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Back from L.A.

I spent much of last week visiting my wife’s family in Southern California, so I’m behind schedule. Feel free to use the comments section as an open thread. Have you read anything interesting lately? What did I miss while I was offline?

I’m back now and will have more material as soon as I can write some. Don’t go away.

Another Wave of Afghan Arabs?

Arabic mujahideen famously volunteered to fight in Afghanistan during that country’s insurgency against occupying forces from the Soviet Union. Many so-called “Afghan Arab” veterans of the war, including Osama bin Laden, later went on to found the Al Qaeda terrorist army.

“Eli Lake reports”:http://www.nysun.com/foreign/help-against-bin-laden-is-proffered/79524/ in the New York Sun that Sheik Ahmad al-Rishawi from Iraq’s Anbar Province is now volunteering to do something similar, only in reverse. He’ll lead a new contingent of “Afghan Arabs” into Afghanistan to help fight against Al Qaeda and their Taliban allies.

WASHINGTON — The leader of the tribal confederation that has fought to expel Al Qaeda from most of Iraq’s Anbar province is offering his men to help gin up a rebellion against Osama bin Laden’s organization along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In an interview, Sheik Ahmad al-Rishawi told The New York Sun that in April he prepared a 47-page study on Afghanistan and its tribes for the deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Kabul, Christopher Dell. When asked if he would send military advisers to Afghanistan to assist American troops fighting there, he said, “I have no problem with this, if they ask me, I will do it.”

The success of the Anbari tribal rebellion known as the awakening spurred Multinational Forces Iraq to try to emulate the model throughout Iraq, including with the predominately Shiite tribes in the south of the country. Today, the tribal-based militias formed to protect Anbaris from Al Qaeda are forming a political alliance poised to unseat the confessional Sunni parties currently in parliament in the provincial elections scheduled for the fall and the federal ones scheduled for 2009.

During his nomination hearing for taking over the regional military post known as Central Command, General David Petraeus said one of the first things he would do would be to travel to Pakistan to discuss the current strategy of the government in dealing with Al Qaeda’s safe haven in the Pashtun border provinces. A possible strategy for defeating Al Qaeda would be an effort there along the lines of the Anbar awakening to win over the tribes that offer Osama bin Laden’s group protection and safe haven.

“Al Qaeda is an ideology,” Sheik Ahmad said. “We can defeat them inside Iraq and we can defeat them in any country.” The tribal leader arrived in Washington last week. All of his meetings, including an audience with President Bush, have been closed to the public, in part because the Anbari sheiks, while likely to win future electoral contests, are not themselves part of Iraq’s elected government.

Of his meeting with Mr. Bush, Sheik Ahmad said he was impressed. “He is a brave man. He is also a wise man. He is taking care of the country’s future, the United States’ future. He is also taking care of the Iraqi people, the ordinary people in Iraq. He wants to accomplish success in Iraq.”

When Sheik Ahmad’s brother, Sheik Sattar, met with Mr. Bush in Anbar last fall, he told the president that he dedicated his victory over Al Qaeda to the victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Assad in the Driver’s Seat

I don’t know what is going to happen in Lebanon in the short or medium term, but whatever it is, it isn’t likely to be good. Michael Young’s latest column in Beirut’s Daily Star is a sobering read. It’s impossible to summarize, so you’ll have to read the whole thing, but “here’s his conclusion”:http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&article_id=92744:

Resolution 1701 has been in the crosshairs of Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah for some time. With the Bush administration on its way out, the Europeans ripe to end Syria’s isolation, Syria’s Arab foes anemic, Israel little interested in reinforcing the UN’s credibility in Lebanon, and the Hariri tribunal looking like an afterthought, now may be the ideal time to begin chopping down the edifice built up in Lebanon by the Security Council between 2004 and 2006. Assad is in the driver’s seat and no one seems willing to stop him.

UPDATE: Lebanon’s “elected” moderately pro-Syrian president Michel Suleiman had predictably “caved on the disarmament of Hezbollah”:http://www.beirutbeltway.com/beirutbeltway/2008/06/suleiman-to-pos.html, either because he sincerely supports Hezbollah’s “resistance” or because he knows the state is too weak to do anything anyway. Whatever. It makes little or no practical difference what his reasons are. There will be more war in Lebanon, and there will be a lot of it. I often miss the place, but I’m glad I don’t live there anymore.

A Dark Corner of Europe, Part I

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“If Yugoslavia was the laboratory of Communism, then Communism would breathe its last dying breath here in Belgrade. And to judge by what [Slobodan] Milosevic was turning into by early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, without fascism’s ability to make the trains run on time.” – Robert D. Kaplan

“You bombed my country.” These were the nearly first words I heard after clearing passport control on arrival in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, from a taxi driver who flagged me down inside the airport. “Fifteen countries bombed my country.”

I didn’t know what to say. Neither did my American friend and traveling companion “Sean LaFreniere”:http://seanlafreniere.blogspot.com/.

“Why are you here in Serbia?” the driver said.

“We’re tourists,” I lied. I didn’t want to say I was an American journalist on a trip through the former Yugoslavia with an end destination in Kosovo. Serbia’s last war of ethnic-cleansing was fought there, and it only ended when NATO, led by the United States, bombed Belgrade’s tyrant Slobodan Milosevic into submission. That was nine years ago, but just three months ago Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A mob of Serbian nationalists answered by fire-bombing the American embassy. The U.S. responded by evacuating its non-essential employees.

“If people ask what two tourists are doing here,” the driver said, “where you are from, you say you’re from Holland.”

From a distance, the latest news out of Belgrade made the place look like a reactionary Middle East capital on a bad day, but this was still Europe. How dangerous could Serbia possibly be? Tensions are higher now than at any time since the 1999 war, but I wasn’t going to lie about where I’m from. Whatever ails the country right now, it hardly compares to Iraq.

Sean and I tossed our bags in the trunk of the taxi and collapsed into the back seat. It was midnight and there was no traffic. I figured the ride into town should cost around 20 dollars, and I expected the driver would rip us off and charge something like 40. We had no idea what the exchange rate was, so I just pulled out a wad of bills from an ATM. I knew better than that, but was too exhausted to care. We paid 4000 Serbian dinars, and only later found out that meant 80 dollars for a fifteen minute cab ride.

“I cannot go to America,” our driver said as he hurtled us at top speed down the freeway while driving half in and half out of his lane. “America will not give visa. America closed to us in Serbia.”

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s probably because of the war. Thank God that’s over.” Firebombing our embassy didn’t help either, but I wasn’t going to antagonize a man who almost certainly wasn’t one of the arsonists.

He was a Serb, but he looked like a Turk. Ethnicity in the Balkans, as in the Middle East, has nothing to do with biological characteristics. Expanding and contracting empires of both the East and the West have mixed up the gene pools everywhere in those regions. American-style racial categories make even less sense there than they do in the U.S. An Orthodox Christian in the former Yugoslavia who speaks Serbo-Croatian as a first language is a Serb no matter where his ancestors may have lived hundreds of years ago. That’s true whether he attends church or not. Religious belief as such is no more relevant to ethnicity in the Balkans than it is inside Israel. Dark-eyed or dark-skinned Slavs are even more common in Serbia than white-skinned or blue-eyed Arabs in North Africa and the Levant.

