September 28, 2009

Hands Off Honduras

The United States government, along with the rest of the Western Hemisphere’s governments, is so worked up about returning ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to power that it hasn’t thought through the long- or even medium-term consequences of its threats and demands.

Millions of dollars in aid to Honduras–one of the poorest countries in Latin America–was cut off after Zelaya was arrested by the military and sent into exile in June. The U.S. is not only threatening to cut off hundreds of millions more, it’s threatening to impose sanctions and not recognize the results of the November election if he isn’t first allowed back in office. These threats, if carried out, will put both Honduras and the U.S. in impossible positions.

Sanctions are supposed to be temporary. Targeted countries are always told what they can do to restore the status quo ante. Iran, for instance, can dismantle its nuclear-weapons program. Syria can cease and desist its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Saddam Hussein, while he still ruled Iraq, had the option of admitting weapons inspectors.

Honduras, though, will have no way out if the interim government doesn’t return Zelaya to power before his term ends in January. Because the Honduran constitution prohibits him and every other president from serving more than one term, it won’t be legally possible for Honduras to do what’s demanded of it after the end of this year. Unlike Iraq, Iran, and Syria, it will be isolated and trapped under sanctions indefinitely.

Sanctions and diplomatic isolation aren’t the geopolitical equivalents of jail time and fines; they’re used to coax rogue regimes into changing their behavior. They are tools of coercion, not punishment. By the time 2010 rolls around, it won’t make any difference how badly the current interim government of Honduras is or is not behaving right now if the next one is elected in a free and fair election. The “coup regime” will have been replaced. The crisis will be over, the problem resolved. Punishing the next government–and by extension, the people of Honduras–for something a temporary former government did the previous year is gratuitous and, as far as I know, unprecedented. Even a country as roguish and oppressive as North Korea can come in from the cold if it holds a genuinely free and fair election.

While Honduras will be placed in an impossible position that it can’t escape from, refusing to recognize the results of the November election will put the U.S. in an equally impossible position. Reality will force the U.S. to back down for one simple reason–it will be possible for the U.S. to back down, while Honduras could only surrender to our demands by using a time machine. We might as well play “chicken” with an inanimate object.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:30 PM | Comments (10)

Something is Rotten in the State of Egypt

Occasional guest-blogger and former Cairo resident Lee Smith picks up where I left off a few days ago:

The Obama administration's Arab-Israeli peace process is in more trouble than even the White House realizes. To be sure, the Israelis and Palestinians are both dug in, and when the president sought baby steps from the Arabs toward normalizing relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait rebuffed the administration. But now even Cairo, where Obama hit his reset button with the Muslim world, has made its stand, albeit much less publicly. The campaign against Egyptian editor and analyst Hala Mustafa for meeting with Israel's ambassador to Cairo is sufficient evidence that the first country to have a peace treaty with Jerusalem is no closer to normalization than it was when Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords 30 years ago.

Read the whole thing in the Weekly Standard.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:30 AM | Comments (4)

September 26, 2009

Censoring Afghanistan

Michael Yon's latest dispatch about British censorship of media reports from Afghanistan should be required reading – especially for readers in Britain.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:30 PM | Comments (4)

September 25, 2009

The Arab Preference for War

Egyptian playwright Ali Salem visited Israel in 1994 to “rid himself of hatred,” as he put it, and he wrote a slim volume about his experience called A Drive to Israel. His book was a bestseller in Egypt, but Cairo’s intellectual class ostracized him. The Egyptian Cinema Association and the Egyptian Writers Association canceled his memberships.

The Middle East Media Research Institute just translated an interview with him in Kuwait’s daily An Nahar newspaper that makes for depressing reading. His interlocutor harangues him throughout and comes across only somewhat more reasonable than the intellectual colleagues who shunned him.

“My trip posed a serious challenge to the Egyptian intellectuals and the entire Egyptian society,” Salem said. “How are we to treat this small society next to us [i.e., Israeli society]? Reality forced us to embark upon a peace campaign with the society that defeated us ruthlessly in 1967. My generation cannot overcome the hurt of 1967. All the attacks on me were because I forced them to face the truth.”

It’s difficult to even imagine a Western intellectual getting in this kind of trouble for writing a sympathetic portrait of former enemies decades after peace has been made. When our wars are over, they’re over whether we win or lose.

No one in the United States wants to reignite conflicts with Germany, Japan, Vietnam, or any other country we’re no longer at war with. While we argue among ourselves about whether it’s a good idea to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, no one in the U.S. prefers war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else if peace and normal relations are viable options.

Americans from one end of the political spectrum to the other would be thrilled to see Iraq and Afghanistan as stable, prosperous countries at peace with themselves, their neighbors, and us. We don’t even have a marginalized fringe group unhappy with the fact that Germany and Japan emerged as they did from World War II. The U.S. lost the war in Vietnam in the 1970s, as Egypt lost its last war with Israel in the 1970s, but no one among us wants to fight it all over again or wishes that we were still slugging it out.

