Monthly Archives: June 2013

What To Do In Syria

What to do in Syria

As many of us have long been saying they eventually inevitably would, the United States and several of its allies, after a recent meeting in the Gulf, announced a major initiative to increase material support, including weapons, to rebel forces in Syria. This decision came in the wake of a major shift in the balance of power on the ground in favor of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, in large part due to an influx of massive support from Hezbollah, Iran and, to a lesser but vital extent, Russia. This constitutes something of a repetition of the scenario that unfolded in Libya. The United States has decided to act now, in a limited way, less to achieve something specific and identifiable, and more to avoid something unacceptable (in both cases, the outright victory of the existing regimes).

Both the long-term goals and specific content of US policy in Syria are therefore somewhat mysterious. According to the administration it continues to seek a negotiated agreement between the government and the opposition to end the conflict at the soonest possible date. Unfortunately, as things stand, this goal is unachievable given the lack of incentives on any side currently fighting on the ground in Syria to enter into a negotiated agreement. In particular, the regime believes that it has turned a corner and is winning the war. It is convinced that its strengths are multiplying while the opposition’s weaknesses are growing more pronounced.

The dramatic reversal of fortunes on the ground in Syria is inextricably linked to the fact that for the regime and its immediate supporters (Hezbollah and Iran in particular) the war is viewed as an existential, life or death struggle, whereas for the external opponents of the regime (the US, Europe, Turkey, the Gulf states, and most of the Arab world), it is not. This view may be shifting somewhat, particularly in Saudi Arabia, which appears to be ready to act with a new urgency; but not, apparently, in Washington.

Current thinking on Syria in Washington

In the past, I’ve argued for increased American involvement, and even advocated that the new policy be accompanied by a certain degree of “mission creep.” It’s incumbent on me, and other supporters of more robust engagement, to explain exactly what we want the United States to do, why and, in so far as possible, how. For that, it is essential to situate this perspective within the broader spectrum of American policy analysis on Syria. Because of its inherently opaque nature and apparently unachievable stated goals, current US policy is interpreted in very different ways by commentators with divergent analytical frameworks and points of view. There appear to be six basic positions. I will identify each with one of their more vocal proponents.

1) The United States is now doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons; it shouldn’t be involved in Syria at all, or as little as possible (Marc Lynch)

2) There are no good policy options in Syria and involvement is folly, but also unavoidable for both political and humanitarian reasons (Aaron David Miller).

3) The United States wants a rebel victory, but very slowly, so as to avoid state disintegration and preserve as much of the national institutions as can be salvaged (David Ignatius).

4) The United States actually does seek an agreement in the long run, but not the one that is usually imagined. The Obama administration mainly sees the Syrian war as a subset of the Iran question. The confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons and other ongoing disputes is the only conflict the administration is fully comfortable pursuing, and therefore it’s seeking to change the balance of power on the ground in Syria for yet-to-be-fully-clarified goals that will be more dependent on the way US-Iran policy proceeds than any Syria-specific aims (this author).

5) The United States is engaging in a crude, unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy that sees Syria as merely a proxy battlefield to weaken Iran, and drain Hezbollah or even create its own Vietnam (Daniel Drezner, although he states he does not approve of this policy, he believes it is obviously the actual one in place).

6) The Syrian civil war has become nothing more than a sectarian conflict between two enemies: the Shiite Jihadists of Hezbollah and the Sunni Jihadists of Al Qaeda. Therefore the United States should constantly fund the losing side, and keep the war going as long as possible (Daniel Pipes, who advocates arming the Assad regime).

What can be drawn from these analyses?

The immoral and unscrupulous last two options (the first of which is denounced even by its identifier, and the second promoted mainly, at least in public, by a noteworthy crank), are readily dismissible. Deliberately promoting the worst possible violence in Syria cannot possibly have a happy ending for the United States if we seek a stable, manageable regional order in the Middle East. The first key question in any policy conversation regarding Syria is this: how much does the United States really care about the strategic regional landscape in the Middle East in the coming decades? This is crucial because the outcome of the war in Syria will do more to affect that landscape than any other dynamic currently at play. For example, the loss of Syria as a key strategic ally for Iran and Hezbollah would almost certainly crush the prospects for the emergence of a long-term, stable Iranian-led alliance that challenges the regional status quo into the foreseeable future, and seeks to extend its influence into ever new areas. This is only the most dramatic of the profound strategic implications the outcome of the conflict in Syria will have for the Middle Eastern strategic order. It’s extremely difficult to overstate what is at stake. The question is how much do we really care?

The first option, do nothing, or as little as possible, has been tried for the past two years and everything the United States said it wish to avoid — an intensification of the conflict, a refugee and humanitarian crisis, increasing sectarian hatred, atrocities on both sides, a spread of the war into bordering countries, and the rise of extremist Al Qaeda style groups among the rebels — have all been not only not prevented by relative American inaction. They have been promoted by it. The pre-existing policy of telling everyone who was fighting on the ground to stop what they were doing was a non-policy of the first order. It simply wasn’t going to work.

Taking a hands-off approach for fear of making things worse simply allowed others to define the conflict, its nature, main participants and probable outcomes. Indeed, the neglect for both patriotic Syrian and less extreme Islamist groups is precisely what has allowed Al Qaeda-style rebels to become disproportionately prominent, even though their numbers are small. The key has been a constant stream of funding to such groups by wealthy extremists in the Gulf, funneled largely through Kuwait with its strong privacy laws and traditions, while more moderate groups have been relatively ignored. This has left the United States with very little influence over rebel groups in general, and almost no ability to influence the nature or the outcome of the conflict. And it has created an even more complex situation than existed a year and half ago or so, where the United States faces two grave enemies in Syria: the Damascus regime and the Salafist-Jihadist ultra-extremist rebels. Meanwhile, regime supporters, particularly Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, stop at nothing in all out support. They are playing to win.

The three potentially acceptable outcomes in Syria for the US

Assuming the answer to the question of how much we care about the future of the Middle Eastern strategic landscape is the traditional one — a very great deal indeed — there are three potential policy outcomes the United States could plausibly find acceptable in Syria.

1) The outright defeat of the regime and the victory of an acceptable coalition of rebel forces (understanding this would mean an intensification of the “war within the war” between acceptable and unacceptable insurgent groups).

2) A negotiated agreement between an acceptable coalition of rebel forces and remnants of the current power structure without the leading figures of the present regime (because no negotiation between Assad himself and the rebels is possible, either now or, almost certainly, at any future date).

3) A non-negotiated de facto end to the conflict involving the effective fragmentation of Syria into zones of autonomy loosely held together, at best, by a weak central government. Such state fragmentation could result in at least quasi-autonomous Alawite, Kurdish and possibly Druze areas — with greater or lesser degrees of practical independence and mini-statehood — and a currently unpredictable arrangement between Sunnis and Christians in the rest of the country or in different parts of it. This would be, in effect, a Lebanon scenario. There is precedent for the United States accepting such a de facto solution, even when it involves violence and “cleansing.” The West accepted the rapid and massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia in 1995 because it viewed the atrocity as a decisive and final resolution to the Serbian-Croatian conflict. In effect, such an outcome can often answer the age-old question, “tell me how this ends,” even if the answer is an ugly one.

This third option is the least palatable for several reasons. First, it means the, probably irreversible, fragmentation of the modern Syrian state. Second, it would almost certainly involve a great deal of violence, and even population “cleansing,” to achieve the kind of stalemate and equilibrium required for such a de facto arrangement, agreed to by no one but accepted grudgingly by all, to emerge. Third, it involves acquiescing to far more of a minimalist “victory” for the regime supporters, both internal and external, then ought to be otherwise tolerable. Fourth, the long-term stability of such a de facto end of conflict based on stalemate is highly questionable. The extent to which the Sunni majority and other Syrians, and most of the rest of the Arab world, might be inclined to accept this over the long run is uncertain to say the least.

However, such a scenario might be acceptable from an American point of view because it could end the carnage, stabilize the situation at least for the time being, and impose a degree of at least temporary order in which a more thought-out long-term policy for Syria can be developed. It also may be the only actually achievable way of ending the conflict in the medium run, because a clear victory for either side may prove unattainable for years to come. The pendulum has recently swung in the direction of the regime in large part thanks to external intervention, but with a new wave of external intervention on behalf of rebel forces, the war is likely to drag on for a considerable period. If a clear victory for either side is unattainable, and a negotiated agreement unachievable, a de facto order based on a stalemate on the ground that achieves the minimum existential interests of all the different Syrian and, to some extent, external players might emerge whether or not anyone wants it. Given the present administration attitude, such an outcome might be considered distasteful but (one hopes barely) acceptable to the United States.

All three outcomes require playing to win

However, the most important policy and strategic point is that the emergence of any of these three scenarios all require, at least at this stage, the same fundamental US policy shift: playing to win. As long as the Assad regime and its external supporters regard the situation as existential and winnable, they will not negotiate or be defeated. They must either be defeated, or become fully and decisively convinced that defeat is at least plausible if not imminent, for either a negotiated or a de facto settlement to emerge. Halfhearted efforts, partial support and limited means just to ensure that the regime does not triumph completely will not achieve such outcomes. To realize any of them, the United States must begin to adopt a similar policy towards certain of the rebels that the supporters of the regime do: real commitment to their victory. Otherwise, they will have little or no faith in the United States. We will have little or no influence over them. And the regime will never believe that it has to negotiate or accept a de facto outcome as described above, or anything else short of total victory or unending war (which are both unacceptable outcomes for the United States for obvious reasons).

Changing the equation on the ground requires the following policy initiatives:

1) Identify and empower the most acceptable rebel forces.

It is exceptionally unconvincing that this is impossible or perennially elusive. Clearly the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as led by General Salim Idriss, constitute precisely such plausible allies. The United States now faces two dangerous enemies in Syria: the regime and the Salafist-Jihadists led by Jabhat al-Nusra. This leaves the myriad collection of other Salafist groups operating under the general rubric of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) as an important hinge or wedge between the FSA and al-Nusra. The SIF, as it is presently constituted, is an unacceptable grouping in so far as it insists on an “Islamic” Syria under the rule of “sharia law” (whatever, in practice, anyone might think that means).

