The Greatest Threat to America

What would you think if someone suggested normalizing relations with Cuba would be unwise because of an Iran-Cuba-Hezbollah Axis, where by the Cuban Missile Crisis would be repeated, only this time with Iranian arms placed there by a Lebanese “terrorist” organization? Well, you’d probably think they were more than a little off their rocker.

I give you… Michelle Bachmann:

I have to say, if her allegations were true, such a situation would definitely add an interesting twist to world diplomacy.

Beirut

Well, I’m finally getting around to producing some writing on my first weeks living in Lebanon. I think I’ve finally been here long enough to begin to rationalize and crystalize some thoughts, perceptions, and observations about this place. There’s definitely still a part of me that isn’t entirely geographically-oriented to the fact that I’m actually, physically residing in Beirut, Lebanon. I think its jus the whole time/distance thing… that I could be in Europe in a couple of hours, and in Damascus or Cairo in even less time. It’s funny though, I came here in the hope that I’d be able to find some answers to some of the questions I had been coming across in my studies at university, and from personal interest in general. But now, I’m even more confused about the Middle East than I was before. But I’m defiitely not disenchanted or disaffected, which is a good thing, I suppose. When people ask me how Lebanon is, the first thing that always jumps to mind is the desire to simply state that this place is freaking nuts and crazy and insane. And I don’t meant that in a negative way at all, more in the sense that things operate in a completely different way here, in comparison to the Western world. The pulse of Lebanon and the Arab world beats at a different pace. I think I like vibrating on the Beiruti frequency. There’s a certain, definite thrill to this place, that manifests itself well outside and beyond the confines of the original political drama and theatrics I came here to witness. It’s exhilarating to be able to stand up through the sun roof of an Infiniti FX35 while careening down the highway at 90+ mph blasting music and feeling the rush of air so fast I can barely open my eyes. Or being able to drink in the back seat of a the car. Or narrowly avoiding running into other cars on the highway. This is sort of what I’m hinting at when I describe this place as insane and crazy. Or take my living situation for example… I sort of indirectly assumed that I’d be getting a dorm room with a view facing campus and thus the Mediterranean Sea… Allah is in my room everyday, 5 times a day…. like a giant scatter plot… muslims on paper

A Revelation

So I’ve been thinking lately a lot about what I want to do with my life. I suppose that’s because I do a lot of sitting. And a lot of thinking. Actually, about 9 hours of it per day to be precise. Sitting in front of a computer monitor, occasionally working on excel spreadsheets. Gazing bleary-eyed over endless lists of number, and profits, and figures… that I really don’t give a damn for.

I’ve realized this weekend that I’ve been indirectly trying to answer the question of what I want to do next with my life for the past few months now. It’s strange… I always thought I was somehow above that question. I’ve known I’d wanted to be a Foreign Service Officer for the State Department since my Junior year of Highschool.

Part of me still does.

As an American I still no doubt feel a duty-bound obligation to uphold the Republic of my Founding Fathers’ creation. And though government and civil service are among the most distinguishing and faithful ways of doing so, there are no doubt other ways. Was not the Fourth Estate created and enshrined in our Constitution as a check on government power? The Fourth Estate, regardless of its current circumstance and condition, has always been a central part of the American project. And it has played no small part in the history of this country.

When I think back to the courses I took in the three years I spent at the University of Colorado, a few stand apart from the rest in terms of the number of classes I actually attended and the level of energy I invested and devoted. Off the top of my head, the best were an upper-division writing course I took with a focus on Colonialism & Imperialism, from which I produced a massive paper chronicling the history of the European imperial role in the creation of Lebanon. The second, was a course on Global Media as part of a certificate course constructed by my department of International Affairs and CU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication – the International Media Certificate. As a part of this I took a course on Global Media where I began to research the Middle East, and Lebanon again, from the stand point of the media institutions and their evolution in the region. The third course I took that was probably the most interesting of the entire three years I spent at CU, was a course on War and Disaster Reporting. My professor was an Asian-American foreign correspondent, and though his name now eludes me, I remember how fascinating his stories used to be – of reporting from conflict zones around the world. It was a cool class as well – a mix of journalism students and international affairs kids. I miss college.