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The view of New Belgrade from Old Belgrade

Most of the city’s hotels are in so-called New Belgrade. They are overpriced, far from the city center, and surrounded by communist-era monstrosity architecture. Downtown is better. It looks and feels like a proper European environment. So instead of staying in a five-star hotel in a communist-era neighborhood, we stayed in a communist-era hotel in a five-star neighborhood.

The Hotel Royal was established in 1886, but you wouldn’t know it from the look of the place. It couldn’t have been upgraded much, if at all, since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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My room in the Hotel Royal, formerly the Hotel Toplice

The red carpets were badly stained. Sean kept banging his head on the poorly affixed reading lamp next to his bed. Shower curtains were missing half their rings, and only stretched half-way across the tub in any case. An ankle-busting open drain threatened bare feet at all times. Beds were too hard, too short, and too narrow, yet still the stiff sheets barely fit. The screen on the TV was smaller than the one on my laptop, there was no cable or satellite, and there were only two volume control settings: too quiet to hear, or loud enough to disturb the neighbors even at noon. Towels were hardly more absorbent than rubber sheets. Everyone should stay in a hotel like this once in a while to gain a little appreciation for Motel 6.

We walked the streets of old Belgrade after midnight and searched for whatever cafes or bars were still open. Sean said at once the city reminded him of his trips to cities in Russia, though it’s a bit more prosperous and less sketchy.

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Belgrade after midnight

The karaoke bar on a corner might not have been our first choice during the early evening, but it was one of the few places still open after midnight on a holiday weekend. We stepped inside. Beautiful and fashionably dressed young Serbian women and men sang songs in their native language with their arms around each other, empty shot glasses and crumpled packages of cigarettes before them on the tables. Except for the bartender whom we spoke to in English, no one in the establishment could tell we weren’t Serbs. The atmosphere in the bar was one of energetic and joyous camaraderie. I was happy to be there. Serbia didn’t feel remotely sinister, and I chuckled to myself as I remembered our taxi driver’s warning.

“I could live here,” Sean said. I was tempted to agree as I took a swallow of my locally brewed Serbian beer. Belgrade was my kind of place — intriguing and troubled, yet attractive, cultured, and fun.

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Belgrade during the day

Then we found a Turkish-themed bar in a basement, and I reconsidered somewhat.

This place was quiet. Two young men brooded over beers in a corner, and two young women at the bar laughed at the bartender’s jokes. The other tables were empty. I was surprised to find an Istanbul-like establishment in a country so violently anti-Islamic, but old Turkish style is warm and sophisticated, and Serbs do have good taste.

“We should order some of their plum brandy,” Sean loudly said as we leaned against the bar.

“You mean slivovitz?” I said.

Everyone heard us, dropped their conversation in mid-sentence, and stared. Their looks weren’t hostile, exactly, but they weren’t friendly either.

“Can we get some slivovitz?” Sean said to the bartender.

“I’d also like a beer, please,” I said.

The Balkan Stare abated, and the bartender smiled. He seemed happy that we knew of their national drink and wanted to have some. The handful of Serbian patrons switched to talking about us instead of staring at us.

Not until we sat down with our drinks did I remember an obvious and very important fact for the first time since we landed. Americans are not only the ones who bombed Belgrade. American soldiers in Kosovo are currently occupying part of what Serbs insist is their country. Most of Yugoslavia dismembered itself, but from the Serbian point of view, Americans were instrumental in the dismemberment of Serbia, which is something else.

It was a strange twilight zone feeling, and it didn’t seem real. The only places I’ve seen American soldiers are in the U.S. and in Iraq. Europe is often thought of as a post-historical paradise, yet a place that looks like a banged-up version of Vienna if you squint at it hard enough in the dark got what was basically the Saddam Hussein treatment.

I sipped from my shot glass of slivovitz. It tasted of sweet plums and fire, but mostly of fire.

*

Sean is my oldest friend, and we’re accustomed to taking road trips together that our friends and family tend to think are ill-advised. Our most infamous was a trip I wrote about a few years ago that we took on a lark from Istanbul, diagonally across Anatolia in a rented car, “and into Iraq”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001119.html. There’s no “beating” that, but we’ve wanted to road-trip across Yugoslavia together ever since Bosnia came apart at the seams. It is one of the most important, and historically violent, civilizational crossroads in the world.

The medieval Kingdom of Serbia lost its sovereignty to the Turks when Tsar Lazar’s army was defeated on the Field of Blackbirds, near the town of Kosovo Polje, in 1389. The tragic dissolution of Serbia, and it annexation by the world of Islam, was deeply traumatizing to the Serbian national psyche. The recent crimes of Slobodan Milosevic and his band of like-minded war criminals shouldn’t obscure that, even though they were not justified by it.

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Old Belgrade

Serbia may be mostly Christian, but it’s no less Eastern than Turkey. (Christianity is itself a Middle Eastern religion by origin.) Serbia did not belong to the Western half of the Roman Empire with Rome as its capital. It belonged, instead, to the Eastern half of the empire whose capital is now Istanbul.

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The Western and Eastern halves of the Roman Empire with their capitals in Rome and Constantinople-Istanbul

Most of the Balkan Peninsula was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. It did not belong to the West. It was the northern-most region of the political entity that included much of the Arab world, and it was anchored there for longer than the United States has existed as a country. The region of the South Slavs is European by geography and in some ways by culture, but for the last half-millennium much of it has been ruled by Easterners and Muslims more often than not. Belgrade belonged to the same political entity as Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Baghdad.

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The Turkish Ottoman Empire, which included Serbia as well as much of the Arab world

Serbia did not take part in the Renaissance, which spread from Italy to much of Europe, but not to Ottoman lands.

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Italy during the Renaissance, when Serbia belonged to the Turks

Serbia was beyond the reach of Napoleon and his code, “which strongly influenced the rule of law”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleonic_code.

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Napoleon’s Empire did not penetrate the Balkans beyond the Dalmatian coast

Serbia likewise missed the Western European Enlightenment, subsumed as it was in the world of the East and Islam at the time.

The Ottoman Empire disintegrated at the end of World War I, but many of its unstable former pieces — from Israel and Cyprus to Lebanon and Iraq — are still at war with themselves and with each other. The unraveling of Yugoslavia has more in common with patterns of post-Ottoman crackup elsewhere than many people outside the region have stopped to consider.

The Kurds of Iraq, I discovered, provide “a useful and instructive foil for Arabs”:http://www.azure.org.il/magazine/magazine.asp?id=407. So do the Turks, Serbs, Bosnians, and Albanians in that strange region between the Middle East and Western Europe where civilizations overlap in bizarre and often counter-intuitive ways. The former Yugoslavia is not the Middle East, but it’s an eye-opening crossroads where East and West meet and bleed into each other like artifacts in a painting by Salvador Dali.

Sean and I met one of Belgrade’s most famous writers, Filip David, at a cafe downtown across the street from a small park. You may know him as the writer of the award-winning film Cabaret Balkan (or, The Powder Keg in its original Serbo-Croatian), a disturbing Altman-esque kaleidoscope of intertwined stories set in Belgrade on the eve of Yugoslavia’s violent unraveling.

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He wanted to get one thing out of the way before Sean or I asked him anything.