But there is every reason to think that many of the groups in the SIF, and certainly many of the fighters that have gravitated to those groups, are winnable to the Syrian nationalistic cause. Pluralism runs deep in Syrian national culture. Traditions of tolerance are far more ingrained in that country than in much of the rest of the Arab world. The fact that so many rebels have drifted towards a Salafist line or grouping can be attributed to a number of factors, including foreign funding, the relative disorganization of the nationalistic military and political opposition, and the fact that “Islam” serves as a non-Ba’athist organizing principle. Many of these groups, and especially their fighters, do not have a clear ideology, in contrast to al-Nusra. What they know for sure is they want to get rid of the dictatorship. And they know that Islam and local imams have a certain traditional authority and are capable of adjudicating matters of dispute in the absence of any other governing system. Hence the proliferation of sharia “courts” in areas where the government’s writ does not run, but are in the hands of SIF groups rather than al-Nusra.

Many of these groups and their fighters may stick with Salafism, but many may be interested in real alternatives if they are presented with them as practical, functional alternatives. And there is an insurmountable barrier between all of the SIF groups and al-Nusra. The Syrian Salafists are, at heart, nationalists, whereas al-Nusra adheres to the Al Qaeda ideology that denies the legitimacy and seek the abolition of all Arab and Muslim states and wishes to replace them with a transnational “caliphate” of some kind. In the final analysis, most of the organizations, and certainly most of the armed young men, fighting under the banner of the SIF forces have more in common, at least in terms of their paramount Syrian national identity, with the FSA then they do with al-Nusra, whose core ideology evinces no particular fealty to Syria at all. Therefore not only does the wholehearted and enthusiastic cultivation and the promotion of the FSA make eminent sense from an American point of view, there is also the real possibility of winning over significant chunks of what are presently “unacceptable” SIF forces to the FSA side, as and when it becomes more empowered, coherent, effective and coordinated.

2) Assist acceptable rebels with both light and heavy arms

One of the most important battlefield advantages of the regime forces is the ability to use its heavy weaponry against lightly armed insurgents and, frequently, civilian targets. Changing the balance of power on the ground requires supplying rebels not only with light arms but with serious and effective anti-tank and anti-aircraft capabilities. Yes, I’m referring here, among other things, to the dreaded man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), which are shoulder-launched surface-to-air antiaircraft missiles. Of course these could pose a real threat to civilian aviation if they fall into the wrong hands. But they are necessary if any of the three acceptable outcomes are to be achieved. There is ample evidence that such weapons have, in fact, already been delivered to certain rebel groups. It is strongly in the American interest that acceptable, vetted rebel forces have the ability to confront and neutralize the regime’s ample supplies of heavy weaponry.

3) Additional crucial assistance to rebel forces

Acceptable and vetted rebel groups also require significant support in terms of general funding, command and control capabilities, logistics, and intelligence. The project must be to turn Gen. Idriss and his colleagues into real battlefield and integrated military commanders rather than figureheads or political spokespeople for an umbrella of loosely-coordinated, disparate local armed entities. This will not only help turn the tide of the conflict away from the regime and its foreign supporters, it will be crucial in drawing SIF groups and/or fighters away from their current unacceptable and unworkable commitment to “an Islamic Syria under sharia law,” and towards a political position that is closer to that of the FSA, more workable, and more consistent with traditional Syrian culture and social structures.

4) Neutralize the Syrian Air Force, in whole or in part

As long as the regime retains significant and unchallenged airpower, it will be impossible for the rebels to secure a sustained victory not only throughout the country, but in any given area in which the regime decides to make a concerted push to crush opposition or at least render the entire area a demolished battleground. There has been increasing discussion of limited no-fly zones in the north or, especially, the south of the country (beginning with small, 25-mile radius areas), and heavy disputes about the viability and military and financial costs of such an operation. All military experts concur that Syria has significant air defense systems, which Libya did not. Therefore there would be a risk to any such operation, particularly if it were directly challenged militarily. How great a risk there is, however, is heavily disputed, including among experts.

There are reasons, though, to believe that Syrian airpower and air defenses are overrated. Some may be old and in disrepair. The quality and commitment of the personnel manning these defenses has not been tested. Though they had the advantage of the element of surprise, Israeli airstrikes on Syrian targets proved impervious to such defenses. And the performance of the Syrian Air Force, which has often ended up bombing its own resources as well as those of the opposition, not to mention civilians, has been less than stellar to say the least. Nonetheless, it is to be stipulated that the establishment of any no-fly zone, however small, in Syria, does carry risks that the aerial intervention in Libya did not.

The United States and its allies, however, have confronted more serious air defenses in the past and sustained acceptable losses to achieve a necessary result. Again, we return to the fundamental question: how much do we care about the strategic landscape of the Middle East in the coming decades? If we can live with a hyper-empowered Iran, possibly nuclear-armed, with a crescent of clients and proxies stretching from southern Lebanon into Afghanistan and beginning to expand its influence, potentially even in parts of the Gulf, then such risks may not be worth taking. If, however, this is an unacceptable scenario from an American point of view, an arm’s-length engagement — not terribly dissimilar in its substance from the one in Libya, although with greater risks — is probably advisable if not unavoidable. At any rate, as long as the regime and its allies command the airspace throughout Syria largely unchallenged, and can enforce their will in any given limited area if they choose to focus their resources on it, they will continue to feel that the war is winnable or at least that decisive loss is not foreseeable. Under such circumstances, the current power structure, or elements within it, will neither negotiate seriously nor accept a de facto end of conflict.

The logical conclusion, which may or may not be avoidable, is an all-out effort to ground and/or disable the Syrian Air Force throughout the country. Hopefully this will not be necessary, but it may prove essential. If the other measures to curtail the extreme advantage that command of the skies has presently given the regime and its allies fail, including antiaircraft weaponry for rebels and the establishment of limited, small no-fly zones, then to achieve any of the three acceptable American aims may well require an all-out campaign, although from the air only, to destroy much or most of the Syrian Air Force and air defenses. This would undoubtedly prove a turning point in the conflict, and should be seriously considered, particularly once an effective and acceptable rebel coalition begins to dominate the insurgency, and can ensure that the influence of Al Qaeda-inspired extremists is either limited or eliminated.

5) Address the issue of chemical weapons

One of the most legitimate reasons for trepidation regarding a more robust engagement in the Syrian conflict is the possession by the regime of one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the Middle East. There are several dangers associated with such weapons. First, that the regime might use them against rebels or civilians in a last-ditch act of desperation. This is the kind of dreadful scenario that makes the otherwise unpalatable third option of a de facto, non-negotiated state fragmentation potentially defensible. Second, that the weapons might be used against American allies or interests outside of Syria. This seems extremely unlikely, as Israel, in particular, has made it clear that it will act to prevent the transfer of any such weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Beyond this, there are few logical scenarios that explain how such weapons would be used outside of Syria and by whom. Third, except, of course, if such weapon should fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-inspired groups like al-Nusra, which seems a very remote possibility indeed.

In fact, there appears to be a heavy concentration of Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces around the chemical weapons stockpiles. There is reason to believe that Iran and Russia understand the particular significance of a major use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war and its ramifications. The regime itself has clearly dipped into its stockpile in very limited ways on numerous occasions, undoubtedly in order to test the international reaction. The international community has failed that test miserably by taking no action at all. But the particular Iranian interest in Syria’s chemical weapons suggests, yet again, that the most fundamental elements of the conflict in Syria from both an Iranian and American point of view have to do with their own bilateral relations.

It’s impossible for any analyst without access to highly classified intelligence, and with no experience in special forces or other similar military operations, to comment seriously on the plausibility of any limited military interventions designed to seize and secure these stockpiles. Even if they are possible, such actions would surely be even more risky than a confrontation with Syria’s Air Force and air defenses. Yet it is one of the contingencies that needs to be strongly considered, if it is plausible at all. But it is quite irrational to allow the presence of such weapons to inform an American policy which boils down to relative apathy about the outcome of the conflict in Syria. Even if Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are, as I suspect, the closest thing on the ground to a bilateral Iranian-American issue, that’s no reason to view the Syrian war and its outcome entirely through the lens of this relationship. The strategic implications are far broader, although of course the future role of Iran is Exhibit A in why Syria really does matter to the United States. But it’s only the tip of a very large iceberg of concerns.

The limits of “mission creep”

Having bitten the bullet recently and openly called for “some good, old-fashioned American ‘mission creep'” in Syria, because I find the current policy insufficient for the reasons explained above, it’s also incumbent on me to be clear about the limitations I would set for such a policy.

1) Nothing should be done that invokes the accurate “Pottery Barn” rule for interventions made famous by Secretary of State Colin Powell in the run-up to the Iraq war: “you break it, you own it.” Under no circumstances should the United States become directly responsible for Syria or its future. The model for a more robust engagement, or, if you prefer, intervention, in Syria should be the one pursued in Libya: arm’s-length, limited in scope and scale, and designed to prevent certain outcomes and promote but not absolutely ensure other ones. Outcomes cannot be ensured at arm’s length or from the air. Wars are never won except on the ground: they are inevitably decided by seizing and holding territory or, in the case of insurgencies or guerilla campaigns, by making the cost of continuing for the other side (assuming they have the option to quit) too costly. These limitations do not contradict my earlier prescription that the United States must be absolutely committed to the defeat of the regime in order to achieve any of the three potential goals outlined. Russia, after all, is not going to be invading Syria either. It simply means doing everything we can, at every level, to exert maximum pressure on the regime to either fall, capitulate or come to agreed or de facto terms. This can be done without an invasion that absolutely nobody at all advocates or requests.

