Date: Mon, 6 Mar 2006 11:51:32 EST
Subject: Pogo and Zal
From Ray Close ~ 06 March 2006
“I'll tell you, son, the minority’s got us out-numbered!”
[“Congersman” Frog to Pogo ~ Walt Kelly]
My friends and family know how much I value history, and how I like to take any appropriate opportunity to revive the faded institutional memories of the governmental and academic communities about historical precedents that may offer valuable lessons in today’s world.
I have a case in point to share with you now. It’s an important lesson that I learned more than half a century ago, when I was twenty-something, still a scrawny kid on my first tour in Beirut as a very junior CIA case officer. In June 1953, when my father retired as Dean of the American University of Beirut, he was awarded the “Order of the Cedar of Lebanon” in recognition of his 40-plus years of service to the country. Prime Minister Saeb Salam hung the medal around Dad’s neck and then kissed him on both cheeks. Saeb Salam was an AUB graduate, a distinguished gentleman and a highly-respected political leader of the Sunni Muslim community of Lebanon.
Fast forward about five years.
In 1957-58, Lebanon was in the throes of an increasingly violent internal conflict (that culminated in the intervention of about 20,000 U.S. marines and soldiers in the summer of 1958.) A vocal and violence-prone minority faction of Lebanese was infected by Gamal Abd-al-Nasser’s radical Arab nationalism, which was then at the zenith of its popularity in the region. Another minority, dominated by diehard right-wing Christian elements, was equally in favor of public alignment with Washington’s anti-communist and anti-Nasser Eisenhower Doctrine. It was this latter “pro-American” group, firmly in power at the time, that our Embassy and CIA were supporting quite openly.
The majority of Lebanese, however, wanted carefully to maintain the country’s uncommitted status --- essential, they felt, to preserving peace and prosperity among the society’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. Unless Lebanon’s traditional balance was delicately preserved, most people recognized, Lebanon’s unique climate of political and religious tolerance (as well as its extraordinary commercial vigor), could turn into chaos very quickly. Unfortunately, the United States at that time was deeply imbued with Cold War attitudes, and anyone who exhibited outward signs of not being “with us” was automatically accused of being “against us”. So it became America’s self-appointed task to teach Lebanon how it should behave itself.
Just as the conflict was nearing a crisis point, our Embassy in Beirut received a semiofficial visit from the famous cartoonist and (even more important) grassroots philosopher Walt Kelly, creator of the memorable Pogo cartoon strip. Kelly wanted to understand the fascinating complexities of Lebanese politics, and so asked to meet a spokesman of the “opposition”. The Embassy declined to oblige, presumably out of concern for diplomatic propriety. It happened that Saeb Salam, no longer prime minister, was at that time a prominent spokesman for the group that was in opposition to open alignment with the United States, and hence was regarded as a dangerous adversary of the United States. I took Walt Kelly to meet Mr. Salam, and we were treated to a remarkably sensible, balanced and constructive explanation of why it was neither in Lebanon’s interest nor in the interests of America that Lebanon be pushed off the fence and forced to become, for all practical purposes, a belligerent in both the Cold War and the burgeoning ideological conflict among the Arab states. Kelly was deeply impressed, and left the former prime minister with a delightful cartoon depicting that theme. (I wonder if Saeb Salam’s descendants realize how valuable that cartoon would be today!) (By the way, Walt Kelly reached the age of 92 in August, 2005. I hope he’s still going strong.)
An important historical note: After the American military intervention of mid-1958, when Washington was looking desperately for an appropriate “exit strategy” to enable us to bring our troops home, the only feasible option was to (reluctantly) welcome the appointment of a Lebanese prime minister who could establish a new government of national unity, satisfying both the radical anti-American parties and the rest of those who, at this point, were grateful just to see foreign military forces leave them alone to settle their country’s problems by themselves. No surprise to anyone: the man who emerged to lead the new government was Walt Kelly’s friend, Saeb Salam.
