by Michael Young
Simon & Schuster, 2010, 336 pp., $26
Beware of Small States: Lebanon,
Battleground of the Middle East
by David Hirst
Nation Books, 2010, 496 pp., $29.95
Since the beginnings in 2005 of Lebanon’s Independence Intifada, or what came to be known as the Cedar Revolution, U.S. press coverage on Lebanon and related matters has, by and large, been tilted against the pro-democracy March 14 movement. Some reporters, like those who touched down in Beirut to cover the summer 2006 war, might be excused for swallowing Hizballah’s propaganda as fact, while other Western reporting and analysis out of Beirut was objectively pro-Hizballah: Nir Rosen’s articles and interviews, for example, and those of former British intelligence official Alastair Crooke and his American colleague Mark Perry of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum.1 Most of the coverage, however, simply wrote off this singular episode of peaceful Arab resistance as a “Gucci Revolution.”2 As Michael Young observes in The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle:
There was something supposedly inauthentic here; true protestors were burly, poor, coarse; they had dirt on their nails as opposed to nail polish. But that mockery told us more about the prejudices of the critics than about the demonstrators themselves, who took to the streets flaunting their prejudices.
Some of the enmity of U.S. journalists and analysts no doubt issued from the fact that the March 14 crowds were, either by choice or circumstance, aligned with President George W. Bush’s so-called Freedom Agenda in the Middle East. Given the President’s unpopularity with the majority of the American intelligentsia, his causes, no matter how worthy, were equally apt to suffer in the court of public opinion. Indeed, Young himself, who befriended me when I first arrived in Beirut in the winter of 2004, had to walk a fine line between supporting the American project in the region and maintaining enough distance from it in order to train his critical faculties on the Bush White House’s many errors.
Young’s posture was partly dictated by the norms of East Beirut café culture, where no place, certainly not Washington, offers a perspective on the world quite like a seat under the Mediterranean sun with a $10 Cuban cigar and a cup of French-press coffee. Mostly, however, it was his perspective as the son of an American father and Lebanese mother that helped Young understand that both sides of the American political divide had all sorts of second-order reasons for taking a position on the tumult, but no first-order reasons. “It was not that Bush was insincere” about Lebanon’s democratic awakening, writes Young:
But Lebanon was never about the United States, just as the manner in which the Independence Intifada was represented internationally was not about Lebanon. The power of modern emancipatory movements is their ability to generate narratives the media can pick up on, render arresting, and make understandable to home audiences. In that process truth is lost, but both sides get what they want. . . . The instinct of the Lebanese was not to resort to violence after [Rafiq] Hariri was murdered; it was to take up the terrible weapon of opinion by lending romance to their endeavors, so outsiders would take sides.
Here Young has identified not only the mutually shaping relationship between modern politics and the mass media in general but also the central fact of Lebanese history: seduction. After all, what is Lebanon really worth to outsiders? There’s no oil, and its greatest natural resource, the talent and ingenuity of the Lebanese population, exports itself at no cost to its importers: More than 13 million Lebanese live outside this country of 3.8 million. Lebanon’s value is mostly symbolic, depending on what the beholder most prizes, and thus a strong position on Lebanon is not just about projecting power into a particular place, but projecting a self-image into the world. For the Bush Administration this image was about democracy promotion. For the Islamic Republic of Iran, it remains about Shi‘a pride and Iranian history crashing into a generally unaccommodating 21st century.
As Young recognizes, the Lebanese understand that it is vanity which draws others to the country, a vanity over which the Lebanese compete to turn to their own benefit. Outsiders interfere in Lebanon in part because they are seduced by the promises extended to them, rarely explicitly, by the Lebanese, who invite them to partake in their internal affairs so that the citizens of this sectarian state with 18 officially recognized religious confessions may gain advantage over their domestic rivals.
