Mr. Ajami, a 2006 Bradley Prize recipient, is the Majid Khadduri Professor and director of the Middle East Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book, “The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs and the Iraqis in Iraq,” has just been published by the Free Press. He is the author of, among others, “The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey” (Pantheon, 1998), and “Beirut: City of Regrets” (Norton, 1988). All of the books are available at SPMEMart www.spme.net/spmemart.html
Pity Lebanon: In a world of states, it has not had a state of its own. A garden without fences, was the way Beirut, its capital city, was once described.
A cleric by the name of Hassan Nasrallah, at the helm of the Hezbollah movement, handed Lebanon a calamity right as the summer tourist season had begun. Beirut had dug its way out of the rubble of a long war: Nasrallah plunged it into a new season of loss and ruin. He presented the country with a fait accompli: the “gift” of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped across an international frontier. Nasrallah never let the Lebanese government in on his venture. He was giddy with triumphalism and defiance when this crisis began. And men and women cooped up in the destitution of the Shiite districts of Beirut were sent out into the streets to celebrate Hezbollah’s latest deed.
It did not seem to matter to Nasrallah that the ground that would burn in Lebanon would in the main be Shiite land in the south. Nor was it of great concern to he who lives on the subsidies of the Iranian theocrats that the ordinary Lebanese would pay for his adventure. The cruel and cynical hope was that Nasrallah’s rivals would be bullied into submission and false solidarity, and that the man himself would emerge as the master of the game of Lebanon’s politics.
” The hotels are full in Damascus,” read a dispatch in Beirut, as though to underline the swindle of this crisis, its bitter harvest for the Lebanese. History repeats here, endlessly it seems. There was something to Nasrallah’s conduct that recalled the performance of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the Six Day War of 1967. That leader, it should be recalled, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, asked for the evacuation of U.N. forces from the Sinai Peninsula– clear acts of war–but never expected the onset of war. He had only wanted the gains of war.
Nasrallah’s brazen deed was, in the man’s calculus, an invitation to an exchange of prisoners. Now, the man who triggered this crisis stands exposed as an Iranian proxy, doing the bidding of Tehran and Damascus. He had confidently asserted that “sources” in Israel had confided to Hezbollah that Israel’s government would not strike into Lebanon because Hezbollah held northern Israel hostage to its rockets, and that the demand within Israel for an exchange of prisoners would force Ehud Olmert’s hand. The time of the “warrior class” in Israel had passed, Nasrallah believed, and this new Israeli government, without decorated soldiers and former generals, was likely to capitulate. Now this knowingness has been exposed for the delusion it was.
There was steel in Israel and determination to be done with Hezbollah’s presence on the border. States can’t–and don’t–share borders with militias. That abnormality on the Lebanese-Israeli border is sure not to survive this crisis. One way or other, the Lebanese army will have to take up its duty on the Lebanon-Israel border. By the time the dust settles, this terrible summer storm will have done what the Lebanese government had been unable to do on its own.
In his cocoon, Nasrallah did not accurately judge the temper of his own country to begin with. No less a figure than the hereditary leader of the Druze community, Walid Jumblatt, was quick to break with Hezbollah, and to read this crisis as it really is. “We had been trying for months,” he said, “to spring our country out of the Syrian-Iranian trap, and here we are forcibly pushed into that trap again.” In this two-front war–Hamas’s in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah’s in Lebanon–Mr. Jumblatt saw the fine hand of the Syrian regime attempting to retrieve its dominion in Lebanon, and to forestall the international investigations of its reign of terror in that country.
In the same vein, a broad coalition of anti-Syrian Lebanese political parties and associations that had come together in the aftermath of the assassination last year of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, called into question the very rationale of this operation, and its timing: “Is it Lebanon’s fate to endure the killing of its citizens and the destruction of its economy and its tourist season in order to serve the interests of empty nationalist slogans?”
In retrospect, Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from Israel’s “security zone” in southern Lebanon in the summer of 2000 had robbed Hezbollah of its raison d’être. It was said that the “resistance movement” would need a “soft landing” and a transition to a normal political world. But the imperative of disarming Hezbollah and pulling it back from the international border with Israel was never put into effect. Hezbollah found its way into Parliament, was given two cabinet posts in the most recent government, and branched out into real estate ventures; but the heavy military infrastructure survived and, indeed, was to be augmented in the years that followed Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Syria gave Hezbollah cover, for that movement did much of Syria’s bidding in Lebanon. A pretext was found to justify the odd spectacle of an armed militia in a time of peace: Hezbollah now claimed that the battle had not ended, and that a barren piece of ground, the Shebaa Farms, was still in Israel’s possession. By a twist of fate, that land had been in Syrian hands when they fell to Israel in the Six Day War. No great emotions stirred in Lebanon about the Shebaa Farms. It was easy to see through the pretense of Hezbollah. The state within a state was an end in itself.
