting it right in Iraq, Powell should have been allowed to explore a deal with Syria. If he had, we might not be in the situation we are today, in which both Lebanon and Iraq are a mess.

Ehsani2's response to Landis:

Powerful nations can make mistakes and get away with it. For Poorer nations, it is harder. It is like playing NASDAQ and the stock market with very little savings. One bad bet and your savings are gone.

First, ME leaders rarely follow the demands of their people. Second, the people want to eat, live and prosper. They are not interested in standing up to America and suffering for years after that.

Bashar knows that by 2010, he will have no oil to export. The economic challenges on his country's finances will be enormous. This was his chance. The American invasion of his number one competitor was a Godsend. Lebanon was getting restless. He was new to the office. His people were already expecting a softer and more western approach. Instead, he took the exact opposite road. In my opinion, the best achievement he can claim for his strategy is that he is still in power. If that is indeed the standard, then fine. But, is this really the standard that he should be judged by? Vision and bold leadership is what it takes. Would his father have done this? Would he have gone so far against the Americans? Would he have misunderstood the way America changed after Sept. 11th? Hafez did not have to prove his manhood. Bashar did. Regrettably, at a huge cost to his country.

Ex Secretary of State Baker today: from Associated Press

"Ex-U.S. secretary of state Baker calls for broad talks with Syria"
The Middle East has grown less stable during the presidency of U.S. President George W. Bush, but dramatic improvements could be made by opening broad talks with Syria, former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III said here Sunday.

"Once-pragmatic U.S. relations with Syria have gone downhill in recent years," said Baker, who is in Dubai to oversee the expansion of the Baker Botts LLP law offices. Baker is a senior partner at the Houston, Texas-based law firm.

But he said the outlines of a peace deal between Israel and Syria were clear and encouraged both sides to seize the opportunity. "There's the deal. It's all spelled out, Baker said. This is all by way of saying we need to engage Syria."

Israel and Syria are officially at war, though there have been no open hostilities between them for decades. Syria has demanded the return of the Golan, which Israel captured in 1967 and later annexed, as the price for any peace deal.

Israel says it will not discuss a formal treaty with its northern neighbor as long as Damascus continues to back Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

Washington brands both groups as terrorists, and several of Hamas' top leaders live in exile in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has the power to force Hamas to recognize Israel if Assad believed it was in Syria's interest, Baker said. "Hamas' officers are in Damascus. They can do this, he said."

Hamas' recognition of Israel would leave the Jewish state in a stronger position to make peace with the Palestinians, said Baker, who made similar recommendations as co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that recommended changes in Bush's Iraq strategy, including
direct talks with Syria and Iran.

Baker noted with some satisfaction that U.S. officials were in talks in Iraq over the weekend with both Iran and Syria. He said he hoped those early contacts could be expanded. The Bush administration had long been reluctant to talk to Syria, citing its support for groups like Hamas.

Baker said a good opportunity to forge an Israeli-Palestinian settlement was lost after the 1993 Oslo accords. He said he was dismayed to see those accords, opposed by right-wing Israelis and hard-liners in the current Bush administration, fall to the wayside. Since then, the Mideast has descended deeper into chaos.

"Am I sorry to see Oslo hasn't ripened into a greater peace? Of course I am, Baker said. It's disappointing to me to see the degree to which the Middle East today is unstable, in a number of arenas. There was a great hope back in the early 1990s. Now, we have a lot of other sources
of instability that need to be addressed."

The oil-rich Arab countries of the Persian Gulf were some of America's closest allies under former President George H.W. Bush, when Baker was secretary of state. Baker and the elder Bush brought Arab leaders together in a coalition that drove Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait in 1991.

But Gulf Arab relations with the United States have become strained since September 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Baker, who turns 77 next month, said he was still hopeful for Israeli-Arab settlement in his lifetime.

Asked whether he backed the presence of two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle groups in the Mideast – for the first time since the 2003 Iraq invasion – Baker said he supported the Bush administration's stance on Iran. That includes being prepared to launch a military attack on
Iran's disputed nuclear facilities, he said.

"It's too bad we can't pursue the foreign policy ideals of Mother Theresa, but we just can't," Baker said. "It's a tough world out there."

