September 23, 2010

Release a traitor in exchange for a settlement freeze?

I am going to start this with one of my favorite observations: You cannot make this stuff up.

In the latest international episode of Let's Make a Deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to extend a moratorium on the construction and expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank in exchange for the release of confessed and convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. This is the very definition of chutzpah.

In the first face-to-face talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in two years, Netanyahu attempts to extort the United States into releasing one of the most notorious spies in American history in return for what would undoubtedly be a temporary halt to settlement activity in the Israeli occupied West Bank of the Jordan River? Shameful.

The Obama Administration should not even grace this offer with a response for a variety of reasons, not the least of which would be the uproar it would generate throughout the defense and intelligence communities. Pollard may be regarded as a national hero in Israel, but to most American military and intelligence officials, he is traitor who sold out his country with little regard for the long-term consequences of his actions. The full extent of the damage done by Pollard's treachery has never been made public. Much of it may still be unknown since the only source of what Pollard gave to his Israeli handlers is Pollard himself.

Many apologists for Pollard claim that spying for Israel is not really spying since Israel is an ally of the United States. One has to consider that blanket statement that Israel is an ally of the United States with some reticence. Israel used the information provided by Pollard as "trade material" with the Russians in return for the release of Jews detained in Russia. That is hardly the action of an ally.

There is speculation that American agents, people the U.S. intelligence agencies had recruited to collect information for us a great risk, were uncovered and executed because of the information the Israelis provided to the Russians. If so, Pollard should have been executed instead of being sentenced to "life" in prison.

Pollard's sentence of life imprisonment is a misnomer. Because of the laws in existence at the time of his sentencing, he will be paroled after serving 30 years. That means he will be free on November 21, 2015, unless he is pardoned by the new president in 2013. No doubt that when he is released, Pollard will immediately move to Israel where he will be welcomed with open arms.

Requests for Pollard's release are nothing new. (See my 2008 piece,
Israelis ask for release of Jonathan Pollard - again.) Since finally admitting that Pollard was a sanctioned, recruited asset for Israeli intelligence, they have mounted a steady campaign for his release. If the Israeli government does not do so directly, it orchestrates a bevy of right-wing organizations to mount publicity campaigns hoping that someday these efforts will pay off.

The documented requests for Pollard's release by Israeli prime ministers to American presidents include:
- 1995 Yitzhak Rabin to Bill Clinton
- 1998 Benjamin Netanyahu to Bill Clinton
- 2005 Ariel Sharon to George Bush
- 2008 Ehud Olmert to Geoge Bush
- 2010 Benjamin Netanyahu to Barack Obama

The Israelis approach each new American Administration hoping that at some point there will be a president so naive as to agree to the release. Once a new president asks his intelligence chiefs for their assessment of the Pollard case, he quickly realizes that Pollard should rot in prison. After hearing the extent of his betrayal, most presidents probably wonder why he is allowed to be incarcerated in a rather cushy situation under medium security at the Butner Federal Correction Institution (FCI Butner) in North Carolina.

FCI Butner is located near the Research Triangle area of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, and more resembles a campus than a prison. Notables who are incarcerated at the same facility include Bernie Madoff and Sheik Abdel-Rahman (the "blind sheik"). There are reports that Madoff and Pollard have struck up a friendship.

According to comments on Internet forums by former inmates, if you have to be in prison, Butner is the place to be. It is described as having a good Federal Prison Industries program, in case Pollard wants to build office furniture when he relocates to Tel Aviv. The prison is also non-smoking, so we don't have to worry about Jonathan being subjected to the dangers of second-hand smoke, although that might be a problem when he moves to Israel.

Butner also has excellent physical fitness facilities, including an outdoor track, although by the photos of Pollard I have seen it does not look like he has been using them. Perhaps he'll want to get in shape for the beach in Netanya in 2015. Perhaps he's improved his job prospects with some education. This is from a prison life forum: "My man describes Butner like 'dorm life.' He's had great educational opportunities there. He's already received his bachelors degree and he's well on his way to getting his MBA."

