What is it about the blogosphere that can transform perfectly credible academics into unethical hit men? The object of my inquiry is one Joshua Landis, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma who hosts a widely read, once respectable Weblog called Syria Comment.
I make no pretense of maintaining the high road here. My question is prompted by Landis' putting up a post on his blog last week that made serious and unsubstantiated allegations about me. Nor is this the first or second time this happens. Landis was so pleased with his text that he e-mailed it to various correspondents for dissemination. On Sunday, Landis asked for my permission to post a rebuttal I had sent him. I agreed. But when I next checked his site, he was telling readers he wanted "passions to cool" before posting his response to my unposted comments. I mentioned his promise unkept; he offered an unpersuasive excuse, saying my rejoinder would go up on Wednesday. That calculated delay made any rebuttal meaningless, so I asked him to forget about it.
Having been denied a timely chance to respond on his site, I do so here. Why should a row matter? It matters to me because in the polarized Lebanese atmosphere, fabricated accusations can be irresponsible, even dangerous. The theme of Landis' post is that Lebanon's Shiites, since they are under-represented in Parliament, are comparable to black slaves in America. For some reason Landis makes me the embodiment of those Lebanese denying Shiites their rights. This is troubling for being visibly personal in intent, given how inconsequential I am in the matter of Shiite power; but also because I've repeatedly argued that the Taif agreement needs overhauling so Shiites receive a greater stake in the system. I wrote last summer that "Taif was designed to build a post-war state. It should be re-tooled to bring the Shiite community back into the Lebanese fold."
Landis builds his case on false pretences. He writes that I believe "the Shiite Crescent is the true enemy of the West and liberty in the region." I responded that he might want to supply a quote, since I rarely use the term "Shiite Crescent," negatively or positively, find the idea simplistic, and have written so. Landis states that I back disarmament of "the Shiites" in South Lebanon by international forces. I again requested a quote. None was forthcoming, possibly because I've argued that such a step would be disastrous. In June 2005 I wrote here that "no one wants to see [Hizbullah] disarmed by force, nor is that a sensible option ... [And] no one in Washington or Paris, let alone at United Nations headquarters, is contemplating going down such a reckless path."
Most disturbing, Landis writes: "Young once said to me that if Taif were rewritten and Christians were allocated less than their present 50 percent share of Parliamentary seats, he might be forced to leave Lebanon." Landis made this up, and I can confirm that through the four other people present at the dinner where the subject was broached. I wouldn't make such a statement because I disagree with it.
Here is what I wrote in The Daily Star in August 2005, in a piece on how Taif might be used advantageously to reform Lebanon's political system: "What is expected, first, of Christians, is to collectively initiate a process realistically assessing where they stand now ... In that sense, the Taif agreement ... offers guidelines to a system gradually moving away from political confessionalism: administrative decentralization, but also the elimination of a 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims in Parliament, and the creation of a Senate - probably evenly divided between the religious communities - to deal with major national issues."
Landis confused our conversation with an exchange published on his blog, in which I plainly made reference to how I thought Christians in general might respond to elimination of the 50-50 ratio. I never mentioned how I myself would react - an issue pertinent here because Landis' reference to my being "forced to leave" implies that I somehow fear paying a personal price if Muslims are granted a greater share of power. In fact, a peaceful transfer of power through the removal of the 50-50 quota in Parliament, provided there are institutional guarantees to reassure Christians, is the only long-term hope for the Christian community.
These illustrations, and others, are typical of Landis' style. He chronically puts harmful words into the mouths of others, with no evidence for his sleights of hand. But when such behavior drifts into articles in respected publications, it becomes a different matter altogether, pointing to a far more worrisome abandonment of academic integrity.
Take a piece on the Syrian opposition that Landis co-authored in the Winter 2007 issue of The Washington Quarterly. In it he asserted that the Damascus Declaration, an October 2005 document signed by Syrian opposition figures calling for democratic change, "grew out of a clandestine trip to Morocco only a few months earlier by intellectual Michel Kilo to meet with [the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddin] Bayanuni to discuss a new initiative to unite forces."