But in truth even if the United States took the steps outlined above, it would not dictate the outcome of the conflict in Syria, only influence it. It would not be responsible for Syria or its future, just as we have not been responsible, practically or morally, for Libya and what has happened there, good and bad, since the fall of Moammar Qaddafi. Nobody wants American boots on the ground, except perhaps in very small numbers and under very limited and brief circumstances, and it’s vital that this doesn’t materialize. This will not and cannot be a rerun of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. There will be no American “Governor General” of Syria, in the manner of Paul Bremer’s disastrous role in Iraq. I have explained elsewhere exactly why, and how, Syria is not Iraq, this engagement will not be like the Iraq war, and the strategic and political circumstances are radically different.

2) As best as possible, we must make aid conditional on respect for the laws of war and fundamental humanitarian practices. The United States cannot be associated with, responsible for or directly attached to atrocities, ethnic cleansing, massacres or anything of the kind. Moreover, any groups receiving assistance from the United States or its allies must break with Al Qaeda-inspired extremists and, indeed, confront them. Aid will have to be given on a trial-and-error basis. There is no way around that highly uncomfortable reality. There never is. But clear red lines, as outlined above and more, can and should be made absolutely understood to any rebel or insurgent group receiving American aid or funding.

3) The whole point of a more robust engagement is to promote the best possible outcome. I listed the acceptable outcomes as three, in order of desirability. None can be achieved without an all-out push for a rebel victory. But a rebel victory will only be desirable if the rebels in question meet minimal standards of respect for human rights, pluralism, rule of law and other basic international standards. Otherwise, the second or even the third (highly unpalatable) outcome might actually be not only more achievable but also, sadly, preferable.

Finally, having called for more robust engagement and, indeed, for “mission creep,” and having stipulated that there is an element of risk and trial and error involved, if, in the long run, no acceptable allies can be found in Syria, then assisting unacceptable allies is a foolish policy. This is an extremely remote contingency, but should it prove the case, then a thorough reevaluation of the entire chain of logic laid out here will be urgently required and a very different set of policy considerations and actions necessitated.

Drowning in Sectarianism

Reports from the small village of Zawyat Abu Musalam in Egypt this Sunday were, in equal measure, horrifying and unsurprising. A mob attack by enraged Sunni extremists on the Shiite minority, left four dead and at least 30 badly injured. The lynching was prompted by months of relentless anti-Shiite incitement by Salafist preachers, with virtually no repudiation from the Muslim Brotherhood or President Mohammed Morsi.

From the early days of the Arab uprisings, I was concerned that sectarian tensions were now going to define both local and regional relations far more than any other factor. For well over a year, I had an ongoing dispute about this with George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch, who argued that sectarianism had been more palpable and damaging in the previous decade.

I’ve never had a long-standing disagreement with anyone in which I wished more fervently to have been wrong.

But I wasn’t.

Back in April, I noted the attack on the main Coptic Cathedral in Egypt, and warned, “If ancient, large Christian communities find the Arab world fundamentally inhospitable, Muslims will turn on each other just as readily.”

Throughout the Middle East they have, with increasing ferocity. Even in Egypt, the tiny Shiite minority has found itself assaulted and lynched after cynical hate-mongers targeted them in the media.

Throughout the Middle East, Sunni-Shiite tensions are boiling over, prompted (but certainly not created) by the war in Syria, the conflict in Bahrain, and Arab rivalry with Iran and so forth.

Indeed, the problem has become so acute that the Associated Press last week published a kind of “beginner’s guide” for Westerners to the explosion of Sunni-Shiite hatred throughout the region. It drew on the work of no less than 10 of its regional correspondents, and yet it barely scratched the surface. And, of course, beneath Sunni-Shiite tensions bubble dozens of other fault lines in the shuddering Middle Eastern landscape.

Obviously we’re not really seeing the revival of religious and political arguments more than 1,000 years old. If the hatreds were really this deep, endemic and theological, no amount of dictatorship could have suppressed them in the past.

No. This is power-politics pure and simple, in its most savage and bestial form.

The proof lies in Libya.

Libya, which has virtually no religious heterogeneity, is as unstable and wracked with violence, power struggles, and brutality as any Arab country (with the exception of Syria). So, this isn’t to do with sectarian differences, because in Libya that’s not a significant factor. Yet the post-dictatorship power struggle rages ferociously.

It’s about authority, and the battle for social and political dominance in the context and opportunity of a sudden and yawning vacuum.

The formula is simple enough. People are most powerfully motivated by fear and hatred, which relentlessly feed off of each other. So, political legitimacy and the development of a constituency for power is most quickly and easily acquired and consolidated by promoting fear and hatred of the other. And it doesn’t matter whom.

They are out to get us, so we had better get them first. Follow me, to victory,’ is probably the most ancient and crudest expression of political demagoguery. Under the right conditions, it’s virtually infallible. And it’s exactly what’s motivating so much of the sectarian and ethnic paranoia and chauvinism that is engulfing the region.

It’s easy to point to the Salafists, because they are often the most obnoxious and vicious in their rhetoric and well-funded by their official and private Gulf backers.

But there are no clean hands.

The Muslim Brothers agree with them on many matters of intolerance, especially against Shiites.

Some Iranian and other Shiite leaders in the region return the affection in full, with catalogues of anti-Sunni calumnies. Many backers of Bashar al-Assad, often themselves sectarians, paint all Syrian rebels as flesh-eating al-Qaeda Sunni monsters.

Disaffected Christian communities, particularly in exile, seethe with undisguised and irrational rage. Israel is seeing a rapid rise to prominence of racist, annexationist Jewish chauvinists, unabashed backers of a separate and distinctly unequal “Greater Israel,” and practitioners of “price tag” violence.

In the absence of local, national and regional order, hate-mongers deliberately set in motion the process of demonization in their own narrow, parochial interests.

And then, like monstrous fishes of the deepest sea where no plant life grows, people devour each other up ravenously in order, they believe, to survive.

In the long run, perhaps, the real division will prove to be between Islamists and other chauvinists versus pluralists with a more tolerant, inclusive vision. There is strong evidence of that pattern emerging as well. But sectarian tensions are so dominating the landscape that a Sunni-Shiite broader regional conflict, either directly and/or by proxy, now seems entirely plausible.

This is going to get a whole lot worse before it starts to get better.

Seth Duerr responds on Alan Cumming’s “Macbeth”

[NOTE: My dear friend Seth Duerr, the Founder/Artistic Director of The York Shakespeare Company in New York City, has responded to my musings on Alan Cumming’s “Macbeth” now playing on Broadway. As usual, there’s much we agree AND disagree about, but it is, as always, a rich, nuanced and thoughtful response from an accomplished young actor/director. I am deeply grateful for his input and his extremely intelligent comments]

Having enjoyed the opportunity to reply to your posts on Merchant and Coriolanus, I thought I’d share my thoughts on Macbeth:

This production angered me. Immensely. I long for the restoration of my money, my time and those parts of my mind’s eye scarred for life by this terrible excuse for storytelling.

We both agree with Bloom’s critique of “high concept” Shakespeare productions and you’re spot on when you say that “what they have produced entirely fails to illuminate anything new, interesting, latent or suggested in the text itself (which is the only possible justification for this kind of radical departure from normative casting and staging).” Of the entire canon, Macbeth is easily the play most subjected to incessant modernizations by theater companies around the world. It hardly requires adaptation to be made more interesting or accessible. It’s one of the most captivating and easily understood of Shakespeare’s plays, and surely nothing about the play or its characters was assisted by this staging. And ‘staging’ is a term to be used rather loosely.

You cite Messrs. Tiffany and Goldberg when discussing the production concept, but we should actually start with Mr. Cumming. It was his idea to play the Lord AND the Lady. Mr. Goldberg simply enhanced the idiocy by suggesting that Mr. Cumming play all the parts. I’m surprised that Mr. Tiffany (usually an arbiter of wisdom) failed to exercise some bloody restraint. Notwithstanding, just because you can create a brilliant stage version of the film Once, does not mean you have the ability to direct Shakespeare.

The direction (like Once) excels in the more intimate scenes. While I don’t support the view that it’s the happiest marriage in Shakespeare, it’s certainly the most examined one. No married couple are alone together more often than the Macbeths. While the title couple in Antony & Cleopatra are often the focus of their scenes, there’s always some servants with them which means we never really get to access them privately. There’s always an element of presentation for the other people in the scene. With the Macbeths, we get disturbingly enveloped by their private relationship and its subsequent erosion. Mr. Tiffany’s skills are well-suited to the microscopic work required of these moments and the most successful scene of this production is when Mr. Cumming stands downstage-left using nothing but a towel to switch back and forth between husband and wife. Unfortunately for Mr. Tiffany, Shakespeare’s play is painted on a far broader canvas and with a more profound palette than Once. Mr. Tiffany chose to drag the majority of scenes down to his level, instead of learning how to rise to their respective challenges.

The fault lies not only with the directors. Mr. Cumming has supposedly been an avid fan of the play since childhood and his professional stage debut was as Malcolm. Yet, he barely scratches the surface of any character in the play. It was the most superficial rendering of Shakespeare I’ve witnessed by a professional in a mighty long time. This is incredibly strange. Cumming is usually fantastic in Shakespeare. His Saturninus in Julie Taymor’s film of Titus is incredibly nuanced. While you’re right that he speaks the verse well, it hardly matters. He’s spent little or no time addressing why on earth he’s spouting it.

The partnership of these three stooges results only in a vague suggestion of a back-story. From what I can tell, Mr. Cumming’s character must be an actor, unless he’s some other type of weirdo who commits whole Shakespeare plays to memory. Based on his behavior, and various clues throughout the play, I’m going to assume that he murdered his spouse (the scratches on his chest had to have been made by an adult in self-defense) and drowned his child. Don’t ask me why. That’s unclear and I couldn’t care less about any of it. There is little, if any, logic on display. Nothing has really been thought through. Just a bunch of elements thrown in, piecemeal, for no other reason than the creative team felt like doing so and thought they’d appear artistic or interesting. Neither result occurred.

With three typically talented individuals, one would think they could come up with something better than a half-baked storyline as replacement for one of the most intriguing stories ever told. And it just encourages terrible behavior like this, throughout the profession. Now, a bunch of idiots who want to set Othello on Pluto or do a naked Merry Wives of Windsor or give the fairies machine guns in A Midsummer Night’s Dream will just feel like their instincts are acceptable. Granted, morons like this were going to screw with these texts to begin with, but they can use examples like this terrible production to feel like their efforts are legitimate.