“I must say that I opposed from the first moment the Milosevic regime,” he said, “from the beginning of the 1990s. I was in non-government groups and organizations that were opposed to Milosevic and the nationalistic policies of Serbian power.”

“Did you spend time in prison?” I said.

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Filip David

“No,” he said, “because Milosevic was very clever. He let dissidents stay free so he could always say to people outside Serbia, here is democracy. You could see these small groups, but they were without any real influence. But when he saw that it could be dangerous, he stopped the TV and radio stations. He stopped newspapers, and so on. I did lose my job, though. For 25 years I was the head of the drama department at TV Belgrade.”

TV Belgrade, at the time, was the only Serbian channel. It was Slobodan Milosevic’s very own Pravda. Now, though, Serbia has many channels. And even during the Communist era under Josip Broz (Marshall) Tito, Western newspapers and magazines were available.

“The political situation is not okay,” David said. “It has not changed from the time of Milosevic, you know.”

“Really?” I said. I was slightly surprised to hear this, and I’m not sure he’s right. Serbia’s election a few weeks ago produced a better result than either David or I expected when we met. Boris Tadic’s pro-European Democratic Party got less than 50 percent of the vote, but still garnered a bigger share than any of the individual nationalist parties. Serbian Nationalists outnumber internationalists overall, but they’re somewhat disorganized and they certainly are not starting wars anymore.

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A Democratic Party billboard

“Milosevic is dead,” David said, “but his ideas and Serbian Nationalism is still very strong.”

That much at least is true. Serbia’s full-blown nationalist parties — the Radicals led by Vojislav Šešelj, currently in the dock in the Hague for war crimes and genocide — and Milosevic’s old Socialist party, are supported by roughly half the population. A smaller base of support for Vojislav Kostunica’s more moderate party, which is still nationalist and anti-European, place Serbia’s supporters of Westernization and liberalism in the minority.

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Posters for the Serbian Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic (left) and Vojislav Šešelj (right)

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Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj before his imprisonment in The Hague

The Communist era’s Marshall Tito was awfully liberal as far as Marxist dictators go, but Serbia’s nationalists are more extreme than any others in Europe. “As Paul Berman put it”:http://www.boston.com/news/packages/iraq/globe_stories/041303_ideas.htm, “the best communism led to the worst post-communism.” The French National Front, led by Jean Marie Le Pen, may wax nostalgic for the extremist actors of yesteryear, but the head of the Radical Party is headed by present day war criminals who plotted and carried out genocide against both Muslims and Catholics.

“What put Yugoslavia together was communism,” David said. “There was an ideological base, there were communist parties in Serbia, Croatia, everywhere. But after the fall of communism, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they lost their ideological base. Milosevic was a real communist, but also a pragmatist. He knew what to do to keep his power. At first he was against nationalism.”

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Former Communist Party Headquarters

“You mean after Tito?” I said.

“After the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said. “But communists in Serbia had to fall also. So very soon Milosevic became a Serbian Nationalist. You must understand that Serbian Nationalism is also a totalitarian ideology.”

“So it’s not that hard to go from one totalitarianism to the other,” Sean said.

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Sean LaFreniere

“He was not really a nationalist,” David said, “but he had to do this to keep his power. The problem with Serbs then was that Serbs controlled the Yugoslav Army. At that moment he went all over Yugoslavia and raised the issue of nationalism. He was sure that because the Serbs in the Yugoslav Army controlled everything, he could control Yugoslavia. And he then began to attack Croatia, Bosnia. The army was already there, everywhere were people opposed to his regime. That was the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia.”

The dénouement was a long one. The end of the end of Yugoslavia only came to pass three months ago when Kosovo declared its independence.

“I’m on the political committee of a small party,” David said, “the Liberal Democratic Party. In the opinion of some people, especially outside Serbia, this is the only party that’s based on the real situation. We say Kosovo has separated, it is now a new state, and we should have good relations with them.”

“You recognize this?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “100,000 Serbs still live there, so we have to have good relations with Albanians.” 90 percent of Kosovo’s people are ethnic Albanians. “But we’re only a minority here in Serbia. Maybe six, seven, or eight percent of people agree with this. The rhetoric here is very high in the media that Kosovo is Serbia. Of course they say they will defend it with diplomacy. We have no strength to fight for it. But who knows, they say. Maybe one day in the future.”

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“The people in Kosovo,” David said, “the Albanians don’t want to live in Serbia. Before the Milosevic regime we had no connection to Kosovo. They had their own parallel institutions. They were already outside Serbia. I am sure that some of our politicians are happy that it has separated, but officially they speak differently.”

“You mean, privately they’re happy?” I said.

“Yes,” David said.

“They’ve removed the problem,” Sean said. “It’s been cut loose.”

“Kosovo was only part of Serbia after the First World War,” David said. “It was not forever even though they say it was forever.”

Many Serbian Nationalists are fixated on the battle near Kosovo Polje when Tsar Lasar’s forces were defeated by the Turks on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389. But Kosovo was mostly Albanian then, as it is now.

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The city center is full of Communist architecture

“And when you have myths,” David continued, “they are based on emotions, not on facts. Hitler has in Mein Kampf one very important sentence. He said his National Socialist movement was not based on facts, but on emotions, and that no facts can destroy it. And if you base your power on emotion, people will stay there and it will be forever. I asked myself, how did things change in Nazi Germany? With a complete catastrophe. We haven’t had one. And I don’t want one because I live here.”

NATO’s bombing of Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 was a catastrophe of a sort, but of course it hardly compares to what happened to Germany and Japan in the 1940s.

“I can’t say, yes, that’s the solution,” David said. “But in some way you must begin from zero.”

*

A large number of Europeans, contrary to conventional wisdom, have been anti-American for most of America’s history. The problem, however, is confined, to an extent, to Western European elitists. Eastern Europe is different, as Donald Rumsfeld bluntly pointed out with his now infamous quip about New Europe and Old. Serbia, though, is different from both. Anti-Americanism runs much deeper there, and it’s partly based on recent and current grievances as well as the usual conspiracy theories and phantasmagoria. It is much more vicious than what you’ll find in the cafes of Paris.

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An outdoor cafe in Belgrade in front of the Hotel Moscow

“What do most Serbs think of Americans now?” I asked Filip David.

“Very bad!” he said and laughed. “There is very messy propaganda, you know. Here there is no private opinion, only public opinion. During Milosevic they said for four years that there was no alternative to war. And after Dayton, the next day, they said that peace has no alternative. Everyone changed their mind overnight. The influence of the media is very very strong. And now they say Americans are our enemies.”

“They actually use the word enemies?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “You also have some kind of stereotypes. The first is that there is an international conspiracy against Serbia, and that behind that are Americans and Jews with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

“Oh, you’re kidding,” Sean said. He spent six months in Denmark while I was in Lebanon, and he never heard that kind of thing there.

“Really,” David said. “They say Jews control America.”

Sean couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity.

“And the second,” David said, “is that all independent journalists and non-government members are traitors who are paid by the West. These two stereotypes exist now, in this moment. I am against this, you know, because I am Jewish.”

“Is that a problem for you here?” I said.