If you'd like to tell Jonathan Pollard what you think of him, write him at:

Jonathan Jay Pollard #09185-016
FCI Butner Medium I
Federal Correction Institution
P.O. Box 1000
Butner, NC 27509

Seriously, though, the Israelis do him no favors by continually asking for his release. Every time they bring this up, it only reminds Americans of Pollard's treachery and betrayal of this country. It only strengthens Americans' resolve to keep him behind bars as long as legally possible.

September 20, 2010

Clinton on Iran - she hopes they find a way....

One of President Barack Obama's campaign promises and quixotic efforts is his outreach to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite repeated rejections of his overtures and the Iranian regime's blatant refusal to adhere to a series of United Nations resolutions, the Obama Administration just keeps on hoping that at some point Tehran will change its ways.

Perhaps at least one Administration official is tired of the rhetoric from Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. On one of the Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the possibility of regime change in the Islamic Republic. I wonder if she cleared her remarks with the President. After all, Obama still maintains his "outstretched hand" policy toward the regime that has the blood of hundreds of American troops on its hands, provides support for our enemies in Afghanistan, is the world's leading state supporter or terrorism, is developing nuclear weapons and, oh yeah, still holds two young hikers as virtual hostages. So how is that engagement policy working out so far?

Among other things, Mrs. Clinton urged the Iranian people to reject what she says is an expansion of the Iranian military's role and power. Her words: "The early advocates of [the Iranian Revolution] said this would be a republic. It would be an Islamic republic, but it would be a republic. Then we saw a very flawed election and we've seen the elected officials turn for the military to enforce their power. I can only hope that there will be some effort inside Iran, by responsible civil and religious leaders, to take hold of the apparatus of the state."

Whoa. That's a bit different than the rhetoric the President is peddling. That last sentence sounds eerily like a call to arms. "Some effort inside take hold of the apparatus of the state" could be construed as a call on the Iranian people to rise up and change their government. I don't know what else it could be. The Iranian opposition during the last elections was brutally oppressed, although there was only faint condemnation from the Administration. I can see no way in which the Iranian people can "take hold of the apparatus of the state" except by force.

So which is it? Are we extending an outstretched hand to the Iranian government at the same time we are encouraging the Iranian people to rise up against that regime? How about we accept the fact that the former has failed and we adopt the latter as our policy and alter our actions accordingly. Perhaps we should close the outstretched hand into a fist and remind the Iranians that we remain a superpower. It might serve us better if at some point this Administration stopped reinforcing Tehran's impressions of American weakness.

Mrs. Clinton's words get even better. When talking about the recent release of one of the American hikers, she remarked, "I just can't even imagine how painful the experience that they themselves have had inside prison." Really? It's not like you brought the full weight and power of the United States to do anything about their detention. If you want to know how painful the experience was for Ms. Shroud, ask her. I am not sure why she would care to speak to you since it does not appear you have any sway with the Iranians, after all, her two male companions are still sitting in the notorious Evin prison on trumped up charges while you seem capable of "only hope."

I keep replaying in my mind the campaign challenge about who I wanted to answer a hypothetical 3:00am phone call advising of some world crisis. The 3:00am call came some time ago; the issue was and remains Iran. It is too bad nobody answered the call.

September 16, 2010

Middle East peace within the year - really?

Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmud 'Abbas

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is "within reach." We can expect it within the year. Finally, after all these years of efforts by successive failed interlocutors, Hillary Clinton brings us peace in the Middle East. Perhaps I should start selling "Countdown to Peace" calendars....

Pardon my sarcasm.

There may have been positive steps made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud 'Abbas that advances the process, but a statement that peace between the two parties is imminent is misleading at best and bordering on dishonest at worst. I would have thought that over a year and half experience as Secretary of State would have taught her something about the Middle East peace process in general and the Israeli-Palestinian track in particular.

Mrs. Clinton's words: "With the commitment of an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian president who both embrace the goal of a two-state solution, peace is once again within reach." She added that Netanyahu and 'Abbas "can make the difficult decisions necessary to resolve all the..issues within one year."

The two-state solution is not in question here. The questions that need to be addressed in the near term revolve around continued Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank and the ability of 'Abbas to represent all of the Palestinians. Just today, in fact just after Mrs. Clinton's declaration, Netanyahu stated that the moratorium on settlement construction will not be extended despite pleas by both Clinton and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak. That moratorium, of course, is a key requirement for the Palestinians to continue the talks. 'Abbas has threatened to leave, not unexpectedly.