Anyway, it got me thinking that perhaps this was really where my real interest lay, in the enjoyment of hearing stories and doing the best I could to retell them to friends and family, upon my return home from Lebanon.

There are not many people I know who have had the chance to travel to the Lebanese border with Israel unwittingly participating in a campus organized trip that was a front for none other than, you guessed it, Hezbollah. I mean, it was absolutely fantastic. And I’ve never written of it on here because I feared that the State Department might decline my candidacy for the Foreign Service upon learning that I had not only visited the border with Lebanon’s one and only Islamic Resistance, but also witnessed a military parade arranged by them, complete with armed convoys with weapons and battle hymns.

Like I said though, it was probably one of the highlights of the time I spent there. Same goes for visiting the areas of the country being de-mined, from the 2006 war with Israel, by the Lebanese Army, or more specifically, the Lebanese Mine Action Center, comprised of the Armed Services as well as the U.N. in addition to other NGOs.

Or my visit to the Palestinian Refugee camp at Shatilla, where I spent the day volunteering to tutor at one of the few madrassas for children in the camp. I’ve mentioned this experience before, but basically I spent most of the time learning more Arabic from a sweet girl named Asra than I could teach her English.

But it was amazing. And I don’t have any clue why I left to come home to the States, other than to finish that one pesky science credit left in order to graduate. But otherwise, to put it bluntly, I have no fucking clue.

I simply don’t feel as alive here as I did over there. It’s taken me nearly half a year to realize that. I belong there, and I know it innately. I really don’t care what I end up doing as long as I’m there. I’m sure I’ll be able to figure things out.

I’ve been thinking about the number of people I met there. My frequent chats with the Lebanese grandparent generation. The stories I’d hear about how the demographic makeup of Beirut’s neighborhoods used to look before the Civil War. About the trees from which Gemayzeh street borrows its name. The only trees now in Gemayzeh are those ringed with alcohol bottles and twinkling lights. But I always wondered when I walked down it, whether I was drunk at night, or hungover during the day – what did those trees look like? What fruit did they bear? What was it like waking up in Beirut before 1975 and watching the rays of sunlight glance down through those trees?

I still wonder.

The Middle East: An Update

I know… once again this blog has failed to keep up with the rather current events taking place in the Middle East… though I have been reading much about what is currently unfolding in Cairo, Yemen, and now Syria and Jordan. Poor Lebanon’s almost been squeezed out of the news. Nobody cares anymore about Hezbollah’s “coup”, if you will. The events in Cairo have greatly overshadowed the news coming out of the Middle East. Just a couple of quick notes before I get down to business here. First off, I don’t think anybody ever expected or thought that 2011 would be the year where such fundamental changes would take place in the Middle East. What we are witnessing is truly having a profound impact on the way in which Arab citizens in countries around the region interact with their leaders. For me, it was best put by an Egyptian street protester interviewed by CNN, he spoke in broken English and said to the camera, that what we are witnessing is a rebirth of the Arabic mind. And this is precisely what is happening. It is truly historic. And I am profoundly jealous and bitter that I am not there to witness it myself, though as I write this, events in Egypt have taken a sudden, violent turn. But still, it is funny to reflect how the last year I spent in Beirut was oddly peaceful and pretty much functioned under the existing status quo, which has now been completely upended. We are truly witnessing a historic change in the Middle East.

Here’s what I’ve found to be of some interest in tracking these events…

This is probably the most ironic image I’ve seen recently :

Courtesy The Daily Dish: Democracy in The Middle East – A Visual Argument

Here is a rather fascinating insight into the events in Cairo written by a Google Blogspot blogger by the name of The Bionic Arabist who writes the blog The Colorless Revolution.
I’ll repost the entry entitled The Anti-Lawrence here, in its entirety.

I wrote this late at night/early in the morning, when I had decided to go. I’m not sure it’s the most flattering portrait of my thought-processes, but it’s honest:

I’m not exactly living through a revolution so much as living next to one. Most of the foreigners I know in Cairo, except the journalists and would-be journalists, are having a similar experience. Ultimately, this is why I’m going to leave Cairo. I don’t think I’m in danger, but this isn’t my revolution, my family and friends are worrying, and I don’t really know what to do with myself here.

