February 28, 2007

Seymour Hersh Botches Lebanon (and Egypt)

Lebanon is the most complicated country I have been to by far. Lebanese politics are as complex and bewildering as any you will find anywhere – and that’s doubly true when you add Syrian politics into the mix.

Writing in detail about that messy part of the world is genuinely hazardous. When writers go wrong…boy do they go wrong.

The latest writer to botch the job almost completely is Seymour Hersh. Lebanese blogger and scholar Tony Badran – who has forgotten more about Lebanon and Syria than Hersh and I put together will ever know – published this harsh and brutal takedown.

UPDATE: Abu Kais, also from Lebanon, says Hersh has abandoned reality for fiction.

UPDATE: Egyptian Sandmonkey says Hersh botched Egypt pretty badly, as well.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:29 PM

February 27, 2007

I Am Procrastinating – And I Have a Good Reason

I am procrastinating and not blogging any original material right now. But I have a good reason for doing so, and will point you to this fascinating article by Paul Graham on the subject that I found via Armed Liberal at Winds of Change.

The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn't always bad?

Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you're not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or © something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination.

That's the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he's going while he's thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it's hard at work in another.

That's the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They're type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.


I've wondered a lot about why startups are most productive at the very beginning, when they're just a couple guys in an apartment. The main reason may be that there's no one to interrupt them yet. In theory it's good when the founders finally get enough money to hire people to do some of the work for them. But it may be better to be overworked than interrupted. Once you dilute a startup with ordinary office workers—with type-B procrastinators—the whole company starts to resonate at their frequency. They're interrupt-driven, and soon you are too.


In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they're working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?
2. Are you working on one of them?
3. Why not?

Hamming was at Bell Labs when he started asking such questions. In principle anyone there ought to have been able to work on the most important problems in their field. Perhaps not everyone can make an equally dramatic mark on the world; I don't know; but whatever your capacities, there are projects that stretch them. So Hamming's exercise can be generalized to:

What's the best thing you could be working on, and why aren't you?
Sometimes this blog is not the best thing I can be working on. Right now I’m immersing myself in something else – I’m intensely studying video and documentary work. I can’t be bothered to write anything original on this blog at this particular moment. But it will pay off later because I’m doing this now. I’m not just going to go to Iraq and turn a video camera on and hope what I capture is interesting. There’s a lot more to it than that, and I have no intention of screwing this up.

I’ve been intending for some time to add video to this blog. Now that I’m genuinely inspired to do so and have the right head space to move forward, I am absolutely fascinated with the possibility of what I can do.

Thanks for understanding. And thanks so much to those of you who are donating money to help me buy a nice video camera. I hope I don’t disappoint you. I'm studying hard so I won't.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:36 PM

February 25, 2007

On My Way to Iraq

I’ll be spending some quality time in Iraq over the next two and a half months doing consulting work, journalism, and video – first in the northern Kurdistan region and then in Baghdad and the heart of the Sunni Triangle.

Sign Pointing Toward Baghad.jpg
Photo copyright Patrick S. Lasswell

My first job starts two weeks from now and will be another private consulting gig in Kurdistan with my business partner Patrick Lasswell. This will be my fourth trip to the region, which is becoming a regular beat for me now. I’m more comfortable there than I was when I first visited. The people, the terrain, the logistics, and the job are all familiar. The learning curve has flattened out, which means I can multitask now.

Last time I went there as a consultant I had no time for reporting or writing. This time I will because I know how to squeeze it in, even though my first obligation will be to my employers, not to my blog. I won’t be able to write full time, but I will be able to give you something now and then.

This time I’m going to give you some video as well as writing and photographs. Stay tuned for taped interviews with Kurdish civilians and officials, and also some video postcards of what this place actually looks like. Kurdistan always shocks people when they see it for the first time. It doesn’t look anything like the hellish images that come out of Baghdad.

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The Mesopotamian plain gives way to the mountains of Kurdistan

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Suleimaniya, Iraq, the Utah of the Middle East

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New houses in the city of Dohuk

I’ll be there for a month or so, then will come home for a short break. Then I’m off to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle for two weeks with the American military.

I’ve been coordinating a trip to Baghdad with the Department of Defense for months now. If the original plan worked out I would have been home from Baghdad already. But DoD is a bureaucracy at the end of the day. The troop surge means I'm even lower on their priority list — which is, of course, understandable. My schedule keeps getting pushed back, but they promise to fly me there and provide me with as much access as possible. Theoretically now I’m going at the end of April. Hopefully the trip won’t get postponed again.

I need body armor and combat zone insurance for Baghdad. And I’d like to pick up a new handheld video camera for Kurdistan. I want to give you the highest quality video footage possible over Internet broadcasts. Spending 10,000 dollars on a professional camera would be a waste of money for Internet video, but it would be nice to pick up a 1,000 dollar camera if possible. Best not to waste the opportunity using a cheap one with a small cell phone camera sized lens.

Any donations you can send my way via Pay Pal will help me give you the best content possible, and will help keep me alive and insured when I finally make it, and long last, to Baghdad and the war.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

Here are some still shots I took on my first couple of trips to Iraqi Kurdistan. Imagine what these pictures would look like if they moved. Help me buy a good camera and you will get some pictures that move.

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A young Kurdish boy in the northern city of Erbil

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The fake “Sheraton” hotel in Erbil that isn’t really a Sheraton

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A Kurdish woman enters Erbil’s new Naza Mall

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The lobby of the Khan Zad Hotel overlooks the mountains near Gaugamela, where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire’s Darius III. The Battle of Gaugamela is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Arbella (Erbil).

Kurdish Family Iraq Iran Border.jpg
Patrick and I shared tea with this Kurdish family in the shade of walnut trees just a few feet (literally) from the Iranian border

No for Violence Kurdistan.jpg
Political murals espousing liberal-democratic values are everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan. This mural is painted on concrete bomb blast walls erected to protect civilians from possible terrorist attacks from the Sunni Triangle.

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Young men make bread at a popular stop on the road between Erbil and Suleimania

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Ziggarats at the pagan temple of Lalish where the Yezidis say the universe was born

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A shy child at Lalish

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Pedestrians, downtown Suleimania

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Plasma screen TVs for sale in Dohuk

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A man comforts his infant while taking a break from a long cross-country drive

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A flower somehow survives the punishing heat of July in the Kurdistan mountains

UPDATE: My Kurdistan business partner Patrick Lasswell kindly adds the following in the comments section:

When you give Michael the means to report interesting and important stories, he reports interesting and important stories. We're going to try to do more than we have before this trip, while still providing our employers exceptional results. Our wives are alright with us going out and working ourselves to exhaustion in far off places because we married well and got lucky besides.

As understanding as our lovely wives are, our mortgage companies are less cordial. While we would love to pay for the best reporting gear out of our pockets, the guy with the forclosure notice simply ruins our shopping.

If you value independant reporting, I urge you to support Michael in his efforts to provide exceptional writing with exceptional media. I'm not just saying that because I get to play with the new gear, honest.
He does too want to play with the new gear. So help both of us out, and yourself as well, by donating money for a good video camera so you can see Kurdistan and Baghdad move instead of only through still shots.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos except otherwise noted copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:33 PM

February 23, 2007

Iraq in Fragments

I cannot recommend a film I haven’t seen. But the high-definition trailer for Iraq in Fragments knocked me out of my chair.

Watch this on the biggest computer screen you have at the highest resolution. Use headphones so you can turn the volume up loud. Be amazed. I have watched this over and over again in quiet astonishment and awe of the gorgeous cinematography and artistry on display.

I’ll watch this one for the camera work alone, but also to learn more about these stories of Iraq’s people regardless of whatever political slant the director may (or may not) bring into the film:
A stunningly photographed, poetically rendered documentary of Iraq today, seen through the eyes of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. James Longley's 3-part opus is a series of intimate, passionately felt portraits: a fatherless 11-year-old is apprenticed to a cruel owner of a Baghdad garage; Sadr followers in two Shiite cities rally for regional elections while enforcing Islamic law at the point of a gun; a family of Kurdish farmers welcomes the US presence, which has allowed them a measure of freedom previously denied.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:38 PM

February 22, 2007

Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post

Ellis Weintraub at The Jerusalem Post interviewed me over the weekend.

Here's a short excerpt:
You have traveled in Palestinian refugee camps and the territories, yet your writings come across as fair and at times even pro-Israel. What are your ideological views?

I'm an American, so I think in American political terms. Within the American political system I'm basically a centrist. I vote for both Democratic and Republican candidates and suspect I will do so for a very long time. Each party gets some things right and some things wrong.

A huge majority of Americans support Israel. I'm right in the mainstream when it comes to Israel, even though I often disagree with what Israel does. I thought the invasion of Lebanon was foolish, counterproductive, and a waste of money and lives in both Lebanon and Israel. But I sympathize with what Israel was trying to do, and of course with Israel's right to exist and defend itself. So my criticism wasn't the shrieking axe-grinding kind that I'm sure you're all too familiar with. If Israel would have clearly won the war last summer I would have changed my mind, admitted I was wrong, and supported it in hindsight.
You can read the whole thing here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:45 AM

February 21, 2007

Back to Iraq -- Revisited

My old friend Sean LaFreniere went on that spontaneous and rather ill-fated road trip from Istanbul to Iraqi Kurdistan with me last year. Inspired by the short video from the region on 60 Minutes last Sunday, he posted some of his own observations and photos.

My overwhelming impression was of a region and a people desperately wanting to be “normal”. I was also startled (after living in Europe) to hear people talk about defending their land and risking their lives to do it. These people are peaceful, but pack guns - like Texas.

Their greatest complaint was of boredom. They are tired of hanging out at the “state park” at the waterfall in the hills every night. They want a Starbucks, a few more shopping centers, and maybe a movie theatre.

They seem used to spotty power and poor plumbing. Turkey gives them a few hours each day and the rest comes from generators. It is a bit sad since the Kirkuk oil fields should provide them with ample power if not for the political problems.

They have plenty of mosques and some women wear conservative dress. But I also saw Christian churches. And I never saw anyone drop what they were doing for the call to prayer (I have not seen that in any Middle Eastern country). They seem no more religiously strict than Alabama, maybe less.

Construction was everywhere: new roads, new schools, and new hospitals. Almost every car was shinny and new. The new houses were all several stories with impressive porches, hot tubs, and flat screen TV's.

Now that they have the freedom to spend some money on themselves they are going for bright and flashy. Maybe it is all a bit overdone, but I think I can understand. This is a bit like California, where too much is just enough to show your change of fortune.
Read the rest and see Sean's photos here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:18 PM

February 20, 2007

Power, Faith, and Fantasy -- An Interview with Michael Oren

Pajamas Media published my most recent interview with Michael Oren. Below are the first couple of paragraphs.

PORTLAND, OREGON – Renowned American-Israeli historian and best-selling author Michael Oren is touring the United States promoting his new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a sweeping history of America’s involvement in the Middle East from 1776 to the present. It’s the first and only book on the subject ever written, and it’s currently inching toward the top of the New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction.

I first met Michael Oren under Katyusha rocket fire when he worked as a Spokesman for the IDF Northern Command in Israel during last summer’s war against Hezbollah, and I met him again when he came to my home town of Portland, Oregon, last week on his book tour.

MJT: So tell us, Michael, why does America’s involvement in the Middle East 200 years ago matter today? What does it have to do with September 11 and Iraq?

