Catering to Carter

Granted I’m a little late, but I’ve finally gotten around to writing about something that was in the news last week and which I thought was important and interesting. Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center enjoys considerable respect for its professionalism in election monitoring, visited Lebanon for four days last week. His main purpose was to meet with various party representatives as groundwork for election monitors to be sent in spring 2009 to observe the parliamentary elections.

Carter’s offer to send monitors was made of his own volition. This has incited some criticism in the blogging world about Carter’s offer being unsolicited, and of Carter himself being a useless and powerless actor in the Middle East drama. I don’t really agree with this. Elections in Lebanon, and in most if not all countries in the world, regularly suffer from sporadic irregularities to outright fraud (and I’m not just talking about places like Zimbabwe…hanging chads anyone?). Why should third parties observing elections be bad? If they’re not there, irregularities might take place. If they are there, their mere presence might dissuade some of these practices from taking place. How can it hurt the Lebanese state from coming out of the elections with a “clean” report card from the Carter Center? It could be a useful tool to encourage anything from more aid to foreign investment.

Carter went around meeting a lot of people. In fact, he had stated that he wanted to meet as many as possible. Michel Aoun, the main Christian politician from the opposition March 8 camp, accepted the invite. His ally Hezbollah however, refused. The reason for this was weak, to put it mildly. Hezbollah has a policy of not meeting with present or past US presidents, or to be more accurately “anyone from a US administration which supports Zionist terrorism”. What’s funny about this, of course, is that Carter published a book in which he labels the Israeli policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as being equivalent to apartheid, and has met with the top Hamas official Khaled Meshaal in Damascus a while ago. If Hamas is meeting with Carter, then surely Hezbollah could have shown more flexibility. Regardless, the party still came out saying that they do not oppose election monitors, so long as the monitoring is approved by the Cabinet.

Who’s really happy about the MIG-s anyway?

Surprisingly, not many people.

First off, and as expected, the Americans are scurrying trying to figure out how to react to news that Russia is “donating” these 10 MiG 29 jets to Lebanon’s army. As an aside, in a telling sign of just how significant this gift from the Kremlin has become as a piece of news, check out the NY Times, the BBC, as well the Times and LA Times articles referenced by Rob in his post on this subject yesterday. The reason for the extent of the coverage is likely because it has come as such a surprise. Washington certainly wasn’t expecting it. And of course, this move goes directly against their policy objectives of supplying the Lebanese army with just enough weapons to stand up to Hezbollah, but not enough to counter or balance Israel’s fire power.

If the US is annoyed by this, then so too, is Israel. Although I am quite intrigued by the use of the word “concerned” in the NY Times article when describing Israel’s opinion on the Russian deal, I wonder whether anyone can actually pretend in all seriousness that Israel is scared about 10 MiG-s. Nevertheless, they certainly aren’t cheering, and they’re far from being indifferent.

So, the usual suspects aside, who else is unhappy about this Russian gift? Funnily enough, Hezbollah as well seems to have voiced some form or other of annoyance. Although Hezbollah’s newspaper, Al Manar, hasn’t directly criticized this development, NOW Lebanon claims that the Party of God is engaging in a PR campaign against the Russian donation. Now the interesting thing about this article from NOW Lebanon is that it is based on an article from the Al-Liwaa newspaper, rendering NL perhaps guilty of a little bit of journalistic laziness. No sources are cited, no names given. But the NL article is quite directly contradicted byAl Manar, which suggests the complete opposite of what NL accuses Hezbollah of doing:

“Nevertheless, some “voices” hinted that the mentioned deal might be rejected by the Lebanese cabinet. In this context, Lebanese pro-March 14 daily Al-Liwaa quoted a Western diplomatic source as saying that he doubts the possibility that the deal would reach “happy endings.” The source said that the cabinet of Fouad Saniora would reject the deal “in full, even if it took the form of a Russian donation, for political reasons per [sic] excellence.” The paper explained that, based on a major international resolution, Lebanon wouldn’t be the sole country that would be using sophisticated Russian weapons in the region. “

Who’s right and who’s wrong on this? Either NL is publishing incorrect information by not bothering to double check its sources, or Hezbollah is engaging in a crafty bit of manoeuvring by blaming the March 14 camp of trying to scuttle the Russian donation. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t access Al-Liwaa’s website today no matter what I tried, which might temptingly lead me to speculate on the existence of a convenient conspiracy theory according to which NL or Al Manar might have hacked into Al-Liwaa’s website so that no one can uncover the truth about this.

Conspiracy theory aside however, this is very illustrative of the fact that the Russian donation is not causing unanimous rejoicing, even in Lebanon. Hezbollah might be just a little miffed that the army is finally getting bigger and better toys than it has in its own arsenal, as this might drive it out of business.

What about the Lebanese government? My personal theory is that the government isn’t too keen on this deal either. Yes it’s a gift, yes it’s free, yes it’s coming with a warranty. But the reality is that despite Defense Minister Elias el Murr’s statement that securing this deal while he was in Moscow made it “the most important visit” he had made since his appointment as minister of defense, the government isn’t nearly as gleeful as he is. For one, Lebanon has never owned fighter jets of the power and sophistication of MiG 29’s, and does not have properly trained Air Force pilots to operate them. As well, the warranty period on the planes is limited, which means that once it has expired, the government will have to foot the bill for their maintenance and repair. And not least of all, it means the government might have to face the US and have to deal with US pressure about accepting or possibly refusing this gift. But most importantly, these 10 jets should be seen as something of a glossy “aesthetic” gift, with no real military use. It’s not like the army will use them to bomb Hezbollah, and it’s definitely not stupid enough to try to use them against Israel. Indeed, that last option would be like the mouse poking a sleeping lion. So all these factors considered, it must be quite a conundrum for the government to figure out how to deal with this without a) appearing like a US puppet if it refuses the gift; b) loosing US support if it accepts it; or c) engaging in frivolous spending by diverting funds from the national budget to maintain expensive hardware instead of investing it in badly needed social infrastructure.

We’re not done here though. Someone else must be displeased about this. Syria has apparently been asking Russia for the latest MiG 29’s for a while, and its demand has still not been heeded. In any event, any strengthening of the Lebanese military translates into a zero-sum game with Syria, because it so directly undermines the latter’s foreign policy objectives towards Lebanon. It is slightly easier to impose your will on someone weak with no MiG’s than someone weak with 10 MiG’s.

So who’s left really to rejoice over this deal? Who else but the Russians of course. They got to flex their arm in the region. They exerted influence in a country where the US has struggled hard to find footing. They got rid of 10 airplanes too old to be used by their air force and that were probably sitting around gathering dust in a hangar somewhere in Siberia. And they managed to stun the Americans into silence. For now.