Young also understands that this competition for domestic advantage has historical roots that make Lebanon different from other states, even other Levantine countries. The Lebanese state is based on an agreement among Lebanon’s main confessional groups that it not have a standard state-like nature. Lebanon functioned from 1943 to its collapse into civil war in the mid-1970s less as a democracy, as Westerners typically understand the term, than as a federated feudalism. Various confessional groups ran their own domains, and all of them deliberately kept all functions of the central state weak. Their leaders came together to make political deals, thus foreordaining the results of periodic elections, which were not real decision points for Lebanese citizens but ratifications of arrangements to divide spoils. The state never collected taxes but rather distributed money earned from port fees and other revenue from Beirut as patronage out to the rest of the country. The national army was never allowed to grow large enough or strong enough to be a potential threat to Maronite, Sunni, Druze and even Shi‘a control of their own regions.
It was into this caldron of seduction and feudalism that the Obama Administration ventured in 2009. As Obama assumed office, his Administration promised both to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty and to engage those two states, Iran and Syria, that had made war against the Cedar Revolution. All Lebanese saw the logical incoherence of these declarations. And so a few Lebanese friends working for a Beirut NGO, NOW Lebanon (for whose website Michael Young frequently writes) and I decided to bring some American journalists to Lebanon to see the state of play for themselves. Our first delegation, which arrived in Lebanon in February 2009, got off to a mixed start.
Not surprisingly, Christopher Hitchens had no trouble distinguishing between the white hats and the black ones in Beirut and surrounds. The former included an old acquaintance of his, the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt. Jumblatt had been the public face of March 14 for several years before he hedged his bets after the 2009 parliamentary elections and started to make amends with the Syrian regime he had taunted since breaking with them in 2005. The latter comprised not only Hizballah but also the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, members of which Hitchens brawled with in the streets of West Beirut one afternoon after he had defaced a plaque commemorating an SSNP “martyr.” Hitchens’s anti-fascism detector had unerringly identified the appropriate targets for approbation. In May of the previous year, SSNP gangs working in tandem with Hizballah had slithered through that same neighborhood murdering its March 14 rivals.
Word came down that some of our sponsors were not happy about the defacing and the subsequent brawl. And yet later that night at dinner in the West Beirut mansion that Saad Hariri had inherited from his late father Rafiq, the future Prime Minister seemingly reverted to his days as a Georgetown undergrad when he teased Hitchens about his bruises. Saad was still basking in the glow of his well-received speech earlier that week on the fourth anniversary of his father’s murder in a car-bomb explosion in downtown Beirut. It seemed that all the Sunni community of Lebanon had come out to hear Saad and went away as sure of his leadership as he was secure in the belief that he could in fact lead them. The early middle-aged businessman, at first thrust awkwardly into politics by his father’s death and his patrons in Saudi Arabia, was absent that evening. In his stead was a young Sunni leader whose growing confidence charmed the Americans effortlessly.
In between Hariri’s stories of his beloved collection of Harley Davidsons and jokes at the expense of his political rivals, his advisers briefed us on current developments. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating the death of Rafiq Hariri was progressing apace, even if it was unclear when indictments were due. The Saudis supported the STL. The Saudis, they let on, were just testing the waters with their new Lebanon policy, one that seemed to be aimed at propitiating Syria. Yes, the Saudis were certain that another round of war was coming between Hizballah and Israel, and so they warned the Syrians to seal the borders, stop supporting the Islamic resistance, and keep their heads down lest they lose them. The Saudis, we were told, would do anything to keep Lebanon safe from avaricious Iran, but Riyadh never really expected that it or anyone else could peel Hizballah’s Syrian patron away from its Iranian allies. No one trusted the Syrians anyway to stay peeled, said Hariri’s men.
Certainly Saudi King Abdullah did not. Abdullah was still stinging from Bashar al-Asad’s insult during the 2006 Hizballah-Israel war, when al-Asad called him and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “half men” for not supporting Hizballah. The Saudis, we were told, were merely reaching out because the Americans called the shots and the Obama White House’s new dispensation was “engagement.” Instead of the Bush policy of “isolation”, Obama would speak to Iran and Syria. Surely, thought the Americans and (presumably) the Saudis, there was “no harm in trying” (famous, usually penultimate words)—especially if it could preserve the Cedar Revolution.