Oren: Well it matters, Michael, because many of the same issues that Americans are facing today in the Middle East were confronted by America’s founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington. For example, they had to confront the issue of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. They had to face a threat to the United States, and decide whether to generate military power and then project that power thousands of miles from the United States. They had to decide whether to involve the United States in an open-ended and rather expensive bloody war in the Middle East. This was, of course, the Barbary War, America’s first overseas military engagement and America’s longest overseas military engagement. It lasted from 1783 to 1815. During the course of this engagement, as my book shows, the United States was confronting a jihadist state-sponsored terrorist network that was taking Americans hostage in the Middle East. It’s very similar to what is going on today.

MJT: They were more than hostages, they were slaves, weren’t they?

Oren: They were slaves. But beyond the military component – the book is not a military history, it’s also a diplomatic, cultural, artistic, and economic history – I wanted to show Americans today that our experience in the Middle East has very deep roots. Overall it’s a story of magnificent things that America did for the Middle East. It wasn’t always about confrontation, it was also about schools and hospitals and building for development and artistic inspiration and cooperation.

Read the rest at Pajamas Media.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:58 AM

February 19, 2007

The Other Iraq

If I could distill everything I heard, saw, and learned in the Kurdistan region of Iraq into a 12-minute video, it would look a lot like this. (Fourth video on the right.)

Click that link. Watch. This is marvelous work from 60 Minutes, some of the best mainstream media journalism I have seen out of the Middle East, the absolute antithesis of Diane Sawyer's useless interview with Syria's Bashar Assad last week.

I only caught one factual error. The Iraqi flag is not banned in Kurdistan. It still flies in the city of Suleimania, but it's the old version of the flag before Saddam Hussein wrote Allahu Akbar on it.

60 Minutes has done truly excellent work capturing the essence of this lovely place and these wonderful people and editing it all down into such a brief and comprehensive introduction.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:35 PM

February 18, 2007


Martin Kramer busts Juan Cole. (Thanks to Noah Pollak.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:18 AM

February 16, 2007

Michael Oren at Powell's

For interested readers who live in my hometown of Portland: American-Israeli historian Michael Oren will be at Powell's Books tonight at 7:30 promoting his new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy.

Power Faith and Fantasy.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:42 PM

A History of Violence

My old Beirut friend Lee Smith writes about Syria's history of violence in the Weekly Standard:

[W]ill the wise men who counsel we sit down and talk with Damascus—the Brzezinskis, the Powells, the Obamas, the Bakers, and Djerejians—will they have the decency at last to recognize what their high-minded posturing can no longer obscure? This is how Syria negotiates, with its knife on the table and dripping with blood.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:53 AM

February 14, 2007

Lebanon’s Non-existent Center Somehow Holds

Valentine’s Day isn’t a romantic occasion in Lebanon. It’s the anniversary of the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated February 14, 2005, with a 600 pound bomb in downtown Beirut. A large crater still exists in the middle of the street, which is blocked to traffic. Pedestrians are kept away by strips of yellow police tape. The St. George Hotel, which was refurbished after the civil war, stands ruined once more by the explosion.

Yesterday hundreds of thousands of Lebanese gathered in Martyr’s Square to memorialize Hariri and to demonstrate against his Syrian assassins and their Lebanese Hezbollah proxies – who have also been demonstrating downtown without letup since December 1 of last year. Sectarian and political tensions haven’t been higher in Lebanon since the civil war ended. Violent street clashes have already broken out. Yet activists from both the pro- and anti-Syrian camps co-existed in downtown Beirut peacefully and, apparently, without incident.

Very nearly no one in Lebanon wants civil war. Beirut is a tinderbox ready to blow. Lebanese might get war anyway. But it’s telling that the most militantly opposed factions in the country can still co-exist in the same physical space – albeit separated from each other by fencing, rows of razor wire, and the army – without fighting.

Separated by Army Beirut.JPG
Photo courtesy of Ya Libnan

A small group of violent fanatics from either side easily could have sparked a major conflagration if that’s what they wanted, even if the overwhelming majority of even the militant activists didn’t want conflict. It really wouldn’t take much. One guy with a machine gun could possibly do it. Weapons sales have tripled in Lebanon over the past couple of weeks. It looks, though, like everyone in the now-thriving gun market is thinking of defense rather than offsense.

The Syrian regime, however, does want civil war. Civil war in Lebanon has been a part of the Syrian strategy since the 70s. After 15 years of chaos and mayhem from 1975 to 1990, Lebanese were willing to surrender to Syrian overlordship as long as Damascus could bring some measure of peace, even if it was the cold-hearted and brutal peace of the soldier. People grow tired of fighting, especially in a place like Lebanon where no single faction is strong enough to dominate all the others and impose a local peace of their own.

Syria’s ruler Bashar Assad promised to break Lebanon if he were forced to withdraw from the country, and he has been trying to do it now for two years. If the civil war were to resume with a Syrian military departure – or so goes the theory – the Lebanese government might ask for Syria to come back.

Immediately after the March 14 movement demanded Syria’s ouster, car bombs began exploding at night on quiet side streets in Christian areas. These were small car bombs and they didn’t kill anyone. They seemed deliberately planted and timed in such a way to frighten people rather than kill them.

The Syrians hoped Christians would retaliate against Lebanese Muslims and re-spark the war. The Christians, though, knew what was up and refused to take the sinister bait. The car bombs stopped after that strategy was shown not to work. Only prominent anti-Syrian politicians and journalists were targeted after that.

All that changed two days ago, the day before Hariri’s memorial in downtown Beirut. Two bombs simultaneously exploded – Palestinian style – on public commuter busses in Beirut’s mountainous suburbs – once again in a Christian area. This time civilians were killed. The original civil war was sparked in 1975 in part because of a bus massacre. This was an ugly reminder of Beirut’s horrible past, and appears to be a stepped up version of the original, more timid, car bomb campaign to restart the war.

Photo copyright New York Times

It’s hard to say what, exactly, was the effect of this week’s bus massacre on Lebanon’s collective psyche. It could have been a disturbing enough warning of how high the stakes are that everyone was extra careful to avoid confrontation the following day. Either way, it failed to spark another round of sectarian and political clashes. Try as he might, Bashar Assad is having a hell of a time breaking Lebanon. The only thing that seems to work is using Hezbollah to provoke the Israelis, which is one reason among many to think he’ll do it again.

The Lebanese civil war is one of the most ridiculous wars I have ever studied. It was World War I writ small. Everyone lost. As a result, everyone is more restrained and mature since the end of the war, even Hezbollah.

Hezbollah no longer kidnaps anyone inside Lebanon (not Lebanese, and not foreigners either), and they have apparently given up – at least on paper – their dream of conquering all of Lebanon and imposing a Shia Islamist theocracy. They may yet topple the government, but they cannot replace that government with themselves. And they know it. Besides, Hezbollah is adored in much of the Arab world outside Lebanon where no one has to suffer the consequences of living with them. All that would be lost if Hezbollah were to become the Shia butcher of Sunnis.

What if they declared a war and nobody came? It’s a silly old hippie slogan from the 1960s. That’s how it’s playing out now, though, in the Middle East of all places. Bashar Assad has called a civil war, and no one is coming.

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Anything can happen in Lebanon. I may have to eat crow tomorrow. But today, for now, even under extraordinary and malevolent pressure from the same foreign dictatorships stirring up hatred and strife in Baghdad, Lebanon isn’t Iraq.

I wrote the following during the war last July: “I spent a total of seven months in Lebanon recently, and I never could quite figure out what prevented the country from flying apart into pieces. It barely held together like unstable chemicals in a nitro glycerin vat.” There is no center to hold. But somehow, amazingly, and seemingly against the laws of political physics, it manages to hold all the same.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:49 PM

February 13, 2007

The Fiercest Liberal in Lebanon

BEIRUT – I met the wizened Druze warlord and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt during Hezbollah’s ongoing slow-motion putsch to topple Lebanon’s government. No other high-profile “March 14” leader matches Jumblatt’s fierce opposition to Syria’s Assad regime, its Iranian patron, and its Hezbollah proxy militia. He spends most of his time in his castle at Mukhtara high above Beirut in the Chouf mountains, but he took time out between meeting members of the Socialist International at his house in the capital to meet me for coffee in his salon.

Jumblatt’s history with the imperial Baath government is a long and twisting one. His father Kamal was assassinated by Syrian agents during the civil war in 1977. The details of the assassination are shrouded in mystery even today. In the most common version Baath-aligned terrorists in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party pulled the trigger. Another (unreliable) version of the story goes like this, as told to me by a young Druze friend while we stood on the murder site in the Chouf: Kamal Jumblatt was ambushed on the forested road by two Palestinian gunmen. The Palestinian hit men reported to Damascus after the deed was finished. Two Syrian exterminators then shot Assad’s Palestinian agents and buried them in the desert. The two Syrian hit men were then murdered by yet two more Syrian hit men, all the better to cover the tracks of original and cover-up crimes.

I don’t know what actually happened. Syria’s decades-long assassination and terrorist war in and against Lebanon has always been fought, serial killer style, from the shadows. Diabolical theories about the precise methods of Syrian terrorism serve Syrian interests just as much as the murders themselves serve Syrian interests.

Shortly after inheriting his father’s leadership position, Walid Jumblatt was summoned to Damascus by its ruthless ruler Hafez Assad. When he meekly objected to what the Syrian regime expected of him, Assad smiled and lovingly said “You know, Walid, I look at you sitting there and you remind me exactly of your dear father.”

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Former Syrian dictator Hafez Assad

A Lebanese friend drove me to his house and warned me that security would be tight at the gate. “The Syrians, Michael, if they catch him they will cut off his head.”

Sure enough Jumblatt’s security agents leapt from their plastic chairs and aggressively approached me at the entrance. They weren’t hostile, as Hezbollah’s security agents often are, but they moved fast as though they expected I might draw a weapon and open fire at any moment.

My bulky Nikon D-200 hung around my neck from its strap.

“Turn on the flash,” said the lead security agent. “Then point your camera at the ground and take a picture.”

I did.

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Then I flashed him my passport. The security guys seemed satisfied. My nationality probably made things a bit easier. The Syrians would have a hard time finding an American willing to assassinate a popular pro-American member of Lebanon’s parliament.

European members of the Socialist International were leaving Jumblatt’s house as I arrived. He wore a dark suit and waited for me in the shadows of late Winter evening on the side of the path leading up to the house. He greeted me coolly, professionally, and a little bit tiredly, as though he had spent most of the day meeting someone or other and would rather put his feet up and knock back a drink after an exhausting day. Lebanese politics are dangerous and stressful enough when things are calm. The Hezbollah crisis had barely let up since July when Jumblatt told the Wall Street Journal that he saw “darkness everywhere.”

He led me into the house. I asked if I could take a quick picture.

“Of course,” he said and stood next to a portrait of himself in his younger days when he was still on the radical left, before he became a Lebanese version of a neoconservative.

Walid Jumblatt Beirut House.jpg

None of the labels I affix to Jumblatt completely apply. He belongs to the Socialist International, but his economic policies are no longer related in any meaningful way to the ideas of Karl Marx. He is sort of a neoconservative insofar as he hails from the left yet credits regime-change in Iraq with Lebanon’s national interest. He goes even further than American neoconservatives, though, and calls for regime-change in Syria. He’s a liberal in the general sense of the word, especially by Middle Eastern standards, yet he’s also a feudal warlord and former militia leader who lives in an ancestral castle.

