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Too Perfect for This World

Lebanese blogger Ramzi posts a letter from a reader and his response:

hi ramzi:

I have been in the united states for 30 years. every year i think about going to visit Lebanon. but always something happens. this year my 18 year old daughter who was born in the USA graduated from high school and I had promised her 3 years ago that I will take her to Lebanon for a visit. but circumstances were that she had to go with my 20 year old son alone.

and now she cries that she does not want to leave even though she is scheduled to evacuate tomorrow on 7-20-2006. she keeps telling me but mom I did not see the cedars yet! and that tears my heart up.

sincerely,

(the reader)

Hey (the reader),

That story made me hang my head in sadness. But also in shame. In shame because we the Lebanese have failed Lebanon and failed your daughter. I too was like your daughter, at love with a country I have seen very little of. And when I returned after the war, I was on a constant quest to see, hear, smell Lebanon. To make up for years I could never have had anyway because of the war but still felt I owed.

And now, I have lived here enough to see what I observed rebuilt slowly and day by day destroyed in a single blow. I remember every construction site, every road diversion, every ditch. I remember taking a ride on every one of those bridges when they were fist built. And the innocent children killed were not even born when I first came here.

So, what can I say to you? nothing other than to let Lebanon always be in her heart and in her imagination. Let her fall in love with a Lebanon that neither exists nor could ever exist because it is too perfect for this world. And then let her return here when things are calmer, and let her search for that Lebanon in this Lebanon. She will not find it, but she will fall in love with the next best thing.

Ramzi

Damning Photos

Here are pictures of Hezbollah setting up heavy artillery – military targets – in Christian suburbs east of Beirut.

UPDATE: Lots of people in the comments doubt the accuracy of the description of these photos. I cannot vouch for them. There could be any number of mistakes. Or not. (?)

Hezbollah’s Coup d’État

The fog of war makes it impossible for me or anyone else to determine whether or not Israel’s war against Hezbollah is succeeding of failing militarily. But it’s painfully obvious that Israel’s attempt to influence Lebanese politics in its favor is an absolute catastrophe right now.

The (second in a decade) attack on Qana that killed scores of civilians has all but cemented the Lebanese public and Hezbollah together.

Cable news reports that 82 percent of Lebanese now support Hezbollah. Prime Minister Fouad Seniora — whatever his real opinion in private — is now closer to openly supporting Hezbollah in public than he has ever been.

The March 14 Movement (the Cedar Revolution) is, at best, in a coma if not outright dead.

Hezbollah was popular while Israel occupied South Lebanon. When Israel left Lebanon it finally became possible for Hezbollah’s power to be strictly relegated to it own little corner because support for the organization evaporated.

Now that Israel is back, Hezbollah’s support is back.

It doesn’t matter if this support is reasonable or not. (It isn’t reasonable. Israel wouldn’t even be in Lebanon if it weren’t for Hezbollah.) But it was entirely predictable.

Support for Hezbollah will drop again after Israel leaves. But Israel can’t (or won’t) leave until some kind of arrangement is hammered out. And Israel will now have to deal with a manifestly more hostile Lebanese public while working out that arrangement.

This is a disaster for Lebanon, a disaster for Israel, and a disaster for the United States. It is a tremendous boon to Syria and Iran.

I wish I knew what a possible solution might be, but I don’t. I’m pretty sure, though, that “more of the same” isn’t it.

UPDATE: Tony Badran says “Hezbollah’s plan all along was a classic coup d’etat, very similar, as Pierre Akel recently wrote, to the fascisti’s takeover in Italy.” Seems to be working very well for them right about now.

I’m sorry for not being my usual more-optimistic self. What can I say? It is not always warranted.

When I first arrived in Beirut a British expat friend who lived there for nine years said “Do not underestimate them” when I told him I was going to meet and interview Hezbollah.

Please allow me to second that.

UPDATE: Mary at Exit Zero (no peacenik, she) wrote in my comments:

Asymetric warfare makes the military branch of a terrorist organization hard to hit – but it leaves the supporters of terrorism in a relatively vulnerable position. If the world were an intelligent place, we’d be fighting the strategy of asymetric warfare, not its army or its cities.

