Political Animal

A New Lebanon

BEIRUT — Sharif Abdunnur was six years old when he saw his first dead body. It was during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war, and he was playing soccer outside his Beirut home. When he heard an explosion, he ran toward it, but was knocked over by a second blast. Several people nearby were killed, leaving blood and body parts all around him.

“To a lot of us who grew up here, the bombings, assassinations, and shootings were kind of par for the course,” the 41-year-old professor recently told me. “We all grew up in the basement shelters, we all grew up next to the freedom fighters, we all grew up next to weapons.”

And they all grew up taking sides. The people of Lebanon have been divided across political, religious, and sectarian lines for decades. But last month, they all began uniting over their shared contempt for their corrupt government. Amid the largest wave of mass protests in the nation’s history, Abdunnur saw a teaching opportunity.

He took his media ethics class at the American University of Technology to the streets of Beirut, where he wanted to show his students that protesters—no matter their political affiliation—were just like them.

Until, suddenly, hundreds of Hezbollah and Amal supporters began beating protesters, including women and children. A few blocks away, the militants started burning downtown storefronts and destroying public infrastructure. In a way, the ambush taught the lesson for him.

“This is what all 18 political parties and sects [in Lebanon] do—they breed hate for others,” said Abdunnur, who told me he was kicked in the face, throat, head, and back. “I’ve been trying to teach my students that here are people on the street … there’s no hate or fear. I’m trying to get them to wake up and see that this fear mongering is just a way for the politicians to control them.”

Indeed, there’s a clear message behind the Lebanese uprisings: people are done allowing the regime in power to scare or divide them as a means to maintain its corruption. But the people have a long road ahead—especially as Hezbollah supporters, and the Lebanese army, use violence to crack down on protests. As a consequence, world powers have gotten involved. The U.S. froze all military aid to the Lebanese army, including a package worth $105 million, which analysts fear could allow Russia and Iran to gain greater footholds in the country.

The mass demonstrations began October 17—after the Lebanese government announced a slew of new taxes. Over the last three weeks, millions of protesters have shut down roads and forced banks, schools, and businesses to close. Simply put, they have put the entire nation on pause. Their goal is to paralyze the country until the government steps down. They have already seen some success: last week, 13 days into the uprising, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned.

But protesters say they won’t stop until they get an early election and the chance to choose new leadership. The rest of Lebanon’s high-ranking government officials, though,have refused to follow in Hariri’s footsteps. Hezbollah, an Islamist group that’s gained major political and military power in Lebanon, is against a new government. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has urged protesters to accept a compromise of governmental reforms. There is a very real possibility that the situation could escalate into a civil war, or temporary power vacuum.

That said, Lebanese protesters are already creating tangible change in the character of the country. For the first time in Lebanese history, Christians, Shiites, and Sunnis have united. Even more impressively—they have done so through peaceful protests. Demonstrators are playing national songs, dancing in the streets, and calling on their own political parties to step down. Their buzziest new chant is: “all of them means all.” They have formed a newfound national identity that is proving to be powerful.

“For the first time in the last 40 years of living in this country, I can say there is a Lebanese identity,” Abdunnur said. “Not a Lebanese Christian or Lebanese Sunni or Lebanese Shiite identity, but an actual Lebanese identity. This is groundbreaking because even if the revolution fails, it does not create immediate change, it has created a social change that’s absolutely unstoppable.”

Hariri’s resignation threatens to destroy Lebanon’s 30-year-old governmental system—which political groups, like Hezbollah, rely on to maintain power.

In 1990, when Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended, the country created a sectarian-based government to give equal power to the country’s three main religions. The president has to be Maronite Catholic, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker Shiite Muslim. But over time, the leaders representing these groups created multiple political parties that have focused more on competing for power, helping their allies, and pocketing money, rather than improving the lives of ordinary people.

For instance, salaries of government officials rose more than 7.5 percent each year in the past decade, according to a 2018 McKinsey report on Lebanon’s economy. The government also spends 46 percent more on public servant salaries than peer countries like Jordan and Romania. At the same time, it generates 10 percent less revenue.