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Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party Flag

“What do you think Hassan Nasrallah wants most right now?” I said. “Does he want power in Lebanon, war with Israel, or is he working on behalf of the Syrians?”

“Hassan Nasrallah is the representative officially of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei,” he said. “Khamenei has declared that he wants to overthrow the actual government and to replace it. Syria is becoming a satellite of Iran. They want to use Lebanon as a battleground or as a bargaining card. This is what they have done in the summer time, when they declared the war, when Nasrallah declared the war against Israelis. They want to make Lebanon a satellite of Iran and Syria.”

“Do you think Hezbollah will ever disarm peacefully,” I said, “or will it require force?”

“Nobody in Lebanon said or believed it was possible to disarm Hezbollah by force,” he said. “But nobody else also…as a Lebanese I don’t accept a state within a state. We have a state within a state. And a separate army, the Hezbollah army, next to the official army. Their intelligence is stronger than our intelligence. They control part of Lebanon without the possibility of the Lebanese state to enter it and enforce law and order. That’s the situation.”

“So what do you think the solution is?” I said.

“The solution is not in Lebanon,” he said. “The solution is in Tehran.”

As far as I know Walid Jumblatt has never called for regime-change in Iran, nor do I think that’s what he’s saying today. He is right either way, though, that the solution to Hezbollah is not inside Lebanon. Hezbollah is the Lebanese franchise and creation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Israel damaged and partly disarmed Hezbollah last summer, but Hezbollah has reacquired all their lost missiles and arms from Iran via Syria. As long as some Lebanese allow themselves to be used as Iranian proxies, Hezbollah will continue to exist until the Iranian regime ceases to exist or is contained. The Lebanese army can’t be expected to take on the Iranians and the Syrians any more than tiny Kuwait could liberate itself from Iraq in 1990.

“The solution is in Tehran,” he said again. “In the summer time they launched a kind of pre-emptive war against the Americans and the Israelis and we had to suffer as Lebanese a struggle which we don’t have anything to do with. In summer time we were expecting two million tourists. Nobody came. Now downtown is closed, hotels are closed, nobody’s coming from the Arab world, no tourists, that’s it. It’s not only the political implication, the economic implication of Iranian policy through the Syrian regime in Lebanon.”

“Do you think UNIFIL is effective?” UNIFL is the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon which lacks the authorization to disarm Hezbollah by force.

“I think if they can,” he said, “if they are able – Nasrallah and company – if they are able to overthrow the actual government by any means, I think it means reducing the impact of UNIFIL. Because they want the South as a free zone for them. They don’t want to reinforce UNIFIL with the Lebanese army. They want the South as it used to be, under their total control at any time to be used for their own purpose, and their own purpose depends on the will of the Iranians. The Iranians, to prevent pressures on their nuclear facility, are using Lebanon.”

“Do you know about the Iraq Study Group in the United States headed by James Baker?”

“Yes,” he said.

Former Secretary of State James Baker is widely detested in Lebanon because he green-lighted the Syrian occupation in exchange for Syria’s “help” in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Baker hails from the school of amoral right-wing “realism,” but even he today recognizes Syria cannot be allowed to return to Lebanon.

“What do you think about their proposals right now?” I said.

“It’s excellent because it calls for the cooperation of the Syrians in the international tribunal for the assassination of Hariri and the others,” he said. “And to stop the flow of weapons and ammunition and terrorists coming in from Syria to Lebanon, for Hezbollah mainly – which is excellent – and to respect Lebanon’s international resolutions starting with 1559 and then 1701. I’m speaking about the Lebanese aspect, it is good. The Iraqi aspect I haven’t elaborated on.”

“Why do you suppose Bashar al-Assad is so afraid of the Hariri tribunal?” I said. “Everybody already knows he’s guilty.”

Bashar Assad in Sunglasses.jpg
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad

The main reason Syria wants a new Lebanese government is so Beirut will not authorize a United Nations trial for the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah has fought the creation of the anti-terrorist tribunal since the idea was floated.

“Because they killed Hariri,” he said. “If [Assad] wasn’t that nervous and if he wasn’t enhancing his people – Nasrallah and others – to block the process of the tribunal…it means that he’s guilty.”

“Right,” I said. “But we all know he’s guilty anyway.”

“Yes, okay,” he said. “But I mean blocking the tribunal will delay his indictments.”

What most frightens Assad is that an international conviction against him and his government might authorize an American-led regime-change campaign in Damascus. Few Americans actually want that, though, mostly because of what is happening right now in Iraq. Assad’s role in Iraq’s destabilization is an effective life-insurance policy.

“Do you think if the Assad regime is removed by force,” I said, “that Syria would have the same kind of problems Iraq has?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “They don’t have the same problem like Iraq. They don’t have an ethnic problem in Syria. Not all the Syrians are Muslim Brotherhood. You have the Muslim Brotherhood, you have the Arabs, you have the Turks, you have Turkmens, you have the Kurds. I think Syria is a different phenomenon than Iraq. And you have also the army. Syria of course is now robbed, is captured, is kidnapped by Bashar and his clique.”

I suspect Jumblatt is wrong about Syria. There is a Sunni majority in Syria, but somewhere around ten percent are Christians, ten percent are Alawites, and another ten percent are Kurds. Syria is relatively homogenous compared with Lebanon and Iraq, but it’s still a tangled ethnic and sectarian mess ruled by the (heretical according to Muslims) Alawite religious minority.

My guess is Jumblatt is trying to downplay fears of a post-Assad Syria in order to increase support for regime-change in Syria which without a doubt would benefit Lebanon. But it’s hard to say. Everything Walid Jumblatt says is carefully calibrated for public consumption in several countries at once, including Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. He is not always easy to read, and I don’t recommend taking everything he says at face value.

“Does the Shebba Farms really belong to Lebanon,” I said, “or is this a Syrian ploy?”

The Shebba Farms is a tiny area occupied by Israel that is recognized by the United Nations as Syrian land, as a part of the Golan Heights. But Hezbollah claims the Shebba Farms are Lebanese as a justification for their violent “resistance.”

It is a Hezbollah ploy. When Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah didn’t raise the issue of the Shebba Farms until after the United Nations approved Israel’s full withdrawal. Hezbollah requires some outstanding issue between Israel and Lebanon, legitimate or manufactured, as an excuse to exist as a state-within-a-state and an illegal warmongering militia.

The same goes with the Syrians. Totalitarian rule based on the “Emergency Law” is supposedly necessary because of the unending war with Israel to retrieve the Golan. Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory knocks out the supports from underneath terrorist and Arab dictatorship propaganda. Assad can’t have it, and neither can Hezbollah. There always has to be more to demand.

“Officially speaking [Shebba Farms] doesn’t belong to Lebanon,” Jumblatt said. “It’s up to the Syrian government to acknowledge officially that Shebba Farms is Lebanese, to sign with the Lebanese government a document. This document should be sent later on to the United Nations. In such a case Shebba Farms would be Lebanese. But Shebba Farms is not Lebanese.”

Jumblatt is something of a radical, but he is not on the fringe of Lebanon’s politics. He occupies Lebanon’s radical center, which is why his answers to questions like these are important. He is a one-man public opinion barometer.

The Druze are always centrists of sorts. They are a minority in every country in which they reside. There is no Druzistan anywhere and probably never will be. They have learned over time that it’s safest to be weathervanes and join the mainstream wherever they live to avoid persecution. When the fervor of Arab Nationalism swept Lebanon, the Druze became Arab Nationalists. When Lebanon was forced to be pro-Syrian, the Druze were pro-Syrian. Since March 14, 2005, the Druze have been the most solidly pro-American and staunchly anti-Syrian group in the country. If Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah were the strong horse he’s portrayed to be, you could bet your bottom dollar Walid Jumblatt would be his friend. Instead he accuses Nasrallah of having a hand in the car-bombing assassinations of Lebanese politicians and journalists.

“Do you think Bashar al-Assad wants the Golan Heights back,” I said,
“or is it more convenient for him…”

“It’s more convenient for him if it stay like this,” he said.

Of course because, like I said, the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights is the foundation of totalitarian rule in Damascus.

“From 1974 the Golan Heights were under the process of disengagement treaty,” Jumblatt continued. “Part of it with Syria and the other part of it with Israel. But not a single bullet. And he just wanted…they kept it like this. And they used Lebanon as a pretext for the so-called propaganda, saying we want to fight the Israelis, but they were always fighting in Lebanon. Removing the pretext of Shebba Farms and removing the Golan as proposed by the Baker approach, I mean having the Golan demilitarized or even having US forces there, will remove all the pretext of the Syrian regime for their propaganda.”

“Who do you think won the war in July?” I said.

“We paid as Lebanese a heavy toll,” he said, “an economic toll and a civilian toll, okay? Of course we have to say, acknowledge, that the fighters of Hezbollah did well. Okay? It’s a brigade, an Iranian brigade fighting in the South of Lebanon. But it’s not Lebanon that won the war. Israelis did not win the war, but they destroyed our country.”

“Which country is more dangerous to Lebanon?” I said. “Israel or Syria?”

“Both together,” he said and laughed. “Israel and the Syrian regime, okay?”

Most Lebanese I know insist Syria is the greater enemy, but saying they are both equally dangerous is, I suppose, the “centrist” position in Lebanon.

“What do you think Israel should have done differently in July after Hezbollah kidnapped their soldiers?” I said.

“I think they, Hezbollah, started the war to avoid the basic issue, which is the tribunal,” he said. “I think so. Although the Seniora government supported Hezbollah, politically speaking, and refused a Chapter 7 version of 1701…a week later Nasrallah declared in his interview with Al Jazeera that he started the process of stopping the government. He said it’s time for a government of national unity. And from that time on Seniora and myself and Saad Hariri and others [have been] considered traitors and were….this whole propaganda about how we were helping or giving information to the Israelis. All this came from Tehran.”

Always the cautious politician with a multinational audience in mind, he did not answer my question. What should the Israelis have done? Huge numbers of Lebanese say the Israelis should have bombed Syria. But Jumblatt is a Member of Parliament and has to be careful. It’s one thing to say the Americans should bomb Syria, but another thing to say the dreaded “Zionist Entity” should have done it.

“Can you explain to an American audience,” I said, “what Lebanese mean when they say Lebanon will be the last country to make peace with Israel?”

“Because Lebanon is a composition of various confessions and communities,” he said. “We are suffering from a huge and quite important Palestinian Diaspora, maybe 200,000 or 300,000 Palestinians here. And we have an aggressive neighbor called Syria. It’s safer for us when the Syrians sign a peace with Israel for us to sign a peace with Israel. That’s it. We cannot ask to sign a peace unilaterally without having the Syrians first signing the peace.”

“What can the United States do to improve its image in Lebanon?” I said.

“The United States did a lot helping Lebanon,” he said. “The West, with France, with Chirac, the United States in 2005 thanks to the administration got the Syrians officially out of Lebanon. Thanks to this administration and the West we got so many important resolutions from, of course, from 1559 until the latest one 1701. Of course United Nations resolutions are good, but faced with rogue states like Syria, something else. Faced with pirates like the Syrian regime, something else. The image of the United States is bad in the Arab world because of the question of Palestine. In Lebanon the image of the United States is good among part of the population.”

“During the July War you said the Lebanese government was in danger of becoming weak like the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq,” I said.