The state leaders, bureaucrats and bankers who support Hez would be our targets. As Sun Tsu said:

Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy;

Next best is to disrupt his alliances;

The next best is to attack his army.

The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative.

The world in general seems to have read that advice backwards.

Al Qaeda Heading to Lebanon – And Why Israel Needs to Help Reconstruct Lebanon

Before this war even started I wrote that Israel should leave Lebanon as a whole out of its fight with Hezbollah, that the real enemies were in Syria and Iran. War in Lebanon has destroyed almost every last scrap of political capital Israel had in that country, it has a reduced a modern almost-democracy to a Third World beggar nation de-facto ruled by Hassan Nasrallah, cruelly punished the most liberal and moderate Arab population in the world, and exploded the extraordinarily fragile stability that recently was.

Now Al Qaeda says they are heading to Lebanon.

There is a lot of talk now about a multinational force (made up of who?) to enter Lebanon to protect the Israelis. If there is to be a multinational force, it will also need to protect Lebanese.

The United States contributes millions of dollars to rebuild infrastructure (etc) destroyed in wars that it fights. Afghanistan received post-war aid. Iraq received post-war aid.

If Israel prefers Lebanon on its border instead of chaos, Israel needs to seriously consider paying war reparations. The US does this as a matter of course, out of a sense of decency as well as an understanding that it helps prevent even more conflict. I see no reason why Israel cannot or should not do the same, and for the same reasons.

UPDATE: DP points out in the comments:

The US had never paid war reparations and probably never will. War reparations are what you pay if you lose a war…What the US has done is give assistance in rebuilding. This might sound like the same thing, but it is not. War reparations are mandatory. Assistance in rebuilding is conditional…Assistance to rebuild a devastated country is a wise choice.

Okay then, if “reparations” is the wrong word (and perhaps it is) I suggest Israel contribute to the reconstruction of Lebanon. This will be good for Lebanon and good for Israel…assuming Hezbollah does not become the government or get any of the money.

The Real Middle East

The Middle East isn’t a cartoon. It’s a rich and complex place. Many, if not most, of its citizens refuse to submit to the dumb little categories fanatics and outsiders like to impose on them.

Latest example:

Being interviewed on a European radio station, the interviewer snarls at me when I mention that Haifa has a mixed Jewish/Arab population and that as we speak, many of them were sitting in bomb shelters together, hiding from Nasrallah’s rockets.

I was surprised this information could be so irritating. I didn’t dare tell him about the guy who came up to me in downtown Haifa, showed me his bombed shop front and told me he was an Arab who wants the IDF to destroy the Hizbullah.

Hat tip: Allison Kaplan Sommer.

UPDATE: Here’s another example, this one from Lebanon.

The situation in Ain Ebel is unbearable. Thousands of civilians have fled to the village from nearby villages and more than 1000 rockets have hit the village, there is no more food neither clean water and diseases r spreading.

Now here comes the most sickening part:

Hezbollah has been firing rockets from the village since Day 1 hiding behind innocent people’s places and even CHURCHES. No one is allowed to argue with the Hezbollah gunmen who wont hesitate to shoot you and i ve heard about more than one shooting incident including young men from the village and Hezbollah.

Urgent appeals have been done through phone calls from terrified people who wouldnt give out their name fearing Hezbollah might harm or even eliminate them.

This is the true image of our brave Islamic Resistance, putting the civilians and their homes as body shields to the Israeli bombardements.

Let the message spread and let those criminals move out of the village once and for all.

Free Ain Ebel from the terrorists !

Everything Exploded

In case you missed it the first time, or if (like me) you feel like re-reading it, exactly three months ago I published Everything Could Explode at Any Moment from the Lebanese/Israeli border. That piece feels heavier now than it did.

Hezbollah Cries Uncle?

Too soon to pop any champagne corks, but Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora may have convinced Hezbollah to submit to the government. The better of the two options highlighted by Michael Young (see below) might be kicking in.

More Opinions Than People

I once mentioned offhand in the comments section that Lebanon has more opinions than people. A Lebanese woman I had never met or encountered online before said she thought that remark was hilarious and gave me credit for “finally understanding Lebanon.”