Let’s discuss the disconnect between the production that I saw and the one for which everyone else gave multiple standing ovations. The audience’s reaction could be a love for Cumming or just support of what they consider to be a bravura feat. But here’s what I actually think it is: 1) people want to appear intelligent and are afraid to find any wrong in Shakespeare productions, publicly, as they’re afraid their neighbors will think they’re stupid; and 2) they paid hundreds of dollars for tickets and if they admit it was a bad purchase then they are fools and would rather pretend that they didn’t just flush money down the toilet. My ass remained seated and I felt made a fool by the creative team and the producers. You charge people hundreds of dollars for theater tickets and it leads to some very bad things: lack of diversity in the audience and a complete inability to respond honestly (to oneself and to others) to what you just laid out your money to watch.

Perhaps this is just a sense of taste. Several friends have agreed with some of my reactions, but said that they enjoyed it. Some couldn’t explain why. Some said they liked the mystery of trying to figure out why he did what he did, if he even did it. None of them could agree on exactly what the details were and I suspect these are type of folks who enjoy David Lynch’s oeuvre, which leads us to your thesis.

I despise the Lynch canon for the same reasons I loathed this production. The only exception is The Elephant Man, which is remarkably unlike the rest of his work in that it is moving, linear and makes any fucking sense. Oddly, the stage version of The Elephant Man is quite terrible and seems far more up Lynch’s alley than the script he actually chose to film. Just got lucky, I guess.

I wholeheartedly agree that if Cumming/Tiffany/Goldberg wanted to pursue the application of this back-story on a Shakespeare play, Richard 2 would be more appropriate. Though, I would not wish this triptych of bozos on any Shakespeare play, even the small handful of poorly written ones like Hamlet or The Tempest. (Can’t wait for the hate mail on this last statement…)

In closing, I’ve always been deeply alarmed at the state of classical theater in this country, but, this production was an import! As was the hideous Patrick Stewart Macbeth (though, at least it attempted to tell Shakespeare’s story). Has our almost complete inability to do Shakespeare in this country started infecting everyone abroad? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!?!

Since my comments have been a real downer, here’s today’s fun factoid: Richard 2 is not the only play entirely in verse. It has some friends! Edward 3, King John and Henry 6 Part 3. All very delightful people.

[NOTE from Ibish: The question of which Shakespeare plays are entirely in blank verse is controversial. My view that only Richard II qualifies is unusual to say the least, but it’s what I think. Seth adds Edward 3King John and Henry 6 Part 3. Okay. Some others add 1Henry VIAgain, okay. To me the only one that is unassailably all in the most careful and calibrated blank verse is Richard II and I know I’m being much more picky than most about that.

BTW, I do think that Shakespeare had a role in writing parts of Edward III, especially most if not all of the first part about his obsession with the Countess of Salisbury. But I don’t think he wrote it all, and probably even not most of it (though he took almost every element of Henry V from its second half, even including the line “the game’s on foot.”) But I also think someone else wrote much of that invasion of France section, maybe Kidd, which Shakespeare later reworked as Henry V (and so much better). My conversion on Edward III is a slightly strange and very recent one. I had long taken it is my working assumption that anything mainly written by Shakespeare was in the folio (commonly referred to as “Jaggard” after its original publisher) that Hemmings and Condell put together shortly after his death. My assumption was that if anything was left out it was because Shakespeare didn’t write enough of it to merit inclusion. Thus I reasoned that Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen were only added later because it was subsequently considered that he had written enough of them for inclusion. I assume the lost Cardenio was left out for the same reason: it was mostly by Fletcher or somebody else. And I’m NOT at all convinced that there really was a play we don’t know about called Love’s Labour’s Won, which it seems to me might easily be another name for one of the existing comedies. Or maybe that one really did get lost.

Most pieces of Shakespeare Apocrypha have left me extremely cold. Double Falsehood doesn’t do much for me, and I don’t think it’s the real Cardenio or anything of the kind. Donald Foster’s colossal folly about A Funeral Elegy, which was all the rage and in all the collected works when I was in graduate school, always struck me as a ridiculous poem by a poor writer and certainly nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare. I never bought it for a second. The only piece of Apocrypha that I took (and still take) seriously is the scene from Sir Thomas More in which the lead character denounces the “mountainish inhumanity” of the anti-immigrant mob, and urges them to take “the strangers’ case.” The whole scene is entirely Shakespearean in total and thematic terms, which means I also think we have a good sample of his handwriting. Why wasn’t it in the folio? Because he was only one of several authors of this play and contributed only a small part.

Because its It’s not in the folio, I never took Edward III too seriously until I read it quite carefully about two months ago. I was floored. Large parts of it, especially at the beginning, read exactly like early Shakespeare. But, one had to ask, why isn’t in the folio? The clincher for me was that there is an obvious answer for this. The beginning of the play is distinctly anti-Scottish in tone, mocking the Scots’ attitudes, manners, valor and accent. This would’ve been acceptable in Elizabeth’s England, even though her plenipotentiary in Scotland apparently complained that the play was causing unnecessary tension between the two countries. But it would NOT have been in the least acceptable when the folio was published under James I, a Scottish king of a united Britain. So without getting into all the reasons why I think Shakespeare had a major hand in Edward III, I can at least easily explain why, if he did, it was left out of the first folio: it would have been politically and socially suicidal to include it. No doubt at some point a longer explanation of why Edward III, along with that little piece of Sir Thomas More, are the only Shakespeare Apocrypha I take seriously will be forthcoming in a future Ibishblog post.]

UPDATE: Seth rightly reminds me that, in fact, no Shakespeare play is written entirely in blank verse, least of all Richard II, which is full of rhyming couplets and even more complicated rhyming schemes. He’s absolutely right, of course. Indeed, I had quite a bit to say about the way in which Shakespeare used the rhyming scheme in Richard II to illustrate dramatic and political points about Richard and Bolingbroke, and their contrasting styles and rise and fall of political power, in an Ibishblog post from April, 2010 called “Language, legitimacy and political theory in Shakespeare’s most dangerous play.” So this was a pretty silly mistake on my part, having written so much about the use of rhyme and rhyming couplets in Richard II only a couple of years ago. Nothing blank about that!

Seth agrees with me about Love’s Labour’s Won (we both suspect it is most probably extant, but known by another name, probably Much Ado) and about what Seth aptly calls Cardenio/DoubleFalsehood/whatever, and which he correctly characterizes as “just dreadful.” “Possible Shakespeare wrote a little bit of the soliloquies,” he adds, “but what a dreadful mess.” Precisely. But, I owe him, and all my readers, a fuller explanation about my (admittedly eccentric) view that King John and 3Henry6 probably shouldn’t be considered entirely verse plays. That’s got to be the subject of another Ibishblog post in the near future. I probably won’t convince anyone, but I’ll give it a good shot. As for Edward III, I agreed it is entirely in verse, I just question what percentage of it Shakespeare actually wrote (I’d guess less than half, probably, and mostly concentrated in the first part to do with the Countess of Salisbury).

David Lynch’s Macbeth?

One of the few things that’s been actually useful in the later part of Yale professor Harold Bloom’s career is his constant railing against “high concept” productions of Shakespeare plays. With evident wrath, he would fulminate, and indeed still does on occasion, about how many directors feel the need to create some sort of “original” or “contemporary” setting for Shakespeare dramas and how often this results in, quite literally, losing the plot. Of course if a creative setting can evoke or illuminate something otherwise latent or opaque within the text, it’s fully justifiable. Some productions achieve just that in various ways. But more often, as Bloom suggests, it’s at best a waste of time, often a distraction and sometimes even a virtual obliteration of the actual work itself.

The much acclaimed “production” of Macbeth starring Alan Cumming, originated by the National Theater of Scotland and currently running at the Barrymore Theatre in New York City, very much falls into the last category. Indeed, it’s not a production of Macbeth at all. None of the characters in Macbeth, for example, have any role in it whatsoever. Neither do any of the settings. Nor does any of the action in any recognizable sense. Only the dialogue remains, and even then in a very restructured and reorganized way.

Directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg have managed to pretty well extirpate everything that actually defines Shakespeare’s own Macbeth. Most of the themes of Shakespeare’s play are entirely missing: power, ambition, loyalty, satisfaction, free will, destiny, time, the meaning or meaninglessness of life itself, and the nature of love and hate are either thoroughly excised or deeply obscured. What survive are not so much themes but rather abstracted affects: madness, confusion regarding illusion versus reality, and paranoia. Apart from much of the dialogue of the play, what Tiffany and Goldberg have managed (or, perhaps, were compelled) to retain were certain atmospherics not only built into the language but which must be reflected in any serious production of what is, after all, the great granddaddy of all horror movies. So Macbeth has to be horrifying, claustrophobic, creepy, and exuding paranoia. Their set and staging actually does manage to convey some of those atmospherics, although it can also and times seem equally absurd and ridiculous.

They’ve set their Macbeth in what appears to be a psych ward, possibly for the criminally insane. In a large, spare set design, on the far left of the stage are a series of beds and other medical props. In the center is a wheelchair, some other chairs and tables, and towards the back, a bathtub. On the far right is a steep set of metal stairs leading to a sealed door. Cumming is joined by only two other actors, one of whom appears dressed as a middle-aged female doctor, the other a younger, burly male orderly. They, alone, can exit or enter through the door. Cumming is completely trapped on the stage. They can, and frequently do, also observe Cumming through a large window about 12 feet or so above the stage level, adding to the paranoid, Bentham/Foucault Panopticon atmosphere of constant surveillance. There are also, crucially, three large video monitors at the very top of the extremely high stage that periodically show images that are either live, or possibly in many cases prerecorded, as well as “snow” and video distortion.