A decade and more later, of course, at the height of the Vietnam War, Walt Kelly’s swamp critter, the much-beloved character Pogo, invoked a paraphrase of Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous naval battle report to Washington in 1812: “We have met the enemy and he is ours” --- only Pogo, in reference to the Vietnam conflict, said: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Advice never to be forgotten; wisdom never to be ignored.
Last week, I sent you a short e-mail in which I was strongly critical of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for having publicly warned the Iraqi political classes that if they failed to choose a new government that was “non-sectarian”, the American people would be very displeased, and might have to reconsider whether to continue U.S. financial support to Iraq at present and projected levels. The blunt warning was aimed primarily at the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which had recently decided (by a one-vote margin) to nominate interim prime minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari to continue as prime minister under a new “permanent” (four-year) government. Jaafari retorted angrily, expressing resentment at what he charged was unacceptable American interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. I expressed the opinion at that time, you’ll remember, that Khalilzad had committed a major error of judgment, and repeated my long-held view that whatever leader eventually gains power in Iraq will attain credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of his own people only to the degree that he is perceived by them to have defied the American occupiers, not obeyed them. (Some of you might have questioned the political correctness of my sarcastic comment at the end of my message: “You’re doing a heck of a job, Zal.” Nevertheless, I stick by my guns on that one.)
The facts are that Jaafari’s support among other Iraqis --- including a significant proportion of more secular and moderate Shiites within the United Iraqi Alliance --- had plummeted because of his incompetent performance as a national executive. Khalilzad’s intemperate intervention simply provided a fortuitous opportunity for Jaafari to recover and solidify his wavering popularity and credibility by responding to the dictates of the American ambassador with a nationalistic harangue. In short, Khalilzad’s ill-considered remarks, bombastic and confrontational in tone, immediately appealed to the growing sense among the Iraqi people that however much they may depend on the United States for protection in the short run, America has a hell of a nerve telling them publicly that they are irresponsible, and threatening to punish them like recalcitrant teenagers for making political choices unacceptable to Uncle Sam.
Since then, almost every newspaper columnist and editorial writer, and almost every politician and foreign policy guru in America, it seems --- of all political hues --- has heaped praise on Khalilzad. The universal line has been: “Although he ruffled a few Iraqi feathers in the process, Ambassador Khalilzad did the right thing in issuing his stern admonition. The Iraqi people need to be told that there is a limit to American patience” . . . . etc. With rare exceptions, no one has pointed out that while making U.S. preferences known through discreet personal diplomacy is undoubtedly necessary and appropriate in many such situations, imperious public threats and rebukes delivered “in your face” to Iraqi leaders in the full view of international television audiences by the American ambassador will always backfire. Most particularly, such action by a man in Khalilzad’s position is certain to get “up the nose” of a people who are under military occupation by a foreign power, especially if they are as proudly independent as the Iraqi nation. (Here feel free to substitute the words “Palestinian” for “Iraqi” and “Israeli” for “American”.)
As it turned out, that is exactly what resulted from Khalilzad’s action. Ibrahim Al-Jaafari’s original nomination to be the next PM was made possible in large measure because of an opportunistic political deal with the dangerous rejectionist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. For awhile thereafter, there remained a possibility that the Jaafari nomination might be reversed in favor of the more moderate (and certainly less “sectarian”) runner-up candidate, Dr. Adel Abd-al-Mahdi, who was favored and supported by Sunnis, Kurds and the United States. To engineer that switch required a high degree of diplomatic skill, of course, but the stakes were (and remain) very high. Unfortunately, however, Khalilzad’s blunder has probably made that alternative solution unattainable. Faced with his insult to Iraqi nationalist sensitivities, the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance seems to have closed ranks and refused to reverse its original nomination of Jaafari as prime minister. To do so now would be to appear subservient to American pressure --- equivalent to weakness and obedience to the dictates of George Bush’s high commissioner.
Pogo for President!