We Westerners aren’t unique in our ability to forgive, forget, and move on. I have never visited Vietnam, but everyone I know who has says even Vietnamese who supported the Communist side seem to hold no grudges against Americans.

My grandfather fought in both Europe and the Pacific as a United States Army officer during World War II. He visited Tokyo many years later and purged some of his demons there just as Ali Salem did in Israel. My mother has a picture of him smiling with his arms around a former Kamikaze pilot. I don’t know what these two former enemies said to each other, but my mother who traveled to Japan with him said it was a transformative experience for both of them.

Though my grandfather was not a public intellectual, if he had been, and if he had written about his own personal reconciliation, there is no chance his American colleagues would have shunned him or revoked his memberships from the institutions he worked with. Many Israeli writers, intellectuals, academics, and activists likewise have visited the Palestinian territories and other Arab countries with Ali Salem’s spirit. None have been ostracized by their peers. On the contrary, they’re usually lauded.

It’s easy, for those so inclined, to prefer war to peace with Israel while living in places like Damascus and Cairo. Everyone killed recently in the Arab-Israeli conflict lived in Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon. No one is shooting at Cairenes or the residents of Damascus. Egyptians, Syrians, and most other Arabs can enjoy, if that is the word, the emotional satisfaction of hostility with the hated “Zionist Entity” without suffering any consequences.

“It is strange that some people [still] say, ‘What good did the peace [agreement] do us?’” Ali Salem said. “My answer to them is this: ‘You refuse to recognize [the value] of peace, [and] therefore you are unable to understand what peace has created. . . . The [mere] fact that you return to your home safely and are not hit by a sniper’s bullet or by a missile falling from the sky, that you do not [have to] darken your windows and fortify your door with sandbags, or check the list of the fallen every morning — all that, or [at least] some of it, is thanks to peace.”

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:53 AM | Comments (40)

September 24, 2009

Qaddafi Crazies It Up for 86 Minutes

It's always fun to read about this guy: Colonel Moammar Qaddafi, Brother Leader of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, crazied it up at the United Nations for 86 minutes yesterday.

UPDATE: Here he is sticking up for the Taliban.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:21 AM | Comments (7)

September 20, 2009

Is the U.S. About to Dump Syria?

Hussain Abdul-Hussain reports in Kuwait’s Arabic-language daily Al Rai that the Obama administration has quietly decided not to return an ambassador to Syria as promised. He quotes unnamed officials who say president Bashar Assad is blackmailing the United States and its neighbors while conceding nothing in negotiations.

“Assad had started to count the American eggs in his basket before offering anything in return,” said an administration official, according to Tony Badran’s translation from Arabic. “Assad fires a rocket here or there [in south Lebanon] and expects us to run to him. . . . This kind of security blackmail no longer works on the United States.”

Syrian blackmail, though, has been working for decades. Bashar Assad’s government, like that of his late father, Hafez Assad, is an extortionist gangster regime that demands—and usually gets—the diplomatic equivalent of protection money. “The basic line is ‘Do what we want or we will kill you,’ ” said Barry Rubin, author of The Truth about Syria. “Yet at the same time they hold out the bait of great progress if only their demands are met. They play the West at times like a master fisherman reeling in his victim.”

There’s a case to be made, albeit a weak one, for buying off rogue regimes if they’ll behave. The biggest problem with bribing the Syrians, aside from the fact that it encourages more blackmail later, is that Assad won’t even hold up his end of the deal. “The Syrians,” Lebanese blogger Mustapha explained on his blog Beirut Spring, “try to sell, for a high price, water for fires they cause themselves, then they don’t deliver.”

No matter what the Syrian government is offered—normal relations, a looser sanctions regime, trade agreements—it has never rolled back support for international terrorist organizations. Syria refuses to hold peace talks with Israel or close down the local branches of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Assad won’t stop obstructing the formation of a new Lebanese government nor will he shut down his terrorist pipeline into Iraq.

Lebanese politicians and journalists have been under siege by Syrian assassins and car bombers since 2005. Iraqis have been blown apart by Syrian-supported suicide-bombers since 2003. And Israelis have been under assault by terrorist groups backed by Damascus since the Assad regime came to power decades ago. “This is how Syria negotiates,” Lee Smith wrote in 2007 after Syrian agents blew up a bus on Mount Lebanon, “with its knife on the table and dripping with blood.”

“The impediment to real change in the Syrian regime’s behavior in a manner that would satisfy American decision-makers is structural and systemic,” wrote Tony Badran in NOW Lebanon. “Syria cannot abandon its support for violence and subversion, or its alliance with Iran, because those are the only tools allowing it to bolster its relevance above its political weight.”

