Hezbollah and the Future of Lebanon
Jul 25, 2008 | AIJAC staff
July 25, 2008
Number 07/08 #08
The Israel-Hezbollah exchange of prisoners for the bodies of abducted soldiers last week has renewed the focus on the political battle occurring inside Lebanon, as Hezbollah tried to capitalise on the national hero’s welcome given to released terrorist and child-murderer Samir Kuntar. This Update includes some interesting pieces focussed on Lebanon’s internal power struggles.
First up is Washington Institute Lebanon and Syria expert David Schenker, who looks at efforts to negotiate a “ministerial statement”, an agenda for the new government, which, following clashes in May, now includes Hezbollah. He points out that the ruling pro-Western March 14 party is clearly weakened but will be seeking to include measures hinting at disarmament of non-government militias (the main one being Hezbollah) and instituting policies highlighting independence from Syria. Meanwhile, Hezbollah will be seeking to enshrine their self-proclaimed role as national “resistance” and tighten links with Syria. For the details of this latest phase in Lebanon’s internal political struggle, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Lee Smith, a scholar who has lived in Lebanon for an extended period and has written about that country extensively, examines the feelings of Lebanese who do not support Hezbollah with respect to the celebrations over Samir Kuntar. He quotes several who are appalled, and points out that many see his release as a positive development not for its own sake, but because it removes an excuse Hezbollah uses to hang on to its weapons when all other militias have been disarmed. He concludes optimistically, arguing that Hezbollah is beset by enemies both within and outside Lebanon, and is effectively turning the Shi’ite community of Lebanon into a suicide cult, and therefore its days are all-but-numbered. For this view, CLICK HERE.
Finally, the well-known American Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, whose own roots are in Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, appears to partially concur. Writing beautifully as usual, he discusses the history of Hezbollah’s encroachments in Lebanon, and argues that Sunni and Christian resistance to it is increasing, and if it is insufficient, will gain support from across the Sunni world. Moreover, he says, the Shi’ites will mostly not follow Hezbollah to the barricades. For his relatively negative prognosis for Hezbollah, despite its success over the return of Kuntar, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Al-Jazeera, the Dubai-based TV station, holds a party in honour of Kuntar.
- US presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama’s trip to Israel on Tuesday and Wednesday (photo gallery here) occasioned much commentary there, expressing a variety of views. Some good contributions are here, here, here, here, and here. Meanwhile, some reporting of what Obama had to say is here, here, and here.
- Urging Obama to commit to legal action against incitement to genocide, something the Australian government is also considering supporting, is former Canadian Attorney-General Irwin Cotler.
- Earlier in the week, British PM Gordon Brown gave an excellent speech to Israel’s Knesset.
By David Schenker
July 23, 2008
This week, Lebanon’s new national unity government is slated to announce its ministerial statement (bayan waziri), the policy document that will define Beirut’s working parameters and agenda through the spring 2009 elections. For the pro-West majority March 14 coalition, the priority will be to incorporate into the statement a reference to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701, which prohibits weapons movement to Hizballah and expands government sovereignty throughout Lebanon. Hizballah, for its part, will look to maintain the legitimacy of “the resistance.” Although March 14 still maintains a government majority, three years of hostility and self-inflicted wounds have left the ruling party dramatically weakened, making it unclear whether the coalition will be able to prevent Hizballah from consolidating further political gains.
A Weakened March 14
Recent months have not been kind to the anti-Syrian, pro-Western government in Beirut. After it provoked a showdown with Hizballah in May, the militia responded by storming the capital city (see PolicyWatch #1375). Under the gun a month later in Doha, March 14 acceded to the opposition’s demand to establish a “national unity government,” which provided the Shiite militia and its Christian allies eleven out of the thirty cabinet seats. The deal not only increased the opposition’s de jure power, it also sparked infighting among March 14 members for the remaining seats, damaging egos and morale.