The performance begins with the two other characters going through a kind of medical/legal intake of Cumming’s character. He is extremely disheveled and has three large bloody scratches on his chest. As they remove his clothes and take swabs from his mouth and fingernails, they place them in large brown paper bags marked “evidence.” As they leave him finally resting on his hospital bed, Cumming utters the first clear lines of dialogue, crying out after them: “When shall we three meet again?” The words may be instantly recognizable, but this doesn’t have much to do with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Shakespeare at all. For the rest of the performance Cumming moves around the stage in an increasingly agitated, disheveled, disrobed and bloodied state, performing almost all the lines in the stripped-down 100 minute script.

You couldn’t possibly call this “William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” But you could call it “David Lynch’s Macbeth.” For Tiffany and Goldberg have given us a version of the dialogue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth as some impenetrable, highly ambiguous and totally unreliable narrative of psychogenic fugue. The production owes much more to David Lynch’s brilliant film Lost Highway then to anything else. It’s clear at the outset that Cumming has either committed, or been the victim, of some brutal and horrible violence. But there’s nothing in the production that indicates whether he is the culprit or the victim. Since Cumming performs all the lines himself, adopting different tones and affects for different characters (usually astonishingly effectively, but not always), he isn’t playing Macbeth. He isn’t playing any other known character, either. His character, whoever he might be, is a novel creation who is simply reciting the lines, acting out the parts, and playing out some kind of macabre, solo Macbeth-based psychodrama in which he appears utterly trapped.

It seems likely that Tiffany and Goldberg are building primarily off of the dialogue Macbeth has with Lady Macbeth’s doctor:


How does your patient, doctor?


Not so sick, my lord,

As she is troubled with thick coming fancies,

That keep her from her rest.


Cure her of that.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?


Therein the patient

Must minister to himself.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Tiffany and Goldberg either had their primary inspiration for this production in that minor but highly suggestive passage in Macbeth, or at the very least found in it a justification for their own use of Shakespeare’s dialogue. However you slice it, Cumming’s character, whoever he might be, is indeed ministering to himself, although in an apparently self-destructive manner. It’s the most telling passage of dialogue in Shakespeare’s play that suggests the psych ward staging and production Tiffany and Goldberg have created.

Even closer to this dynamic, though, is the reaction of Shakespeare’s Richard II when imprisoned in Pomfret Castle:

I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world:

And for because the world is populous

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,

My soul the father; and these two beget

A generation of still-breeding thoughts,

And these same thoughts people this little world,

In humours like the people of this world,

For no thought is contented.

Richard, isolated in his cell, creates a whole world out of his own imagination. Each of these characters represents a different idea or affect and, as he goes on to explain, he uses them to act out the tragedy of his deposition by Bolingbroke. The original drama queen, Richard, in this sense, is probably a much more direct ancestor to Cumming’s character (who we cannot call Macbeth) than any other Shakespeare creation. Cumming’s character is more or less doing what Richard did, although perhaps on a grander scale.

But his most immediate forbear is probably not Richard II but Fred Madison, ostensibly the lead character in Lost Highway, and the other psychogenic fugue figures in later Lynch films. In these films, particularly Lost Highway, traumatized characters seek refuge in imagined realities, and shifting identities in desperate efforts to transcend their profound emotional disturbances. I use the word ostensibly in the case of “Fred Madison,” because in Lynch’s magnificent and masterful psychogenic fugue trilogy (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire), both the shifting implicit narrators and the narratives themselves, such as they are, are highly unreliable. Indeed, Inland Empire is so disjointed and convoluted that although there are different figures who have names (though sometimes more than one) and, at least to some extent, identities (frequently more than one) attached to them, they are not only unreliable, they are constantly shifting and are radically unstable.

That’s exactly what we get from Cumming in this production. He is, like Richard in prison, everyone and no one at the same time. He has no known identity. One could begin with the assumption that he is some version of Macbeth. However, there is no real basis for that except for the fact that it’s the biggest part he plays, because it is the largest role in the dialogue. The other great identifier is that the production concludes with a failed suicide attempt in which he tries to drown himself in the bathtub only to place a doll he has been using as a prop for Malcolm on the wheelchair he has been using as a prop for the throne and bows down in obeisance before the new king. So, insofar as Cumming’s character is particularly associated with the Macbeth role and dialogue in a way he isn’t with any of the others, there are only the merest hints, especially at the end. Some of the vocal tones and affects Cumming employs for other characters, particularly his effete and ridiculous (and ineffective) Duncan, also suggest a greater distance between Cumming’s character and the subjectivity reflected in Duncan’s lines than it does in some of the other characters. But that hardly establishes him as in any coherent sense a version of Macbeth.

The other unmistakable influence of Lynch in general and Lost Highway in particular is the use of the video monitors at the top of the set. Ever since Fire Walk with Me, Lynch has used video and TV screens in highly complex and suggestive ways. Distortions on monitors, video “snow,” “aliasing” and wavy horizontal lines, “ghosting,” and so forth are used indicate narrative instability, psychic disturbance and identity distortion. In Lost Highway, the most plausible reading of the film suggests that the video clips we see throughout are often, if not always, the least unreliable aspects of the narrative. And in the extraordinary scene featuring David Bowie in Gordon Cole’s office in Fire Walk with Me, again the reality captured by closed-circuit cameras proves more, or at least as, reliable as the ostensible diegetic narrative in the normative body of the film (as opposed to the video-within-the-film) and the apparent and stated perceptions of its characters.

Tiffany and Goldberg haven’t thought through the relationship between their monitors and their narrative with anything like the precision and brilliance of Lynch (perhaps an impossibly high standard). But they do strategically employ his techniques to suggest the disintegration, reintegration and multiplication of identities and the mirroring of mirrorings. And, like conjurers, they use the monitors to call our attention to or away from them and the stage, strategically, especially in order to change Cumming’s appearance, always for the worse and bloodier.

Without question, the monitors — along with the ominous musical score and soundscape that are quite powerful — are the “creepiest” aspects of this production. But the combination of incarceration, lost identity, psychogenic fugue and highly narrativized fantasies about life and death, love and power, from a bloodsoaked figure surrounded by guards and finding his deepest moments intimately bound up with video representations means Cumming’s character doesn’t call to mind Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But he does instantly invoke David Lynch’s Fred Madison.

What gets lost in all of this “high concept” are not only the themes of the Shakespeare play, but also its fundamental drama. It’s essential that most of the audience is familiar, as they no doubt are, with the basic plot of Macbeth. Because anyone who wasn’t would find it exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to follow the basic story of Shakespeare’s play in this production, especially given the fact that his primary themes are either dispensed with or totally obscured by other themes. The primary affects are there, to be sure, but Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tale that needs to be told, even if it is by an idiot and full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

Cumming’s character struggles mightily, and indeed has to strike his body several times, before he can bring himself to utter the phrase “signifying nothing.” That could be effectively incorporated into any production of Macbeth, of course, because it is not only Macbeth grieving for his wife (the closest thing, it has been often observed, to a happily married couple in the entire Shakespeare canon) but also because it stares into the abyss of the absurdity and fundamental meaninglessness of life, or at least of the narratives we necessarily create in order to survive. In this case, it’s particularly poignant because Cumming’s character, it seems to suggest, is precisely that idiot and that his entire wrenching drama, being but the fantasy of a madman or something of the kind, “signifies nothing” even more than normative self-serving human narratives because it is, or may well be, entirely delusional. And, it seems, he knows it.

I don’t think it’s unfair to Tiffany and Goldberg to suggest that they’ve done considerable, and indeed intolerable, violence to Shakespeare’s play. They’ve rendered it incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with it. And thereby they have decided not to tell the tale at all in any meaningful sense. And even for those who are familiar, and indeed intimately, with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, what they have produced entirely fails to illuminate anything new, interesting, latent or suggested in the text itself (which is the only possible justification for this kind of radical departure from normative casting and staging).

Other than Lynch, there are at least two additional and obvious contemporary influences on this production. When Cumming is in an animated dialogue with himself, particularly arguments between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, there was, perhaps inevitably, an unmistakable element of the Pythonesque. It’s difficult to miss the quintessentially British absurdist comic aspect of watching someone staging a peevish argument between a husband and wife, on his own and when he is neither of them. Cumming’s Lady Macbeth sometimes sounds disturbingly like Eric Idle at his campiest pantomime dame extreme. In fairness, at other times he’s so effective it seems he might be the among the most effective ever male reciters of Lady Macbeth’s lines, though that’s a shortish queue, And, of course, the staging draws heavily on psych ward movies like The Bell Jar, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shock Corridor and even, to some extent, the simple but underrated Session 9. Again, unfortunately, no aspect of this helps one understand Shakespeare’s Macbeth in any new or interesting way, or even succeeds in telling its story coherently.

And yet all is not lost, by a long shot. Cumming’s performance is uneven but often spectacularly good. If one ignores, as one should, very early on, the overwrought and under-conceptualized production and staging, and simply listens to the actor reciting the dialogue, it is frequently a truly marvelous experience. Cumming is like a virtuoso musician, with a considerable mastery of his instrument, for the most part delivering a bravura performance of a score by a great composer. The best of Shakespeare’s plays, certainly including Macbeth, have in them a deep and profound music that only the finest actors can truly unravel through precise performances. Cumming’s mastery of blank verse is genuinely outstanding, and the positive aspects of the evening were much closer to a concert than a play. Carefully tracking Cumming manipulating and deftly maneuvering around the scansion, meter and rhythms of Shakespeare’s unparalleled blank verse is one of the more pleasurable artistic experiences I’ve had sometime. His performance wasn’t flawless, but much of it was lyrically wonderful. I often found myself focusing entirely on the interplay between the metrical features of the dialogue, the beauty and power of its poetry, and the deep psychological complexities they evoke.

In literary critical circles, it’s a commonplace to conceptualize or treat Shakespeare’s plays as if they were long, epic poems (even though only Richard II is written entirely in blank verse with no prose passages). In many theatrical circles, this is the ultimate heresy, since they tend to hold that the real purpose of these plays is live performance, and everything else is secondary at best. Whether they intended to or not, Tiffany and Goldberg have succumbed entirely to the critical tendency to treat a Shakespeare play, in this case Macbeth, as if it were simply one lengthy and epic poem written in multiple voices, but without the kind of third person narrator of normative epic poems and sagas from the era of oral tradition. To a very large extent in this production Cumming far more resembles a bard of oral traditions than a contemporary actor, insofar as he is attempting to act out and communicate a long and complex story with multiple characters in front of a live audience and virtually alone. Tiffany and Goldberg might have just let him walk around an empty stage and play the music of Shakespeare with his entire body as he does so brilliantly.