Indeed, Assad and his father have made Syria an indispensable nation in the Middle East, despite its utter dearth of economic and military power, by exporting terrorism and suicide murder to neighboring countries. Henry Kissinger’s famous formulation, “No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria,” would be negated at once if Assad ceased and desisted his support for Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi terrorist groups. Syria would become just another failed Soviet-style state with no more geopolitical power than Yemen.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:48 PM | Comments (8)

September 17, 2009

Bear With Me

I'm having a hard time concentrating and writing right now because I picked up a virus. It's not the dreaded H1N1, but it's enough to sap my productivity. If I had an office job, I would stay home. Sigh. It's mild enough, though, that I don't think I'll be out of sorts for very long.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:24 AM | Comments (8)

September 15, 2009

Back Shortly

I spent the last couple of days with my family – with my mother who lives in another city and my brother who lives in another state. I'm back home now, though, and blogging will resume shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:49 AM | Comments (1)

September 8, 2009

The Warlord in His Castle

"This country is like a cake. On the top it is cream. Underneath it is fire." – Hezbollah spokesman

"We don't want the great Syrian prison." – Kamal Jumblatt

The Middle East is a rough part of the world, especially for its ethnic and religious minorities. In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein's Arab Nationalist Baath Party regime waged a war of extermination against ethnic Kurds in the north. Iran's Bahai community has been mercilessly persecuted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his fellow Khomeinists for decades. The vast majority of Jews living in Arab countries were expelled to Israel, and many in the Arab world still hope to expunge them from the region entirely by destroying the country they fled to as refugees. Egypt's Coptic Christians are second class citizens, and many Christian women in Iraq feel compelled by Islamist extremists to wear Islamic headscarves on their heads even though the state doesn't require it. Libya's Moammar Qaddafi represses the indigenous ethnic Berber minority, and the Shias of Saudi Arabia live under the boot heel of fanatical Sunni Wahhabis.

I could go on, but you get the drift.

The Druze minority communities in Lebanon, Israel, and Syria have worked out a survival formula that works better than most. They're weathervanes. They calculate. They, more than other Arabs, side with the strong horse.

In Syria, the Druze support the Baathist regime of Bashar Assad. Israeli Druze are fiercely loyal to the state and fight harder than most against the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah in elite IDF units. Many Palestinians consider them traitors.

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Chouf Mountains, homeland of Lebanon's Druze

It's trickier for Lebanon's Druze. Politics there are vastly more complicated – as complicated as politics in Iraq, if not even more so. The country is, in many ways, a microcosm of Middle East politics generally. You can usually tell which faction in Lebanon has the upper hand both locally and regionally because the Druze tend to belong to that faction. But what happens when the region is stuck in stalemate and deadlock?

Lebanon's Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently abandoned the anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah "March 14" coalition and declared himself politically neutral. Most seem to believe he did so because he thought Syrian power was on the rise again in Lebanon and didn't want to stay on the wrong side of the boss. A few say he fears a looming internal war between Sunnis and Shias and wants to step back and out of the way. He himself says compromise with Hezbollah, though it isn't desirable, is necessary because the Lebanese state is too weak to disarm a proxy militia backed by the powerful regimes in Syria and Iran. He believes, correctly, that Lebanon can't effectively take a hard line while the international community invites the rogue regimes in from the cold.

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Village town square, Chouf Mountains, Lebanon

More recently, though, he took a step back toward the "March 14" coalition while negotiations are stalled over the formation of Lebanon's next government. "That shows some confusion on Jumblatt’s part when it comes to regional dynamics," Michael Young wrote in NOW Lebanon, "and when Jumblatt is confused you can be sure things are confusing."

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Walid Jumblatt

Those who've followed his political trajectory since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri know that many have labeled him a Lebanese "neocon." He does, or at least did, fit the mold in some ways. He's not only the leader of Lebanon's Druze, but also the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, which is no longer progressive or socialist. During Lebanon's civil war, he accepted backing from the Soviet Union. His house in the mountains is still decorated with posters and knickknacks from Communist Russia. Much later, in 2005, he was one of the leaders of the Cedar Revolution that ousted the occupying Syrian military from Lebanon. He supported the Bush Administration's war to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and he even jokingly asked the White House some years ago to send car bombs to Damascus.

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Walid Jumblatt shows me pieces of his Soviet medal collection

Earlier this year, Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Foreman, and I were attacked in Beirut by thugs from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The next day, Hitchens lauded Jumblatt at the American University as one of the "real revolutionaries" of the Middle East. The audience laughed. I'm not sure if he understands why, but I do, at least partly. Jumblatt is the type of quasi-feudal warlord that real communists used to put on trial and execute. His opposition to the Syrian regime was no doubt authentic – the Syrians murdered his father in 1977 – but he cooperated with that very same regime for more than a decade. He didn't fight his way into power by overthrowing a system; he inherited it from his father.

When Arab Nationalism and fervor for the Palestinian cause swept Lebanon before and during the civil war, he and his father championed both. When the Syrians ruled in Lebanon, he went along with that, too. When Lebanon later turned against Syria, he helped lead the charge. Now that Lebanon, and the region as a whole, is in a holding pattern and no one knows who will come out on top, Jumblatt doesn't know which way to jump.

None of this means every idea in his head is cynically calculated to best represent the "centrist" position. Nor does it mean the rest of the Druze don't sincerely feel what they say they feel. Jumblatt and his people are complicated. He isn't a revolutionary in the usual sense, but he isn't strictly a weathervane either as Lee Smith notes at the Hudson Institute.