There is also the issue of Palestinian representation. Mahmud 'Abbas is the President of the Palestinian Authority, not exactly representative of all Palestinian entities. 'Abbas is also the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization which, despite being recognized by the United Nations, Israel and over 100 countries as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," does not speak for all parties that have a stake in the talks. I am specifically referring to Hamas, but also includes a variety of other groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Not everyone is getting ready to order their peace-in-one-year calendars. A senior Palestinian official described the talks as "difficult and made no progress." Yet, American special envoy George Mitchell said the talks were "serious and substantive" and that there was "progress" on the settlements issue.

The words "serious and substantive" is Washington diplo-speak meaning that absolutely nothing was accomplished but we have to say something positive. I really would like to hear Mr. Mitchell's definition of "progress." When the Israelis refuse to halt settlement construction, and the Palestinians threaten to leave the talks, I am having a difficult time accepting that as progress.

Here is the Reuters take: "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Thursday with no visible sign of progress on breaking a deadlock over building in West Bank settlements." Again, how do you define progress?

I spent the majority of my career either in the Middle East or in Washington working Middle East issues. I have lived, worked, taught, traveled, conspired and fought in the Middle East. I fervently want there to be peace throughout the region. As far as the Israeli-Palestinian track of the peace process: I support Israel's right to exist, and I support the right of the Palestinians to have a state.

That said, there are serious issues between the two sides. I am not so arrogant as to claim that I have the answers. Obviously, neither do Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Mitchell have the answers. The jury is still out on their arrogance.

When dealing with an issue of this import, we need honest brokers who are committed to real solutions, not empty rhetoric about peace within a year. This, I am afraid, is merely empty rhetoric.

September 12, 2010

Syrian influence returning to Lebanon

Most of us who follow the Middle East are of the opinion that nothing happens in Lebanon that sooner or later does not involve Syria. The two countries are bound by history, geography and their unique dialect of the Arabic language. If it had been left up to the people who actually live in the area, it is doubtful that Lebanon would even exist as a separate entity.

Overshadowed by events in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, most casual observers probably missed an important development in the Lebanese-Syrian relationship. On a visit to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Din al-Hariri recanted his earlier accusations that Syria was behind the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, in Beirut . In his words, "We made a mistake. At one point we accused Syria...That was a political accusation, and that political accusation is over."

Hariri's change of mind is interesting because regardless of who actually detonated the massive bomb that killed the elder Hariri, there is no way that one of the Syrian intelligence agencies was not involved. Recent suspicion has fallen on Iranian-backed Hizballah, which is nothing more than a proxy for its masters in Damascus and Tehran. Which Syrian intelligence agency is unknown, but I'd put my money on either Syrian Military Intelligence because of their long history of operations in Lebanon, or the much more sinister Syrian Air Force Intelligence who specialize in these sorts of mass killings. Hariri knows the Syrians did it, the Saudis know the Syrians did it, we know the Syrians did it, and what is more, the Syrians know that we all know. Welcome to the Byzantine world of Lebanese politics.

The Hariri-Asad meeting was likely the result of Saudi King 'Abdullah's visit to Beirut less than two weeks ago. The Saudi monarch was accompanied by Syrian President al-Asad; there was no chance that Asad would allow a meeting in Beirut of this import to take place without his involvement. The simple message from 'Abdullah to Hariri: make your peace with Damascus or your country is likely to slip back into civil war.

For its part, Syria views Lebanon as lost territory. Lebanon, much like Syria itself, as well as Iraq and Jordan, is a country created by the European powers in the aftermath of World War One. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the area which had been under Ottoman rule for 400 years came under League of Nations mandates given to Britain and France. The British mandate included the areas that now comprise Israel, Jordan, Iraq and part of Saudi Arabia. The French mandate included what is now Syria and Lebanon.

In 1920, France created Greater Lebanon, a largely Christian (mostly Maronites) enclave but which also included areas containing many Muslims and Druze. In 1926, France declared Greater Lebanon to be the Lebanese Republic (the official name of the country today). Lebanon gained independence (on paper) in 1943 from the Vichy French government; the British occupied Lebanon and Syria during the war; the last French troops withdrew in 1946. The Syrians were never happy with the creation of Lebanon, calling it the vestiges of European colonialism and mandatory rule.

