Lebanon used to be considered the most beautiful country in the Middle East. And its capital Beirut was a most popular vacation and commerce site. But in 1967 after the Six Day War, the murderer Arafat (may his name be blotted out forever) moved his murderous crew to southern Lebanon. Rather than insisting that the terrorists disarm and behave (or throw them out like Jordan) the Lebanese government appeased their new terrorist residents leading their country down the road to their destructive take over by Syria and Hezbollah. Mario Loyola, a former Pentagon consultant, and a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has a must read analysis of how Lebanon was destroyed from with-in and what must be done to bring it back to the beauty it once was.
April 16, 2007
The caverns of St. Maron overlook a river that moves barely enough water to break the intense stillness of the northern Bekaa Valley. Soon after the start of the Muslim Arab conquest some 13 centuries ago, the caverns were a refuge for the patron saint of the Maronite Christians. They must have been a good hiding place; you have to be standing right in front of them to see them at all. My guide was the mayor of Kaa, a nearby Christian community just miles from the desolate Syrian frontier. As he scampered up the rocks toward the opening of the caves, I had trouble keeping up with him. He led me to the central chamber of the caverns, and to a small alcove which had been carved out of the sheer rock. At the alcove’s center was a large dark cross etched on the cave wall like a prehistoric cave-drawing. Candles, recently extinguished, were collected beneath it. Just a few feet away, in both directions, meter-long vertical slits in the cave wall offered a variety of firing positions from which archers could cover every possible approach. The defenses proved their worth: The Christians are still here. But today, the hopes of Lebanon’s recent Cedar Revolution have given way to weariness and fear as the country confronts yet another existential crisis. Once again, the state is simply too weak to overcome the challenges facing it. The danger is mounting for all of Lebanon — but for the Christians most of all. Having lost majority status decades ago, the Christians of Lebanon have had to accept Lebanon’s new “Arab face,” and also that Lebanon can be sacrificed for Arab causes. Now the rising tide of Islamism endangers their very way of life. To the many millions of Lebanese Christians in the diaspora there may soon be added a million more. The region recalls popular images of the Wild West. The near-total absence of the state is punctuated only by the occasional lonely army outpost with a flag or two inside its perimeter. The one I saw up close was apparently garrisoned by a single feckless soldier. Such are the resources that Lebanon can muster to control the Syrian frontier. Hezbollah, on the other hand, is everywhere. In its public-works projects — as in the dizzying number of yellow posters portraying its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and Ayatollah Khomeini — Hezbollah’s presence vastly outmatches that of the government. In many ways, in this part of Lebanon, Hezbollah is the government. Relations between Christians and Shiites here are distant but cordial. But if Hezbollah’s presence in the northern Bekaa Valley is not confrontational, its behavior in Beirut is rather different. Today, an area of downtown that includes the financial district and the government palace — called the “Serail” by the Turks who built it in the 19th century — is ringed by barricades and Hezbollah checkpoints. Within the barricades, elite commandos of the Lebanese army sit at firing positions looking over the Hezbollah tent camp. The spectacle of Hezbollah’s tents, collected like a besieging army at the doorstep of the central government, is eerily ancient. But its demands are modern enough: After pulling its ministers out of the government, the Hezbollah-dominated opposition claims that the government is illegitimate without its participation, and is insisting on a “blocking third” veto right over all government actions. The government continues to operate, albeit within outlandish restraints. Four of the remaining ministers, including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, cannot be effectively protected outside the government compound and have taken up semi-permanent residence there. Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of parliament, is blocking most legislative initiatives, including the electoral law and the bill to establish a special tribunal concerning the murder of onetime prime minister Rafik Hariri. The financial district has been turned into a ghost town. Hundreds of shops and restaurants have had to close, with job losses in the thousands. And the economy has been crippled — since January, it has lost more than 3 percent of GDP. The Cedar Revolution was an outpouring of national sentiment after the assassination of Hariri, just two years ago; it brought an end to 15 years of Syrian control. But today, many Lebanese are complaining that the revolution’s leaders have botched it — allowing the Syrian-backed president, Emil Lahoud, to stay in office illegally; allowing Hezbollah ministers into the government; and not moving quickly enough to fill the vacuum left by the Syrians, or to capitalize on the support of the U.N. Security Council. STRANGE TENT-FELLOWS