He is a leftist, yet a "neoconservative." He's a quasi-feudal warlord who worked with the Soviet Union. He's an anti-Syrian revolutionary who collaborated with Syrian power. He's a sectarian leader who masterfully games the sectarian system to his advantage, but he hates that system because it restricts his power. (Because he isn't a Christian, Sunni, or Shia, he can never hold any of Lebanon's three most powerful posts which are reserved for them.) He champions the Palestinian cause and has no warm feelings for Zionism, yet he fiercely opposes all who fight Israel. The man is not easily pigeonholed or even explained, not by others, and not by me.

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Jumblatt residence exterior

I've met him more than once on various trips to Lebanon. The first time, years ago, he hosted me at his house in Beirut. More recently I visited Lebanon with a number of colleagues, and he hosted all of us at his Ottoman-era manor in the Chouf Mountains.

"How can we control our own destiny," he said, "when we have a state-within-the-state called the state of Hezbollah? When we have open borders to all kinds of traffic and weapons and people from Syria to Lebanon? Hezbollah has said it before and will say it now: 'Thank God the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon defend the interests of the Iranian Revolution.'"

Hezbollah has a tactical alliance with Syria, but a heartfelt one with the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. If you didn't know any better, you might think, while driving around Hezbollah's de-facto Iranian satellite state inside Lebanon, that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or Iran's current supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the dictatorial ruler of Lebanon.

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Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, South Lebanon

Hezbollah is doing its damndest to secure veto power in the next government cabinet even though it lost the election in June. If Hezbollah had won that election, two countries in the Middle East rather than one would be pursuing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's foreign policy.

"So we work day by day and compromise," Jumblatt said. "After the murder of [former Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri in 2005, and with some international support and pressure at that time from the Americans, from [French President Jacques] Chirac, from Europe, from the Arabs – Arabs meaning King Abdullah – we were able to force the Syrians out in late February 2005. But then it was, I think, the first time that [Syrian President] Bashar Assad was a little bit afraid. Then the killings and assassinations started again in June. The people who were killed from that time to the last one were people who denounced the Syrian presence and denounced the Syrian allies.

"We went at once, several times, to the [United] States with the one basic political issue, which was the International Tribunal that is supposed to bring the criminals to justice one day. Of course, we have said from the start it was the Syrian regime and their allies and proxies. But I was I think that at that time and up to now we have failed to bring enough pressure to the Syrian regime. As long as we have this Syrian regime next door, we won’t have a sovereign Lebanon."

He could have, and perhaps should have, added that he won't have a sovereign Lebanon as long as the current Iranian regime exists in Tehran. Lebanon regained some of its sovereignty after the Syrian military was driven out in 2005, but the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon has yet to defeat the Iranian Revolution in Lebanon.

"You did a good job in Iraq," he said, "so why don’t you do the same thing in Syria? I remember well the answer of Secretary of State at that time Condoleezza Rice. She said we should work on shaping Syrian behavior. It’s a very fragile and difficult situation here. Will the tribunal really change the behavior of the Syrian regime? I don’t know. Who knows? It’s the first time in history that such a tribunal is to be settled to fix up a political assassination. From the end of the Second World War you had the European tribunal, and the most prominent killers were in Serbia, Rwanda, and Cambodia. But these were genocides mainly. This one is for Lebanon."

It was a tense time as usual in Lebanon when he said this earlier in the year. The anniversaries of two political assassinations were being memorialized back to back – the assassination of Hariri in Beirut in 2005, and the assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh in Damascus in 2008. Low grade political violence simmered in various flashpoint neighborhoods.

"Yesterday," Jumblatt said, "one of our guys was assaulted in Beirut. He died today and I have to go this afternoon to cool things down. We are living with action and reaction. We could respond by attacking a Shia, and it will again become a vicious circle. The Lebanese Army is doing its best, but it is unable to impose its authority, its dominance. It’s unable to fix up being a part of the state of war and peace, unable to look at carloads of weapons coming into Lebanon. Next to Hezbollah you also have the Palestinian bases inside the camps. There are, I think, facilities for all kind of hostilities hiding in bunkers and in tunnels."

Jumblatt is no friend of Israel and never has been, even though his co-religionists inside Israel are fiercely loyal to the state in Jerusalem. It's clear, however, that he has a serious problem with everyone who actually fights Israel and would opt out of the Arab-Israeli conflict entirely if he could.

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Inside Walid Jumblatt's house

"The other issue is the Shebaa Farms," he said, "which are not Lebanese. Officially, legally, they are not Lebanese. They were taken from the Syrians in the late 1960s, and by pretending that they are Lebanese we are still hooked into the Arab-Israel conflict. The Shebaa Farms are still under UN Resolution 242. And we have nothing to do with the 242 Resolution because in 1967 Lebanon did not go to war [against Israel]. The Syrian and Iranian policy is to hook Lebanon into the 242 Resolution and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Jordan fixed up a settlement. Egypt, too. Of course, not Palestine yet. I don’t know when. Maybe it’s impossible."