On estimates of Shiites:
From Robert Tuttle: 
Josh, with all do respect, the use of the term slave is way over the top. First, your 40 percent number has been disputed by the most recent non-official census that I know of that shows that a breakdown of about 30 percent Sunni, 30 percent Shiite and 35 percent Christian. It is true that the political system does not give Shiites representative political power but that was not the case when the country was founded. Obviously changing the sectarian distribution of spoils is sensitive business. But compare Lebanon to just about every other Arab government and tell me who are slaves. Are the Shiites of Lebanon any less represented than the Sunnis of Syria? No other sectarian group has the kind of clout held by Shiites and that is because the Shiites have their own army. Michael Young is the one person who has actually suggested a solution to this situation that would ensure majority rights while protecting minorities. If the big issue here is about Shiite representation, then in exchange for Hezbollah disarming, a bicameral legislator would be created, not unlike what we have in the U.S., and the troika would be rotating so you would have a Maronite president one year, a Sunni the next and then a Shiite.
From Gibran:

According to a recent study by Al-Jazeera (a well known Pro-Syrian/Pro-Hezbollah news network), these are the statistics: Voters according to sectarian affiliation (drawn from recent polling government records):

Sunnis 795233 %26.44
Shia 783903 %26.06
Druze 169293 %5.63
Maronite 667556 %22.19
Orthodox 236406 %7.86
Catholic 156521 %5.2
Armenians (Orthodox) 90675 %3.01
Armenians (Catholics) 20217 %0.67
Evangelical 17409 %0.58
Minorities 47018 %1.56
Alawites 23696 %0.79


Now the Shia have 27 members of parliament – equal in number to the number of MPs accorded to the Sunnis that outnumber the Shia. The Shia also have the position of the speaker of parliament which is the second highest authority in the country. With all this power Joshua still has the guts to call the Shia Lebanese Slaves.

Landis replies: Tuttle and Gibran are right in pointing out that voter registration records give the same numbers of Sunnis as Shiites. But do they offer an accurate reflection of population statistics? We don't know, but it is likely that Shiites, as the poorest Lebanese and the most frequently displaced over the last 20 years, register to vote in smaller numbers than other groups. In the past, Lebanese had to register and vote in their natal village. I am not sure if this requirement exists today, but it used to be a large disincentive from voting for Lebanese who had moved and were poor.

Estimates of Lebanon's population are all over the place. The CIA throughout much of the 1990s claimed that Muslims accounted for 70% of Lebanon's population. In 2004, it lowered the statistic on its webpage to 59.7%, where it remains today. I inquired about the reasons for this change from members of the Lebanon and Syria desk at the agency in 2004. None could give me an answer. Such estimates have great political significance and are contested. All the more reason for Lebanon to carry out a new census and end the guessing game. It would clear up this most vital issue that weighs so heavily on power-sharing issues and is the source of conflict.

Alex composed these tables based on a recent opinion poll conducted by the Beirut Center for Research & Information between the 24th and 28th of February 2007. They show that the Lebanese public is in favor of a political deal between the sects. The vast majority of Lebanese believe a deal is within reach. 51% of Lebanese believe the US is hindering a deal; whereas, 17% believe Syria is.

Most Shiites and Sunnis want each other as allies. Saad Hariri, the Sunni leader is the most popular Lebanese politician followed by Nasrallah, the Shiite leader. Few Lebanese appreciate the extremism of Junblatt or Geagea. This shows that in obstructing a political deal between the factions, the US is working against Lebanese public wishes. (Thank you Alex.)







Comments (54)

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51. G said:

Ohhhh, then we are in your debt Alex! Thank you so much for your kindness! That you don’t hate us despite our brutal war against you, which has included multiple assassinations, car explosions, arms and fighters smugglings, obstruction of institutions, etc. etc.