Lebanese protesters

Meanwhile, the government fails to provide clean water, trash collection, and reliable electricity to its people. Critics say the government refuses to provide 24-hour electricity so it can profit off back-up motors. In fact, 40 percent of Lebanon’s electricity is produced by private generator companies, which make nearly $1 billion a year. Equally concerning, politicians live visibly lavish lives while the Lebanese people suffer from a high unemployment rate, which reached 25 percent in 2017.

Yet, in 2011, when Lebanon’s neighbors were so fed up with their governments they started the Arab Uprisings, the Lebanese people stayed silent. Dr. Tamirace Fakhoury, a political science professor at Lebanese American University, believes they were simply hopeless that anything could change. Citizens therefore continued to follow the same old warlords and their families—who made empty promises while the country crumbled.

Recently, however, they’ve awoken to just how much the corruption affects their daily lives.

“The Lebanese have always had problems and have been exposed to major political and economic problems, it’s this disparity in gaps that has become so visible right now,” Fakhoury told me. “The trash crisis, reports on corruption … they no longer believe that political parties or the establishment can provide a solution.”

Peter Joe Abou Fadel has bruises all over his body. The 19-year-old American University of Beirut (AUB) student has been demonstrating since the very first protest. Twice, he’s been beaten by Hezbollah militants and the Lebanese army. Regardless, he continues to sleep in a tent on the street so he can demonstrate from morning to night.

His determination stems from one reason: he doesn’t want to leave Lebanon. He says 50 percent of his high school class had to leave the country to create better futures. But he doesn’t want to raise his future children anywhere but his home, which he insists has the most beautiful landscape and warm-hearted people.

“If you go to any person in Lebanon and say, ‘Can I sleep at your place?’—even if you don’t know them—they’ll be like, ‘It’s your house too,’” he tells me. “I went to Switzerland, I went to Prague, I went to so many countries in the world, I hiked in all of them. The beauty of the nature here is incredible. If only we could work and build our futures here, too.”

That’s why Abou Fadel and his peers aren’t backing down—even from Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. The Iran-backed group, which was founded in 1982, has cemented itself as a mainstream political player; it has the majority of parliament seats and a large Shiite Muslim following. Its leader, Hasan Hasrallah, has made it clear he opposes a new government. Experts say that’s because Hezbollah needs Lebanon’s current political system to maintain power.

In fact, some interpret the Trump’s administration holding all military assistance to Lebanon as primarily a message to the Iranian proxy. Karim Makdisi, an associate professor of international relations at AUB, interprets the move as an insistence that a new government should not include the group.

“They’re sort of saying that, if these guys remain in some kind of position of power here, then you can expect more cuts, more sanctions, we’re going to make your life more miserable,” Makdisi said. “This is a good chance to put on pressure and somehow do what they’ve been trying to do—which is isolate Hezbollah.” In July, Washington imposed sanctions on three senior Hezbollah officials to ramp up pressure on the organization.

Still, this isn’t about the United States. The heart of the revolution rests in what’s driving Abou Fadel and the millions of other demonstrators from resisting the powers that be in Beirut.

For decades, Lebanon has been used as a pawn in other countries’ political games. But what’s springing in Lebanon is not an opportunity for other actors to gain power. It’s the opportunity for people to get their country back. In the process, they are starting to form a new national identity.

It’s still early. We don’t know what, exactly, that newfound identity will look like. But we know this much: the Lebanese people will be the agents of its creation.

Will GOP Senators Allow Trump to Sabotage Their Chances in Alabama?

Senate Republicans are facing a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation in the looming impeachment battle. As Trump’s guilt become more obvious by the day–and defending him becomes ever more impossible and impalatable–Republican leaders are caught in a vise. If they don’t defend Trump from impeachment, the president’s loyal base will turn on them and may stay home from the polls in 2020. But if they do defend the raging tire fire of venom and corruption in the White House, they may lose enough people of basic decency that it imperils their Senate majority. And it’s not just in 2020: the damage may well last a generation or more.

Few contests make clearer than the Senate race in Alabama. Most scenarios in which the GOP maintains control of the Senate in a blue wave election year depend on winning back the Alabama Senate seat lost in a stunning upset to Doug Jones in 2017. The special election was necessitated because President Trump elevated Jeff Sessions to Attorney General, thinking he would get a loyalist lackey in the position. Sessions to his credit refused to play along, earning Trump’s heated ire before he was replaced by the much more corruptly pliable William Barr. Still, Alabama is a deeply red state, and the conventional wisdom is that Jones will not survive in 2020.