Then in early July, French president Nicholas Sarkozy invited Syrian president Bashar al-Asad — a leader who had faced diplomatic isolation since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri — to the Mediterranean Union meeting in France. Paris had been a pillar of support for March 14 and a leading advocate for the UN’s International Tribunal established to prosecute Hariri’s assassins. But the Turkish sponsored Israeli-Syrian negotiations apparently proved too enticing, and the French now appear to be taking steps — supporting Syria’s entry into the EU Economic Association for example — to rehabilitate Syria without regard to the tribunal. Sarkozy is scheduled to travel to Damascus in September.
But the coup de grace for the March 14 coalition came on July 16, when Israel engaged in a prisoner swap with Hizballah. The deal exchanged the remains of two Israeli servicemen for the remains of two hundred Palestinians and Hizballah members, as well as five Lebanese prisoners, including the notorious terrorist Samir Kuntar. By delivering Kuntar, Hizballah vindicated its tactic of kidnapping Israeli soldiers, legitimized the continued possession of its arsenal, and seemingly reestablished some of its previously lost credibility. At the same time, by actively participating in the welcome celebrations for Kuntar, who is best known for murdering an Israeli father and his four-year-old daughter in 1979, senior March 14 officials will almost certainly undercut goodwill in Washington, the government’s leading ally.
Ongoing discussions regarding the ministerial statement take place in the shadow of Kuntar’s release. Despite the shift of momentum toward the opposition, Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora has not publicly lowered expectations for the document. Indeed, last week he suggested that the new statement might prove even more favorable to March 14 than the July 2005 document, which was also drafted following the establishment of a government with Hizballah.
The only references to Hizballah contained in the 2005 statement were a call to “preserve our brave resistance,” and conduct a “dialogue” on how Lebanon could best counter Israel’s “occupations and ambitions.” While this formulation seemed innocuous enough, its deliberate lack of clarity — typical of Lebanese government consensus documents — allowed for creative interpretation, and eventually served as the quasi-legal justification for the continuous arming of the Shiite militia.
When the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) seized a truckload of Hizballah weapons in February 2007, the militia protested, claiming that the 2005 ministerial statement “clearly established the right of the resistance to continue its actions.” A year earlier, when the LAF seized and released a convoy of weapons in Lebanon, then chief of staff Michel Suleiman indicated that government policy actually prohibited the military from interdicting Syrian weapons bound for Hizballah.
A Fight for Language
Because the 2008 ministerial statement will again represent a consensus between March 14 and the opposition, the ruling coalition will no doubt be more cautious about language. Given the divergent worldviews, however, the attendant risks remain: both March 14 and Hizballah see the ministerial statement as a tool to constrain their rivals.
In addition to language that references UNSCR 1701, according to Lebanese daily al-Nahar, March 14 seeks references both to the Doha Agreement, since it stipulates an end to violence for political gain and advocates for state sovereignty throughout the country, and to President Suleiman’s inaugural speech, because it articulates the development of a national defense strategy that “take[s] advantage of the resistance’s capabilities and put[s] them to the service of this strategy.” Hizballah signed the Doha agreement, and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said he “agree[s] with every word” of the president’s address.
For its part, Hizballah is focused on enshrining the concept of “resistance” within the statement. In this regard, the militia differs with President Suleiman’s formulation that Lebanon will “liberate land militarily if diplomacy fails,” arguing that “resistance” and diplomacy should be simultaneous. According to Hizballah’s deputy secretary general Naim Qassem, Lebanon will not be in a position to benefit from diplomacy “if it is not accompanied by resistance.” The red line for Hizballah in the statement will likely be the inalienable “right to liberate the land.”
Relations with Syria
Another focus of the negotiations is the future disposition of Lebanese-Syrian relations. March 14 leaders state that that they seek “good relations between Syria and Lebanon as two independent countries.” In the aftermath of Kuntar’s release, March 14 officials have also argued that the statement should refer to the Lebanese “missing” who are presumed to be in Syria. According to Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE), 643 Lebanese have been imprisoned by Damascus since the 1970s. The Lebanese parliamentary committee charged with investigating these detainees believes ninety-one remain alive.