Nothing, however, is ever simple or obvious in Lebanon. “Lebanon is more than a country”, then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told us a few days later, quoting Pope John Paul II, “it is a message.” At the end of the long conference table the Lebanese political analyst Elie Fawaz was shaking his head. “No one ever mentions the rest of the Pope’s statement”, Fawaz remarked to me quietly. He recalled the quote from memory: “A country of many religious faiths, Lebanon has shown that these different faiths can live together in peace, brotherhood and cooperation.”
Fawaz’s point was that the Pope’s remark reflected not Lebanese reality but rather its abundant export-only folklore. The country’s confessional sects were at each other’s throats, especially the Sunnis and the Shi‘a, and everybody knew it. Not long before, Hizballah militiamen had surrounded Siniora in his offices here at the Grand Serail in downtown Beirut in the hopes of toppling his government. The Party of God had shown that, for the time being at any rate, “peace, brotherhood and cooperation” was an empty slogan, and the operative message was “resistance”—resistance against Israel, against America and against any domestic actor who, by not siding fully with the resistance, gave evidence he was nothing more than an agent of the Zionists and their puppet masters in Washington.
It is instructive, then, to recall that between 2005 and 2008, as Young shows in sympathetic detail, Siniora, the technocrat tapped to keep the premiership warm until Saad was ready to wear the mantle of his slain father, almost single-handedly prevented Lebanon from imploding. Without him, the minor and larger victories won by March 14 would have quickly evaporated. His stewardship was tested by foreign war, the perpetual prospect of renewed civil war, a string of assassinations (beginning with Rafiq Hariri’s in February 2005), and bombings. All of this was courtesy of the criminal meddling of Hizballah’s two foreign patrons, Syria and Iran, which use Lebanon as their own strategic asset. Hence, Siniora seemed to be mocking his own achievements that winter afternoon when he explained that all of Lebanon’s problems are in fact a consequence of the “occupation”—by which of course he did not mean Iran’s effective occupation of Lebanon’s Shi‘a community, or Hizballah’s two-year-long occupation of central Beirut, but Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Some Lebanese just can’t seem to get enough folklore.
For a country with a population smaller than that of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, Lebanon has lately gotten a lot of literary attention. In addition to Michael Young’s fine book and a less successful effort by Tim Llewellyn entitled Spirit of the Phoenix, there is also a new book on Lebanon from David Hirst, longtime Middle East correspondent for the Guardian. Like Lebanon itself, Hirst’s book is both less and more than first meets the eye.
Hirst, author the 1977 book The Gun and the Olive Branch (now in its third edition) on the politics of Palestine, sees the Lebanese scene in a fashion more or less similar to Young, but with a sharp, Siniora-like swerve to the side. This comes clear in his title, Beware of Small States, which derives from Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin’s 19th-century musings on Belgium. Lebanon, he seems to be saying, amounts to a lot of trouble in a small package. The twist is that, in reality, Hirst is thinking, just as he was in 1977, of Israel:
Several states, from inside the region and beyond, have impinged on Lebanon . . . in its nearly ninety year existence in modern form. But none has done so more strenuously and disruptively than the state of Israel—or to be more precise, Israel preceded by the pre-state Zionist movement out of which it grew.
This is tendentious, to say the least.
One way to think about Lebanon’s anti-state of multiple overlapping divisions is to consider which outside actor a particular segment of the Lebanese population perceives to be its principal enemy. Those who believe that it is Israel have some justice on their side. Indeed, even some Israelis agree, most notably current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Perhaps in order to defend his decision to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000, Barak argues that it was the 18-year-long occupation that first gave rise to and then empowered Hizballah, thus creating the cancer that may eventually destroy Lebanon. Or, as Hirst puts it: “It was Israel itself that changed the Shiites, which turned rice and flowers into grenades and home-made bombs.”