But whatever the tactical mistakes, the Cedar Revolution had an uphill struggle from the start. As is almost always the case with political alliances in Lebanon, its forces have more enemies in common than they do principles. Formerly the bitter opponents in Lebanon’s civil war, the Christian, Druze, and Sunni blocs that make up the governing majority of the Cedar Revolution have no common program for addressing Lebanon’s long-term problems — or even a common understanding of what those problems are. Meanwhile, the opposition has maintained a united front. This is odd, because it is itself among the most bizarre and unlikely coalitions in Lebanon’s bizarre and unlikely history. Hezbollah has aligned itself on a platform with a collection of Syrian-backed parties — but also with the Free Patriotic Movement of the Christian general Michel Aoun, who in a former life (during the late 1980s) was head of the Lebanese army, then prime minister of Lebanon, and leader of the anti-Syrian resistance. A significant fraction of the Christian community is still loyal to Aoun — and, with good reason, detests the fascistic rival Christian leader, Samir Jaja. Aoun’s decision to support Hezbollah has fatally split the Christian community. Michel Aoun has a gentle and even grandfatherly demeanor. I sat with him at his compound in an affluent neighborhood in the hills above Christian East Beirut. “Our strategy is to ‘Lebanonize’ Hezbollah,” he explained. Like the many Lebanese who are willing to tolerate Hezbollah for the time being, Aoun thinks that Hezbollah will willingly give up its weapons after Lebanon’s grievances against Israel — disputes over the Shebaa Farms and certain frontier villages, and a handful of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails — have been dealt with. But critics say that Aoun is foolish to think Hezbollah will disarm after the resolution of these grievances. It became clear to me, however, that Aoun is not as friendly to Hezbollah as is commonly supposed by supporters of the Cedar Revolution. Aoun has correctly understood that the salvation of Lebanon depends upon developing strong institutions of national democratic governance. His strategy is to transcend “confessional democracy” through political coalitions based on common interests rather than confessional identity. “It will take a long time,” he told me, “and because it will take a long time, it is urgent to start now.” Unfortunately, if Aoun is gravely mistaken in trusting Hezbollah, he is almost certainly right in his mistrust of the Sunni “Hariri bloc”: After 9/11, the United States asked the government of Lebanon to freeze Hezbollah’s bank accounts — and Rafik Hariri, then prime minister, refused. Even now Sunni politicians in Lebanon never question Hezbollah’s heroism as a resistance movement, or its right to fight Israel autonomously. In my conversation with him, the polished and charismatic Ahmed Fatfat, a Sunni and one of the most powerful ministers of the Cedar Revolution cabinet, was adamant in his enmity toward Israel, and even called the occupation of Palestinian territories the “greatest injustice in human history.” He also told me that majority rule would destroy Lebanon, and argued that the weakness of the state was the very strength of Lebanon’s political system. Even in the Christian bloc within the Cedar Revolution, most remain committed to the idea of “consensual” or “confessional” democracy, according to which power centers of the state are specifically reserved for the various communities. According to tradition, the president of Lebanon and the head of the army are Christian; the prime minister is Sunni; the speaker of the parliament is Shiite; the foreign minister is Orthodox Christian; and the defense minister is Druze. Few Lebanese have any faith in majority rule. It is almost a defining premise of Lebanon’s constitution that constitutions cannot be trusted — and therein lies its fatal weakness. In Lebanon, majority rule has been compromised out of a desire to defend confessional minorities, but the effect has been to create a state that is incapable of defending itself. A BROADER CONFLICT
As a result of the Six Day War of 1967, several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees — with thousands of Yasser Arafat’s heavily armed fedayeen among them — took refuge in South Lebanon. Israel demanded that Lebanon disarm the Palestinian militia. The Lebanese government proved incapable of complying, and fatally agreed to allow the PLO to keep its arms and carry on the war. Thus Lebanon became an unwilling enemy of Israel, and has remained so ever since. It was at this point that Lebanon ceded its sovereignty to armed militias — and never got it back. The presence of an armed Palestinian militia led other groups in Lebanon to arm their own. Militias proliferated, and Lebanon became a powder keg for civil war. Evidence of last summer’s war is rare in Lebanon: Bridges destroyed in targeted