March 14 leaders have also been adamant in their demand that the Syrian-Lebanese border be demarcated. In addition, another March 14 leader, Walid Jumblatt, has stated that the Higher Syria-Lebanon Council — a Syrian tool to manipulate Lebanon’s defense and foreign policies — be abolished and its agreements abrogated. Damascus and its ally Hizballah oppose these demands, however, so it is unlikely that these points will reach the final text.
National Dialogue — Again?
Reports this week suggest that the new ministerial statement could be released as early as today. Yesterday, however, Lebanese press reports pointed to snags in the talks over bilateral relations with Syria and the weapons of the “resistance.” If March 14 and the Hizballah-led opposition do not find acceptable language in the coming days, the most contentious issues will be referred to a national dialogue chaired by President Suleiman. Given the precedent of ineffective Lebanese national dialogues, this “solution” promises to be a prescription for deferred conflict (see PolicyWatch #1089).
Regardless of the outcome of the ministerial statement, it will constitute at best only a temporary ceasefire in the battle between the March 14 coalition and the opposition. While the compromise nature of the document will ensure that no party is entirely satisfied, it will also leave critical questions about Lebanon’s future unresolved. No doubt, many Lebanese will breathe a sigh of relief when the statement is published, and start to look forward to the parliamentary elections — and a new government — next spring. But given developments of recent months, a weak statement will offer little comfort for March 14 and its constituent groups. Instead of providing a respite, these groups will likely focus on preparing — arming and training — for the inevitable next round with Hizballah.
David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.
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Standpoint online, Thursday 24th July 2008
Last Wednesday’s pageantry in Beirut celebrating the return of Samir Kuntar marked a black day for Lebanon. It is hardly the first time an Arab terror outfit has held a street party for murderers – sweets were handed out in plenty of Arab capitals on 9/11. Still, it was surprising to see the participation of many members of Lebanon’s pro-democracy March 14 movement, like Prime Minister Fouad Siniora who has become a significant US ally over the last three years. Now, Lebanon’s friends in the international community, especially in Washington, who backed March 14’s struggle and looked to it as a model alternative to the bin Laden version of the Middle East, must re-evaluate their continued support.
Still, not all Lebanese took part in the festival for a child-murderer.
“The celebrations caught me by surprise,” says Jana, a 26-year-old Shia woman raised in the Hezbollah cantons of south Beirut. “I don’t understand how we are celebrating the achievements of such a person. It is Lebanese schizophrenia. Anyone who attacks us we call a criminal, but when one of ours does the same, we call that person a hero. We don’t apply the same standards to ourselves as we do to the Israelis.”
Much of Lebanon was ashamed to see fellow countrymen cheering the return of Kuntar, and few observed the national “holiday.” In the largely Christian eastern sector of Beirut, Ashrafiyeh, stores stayed open. It was the same in Sunni areas of West Beirut, where merchants were openly disdainful of the Sunni Prime Minister’s decision to honor the resistance.
“I assure you there are even lots of Shia who are depressed about the celebrations,” says Jana. “They’re certainly not in the majority, but you won’t hear them at all because they would be identified as traitors. What kind of support is there for them if even the government is welcoming the prisoners?”
Wadih, a 40-year-old Christian businessman agrees. “Yes, it’s shameful. But if Israel is satisfied with it, then at the end of the day I’m ok with it. The Israelis made the deal. Why should I be more royalist than the king?” “The Israeli political class has their own socio-political justification to reason away releasing a murderer for two corpses,” says Tony Badran, a US-based Lebanese political analyst. “So our political class can reason it away, too. But I am not reasoning it away. I hate everything it represents. It’s a festival of violence where everyone has to come pay homage.”
The Lebanese political class – from the Maronite Patriarch Boutros Sfeir to anti-Hezbollah Christian leaders like Samir Geagea and Amine Gemayel – has all described Israel’s release of the prisoners as a “positive” development. “They say it is ‘positive,'” explains Tony, “not because Kuntar is back but because they want to use it to shut the door on Hezbollah’s weapons. This strips them of one of their justifications to hold on to their arms – fighting for the liberation of Lebanese prisoners. Kuntar was the last of them so that file is now closed.”