But Israel is hardly the only candidate for Hirst’s dubious honor. In the mid-1950s, few would have named anyone other than Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose pan-Arabist intrigues nearly tore Lebanon apart. Today both Syria and Iran rather obviously play roles far in excess of that of Israel.
What is most peculiar about Hirst’s account is that his anti-Israel perspective is not the flip side of some cluelessly romantic notion about Hizballah. As a veteran reporter who has lived on and off in Beirut for many years, Hirst is clearly not one of those casual Western observers who, as Young describes them, “tend to misconstrue Hizballah as a genuine alternative to traditional Lebanese politics” and to romanticize the “resistance.” In fact, Hirst sees more clearly than Barak that the Iranian revolutionary regime’s chief purpose in seeding Hizballah in the first place was to drive a wedge between the Arab masses, who prized resistance to Israel, and their ruling regimes, which opted instead for accommodation. In other words, like Young, Hirst understands how the nature of Lebanon’s sectarian society invariably attracts outside actors. But his intemperate rhetoric regarding Israel throughout this book suggests that he has drunk much too liberally from the chalice of Arab nationalism, a heady draught that has brought out a deeply unpleasant side to a work that is otherwise useful in its appraisal of recent Lebanese history. (At least insofar as Hirst is interested in Lebanese history: In reality, his book is an Arab nationalist account of Zionism reflected through the prism of modern Lebanon.)
Hirst is often sensitive to the inherent contradictions, conflicting goals and ideals of Arab nationalism (“it can hardly be denied that the Arab ‘nation’ did add up to a fractious lot”, he writes)—and the competing nationalisms among the Arabs, like the Syrian nationalism that holds Lebanon to be a part of “greater Syria.” But he sees Jewish nationalism in the Levant as a monolithic affair that from its origins has pursued the same political goal to ensure its survival: to divide the Arabs. While it is true that Zionist pressure may at times have encouraged Arab divisions, Israel can neither invent nor significantly affect the essential fact of Arab disunity. Indeed, Hirst describes it in great detail. Long before the Zionists touched down in the eastern Mediterranean in force, the Maronites and the Druze fought a bloody sectarian war; Sunni Lebanon long perceived itself to be attached to the greater Arab world, or at least to Syria, while the Maronite affinity toward the West dated back centuries.
The same is true of contemporary matters. After the Syrians were thought responsible for the murder of Rafiq Hariri, it was Lebanon’s Sunni community that was most solidly in the pro-U.S. camp. Their affinity grew especially after General Michel Aoun’s opportunistic alliance with Hizballah reoriented a large segment of the Christians toward Syria and even Iran. None of this (and much more) had anything in the slightest to do with Israel, or even the Palestinians. It was about Lebanon and the Lebanese, who either seduced foreign powers into thinking that their tiny outpost on the sea mattered or were seduced by outsiders’ promises of untold power and riches.
Hirst’s book, then, is perhaps best understood as a reaction to George W. Bush, insofar as one of the goals of the Freedom Agenda was to break the spine of Arab nationalism by de-linking the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the rest of the region’s issues. Arab nationalists and their non-Arab sympathizers oppose this aim because it might compel officials throughout the Arab states to attend to the needs of their local constituencies for a change—to build schools and hospitals, fix streetlights and create jobs. Instead of a make-believe bloc of Arab unity, which appears only when news cameras are rolling, there would be a dynamic political sphere in which Arabs competed and finally compromised with each other in the domestic and regional political marketplace. Arab regimes as well as Arab ideologues, both of the nationalist and Islamist variety, feared that they could not survive in such a climate. They were determined to maintain the status quo and fought back not only against the Americans, but also against the Bush White House’s wards in Iraq and Lebanon. In his rush to stand against Bush, David Hirst has ended up on the side of Arab nationalist despots.