To understand how the Syrians view Lebanon, here is a portion of a phone call (Skype, actually) I had not long ago with the wife of a Syrian doctor friend.

Rick: Layla, wayn al-"docteur"? (Where is the doctor?)

Lalya: Huwa 'ambi-"shopping" fi l-mhafazih. (He's shopping in the province.)

Rick: Ayni mhafazih? Huwa mu fi Sham? (Which province? He's not in Damascus?)

Layla: La la, huwa fi l-mhafizih, Bayrut y'ani. (No, no - he's in the province, Beirut, I mean.)

Lebanon, the province.

In 2005, Syria suffered a setback in its attempt to maintain control of its neighbor, its "province." In the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, there was a popular nonviolent uprising nicknamed the "Cedar Revolution." The mass demonstrations forced Damascus to withdraw its troops, leaving Lebanon without Syrian military occupation troops for the first time since 1976. I remember quite clearly that day when Syrian tanks rolled into Beirut, but I digress.

So why do we now have the Saudis encouraging the Lebanese to come back under Damascus's wing, despite the fact that everyone knows the Syrians had to be involved in the Hariri assassination?

One word: Iran.

The Saudis are Iran's main rival to be the main power broker in the Persian Gulf. With Iran embarking on a nuclear weapons program, Saudi Arabia is concerned that it will be relegated to a position of irrelevance in the region. Syria is Iran's main and really only ally in the Arab world. Iran exercises great influence over not only Syria, but over Lebanese Hizballah as well. It was the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that created Hizballah in 1982; they have been intimately involved ever since, providing most of the weapons, money and training that allows the organization to survive and play a substantial role in Lebanese politics.

Hizballah also operates as a proxy for the Syrians in Lebanon. A closer Damascus-Beirut relationship, read that as a closer Hariri-Asad relationship, negates the necessity for an independent Hizballah. It therefore lessens Syria's reliance on Iran. That serves Saudi Arabia's interests - break the Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis and regain what Riyadh believes is its rightful place as key nation among the Arab states. Of course, Egypt might have something to say about that...

Make no mistake about Syrian political acumen. The Syrians have been playing this game since there was a game. I think they will encourage the Lebanese to come back into "the Syrian tent." Will it achieve Saudi Arabia's goal, a laudable one, of creating a wedge between Tehran and Damascus? I doubt it.

I think this round goes to Syria.

September 10, 2010

Of Qurans and imams - the fallacy of our Afghan policy

Violent protests in Afghanistan, as well as in other Muslim countries across the world, erupted against a threatened burning of copies of the Qur'an by a radical church in Florida. The fact that a 50-person church in a southern American state can generate large-scale protests halfway around the world is an interesting testament to the power of the internet and global communications. It also serves to spotlight our failed policies in Afghanistan.

We have had military forces in Afghanistan for almost nine years, waging a half-hearted war now focused on a group that did not attack us nor poses a real threat to the United States. In late 2001, the Taliban were the government of Afghanistan and did provide a safe haven for the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States - all true. American forces, with support of the Northern Alliance, made short work of the Taliban and of the al-Qa'idah fighters - including Usamah bin Ladin - that did not escape to Pakistan.

It was then that we veered off course into an area that we know we are not good at - nation building. To make matters worse, we chose to nation build in a country with which we have almost nothing in common. Rather than continuing the fight to eliminate al-Qa'idah regardless of where they were, we chose to refocus our resources on creating a new Afghan government and essentially create a new Afghan society.

Nation building, at least in the American context, in Afghanistan will not work. The thought that we are going to change the tribally based and warlord-dominated Afghan society and its inherent and imbued Islamist nature is ludicrous. No matter what we do, Afghanistan is never going to be a Jeffersonian democracy. It may not even be a democracy - and in the final analysis, who cares?

I have for years asked - what is the American national interest in Afghanistan? Is it to rid the country of its Taliban government? Done. Is it to hunt down and kill the al-Qa'idah fighters in the country? Done. Is it to install a democratic replacement for whatever government the Afghans develop? If it is, I disagree that this is an American national interest. Is it to mount a difficult counterinsurgency to defeat one side of a civil war? Again, I hope not. What possible American interest does this serve?