“What I predicted is now a fact,” he said. “The Lebanese government included the ministers of Hezbollah who have resigned. The Lebanese government, after all, is a coalition between us and the others. But we have to specify, who are the others? It’s not like a coalition in a normal state where you have a coalition with other partners. Here we have a coalition between the official state and the other state. We have a parallel state. So we are not speaking with somebody else who is at the same table with equal terms. This somebody is else is aiming a rocket at our heads. Not only guns, rockets.” He laughed darkly. Lebanese do that a lot.

“Do you think the international community, including the US and France, is doing enough to help the Lebanese government?” I said.

“They have done a lot,” he said. “But of course now Lebanon is part of this regional struggle from one side – Russia, Iran, and Syria – and from the other side – America, the West, and us. We are unlucky. It’s like Poland in 1940 or 1939, divided between the Russians and the Germans.”

“How likely is another civil war in Lebanon?” I said.

“The only army or militia which has terrific weapons and is well organized is Hezbollah,” he said. “But if they want establish their rule over the entire country it would lead to sectarian strife. This is why we say always it is better to engage in a dialogue. Again, though, a dialogue with whom? I mean, it’s not a local dialogue. We are speaking to a foreign power.”

The Druze are mainstream as much as anyone can be in a polarized country like Lebanon that is torn in two and dominated, in part, by foreign dictatorships. At the same time, though, they have a radical streak that scares the hell out of their enemies and even sometimes their friends. And old saw in Lebanon says you should “eat with the Druze, but sleep with the Christians.”

Chouf Mountains Valley.jpg
The Chouf mountains, homeland of the Druze

If Lebanon does descend into sectarian strife, as Jumblatt warned in might, Hezbollah will seriously have to reckon with the Druze despite their small numbers (around 200,000 out of four million.) Ask anyone who fought in Lebanon’s civil war who scared them the most. The majority will probably answer “the Druze.” The Druze believe in reincarnation. The Druze feel they have nothing to lose. The Druze don’t want to fight, but when they do they never surrender. These cultural traits cross international boundaries.

Israeli Druze are intensely loyal to the state of Israel despite the fact that they’re “Arabs.” They serve in the Israeli Defense Forces and do rough work in the occupied territories. The Palestinians hate them and say they are traitors.

If Walid Jumblatt orders his community to come down out of the mountains and launch an armed human wave assault on Hezbollah’s dahiyeh, they will do it. They are outgunned and outnumbered by Hezbollah’s base of support, but they’re fierce when they fight and they fight more competently than most Arab fighters. Some Israeli Druze units in Lebanon suffered fewer casualties per capita than their Jewish counterparts, and they may be refashioned as an elite.

“The Bush Administration credits regime-change in Iraq with forcing the Syrians out of Lebanon,” I said. “Do you agree with that analysis?”

I already knew he agreed with that analysis at least in the past, when the Iraq war was going still going “well” – assuming that ever really was true. What I wanted to know is if he still thought so. Jumblatt jumps around a lot ideologically. He rarely stays in one place for too long unless it is safe.

“It's strange for me to say it,” he said when the war in Iraq looked like less of a quagmire than it does now. “But this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world…The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

Here is what he thinks now: “The Bush Administration did well in Iraq. There was no way to topple Saddam Hussein without invading Iraq. Yes. But there were major mistakes committed when they decided to dismantle the Iraqi army. This was a major mistake which led later on to the actual civil war. It would have been better to keep the Iraqi army, to clean it of criminal elements, and to have a formula for a federated Iraq. Now it’s too late.”

“Do you think the Iraq war is related to Syria leaving Lebanon?” I said. “That if the US did not invade Iraq, would Bashar al-Assad have left Lebanon as quickly…”

“No, no,” he said “Bashar al-Assad wouldn’t have left Lebanon, ever. Bashar al-Assad by imposing [Lebanese President Emile] Lahoud, and when he started the series of Syrian crimes, and mainly when he killed Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese people said no. And we are still saying no. Because, I mean, the murders haven’t stopped. We buried another comrade, Minister and Member of Parliament Pierre Gemayel. Lebanon was very important for the Syrians, mainly for the family, the Assad family. They plundered Lebanon.”

Walid Jumblatt, like most members of Lebanon’s government, acquiesced to Syria’s domination of Lebanon and became “pro-Syrian.” Some Lebanese politicians, Suleiman Franjieh for instance, have been bought by Syrian carrots. Others, like Jumblatt and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, were corralled there by Syrian sticks. Hariri and Jumblatt were always the least convincing “pro-Syrians” of the lot during the occupation.

Bashar Assad knew it, too, and not only because his father thought he had to murder Walid Jumblatt’s father. Shortly before Hariri was assassinated by Syrian death squads, Assad threatened him in Damascus over the illegal extension of Lebanon’s puppet President Emile Lahoud. “Lahoud is me,” Assad said. “If you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon on your head and Jumblatt’s.”

“If the US loses the war in Iraq,” I said, “do you think it will be bad for Lebanon?”

Walid Jumblatt thought for a very long time before he answered that question. I could see his mind working cautiously, calibrating his response as he always does. The fiercest liberal in Lebanon said the following very carefully:

“It would be bad for Lebanon and for the Middle East if the US withdraws from the Middle East. Because we will face a different Arab and Muslim world. It is very strange and ironic that even the pro-Iranians in Iraq are asking the Americans to stay. You could write a theater about it. Making the Americans totally withdraw from the Arab world would be a mistake, would be a disaster for the moderates in the Arab world. The radicals and the Iranians would win.”

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. I have to eat and pay bills, and your donations are the only thing that makes my work possible. I would do this for free if I could, but we don’t live in a Star Trek money-free universe yet.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:40 AM

February 12, 2007

Resisting Assad

Tony Badran published a must-read piece about Syria and Lebanon. The Syrians could hardly be more clear about what they hope to achieve in their much-desired “talks” with the US: the redomination of Lebanon. Fortunately they are running smack into resistance not only from the Bush Administration but also from the Democratic Party, the European Union, the Arab states, and (as Walid Jumblatt notes in my interview with him I'm about to publish) even from James Baker's Iraq Study Group.

The US looks weak right now because of the demoralizing slog in Iraq, but there's still only so much the thugs of the Middle East can get away with.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:40 PM

February 11, 2007

Ridiculous News

Soon I will publish my interview with Lebanese Druze leader and Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt.

In the meantime, here is some news from my favorite failed state.

CONFISCATORS: The Lebanese army confiscated some of Hezbollah’s weapons. Hezbollah says give ’em back.

PANDERERS: The Lebanese army pretends it seized Hezbollah’s weapons to fight Israel.

FLATTERERS: Hezbollah pretends to respect the Lebanese army.

TOOLS: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Seniora gives Hezbollah yet another excuse to call him a “Zionist hand” by dismissing Hassan Nasrallah’s most recent claim about the supposedly expansionist Little Satan.

UPDATE: “Tools” and “Little Satan” are sarcasm.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:06 PM

February 7, 2007

On the Top Floor of Lebanon’s Civil Society

BEIRUT – On March 14, 2005, Lebanon captivated the world when one-third of the country demonstrated in downtown Beirut and demanded free elections and the withdrawal of the occupying Syrian military dictatorship.

March 14 2005 Beirut.jpg

A nakedly imperialist Baath government was defeated by its foreign subjects, and it was defeated live on TV. Lebanon had pushed itself far out of the Middle East mainstream and liberated itself from what Ghassan Tueni calls “the great Arab prison.” Later that year Ghassan would see his son Gebran, An Nahar newspaper editor and a member of Lebanon’s parliament, murdered on a hillside road above the city by a Syrian car bomb. Beirut’s spring was a short one, and may yet go the way of a similar uprising that exploded in Prague in the late 1960s before it was smashed under the treads of Soviet tanks.

The Assad regime in Damascus brooded over its loss of face, property, and cash flow in Lebanon, and responded with a vicious campaign of terrorism and murder in the streets of Beirut. The city started to look once more like its old frightening self when it epitomized urban disaster areas. Hezbollah’s unilateral instigation of war with the Israelis and their ongoing now-violent push to topple the government make Lebanon look more like Iraq than it looks like Prague.

I’ve contributed to this image myself with my own writing and photographs, though I try not to do so. The unspoken media rule “if it bleeds, it leads” applies to blogs and independent journalists as much as it does to mainstream media reporters. Warmongers, terrorists, and jihadi fanatics are more interesting to read about than quiet shopkeepers who never hurt anyone and wished they lived in a normal country. I am well aware that my recent work portrays a skewed image of Lebanon, but it’s hard to avoid in the media business.

So I met up with Eli Khoury, one of my old acquaintances from the Beirut Spring, who I met immediately after March 14 two years ago while the Syrians were still rulers of Lebanon. Eli was one of the elite of the movement back then. He still is today even while he and his kind get almost no press. They are, for the most part, staying home, hugging their flags, and waiting for the darkening Hezbollah storm to blow over or explode in conflagration.

Khoury April 2005.jpg
Eli Khoury at a follow-up anti-Syrian rally in downtown Beirut, April 2005.

Eli is the CEO of the advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi in the Levant. He worked on Iraq’s first post-Saddam get-out-and-vote campaign, then applied his advertising and design skills to Lebanon’s movement to oust the Syrian occupation. His work was seen all over the country back then, and it’s still all over the country today.

War No More.jpg

He also runs a professional political consulting firm called Quantum. I went to see him in his futuristic post-modern office on the top floor of a glass tower in East Beirut. I felt like I had been whooshed into the 23rd century when I walked in there. The lighting, the windows, the walls…the whole place appeared straight out of a science-fiction movie. His employees looked like they had been genetically engineered to human perfection. I should have taken some pictures.

“It’s good to see you again,” he said. “How can I help you?”

“Lebanon is a disaster right now,” I said, although it certainly didn’t look that way from his spiffy uber-modern tower looking out toward the mountains and the Mediterranean. “And it looks even worse than it is in the media. I wanted to check in with you again and interview somebody sane, show the other side of the story. Lebanon looks like a terrorist state again to Americans. And also to the Israelis.”

He put his face in his hands then blew out his cheeks. “This,” he said ominously and nodded. “This is the most important thing.”

Eli Khoury 2006.jpg
Eli Khoury in his office

“What are you working on these days?” I said.

“Have you seen the I Love Life billboards?” he said.

I had.

I Love Life Billboard.jpg

They appear everywhere I’ve recently been in the country except (I am sorry to say) where the Shia live, where Hezbollah’s terrorist and “martyrdom” propaganda is erected instead. The I Love Life billboards are written in English, French, and Arabic, and they are ubiquitous in Christian, Sunni, and Druze areas.

“Hezbollah intimidates me on their TV channel,” Eli said. “They are calling me a racist now because of this campaign, because I am implying that they love death.”

The campaign’s Web site says as much explicitly on the Mission Statement page, but “racist” is a silly label to stick on it. Hezbollah’s propaganda is extremely violent and grotesque.

Below is a photo I took of a Hezbollah billboard on Sheik Abad Hill along the border with Israel. In the lower-left corner a Hezbollah fighter is shown holding up a severed Israeli head by its hair.

Hezbollah Billboard Directed Toward Israel.jpg

“What do you think,” I said, “about Hezbollah’s reported use of human shields? Some Lebanese have a hard time believing it really happened.”

“Of course the whole concept of Hezbollah is to use human shields,” he said. “Not everyone in Lebanon understands this, though, because Hezbollah tries so hard to cultivate an image of decency. Also politicians here are reticent to say everything they believe. They have to be careful how far they go when they criticize Hezbollah and the Syrians. Sometimes they go back and forth for a while and contradict themselves before they are able to take a firm stand.”