Some of us in Jumblatt's house hadn't been to Lebanon before and wanted him to pull back a bit, to address some of the basics. Steve McCutcheon asked the first question.

"What tangible interest does Syria have in dominating Lebanon?" he said.

"If you look back to the so-called Baathist theory or ideology," Jumblatt said, "from the Atlantic to the Gulf, they have never accepted the fact that Lebanon would be independent. Never accepted that. So when the Baathists took power in 1963, it became the official excuse. Plus the fact that, putting aside ideology, for some years it was just a pretense for racketeering and using Lebanon for their interest. Not to mention the terrible American blunder in 1975 or 1976 when they gave Lebanon to Assad for one precise task, which was to destroy at that time the PLO and Arafat. And he did it. It took him some time, but he did it quite well. And there’s a common interest between the Syrian regime and the Israelis. They don’t care about independent Lebanon as long as they can trade Lebanon somewhere in the middle. They don’t care."

"At the end of your wonderful speech yesterday," Lee Smith said, "you said 'no compromise.' What did you mean by that?"

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A Lebanese woman listens to Walid Jumblatt deliver a speech in downtown Beirut

"When my father was killed by the Syrians," Jumblatt said, "I was obliged to fix up a cynical compromise because I needed allies and I needed routes for weapons and ammunition. At that time I had an important ally called the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union saved me. It trained my people. I had a small militia and they supported me through Syria. So, of course, I shook Assad's hand. I knew that he killed my father, but I tried to forget for some time. Some people in Syria stupidly thought that Bashar Assad could be a liberal, could be a modern democrat. Now all of them are in prison, and some are dead."

"When was the first time that you publicly accused Syria of killing your father?" Christopher Hitchens said.

"From 1977 until, let’s say, 2000, I had to keep silent," Jumblatt said. "In 2000 I challenged the Syrian president, and the Patriarch of Lebanon said it’s time for the Syrians to get out of Lebanon. That was a crucial year because that year the South of Lebanon was liberated from Israel, in April that year. [Former Syrian President Hafez] Assad died later on that year in June. I was accused by the Syrians of betrayal and treason. Later on we had to postpone our language. We still have some among us who take the romantic approach of Arab Nationalism. And later on came September 11 and the news that the Americans were about to invade Iraq."

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James Kirchick and Christopher Hitchens, Beiteddine, Chouf Mountains,. Lebanon

"You said the intervention in Iraq might have been helpful for the March 14 movement," Hitchens said. "Would that still be your view?"

Whether it's true or not, several Lebanese people have told me they think so because it convinced Assad that he might be destroyed if he didn't back down.

"It depends now on the outcome," Jumblatt said, "after America reduces its troops in Iraq. There are some signs in the last week that again the terrorists are blowing themselves up and trying to create chaos. It’s a very unstable situation. If there’s no compromise between the power surrounding Iraq – meaning the Iranians, the Turks, plus the Americans – I don’t know how Iraq can be stable. Also the Syrians, unfortunately, have been importing jihadists to the Damascus airport and exporting them to Iraq where they blow themselves up to go to heaven. Obama should be careful. He should be careful here and in Iraq. And he should be much more careful, of course, in the land that nobody was able to conquer, Afghanistan."

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Walid Jumblatt's desk (photo by Jonathan Foreman)

"Do you think the talks going on between Israel and Syria are genuine," James Linville said, "or are they just a show?"

"Assad doesn’t care about the [Israeli-occupied] Golan [Heights]," Jumblatt said. "Suppose we go ultimately to the so-called peace. Then later on, what is the purpose of the Syrian regime? What is he going to tell his people? Especially, mind you, he is a member of the Alawite minority. This minority could be accused of treason. It’s not like Egypt or Jordan whereby the government has some legitimacy. Here you get accused of treason by the masses, by the Sunnis. So using classic slogans like 'Palestine will liberate the Golan with Hezbollah' is a must for him to stay in power.

"I had a friend at the time – he is still my friend - when I was in Syria. He was the chief of staff of the Syrian army and is now living in Los Angeles. He was quite an important guy and honest with media. He was a Sunni from a big family in Aleppo. And when Hafez Assad was about to fix up the so-called settlement through Bill Clinton, and before they met him in Geneva, a prominent Alawite officer in the Syrian army came to Assad and said, 'What are you doing? We will be lost if you make peace. We will be accused of treason.'"

Jumblatt instinctively understands better than most how carefully Middle Eastern minorities must position themselves in order to survive.

"Do you think the long term interests of Syria and Iran are in harmony?" Linville said.

"I think the interests are too interconnected between the Syrian regime and Persia," Jumblatt said, "and I think Persia is now stronger. Assad the father was more clever. He used the Iranian Revolution, but he still kept his friendship with the Arabs, mainly with Saudi Arabia. Plus the fact that well before American invasion, the overthrowing of Saddam, we had an Arab state between us and the Persians called Iraq. Now the Persian Empire is in Lebanon."

"Will Lebanon change if Iran gets nuclear weapons?" I said.