I'll address what will be the standard retort to my questions - "we do not want Afghanistan to again become a haven for terrorists, specifically al-Qa'idah. If the Taliban are victorious in their insurgency, they may allow al-Qa'idah to return."

There is no indication that I can find - and I read the English and Arabic language press regularly - that al-Qa'idah has any interest in returning to Afghanistan. That's in the past - the future is the fertile "jihad-grounds" of Yemen and Somalia. Al-Qa'idah has been virtually annihilated on its chosen battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. They still have some presence in Pakistan, but Afghanistan?

What if I am wrong - it happens - and they in fact do attempt to re-establish Afghanistan as their operational base? Simple. We destroy them again as we did in 2001 - with special operations forces and overwhelming airpower. That is one thing that the Taliban and al-Qa'idah understand - the devastating effect of American air-delivered precision guided munitions against which there is virtually no defense. We need to make it very clear to whatever government emerges in Kabul - Karzai, the Taliban, whoever - that these are American "red lines." If al-Qa'idah returns, so do American aircraft, missiles and bombs - lots of them.

This policy also addresses the recent outbreaks of violent demonstrations against an American minister in Florida. I am not condoning the burning of the Islamic holy book by any means, but if the Afghan people cannot separate the private citizens exercising their rights from the governmental policies of a nation that has given them the freedom to demonstrate, it's time to leave them to their own devices.

When the president of Afghanistan (arguably one of the most corrupt officials on the planet) makes statements like, "We have heard that in the US, a pastor has decided to insult Korans. Now although we have heard that they are not doing this, we tell them they should not even think of it..." - we should think about why we are keeping him in power. Pesky thing, that First Amendment. Perhaps Karzai should stick to robbing his own country blind and let us worry about our freedoms.

I am going to make a stretch and bring in the current controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" and the arrogant imam Faysal 'Abd al-Rauf. When I was an NBC News analyst, I met and spoke with the imam in the MSNBC studios. He is a smooth talker and knows exactly what he is saying - his statements are thinly-veiled threats to our troops, and right now the majority of our troops are in Afghanistan.

I agree that the presence of American troops in a Muslim country while a minister in Florida is threatening to burn the Qur'an, or Americans not wanting a mosque built near what they consider to be the scene of a jihadist obscenity, is problematic. It is exactly that fact that causes me to call for the reassessment of our policy in Afghanistan.

We have to realistically define exactly what our mission is in Afghanistan, formulate a strategy to accomplish that mission, commit the appropriate resources, and ruthlessly and exclusively execute the strategy.

That strategy should not be nation building - it should be hunting down and destroying al-Qa'idah wherever they have gone.

September 8, 2010

Iran - should we even consider talking to this regime?

The news from and about Iran continues to reveal just what type of regime is in charge in Tehran. What is more revealing is the almost constant reassurance to these thugs that no matter what they do, they can at any time open a dialog with the Obama Administration. It seems that not a day goes by that we do not hear from a State Department spokesman that the Iranians just have to say the word and this American government is ready to meet with them to discuss the outstanding issues between Iran and the West.

Let's take a look at the regime that our government wants to continue to try to "engage."

According to a British newspaper, an Iranian front company in Kabul is paying a reward of $1,000 to the Taliban for each American soldier killed in Afghanistan, and $6,000 for each American armored vehicle destroyed. A Taliban member claimed that he had collected more than $77,000 from the Iranian "company" already. That is a lot of American blood on their hands and flies in the face of what U.S. forces commander General David Petraeus describes as "a modicum of support."

There's more. Despite four rounds of United Nations sanctions and a host of unilateral sanctions by countries on three continents, Iran continues to defy the world over its nuclear weapons program. I call it it a nuclear weapons program because only an idiot would believe the claims of the Iranian government that they are developing nuclear power for electricity. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency just issued a report that the country has enriched enough uranium to make two nuclear warheads if it chooses to do so, and is actively thwarting efforts by the watchdog organization to ensure Iran is not building a weapon.