“It’s an attack on international Jews,” he said, “not Jews here, because, you know, in Serbia there are only 2,000 Jews. A lot of people who attack Jews and are anti-Semites, they have never seen in their lives any Jews. In this moment, we have over 100 anti-Semitic books. A lot of them are reprinted books that were written during the Nazi occupation of Serbia during the Second World War. They are trying to explain how it’s possible that Serbia lost all its wars. They are saying that it’s an international conspiracy. And people believe it. You know, the bombing of Belgrade. It’s true that in the American administration you have lots of Jews. But they are Americans, they act like Americans, not like Jews. I think so.”

“And the honest truth,” Sean said, “is there aren’t that many.”

“Most are Christians,” I said.

“Henry Kissinger,” David said. “Hal Holbrook, Wesley Clark.”

“Wesley Clark isn’t Jewish,” I said. “He’s Christian.”

“He’s not a Jew,” Sean said.

General Wesley Clark was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander of Europe when the U.S. went to war against Yugoslavia — which was really just a war against Serbia since what was left of Yugoslavia at the time might be better described as the Serbian Empire. (Yugoslavia was derisively described by many of its citizens as Serboslavia even long before the rise of Milosevic.) It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect many Serbs to admire Wesley Clark, but accusing him of being a Jew seemed a bit much.

“Yes,” David said, “but he was born a Jew and adopted by some family. It’s not important whether it’s true or not. People here say someone is a Jew when they don’t like him.”

I decided to fact-check this just in case I was wrong. And “according to Wikipedia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Clark, Wesley Clark has a Jewish great-grandfather. That doesn’t make him Jewish according to Jewish law, but it does make him Jewish according to Hitler’s definition and, apparently, according to the Serbian definition as well. When General Clark ran for president in the Democratic primary in 2004, the American media let this factoid languish in relative obscurity because hardly anyone in the United States would find it interesting or relevant.

I assumed it was nonsense because Belgrade’s propaganda industry has been manufacturing lies about its enemies for a long time. Republican Senator Bob Dole was widely accused in Serbia of being secretly an Albanian Muslim, for instance. Kosovo’s current prime minister Hashim Thaci, who really is a bit sketchy, was recently and absurdly accused of harvesting and selling Serb body parts. When you throw The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into the mix, it’s a good idea to fact-check what you hear — which is frankly good advice in the Balkans in general, not just in Serbia.

“Everybody tries to make their identification with Palestine or with Jews to explain what happens here in Serbia,” David said. “People very often can’t understand what happens here. We who live here can’t always understand. During Tito’s regime there wasn’t any kind of anti-Semitism. Tito had good relations with Israel. But with the rise of nationalism everywhere we have the rise of anti-Semitism everywhere. In Slovenia they have maybe 50 Jews, but they have problems with anti-Semitism when there are problems with the economy.”

“So basically,” Sean said, “anti-Semitism is used here, right now, in the exact same way it was used in Nazi Germany.”

“That’s the problem,” David said.

“What do Serbs think of Israel?” I said.

“It’s mixed,” he said. “Sometimes they praise Israel and say we too must defend ourselves with arms. But other times they say We are like Palestinians, and that Israel is an extension of the United States.”

“So sometimes Serbs identify with Palestinians,” I said. That comes across just from walking around. I saw three Serbs wearing Palestinian keffiyehs downtown just that morning. At the same time, Serbia is the most violently anti-Islamic country in Europe.

“But it’s also not so simple,” he said, “because Palestinians are Arabs. And they don’t like Arabs because Arabs are Muslims. That’s why I say there is so much confusion here about political life, cultural life, and economic life. You can be very surprised by what people say here, and the next day they will say the exact opposite.”

Not everyone in Serbia hates Americans, though.

“I supported Americans from the first moment here,” David said. “I mean, you can criticize Bush or some aspects of his politics, but without the United States we couldn’t have resolved any of the problems in the former Yugoslavia. Because European countries have no strength. When the United States came, all the problems were resolved. It stopped. It stopped the fight. Yes, the United States is some kind of policeman, but you must have some kind of policeman in the world who is ready to stop, to intervene. We had that kind of situation in the Second World War, too. When Americans came, it was finished.”

“But we’re very conflicted about it,” Sean said. “We don’t want to be the world’s policeman, but we keep having to do it.”

“It would be very dangerous for the entire world if there was complete isolation of America,” David said. “If Americans said they were no longer interested in Europe, it would be a catastrophe here.”

“You think?” Sean said.

“Yes,” David said, “because Europe can’t stop anything.”

“Is there any talk that if you joined the EU that the economy would take off?” Sean said.

“Yes,” David said, “but these are facts. These are facts. People in the Democratic Party are saying so, but others are saying they would rather us be very poor and have our dignity.”

“That’s very much like the Arabs,” I said.

“Yes,” David said. “In some ways.”

“I don’t mean to be offensive when I say that,” I said.

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Serbia likes to show off its military hardware in public. “They’re just like Russians,” Sean said and laughed when he saw this. “And Arabs,” I said.

“If you have no facts, you play on dignity,” David said.

“But you know what?” Sean said. “Cash buys a lot of dignity.”

“Without cash you have no dignity,” David said. “Yes, that’s normal. You know, when we were under sanctions we had so much inflation. You can’t imagine. If I didn’t send a letter to my friends in the morning, in the afternoon it cost in the millions. It was the highest inflation in the world during Milosevic. In shops you couldn’t buy anything. They were completely empty. But because we are an agricultural country, we could eat. Pensions were less than one deutschmark per month. Less than one. Money completely lost its value. If I had my pockets full of money, I couldn’t even buy cigarettes. Nothing. You can’t imagine that kind of situation. It’s like living in some absurd galaxy.”

*

Neither Sean nor I had been to Belgrade before, and Filip David offered to take us on a bit of a walking tour. We set out from our downtown cafe and walked toward Belgrade TV, David’s old employer before Milosevic fired him and before the headquarters was bombed by the Americans.

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Sean LaFreniere (left) and Filip David (right) in front of Serbia’s Parliament

David showed us the Serbian parliament building, orthodox churches, the old Marx and Engels square from the communist days, and other various landmarks. I saw virtually no evidence that Belgrade had ever been bombed. Serbs suffered much more in Croatia, where they were ethnically-cleansed from the Krajina region in one of the most under-reported atrocities of the war.

Block Buildings Belgrade.jpg

“During the bombing here,” Sean said, “how bad was it?”

“I have very contradictory feelings,” David said. “On one side, I knew, I was sure, that Milosevic wouldn’t resign without bombing. The resignation of Milosevic was a result of the bombing. On the other side, I was with my family here, my boy, my girl, you know, and they were afraid. My son lived 100 meters from Belgrade TV, which was bombed, and I lived 200 meters, and I begged him to stay with me because we knew it would be bombed that night. He said no, that he passed all these buildings that were bombed and he saw that the Americans were very precise.”

“But it’s still dangerous,” I said.

“Sometimes they bombed the wrong thing,” he said, “but here in Belgrade they were very precise. It was not the kind of bombing as in the Second World War where they were bombing everything.”

“We will never do that again,” Sean said.

“You could see,” David said, “you could predict, they said what they were going to hit before they hit it. But it became very dangerous because they bombed all the official buildings and then they didn’t know what to do next if Milosevic wouldn’t resign. But Milosevic stopped at the right time.”