The thing that I don’t know how to explain over the phone is the mixture of boredom and excitement. In one sense, it’s really boring. I spend most of my time glued to al-Jazeera, or cooking to distract myself. Occasionally, I can hear gunfire coming from the Interior Ministry, a couple blocks away, but that’s as scary as it gets (pro-tip: when searching for an apartment, consider whether you want to live next to the most hated ministry in the country. Location, location, location). Needless to say, I’m not getting dissertation research done. Libraries aren’t open, and for some reason nobody wants to talk about houses…

But there’s another sense in which it’s really exciting. This feels vain, but it’s true. It’s intoxicating. All around me, people are coming together with remarkable discipline to bring down a regime whose combination of thuggishness and banality was making me depressed, to say nothing of the people it was actually hurting. It’s exciting. I feel like I’m in the realest place in the world.

But it’s not actually my revolution. I haven’t been protesting or covering it like a journalist, or doing anything else to bask in the reflected glory of Egypt’s uprising, to feel like I’m a part of it. It’s tempting to join in the protests, but it would feel to me like a case of Lawrence of Arabia syndrome. I’m a nerdy little scholar who often finds life back home boring. Planting myself in someone else’s protest to feel like I’m involved in Something would be, I don’t know how else to put it, deeply self-indulgent. It’s not my country, and if I don’t like the new or the old regime, I can leave; the stakes for me are not the same as for Egyptians here.

The Bionic Arabist raises a fair point here. Having spent a year in Beirut, I can definitely say that it is quite easy to get carried away with the ideas and passions running not only around one’s host country, but around the region. It’s easy to get caught up in them, and to want to espouse them, or participate in their formation and evolution in a society. But at the end of the day, its simply not the same for us. We have to put ourselves at a distance from those we come to love and care about there. As much as I hate to say it, we live different lives. We can always return home. But its simply not the same for them. They have nothing else but to cope with the reality they face in their own countries. Wherever the problems come from – the political, social, or economic situation. It’s not our problem to fix, its theirs. Though we cannot deny some culpability, perhaps, in the reality they currently face. But it is not up to us to determine the outcome of their situation. Of course, this does not mean that we cannot help. Personally, I would stay, as I would have in Lebanon if some potentially terrible situation would have evolved that placed foreigners living in the country at a risk. The one thing we can do is to document what is going on, to make our own citizens and leaders aware so that they might make informed decisions in our policy. If I had a choice between braving a revolution that was not my own, or suffering through an epic New England snowstorm, well, I’d choose the former.

I don’t think I’m the only one, either in Cairo or at a keyboard back in America, who feels the urge to be a part of someone else’s revolution because of that thrill. Even if I’m not participating, just being here is exciting. I won’t lie and pretend there’s no vicarious thrill to this. Bumming around Cairo, hunting for fresh vegetables, hanging out with neighborhood watch guys, speculating about when Mubarak will give up and go away, passing the time with other nervous expats while the streets take on a carnival atmosphere – ok, a carnival with tanks, but still, it’s an adventure. I have front row seats for history.

But there are people back home who are worried about me, and the excitement isn’t worth the possibility that the phones could go down again and they’d have no way to contact me. I’m a selfish only child, but not that selfish. So I’m going. I hope I can come back soon, under a new and better regime.

Yeah, regrettably he’s right.

Other Links of Interest:

A rare Wall Street Journal interview with Syria’s President – Bashar al-Assad

My American Dream

Word Cloud from Obama's State of The Union

Alright… here we go… I have grudgingly accepted the necessity to write about the current state of affairs in the Middle East. Let’s begin with a story first. As many of you may know, I passed the written examination for entrance into the Foreign Service last October. This is the first of a multi-step process to become a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, and has remained my dream and ultimate career goal for nearly half a decade now. From passing the written examination (on my second try) I moved into the next stage of the process which was answering a number of personal narrative questions (or QEPs, I believe, for anyone familiar with the process) which were then submitted for review. The answers provided for the questions are accompanied with recommendations, or essentially, sources to provide a credible backing for each answer. I thought my responses were pretty decent. In addition to this, I participated in a phone interview in Arabic with the Foreign Service Institute as I had indicated on the written exam my proficiency in Modern Standard Arabic. There really was no way to find out how I did on that interview. And I wasn’t entirely sure how well it went, since my examiners jumped to a more difficult level with my asking questions in Arabic about the U.S. congressional elections and the state of our democracy. Passing a language exam, at the required Level 2, can only help an application, not hurt it in any way. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised, finally receiving word back this week on my progression as a candidate for the Foreign Service that I had not been selected to procede to the next stage of the examination process, which would have been the Oral Examination. Needless to say, I was pretty dismayed, and have since been in somewhat of a stupor when it comes to following events in the realm of U.S. Foreign Policy. Though, oddly enough, the rejection of my dream came to coincide with President Obama’s State of the Union Address.