But the stars are not aligning in the GOP’s favor. Jones won mostly because his opponent was Roy Moore, a extremist fanatic who was not only exposed as too far right even for Alabama Republicans, but also as an alleged child molester. A normal person, having lost as his party’s standard-bearer in one of the safest seats for his party in the country, would find another line of work. But not Moore. He is running again–and if he wins the GOP nomination, Doug Jones may survive to serve another terms.

But Moore isn’t the only Republican running. Jeff Sessions has indicated he wants his old seat back, and plans to run as well. Sessions would likely be a much more formidable opponent for Jones than Moore: Alabama voters know him, and were used to sending him to Congress what once seemed like a lifetime appointment. A competent political party led by a competent president would simply throw its weight behind Sessions and that would be that.

But Donald Trump’s corruption may throw a monkey wrench in that plan. His hatred of Sessions for refusing to twist the Justice Department far enough in his favor may wind up costing the GOP his nomination and thus the Senate seat itself:

News of Mr. Sessions’s decision to run startled and dismayed national Republicans, who had hoped that he would step aside to avoid the possibility of being vilified by Mr. Trump — and to spare them the headache of a nationalized race in a state they hope to win back…

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has been less than thrilled with the idea of a Sessions candidacy, according to two people familiar with his thinking. He views it as a distraction that could end poorly for Republicans — especially if a crowded Republican primary ends with Mr. Moore as the nominee again…

But over the last week, Mr. Trump sent word to Mr. Sessions through allies that he would publicly attack him if he ran. And Mr. McConnell recently approached Mr. Trump, asking him whether his feelings about Mr. Sessions might have improved. The president said he was very much still opposed to Mr. Sessions and would make that clear if he had to, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

For now, Congressional Republicans have had Trump’s back in attempting to dissuade Sessions from running. But Sessions appears unwilling to back down, and it’s not clear that any of the other likely candidates would have the capacity to defeat both him and Moore.

And as Republican Senators face down the prospect of defending the indefensible, they may also witness the person putting them in the vise also potentially costing them their Senate majority over the very same corruption issues that created this situation in the first place. How patient will they be remains to be seen. But it’s worth remembering that Trump famously holds no loyalty to anyone, including to the Republican Party itself. Will the cost of defending him be worth it, if it means sacrificing a Senate seat in Alabama for the next six years, and with it the Senate majority itself?

Impeachment Will Be On the Menu For the Holidays

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, we’ll start to see the kind of advice columns that pop up every year about this time on how to survive family discussions about politics over the holidays. My favorite comes full of snark from the Onion.

This year the advice-givers are going to have their hands full, because the temperature is about to heat up several notches. According to CNN, this is the timetable House Democrats have planned for the impeachment inquiry.

  • November 11-22 House Intelligence Committee holds public hearings
  • November 25-29 Thanksgiving break, during which House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs Committees prepare their report to the Judiciary Committee
  • December 2-6 House Judiciary Committee holds public hearings
  • December 9-13 House Judiciary Committee votes on articles of impeachment
  • December 16-20 Full House votes on impeachment

Of course the timeline will be fluid and could change, but that’s the general outline. As Ed Kilgore notes, the fast pace doesn’t necessarily mean that articles of impeachment will be narrowly crafted.

Presumably this timetable would accommodate a non-Ukraine-related article of impeachment or two if House Democrats decide it’s wise to include one. After all, other committees were instructed by Pelosi back in September to consider such possible articles. If, say, the obstruction of justice suggested in the Mueller Report seems actionable, most of the evidentiary work has already been done.

I can’t help but think that Santa Claus has already gathered the evidence on who’s been naughty and nice this year and the packages are in the process of being wrapped to go under the tree.

It is possible, however, that your crazy uncle will have his own fodder for the discussions over the holiday get-together. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz completed his investigation into possible FISA abuse by the FBI back in mid-September and sent his report to the Justice Department for classification review. Since then, there have been a series of breathless reports on right wing media that it is about to be made public. Just this week Senator Lindsey Graham said that it was coming soon and added, “I think his report is going to be stunning. I think it is going to be damning. I think it’s going to prove that the system got off the rails.”