"It will not change," Jumblatt said. "It will give them more prestige, of course, with their allies. At the same time, they are not going to use the bomb. It will provoke a series of armaments – an arms race – in Saudi Arabia, maybe Egypt. It will be crazy. We will have bombs everywhere."

"How important is increasing the power and discipline of the Lebanese army?" McCutcheon said.

"The Lebanese army is composed of Lebanese," Jumblatt said. "One third Sunni, one third Shia, and the rest Christians and Druze. You also have to look at the allegiances of officers and soldiers. Most of the Christian officers are Aounists. And when I say Aounists, I mean Hezbollah. Most of them. Hezbollah was quite clever and was able to infiltrate. The Sunnis are there, and if you go that far, and if you have tension inside Lebanon, it will exhaust the Lebanese army. It could break the Lebanese army. Breaking the Lebanese army, breaking the state, will make us wreak havoc and the peaceful revolution will go to hell."

He is almost certainly right that the Lebanese army would break apart along sectarian lines if another internal war breaks out. It happened during the civil war in the late 1970s. It happened repeatedly in Iraq until the Americans were able to recruit enough conscripts who wouldn't bolt and join the militias.

"Are you concerned about a replay of what happened last year up here on the mountain?" Lee Smith said, referring to Hezbollah's violent assault on West Beirut and Druze villages near the town of Aley last May.

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Lee Smith

"They can do anything on the mountain," Jumblatt said. "Just 20 miles from here you have the area of Jezzine, which is the second line of defense of Hezbollah. What is left of Jezzine is, of course, in a Christian area. Still, in ten years time or maybe more it will be a Shia area. 500 years ago it used to be Shia. On this side you have my old supply lines from the Bekaa Valley. They are cut, but they are there. And they have Beirut's southern suburbs. They can squeeze anything through, and it would be foolish on my behalf to go to a so-called civil war. This is why last time, when the clashes started, I did my best to stop the clashes. Anybody can fight when they are squeezed. Anybody can fight. But we don’t have supply lines. We don’t have weapons. We will end up emigrating from Mount Lebanon. To where? The sea? No. To Syria."

"Do you think if the election wasn't pending in Lebanon," Linville said, "that Hezbollah would have opened a northern front during the Gaza conflict?"

"They are not that stupid," Jumblatt said. "They have to understand the population of the south. They inflicted the Israeli army with big losses. And they were good fighters. But, of course, three years later, I don’t think doing the same thing would be very popular in the south of Lebanon. And when the so-called unknown rockets were fired, people of the south were scared. It’s not every day that you can rebuild your house. The fighters of Hezbollah can hide. They have caves, they have their own expertise. But they also have got to be accountable to the population."

"How can you praise Hezbollah for being good fighters," James Kirchick said, "and protecting the people of the south when they were the reason Israel responded?"

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James Kirchick

"Because my past," Jumblatt said, "my political heritage, from my father to myself, was to defend the Palestinian cause. That is my answer. And my father, although he was killed by the Syrians, was killed because he was defending the Palestinians in Lebanon."

"Do you support negotiations between Lebanon and Israel?" said Michael Young, the opinion page editor at Beirut's Daily Star and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

"It's enough to have been accused of betrayal after the 2006 war," Jumblatt said. "And to negotiate what?"

"Withdrawal from Shebaa Farms," Young said.

Israel took the tiny Shebaa Farms area from Syria in 1967. Hezbollah claims Syria took it from Lebanon and that Israel therefore is still occupying Lebanese territory. The United Nations insists Shebaa Farms belongs to Syria and certified Israel's complete withdrawal from Lebanese territory in the year 2000.

"It’s not to be negotiated with the Israelis," Jumblatt said. "It is to be negotiated with the United Nations. And first it is to be negotiated with the Syrians. Up until now, Shebaa Farms is not legally recognized as Lebanese territory."

Michael Young and Walid Jumblatt.jpg
Michael Young and Walid Jumblatt

"This is your position," Young said. "But it’s not the position of the state."

"Legally," Jumblatt said, "we need a signed document from the Syrian government, jointly signed by the Lebanese government, that says Shebaa Farms is Lebanese. So go to the United Nations. We could see if we could fix up an interim presence of United Nations forces in Shebaa. It could be possible, but I don't know. I don't think so."

"Is there any realistic way of either disarming Hezbollah or integrating them within the state and the army?" I said. "Or will this problem go on and on?"

"I think it will go on and on and on," Jumblatt said. "I think so. Unless – if you ask them, most of the Shia will give up their weapons in exchange for a political price. The political price will be maybe reshuffling of the actual Lebanese system. More power to the Shia community within the Lebanese sectarian system."

"That’s their ultimate goal, isn’t it?" I said.

"At the same time because, I mean, they are proud to have defended Lebanon against the Israelis," Jumblatt said. "After Gaza they said, 'Look, now you are asking us to surrender our weapons? Are you crazy?'"

"Israel wouldn't even come into Lebanon if Hezbollah wasn't kidnapping or shooting them," I said.

