Friday, March 25, 2005

Rafiq Hariri and Lebanon

I read the newspapers this morning over two cups of coffee. I’m allowed to drink coffee again. I’m happy about that. The most interesting articles were the ones dealing with the UN report pertaining to the international investigation into the murder of Rafiq Hariri. The UN report does not assign blame to either the Lebanese or the Syrian governments.

It does blame the Lebanese government and the Syrian intelligence forces for an atmosphere of violence and hate and the lack of law and order in Lebanon. It also says the Lebanese government didn’t do a good job investigating the murder and there should be an international investigation. It also clearly says that Bashar Assad, during a meeting threatened to harm Rafiq Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt if they stood in his way.

I agree with this report. I’m certain Bashar Assad ordered the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, but in international affairs you can’t do anything without proof. I’m certain the international investigation will find proof linking Bashar Assad to the murder of my friend Rafiq Hariri.

The reason I’m so confident is the fact that it took the FBI years to find the culprits, who had blown up the plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, but they found them and linked them to the Libyan government. And when the investigation succeeds, there will be hell to pay for Assad.

He probably thought the United States wouldn’t care about the death of an Arab politician. But Rafiq Hariri isn’t just some politician and Lebanon isn’t just some country in the Arab world.

Rafiq Hariri had many friends all over the world. I’m proud to say he considered me a friend. I talked to him ten days before his assassination. I was later debriefed by a few national security agents, who were interested in this conversation.

Bashar Assad made the mistake of thinking we, Americans didn’t care about Lebanon. We do and the reason for that is pretty much the same as the reason most Americans like Israel. Lebanon is a democratic and pluralistic society. What’s more there are hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Americans living in the United States. Most Americans have neighbors, who descend from families, who came from Lebanon.

For instance, one of the most respected journalists in Washington, Helen Thomas has Lebanese ancestry. Same goes for Senator Edward Kennedy’s wife. Lebanese Americans are a very successful and respected group in our society. And for that matter in the Democratic Party.

Even France, whose president Chirac was a friend and business partner of Rafiq Hariri has made it clear this situation has to be dealt with.

The international community does not take it lightly when a president murders a politician of another country. I have no idea what Bashar Assad was thinking, when he gave the order to kill my friend, but one thing I know for certain, murdering foreign politicians in a manner reminiscent of Michael Corleone in the Godfather will not stand. He has lost any respect any foreign head of state had for him.

Finally, Bashar Assad doesn’t seem to understand how serious this administration is about dealing with rogue states and state sponsors of terrorism. Let me clarify this. Syria is not the objective, it’s a barrier on the road to Iran.

The Syrian president has made three mistakes in one years. One, he appointed Emile Lahoud president of Lebanon for another three years against the will of the vast majority of Lebanese and in spite of the Lebanese constitution. Two, he murdered Rafiq Hariri. Three, he allied himself with Iran.

The United States can not allow Iran to have nuclear bombs. We know the ayatollahs in Tehran want them and will do anything to get them. The Bush administration is intent on stopping them.

There are two ways to stop them. One, we destroy their nuclear facilities or two we bring down the regime, which wants them. Regime change in Iran isn’t easy.

Iran is a big country, with a lot of money, because of its oil and gas reserves and has a population of about seventy million people, most of them young and of military age. Invading Iran is out of the question. Bombing Iran is possible, but won’t have the intended result. The only avenue left is to mortally wound the regime in Iran by cutting off its tentacles.

The first one is Hizballah in Lebanon, the second one is the Syrian regime.

I saw an interesting article in a newspaper, when I was in the hospital. It said someone had written pro- Sistani words on a wall in the Hizballah dominated Bekaa Valley. The reason I thought this was interesting is simple. Grand Ayatollah Sistani is the leader of the Shia in Iraq. He is a direct rival of the ayatollahs in Iran, who claim they are the leaders of all Shia in the world.

The Shia religion is structured in the same fashion as Catholicism. There is a pope and there are lower ranking priests. The leader of Iran Khamenei considers himself the “pope” of all Shia, including the ones in Iraq, but also the ones in Lebanon.

This is by the way the reason why the ayatollahs in Iran are interested in helping Hizballah. They are asserting their dominance as leaders of the Shia faith.

Their only rival for the title of “pope” is grand ayatollah Sistani of Iraq. His brand of Shia Islam is more moderate and democratic than the brand the Iranians are trying to sell to the Shia world. If we want to undermine the ayatollahs in Iran, we must support Sistani in Iraq and we must do everything possible to promote Najaf as the real base of Shia Islam. Now that Sistani seems to be making inroads in the Bekaa Valley, this might end the pro- Iranian Hizballah’s stranglehold on the Shia in Lebanon.

Hizballah lost its reason to exist after Israel pulled out of Lebanon. Hizballah knows this. The Shia in Lebanon want the same things as the rest of the Lebanese, a good education and jobs. Hizballah can’t provide those things, so they will never be as important as they used to be. As they lose votes, so will the Iranian ayatollahs lose influence over the Shia in Lebanon.

Coming back to Syria, when the international investigation proves Bashar Assad was behind the murder of Hariri, the UN will impose sanctions on Syria. Syria, which is a poor country with only about 15 million inhabitants will be hit hard. If the sanctions don’t bring down the government of Bashar Assad, they will certainly cripple his grip on power and undermine his influence in the region and his capacity to help the Iranians.

This is a good thing for Lebanon. It will calm down the situation in the region, possibly leading to the creation of a Palestinian state. This would mean that the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon can go home.

All in all, Bashar Assad made the mistake of his life when he decided to kill my friend.