You see this even with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the fiercest critic of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah in the entire country. Jumblatt calls for regime change in Syria now, and he accuses Hezbollah of having a hand in the ongoing assassinations. For a while after the Syrians left even he kept his ties with Hezbollah, referred to them as a legitimate “resistance,” said they should keep their weapons, and so on. Only lately, almost two years later, has Jumblatt’s opposition become absolute.

Eli and I first met at the headquarters for the Movement of the Democratic Left, a leftist group that split with the Communists over their support for the Syrian Baathists. I sat in on political strategy meetings with Eli, journalist/activist Samir Kassir, Member of Parliament Nayla Moawad (whose husband was briefly Lebanon’s president until the Syrians killed him after a few weeks in office), and other assorted March 14 leaders.

I didn’t dare write about these meetings at the time they were held. Bombs had been exploding somewhere in Beirut every four days or so, and these were strategy meetings with people who were surely on a Syrian hit list. I did feel slightly nervous around them, especially in that party headquarters which for all we knew could have been taken out at any time.

Samir was later killed by a car bomb on his way to Eli’s apartment.

His photo is still displayed all over Beirut.

Samir Kassir Poster.jpg

He and others murdered by Lebanon’s former occupiers haunt the city like ghosts. I still can’t walk past portraits of Samir, whom I briefly knew at the end of his life, without shuddering.

I remember innocently asking at one of these meetings if the March 14 movement had considered taking the parliament building by force as Serbian activists had in Belgrade when they ousted Slobodan Milosovic from power.

Everyone in the room wanted to do it. But they didn’t dare. “There will be blood in the streets,” Asma Andraos told me. They weren’t worried the Syrians would kill them. They were worried Hezbollah fighters might storm out of the dahiyeh and massacre the liberals on behalf of Damascus.

Later, just before the Syrians finally left, a few people at these meetings openly advocated storming the parliament anyway, Hezbollah’s weapons be damned. Their political calculus was moving fast. Lebanon’s democracy and independence movement would not, and will not, surrender to foreign powers or tyrants. March 14’s demands were met shortly after this happened. The Syrians went away. Free elections were called by Damascus’ puppet regime. Who can say if parliament would have been seized if they hadn’t backed down?

“What do you think about last July’s war?” I said to Eli.

He sighed. “The Israelis bombed these bridges all over the country. Why? If you want to hit the most important bridge bringing weapons into Lebanon, hit Syria. Why do they want to protect him?”

It does look, from Lebanon’s point of view, like Israel is sort of aligned with Syria. There is a Syrian-Iranian axis with malevolent designs on Lebanon, and there is also what looks like a de-facto Syrian-Israeli axis.

There is no Syrian-Israeli axis, not in the real world. But from a practical Lebanese point of view that doesn’t make any difference. While most Lebanese want regime-change or at least regime-punishment in Syria, the Israeli government openly, categorically, opposes any such thing. The Israelis dread the idea of post-Baathist Syria, and they therefore swear they will do nothing whatsoever to weaken or punish Assad. They want to negotiate with him and preserve his regime.

This is horrifically offensive in Lebanon, especially after the Israelis bombed Lebanon and left Syria alone last July. Lebanon only shares a border with two countries, and both of them are Lebanon’s enemies. The fact that these enemies don’t like each other helps Lebanon not at all since both kill Lebanese and leave each other alone. The Israelis even called Assad in Damascus last July to soothe him when their troops landed in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border. They didn’t want him to worry that they were gunning for him.

“99 percent of our problems are Syrian,” Eli said. “An Alawite government in Syria is good for us. Just not this Alawite government. Anything, even a bin Ladenist government, would be better than the Baath government.”

Israelis feel constantly threatened in their (as they see it) weak and small country. Lebanese feel the same way, and even more so. Syria insists Lebanon has no right to exist, and both Israel and Syria can pulverize Lebanon militarily at will.

Most Lebanese people I know, from every sect including the Shia, would have been perfectly happy if the Israelis bombed Syria after Hezbollah launched their attack. A large number of people in an Arabic country openly supporting an Israeli war against another Arab country would have been something to see. It would have changed forever some of the geopolitical dynamics in the Levant.

“If the Israelis were smarter there would be a lot more pro-Israeli opinion in Lebanon,” Eli said.

His personal assistant brought him a thin boring sandwich.

“I’m on a diet,” he said, “so this is all I get. I eat when I get stressed. Nasrallah makes me gain weight. I put on ten kilos during the war.”

“What was it like here during the war?” I said. “I was in Iraq, Jordan, and Israel at the time.”

“Most of us sympathized with Israel’s response for the first couple of days,” he said, ”until they bombed the airport.” Lots of Lebanese people I know told me the same thing, and they said it during the war not just in hindsight. “We thought it was fishy, though, when there was no ground war. They fought the war like it was a Nintendo game. I know the Israelis are careful with their targets. But you never know if the guy flying the bomber over your head at any given moment might miss.”

“The Israelis were hoping Lebanon would rise up against Hezbollah,” I said.

“How are we supposed to deal with Hezbollah when Israel’s Syrian buddies keep arming them?” he said. “And when the Israelis themselves can’t beat Hezbollah?”

“There’s an old idea that’s been around in Lebanon for a while now,” I said, “and I think it confuses a lot of people. [Lebanese Prime Minister] Fouad Seniora recently said it again. He said Lebanon will be the last Arab country to make peace with Israel. Can you explain to a Western audience what that’s all about?”

“The last Arab country,” he said. “This is the statement of those who want to make peace but know that they can’t. They don’t want to get ganged up on by the Arabs. We are the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world.”

There’s another old saying that has been around for a while, and it’s directly related: No war without Egypt. No peace without Syria. Lebanese can’t make a separate peace with Israel without Syria, not when Syria still partly rules Lebanon through its proxies, its intelligence agents, its bought men (including the president), and its assassins.

“It sounds crazy, though,” I said.

“What sounds crazy?” he said. He had no idea what I was talking about.

“When Seniora or anyone else says, without any context, that Lebanon will be last Arab country to make peace.” I said, “It sounds like he’s saying Lebanon hates Israel more than everyone else, that Lebanon is the most fanatical country.”

He thought about what I said for a second, then startled himself. “My god,” he said. “I never thought of it that way.”

“Maybe the Israeli government gets it,” I said. “I don’t know. They aren’t stupid, but there is a lot they don’t understand about this place.”

“What should Seniora say instead?” he said. I could tell I disturbed him. Lebanese at times have no idea how some of their statements sound to Western ears.

“I don’t know,” I said. “He could explain the problem more clearly, but that would only get him in more trouble with the Syrians and with Hezbollah. He’s in an impossible position. So he should probably just shut up and not saying anything about it one way or another.”

Eli looked pained. “I will tell him you said that when I next see him,” he said.

“You will?” I said. That surprised me. I have no idea if the message was ever relayed.

“What do you think of Michel Aoun?” I said.

Michel Aoun is the former general who recently returned from exile and formed a realpolitik alliance of sorts with Hezbollah. His (predominantly Christian) Free Patriotic Movement joined Hezbollah’s “March 8” bloc, yet he and they still think Hezbollah should be disarmed and not allowed to start unilateral wars with the Israelis.

Aoun in Gemmayze.jpg
Michel Aoun

“Aoun just wants to be president,” Eli said. “He doesn’t give a flying fuck how he gets there, even if he destroys Lebanon. He’s positioned himself as the bottleneck so he can be the solution. He learned this well from the Assad regime. His intelligentsia is gone. He’s left with people who think he is right about everything. 20 percent of Aoun’s people are militant and will do whatever he says. Another 20 percent believe his silly story that Saudi Arabia is trying to take over Lebanon.”

“How many Christians actually find him appealing?” I said. He used to be one of the most popular Christians in Lebanon, but his star has fallen since he broke with the March 14 movement.

“Most Christians are liberal and will not be attracted to narrow sectarian parties like the Lebanese Forces,” Eli said. “Except in times of danger. Aoun provided this outlet for these people by being deliberately non-sectarian. The problem with his strategy, though, is that he lost a lot of Christians and didn’t gain many Shia. Before Pierre Gemayel was assassinated Aoun polled at around 37 percent of Christians. But he lost a lot of support since then. Geagea is at around 27 percent.”

Samir Geagea is the leader of the Lebanese Forces, a sectarian Christian political party that had a militia during the civil war. The Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb (previously know as the “Phalange,” another Christian militia from the civil war days) are sometimes accused of being fascists by their detractors. What did Eli think of that?

“Is the Kataeb fascist?” he said. “I don’t think so. They saw that the number of Christians in Lebanon was decreasing. And they dug in because the region was on fire. They want to preserve themselves. I told the Phalange and the Lebanese Forces that they should change their names. They sound like they’ve come out of the 1940s. You know about the Syrian Social Nationalist Party? Those people are the real fascists. They modeled themselves after Hitler and Mussolini. Look at their flag.”

SSNP Protester.jpg
A Syrian Social Nationalist Party member joins the rally downtown Beirut to overthrow the March 14 government

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (think “national socialists,” aka Nazis) put a spinning swastika on their flag. They are basically the Lebanese branch of the Baath Party and want to merge Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and even Cyprus (!) back into “Greater Syria.” Several members were recently arrested by the army for plotting terrorist attacks inside Lebanon. One of their offices was torched by angry citizens a few weeks ago. The few hundred members who remain have aligned themselves with (who else?) the Hezbollah bloc.

“There are two long term strategies for Lebanese Christians,” Eli said. “One half wants a unified country and a liberal democracy. The other half wants a federation. There is no fascism. They just want to be left alone.”

“How likely is another civil war?” I said.

“The odds of civil war?” he said. “Between the Christian factions, zero. Maybe between Sunni and Shia. Less likely would be a war between Christians and Shia.”

“What about the Sunnis?” I said. “Where are they at right now?”

I asked Eli questions like these because he knows the Lebanese “street” better than almost anyone else in the world. He is paid a lot of money at his consulting firm for his advice, and he has hard data to back up what he says. He is not just mouthing off, and what he says comports well with my own readings of the country after living there and visiting several times.

“Recent polls show that 65 percent of Sunnis are at least moderately pro-American,” he said. “Most Sunnis who don’t think of the U.S. as an ally wish the U.S. was more of an ally.”

When my mother visited me in Lebanon I told her that the Sunni Muslims were slowly coming around and are no longer the anti-Americans they once were when they supported Yasser Arafat’s state-within-a-state in West Beirut. Today around 80 percent of them rally behind the Arab-style neoliberal agenda of Saad Hariri’s and Fouad Seniora’s Future Movement. The American support of Lebanon’s Sunnis against Hezbollah and the Syrians is paying off, though it is dampened by American support for the Israelis. She had a hard time believing me at first and was touched when a conservative Sunni shopkeeper in the northern city of Tripoli said “You [Americans] are new friends of ours here in Lebanon.”

“Before the 1970s our democracy was at least as good as in Italy or Greece,” Eli said. “[Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser and the Arab-Israeli war ruined us. Without Nasser, the PLO, and Assad we would be like Italy is right now, or at least like Greece. Our circumstances are bigger than the country. And our biggest problem right now are the ‘realists’ in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel.”