The bombed-out Belgrade TV station building wasn’t far from our starting point. It stood out as one of the few remaining demolished buildings from the air campaign. It seems to be left as a showpiece. It’s hard to say, though, if this building was left in its condition to wave the bloody shirt against Americans or against the Milosevic regime.

TV Belgrade.jpg

Belgrade TV, bombed by Americans in 1999

“We predicted it would be bombed because it was a massive propaganda mission,” David said. “And I was very sorry because 16 people who were innocent in that building were killed.”

“People chose to stay in it?” Sean said.

Sean and Filip Belgrade.jpg

“No,” David said. “It was not by choice. The conclusion was that if people were killed, we would have an argument against the West. The man who was the general director at that moment is in prison because of it, because he gave orders to put people there.”

A memorial to the dead is placed across the street from the vertical rubble. All sixteen names are engraved in the stone. Above the list of names is written one simple question: Why?

Names of Dead Belgrade.jpg

But the truth is, everybody knows why. Civilians killed by Americans make for great propaganda. Journalists like Robert Fisk predictably complied and blamed NATO. It didn’t matter at the time that Americans hit the building at 2:00 in the morning when no one should have been in there. It occurred to few that Serbian authorities might want to cynically parade the corpses of their own innocents in front of the cameras, though an old Middle East hand like Fisk should have known it was at least possible.

General Manager Dragoljub Milanovic was handed a ten year prison sentence in 2002 for forcing these sixteen employees to remain behind and get killed.

“He knew it would be bombed,” David said. “That’s how this government thought.”

There’s a lot of that going around. “I’ve seen it in Lebanon, too”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001361.html.

“Hezbollah thinks that way,” I said.

“Yes,” David said. “In some ways.”

It’s tempting to think that Serbia has changed, especially now that Milosevic is dead and the pro-European Democratic Party won more votes than the Radicals in the recent election.

“What do people here think of Milosevic now?” I said.

“He isn’t so popular now because he lost all the wars,” he said, “not because of his politics. He didn’t fulfill what he promised. But all these parties now say what he said about Kosovo, about the United States, about Russia. The rhetoric didn’t change. But he lost, and he lost the support of the people because of it…We are afraid of the Radicals because we know what they did. They were in a coalition with Milosevic, you know. They did awful things. Their rhetoric is still war rhetoric.”

“I was very critical of Milosevic,” Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic “said just a few weeks ago”:http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5iArhY3fcJ4FyWN5YQbhAIx-oUfQAD90GD7780. “He had stopped short all Serbian actions, which benefited our enemies. I would have done many things differently. I would have gone all the way.”

How Nikolic would have gone further than Milosevic, whose ethnic-cleansing campaign turned 90 percent of Kosovar Albanians into refugees, isn’t clear. There wasn’t much more that could have been done short of defeating the United States and NATO in battle, or killing the Albanians outright so they could never go home.

The Radicals aren’t gearing up for yet a fifth Serbian war. They can’t. Nikolic is trying to rhetorically out-Slobo Slobo as a way to make up for his own party’s impotence on the Kosovo question. A huge chunk of Serbia’s population hasn’t moderated their views an iota. “After 11 September 2001 the world seemed to forget about the Balkans,” Asne Seierstad writes in her excellent book With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia. “The reporters who used to cover the region left for other, bloodier parts of the world, but all the while Serbia stayed on its crooked course.” Only their behavior has mellowed, but in the end that is what matters most.

“I feel like we’re safe here,” I said to David. “Is that true?”

“Yes,” he said. “Generally. But sometimes you will have somebody say they don’t like you if they hear you speak English.”

I’d seen some looks of surprise and the occasional uncomfortable stare, but no one had been verbally rude to either Sean or me yet.

“Our taxi driver from the airport told us not to say we’re Americans,” Sean said, “but to say we’re from Holland.”

“That seems paranoid,” I said.

“Maybe that was his impression,” David said. “Or maybe he didn’t want to say directly that he doesn’t like Americans, but in that indirect way he said you are not welcome here. You may meet some people who say, fine, you’re Americans, and others who say they hate Americans. But you could say you support the Radicals, that you came here to support Šešelj and Milosevic.”

Sean and I laughed.

“What if we say we support Kosovo?” I said.

“That would be dangerous,” David said.

To be continued…

Coming up: a visit to war-shattered Bosnia, a road trip to Kosovo, Albanians who rescued Jews from the Nazis, activists for the eviction of the United Nations, American soldiers hailed as liberators by Kosovo’s Albanians and as protectors by Kosovo’s Serbs, Israelis who live among Muslims, and victims of the Bin Ladens of the Balkans.

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Hezbollah’s Downfall?

Beirut’s David Kenner thinks Hezbollah’s latest move “will ulimately lead to its downfall”:http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=0167bb3d-56de-4354-89f7-bc885f0e7f00.

I think he’s right, which is what I was getting at when I wrote in COMMENTARY that “Hezbollah’s power is now at its apogee”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/7881. Hassan Nasrallah isn’t likely to ever be stronger than he is right now. It’s all downhill from here. It would be foolish to expect him to fall in the short or medium term, but Kenner’s piece is especially worth reading if you’re worried that Lebanon will become the next Gaza.

UPDATE: See also “Michael Young’s latest column”:http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=5&article_id=92514 in Beirut’s Daily Star, which contains this humorous tidbit: “Thanks to the Israelis, who may soon hand a grand prisoner exchange to Hizbullah, Nasrallah may earn a brief reprieve for his “resistance.” It’s funny how Hizbullah and Syria, always the loudest in accusing others of being Israeli agents, are the ones who, when under pressure, look toward negotiations with Israel for an exit.”

Introducing Standpoint Magazine

Daniel Johnson just launched an impressive new magazine in the U.K. called “Standpoint”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/. His deputy editor Jonathan Foreman asked me if I’d like to contribute a story for the second issue, and I said sure without even seeing the magazine. Now that my first dead-tree version has arrived in the mail and the Web site has been launched, I’m happy to say I’ll be associated with them in some way and I’m honored to be invited.

Here’s the description on the “About Us”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/about-us page:

Standpoint’s core mission is to celebrate our civilization, its arts and its values — in particular democracy, debate and freedom of speech — at a time when they are under threat. Standpoint is an antidote to the parochialism of British political magazines. It will introduce British readers to brilliant writers and thinkers from across the Atlantic, across the Channel and around the world.

In a market swamped by the journalistic equivalent of fast food, Standpoint offers the discerning reader a feast of great writing, properly edited and presented in an elegant design that makes even longer pieces a pleasure to read. Unashamedly highbrow in an era of relentless ‘dumbing down,’ it responds to the unfulfilled needs of the educated public.

“Take a look”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/. And for an on-topic piece, here is a dispatch from Beirut by Michael Young. “Hariri: An Assassination Too Far”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/foreign-june-hariri.

Home Again

By Michael J. Totten

I’ve returned home with quite a lot of fresh material, mainly from Kosovo, but also from Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania. I spoke to religious leaders, American soldiers, political dissidents, Israelis, current and former ambassadors, and all sorts of other interesting characters.