At the time I didn’t feel like explaining what I meant. It didn’t seem important. But now would be a good time.

Lebanon’s bizarre internal political structure creates mental categories in its citizens that do not and never will exist in the West. It’s hard enough to understand how Lebanese think even after living there myself for a while, so I don’t expect casual readers to “get” this. But there are Lebanese (I know several) who are secular and pro-American, who want peace with Israel, and who also suppport Hezbollah.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about writing an essay explaining how this is possible, but Lebanon.Profile over at the Lebanese Political Journal beat me to it. So go read. Only a small minority of Shia think this way, but you should know about them. It means they’re mentally flexible and can be brought around, under the right conditions, to healthier ways of thinking. Things will not always be as they are.

The Stakes for Nasrallah…and Lebanon

Lebanese-American Michael Young in Beirut’s Daily Star:

[H]ow long can Nasrallah last? Much has been made of the secretary general’s celebrated steadfastness and the fact that he has before him only two choices – victory or defeat. If that’s his narrow reading, then he is heading toward heartbreak, because sooner or later the weight of the Lebanese sectarian system is likely to impose defeat on him if he refuses to make necessary concessions. The reason is simple: No Lebanese leader – not Amin Gemayel in 1982, Michel Aoun in 1989, or Emile Lahoud in 2004 – can indefinitely bend the country to the breaking point, or push it toward communal destabilization, without the old sectarian ways kicking in to impose a correction. And in the absence of concessions by maximalist leaders, the system has usually collapsed into war.

Michael is one of the sharpest thinkers in Lebanon. (And he was kind enough to publish an article I wrote some time ago.) Read the whole thing.

Human Shields

Caveman (formerly of Beirut) reports that Hezbollah may be using Druze villagers as human shields (after kidnapping a Druze soldier from Israel). This won’t be over when it’s over…

UPDATE: Hezbollah is doing the same thing to Christians, even shooting civilians who try to flee Israeli fire.

Lebanon’s Premature Liberalism

“This is not Norway here, and it is not Denmark.” — Lebanese Christian militia leader Bashir Gemayel.

Beirut Destruction 2.jpg

Last month I made a terrible mistake.

A reader from Lake Oswego — a suburb of my city of Portland — emailed and asked if he thought he should take his wife and children to Lebanon on their next vacation. I said sure. Just stay out of the Hezbollah areas along the border with Israel and in the suburbs south of Beirut. And make sure your kids understand that Lebanese drivers are considerably more reckless than drivers in Oregon, that they should be more careful than usual when crossing the street.

Needless to say, this was absolutely awful advice.

My friend Sean LaFreniere – who drove with me to Northern Iraq on a whim — was scheduled to be with me in Beirut right now. (I am at home and he is now blogging from Tunisia and Turkey.) He was slightly nervous, but I told him he did not need to worry. Lebanon could become a dangerous country again. There are warning signs to watch out for, I said, and I told him what they were. At the time (and this was only a few weeks ago) those warning signs were not yet flashing red. Who would have thought war could engulf the whole country, and not just the border, in one day with no warning?

I kept my eye on the country, even so, because potential medium-term trouble was quietly brewing. Many Lebanese Christians, Sunnis, and Druze were getting so impatient with the impasse over Hezbollah’s weapons they threatened to reconstitute their own armed militias that were disbanded after the war. Peaceful and diplomatic negotiation over Hezbollah’s role in a sovereign rather than schismatic Lebanon was not going to last very much longer. Once the rest of Lebanon armed itself against Hezbollah, a balance of terror would reign that could explode into war without any warning. That was the danger. That was the nightmare. That’s why Hezbollah had not been disarmed.

Syria’s Bashar Assad threatened to make Lebanon burn if his occupation troops were forced out of the country. Most Lebanese think that’s what last year’s car bombs were about. After former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, was assassinated downtown, all the car bomb victims were Christian. All the random car bombs exploded in Christian neighborhoods. The idea – or so the Lebanese thought – was to whip up sectarian hatred, to get Christian militias to rearm and retaliate, and to re-ignite the Lebanese war. Assad yearned to burn Lebanon, and he was not shy about saying so. Syria, or so he hoped, might be invited back in to stop the chaos with the soldier’s peace of the Baath.