Most Lebanese think the American and Israeli “realists” who want to negotiate with the Syrians are painfully naïve at best, and downright sinister at worst. There’s an old saying about the Damascus regime in Beirut: Assad starts the fire, sells the water, and never delivers. And Lebanese will never forget that Secretary of State James Baker green-lighted Syrian domination of Lebanon for completely unneeded “help” in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

“We want to replace the March 14 movement with a broader civil society movement,” Eli said. He has been a big civil society booster in Lebanon since I have known him. “This way we can include the Aounists and isolate the pro-Syrians. Only around 30 percent of the Shia are ready for a movement like this, but the overwhelming majority from all other groups are already there. March 14 was the day the Muslims joined the Christians in the Lebanese project. It was in the making before, but it finally came into being then, on that day.”

I remember March 14 activists back in the day telling me the Christians and Sunnis of Lebanon were working on the formula to resolve the clash of civilizations. This can obviously never happen while Hezbollah blows up the country with their adventures on the southern border.

“The Druze, of course, have joined us as well,” Eli said. “I really like the Druze. They have deeply civilized values up there in those mountains.”

“What will it take to get the Shia on board with this project?” I said.

“The Shia are naturally liberal,” he said. “They are not, when left alone, interested in jihad. Traditionally they have been secular and leftist. Do you know why they used to be secular leftists?”

I didn’t.

“School teachers who were leftists weren’t wanted in Beirut,” he said. “So they were sent out to small towns in the Shia parts of the country. Then Iran came in and replaced them with Hezbollah. They will come around when Hezbollah is gone. [Samir] Kassir’s Democratic Left used to be communist and pro-Syrian. But now they are militantly anti-Syrian. When political theories fail in the Middle East they fail hard. People who believed in them have a tendency to support a total opposite point of view later. That’s why the Shia will be okay after Hezbollah is defeated.”

“Hezbollah will always have some support, though,” I said.

“Yes,” Eli said. “Among irrelevant people. The fact that we have some of these silly leftists who support Hezbollah just shows we are a normal country. We are like everyone else. Those people are everywhere. Did you see the protestors in London who said We are all Hezbollah now? Give me a break.”

“How many people in Lebanon hate Israel and want no peace ever?” I said. Rarely have I met anyone who says they never want peace. Online polls of Lebanese (which are of course unscientific) show overwhelming support for peace with Israel now or after outstanding issues between the two countries have been resolved. I have never seen “Peace never” receive more than a 10 percent response in these polls.

“Very very few,” Eli said. “60 percent of the [Israeli-backed until the year 2000] South Lebanese Army was Shia. The Shia were pro-Israel until Hezbollah came in from Iran, and they will be again when Hezbollah leaves.”

“How will Hezbollah ever leave, though?” I said. “What is the solution to this problem?”

“The solution to Hezbollah is [a United Nations] Chapter 7 [resolution],” Eli said. “Like in Kosovo. When there is a will, there is a way. It will take fighting, though. Hezbollah will not just give up their guns. One thing we can do is bring back General Aoun’s old officers. They have guts, and they are multi-confessional.”

He pulled out a piece of paper and drew, in a single flourish, a remarkably detailed silhouette map of Lebanon that included most, if not all, the contours of Lebanon’s coastline and borders. Then he drew circles around the Shia areas in the South and the Bekaa Valley.

“Block off the Shia areas,” he said. “Surround them utterly with international troops, like from NATO. NATO can do this if Israel stands aside, withdraws from the [allegedly occupied] Shebba Farms, and stops all these over flights. Then deploy smartly, and do it slowly. I’m not saying storm Lebanon, go house to house, and kill a bunch of people. Just surround them, block them off from Syria forever, and announce that it’s over. 80 percent of Lebanon would accept this if it’s done right, with government and international approval, and if Israel, at the same time, resolves the outstanding issues.”

I instinctively opposed Israel’s invasion in July because I had little faith they could achieve their objectives, that the destruction would be mostly pointless. But I think this plan might actually work if the international community could ever be persuaded to go along, and if the Lebanese government ever actually asks for it. I don’t see either as terribly likely any time soon, though, and resolving the problem by severing Hezbollah’s links to Syria and Iran is probably better.

“If [Speaker of Parliament] Nabih Berri doesn’t vote for the tribunal [to put Syria officials on trial for assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] this is where we are going. Only Hezbollah will seriously oppose it, plus the fools on the radical left, but they are irrelevant. Aoun keeps telling Lebanon that the United States doesn’t care about our problems and will never save us. If this happens he will lost all his credibility. You have to have faith in the Lebanese public to move forward. If Seniora calls all Lebanese to go downtown tomorrow and publicly oppose Syria and Iran, they will do it.

Of course they would. They already did it on March 14, 2005, and they did it without being asked.

March 14 Fisheye View.jpg
Beirut, Lebanon, March 14, 2005.

“If Lebanon gets a strong anti-Hezbollah leadership,” he said, “the country will enthusiastically follow.”

I told him I thought it would be a better idea to cut Hezbollah off from Syria and Iran, but he didn’t agree. “Cripple Hezbollah and Syria. Then go after Iran. Half the problems in Iraq would be solved at that point.”

The problem with all this is that it’s purely intellectual and theoretical. None of it is going to happen. Like it or not, the United States is retreating for now into a “realist” posture where tyrants and the status quo are frozen in place. Many Republicans and even most Democrats are behind this even though it’s the old right-wing position the left used to hate.

Eli isn’t happy with this at all. “I am a liberal by nature,” he said. “But this is a luxury in the Middle East. We have to be a little bit neocon here in Lebanon. Otherwise we cannot survive.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:34 AM

February 4, 2007

The Beirut Branch of the Mossad

BEIRUT – Hezbollah has killed more Americans than any terrorist organization in the world after Al Qaeda. In 1983 a suicide-bomber drove a truck into a U.S. Marine barracks south of Beirut and killed 241 Americans with a single gigantic blast.


President Ronald Reagan then withdrew American forces from Lebanon which had been sent as a peacekeeping force during the civil war. The U.S. won’t likely ever return. Hezbollah has calmed down, somewhat, and no longer poses a serious threat – military, terrorist, or otherwise – to the United States.

More Lebanese than you probably think want Americans to return, even so. Not the majority, to be sure, but a sizeable minority, perhaps no smaller than the those who wish to be ruled once more by the Syrians, or by the Iranians. You will meet these people if you go to Beirut, and you will meet lots of them.

One prominent Lebanese who wants to see the U.S. come back is Toni Nissi. He heads up the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559, an NGO which advises and lobbies the Lebanese government and the international community for the disarmament of illegal militias in Lebanon as required by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. Hezbollah, of course, is at the top of that list.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has ramped up his criticism of Toni and his NGO lately by bullying journalists into putting him on a blacklist and by denouncing him on television as “the Beirut branch of the Mossad.” Pay Nasrallah’s slander no mind. He also, hysterically, says Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Seniora is a “Zionist hand” for slowly, with baby steps, moving toward Hezbollah’s disarmament.

If there were an appetite in the United States for more military action in the Middle East, Iran and Syria would be far more likely candidates than little Lebanon. The worst of Lebanon’s problems would largely disappear with the Syrian and Iranian regimes anyway if it comes down to that. An adventure in Lebanon would require effort more productively spent somewhere else.

Lebanon’s pro-American interventionists are worth listening to, even so. They have their reasons for wanting the superpower back in. Seeking foreign patronage is an old habit in that country. Many say it’s Lebanon curse, and they’re probably right. Either way it is, for good or for ill, typically Lebanese. Every major religious group in Lebanon – Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims – are a minority. All have, or recently had, foreign sponsors. Those who don’t play along suffer relative to the others.

I met Toni Nissi in his office in Beirut. No Israeli flag hung on the walls, nor did portraits of Ariel Sharon or even George W. Bush. My American colleague Noah Pollak from Azure magazine joined us.

Toni Nissi.jpg
Toni Nissi

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) deployed to South Lebanon after a cease-fire was hammered out at the end of last summer’s war. But the deployment, much to Toni’s consternation, was under Chapter 6 instead of Chapter 7.

“What, exactly, is the difference between Chapter 6 and Chapter 7?” I said.

“The difference,” Toni said, “is that under Chapter 6 everything is related to the Lebanese government. So if the international community wants to act they have to have the permission of the Lebanese government. They have to wait for the Lebanese government to order them. Under Chapter 7 they act alone like what happened in Kosovo. They see what’s better for the country and they act alone. It is just referred to the United Nations, not to the Lebanese government. We know very well the Lebanese government is unable to implement any resolution, 1559, 1680, 1701. They are unable to do it for two reasons. First because of the internal conflict. Second of all, they don’t want it to be implemented.”

“Well, some of them do and some of them don’t,” I said.

“Most of them don’t,” Toni said. “If you transfer all these resolutions under Chapter 7 this means clearly that the international community will come to Lebanon and will not leave until Lebanon is transformed into a democracy. Saudi Arabia will fear it because you will never be able to ask King Abdullah to bring democracy to Saudi Arabia. Syria doesn’t want it to be implemented because we have the same border and they don’t want democracy inside Syria.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Iran because they have other plans,” he said. “They want an Islamic revolution under the umbrella of Iran. Also you have people here like Saad Hariri.” Saad Hariri is the head of the Future Movement and son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the most popular recent leader of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon who was assassinated two years ago with a Syrian car bomb. “He has millions of dollars, or maybe billions of dollars. He doesn’t want the United Nations to tell him how to transform Lebanon into a democracy. He wants to lead it himself. Plus, the influence from the other Arabs. Whenever Lebanon is democratic, whenever Lebanon has no army other than the Lebanese army, the Christians will ask again Are we Arabs? No, we are not. We want some kind of federation. We want to live in peace with our own identity and we don’t want to be Arabs anymore.”

Christians make up around 35-40 percent of Lebanon’s population, and they are divided into two major sects: Orthodox and Maronite Catholics, with the Maronites as the larger of the two. Most Orthodox self-identify as Arabs while most Maronites do not.

When I first met Maronites who insisted they aren’t Arabs I thought I had bumped into Lebanon’s right-wing reactionaries. I urge you to resist this interpretation yourself. They were branded this way during Lebanon’s civil war by leftist sympathizers of Yasser Arafat’s terrorist state-within-a-state in West Beirut. The crude stigma has been slow to die. For one thing the Maronites are probably the most liberal group as a whole in the entire country – many look to France for their ideas. All people, in any case, have the right of political and cultural self-identification.

The Lebanese writer Louis-Noel Harfouche (notice the French name) explained it this way on this blog Ecce Libano: “I don’t believe that being born in the Middle East makes one ipso facto an Arab. In fact, just as the English language is NOT the province of Britons alone, so is Arabic NOT the province of Arabs alone. Just like English, the Arabic language spread through conquest and colonialism. And so, today, to call an Iraqi Kurd, or a Chaldaean, or an Assyrian an Arab, or to call an Egyptian Copt an Arab, or to call a Lebanese Maronite or Druze or Melkite or Jew an Arab (all on account of their wielding of the Arabic language in one form or another), would be tantamount to cultural suppression and historical erasure. It would be as if I were to refer to Native Americans using labels that would have resonance only with European settlers and their modern American descendants (namely Spaniards, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and British). This sort of inaccuracy is akin to me referring to Irishmen or Scotsmen as “Englishmen” (on account of their use of their conqueror’s language).”

Lebanese have never resolved whether their country is Arab or not. They settled on a compromise at the founding of the republic in 1943 that described Lebanon as a sovereign country with “an Arab face,” whatever that means.

“Hezbollah is now attacking you personally, by name,” I said to Toni.