Prior to the address, watching Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Cabinet walking down the aisle on the floor of the Capitol, I was admittedly bitter, having just been rejected by the woman who leads the department I want to devote a career to and represent. She stands for something more than politics now; she is the head of our foreign policy and our face to the world. So I sat there grimacing, with a stoney, emotionless expression on my face, waiting for the President to deliver his address to the nation.

What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -– the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.  That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here.  It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea?  What would you change about the world?  What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This is what defines America. I am not particularly a fan of the term “American exceptionalism” because it has been seriously misconstrued and spun into something quite dangerous by individuals such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman. But that we were the first nation to be founded upon an idea, or perhaps a bed of multiple ideas that came out of the Enlightenment, as it were, does make us unique, and is something that is enshrined in the principles laid down in our founding documents. And don’t get me wrong, we’re certainly not the only nation anymore that’s been founded upon an idea, and perhaps one can even make the argument that human civilizations have been founded on ideas since the dawn of time, but it is something that defines America. And certainly, at the time when our nation was established, there was nothing quite like it on Earth. It follows a political perspective I’m fond of, when it comes to determining how America should behave internationally, which is as the “first among equals.” We’re not better or superior than anyone else, nor should we define ourselves as exceptional or some how above the rest. But we should lead, and lead well.

In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice:  If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher.  Your country needs you.  (Applause.)

I’ve strongly considered doing this at some point in my life. Teaching history or some aspect of international politics or foreign policy would undoubtedly be highly rewarding. And it was actually through a high-school history teacher that I came to piece together the idea of wanting to become a civil servant in some capacity.

And America’s moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom and justice and dignity.  And because we’ve begun this work, tonight we can say that American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored.

Yes, it should shine. We should lead by example, with our principles dictating our actions and not the other way around. Is Obama invoking Wilson here, perhaps just a bit? And as far as our image being renewed… well, ha, it’s going to take a lot longer than 2 years of a Presidency to do that. We’ve still got a hell of a long way to go, especially in the Middle East, to rectify our standing.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

Though I might enjoy living and serving my country from the outside more than inside, I’ll always be grateful to return to the places here that I consider home.

We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution.  We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try.  We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible.  No matter who you are.  No matter where you come from.

And this is where I didn’t feel so bad anymore about not being selected to move on to the next stage of the process for the Foreign Service. I might have to go back to square one and take the written exam again, but I will certainly do it again next October. I can only keep trying.

We’re a nation that says, “I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company.”  “I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree.”  “I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try.”  “I’m not sure how we’ll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we’ll get there.  I know we will.”

As often as I read about Lebanon and feel the knife twist inside the open wound I’ve carried since leaving that country, I can say without a doubt that I always return to the notion that there are so many reasons for me to go back there. I’ll  never forget my interaction with Asra, that little girl in the Shatilla Palestinian Refugee camp in South Beirut. She taught me more Arabic than I could teach her English. The way her smile lit up the dark, gray areas of a camp and a school that had absolutely nothing. It doesn’t take some grand foreign policy strategy to help her or others like her. It only takes one individual to care.

And that’s why I must try again at the Foreign Service and must eventually return to Lebanon, or anywhere else where I feel I can do something to help.

That is my American Dream.

Lebanon: An Update

NOW Lebanon has a new series of videos chronicling the human cost of political assassinations in Lebanon:

NOW Lebanon: The Unheard Victims

The talk is all about the government, the politics of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, about how the international body is dividing the country (as if it was not already divided when the bombs exploded around here).

But when you hear Elias playing Majida  El Roumi’s song and see his mother’s eyes drowning with tears,  you only want to listen to him, not to some politician.