Of course, every time the Iranians have agreed to sit down and talk about their nuclear program, that's all they do - agree to continue to talk, and they emerge with yet more time to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

Hardly a week goes by that we do not see yet another Iranian press release that it has developed a new weapons system, including a family of ballistic missiles capable of reaching the capital cities of American allies in the region and even parts of Europe. Additional weapons tests are touted to give the impression that any attack on Iran's nuclear facilities will be unsuccessful, and that Iran is capable of threatening international shipping in the Persian Gulf. The fact that over 25 percent of the world's oil must transit the Straits of Hormuz is not lost on the rest of the world.

Combined with all of Iran's new weaponry and nuclear weapons potential are the incessant threats to destroy Israel. Senior Iranian political leaders and clerics (and in many cases they are the same) continue to deny the Holocaust and call for the destruction of the Jewish state. Should we reward this type of behavior with negotiations?

Our troops are not the only Americans being threatened by the Iranians. What about the three hikers? I have not heard much from the President or his State Department spokesman about these three young Americans being held in an Iranian prison with no access to needed medical care. The State Department mouthpiece is too busy criticizing Arizona's legislature to take up the issue of American citizens being detained by the Iranian regime. These youths have been held for well over a year. You would think that the policy of "engagement" would have yielded something by now, right?

Iran's internal actions should be cause for pause when considering "engagement" by the United States. While world leaders call for an end to Iran's continued execution of teens for homosexuality, there is almost no outcry from the American government, nor from the American left. They are quick to label the Tea Party movement as homophobic, yet remain strangely silent about a regime that kills people merely for their sexual orientation. Is this the type of government we want President Obama to sit down and negotiate with?

The Iranian regime's action during and after the last presidential elections revealed to the world the type of government that is in power in Tehran. Repression and torture of dissidents were widely reported. The world is currently denouncing Iran for its intent to either stone or lash a woman accused of adultery. European nations have been very vocal against this barbarity - the Obama Administration, not so much.

So, Mr. President, in light of all of the above that has happened on your watch, how is that "engagement" policy working out? Have you thought that maybe you are being played for the patsy you appear to be?

Bottom line: Not only should we refuse to engage the regime in Tehran, we should be actively supporting its removal.

September 7, 2010

Lebanese wine - from the area that gave you Hizballah

Granted, not in keeping with my normal subject matter, but one of interest.

Lebanon (my photos) is a fascinating country, a country of contradictions in almost every aspect. It is the most western of the Arab countries with a vibrant Christian minority (almost 40 percent of the population), yet has some of the most conservative Muslims in the world, including Hizballah, a Shi'a political and militia organization listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. government. The country fought a 15 year civil war based on its confessional differences.

The conflict between Western and Islamic values exists not only in Beirut but in the Bekaa (wadi al-biqa') Valley as well. When most people think of the Bekaa Valley, they think Ba'alabak and Hizballah, Iranian influence, previous Syrian military interventions, etc. Yet the Bekaa Valley is home to some of Lebanon's greatest archaeological treasures and - surprising to some - a burgeoning wine industry.

In the city of Ba'alabakk is a Roman temple to Bacchus, the god of wine. The city hosts one of the region's most famous festivals every year, yet is a stronghold of Hizballah and conservative Islam. Wine originated in the Middle East, possibly in the area now Iran - Noah was said to have been a wine maker. Wine is produced today in many countries of the Middle East - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Jordan all have wine industries.

A general rule of thumb - wherever the French were or wherever there are significant Christian populations, there is a wine making operation. There is a growing wine industry in Israel as well, although most of the vineyards tend to be in areas seized by Israeli forces in 1967 - the West Bank of the Jordan River (then administered by Jordan) and the Syrian Golan Heights.

I have tasted wines from all these countries - part of my professional education as a Middle East specialist. North African (Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian) wines tend to be rough and a bit bitter. Egyptian wines to me have a uniquely Greek character (probably due to the large number of Greeks residing in the Nile delta near Jiyanklis where the grapes are grown), but with a chemical taste. Syrian wine, mostly from the As-Suwayda' area in the south, is not much better.

Jordanian wine, when it was from the West Bank, was not bad - now those vineyards are in Israeli hands. I remember being in Jerusalem in the early 1980's and offered "wine from the Holy Land." That was a polite way of saying Israeli-made wine from occupied Jordanian territory.

Lebanon has proved to be the exception among the Arab countries producing wine - it is actually quite good. Although there are now 30 wineries in Lebanon, there are five major companies, but by far the largest and best known is Ksara.