"They have invaded several times with excuse and without excuse from 1978 up until now," Jumblatt said. "They came clear to Beirut. Nothing has changed in Israel. Now it's Nasrallah, before it was Yasser Arafat."

"But if Hezbollah was disarmed," I said, "integrated into the state and the army, and the border was quiet, they wouldn’t come back here. I mean, why would they?"

"Why would they send their soldiers up here?" Kirchick said.

"There's a lot of reasons," Nicholas Noe said. He wasn't part of the group I was traveling with. He showed up at Jumblatt's gathering independently of the rest of us.

"What?" Kirchick said.

"Water is one reason," Noe said.

"Oh, come on," I said. "Be serious." Noe was putting forth an absurd conspiracy theory that had been bouncing around in Lebanon for as long as I've been traveling there, a theory that Lebanon's premier historian Kamal Salibi dismissed as "rubbish" when I asked him about it.

"Another reason," Noe said, "is possible rockets from some other crazy Sunni jihadist group that lobs them in to start a conflict. Another reason is possible transfer of population. Now you have [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman in a lead role. These are all long-term threats. These might not be taken seriously by us as foreigners, but in Lebanon, as Mr. Jumblatt said, there is a long history of a lot of reasons for Israel to invade."

"Again?" I said incredulously. "With an armistice? Has Israel invaded Jordan since the peace treaty? Egypt? I mean, come on."

Hanin Ghaddar, an editor at NOW Lebanon who grew up in Hezbollah's southern stronghold, nodded in agreement with me. "Yeah," she said and laughed.

"The people of the south," Jumblatt said, "think the weapons of Hezbollah are protection against Israeli incursions."

That much is true. Supporting Hezbollah as a deterrent is perfectly logical if you sincerely believe Israelis want to annex Lebanon so they expand, steal water, or whatever. The problem with this, however, is that there is no constituency whatsoever in Israel for anything of the sort. It is a fantasy, and it's a fantasy that starts wars and kills people.

"Even though there were provocations at the same time?" Jonathan Foreman said. "Is there any way, in terms of states-within-states, is there any way…"

"I'm speaking about issues like that," Jumblatt said. "Realistically speaking. I’m not making moral judgments. This is Lebanon as it is."

Jonathan Foreman Beirut.jpg
Jonathan Foreman

"You talk about the increasing strength of Hezbollah and the difficulty of your own supply lines," Foreman said. "Is there any way to strengthen the position of Hezbollah's opponents? Is there any way you and others can become stronger in relation to Hezbollah?"

"There is no way," Jumblatt said. "Again, it would be suicidal and an endless civil war without any results. I’m just concerned – I’m telling you, I’m concerned this very afternoon about the kidnapping and death of one of my Druze community members. We have to prepare for funerals tomorrow. And tomorrow there is this big Hezbollah celebration in the dahiyeh for [assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad] Mugniyeh. The Shias will come from the south to Beirut through some areas where we have Druze."

Weapons on Jumblatt Wall.jpg
Inside Walid Jumblatt's house

"Are you worried something could happen?" Hanin Ghaddar said.

"Yes," Jumblatt said. "I am worried. I have been told now by the army that they have caught some people, and I hope they found who killed this guy. The people of Hezbollah are much more organized. It's a regular army."

"If today you could arrive at a deal where Hezbollah agrees to disarm in exchange for more political power – would that be such a bad thing?" Michael Young said.

"This process," Jumblatt said, "this system, cannot survive. This system, this confessional system, has proven to be obsolete. For internal and external reasons, we dispute this system. One day, I don’t know how – it will be time to change. We cannot be still be stuck…"

"Wouldn’t a deal like this be a way of changing?" Young said.

"Two parliaments, two chambers," Jumblatt said. "A senate for the interest of the communities where they can be equal, and one non-confessional parliament."

"If you can push Hezbollah into this logic and say…" Young said.

"Yes," Jumblatt said. "Of course. It’s a proposition. But also you have to convince my partners, with the sectarian division and hatred now between the Sunnis and the Shia, and with the obsolete and backward mentality of some of the Maronites. They are still ruling Lebanon, but it’s no more the 19th century."

"Is that the socialist Jumblatt speaking?" Hitchens said.

Everyone laughed.

"The socialist Jumblatt died a long time ago," Jumblatt said.

Everyone laughed even harder. We all knew it was true despite his political party's brand name.

Hitchens Hanin and Jumblatt.jpg
Christopher Hitchens, Hanin Ghaddar, and Walid Jumblatt at lunch at Jumblatt's residence

"He died with my father," Jumblatt said. "He had a dream with the leftist parties to change Lebanon. It was my father's vision to change the system. This is also one of the reasons why he was killed. He was also seen by the Arab world as backing the communists. Somewhere in the Kissinger memoir he mentioned that my father was a radical communist. I told him his information was wrong."

"Not for the first time," Hitchens said.

Most of us in the room laughed again. We were familiar with Hitchens' slim volume denouncing Nixon's former secretary of state .

"Can you say a few words about what the Progressive Socialist Party means to you and what you might mean for them?" Hitchens said.