strikes are the only indication outside Hezbollah-dominated areas that there was any conflict at all. But throughout Beirut, evidence of the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s is commonplace. I saw scores of abandoned buildings scarred by shelling and heavy-machine-gun fire — and this despite decades of steady reconstruction. The Israelis expelled the PLO from Lebanon in 1982, but the militias remained — and so did Syria. After James Baker apparently gave Syria a free hand in Lebanon to gain its support for the 1991 Gulf War coalition, the Syrians became masters of Lebanon. It was during the years of Syrian occupation that Hezbollah rose to the fore as the principal force resisting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. In 2000, Israel finally withdrew, amidst victory celebrations in which Hezbollah lionized itself for heroic national resistance. The celebrations were hardly over when Hezbollah turned its attention to the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms. This new grievance was hard to justify: The tiny Shebaa Farms had been under Syrian occupation for years before Israel seized the land from Syria. An editorial in the French-language daily L’Orient Le Jour attacked the new Hezbollah goals as a pretext to serve Iranian and Syrian interests at the expense of Lebanon. “Why,” asked the editors, “has nobody mentioned the Shebaa Farms before this?” In response to a reporter’s question during a visit to London, then–prime minister Hariri implied that there was no longer any reason for Hezbollah to keep its weapons — the goals of the resistance had been achieved. Hezbollah protested loudly, and Hariri was quickly forced to back off his position. But once out of power, Hariri was to prove an increasingly nettlesome problem for the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis; he was assassinated in February 2005, and many attribute the current political crisis to the Lebanese government’s decision to cooperate with the international investigation into his death. A project to establish a tribunal is currently paralyzed by the speaker of parliament, the Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri. In any case, the impasse over the current government’s legitimacy must come to a head by November, when the pro-Syrian president Lahoud must hand over power to the prime minister in expectation of fresh elections. But Lahoud says that as there is no legitimate government, he will have to remain in power until there is a government that he considers legitimate. Many Lebanese have taken this as a coup foretold. By November, there could be civil war — again. Another time-bomb is the mounting tension over Hezbollah’s missiles. I was told that after last year’s war, Gen. Michel Sleiman, the Christian head of the Lebanese army, called Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to deliver a frank warning: “The situation with the missiles has to be resolved. This can’t continue.” But as Hezbollah digs in on the north bank of the Litani River, boasting of 30,000 missiles, the strategic situation is worsening dramatically. As Iran races toward a full nuclear breakout, Hezbollah’s missile threat against Israel is being showcased as a prominent counter-deterrent to any American or Israeli strikes. On the ground, the strategic significance of the 28,000 U.N. and Lebanese army troops deployed in South Lebanon is difficult to gauge. On one hand, Hezbollah can barely move around in South Lebanon without running straight into a UNIFIL or Lebanese army patrol. The patrols are not aggressive, but they are everywhere, and their very presence dramatically limits Hezbollah’s freedom of action — south of the Litani. But north of the Litani, where Hezbollah is digging in unimpeded, its medium-range missiles can still unleash missile terrorism over the northern third of Israel. Hezbollah is clearly arranging its capabilities so as to use the UNIFIL and Lebanese army troops as a military shield in any conflict with Israel. Many leading Lebanese wave away the tolerance of Hezbollah’s weapons as nothing more than a concession to reality, citing the example of Ireland and the IRA. But Ireland never publicly and legally ceded its claim to a monopoly of force. LESS THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
The most essential weakness of the state in Lebanon lies in the fact that the loyalties of so many Lebanese lie elsewhere. Just as the confessions have sapped the strength of majority rule, the fatal compromise of permitting armed militias to exist and operate freely is motivated chiefly by the tragic ideology of Arab nationalism, which legitimized the PLO’s weapons a generation ago, and legitimizes Hezbollah’s today. In one important sense, Arab nationalism is merely a secular variant of Wahhabism and Khomeinism. The Koran divides the world into two parts: the House of Islam (that part of the world controlled by Muslims) and the House of War (that part not yet controlled by Muslims). The community of Muslims is called the umma, a concept at once religious and political. It is commonly said that “Arabism is a body whose soul is Islam.” Even if secular Arab nationalists