But of course Hezbollah will not willingly abandon its arms under any circumstances. And the events of the last week are merely a distraction on the road to what many believe is an inevitable renewal of civil war in Lebanon. Hezbollah can have their civil war as they showed in May by overrunning Beirut. But as their opponents showed them in the Shouf Mountains and the north of Lebanon, they cannot win that civil war. No one will win it.
The question then is, why did so many of the Lebanese politicians who may eventually make war against Hezbollah feel compelled to celebrate with them.
“You can’t underestimate how important the Israeli conflict is for Arabs and Muslims,” says Wadih. “It is part of the inferiority complex. Despite all the conflicts among the Arabs themselves, this still comes first. And because of the place it occupies in the Arab mind, there is a sacred line you need to follow to satisfy the popular demand, whether you believe it or not. It is a sickness, to be sure. How else can you explain that a murderer is received as a hero?”The Lebanese are fully aware of the nature of Kuntar’s crimes. While some are truly appalled, the fact is that bludgeoning the head of a four-year-old child is hardly anomalous in the context of a military strategy that for over half a century has intentionally targeted civilians. After all, it is not as though Kuntar crossed the boundaries of decency so carefully articulated by Yasser Arafat, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Ladin. So, if the leaders of Lebanon’s pro-democracy gathering will not denounce Kuntar’s crimes or Hezbollah’s celebration it is not merely because they lack courage. Rather, it is because even the Sunnis, as much as they despise the “Party of God”, are so steeped in the same bloody history that they cannot imagine another course.
What is unique about Hezbollah’s coming out party for Kuntar is that it illustrates how the culture of death (“Death to Israel, Death to America.”) may end by consuming itself. As Hezbollah proved in its blitzkrieg of Beirut in May, Lebanese lives, Arab lives, Muslim lives are also of little account if they stand against the “Islamic resistance”. Moreover, the Kuntar episode shows that the Shiite militia has little regard for even Shiites. After all, insofar as freeing Kuntar was Nasrallah’s casus belli for the July 2006 war [it was to force Kuntar’s release that Hezbollah raided Israel and kidnapped two soldiers] the Lebanese Shiite community “martyred” 1200 of its own in order to vouchsafe Nasrallah’s “faithful promise”. Twelve hundred for one is a bargain suicidal in both its math and its ethics.
Self destruction is arguably the inevitable destination for a group that, as Martin Kramer details, made its world debut with suicide operations during the Lebanese civil wars.
The first car-bomb “martyrdom operation” was November 11, 1982 when a Hezbollah fighter killed seventy-four Israeli soldiers and fourteen others. Then came a series of spectacular attacks, culminating in the1983 US Marine Barracks bombing at the Beirut airport. Amal, another Shiite organization, understood that Hezbollah’s martyrdom operations were winning them prestige and power in the Shiite community, and tried to match is rival.
As the two Shiite organizations competed for martyrs, they started sending out their young men on ill-conceived operations that failed to kill any of the enemy and achieved only the deaths of the martyrs themselves. That is, they were suicides. Shiite clerics tried to qualify the religious sanction they’d granted the operations. There was Hezbollah’s one-time spiritual adviser Hussein Fadlallah:
“We believe that self-martyring operations should only be carried out if they can bring about a political or military change in proportion to the passions that incite a person to make of his body an explosive bomb.”
But it was already too late, for it is impossible to prevent the suicide of a society like the one Hezbollah has imposed on the Shia of Lebanon. Nasrallah forecasts the end of Israel, comparing the Zionist entity to a frail spider’s web, destined to be swept away. The winds of history are capricious, but what neither Arab bluster, nor Islamic martyrdom nor the “steadfastness” of “resistance” can obscure is that the house Hezbollah built is on the precipice of extinction, by its own handicraft.
Hezbollah seems ascendant, but not so strong that the Israelis would not welcome a Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon, for they believe it would be easy to deter the “Party of God”. However, that is precisely why Hezbollah will not take over, because it needs to operate behind the cover of the state, a human shield of more than 3.5 million people.