This item was quite damaging to Kilo, who had been languishing in Adra prison for having purportedly colluded with Syria's enemies. Where did Landis get this information? In reading the article you see that the authors have footnoted an article by Andrew Tabler, which I happen to have read. But as an astute reader reminded me, Tabler only wrote that "two unnamed members" of the Syrian civil society movement had met with Bayanouni. There is no mention of Kilo at all in the piece, because Tabler could not confirm his presence in Morocco. One of two things happened: Either Landis read Tabler as carelessly as he reads everything else he quotes, which still doesn't explain how Kilo's name slipped in; or, knowing the impact of what he was saying, Landis mentioned Kilo intentionally, effectively justifying his arrest, then dishonestly attributed this to Tabler.
I'm increasingly inclined to believe the latter. My theory, and take it for what it's worth, is that Landis' ambition is to be the premier mediator with and interpreter of Syria in American academic and policy-making circles - a latter-day Patrick Seale. In this context, and again this is just a coagulating hypothesis, Landis has frequently used his blog to prove his worth to the Syrians - perhaps to enjoy better access. He has also maligned those offering perspectives different than his own. In the post where he went after me, Landis harshly attacked the An-Nahar Washington correspondent, Hisham Melhem, as well. My conviction is that Landis felt he had to discredit us both, mainly because we fear that Lebanon will pay if the US engages Syria. As he once, revealingly, put it to me: "Your anti-Syrian line is the most coherent and best packaged." I would dispute the term "anti-Syrian" and find his use of the word "packaged" peculiar. Perhaps I'm just not partial to Syria's leadership.
Is court scribe really a role an academic should aspire to? And what does it say about Landis that he has consistently promoted the idea that the United States should sign off on renewed Syrian control over Lebanon in exchange for a deal with Damascus in Iraq? What kind of esteem does a scholar invite by wanting to return a recently emancipated, fairly democratic country to its former subjugation by a foreign dictatorship?
Consider Landis' oblique, but very clear message in a PBS interview last November. It merits being quoted in full: "Syria is demanding a number of things. They're demanding the Golan Heights back that was occupied in 1967 by Israel. They want influence in Lebanon, and they don't want Iraq to fall apart ... And, you know, the United States and Syria have dealt together for two decades. And the US in '91, when it first went to war against Iraq in the Gulf, had Syria on its side, because in a sense it said, 'You can keep Lebanon in your sphere of influence.' And Syria said, 'Yes,' they kept Lebanon in their sphere of influence. And what happened to Lebanon during that period? It repaired itself in the Civil War. It grew. [Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri ... rebuilt Lebanon. It was pro-Western. Because of Syrian influence ... in Lebanon [it] does not mean that the country turns into ... a small Iran on the Mediterranean. It means that Syrian interests are taken into concern, and it doesn't mean the end." Hariri might dispute the last observation. Then again, at a Brookings Institution conference Landis once famously remarked that the late prime minister had "died."
One can cite copious contradictions in his posts, as the calculations change. Sometimes Landis will write that Syria is "doing the complete job of guarding [the Iraqi] border"; at other times, he will observe: "By refusing to deal with Syria, the US guaranteed that [Bashar] Assad would not police mujaheddin going in and out of [Iraq] and would work to undermine the US in Iraq." Sometimes Landis will tell the Council on Foreign Relations that the "Christians in Lebanon are talking about how Israel would be a much better partner than Syria and that they should make peace with Israel"; elsewhere he will affirm that the most popular Christian leader is Michel Aoun, who is close to Hizbullah, and will refer to the "Maronite-Shiite alliance that really frustrated the Sunnis."
I've long been a believer in the revolutionary potential of blogs, and was a regular visitor to Landis' site when he used it as a platform to popularize his academic research. But something happened along the way. From an egghead unknown to the public, Landis morphed into a slapdash cyber-pundit, a pamphleteer, a willing agent of influence. Now he always seems to be hawking something. The thing is, his overall value has dived.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.