“Yeah,” he said. “This started a long time ago. Now he’s attacking me personally even on TV.

“So he feels threatened by you,” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “Well, not by me as a person. If they felt threatened by me as a person they could kill me. It’s easy. It’s very easy, you know. They are afraid of who I represent in Lebanon – the international lobby, the guys in the States, people everywhere in Lebanon – they are afraid of what we are doing. But they think by pushing me to leave or maybe killing me, I don’t know the plans but, by eliminating a person having the power of the Diaspora Lebanese who is also very well connected with the international community and who can go on TV…I’ve been fives times on TV here and no one is able to put me on the screen anymore.” He laughed darkly. “Because of the influence of Hezbollah.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You mean Hezbollah is pressuring TV channels here to not talk to you?”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “Of course.”

“And they are complying?” I said.

“They call any reporter and tell him if you make an interview with Toni we’re going to kill you,” he said.

That’s real smashing of dissent. Imagine George W. Bush threatening to kill Wolf Blitzer if he put Ralph Nader on CNN.

“Why do you think,” Noah said, “an international force under the auspices of a UN resolution are going to deal with Hezbollah any more firmly?”

Noah Pollak Mt Lebanon.jpg
Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak

“I’m going to tell you why,” Toni said. “Hezbollah is very good in the media, but it’s not a real militia inside Lebanon. Hezbollah has big missiles, maybe 20,000 to 30,000. They have maybe 5,000 fighters…not soldiers because the training of Hezbollah…it’s not training to make a civil war. It’s training just to go blow himself with the Israelis or maybe go make some missions inside Israel. So Hezbollah is not a real army. I believe Hezbollah is not strong as much as we think or as much as the international population thinks.”

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A billboard near the Israeli border memorializes a Hezbollah suicide bomber

“Why?” Toni continued. “Because we lived the war. We saw the militias inside Lebanon. The strongest militia in Lebanon was the [Christian] Lebanese Forces. And even the Lebanese Forces during the war they weren’t able to resist any international force. The Syrians, they came. They bombed East Beirut. They bombed it for half and hour,” he said and laughed, “and all the resistance collapsed. Hezbollah is not as powerful as they think. And let me tell you one thing. In one day in 1986, one night, the Syrians, Hezbollah, and all their allies in Lebanon fired 60,000 missiles at East Beirut. In one night. So Hezbollah with their 20,000 missiles now, that is nothing.”

“Their military power in Lebanon, though,” Noah said, “is through their Kalashnikov rifles.”

“Exactly,” I said. “I mean, really, their missiles didn’t do very much damage in Israel. And if they did the same amount of damage to Lebanon, well, you would be sort-of okay.”

“Yeah,” Toni said and laughed.

“It’s the guys in the streets with the Kalashnikovs that you need to worry about,” I said.

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A Hezbollah military parade

“Of course,” Toni said. “The problem is the system in Lebanon. Whenever the Lebanese government will not go to the international community and say this is a militia, this is terror, we want to get rid of this terror, we will not get rid of it. Even the Lebanese army hasn’t been trained or given any weapons since 1990. You know? We don’t have any army inside Lebanon to get rid of Hezbollah. We need an international force to come and…it’s easy to do it.”

“But the Israelis have a hard time doing it,” I said. “And they’re good at what they do.”

“Israel had their mission just to destroy Hezbollah in the South, and that’s it,” Toni said. “Israel was here in 1982. And they had their allies among the Lebanese Christians. And they couldn’t transform even this alliance into a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel. How can they pay the bill for destroying Hezbollah when they don’t have any supporters inside Lebanon? They will not do it. They can never do it. If the government were able to sign a peace agreement with Israel maybe the Israelis could come and destroy the Hezbollah. Israel has done very well for their country with only 152 dead people. So what Olmert did is very good for Israel, but it’s not good for Lebanese.”

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Destruction in Hezbollah’s suburb south of Beirut

“Whenever people talk about international forces,” Noah said, “I always think about the history of international forces in different regions. You had even here in Lebanon in 1983 – Hezbollah wanted to get the French and the US Marines out. They just did a couple of suicide bombings and everyone packed up and left.”

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“And you had from 2000 to 2006,” Noah said, “in the interim period after Israel withdrew there was a small international force inside Lebanon and this force did nothing. And in fact at one point even collaborated with Hezbollah.”

“Yeah,” Toni said. “I know it.”

“So it seems to me,” Noah said, “that it’s all well and good to talk about bringing in an international force, but I think what people who want this really have to prove is that this international force is somehow going to be different from previous efforts. Hezbollah is not going to give up the weapons without a fight. So this international force is going to have to aggressively engage them.”

“It will be war,” I said.

“They’re going to have a start a war in South Lebanon,” Noah said.

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Destruction in downtown Bint Jbail, Hezbollah’s capital in South Lebanon

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“And which countries are going to give troops to this cause?” Noah said. “I mean, are the French going to do this?”

“We are an international lobby,” Toni said. “So we discuss everything with these governments all the time. And I know very well that the Americans are not here now because 1701 wasn’t under Chapter 7. The Americans were saying okay, if this is not going to be under Chapter 7 we will veto it, but the pressure from the Arabs, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, made it under Chapter six and a half.”

Toni stopped and thought for a minute.

“Do you know what happened to the Americans in Iraq?” he said. “The lies of the people who were leading the Americans to come to Iraq, like [Achmed] Chalabi, they told the Americans the community was ready. Whenever you come here the federation is going to happen in one second. But what happened is the Iraqi people are still before the French Revolution. They are uncivilized and they are not ready to have a country. It is different in Lebanon. The leaders are stupid, the leaders are not ready, but the people in Lebanon, they are ready. That’s the difference between here and Iraq.”

“The Lebanese people and the Iraqi people have one big thing in common,” Noah said, “which is that Iran is able and willing to do everything it can to prevent any sort of sovereign nation from developing. If an American force were to come to Lebanon under Chapter 7 to disarm Hezbollah, the Iranians could at that point turn Iraq into an even bigger mess than it already is. Because the Iranians can control violence in Iraq.”

“There’s another problem, too,” I said, “with having the Americans come here. There are a lot of people in Lebanon who are not with Hezbollah and who also don’t trust the United States. They think that the reason America wants Syria out of Lebanon is so that America can come into Lebanon. That Syria is in the way. And so if American soldiers come here it’s going to confirm what they believe, that America is taking over Lebanon.”

“They don’t trust the Americans, yes,” Toni said. “But they don’t believe that the American soldiers are coming here. Most Lebanese believe and know that in 1990 the United States handed the Syrians Lebanon on a plate of silver.”

Toni is referring here to Secretary of State James Baker who traded a green-light for Syrian domination of Lebanon in exchange for Syrian “help” in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Most Americans have no idea this even happened, but Lebanese have never forgotten it. Hezbollah’s Christian allies in Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement in particular bang on this point again and again.

Aoun in Gemmayze.jpg
Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun

“They don’t trust the Americans because of what America did at that time,” Toni continued. “So they don’t believe that the Americans will come to Lebanon and die for Lebanese. They believe that the Americans got the Syrians out for the benefit of Israel. But it’s our duty as the people who know how things have changed from 1990 up until now to tell them the truth.”

Some Lebanese distrust the United States for what they see as too much involvement in Lebanon’s internal affairs. What gets lost in all the yelling about it is that Lebanon’s more moderate anti-Americans don’t think the U.S. intervenes often or deeply enough, that every crisis could be solved if the superpower wished it and made the effort, that the lack of effort means Lebanon’s instability must therefore be in the American interest. No Hezbollah supporter thinks this way, but many Christians and Sunnis do.

“If you go to most Lebanese Christians in Lebanon,” Toni said, “and ask him if he wants the Americans to come here and protect him he will say yes. And you know? There are Lebanese who want the Americans or the French to come and to rule Lebanon for 40 years.” He laughed. “You know why? Because we believe that kicking the asses of the French people in 1943 was wrong. They believe we need to be governed again from an outsider. I believe the American problem in Lebanon is that they don’t have a Christian partnership.”

Hallowed Be Thy Name.jpg
Lebanese Christians mark territory in East Beirut

“In order to make an American intervention in Lebanon work,” I said, “we need to have Christian partners and Muslim partners.”

“No,” Toni said. “You need to have a partner.”

“Look,” I said. “Lebanon has this history – and you know what I’m talking about – of different sects having different foreign patrons coming into Lebanon and working for them.”

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“So if the United States comes in and helps only Christians…” I said.

“No,” Toni said, “they would not be coming to help only Christians…”

“Then all the Muslims,” I said, “Shia and Sunni, will oppose it.”

“I know that,” Toni said.

“It’s just like with the Shia now,” I said. “They have their foreign patrons, Syria and Iran.”

“Only a part of the Shia,” Toni said.

“Right,” I said. “Not even all the Shia.”

“And they have Michel Aoun,” he said and laughed.

“If the US ever intervenes here they have to do it for Lebanon as a whole,” I said.

church and mosque beirut 2005.jpg
Churches and mosques are sometimes built right next to each other in the Beirut city center

“Of course,” Toni said.

“Or at least for the majority,” I said. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen today.”

“Possibly not,” Toni said. “But let me explain to you a little bit. Of course the Americans will not come here just to protect the Christians. But if the Americans or the international community comes to Lebanon and said we want to transform you into a democracy – like what happened in Kosovo and what happened in East Timor – this means that you are helping everybody. And the Christians are the only partner that is not supported by anybody. So the Americans would come here to protect the Lebanese government. We want the Americans to come for that.”

Toni is right that the Christians of Lebanon don’t have a real foreign patron right now. The U.S. and France provide diplomatic support to the Lebanese government, but that is mostly going to and through Fouad Seniora, the Sunni Prime Minister. None of the Christian parties have serious connections to the American government. Lebanon’s Christian president Emile Lahoud is a remnant of the Syrian occupation. He was chosen by, and is still loyal to, the Assad regime in Damascus. The Christian “street,” his supposed constituency, almost unanimously thinks he is a traitor.

“They said the Lebanese government is an ally,” Toni said, “and they sent millions of dollars to the Lebanese government because the Lebanese government would know what to do with it. Do you know what they do with it? They steal it! And if they don’t steal it, if they want to do anything with the South they have to pass it through Nabih Berri.”

nabih berri.jpg
Nabih Berri is the Speaker of Parliament and the boss of Amal, a secular Shia party precariously aligned with Hezbollah. He is arguably the most financially corrupt politician in Lebanon.

“Who could the money be delivered to where it wouldn’t get stolen?” Noah said.

“You can deliver money to NGOs,” Toni said. “There are 6,000 NGOs inside Lebanon who work for Lebanon. Do you know that USAID in Lebanon has never delivered any money to any NGO other than those in the South?”

“Probably because the Shia are more poor,” Noah said.

“No,” Toni said. “Because they want to integrate the Shia community. The Americans think that if they integrate the Shia they can teach them that democracy is good, that if they make them financially supported…”

“Why do you think hundreds of millions of dollars flow to the Palestinians?” Noah said. “Same reason.”

“It all gets stolen,” I said.

“They think that by spending hundreds of millions of dollars that they’re going to liberalize the Palestinians,” Toni said.

“There is something to this, though,” I said. “What they’re trying to do is compete with Hamas. Foreigners think they can go in and do the good things Hamas does and undercut the support for Hamas. That’s the idea.”

“Yeah, but it’s a stupid idea,” Toni said.