There are tens of people like him in Lebanon, tens of people who lost someone when a politician, a famous journalist or a police officer simply blew up because they bothered somebody.  Tens of people who nobody listens to when they say they want to know who killed their loved ones and who want to at least give a chance to the STL. Who knows, maybe justice will take its course.

This is why I care. These Lebanese citizens did not deserve to die meaningless deaths in wanton acts of political violence. They deserved to live long lives of prosperity and happiness in a country that should be working for them.

For those who have not seen the films Zozo and West Beirut I highly recommend them – for a general understanding of the impact of years of war and violence in Lebanon.

Chaos

Hezbollah Eats Beirut... just as a side dish though, establishing an Islamic State in Lebanon is the main course. *I just discovered this was an Israeli leaflet dropped on Lebanon - which I would only post here to display an example of propaganda. I just thought the image looked cool - and seemed highly appropriate given the developing situation.*

Well the Lebanese government has officially collapsed thanks to Hezbollah. Funny – doesn’t it make them seem more culpable in the assassination of Rafik Hariri that they behave in this way? Yeah I get it, according to Hezbollah the STL is merely a tool of the U.S. and Israel, and sure, it hasn’t exactly been all that well run, but you’d think some level of international or regional cooperation would be better than just fucking the country over at the expense of the Lebanese citizenry. The timing of the situation is what gets me – right as the Prime Minister is meeting with Obama in Washington. The precise timing of the announcement is indicative of having been orchestrated months previously.

NOW Lebanon: Hezbollah forces government shutdown

“Saad Hariri was on the brink of making a major concession as concerns the tribunal but occult forces prevented him from doing so,” Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt told AFP without elaborating.

Yes… Walid Jumblatt, I think you’ve been watching a bit too much of “Hitler and The Occult” on The History Channel. He was also quoted as using “dark forces” interchangeably with “the occult.”

The theme lately seem to be chaos… the psychological profile of the shooter in Arizona… a potential government coup in Tunisia, massive flooding in Australia, the situation in the Ivory Coast, the vote on succession in South Sudan.

Here’s a photographic comparison to illustrate…

 

And finally…

"Muahahaha I have "cut off the hand" of the Lebanese state... or perhaps the head - I can't really tell yet"

I’m only kidding… I’m not trying to draw a comparison between Jared Lee Loughner, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, and the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah – though you gotta admit that’s a pretty awesome profile of his face. I have a lot of respect for the man, in terms of his oratory skills in Arabic and his leadership of Hezbollah – you can’t deny that he is extremely intelligent, and probably deserves a lot more credit than Western political and media apparatuses allot him. Despite this… its not too pleasing to see that they can shut down the Lebanese state whenever they feel like it. Thankfully there hasn’t been any violence yet, as there was in 2008, but perhaps its only a matter of time. What’s really going on here? Are they really only at issue with proving once and for all that they had no involvement with the assassination? Or is there something else…

To quote Walid Jumblatt, or perhaps Rasputin in Anastasia… it is “the dark forces” at work.

What I’m basically trying to get at here is that Hezbollah’s latest actions in Lebanon demonstrate that it is willing to sacrifice the fragile stability of the Lebanese state in order to preserve its image. It should not be misconstrued that Hezbollah values its reputation in the Arab world more than the Lebanese state. You can see the organization’s priorities demonstrated clearly here… it is first and foremost a force of Islamic Resistance (specifically the resisting its perception of Zionism and Western Imperialism) and only then a Lebanese political party.

I have honestly wondered for a long time just how much Hezbollah really cares about the Lebanese state… given that it transcends the Lebanese national boundary as a political, military, and ideological force in the region. It combines so many elements into something that is clearly not only “Lebanese.”

If you read their founding charter, or anything that describes their ideological underpinnings it is abundantly clear that their ultimate goal is the establishment of an Islamic State in Lebanon, though in practice this priority has been set to the side in favor of a slower, more gradual assumption of power in the state of Lebanon.

Anyway – I’ll elaborate more on this at a later point. The point is – that Hezbollah is something that is no longer inherently a force for the protection of Lebanese sovereignty. It is a transnational movement – and this explains its disregard for the Lebanese state in its recent action to undermine the government of PM Hariri.