Ksara has been in business since 1857 - it's wines are available throughout the Middle East and in some European countries. When I was the air attaché at the American embassy in Syria, we often drank Ksara at local restaurants. You had to be careful, though - there is a great difference between the vintages. One year will be great, another not so. After a while, we compiled a list of which years to look or and which years to avoid. Ksara Reserve was consistently good.

All that said, I am amazed that there still is a vibrant wine industry in the Bekaa Valley. The area is ideal for growing grapes - the Valley sits at almost 3,000 feet above sea level, has a chalky soil, long hot summers and adequate rainfall. However, what surprises me is the unlikely coexistence between the Christian vintners who produce alcohol and the ultra-conservative Shi'a in this Hizballah stronghold. They're just a few miles apart geographically, but much further apart in outlook.

Like I said, it is a country of contradictions.

September 6, 2010

Omar Suleiman - "the real alternative"

Lieutenant General 'Umar Mahmud Sulayman, more commonly transliterated as Omar Suleiman, has emerged as a possible successor to Egyptian President Husni Mubarak in the elections scheduled for September 2011. Posters hailing Suleiman as "the real alternative" to the election of Gamal Mubarak, son of incumbent President Husni Mubarak. Interestingly, the posters suddenly disappeared when Mubarak's National Democratic Party objected.

The potential election of the younger Mubarak is being criticized by many Egyptians as the creation of a political-hereditary dynasty in the country. The successor to 82-year old Husni Mubarak will replace not only the longest-serving president in the Egyptian republic's short history, but also the longest-serving Egyptian head of state since Muhammad 'Ali Pasha in the first half of the 19th century. Mubarak ascended to the presidency upon the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981; he was the vice president at the time. The elder Mubarak plans to see his legacy continue in the person of his son.

There are other well-known Egyptians considering a run for the office. Two names known in the West include 'Amr Musa (Moussa), the respected former foreign minister and current secretary general of the Arab league, and Muhammad al-Barada'i (el-Baradei), the not-so-respected former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Of the two, Musa is certainly more qualified and probably more friendly to the United States.

That said, the best candidate for the presidency is General Suleiman. I worked with the general in the past on several issues in the region, beginning when he was selected to be the director of military intelligence (DMI) in 1991. He traveled to Washington, and I met with him in Cairo a few years later. I found him to be a gentleman who embodied the integrity that we often found missing in senior military officers in the region in general, and in military intelligence officers in particular. When General Suleiman gave you his word, you could count on it.

It was no surprise that Fariq 'Umar Afandi (Lieutenant General Omar) served for only a short period of time as the DMI. The general quickly came to the attention of President Husni Mubarak, who named him as the chief of Egyptian General Intelligence (EGI), one of the most powerful and effective intelligence services in the Middle East. I will caveat my use of the "effective" adjective - the EGI can get things done, they can conduct clandestine and covert operations. They are an operational service, however. Their "pure" intelligence abilities, by which I mean the collection of intelligence information and the production of accurate intelligence assessments is limited.

Nevertheless, the 74-year old General Suleiman is an effective interlocutor on a variety of issues in the Middle East. When there are serious negotiations between governments, between various special interest groups and other groups or governments, or mediating delicate political issues between leader, the name Omar Suleiman often comes up as an honest broker. He is respected by virtually all sides and parties within and without the Middle East. When the Israelis talk with the Palestinians, or the Syrians, or the Palestinian factions such as Hamas and the Palestinian Authority talk to each other, the general is often the conduit. He has been an asset to Husni Mubarak - Suleiman has allowed Egypt (and thus Mubarak) to play a key role in almost anything significant in the region.

I do not think it likely that Suleiman will be elected - I do not know if he is actually seeking the office or if he is being hopefully courted by supporters who want him to run. That is unfortunate - the general would be a breath of fresh air in what has become one of the most corrupt governments in the region. Mubarak and his sons have been tainted by corruption, but thus far have been able to maintain themselves in power. Although Mubarak has generally been an ally of the United States, it would be beneficial to have a truly honest broker in Cairo, one whose word you could trust.

I can't vote in Egypt's upcoming elections, but if I could, I would cast my vote for the general.