But there is a need, I suppose, in any production of Macbeth, and in whatever medium, to at least try to provide an atmosphere of sufficient anxiety, dread, claustrophobia and paranoia to support the obsessive, profoundly neurotic horror of the narrative itself. On film there is no question that Akira Kurosawa got closest the mark in Throne of Blood, a truly breathtaking cinematic adaptation of Macbeth. But, being in Japanese, the film can’t access or reflect the music of Shakespeare’s poetry. Tiffany and Goldberg set Cumming loose on Shakespeare’s astounding dialogue as a kind of psychotic word salad completely disembodied from all of its narrative and dramatic context, which are ruthlessly and cavalierly expunged.

From a purely poetic, and indeed musical, perspective it works beautifully, if not flawlessly, because for the most part it’s beautifully recited and the “pure” language is freed from the story that might otherwise be seen as fettering it. There is a case to be made for such an approach, but inevitably it loses infinitely more then it gains. The dramatic context provides so much of the power of Shakespeare’s language. Although his dialogue rarely fails to be gorgeous and overwhelmingly powerful, disconnected from character, setting and narrative dynamic, its isolation may make it the sole object of attention or real interest, but also renders it infinitely less powerful and therefore, ultimately, less beautiful.

Tiffany and Goldberg might have been better off staking their claim simply on demanding the audience pay attention only to the words of the epic poem in glorious isolation, stripped of all aspects their dramatic context. “Listen to the beauty of the words,” they might have been saying, “for once, forget about the story” (among other things, because you already know it), and “listen to the music.” It would’ve been a very strange decision, but a better one. And, of course, it would hardly have needed very much from the directors, placing almost all the burden entirely on the (in that case) sole actor. But apparently feeling the need to supply an appropriately “creepy” atmosphere, and in a fit of “high concept” hubris of the worst variety, Tiffany and Goldberg have ended up staging what amounts to David Lynch’s Macbeth, not Shakespeare’s.

Syria is not Iraq

Syria is not Iraq
By moving to arm Syrian rebels, the US isn’t risking another Middle East quagmire


With the United States announcing it will finally begin to provide direct support to some Syrians, many Americans across the political spectrum are deeply worried about the prospect of another Middle Eastern quagmire. It’s hard to overstate how traumatized the American public was by the catastrophic miscalculation in Iraq.


But Syria is not Iraq. The American involvement will not only not be a repetition of the Iraq fiasco, it will be a completely different kind of engagement and in a totally different context. Here’s why.


1) The situation on the ground is completely different. There is an ongoing, major civil war between the government and opposition, and also battles between rival opposition groups (generally pitting patriotic resistance forces against Salafist-Jihadist extremists). There was no ongoing war in Iraq before the American invasion. This is not a situation we have created. It is one we can either deal with or ignore at our peril.


2) The regional atmosphere is completely different. There was a virtual unanimity in the Arab world in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Now, to the contrary, virtually the entire Sunni Arab world, along with Turkey and others, are desperately looking for American leadership on the Syria question. Outrage at any proactive American backing of Syrian rebels will be restricted almost entirely to Shiite and other sectarian minority groups. The overwhelming regional majority will either welcome or tolerate it.


3) The international strategic context is completely different. The United States had virtually no support for the invasion of Iraq, which was inexplicable, indefensible, and eminently avoidable. Not only will a significant intervention in Syria be largely welcomed by many of those that opposed the invasion of Iraq, it has a clear strategic imperative, goals and context. The survival of the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship is crucial to the future of Iran’s hope for regional hegemony, and essential for the survival of Hezbollah as a highly effective subnational fighting force.


Should the Damascus regime survive in the long run, Iran’s regional sphere of influence also will survive. And the next stage would then be to attempt to expand it, probably in the direction of the Persian Gulf. This is also a proxy confrontation with a newly-assertive Russian international posture which, again, the United States can ill-afford to lose. So while the aims of the Iraq war were always mysterious, the policy imperative in insuring that, at a minimum, the Assad regime does not reestablish its authority throughout the country are very clear.


4) The nature of the intervention will be completely different. What is being considered now, as implied by Obama administration officials, will be insufficient but the likelihood and desirability of “mission creep” is clear. Once the United States gets involved directly in the Syrian conflict, it will have a much stronger stake in its outcome and a greater ability to shape the nature of the groups defining the opposition. The Iraq war was about unilaterally engineered American regime change. The intervention in Syria will be about helping Syrians themselves ensure regime change on their own or come to the point where they can actually negotiate a new post-dictatorship modus vivendi.


Rather than a long-term occupation, as in Iraq, this will involve major aid to specific rebel groups, including arms and other materiel, intelligence, command-and-control assistance, no-fly zones, and possibly a real confrontation with the Syrian Air Force and air defenses. But what it will not mean is American “boots on the ground.” As in Libya, the ‘Pottery Barn’ rules (“you break it, you own it”) will and should not apply in Syria. We can help Syrians get out of the mess they are in, but we cannot and should not dictate their future.


5) There will, therefore, be no quagmire, no massive Arab world backlash and no new battleground for al-Qaeda to fight Americans (though our own inactivity has already allowed them to use Syria as a new battleground anyway, so our intervention on behalf of other groups is likely to only undermine, rather than promote, that threat).


6) There are risks, but nothing like the obvious disaster, indeed trap, that awaited us in Iraq. The Syrian Air Force and air defenses, though probably overrated, are not as impotent as Libya’s, and there’s a real possibility of losing some aircraft and personnel. The Syrian regime, Hezbollah, Iran, and others might try to retaliate. Tensions will flare with Russia. But the idea that a limited, arm’s-length, Libya-style intervention in the Syrian calamity will be the Iraq fiasco revisited fails to take into consideration the obvious distinctions between the two circumstances.


Sometimes avoiding what’s necessary, or insufficient, risk-averse measures, can be almost as damaging as foolish, overweening hubris. American inaction on Syria became totally untenable. The new policy, for all its flaws, is no “Iraq War, Part II.”

Of Course It’s Not ‘Too Late’ in Syria

Of Course It’s Not ‘Too Late’ in Syria

Whenever someone says it’s “too late” to deal with a policy crisis, it’s a sure indication that they are fundamentally comfortable with the status quo. Now that the United States has finally announced that it is going to get involved in directly aiding rebel groups in Syria, the siren song of “too late” is being heard loudly and clearly. “Too little”—or even “don’t do anything at all”—might be a fair criticism, but “it’s too late” is almost never true of any ongoing policy challenge.

Many Americans have opposed direct involvement in Syria from the outset. A new strand of neo-isolationism, uniting factions on the left and the right, has become very fashionable in Washington, post-Afghanistan, Iraq and the fiscal crisis. There are others who genuinely can’t see any major interests at stake or reasonable outcomes available. And there are some who are essentially comfortable with the Damascus regime anyway.

On cue, many of these voices—none of which ever wanted any direct American engagement in Syria at all—are repeating their conviction that this is a bad idea and, above all, that it is “too late.”

Of course there’s some truth to these complaints. Relative American inaction has helped to promote all the things the United States said it wanted to avoid in Syria from the outset. And, had it acted sooner, it probably could have helped avoid the situation deteriorating as badly as it has, and in such an uncontrolled manner.

It’s been almost two years since many of us began pointing out that there is an armed conflict in Syria, that its outcome is very important to American foreign policy, and that in order to influence its nature and outcome some kind of direct engagement is required. So it’s certainly “too late” to prevent a parade of horribles from having emerged: the country is in flames,100,000 people dead, millions displaced, and sectarian barbarism raging on both sides of the battlefield. But it’s not too late to reverse the trends or start to have a positive impact.

The “too late” argument rests on a series of bizarre counterfactuals. True, Syria might not have fallen into the grip of a gangster regime run by a criminal family and associated mafia. True, there might not have been an uprising. True, the government might not have crushed the peaceful uprising with overwhelming violence. True, the opposition might have been more united politically and militarily, internally and externally, more effective and more wise. And, true, had patriotic rebel groups been provided with sufficient material and political support, the extreme Salafist-Jihadists funded by wealthy fanatics in the Gulf would not have become as powerful and dangerous as they are. But all of this, and so much more, did indeed happen.

Let us concede, therefore, that if things were not the way they are, they would be different. But history moves on regardless. The war is not decided and the outcome totally unresolved. There has already been a massive external intervention on behalf of the regime involving thousands of elite fighters from Hezbollah and, increasingly, Iran, and intense military, diplomatic and political support from Russia. The only thing we can really conclude from the way the Syrian war has developed so far is that the external supporters of the Damascus regime care more about the outcome of the conflict than its external opponents and the supporters of the rebels.

Unfortunately, it seems that’s still the case, at least as far as the United States is concerned. Even though the U.S. is crossing a Rubicon by agreeing to become directly involved in the Syrian conflict, administration officials are not coy that the intention is not to promote a rebel victory. It is rather intended to change the strategic equation on the ground, which has recently shifted in favor of the government, especially following a series of Hezbollah-supported victories. According to the Washington Post, “An outright rebel win is seen [by Washington] as both unlikely and less desirable than a negotiated settlement that leaves Syrian institutions intact.”

We can be sure that Hezbollah and Iran, for whom this is an existential battle, and indeed Russia, which has decided to stake its international reputation on the preservation of the Damascus dictatorship, take the opposite perspective. They are throwing everything they possibly can into this battle and fully intend their side to win. For all their talk about the importance of negotiations, the Syrian dictatorship and its supporters are clearly fully committed to a decisive military victory, and changing that is going to require a full-fledged effort.