don’t seek a restoration of the Koranic caliphate, their political “community” is an unmistakable analogue of the Koranic umma. It can hardly be anything else. As former Aoun adviser Roger Azzam pointed out to me, there is no such thing as an Arab “nation.” The Arab world consists of a multitude of ethnicities that were “Arabized” by the Muslim conquest. What they have in common is a religious text — the Koran — and the language in which it is written. As for spoken Arabic, one Lebanese friend of mine remembers speaking English to his Moroccan friends when he lived in London, because it was “easier.” It is Hezbollah that most clearly reveals the Koran behind the veil of Arab nationalism. Hezbollah fights for all the pan-Arab causes, but it formally recognizes the religious leader of a non-Arab nation — Iran — as the ultimate political authority. In recent years, Iran’s Ali Khamenei has issued edicts to Lebanese Shiites instructing them on which way to vote in parliamentary elections. These edicts are communicated by Hezbollah leaders — and the Shiites obey. In this light, Hezbollah’s provision of social and other quasi-governmental services takes on a more ominous aspect. Hezbollah is trying to eliminate the relationship between Lebanese Shiites and the state, and create in its stead a political community that depends upon — and attends upon — Tehran. The identification of religious and political authority within Shiite doctrine is the essence of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. But it does not command unanimity of support among Shiite clerics. Shiite religious doctrine is currently dominated by two schools of thought — the Qum madrassa in Iran, and the Najaf madrassa in Iraq. As exemplified by the Ayatollah al-Sistani, the Najaf madrassa is a quietist school that believes in the separation of religion and politics. A leading Lebanese exponent of the Najaf madrassa is Mohammad Hajj Hassan, leader of the Free Shiite Union, the most important anti-Hezbollah Shiite political party. HEZBOLLAH ‘SECURITY OPERATIONS’
I visited the soft-spoken Hajj Hassan at his modest apartment in a poor Christian suburb of East Beirut. His bodyguards were downstairs, but impossible to detect. He lives alone. After he, his wife, and his daughter were beaten by dozens of Hezbollah thugs in his house in Beirut’s Shiite suburb (the assailants told would-be visitors that they were conducting a “Hezbollah security operation”), he sent the two of them to the U.S. for safety, and moved to a Christian area for the same reason. “I know that Muslims are not persecuted in America, as Hezbollah propaganda claims, because my wife and daughter feel safe there.” I asked Hajj Hassan whether confessional democracy was the best way for Lebanon — whether majority rule was not essential to the success of democracy in any state. His response was arresting: “Democracy is an integral political idea. You must either accept it totally or reject it totally.” I asked him whether he thought that a political accommodation with Hezbollah was possible. He shook his head. “Hassan Nasrallah is the same as Osama bin Laden,” he said ruefully. Calm and philosophical, Hajj Hassan was the most impressive of the Lebanese leaders I spoke with. He is much less sanguine about the intentions of Hezbollah than is Michel Aoun. “Iran has invested billions in Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a central part of Iran’s ‘Arab strategy’ for regional domination.” And he explained that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is the centerpiece of that strategy. “They will never agree in good faith to limit that program,” he said. As a political party, Hezbollah has been astonishingly effective in becoming the dominant political force among Shiites — and excluding all other contenders. As an embryonic state, its activities run the gamut of social services and public works — from water projects to property licensing to the adjudication of commercial disputes. And as a militia, Hezbollah’s power is unassailable by any combination of forces in Lebanon. In the words of one Christian MP, “Hezbollah has all the weapons it needs, and better weapons than the Lebanese army.” An important part of Hezbollah’s strength comes from the decision, taken in 1990 soon after the organization was formally structured, to publicly forsake terrorism against civilians in favor of guerrilla warfare and political action. Americans have not forgotten the bombings that killed hundreds of our diplomats and soldiers; or the plane hijacking in which a young Navy diver was brutally murdered and tossed out on the tarmac; or the journalists and humanitarian workers kidnapped and held for ransom. Nor do we ignore that Hezbollah denies responsibility for these crimes while continuing to embrace them as acts of heroism — as it does the terrorist acts, including 9/11, carried out by other jihadist groups. Hezbollah has been implicated in a number of terrorist acts even since its supposed conversion in 1990 — the Khobar Towers attack, the bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, and others. More important, Hezbollah trains and equips terrorists — both Sunni and Shiite — all over the Middle East, from Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the terror groups fighting on both sides in Iraq. Its intelligence services rival those of many states, and are deeply networked with Iranian and Syrian intelligence operations, as well as a host of terrorist organizations. But the most important danger Hezbollah poses is its political program. Even many Lebanese who do not think Hezbollah is a terrorist organization are nonetheless terrified of it. SOLVING THE UNMANAGEABLE