The latest prediction is that the Horowitz report will be released after Thanksgiving and has been held up due to a “complicated and contentious mix of legal, classification and political issues at play.” I suspect that the legal and classification issues were dealt with a while ago. When it comes to the political issues, it is possible that the report is being held up to provide a distraction when the impeachment hearings become the dominant story. In other words, Sean Hannity will be provided with material to up the ante of his attacks on the “deep state” so that he can keep his viewers in the dark about the evidence that has been compiled for impeachment. That’s what your crazy uncle will be railing about as the family gathers for the holidays.

Happy Holidays, and plan accordingly.

I Wish Joe Biden Would Stop Saying Republicans Can Reform

I’m generally sympathetic to Joe Biden as a person and think that in most respects his administration would be hard to distinguish from a third Obama term. He’d staff the government with good, decent, well-meaning and competent people and he’d do his honest best to be a president America could take pride in. I’m not sure a third Obama term is what the country really needs right now, or that that is the best we can do, or that Biden would perform nearly as well as Obama when it came time to make the really hard decisions. I’m not even sure, at his age, if he’s up for the challenge. But I’m not hostile to Joe Biden. Except, perhaps, when I hear him talk about Republicans as if they’re people who can be reasoned with or partnered with in good faith negotiations.

One way or another, the Republicans will one day be free of Donald Trump, and they will change as a result. But the main way political parties change is through the churn of elections. Their vulnerable members are the most likely to be interested in bipartisanship, but they’re also the first to lose. The Democrats didn’t become more interested in working with Trump when centrist senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana lost their reelection bids. The same thing is happening on a greater scale to the GOP as the Democrats continue to pick off lawmakers who come from competitive states and districts. If Joe Biden wins a resounding victory over Trump, he will also probably see many of the likeliest Republican partners for bipartisan legislation bounced out of office at the same time. And, honestly, there aren’t many partnering candidates to begin with.

It’s true that when political parties lose consistently and for a long time, they can begin to moderate their positions and move to the center. This is basically what happened with the Democrats in the early nineties. But, as the anti-government party, the Republicans are more comfortable being in the opposition than the Democrats. They spent about sixty years in a near perpetual congressional minority between 1933 and 1995. What finally brought them out of the wilderness wasn’t moderation but the triumph of the radical conservative movement. They seem more than happy to lose elections if the alternative is to work with Democrats.

If anything, the possibility of bipartisanship is more remote than ever. First, the Democrats have very few conservative members left in Congress, so there’s no longer much ideological overlap to work with. Second, the rise of right-wing media has brought along an extremely strong enforcement mechanism for highlighting and punishing any softness or compromise from Republican officeholders, very much including their leadership.

I have no doubt a President Biden would have a vastly more cordial relationship with Senate Republicans than a President Warren or Sanders or Harris. But they’d still feel compelled to oppose him at every turn because personal relationships can only help on things that have very low visibility to the enforcers at Fox News and other conservative media outlets.

President Biden would not find a receptive Republican audience for any part of his platform in Congress. More likely, the GOP would change their position on an issue rather than maintain it if was consistent with Biden’s view. They would characterize everything he proposed as radical and budget-busting and in the service of non-white welfare cheats. They would shut down the government and default on the national debt to extract the maximum amount of concessions.

This isn’t just a problem for Biden. Things would be basically the same but more heated if the next president pushed a more progressive agenda. No one can magically fix the Republican Party or make its members cooperative. No one can enact their agenda under the present rules because the Republicans will have the power to block almost all substantive legislation.

But Biden keeps saying that he’s got the magic touch. It’s somewhere between insulting and dishonest to hear him talk about the Republicans having an “epiphany” if he becomes president. This is a party that is sticking with a criminal and incompetent and immoral and reckless president because, like Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, they don’t turn on their leaders.

I wish Biden were right. But I’ve been blogging for about 15 years now, and all that time I’ve been saying that the Republicans are far worse than most people understand or are prepared to admit. And they have kept proving me correct over and over and over again. They aren’t going to reverse course and get better. What they’re going to do, eventually, is circle the drain for long enough that they’re flushed into the annals of history.