Asgeir in Jumblatt Library.jpg
Walid Jumblat's Library

"My father studied in Europe at one time," Jumblatt said. "As a member of a minority, he wished to achieve equality. He said it’s time to abolish the sectarian system in Lebanon. It’s time to have social justice, it’s time to redistribute land. He started with his own land because we were at that time one of the biggest feudal families of Lebanon. So he started with his properties. My mother told him, 'well, okay, but wait until you reach power.' My father said he had to be equal, like others. The sectarian system was against his wishes. And he paid."

Kamal Jumblatt Marker.jpg
A stone marks the place where Kamal Jumblatt was murdered by Syrian regime agents during Lebanon's civil war

I have no idea how much of the Jumblatt family land was redistributed to poor Druze in Lebanon, if any, in fact, had been redistributed. He seemed to have plenty left. The Jumblatt family lives in real Ottoman splendor, and he gave us all a tour of his grounds. His home could be a tourist attraction if it wasn't his private residence.

Ottoman Splendor Jumblatt House.jpg
A courtyard at Walid Jumblatt's house

He had to cut our time short, however, so he could defuse a crisis.

As he said in the interview, a Druze man died that day after he was violently attacked by Hezbollah supporters a few days before. Enraged members of his community wanted revenge, and they set up road blocks on the highway over the mountains from Beirut to Damascus. Cars were stopped. ID cards were checked. Those identified as Lebanese Shias – and therefore possible Hezbollah supporters – were pulled from their cars and beaten on the side of the road with long wooden sticks.

It doesn't take much to spark sectarian violence in Lebanon. A few well-placed car bombs could ignite the whole country. Jumblatt was wise to put a stop to the sectarian beatings, and not only because such behavior is deplorable. Sectarian violence can easily spiral out of control. The civil war in 1975 was sparked by small clashes that mushroomed.

A tiny fraction of Lebanon's Druze follow Hezbollah supporter Talal Arslan instead of Jumblatt. Yet when Hezbollah attacked Beirut and the Druze areas in the Chouf mountains last year, Arslan's men fought alongside Jumblatt's and violently repelled Hezbollah's invasion.

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A Druze woman in her house desroyed by Hezbollah in 2008 (Photo copyright New York Times)

No matter how much Jumblatt may deplore Lebanon's sectarian system, communal ties are stronger than those that bind the nation or that bind political parties. If Hezbollah isn't careful, if Hezbollah comes off its leash again and kills people in Lebanon as it did last year, it will find that hardly anyone in the country who isn't Shia, no matter their calculations or politics, can side with a Iranian-sponsored militia in thrall to Khomeinism. Lebanese are no more likely than Iraqis to side with violent fanatics from other ethnic or sectarian communities when they are at war.

No matter how the Druze choose to navigate their way through Lebanese, Syrian, Israeli, and Middle East politics generally, they will fight with their tribe against any and all who would single them out for abuse. As local and regional minorities, they are unique in some ways. But they're more like the Israeli and Kurdish minorities than they are like the Bahais, the Copts, or the Alawites. They will not roll over, and they have more say in the direction of Middle East politics as a result.

Post-script: You tip waiters in restaurants, right? I can’t go all the way to the Middle East and write these dispatches for free. If you haven’t donated in the past, please consider contributing now.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:58 AM | Comments (19)

September 5, 2009

Labor Day Weekend

It's Labor Day weekend, so why are you reading the Internet?

I have more material from the Middle East ready to go, and will publish it when everyone else comes back. I'm staying home to work on my book, but you might want to consider going to the beach or something.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:36 PM | Comments (1)

September 1, 2009

How to Get Your Name in My Book

I am now almost half-finished writing my book about revolution, terrorism, and war in the Middle East, with an emphasis on Hezbollah, Lebanon, Israel, and Iran. (Books about Iraq, publishers tell me, no longer sell well.)

Though I'm probably not the best judge of my own work, I'm nevertheless confident that what I've written so far is some of the best material I have ever produced. And I'm enjoying the process of writing it much more than I thought I would.

My monthly income, though, is taking a hit because I'm spending time on a book that might otherwise be spent on writing that pays. Finding the right balance between writing short pieces for money to live on and working on a long project that doesn't pay (yet) isn't easy. No matter how I choose to manage my time right now, I cannot finish this book in a reasonable amount of time and simultaneously earn as much as I need to. My expenses are low, but they are not zero.

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Everyone who donates a thousand dollars or more for this project will see their name on the Acknowledgements page of my book and will receive a signed and numbered copy when it is published. I'm not asking those of you who earn a middle class salary or less to donate that kind of money. I can't afford to give anyone a thousand dollars. Most people can't. A few can, though, and if you're one of those people and you decide to help me out, your name goes in my book.

The book will be published one way or another. A few publishers are interested in the manuscript already, and if none choose to publish it, I'll publish it myself through There is no chance that I'll spend this much time and energy on a book only to watch it languish unread in my desk drawer. I have an audience of thousands for it right here.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:47 PM | Comments (9)