I initially thought the former Yugoslavia might be a bit far afield from my usual beat in the Middle East, but the more time I spent there, the less I thought so. The troubles that wrack that part of the world really are identical to many of those in the Middle East. This should not be surprising. Most of Europe’s Balkan peninsula belonged to the Turkish Ottoman Empire and was cut off from the West and rest of Europe for hundreds of years. The peoples of Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Prishtina belonged to the same political entity as most of the Arabs for a longer amount of time than the United States has existed as a country. Al Qaeda and like-minded fanatics insist the region will belong to their future caliphate once again.

The stories I have in store for you are more varied than what I’ve been publishing lately. I felt like I was writing different versions of the same story over and over again in Iraq. There isn’t much going on there right now that I haven’t already written about. Perhaps at the end of this year that will change, and I will go back. Lebanon has changed, and I’m more likely to return there in the meantime. We’ll have to see.

Stay tuned. I finally have time to sit down and write, and it seems jet-lag has spared me this time. (I can barely write when I’m jet-lagged.) Hopefully you’ll find my new material entertaining as well as informative.

Hezbollah’s Victory

by Michael J. Totten

Lebanon’s “March 14” majority coalition in parliament managed to hammer out a temporary agreement with the Hezbollah-led opposition in Doha, Qatar, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to raise a toast to the new peace in Beirut just yet. The streets are quiet and normal again for the most part, but none of Lebanon’s most serious problems have been resolved. While diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are pretending, for form’s sake, that this is a terrific breakthrough for stability and national unity, Charles Malik “put it more bluntly and honestly”:http://lebop.blogspot.com/2008/05/all-over.html at the Lebanese Political Journal. “The Doha negotiations were never meant to solve everything,” he wrote. “They were meant to stall the violence until after the summer tourist season is over.”

Supposedly this agreement, like most of Lebanon’s arrangements, is a compromise that leaves both parties unsatisfied. But I’m having a hard time figuring out what, exactly, Hezbollah has to be gloomy about. Eighteen months ago thousands of Hezbollah supporters built a tent city downtown and forced the semi-permanent closure of much of the city center. They demanded enough seats in the cabinet to wield veto power over any decision the government makes, despite the fact that they couldn’t win enough seats in the last election to earn it. Well, they finally got their long-demanded blocking minority status in Doha, so they happily took down their tent city. If this weren’t a victory, they’d still be seething downtown.

And it’s a dangerous precedent. A year and a half of mostly non-violent resistance yielded Hezbollah bupkis. After one week of murder and mayhem, the Lebanese government caved. The lesson for Hezbollah is clear: when things don’t go your way, take the rifles out of the garage, hit the streets, and start shooting people and burning down buildings.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/7881.

Writing While Traveling

by Michael J. Totten

I find it difficult to write the long dispatches you’re accustomed to reading while traveling. It takes the better part of a week for me to transcribe the interviews on my voice recorder and the observations and quotes in my notebooks, organize and upload photographs, and write a well-written and thoughtful feature-length article. It doesn’t make much sense to spend so much time doing all that while I’m paying for a hotel room and need to be out doing field work. None of my material from Kosovo and the surrounding area is time-sensitive anyway.

In a few days I will be home and can sit down and do some serious writing. I’ll try to have another short piece or two for you to read in the meantime. Thanks for being patient while I’m abroad, and thanks again to Tony Badran and Lee Smith for helping out when they can.

The Balkans is a bottomlessly fascinating region where everything I’ve learned in the Middle East is turned upside down. It’s like an alternate history novel here, and it’s too bad the region fell off the media map after September 11, 2001. (The Kosovo War, if you recall, occurred only two years before.) If the Kurds of Iraq are instructive foils for Arabs — and they are — they’ve got nothing on the Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania proper.

PS — Considering the latest developments in Lebanon, I most likely will return to Beirut again sooner than I expected.

Lebanon’s Future

by Michael J. Totten

Lebanon will not become the next Gaza.

Commenters both inside and outside the country compared Hezbollah’s invasion of West Beirut last week to the Hamas takeover of Gaza last year, which is perhaps understandable: that’s what it looked like. If Lebanon’s mainstream Sunni-dominated party–Saad Hariri’s Future Movement–has a militia that is able and willing to fight, it didn’t make much of an appearance. Hezbollah seized the western half of the city in a walk. Most journalists focused on this portion of the conflict because West Beirut is where almost every journalist in Lebanon lives and where almost every hotel for visiting journalists is located.

Far less attention has been paid to Hezbollah’s military and strategic failure in the Chouf mountains southeast of Beirut where Lebanon’s Druze community lives. “Hezbollah picked a major fight there and lost”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/05/hezbollahs-thir.php. After three days of pitched battles, its gunmen were unable to conquer a single village–even when they brought out mortars and heavy artillery.

The Druze are among the fiercest of warriors, and everyone in Lebanon knows it. They are well-known in Israel, too, where they often serve in elite units of the Israel Defense Forces and suffer lower-than-average casualty rates in battles with Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Most of Israel’s Sunni Arabs abstain from military service, but Druze Arabs are as loyal to the Israeli state, and are as willing and able to fight for it, as their Lebanese counterparts are in their own country. There’s a reason two of the Middle East’s religious minorities–Maronite Christians and Druze–live in Lebanon’s mountains in significant numbers: attempts to invade and subjugate them are ill-advised, very likely to fail, and therefore rarely attempted by even large armies.

It’s debatable whether or not Lebanon’s Sunnis are organized and well-armed or not. Certainly they are not compared to Hezbollah. No one in Lebanon is. But Druze chief Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party proved they have no shortage of weapons, and they fought off Hezbollah’s invasion even though he told them not to. A tiny percentage of Druze are partially loyal to Talal Arslan, Hezbollah’s only Druze ally, but they defected in large numbers when Hezbollah launched its attack. They fought on the same side as the rest of their community. Political alliances have their limits, and Arslan’s people and Hezbollah discovered theirs. It is now almost safe to say that Hezbollah has no friends at all in the mountains overlooking the dahiyeh, their “capital” and command and control center in the suburbs south of Beirut.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/lebanon-s-future-11376.

The Real Iraq

by Michael J. Totten

Moment of Truth in Iraq, by Michael Yon (Richard Vigilante Books, 227 pp., $29.95)

Iraq is where ideologies go to die. Arab nationalism, Baathism, anti-Americanism, al-Qaidism, Donald Rumsfeldism, and Moqtada al-Sadrism have either died there or are dying. Conventional liberal opinion, more or less correct about the foundering American war effort from 2004 to 2006, has been severely bloodied—along with Iraq’s worst insurgent groups and militias—by General David Petraeus’s leadership of the American troop surge. Even post-9/11 fear of Islam has proven unsustainable for those who regularly interact with ordinary Iraqis. Independent journalist Michael Yon, who has spent more time embedded with combat soldiers in Iraq than any other reporter, is a refreshingly unideological analyst of the war. His self-published dispatches have earned him a loyal following around the world, and he has set out to reach even more people with the publication of a terrific new book, Moment of Truth in Iraq.

Yon begins his story in medias res. “We are in trouble, but we have a great general,” he writes on the eve of Arrowhead Ripper, the major battle last summer against al-Qaida’s terrorist army in Baqubah, just north of Baghdad. Iraq was all but lost before the battle, when American forces under Petraeus surged into the capital and beyond. Yon then takes us back in time and to the northern city of Mosul, where Petraeus first proved that he knew how to counter an insurgency by working with the local population and protecting it from killers. Yon spent many months in Mosul embedded with the 1-24th Infantry Regiment, or “Deuce Four,” and his first-person narrative of firefights in the city’s streets and alleys is relentless and gripping.