With the exception of the Iraq War, U.S. policy has tended to manage problems in the Middle East rather than try to solve them. In Lebanon, this will almost certainly prove to be a mistake. The economy continues to slide. Beirut remains a bustling city — but rumors are starting to circulate that if Hezbollah is not disarmed soon, rival communities will begin to form militias again. As the mere possibility of renewed civil war comes into prospect, the climate of political risk will start to create the conditions for a currency crisis. Lebanon is already among the world’s most heavily indebted emerging market economies; a currency crisis could push the entire society through the ice from one day to the next. The crucial enemy in Lebanon, as in the broader Middle East, is now the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. The Bush administration needs to shrug off its Iraq War fatigue and tackle this enemy head-on. It should start with Hezbollah, and the fractures in its base. Hezbollah seeks to appeal to four disparate constituencies: the religious Shiite base, which is ideologically committed to the Khomeini revolution, but which remains a minority of Hezbollah’s support; the nonreligious Shiites who think little of Hezbollah’s social doctrines (it is common to see Shiite women in tight jeans and T-shirts) but who increasingly depend upon Hezbollah for social services; the non-Shiite Muslim (and Christian) opinion that tolerates it as an anti-Israeli resistance force; and the worldwide collectivist alliance of Islamist and left-leaning anti-American forces. The U.S. should take advantage of these fissures. First, it should support liberal Shiites: Hajj Hassan told me that the opening of a liberal, Najaf-style madrassa in Lebanon, which could be operated for a few hundred thousand dollars a year, would make a big difference — by graduating liberal clerics willing and able to tackle the Khomeinist religious leadership of Hezbollah. Second, it should work to strengthen the scope and capacity of the Lebanese state in its security presence and in the provision of services. Third, it should bring greater diplomatic pressure to bear against the legitimacy that Hezbollah enjoys as a resistance movement. Finally, it should stress that to the extent that Islamist and socialist worldviews are compatible with each other, they are fundamentally obnoxious to liberalism as understood in America. Beyond Hezbollah lies the problem of Syria. Its regime is pernicious precisely because it is so weak. Like Saddam’s tyranny in Iraq, the power of the Assad dynasty rests upon an ethnic minority that has no legitimate claim to rule the country. Its borders are meaningless — and terrorism flows past them unimpeded. More than one leading Lebanese politician told me that hastening the demise of the regime in Damascus was the single most helpful thing the U.S. could do. Above all, the U.S. must cast away the diplomatic fiction that it takes no position on issues of internal Lebanese politics. Without a strong state capable of establishing central authority, Lebanon is likely to fail — and with it, America’s hopes in the Middle East. The Lebanese army must be strengthened if it is to defend the authority of the state. And those leaders who support democracy must be able to count on our help. I was aghast when Hajj Hassan told me that I was only the third American he had ever talked to. As the world’s oldest democracy, America must share what it has learned — that majority rule is not a danger to democracy, but is essential to it; that minorities must be protected by the constitution, and not at its expense; that while government should always be limited in its powers, its authority must be supreme; and that the rule of law is the one thing on which a free society most vitally depends. Early one evening I was driving through an outlying part of East Beirut when I heard, from a nearby Muslim enclave, the call to evening prayers. Broadcast from the minaret of the enclave’s mosque, that enchanting voice reminded me that I was in the Muslim world. Then — the strangest thing — I heard church bells; first in ones and twos, and then from all directions, calling worshipers to the evening Mass — church bells everywhere. For a moment, all the problems of Lebanon seemed fleeting. I pondered how much older was the sound of church bells here than the Muslim call to prayers — how much more ancient. Still, I could only wonder: Centuries hence, will this land still be graced by the sound of church bells? To pray for that is to pray for Lebanon — and all its people.
Mario Loyola, a former Pentagon consultant, is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.