In other words, the Islamic Resistance is surrounded by enemies – one across the border, another at its back, and yet a third made up of the Middle East Majority, a Sunni sea threatening to engulf them as the Shia have feared for almost 1400 years. The situation is unsustainable, and thus as time is calculated in the region, the days of the death cult are numbered. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz Prime Minister Olmert’s office has produced a video about Kuntar “as part of a campaign to tarnish the image of the Lebanese guerilla group in light of the victory celebrations.”
But who is unclear about Hezbollah at this point? Unless it is Ehud Olmert himself, who last week in Paris at the Mediterranean Summit sought a little face time with prospective “peace partner” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The Israeli Prime Minister who wants to illustrate the culture of death in Lebanon is pursuing peace with the state that equips the culture of death with weapons. Indeed, Israel has warned against regime change in Damascus because it fears a Sunni Islamist government next door – while it cuts deals with Shiite Islamists in Lebanon and is then aghast at their level of brutality.
Everyone else already knew about Hezbollah. The Arabs knew. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Sunni strongman Saad Hariri, both congratulated the Islamic resistance for freeing the prisoners – and this after Hezbollah tortured and executed their co-religionists just two months ago.
Maybe the campaign is directed toward the West. But the apologists in the academy and editorial rooms and foreign bureaus angling for professional advancement – i.e. access to Nasrallah and his captains – know. The same is true of the left-wing fellow travelers of the “resistance” who, unknown to some of their earnest colleagues, understand perfectly well that the Islamists do not share their “progressive” ideals. The tenured Nietzscheans and Foucauldians who seek a return to the blood, the magic, the violence, they certainly know. Those who know what Hezbollah is, know; and those who seem not to know, know even better.
Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute where he specializes in Levant affairs
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By FOUAD AJAMI
Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2008; Page A17
There have been a dozen prisoner exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel since the early 1990s, but Samir Kuntar was always a case apart. In 1979 Kuntar and his companions killed a policeman, kidnapped a young father, Danny Haran, and killed him in front of his 4-year-old daughter. Then Kuntar turned to the child and crushed her skull against a rock with the butt of his rifle. In the mayhem, Danny Haran’s wife, Smadar, hiding in her home, accidentally smothered to death the couple’s 2-year-old daughter.
Now Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has finally got his way. Last week, Israel handed over Kuntar in return for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, captured by Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. They returned to Israel in black coffins.
This prisoner swap will serve Hezbollah’s purposes in the interminable struggles within Lebanon. Trumpets and drums greeted Kuntar’s release. Breathless pollsters now tell us that Nasrallah, a turbaned Shiite and a child of poverty, is the most admired hero of the “Arab street.” This is so, we are told, even in Sunni Arab lands otherwise given to animus toward Shiites.
But Nasrallah had been here before. Two summers ago, he triggered a terrible war across the Lebanon-Israel frontier, with a toll of 1,200 Lebanese deaths (160 Israelis also perished in that senseless summer) and no less than $5 billion in damages to Lebanon’s economy. That war was sold to the gullible as a “divine victory” — the first Arab victory against Israel’s might.
Some expected that Hezbollah would lay down its arms and that the Lebanese, free of Syrian captivity, would return their country to a modicum of order and normalcy. Those hopes were in vain. In the last two years, Hezbollah brought the political life of Lebanon to a standstill. Its formidable militia made a mockery of the incumbent government. Nasrallah sent his followers into Beirut’s commercial center, and for seven long months he thwarted the attempts to elect a new president.
The “Cedar Revolution” of 2005, so full of promise, was no match for Nasrallah’s “soldiers of virtue.” A proxy struggle played out in Lebanon, with the United States, France and Saudi Arabia on the side of the incumbent government, and Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, on the other. There was no escaping the sectarianism: A determined Sunni-Shiite struggle had come to Lebanon.
In its heady days, the Cedar Revolution movement was “hip” and seemed like a fight between the “beautiful people” and the Shiite hicks. The Shiites had a cruel, rural past and they still had self-doubt — believing that the Sunni merchant classes of West Beirut continued to see them as squatters in the city. The clerics and laymen who dominate Hezbollah were quite skilled at exploiting this Shiite sense of unease.