“Read the rest in City Journal”:http://www.city-journal.org/2008/bc0516mt.html.

Hezbollah’s Delusion and the Shia’s Dire Straits

_By Tony Badran (cross posted at “Across the Bay”:http://beirut2bayside.blogspot.com/2008/05/hezbollahs-delusion-and-shias-dire.html)_

Two excellent items in NOW Lebanon:

One, a superb piece by Michael Young on the repercussions of Hezbollah’s mad, and failed, coup attempt on the Lebanese Shi’a. It’s really a must read (and you can see echoes in Abu Kais’ moving post yesterday).

Two, a sharp editorial on Hezbollah’s weapons and its dead-end options within a unitary state. Again, it’s worth reading in full.

Hezbollah’s Third Botched Coup Attempt

_By Tony Badran (cross-posted at “Across the Bay”:http://beirut2bayside.blogspot.com/2008/05/hezbollahs-third-botched-coup-attempt.html)_

In three years, since the murder of former PM Rafik Hariri, Hezbollah has attempted three coups — and failed.

On March 8, 2005, Hezbollah thought that by rallying supporters they would nip the independence movement in the bud, maintain the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and move on as though nothing happened.

One week later, March 14 happened, in large part as a reaction to Hezbollah’s rally. It secured the expulsion of the murderous Assad regime’s occupying force.

Then in 2006, with the July war and its aftermath, especially the movement in December 06-January 07.

In their first attempt in January 23-25, Hezbollah tried its coup and relied on Aounist elements. That proved a disaster as the Aounist riffraff were done away with in a matter of hours, ending any prospect of relying on Christian proxies to do Hezbollah’s bidding. The Lebanese Forces’ Samir Geagea, whose supporters were instrumental in dispersing the Aounists, was the central figure during that coup.

Then came this last attempt, which Nasrallah deliberately placed in parallel to the aftermath of the Hariri assassination: i.e., this was intended to be the official reversal of the independence movement.

After Hezbollah took west Beirut, attacking civilians in their homes, ransacking and terrorizing neighborhoods and “media outlets”:http://beirut2bayside.blogspot.com/2008/05/terrorists-and-free-media.html, following a conscious decision by Hariri not to put up a fight, the “Iranian militia”:http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3543230,00.html foolishly thought that it can just as easily overrun Jumblat on his own turf in the Shouf.

Hezbollah had another thing coming. For three days of intensive fighting in the Shouf, and contrary to the lying info ops and disinformation of Hezbollah water carriers like this clueless Hezbollah willful tool (on whose propaganda for Hezbollah I’ve written in the past and will soon be ripping to shreds once again), not a single village in the Shouf fell to Hezbollah. Not Niha, like that Hezbollah watercarrier MacLeod wrote, not anything.

Quite the contrary. “According”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/05/jumblatts-men-s.php to the PSP and other local sources, more than three dozen Hezbollah fighters were killed and a number of their vehicles were destroyed. The fact that they had to introduce artillery and vehicles (mounted with heavy machine guns, like so, and recoilless rifles, like so) only showed that they could not make advances into the villages.

Not just that, but Hezbollah’s attack has led Talal Arslan’s fighters to switch and fight alongside the PSP against Hezbollah, “undermining”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/05/jumblatts-men-s.php Hezbollah’s tiny Druze ally — which is precisely why Jumblat put him in the forefront from the get go (it was not, as shrill commentators and dishonest flacks read it, a sign of “weakness.” It was a shrewed move by a master tactician.).

At the end of the day, the PSP maintained control of the strategic hills of the Barouk to the east and Ras al-Jabal west of Aley, overlooking the Dahiyeh.

And so, Jumblat and the Shouf played a historical role these last few days (and I will have a lengthy post on Jumblat’s role in this crisis asap) and have essentially botched Hezbollah’s coup.

All the idiotic commentators, from Paul Salem onwards, who talked about a different “political balance” as a result of the fighting, don’t and never did know what they’re talking about. This is political suicide for Hezbollah, who has already made contacts with Hariri through a third party informing him that they’re looking for an exit. They know they’re in a jam.

Not just that, now the government is in a position to leverage rescinding its decisions — which it could never implement to begin with! — and we’re already seeing M14 and government sources expressing that.

For one, all M14 officials — including Hariri who made a powerful, uncompromising speech yesterday — are now unanimous about placing the fate of Hezbollah’s weapons as the first item on any “dialogue” agenda. Gone are the days of the “sanctity” of the weapons of the “resistance.” Minister Joe Sarkis has added that any rescinding of the decisions has to be met by not just a withdrawal of armed men from the streets and the reopening of all roads, but also the evacuation of the tent city in downtown Beirut.

The mere fact that M14 and the government are bartering the rescinding of a decision that was never going to be implemented (and if the government was illegitimate, according to Hezbollah, then why even bother focusing on its decisions and thereby affirm its legitimacy?) suggests, regardless of outcome, that they know that there’s no “new balance” advantageous to Hezbollah that forces them to capitulate.

Army Commander Suleiman is now under tons of pressure. Hariri himself criticized the Army’s performance, and we “know”:http://www.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/Lebanon/AFE78ECA5EFE83E2C2257449002F44DB?OpenDocument that 40 senior officers submitted their resignation (which would’ve split the Army) in protest of Suleiman’s handling of the situation (and we also know that criminal pro-Aounist officers were particularly egregious during the crisis). Saudi outlets have even criticized the Army’s performance, putting more pressure on Suleiman to get his act together if he wants to become president (especially now that any gambit about Hezbollah tilting the balance has failed). The US, which also has leverage through its aid to the Army might also do the same. These kinds of pressures, domestic, regional and international, and Suleiman’s susceptibility to them, is why Syria won’t take a chance with him. Anyone who doesn’t fall and lick Bashar’s boots without hesitation at a moment’s notice cannot be trusted as far as the murderer of Damascus is concerned, and it’s why Syria knows that it must return militarily to Lebanon in order to rule it. Even doing it by proxy, through Hezbollah, hasn’t worked.

This is far from over. In fact, this has only just begun.

Jumblatt’s Men Set Back Iran’s Militia in Lebanon

_By Lee Smith_

Our friend and colleague in Lebanon Elie Fawaz writes in to remind us that The War for Lebanon has not even begun yet in earnest and Hezbollah’s “victory” in Beirut is not all it seems:

“So, we know that Hezbollah’s well-trained fighters are in control of most of west Beirut. The decision taken by Walid Jumblat and Saad al-Hariri not to fight back in Beirut, but rather hand most of their positions to the army ended any illusion regarding the sanctity of the “resistance” — that it would never turn its weapons inward, for now its hands are dripping with the blood of innocent Lebanese. But it’s different in the Chouf where Jumblatt’s forces bloodied Hezbollah.

“The Chouf is calm now after fighting over the weekend in which forces belonging to Talal Arslan, part of the Hezbollah-led opposition, jumped sides and joined alongside Jumblatt’s men. As the Progressive Socialist Party “website”:http://www.psp.org.lb/ reports: ‘The free people of the Shouf roll back an attack by the Iranian militias causing severe casualties in lives and equipment.’