“Is it?” I said. “Hezbollah does the same thing here. Right? They build all these hospitals and they help people with building houses. Many people like Hezbollah because of that.”

“It’s patronage,” Noah said. “It’s buying people nice things to get their loyalty. But the problem is the Palestinians are never going to be loyal to the United Nations. You’re handing them a hospital or a school and asking for nothing in return, and no one is going to respect you for that.”

“Certainly that is the case in Palestine,” I said. “But what are you going to do when you have a terrorist army that builds hospitals and gets support for building hospitals? You have to find a way to peel these people off.”

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“And that’s why they do it,” I said.

“What has [Palestinian Fatah leader Mahmoud] Abbas delivered for that?” Toni said.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Yeah, so,” Toni said and laughed. “Whenever you pay money you have to get something in return. What Abbas wants to do is to bring back all of the Palestinians from 1948 – which means infiltrating inside Israel 8 million Palestinians – and destroy Israel from inside. And you are giving money to him? The international community deals with Eastern issues very stupidly. Why? Because they don’t know the Eastern mind. Do you know why Israel is winning? Because they know the Eastern mind and they know the Western mind.”

“They know both,” I said. “They are both.”

“Yeah,” Toni said. “I have been a refugee outside Lebanon. This is why I know a little bit about the international community’s mind. The international community is stupid in dealing with us. You know? They don’t understand us and we don’t understand them. So whenever you want to deliver money to somebody you have to ask him: how many of those Shia has gotten money from USAID and went on any TV and said I am liberal. I don’t want the house of Hezbollah?”

“I know Shia,” I said, “who grew up in South Lebanon who don’t like Hezbollah.”

“All of them hate Hezbollah,” Toni said.

“No, they don’t,” I said. “Not all of them. If you talk to these people they say Yeah, I love Hezbollah.”

“Because if they don’t say it,” Toni said, “the person who is next to them is going to tell Hezbollah.”

“Noah and I went downtown and talked to some of these people,” I said. “They don’t have to be there.”

Two Hezbollah Supporting Kids2.jpg

“Of course they have to,” Toni said. “If you only get 300 dollars a month of course you have to be there. They are buying you.”

Toni is overstating the case. Plenty of Hezbollah supporters have drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak, and are genuine supporters. But there is something to what he is saying.

Last month Lebanese Shia Nisrin Yaghi wrote a piece in Beirut’s Daily Star where she made a similar point about her own community. “I believe that most Shiites have fallen victims to the Stockholm Syndrome. The population is not being held at gunpoint, but rather a financial and educational blackmail that has taken place for the past 15 years. The people have grown accustomed to being fully dependent on their party for economic survival…”

“Let me explain to you Hezbollah,” Toni said. “Hezbollah gets around 400 million dollars a year from Iran. They pay every house in the dahiyeh. And every house in the South. Whenever I give you money I have the power to lead you. Once Nabih Berri and Rafik Hariri tried to make a huge project to rebuild the dahiyeh. They wanted to transform the dahiyeh into a new downtown for the Shia. You know who forbid the Shia, who destroyed the project?”

“Hezbollah,” I said.

“Hezbollah,” Toni said. “Then if you want to give money to the Shia you have to transform them into liberal people who will support the Lebanese government when something like this happens. The Americans are giving money to the Shia to get them into the Lebanese community and they are asking nothing in return. This is stupid. There are people who can get them to return, it is us, but you are not supporting us. We can bring them here.”

“How?” I said.

“You cannot bring them here,” he said. “We can.”

“How?” I said. “What would you do?”

“I know their language,” he said. “It’s easy.”

“So, okay, you pretend I’m one of those people,” I said. “What are you going to say to me?”

“Believe me, “ Toni said. “They don’t like Hezbollah. But they don’t believe in Lebanon. You know what Nasrallah says all the time on the TV? They want to make us the dust boys again.”

I believe Toni means “shoe shine boys,” a common phrase in Hassan Nasrallah’s polemical speeches. There are some rich and middle class Lebanese Shia, of course. But many, if not most, are poor. They shine shoes, clean houses, and wash the cars of rich Christians and Sunnis. Hezbollah does not make them rich, but Hezbollah does give them pride.

Hezbollah Logo.jpg
Hezbollah is the only political party in Lebanon with a gun on their flag

“And they forbid the Lebanese government from doing anything for them,” Toni said. “The problem must first be solved by disarming Hezbollah. Second, whenever you disarm Hezbollah then the Lebanese government and the NGOs of Lebanon are the only people who are able to integrate the Shia into the Lebanese community. But as long as somebody has guns and forbids me and you and everybody from doing anything for those people, it’s not a wise idea to give them money. You have to give money to the other camp, to disarm Hezbollah, and then these people can be integrated.”

He may be right. Aid to Shia Lebanon would certainly be better spent if Hezbollah were first cleared out of the way. But that would mean war would come to Lebanon first, a war that hardly anyone wants.

“Most of the Shia do not love Hezbollah,” Toni continued. “But whenever they go out of their borders they say For you, Nasrallah. Why? Fear. And money. That’s it. Take the fear away, and take the money of Hezbollah, and everybody can be integrated into the Lebanese community. Hundreds of millions of dollars you’ve been spending here, for what?”

I didn’t know what to tell him.

“You know what the prime minister told me one day?” he said.

“Fouad Seniora?” I said.

“Yeah,” Toni said. “After this war we want to bring Nabih Berri away from the camp of Hezbollah. So give him money. 40 million dollars. This is stupid. You can never bring Nabih Berri, you will never been able to bring anyone from that camp. You know why? Because there is blood on their necks. If you look at the Lebanese map, the geopolitical map, you see that everybody who is in control used to be a militia man or militia leader.”

“Hariri wasn’t,” I said. “But yeah, most were.”

“He was the guy who was delivering goods to militias,” Toni said and laughed. “How can they build a country? The Cedar Revolution has to destroy all of these.”

“A lot of them know it, too,” I said. “But do you really want to get rid of all of them? Walid Jumblatt is a good guy now.”

walid jumblatt memri.jpg
Walid Jumblatt, Druze chief, Member of Parliament, and head of the Progressive Socialist Party

“He may be the only one,” Toni said. “I have met him several times, tens of times, and I believe that, yes, I know he is saying the truth. Yesterday I saw Nasrallah. I used to think this guy’s the wise one. I used to think that, during the Lebanese civil war and after. I said he’s the leader of their community. But he’s using those guys like in a chess game. I heard him yesterday. I heard his speech. Wow. What a loser! You know? He lies and he believes his lies. Believe me, Nasrallah doesn’t know what to do tomorrow.”

“I do believe you,” I said.

“I thought that he has a plan,” Toni said. “He has nothing. What’s he going to do just so he can tell his people I did something?”

“He’s in a tough spot,” Noah said. “He really is.”

“He can’t go any further without provoking a serious backlash,” I said. “And he knows it. If he tries to seize the airport something will happen.”

Smashing Cars Beirut.jpg
Violence did break out all over Lebanon on the day Hezbollah blockaded the road to the airport

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“I’m pretty sure,” I said. “You think so?”

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“Something ugly,” I said.

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. I have to eat and pay bills, and your donations are the only thing that makes my work possible. I would do this for free if I could, but we don’t live in a Star Trek money-free universe yet.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:21 PM

February 2, 2007

Power, Faith, and Fantasy

When I arrived in Northern Israel during last summer’s war with Hezbollah I met famed military historian Michael Oren on the border under fire where he acted as a spokesman for the IDF Northern Command.

He told me about his forthcoming book Power, Faith, and Fantasy which is now finally available.

Power Faith and Fantasy.jpg

It is the first and only book ever written about America’s involvement in the Middle East from the founding of the republic in 1776 to the present.

I haven’t read it yet and can’t vouch for it per se. But if it’s anywhere near as good as his masterful Six Days of War, about the 1967 war where Israel acquired the West Bank and Gaza as occupied territories, it should make its way onto your list of required reading.

Oren is unabashedly pro-Israel, but amazingly even one of my Hezbollah readers recommended Six Days of War as a worthwhile read in my comments section a few months ago.

When Oren isn't meeting with reporters under fire he works at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem with Natan Sharansky, Yossi Klein Halevi, and my intrepid travel buddy Noah Pollak.

I’ll be back with more original reporting from Lebanon on Monday.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:28 PM

February 1, 2007

The Autumn of the Arabs

Michael Young in Beirut’s Daily Star

In March 2005, Samir Kassir wrote a column titled, “Beirut, the springtime of the Arabs.” Martyrs Square was then awash with people protesting Rafik Hariri's murder, and Samir felt confident enough to affirm: “Today, Beirut declares that death is not the only path open to the Arabs.” Of the grim outfit ruling in Damascus, he noted, “Beirut's renaissance is by far more important than maintaining a regime that leaves only desolation in its wake.”

Yet in the space of only two months, since early December last, the Lebanese capital has been transformed into a new Arab autumn. Sunnis and Shiites are increasingly wary of living in the same neighborhoods, while Christians are beginning to look to crossing points between the eastern and western halves of Beirut as barriers against instability from “the other side.” Beirut's renaissance remains desirable, the impact of sectarian conflict on our city would have calamitous regional consequences, multiplied by its occurring in the Arab world's laboratory of modernity (another Kassir formulation); but no one has been able to alter the behavior of those purveyors of desolation of whom Kassir wrote, and who, in the end, liquidated him and vandalized his optimism.

There are countless ways to explain the ongoing Lebanese crisis, but the most essential one, it seems to me, is that it is a battle over the destiny of Beirut. Will the city ever return to being that shambling, ill-disciplined showcase of modernity that it has always said it was, a laboratory of bastardized Arab liberalism (but liberalism nonetheless)? Or will it fall back into the lap of a decaying Baath regime in Damascus, in league with an ambitious Iran, whose local allies deploy a language of death and the austere habits of those movements created by a security apparat?


After the rioting last week, several disturbing messages were sent to the Shiites: that access to Beirut from Shiite population centers in South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley could be easily cut off; that Shiites inside Beirut might be trapped between Sunni and Christian quarters; and that in the event of war, Beirut's southern suburbs would find themselves under the guns of their foes. That is what the city is disintegrating into: a conversation on comparative military positioning.


There are many in the Middle East who would prefer to see Beirut destroyed rather than emancipated. They should be careful. Beirut may be dumb prey, but like any city that also doubles as a powerful idea, it tends to take down those conceited enough to imagine that they can kill it.
Read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:11 AM


First there is this:

Results of tests conducted by United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon showed that balloons which drifted from Israel into southern Lebanon over the weekend did not contain dangerous gases, a Lebanese security official has said.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Sunday that helium balloons from a promotional event by Ha'ir, a chain of local newspapers, had floated north over the border into Lebanon.

The balloons sparked panic among villagers over the weekend amid rumors they were filled with poison gas.

Still, their appearance spread alarm among Lebanese — a sign of the tensions and suspicion that remain in the border region after last summer's war between Israel and Hizbullah that devastated much of the south.
And then there is this:
BOSTON - Several illuminated electronic devices planted at bridges and other spots in Boston threw a scare into the city Wednesday in what turned out to be a publicity campaign for a late-night cable cartoon. Most of the devices depict a character giving the finger.


Highways, bridges and a section of the Charles River were shut down and bomb squads were sent in before authorities declared the devices were harmless.

Turner Broadcasting, a division of Time Warner Inc. and parent of Cartoon Network, said the devices were part of a promotion for the TV show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a surreal series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:16 AM