There was a built-in flaw in the Cedar Revolution that Hezbollah preyed upon. Intended or not, that broad, spontaneous eruption following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had come to rest on an alliance of the Druse, the Sunni Muslims and the bulk of the country’s Christian population. The vast Shiite community, the country’s largest, had stood uncertain amid the tumult that followed Syria’s withdrawal. The Shiites had an uneasy alliance with the Syrian occupiers, and the Shiite mainstream was enthusiastic about Lebanese liberty. Hezbollah had the guns and the money. It had as well the status of a “liberation movement,” and few in Lebanon dared question this claim.
The impasse between a sovereign Beirut government and an armed militia doing the bidding of the Iranian theocrats could not last. A small war broke out last May when the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora wanted to dismantle an illegal fiber-optic network that Hezbollah had installed, a vast communication system that stretched for more than 200 miles and reached to the Syrian border. In retaliation, Hezbollah struck into the Sunni neighborhoods of West Beirut and the Druse stronghold in the Shouf Mountains.
The Sunnis were easily overwhelmed. The Druse had put up a measure of resistance, but they, too, could not stand up to Hezbollah. It’s no small irony that Kuntar, a man of the Druse Mountains, is now returned home courtesy of Hezbollah. But the deep antagonism between the Druse and Hezbollah can’t be wished away by Kuntar’s release.
More than ever, Hezbollah is a Shiite party, shorn of its exalted status as a national resistance movement. Behind Hezbollah’s deeds is the fine hand of Iran. Nasrallah had tried to obscure the difference between Lebanon’s needs and those of his paymasters in Iran. In a widely scrutinized speech the cleric gave in late May, on the eighth anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Nasrallah claimed that he was at once a devoted believer in Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution and a son of Lebanon who believed in its “specificity” and pluralism.
There would be distinct roles for the Lebanese state and for his “resistance movement.” The first would assume the burden of order and governing, while his movement would carry the banner of the armed struggle against Israel. This kind of contradiction can’t be papered over. Nasrallah and his lieutenants must fully grasp their precarious position: They feed off mayhem and strife, while the country yearns for a break from its feuds.
It is doubtful that the Shiites will always follow Nasrallah to the barricades, and those who do so will expect material sustenance from Hezbollah. There are estimates that Hezbollah provides employment for 40,000 of its wards and schooling for 100,000 children. This is no small burden, even for a movement sustained by Iranian subsidies. Nor is it the case that the majority of the Shiites want the strictures and the rigor of Qom and Tehran dominating their world. True, the underclass and the newly urbanized in the Shiite suburbs may have taken to the dress codes and style and religious ritual of the Iranian theocracy. But the majority must wish a break from all that.
Hezbollah will not be able to run away with Lebanon. Already the Sunnis have been stirred up by Hezbollah’s power. Sunni jihadists have made their presence felt in the northern town of Tripoli, and in the dozen or so Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of the principal cities.
It would be reasonable to assume that the weight of Sunni sentiment would shift toward the jihadists, were they to conclude that the mild-mannered Sunni politicians can’t win a test of wills, and arms, against Hezbollah. Nor do the Christians want Hezbollah’s utopia. The Christians have been weakened by emigration, but they, too, will fight for their place in the country if forced to do so. Furthermore, should there be any accommodation between America and Iran, the Persian power is sure to cast Hezbollah adrift.
“We lived in a world where we believed that our enemy was exactly like us,” Ofer Regev said in a eulogy for his fallen brother. “We thought we could speak to people who also wanted to raise a child, grow a flower, love a girl, exactly like us. But the enemy proved that it is not exactly like us. And still, we will not stop trying.”
Across the Lebanon border, Israelis may have once found a culture not so distant from their own, with mercy, decorum and “rules of engagement” even in times of conflict. The Lebanese will have to retrieve that older world if they are to find their way out of the grip of bigotry and terror. A decent country would be under no moral or political obligation to celebrate a murderer as a heroic son returning from a long captivity.
Mr. Ajami, a Bradley Prize recipient, teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2006).