“Hence, Jumblatt sounded more assertive last night on LBC news because he knows he got the upper-hand in the Chouf battles (Reuters is reporting at least 14 Hezbollah gunmen killed. Meanwhile, the PSP “website”:http://www.psp.org.lb/ is claiming 32 Hezbollah fighters killed and 250 wounded.). He was willing to hand his offices over to the army to deflect some of the tension and because he wants to avoid a civil war.”

In short, what happened in West Beirut was a given. According to a “report”:http://www.al-akhbar.com/ar/node/73087 from the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, this coup had been planned well in advance and its mastermind was the recently assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh. The government may in fact have forced Nasrallah to show his hand at a time of its choosing, not his. Hezbollah’s walkover in Beirut came as a surprise to no one; nor did the performance of the army, except perhaps the Bush administration which must now reconsider the amount of money it has spent on equipment and training for the Lebanese Armed Forces.

As for the pro-government fighters in Beirut, contrary to most press accounts, there are no Sunni “militias” in the capital. Rather, it is mostly defensive armament, private citizens with small arms defending their families, homes and property. So it is hardly any surprise that Hezbollah managed to overrun Sunni neighborhoods easily. But that is merely one small part of Lebanon, and while the attention of the foreign press has focused on fighting in one sector of the capital, events throughout the rest of the country suggest that Hezbollah’s “rout” is illusory. Tony Badran, drawing on various Lebanese accounts and his own reporting, offers this account:

“After taking over West Beirut, Hezbollah tried to move to the Shouf, where there are two Shiite towns, Kayfoun and Qmatiyye. Hezbollah is trying to link them up to the Dahieh through the Karameh road, which links Dahieh to Choueifat-Aramoun-Doha-Deir Qoubel-Aytat-Kayfoun and Qmatiye, so that it can make encroachments, maintain access routes and not allow the Druze to surround the two Shiite towns.

“That was the plan, but Hezbollah got a severe beating in the Shouf. They were not able to penetrate anything, relying instead — for the first time in the current fighting — on artillery/mortar fire. To no avail. Yesterday alone we heard that seven Hezbollah fighters who tried to infiltrate got killed.

“Hence, Hezbollah burned its Druze ally, Talal Arslan. Whatever tiny following Arslan had before this, it’s safe to say it has been seriously damaged. Witness for instance the fate of Syria’s little Druze creation, the pitbull Wi’am Wahhab, who, it is rumored, has taken his followers (which on a good day may actually reach about 100) and left the Shouf altogether.

“Meanwhile in Northern Lebanon, the pro-opposition Alawites are being slammed by Sunnis in the Baal Mohsen area. Similarly, Sunnis in the Akkar area in the north attacked and torched offices of the SSNP, Baath party, Hezbollah and Aoun, killing a good number of SSNPs. As with Arslan, we see a parallel development, former PM Omar Karami, a Sunni who is at the same time trying to support Hezbollah while shoring up his Sunni bona fides. So he lamented the “deep wound” that has occurred between Sunnis and Shia, and told Hezbollah that if this becomes a sectarian fight, then we have two choices: to either stay home, or fight with our sect.

“So far we’ve had the luxury of not seeing this sad charade play out in the Christian areas. Sleiman Frangieh has been inconspicuously quiet these last few days. Michel Aoun, on the other hand, can’t help himself. So, while there are rumors that he might be urging Hezbollah in to East Beirut, others are watching to see if Nasrallah will attempt to do with the tiny Shiite communities in Nab’a, Metn, and Keserwan/Jbeil, what they did with Qmatiyye and Kayfoun.

“And so, the Party of God has achieved the ‘great victory’ of conquering a few Beiruti streets, terminating the credibility of the army, hastening the prospect of its disintegration, and damaging beyond repair for the foreseeable future, the Shiites’ ties to the Lebanese social fabric.”

Hezbollah and its allies have won one small battle in a war that has just begun.

The Tea Boy

_By Lee Smith_

The other day the Obama campaign “distanced”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/us_elections/article3897414.ece#cid=OTC-RSS&attr=2015164 itself from Robert Malley for his dealings with Hamas. Never mind the disingenuousness of a campaign that up until the day before yesterday when he was fired from the campaign said Malley was not with the campaign, even though a New York Times defense in his behalf said he was with the campaign. What is manifestly clear however is that Obama and his banished adviser/non-adviser share the same worldview. Consider this passage from a press release expressing his “support” for Lebanon.

bq. It’s time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and the development of the economy that provides for a fair distribution of services, opportunities and employment.

Yes, the problem with Lebanon is not the militia backed by Damascus and Tehran that who have squared off against almost every US ally in the Middle East. No, in the Obama worldview, the issue is about “the corrupt patronage system.” What is more corrupt than the issues that instigated the current crisis: Hezbollah’s efforts to, a, build a state within a state and, b, undermine the sovereignty of the Lebanese government? And what is a more unfair distribution of services than an armed party at the service of foreign parties?

Obama’s language is derived from those corners of the left that claim Hezbollah is only interested in winning the Shia a larger share of the political process. Never mind the guns, it’s essentially a social welfare movement, with schools and clinics! — and its own foreign policy, intelligence services and terror apparatus, used at the regional, international and now domestic level. But the solution, says, Obama, channeling the man he fired for talking to Hamas, is diplomacy.

Abu Kais over at From Beirut to the Beltway has a “takedown”:http://www.beirutbeltway.com/beirutbeltway/2008/05/obama-time-to-e.html of the half-term Senator from Ilinois’ statement on Lebanon that is a must read.

bq. Oh the time we wasted by fighting Hizbullah all those years with rockets, invasions of their homes and shutting down their media outlets. If only we had engaged them and their masters in diplomacy, instead of just sitting with them around discussion tables, welcoming them into our parliament, and letting them veto cabinet decisions. If only Obama had shared his wisdom with us before, back when he was rallying with some of our former friends at pro-Palestinian rallies in Chicago.

As Tony Badran wrote me this morning: “I think Obama’s statement is counterproductive in that it will be read by Syria as confirming their hope that there might be a chance with an Obama presidency to get back Lebanon.

“And so, there’s a good possibility that the first thing the Syrians will do in 2009 is to coordinate Hezbollah launching an attack on Israel. Syria would then present its services promising to ‘deal’ with the situation. Obama would be pressed by the foreign policy luminaries to send a delegation to ‘negotiate’ with Syria, the way many were urging President Bush to do in 2006, but he wisely resisted. Simultaneously, Syria would push a return to a peace process with Israel, and presto, the rules of the 1990s, which the Syrians have been desperately seeking after, are reinstated, whereby Syria would be able to pursue proxy war and a peace process simultaneously while restoring its control on Lebanon, which is the primary objective.”

The number of Western journalists, academics and policymakers who have bartered their minds and souls in the political bazaars of the Middle East for blandishments real and imagined is too mind-numbing to contemplate. Like tourists in the souq, they are too flattered by the hospitality to suppose that the man who stands in between them and the beautiful chessboard they want to take home with has already exacted his price just by seating them. And how would you like your tea, President Obama?

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