That plan didn’t work. Hardly anyone wanted a return to civil war. No Christian vigilantes retaliated against Muslims (Sunni or Shia) because they knew it was a trap set by the Baath. That, most likely, is why the siege of the car bombs came to an end.

Sectarian tensions and hatreds run deep in Lebanon, even so, far deeper than those of us in the West can begin to relate to. 32 years ago Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. But 15 years ago Lebanon was the Somalia of the Middle East. It made the current troubles in Iraq look like a polite debate in a Canadian coffeeshop by comparison. There is no ethnic-religious majority in that country, and every major sect has been, at one time or another, a victim of all the others.

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. The slightest ripple sent Lebanese scattering from the streets and into their homes. They were far more twitchy than I, in part (I think) because they understood better than I just how precarious their civilized anarchy was. Their country needed several more years of careful nurturing during peace time to fully recover from its status as a carved up failed state.

By bombing all of Lebanon rather than merely the concentrated Hezbollah strongholds, Israel is putting extraordinary pressure on Lebanese society at points of extreme vulnerability. The delicate post-war democratic culture has been brutally replaced, overnight, with a culture of rage and terror and war. Lebanon isn’t Gaza, but nor is it Denmark.

Lebanese are temporarily more united than ever. No one is running off to join Hezbollah, but tensions are being smoothed over for now while everyone feels they are under attack by the same enemy. Most Lebanese who had warm feelings for Israel — and there were more of these than you can possibly imagine — no longer do.

This will not last.

My sources and friends in Beirut tell me most Lebanese are going easy on Hezbollah as much as they can while the bombs are still falling. But a terrible reckoning awaits them once this is over.

Some Lebanese can’t wait even that long.

Beirut Mob.jpg

Here a Christian mob smashes a car in Beirut for displaying a Hezbollah logo. My friend Carine says the atomosphere reeks of impending sectarian conflict like never before. Another Lebanese blogger quotes a radical Christian war criminal from the bad old days who says the civil war will resume a month after Israel cools its guns: “Christians, Sunnis and Druze will fight the ‘fucker Shia’, with arms from the US and France.”

Israeli partisans may think this is terrific. The Lebanese may take care of Hezbollah at last! But democratic Lebanon cannot win a war against Hezbollah, not even after Hezbollah is weakened by IAF raids. Hezbollah is the most effective Arab fighting force in the world, and the Lebanese army is the weakest and most divided. The Israelis beat three Arab armies in six days in 1967, but a decade was not enough for the IDF to take down Hezbollah.

The majority of Lebanon’s people were wise and civilized enough to take the gun out of politics after the fifteen year war. Lebanon was the only Arab country to do this, the only Arab country that preferred dialogue, elections, compromise, and debate to the rule of the boot and the rifle. But Hezbollah remained outside that mainstream consensus and did everything it could, with backing from the Syrian Baath and the Iranian Jihad, to strangle Lebanon’s democracy in its cradle.

Disarming Hezbollah through persuasion and consensus was not possible in the first year of Lebanon’s independence. Disarming Hezbollah by force wasn’t possible either. The Lebanese people have been called irresponsible and cowardly by some of their friends in America for refusing to resume the civil war. Unlike Hezbollah, though, most Lebanese know better than to start unwinnable wars. This is wisdom, not cowardice, and it’s sadly rare in the Arab world now. They are being punished entirely too much for what they have done and for what they can’t do.

Israel and Lebanon (especially Lebanon) will continue to burn as long as Hezbollah exists as a terror miltia freed from the leash of the state. The punishment for taking on Hezbollah is war. The punishment for not taking on Hezbollah is war. Lebanese were doomed to suffer war no matter what. Their liberal democratic project could not withstand the threat from within and the assaults from the east, and it could not stave off another assault from the south. War, as it turned out, was inevitable even if the actual shape of it wasn’t. Peace was not in the cards for Lebanon. Its democracy turned out to be neither a strength nor a weakness. It was irrelevant.