Oh wait… never mind…

The nerve of you people… astonishing…

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March 16th, 2007, 4:39 pm


52. The Arabist » Landis contra Young said:

[…] 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. […]

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March 18th, 2007, 3:19 pm


53. Pascale said:

To those syrians who post here and that supposedly academic, know that you make us wish for Syria a taste of what it’s giving us in Lebanon. And yes if someone can kill that giraffe president of yours we would be happy that he rotes in hell with his father.
As in Saddam’s Irak, the only thing keeping you from facing the kind of “troubles” that you seem to disdain so much in Lebanon is dictatorship. And if you’re happy with it then keep it and choke on it, just leave us alone.
What you always resort to is the conviction put in your heads by your masters that we are replacing syrian occupation by american western saudi..etc. disregarding the fact that the spirit that moved March 14 people (not leaders nor their followers) was beyond that,animated by a genuine will of freedom and democracy that smart people in the opposition in your country adhere to and syrian prisons. You ignore the fundamental issue and banalise it in temrs of just another allegance,us “daring” to change allegance!! The fact that you don’t want to see beyond that only shows your indoctrination. We, the March 14 independant people, know very well the shortcomings, mistakes and limits of the leaders we have, we also know that the US/Europe/Saudi Arabia support us according to their agenda and interests, but getting rid of you, trying to build a real state, working to achieve some form of neutrality to Lebanon that could get us out of your grip is a fundamental hope for all of us in spite of the pitty interests of anyone. But even if we follow your reasoning to the end: our actions bringing western influence instead of yours, try to understand that we have the nerve to prefer the western influence to your occupation. We’ve had the syrian regime on our back for 30 years, we know it in and out,have tasted all it this point the devil himself is better.
As to your disdain towards our country “that is not a real country and never will be”, it might be true, we certaintly don’t sit comfortably on eternal final certainties like you do thanks to your ideology, we are always affraid that our dreams for our country won’t come true, we know that we’ve not been able to construct a real state yet, we know that we killed each other in a long war, we know that the great Lebanon is more in our dreams and hopes than in reality. If all this confort you in thinking that we’re just a bothersome mess, go ahead, but for us that “idea” of Lebanon, even if it remains virtual and never materialises (can I say more to go in the sense of your logic) is worth fighting for and is worth all the arab countries put together and more. That’s what you don’t understand or don’t want to understand. But just to show you how deeply rooted what I’m saying is, a little story. My father, who was of syrian origin, was forced to go earn a living in Syria in 76 after a year of unemployment in Lebanon because of the war. We thought it was temporary but he ended up having to spend 10 years there coming and going as he could, suffering from a lonely life and going through a nightmare of fears for us everyday. My mother, a Lebanese, had her own nightmare of seeing 4 children through the war alone, we had to go to school, then university under the bombs. At some point, exhausted by fear, she asked my father that he takes us all to live with him in Syria to escape the dangers. His answer was categoric, and never changed throughout the war, “I’ll never allow my children to live in Syria, despite the war Lebanon will offer them a better life than what they would have in Syria, in spite of all my suffering I prefer Lebanon under the bombs to the stability of death in Syria”. None of us ever regretted that choice even though we all had near death experiences. Can you begin to understand what it is that made us pay that price for this country? Can you imagine our attachement to it having paid that price of tears and fear and danger? Can you comprehend that your disdain of our miseries only appeases your conscience and doesn’t even begin to penetrate the depth of the meaning of this country? A meaning which I’m sure Syria has too, but certainly not through that regime or people like you who are happy following it.
I grew up considering Israel as our ennemy and I’ve had every reason to hate them more and more as years went by and to understand the main reason for my hatred towards them: their egocentrism, bad faith, infinite capacity of lying and distorting truth, and blind violence. We’ve had again a taste of all that this summer. But guess what, if I see the same characteristics in our arab “brothers”,as I do in the syrian regime, I won’t hate them any less because they are arabs. If we can’t get past that kind of arabism then the hell with it and those who defend it, we suffered more than enough. And guess what more, I profoundly believe that the main support that the Assads have always had comes in a deep way from Israel and the fact that they were negociating over our blood this summer is only the tip of the iceberg. Israel supports that regime because they are fundamentaly the same kind of evil.

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March 20th, 2007, 8:58 am


54. Pascale said:

I saw my comment posted with the mention “Awaiting moderation”. When our suffering and frustration will be moderated then my point of view will consider some “moderation”. As I would like to add that our lack of “moderation” has been and will always be in words and opinions, we’re not the ones obstructing justice, causing a war, killing politicians and intellectuals,and cripling the economy of the whole country by “peacful” strikes and terrorising people by “peacful” sit-ins. For us it’s words and opinionsand even our wish of death towrads some won’t kill them.

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March 20th, 2007, 9:06 am


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