This broader perspective, in which U.S. policy plays a significant “outsider” role, is useful not only to understanding Hirst’s real concerns but also those of the Lebanese principals themselves. It also helps to explain why, after all the domestic and international perils through which Siniora had barely and bravely navigated the Lebanese ship of state, he decided to ramble on for 15 minutes before a group of American journalists about the Palestinians. “This is palace Arabism”, said Michael Young after the meeting with Siniora. “Arabism has entered its baroque phase.”
Since much of my understanding of Lebanon is informed by Young’s writing as well as his friendship, I cannot claim to write objectively about his book any more than he claims to have any “pretense of being objective” about Lebanon. His is a deeply personal effort about a country to which Young and his mother moved when he was eight years old, just in time for the country’s 15-year-long period of civil war. It is, nevertheless, also the definitive book about contemporary Lebanon, showing that the country’s democratic revolution and Hizballah’s attempted counterrevolution are less ruptures in the country’s modern history than a replication of a pattern shaped partly by outside forces but mostly by Lebanon’s own sectarian dynamics.
For his part, Young isn’t sure that this Lebanon has a message. Papal rhetoric aside, it’s certainly no Andalus of medieval Spain, idealized for its example of tolerance and co-existence. Lebanon’s convivencia is much more fragile than that. Young is sure, however, along with his late friend Samir Kassir, that “the Lebanese deserve a better future. At least they deserve to find their own way, in accordance with a rich history that cannot be reduced merely to violence.” Kassir, whose book Beirut has just been translated and published by the University of California Press, was one of the architects of the Cedar Revolution. He was murdered in a car-bomb explosion in 2005. I have heard more than a few Lebanese lament that Kassir’s death—like those of Hariri and all of the March 14 movement victims of Syria and their domestic allies—was in the end for nothing. So what happened to Lebanon’s democratic spring?
The Bush Administration certainly bears some of the blame—especially for a premature election held under an old election law after the departure of Syrian troops in April 2005, and for doing nothing in May 2008 after Hizballah, the SSNP and others ran through the streets of Beirut murdering Sunnis, and in the Chouf Mountains, Jumblatt’s Druze. But it is hard not to notice the advanced extent to which the March 14 movement has unraveled with the Obama Administration coming to office. Only now, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory tour through Lebanon this autumn, is the White House coming to recognize that not all the possible manifestations of engagement are good, and to see that trying and failing can in fact do a great deal of harm.
On the campaign trail, Obama contended that talking to one’s enemies is not a reward, but, as it turns out, even the effort to do so often emboldens them and discourages one’s allies. In Lebanon, Jumblatt jumped sides, and the Saudi initiative toward Damascus, touched off by Riyadh’s sense of the changing winds from Washington, has proved anything but harmless. With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq proceeding apace, the chief Saudi strategic interest became defeating Iranian influence there while securing the premiership for Ayad Allawi, an interest the Al-Saud thought Damascus shared. And so the Saudis sold out Lebanon for an illusion and compelled Saad Hariri to go on bended knee to make amends with the regime that murdered his father. The Saudis have also wanted Saad to scuttle the tribunal, but so far anyway he’s held on to this last vestige of March 14, for which Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to burn all of Lebanon. Nasrallah, Teheran’s agent in Beirut, notes (by the way, without the slightest hint of irony), that the tribunal is a foreign institution. If you understand how this can possibly be, as Young and even Hirst in his own way help us to, then you can begin to understand Lebanon.
1Among others, see Rosen, “The Mayor, the Martyr, and the Pomegranate Trees”, Mother Jones (January/February 2007); Rosen’s reports from Lebanon for the New America Foundation’s “Briefing on Beirut”, May 14, 2008; Rosen, “Hizb Allah, Party of God”, Truthdig.com, October 3, 2006. See also Crooke and Perry, “How Hezbollah Defeated Israel”, Counterpunch, October 12, 2006; Crooke, “The Essence of Islamist Resistance: A Different View of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas”, New Perspectives Quarterly, June 2, 2009.
2See Kim Ghattas, “Lebanon finds unity in street rallies”, BBC News online, March 3, 2005.