Holding up as a democracy in a dictatorial region isn’t easy. Chalk this up as yet another thing Israel and Lebanon have in common with each other that they don’t have in common with anyone else in the Middle East — except, perhaps, for the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Unlike Israeli democracy, though, Lebanese democracy may not have the strength to keep breathing. Already some right-wing American “realists” are suggesting Syria return its forces to Lebanon. (Bashar Assad may be as much a foreign policy genius as his late father.) The March 14 Movement, the Cedar Revolution, may be too weak to survive until the region as a whole is transformed. If the Lebanese, the Americans, and the Israelis are not wise in the coming days, weeks, and months it could die the same death as the Prague Spring in the late 1960s, crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks and smothered until the day the world around it had changed.

When Israel and Hezbollah reach a ceasefire at last, round two of this conflict will commence in short order. No one knows if the Lebanese will be able to keep the gun out of politics after all that has happened. A tiny minority of Lebanese (with help from the remaining Syrian agents) can burn the country to the ground all over again.

“What will become of us?” is the question on everyone’s mind. No one can know what will happen after Israel lifts its siege and the temporary national unity flies apart into pieces. And it will fly apart into pieces. The only question is how far the pieces will fly and how hard they’ll land.

During all seven months I spent in Lebanon the overwhelming majority feared an imminent return to civil war. I always told them they were too pessimistic even while I wondered if I was too naïve. Perhaps I’ve absorbed too much of that Lebanese fatalism by spending so much of my time among them. And perhaps my naivete has finally been washed away. I really don’t know. It’s an old question that I don’t know how to answer.

Either way, the odds are quite a lot grimmer than they recently were. Lebanon could, indeed, become a free fire zone even if most Lebanese do everything they can to make it not so. Just a few thousand Hezbollah fighters set two countries on fire all by themselves. Don’t discount what bloody mayhem and hell a few thousand armed Druze, Christians, and Sunni can do if they decide to go hunting Shia in revenge for destroying their country. Don’t forget, also, that Lebanon is now surging with tens of thousands of furious, displaced, homeless, unemployed, and undisciplined young Shia men enthralled with Iranian-style jihad.

Insha Allah, Lebanon might be okay. Perhaps the status quo ante will return, only with a weaker and even more marginalized Hezbollah seething in its corner and thrown off the border. There may be scattered acts of sectarian violence that threaten to ignite into war and never quite do. Kidnappings could come back in style. Al Qaeda may finally have its turn at the Israeli border if their Hezbollah enemy is no longer there to keep them away. I do not know. The Lebanese themselves do not know. But one thing I do know is that after the first war ends there really could be another.

Don’t take your kids. Stay out until further notice.

Post-script: I was planning a trip to Iran in the near future, but of course I did not see this coming. Iran will have to wait. I’m returning to Lebanon as soon as the airport re-opens. Please hit the Pay Pal button and help me buy airfare.

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

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Please Be Patient

I’m still recovering from jet lag and general exhaustion while scrambling to catch up on everything that got put on hold while I went to Iraq on short notice. (I didn’t tell you this before, but I was scheduled to be in Lebanon right now before the Iraq gig came up. Looks like I would not have made it in any case.)

I don’t want to get into the quick response style of blogging just yet. First I’m composing a longish essay, a more careful and measured response than what I banged out in haste from Suleimaniya, Iraq, when I didn’t really have time.

More soon.

What Now?

by Michael J. Totten

I find myself unsure what to write about now that I’m back and can blog again. I worked in tranquil Northern Iraq — the Kurdistan region — for two weeks. I also visited Amman, Jordan, and Tel Aviv, Israel for about 24 hours each during a time of chaos and war.

Because I signed a confidentiality agreement before starting my consulting job in Northern Iraq, there is little I can write about. But of course I learned some things unreleated to my job while I was there, and I took over 1,000 photographs with my spiffy new professional photojournalist camera. There isn’t anything stricly newsy out of Iraqi Kurdistan right now, but it’s an interesting part of the world all the same.

I’ll get to everything in due time, but what do you want first? Posts from Northern Iraq? Brief dispatches from Amman and Tel Aviv? Or my armchair reaction to events in Lebanon and Israel?

Many of you hit my Pal Pay donations button recently, so you tell me what you want most and when you want it.

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Northern Iraq
Amman and Tel Aviv
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