So, even if it is a halfhearted and belated effort to change the strategic equation on the ground, and even though the original intention may be something as presently fanciful as “setting the stage for successful negotiations,” it is by no means “too late.” But it may be “too little.” The stated aim of creating conditions for a deal is de minimis. It will be difficult to prove effective because the other side is all in for the big victory. As long as they think they can win, or even hope they can, they’ll never be interested in a serious conversation about any real conflict-ending agreement. And the United States needs to begin to take seriously the prospect that a negotiated agreement may actually never prove to be the way this war ends.

So, for once, “mission creep” provides the hope of a successful outcome rather than a terrifying threat to a major foreign policy initiative. Typically, American hubris has meant overreaching, and “mission creep” has historically been synonymous with disaster. In this case, a new and uncharacteristic American risk-aversion has been crippling. And, with the utmost historical irony, only some good old-fashioned American “mission creep” holds out much hope for ultimate success for the evolving Syria policy.

Libya’s Revolution, Part II?

Any political narrative centering on the phrase “the people” is automatically suspect because there’s no such thing as a homogenous society. Particularly during times of turmoil, societies tend to be deeply divided. Last weekend’s events in Benghazi tempts one, however, to throw caution to the wind and acknowledge that something like “the Libyan people” once again rose up and demanded their liberty. It was a confrontation not with a dictator, but abusive, thuggish militias.

The Libyan people in general already rose up against the dictator Moammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi obviously had some support, particularly from within his own Qaddafa tribe, but the overwhelming bulk of Libyan society turned against him. The National Transitional Council, which led the political side of the revolution, took an eminently pragmatic approach to building a military coalition: anyone willing to take up arms against Qaddafi was welcome to join the revolution.

What this meant, however, in the aftermath was that post-dictatorship Libya was left with a very weak and barely functional central government that inherited virtually no effective institutions. It had, and still has, no real national army to speak of and few ministries that function in a genuinely effective manner.

Instead, practical power in the country has been wielded by armed gangs representing different regions, cities, tribes, clans, and ideological orientations. The men with guns have power, and they don’t want to give it up in the national interest. They want to use it.

They proved this recently by besieging government buildings in Tripoli and forcing through an abominable “political isolation law” – literally at gunpoint.

But time and again ordinary Libyan people have taken to the streets to confront the militias, demand proper governance, and insist on the need for law and order. They did this after the isolation law was passed, chasing militias away from government buildings at considerable personal risk.

Over the last weekend, the people in Benghazi staged a virtual uprising against a kind of umbrella “militia of militias,” the so-called “Libya Shield.” This nefarious organization has run parallel the fledgling national military and in de facto opposition to efforts to form legitimate security forces.

Cowed by the strength of the militias in general and the Shield in particular, much of the national government treated this pack of thugs as if they were a quasi-official security force. Lacking both courage and options, post-dictatorship governments have used the Shield to put down various rebellions and uprisings, giving it unwarranted and indefensible prestige, leverage, and authority.

But with the crude display of brute force in ramming through the “isolation law” – and obviously attempting to bring down the non-Islamist Prime Minister by creating a breakdown in order – the militias went too far. It became clear the public in general turned against them after the siege of government buildings, taking to the streets and chasing them away. Meanwhile, the leader of the Shield, Wissam bin Hamid, was appointed leader of a militia council with an ill-defined government “advisory” role.

Politicians, including the prime minister reacted in a craven, cowardly manner. The public has not.

This weekend’s incident began with a dispute over the property rights to what the Shield regards as its Benghazi “headquarters,” and it quickly boiled over into violent confrontations between the gangsters and swelling masses of enraged protesters. At least 31 people were killed, only two of them militia members. In short, it was a massacre.

In Libya, or at least in its major cities, the tide is slowly turning against the gangs.

Reports from Benghazi suggest the Shield has virtually vanished from sight, its compound abandoned and its leader to be found only on the radio blustering ludicrous accusations about the protesters being traitors, separatists, and Qaddafi loyalists. The depth of harm done to the militias political standing was demonstrated when their closest ally, military Chief of Staff Yousef al-Mangoush, was forced to resign in disgrace.

The historic and heroic Benghazi uprising is unlikely to spell the immediate end of the militia crisis in Libya, or even perhaps the Shield itself. But it does mean that armed thugs will no longer be able claim to be the vanguard of the revolution. The honeymoon is over. Now naked, raw gangster violence will be seen for what it is with no window dressing.

None of this means Libya is on the brink of political unity, law, order, or a coherent military or security apparatus with a monopoly on the use of force. That’s obviously going to take time and compromise – and, unfortunately, some additional confrontations. In the countryside (particularly in the south) it could take many decades.

But there’s every chance the Benghazi popular uprising against the “Libya Shield” will be remembered as the beginning of the end of militia rule in Libya’s major cities. And, once again, “the people” must get the credit.


هل نحن أمام “لبننة” سوريا أم “سورنة” لبنان؟

عندما اتّخذ “حزب الله” قراره المصيري بالتدخّل عسكرياً في الحرب الأهلية السورية، كانت مسألة وقت فقط قبل أن تطارده الحرب إلى الداخل وتشعل ناراً في لبنان. فخلال هذا الشهر [شهر آب الماضي] انفجرت ثلاث سيارات مفخّخة في لبنان، ما أدّى إلى مقتل العشرات وإصابة المئات بجروح.

ما إن اندلع النزاع السوري حتى انتشر بسرعة إلى الأجزاء الشمالية من لبنان، وتحديداً طرابلس، التي باتت تضمّ بصورة مستجدّة سنّة لبنانيين سلفيين ومحافظين، إلى جانب العلويين. وقد انجرفت هذه القوى، التي يخوض رفاقها وأبناء طائفتها القتال على جبهتَين متواجهتين في الجهة الأخرى من الحدود، إلى التقاتل في ما بينها في شمال لبنان.
لكن القوى السياسية الأساسية في البلاد قرّرت أن تحاول حصر التأثير الممتدّ للحرب السورية في تلك المنطقة الشمالية. تتّصف السياسة اللبنانية منذ أكثر من عقد بتوازنٍ بين عناصر غير مستقرّة. لا يريد أحد شنّ حرب شاملة في لبنان، لأنه ما من فريق يمكنه أن يكون على ثقة بالفوز، والجميع معرّضون بشدّة للخسارة أكثر منهم للانتصار.
فضلاً عن ذلك، نستنتج من التاريخ اللبناني الحديث أمراً واضحاً لا مفرّ منه: أيّ مجموعة – داخلية أم خارجية – تحاول فرض سيطرة مهيمِنة على البلاد بكاملها تواجه بسرعة معارَضة موحَّدة من جميع القوى الأخرى تقريباً، وتُضطرّ في نهاية المطاف إلى الانكفاء في قواعدها.
لكن “حزب الله”، وعلى الرغم من أنه يعرف جيداً مخاطر تدخّله في سوريا، يعتبر أن بقاء نظام بشار الأسد هو ببساطة ضرورة وجودية. تجسّد سوريا شريان الحياة المباشر بين “حزب الله” وطهران. فلولا ذلك الرابط المجاور، ولولا الدعم من التأثير الخارجي الأقوى في لبنان – أي سوريا – لكان وجود شبه الدويلة التي يقيمها “حزب الله” في شكلها الحالي، مع سياستها الخارجية والعسكرية المستقلة، في خطر شديد.
لن يزول “حزب الله”. فعلى غرار كل الأحزاب السياسية اللبنانية، يتّسم بالازدواجية كما الإله جانوس المعروف بأنه ذو وجهَين. فمن جهة، تمثّل هذه الأحزاب ناخبيها. وفي حالة “حزب الله”، تتألّف قاعدته الناخبة من الطائفة الأكبر في لبنان، أي الشيعة حيث الحزب هو القائد الأول بلا منازع (لا وجود لطائفة أكثرية في لبنان). لكن من جهة أخرى، وأسوةً بجميع الأحزاب اللبنانية، يمثّل “حزب الله” أيضاً قوّة خارجية راعية له، ألا وهي إيران.
انطلاقاً من هذا الولاء للجهة الراعية، “حزب الله” في هو شكل أساسي صنيعة الحرس الثوري الإيراني. وفي حين أمكن التكهّن خلال العقد المنصرم حول ما إذا كان الحزب قد طوّر شخصية سياسية مستقلّة، جاءت الحرب في سوريا لتضع حداً لهذه التساؤلات. فـ”حزب الله” يظلّ مرتبطاً بقوّة برعاته الإيرانيين، والطرفان ملتزمان، وجودياً، ببقاء ديكتاتورية الأسد مهما كان الثمن.
إذاً اتّخذ “حزب الله” خطوة متطرّفة ومتهوّرة وغير مسؤولة على الإطلاق – إنما أيضاً لا غنى عنها على الأرجح من وجهة نظره – عبر إرسال عدد كبير من وحدات النخبة التابعة له للقتال إلى جانب القوات السورية دفاعاً عن بعض المناطق الأكثر أهمّية على المستوى الاستراتيجي.
لقد وصلت تداعيات الحرب السورية، بصورة محتومة، إلى لبنان. فقد أحدثت شللاً في السياسة اللبنانية خلال الأشهر الخمسة الماضية منذ استقالة رئيس الوزراء نجيب ميقاتي، وكان السبب الظاهري الخلاف حول تنظيم انتخابات جديدة. لكن الواقع هو أن الانقسام داخل الحكومة يعكس الخلافات السياسية حول الحرب في سوريا، وتدخّل “حزب الله” هناك، والتنافس بين انصار السعودية وانصار إيران في السياسة اللبنانية. لكن مع ذلك، جرى حصر الارتدادات العنيفة في منطقة الشمال في شكل أساسي، نظراً إلى أن إحدى المسائل القليلة جداً التي يُجمع عليها معظم اللبنانيين هي أنه ليس من مصلحتهم اندلاع حرب أهلية جديدة.
مما لا شك فيه أن تنظيم “القاعدة” وسواه من التنظيمات السلفية الجهادية التي تتواجد في الشمال بأعداد صغيرة، لا تحظى بالشعبية في أوساط السنّة اللبنانيين. في الواقع، اسم “القاعدة” في ذاته ملعون جداً في المشرق إلى درجة أن التنظيم اضطُرّ إلى أن يُعيد تقديم نفسه باسم مختلف: “جبهة النصرة” في سوريا وسواها من الأسماء الأخرى التي تندرج في إطار الحيَل التسويقية في لبنان وفي صفوف الفلسطينيين.
تنهار الجهود الهادفة إلى حصر تداعيات الحرب الأهلية السورية في شمال لبنان، بطريقة دموية ودراماتيكية. فتدخُّل “حزب الله” في سوريا سيظلّ يطارده حتى العمق اللبناني، وبصورة متزايدة وأكثر حدّة من دون أدنى شك. لقد راهن الحزب بكل شيء، ويعرف ذلك. ومجدداً تصرّف بتهوّر على حساب ما تبقّى من لبنان، وبطلب من الإيرانيين. حقّق الاحتواء نجاحاً نسبياً حتى تاريخه، فلبنان لا يشبه بشيء الظروف التي تواجهها سوريا. لكن حتّام؟
الضرر كبير حتى الآن. أولاً، الالتزام الذي قطعه الأفرقاء اللبنانيون بعد عام 1989 بعدم استخدام لبنان ساحة لخوض حروب بالوكالة عن الآخرين، كما حصل في الماضي، في صدد الانهيار. ثانياً، بما أن “حزب الله” التزم بقوّة المساهمة في النزاع في سوريا – وبما أن سوريا هي القوّة الخارجية الأهم في لبنان – سيكون لنتائج الحرب السورية تأثير عميق على المعادلة السياسية اللبنانية. يبذل معظم الأفرقاء اللبنانيين محاولات صادقة لتجنّب وباء المذهبية، لكن في ظل الظروف الراهنة، يبدون عاجزين عن وقف انتشاره القوي.
مما لا شك فيه أن الدولة اللبنانية تتصدّع أكثر من أي وقت مضى، على صعيدَي مؤسّساتها وهيكلياتها السياسية، كما على مستوى التوازن الهش بين أفرقائها السياسيين. تدخُّل “حزب الله” في سوريا هو المحفّز الأساسي، لكنه ليس السبب الوحيد. ففيما تفشل الجهود الهادفة إلى ضبط العنف المتمدّد من الحرب السورية وحصره في الشمال اللبناني، تزداد أيضاً احتمالات توسُّع العنف المذهبي في مختلف أنحاء البلاد، وكذلك الاحتمال القاتم إنما المعقول باندلاع جولة جديدة من النزاع الأهلي.
المفارقة هي أن سوريا تتصدّع بطريقة تثير ذكريات مخيفة عن الحرب الأهلية المذهبية اللبنانية من 1975 إلى 1989. فمنذ انتهاء الحرب، ينعم لبنان إلى حد كبير بالسلام، لكنه مفكّك: إنه عبارة عن مجموعة من الجيوب المذهبية والإثنية (مع درجات أعلى أو أقل من الحكم الذاتي) التي تربطها معاً، بصورة فضفاضة، حكومةٌ ضعيفة جداً في بيروت وتعاني من اختلال وظيفي متزايد، حتى إنها باتت أعجز من التظاهر، في جوانب جوهرية كثيرة، بتأدية وظائفها الأساسية التي يُفترَض بالدولة النهوض بها.
ليس لبنان دولة فاشلة، لكنه جمهورية متصدِّعة ومفكّكة تعاني من اختلال وظيفي. منذ عام 1989، وفّرت التسوية درجة مقبولة من الاستقرار، لكنها تستند إلى توازن من العناصر غير المستقرّة. لطالما كانت قابلية هذه التسوية للاستمرار موضع شكوك في أفضل الأحوال، كما أنها تمرّ حالياً في امتحانها الأقوى منذ وضع اتفاق الطائف حداً للحرب الأهلية عام 1989.
يستحيل توقّع النتيجة في المدى الطويل في سوريا: ثمة عدد كبير من المتغيّرات والعوامل التي لا يمكن قياسها بدقّة. لكن الدولة الوطنية المتكاملة والحديثة والمركزية المحكومة من دمشق التي قامت عليها سوريا منذ استقلالها في أربعينات القرن الماضي، لا تملك حظوظاً فعلية بالخروج سليمة معافاة من الحرب الحالية.
قد تعتبر نظرةٌ يمكن وصفها بغير المتشاءمة أن السيناريو الأفضل (أو الأقل سوءاً) بالنسبة إلى سوريا في المدى المتوسط هو النموذج اللبناني: بلد يشكّل نظرياً كلاً متكاملاً، لكنه في الواقع منقسم بشدّة، ويحكمه على المستوى المحلي سماسرة سلطة ذوو انتماءات مذهبية وإثنية، مع درجات أكبر أو أقل من الاستقلال الذاتي في التحرّك، وتربطهم معاً حكومة مركزية ضعيفة جداً في دمشق وعاجزة عن فرض سلطتها في الجزء الأكبر من البلاد التي يمكن اعتبارها وطناً بالاسم فقط.
ولعل المفارقة الأكبر هي أن هذا السيناريو “الأقل سوءاً” في سوريا ربما يعكس ما يعيشه لبنان منذ عقدَين والذي يتعرّض الآن لتهديد شديد بسبب القوى نفسها التي تدفع جارته الشمالية، سوريا، في اتّجاه مشابه تماماً. إذاً السؤال المطروح هو الآتي: هل يستطيع لبنان أن يصمد في وجه “لبننة” سوريا من دون السقوط في جولة مروّعة أخرى من إراقة الدماء؟ هل يمكن أن تصبح سوريا “لبنانَ” آخر من دون تحطيم هذا النموذج الهش في لبنان نفسه؟
لا بد من التشديد على أن هذه الأسئلة تستند بالكامل إلى تفادي مزيد من السيناريوات البائسة. فحدوثها، لحسن الحظ، أقل احتمالاً من سيناريو الشلل اللبناني القاتم إنما المقبول نوعاً ما – وربما الشلل السوري الناشئ – وتوازن القوى غير المستقرّة في دول مجزّأة إنما غير فاشلة. شئنا أم أبينا، ليس هذا التقويم متشائماً. حاولوا أن تتكلّموا مع متشائم حقيقي.

The worst Islamophobes

If Islamophobia means anything, it must be the fear and hatred of Muslims that makes it harder for them to live in diverse societies and operate effectively in the globalized economy and culture. But by that standard, who really are the worst Islamophobes?

Counterintuitively, it isn’t those who make a career out of demonizing Islam and Muslims like the self-appointed Catholic holy warrior Robert Spencer. Nor is it those for whom raw hatred is some sort of demented hobby like Jewish extremist Pamela Geller. Nor is it even the softer bigotry of the liberal American agnostic comic Bill Maher, who doesn’t like any religion but singles out Islam for particular opprobrium. It isn’t even the politicians in the United States and other Western countries like Peter King or Michelle Bachmann who have tried to win votes by presenting themselves as defenders against a Muslim fifth column.

For all the harm purveyors of the standard Islamophobic narrative undoubtedly cause, the worst Islamophobes – indeed in many ways the real Islamophobes – are the violent Muslim extremists who seem bent on providing Islamophobic narratives with some basis in fact. It’s ridiculous to equate Islam with terrorism as if the two are synonymous. There are any number of other terrorists and practitioners of political murder. And, of course, the violent Muslim extremists are not only a fringe in the Islamic world, they are a fringe of a fringe.

Yet their own actions are uniquely damaging in threatening, and sometimes even succeeding, in exacerbating fear and hatred of Muslims in the West and around the world.

The ironies are almost endless. The New York Times reported, for example, that Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev “was angry that the world pictures Islam as a violent religion.” So, he decided to try to help prove “the world” is right by murdering as many random people as possible at a sporting event. No amount of raving from bigots and propagandizing from hatemongers could possibly have done even a fraction of the harm he inflicted on the cause about which he was supposedly so concerned.

From their outset, the various forms of contemporary violent Sunni and Shiite political extremists saw themselves as defenders of the “downtrodden.” Chief in their bill of particulars has always been outrage about the way the West and other non-Muslim societies depict Islam and Muslims. By living up to the worst stereotypes of Muslims as violent fanatics, Tsarnaev was following in a tradition that essentially dates back to the late 1970s, where Salafist-Jihadists and Khomeinites have bizarrely sought to defend the integrity and reputation of Islam by using it as a rationalization for the mass murder of innocent civilians.

When Danish cartoons are understood as “insulting” the prophet Mohammed, and extremist organizations take the opportunity to organize violent riots with deadly results, who is the real purveyor of anti-Muslim sentiment? Some of the cartoons were racist, some clever, and some merely silly. If no one had reacted, surely no real harm would have been caused. If anyone associated with the cartoons was actually trying to promote fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam, their work was almost entirely done for them by the extremist groups and their cynical and vicious overreaction. That was the real Islamophobia, and infinitely more serious an insult to Islam and Muslims.

Probably the first incident of this kind of bizarre, self-inflicted Muslim promotion of Islamophobia was the Iranian death-threat fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. His novel The Satanic Verses is in no sense an Islamophobic or anti-Muslim book, even though it did contain a delicious caricature of Khomeini himself – which, along with the most cynical political ulterior motives, was probably the real reason for the death threat. But the book was already being condemned and burned by Muslim communities, especially in Britain and India, almost entirely by people who had never read a word of it on the grounds that it was “an insult to Islam.” Again, the real insult was the hysterical, bloodthirsty reaction, book burnings, death threats, riots, and all of the hideous manifestations of manufactured or misplaced rage.

Perhaps the most recent such incident is the brutal killing of a British soldier by two Nigerian men in Woolwich. In their ensuing diatribe, they cited the usual paranoid narrative about the Islamic world being under siege from the West. Naturally they also complained about being labeled “extremists.”

And thus it is that a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims – who are probably sincerely outraged at negative depictions of Islam and genuinely believe they are acting in its interests – become the very thing they hate the most. They are the most reliable allies of Western Muslim-haters, who play them like fiddles with the simplest provocations. And they are, without a doubt, the world’s ultimate Islamophobes.