For Hezbollah, the moment of truth would come when Syria made a sudden, unexpected retreat out of Lebanon in the spring of 2005. An edifice that had the look of permanence was undone with stunning speed as the Syrians raced to the border, convinced that the Pax Americana might topple the regime in Damascus, as it had Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. For Hezbollah’s leaders, this would be a time of great uncertainty. The “Cedar Revolution” that had helped bring an end to Syrian occupation appeared to be a genuine middle-class phenomenon, hip and stylish, made up in the main of Sunni Muslims, Druze and Christians. Great numbers of propertied and worldly Shiites found their way to that Cedar Revolution, but Hezbollah’s ranks were filled with the excluded, newly urbanized people from villages in the south and the Bekaa Valley.
Hassan Nasrallah had found a measure of respectability in the Lebanese political system; he was a good orator and, in the way of Levantine politics, a skilled tactician. A seam was stitched between the jihadist origins of Hezbollah and the pursuit of political power in a country as subtle and complex and pluralistic as Lebanon. There would be no Islamic republic in Lebanon, and the theory of Hezbollah appeared to bend to Lebanon’s realities.
But Nasrallah was in the end just the Lebanese face of Hezbollah. Those who know the workings of the movement with intimacy believe that operational control is in the hands of Iranian agents, that Hezbollah is fully subservient to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The hope that Hezbollah would “go Lebanese,” and “go local,” was thus set aside. At any rate, Nasrallah and his lieutenants did not trust the new Lebanon to make the ample room that a country at war–and within the orbit of Syria–had hitherto made for them in the time of disorder. Though the Shiites had risen in Lebanon, there remains in them a great deal of brittleness, a sense of social inadequacy relative to the more privileged communities in the country.
That raid into Israel, the capture of the two Israeli soldiers, was a deliberate attack against the new Lebanon. That the crisis would play out when the mighty of the G-8 were assembled in Russia was a good indication of Iran’s role in this turn of events. Hassan Nasrallah had waded beyond his depth: The moment of his glory would mark what is destined to be a setback of consequence for him and for his foot soldiers. Iran’s needs had trumped Hezbollah’s more strictly Lebanese agenda.
In the normal course of things, Hezbollah’s operatives expected at least the appearance of Arab solidarity and brotherhood. And here, too, Hezbollah was to be denied.
A great diplomatic setback was handed it when Saudi Arabia shed its customary silence and reticence to condemn what it described as the “uncalculated adventures” of those in Hezbollah and Hamas who brought about this crisis. The custodians of power in Arabia noted that they had stood with the “Lebanese resistance” until the end of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. But that was then, and there is a world of difference between “legitimate resistance” and “uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements within the state, and behind its back, exposing the region and its accomplishments to danger and destruction.” Gone was the standard deference to Arab solidarity.
This had little to do with the Shiism of Hezbollah, but with the Saudi dread of instability. The Saudis are heavily invested in the reconstruction and stability of Lebanon: This had been the achievement of Rafik Hariri, and it was to continue under Fouad Siniora, the incumbent prime minister, a decent Sunni technocrat who came into politics as an aide of Hariri. Untold thousands of Saudis have their summer homes and vacations in Lebanon. A memory of old Beirut in its days of glitter tugs at older Saudis. On less sentimental grounds, the Saudis have been keen to shore up Lebanon’s mercantile Sunni population against the demographic and political weight of the Shiites. Hezbollah’s unilateral decision to push Lebanon over the brink was anathema to the Saudi way.
In due course, the Saudis were joined by the Jordanians and the Egyptians. The Arab order of power would not give Nasrallah control over the great issues of regional war and peace. Nor would it give sustenance to Syria’s desire to find its way back into Lebanon’s politics. The axes of the region were laid bare: The trail runs from the southern slums of Beirut through Damascus to Tehran–with Hezbollah and its Palestinian allies in the Hamas on one side, and the conservative order of power on the other. This isn’t exactly the split between the Sunni Arab order and its Shiite challengers. (Hamas, it should be noted, is zealously Sunni.) The wellsprings of this impasse are to be found in the more prosaic impasse between order and its radical enemies.
In time, we are sure to hear from Nasrallah’s own Shiite community: There had been unease among growing numbers of educated Shiites about the political monopoly over their affairs of Hezbollah and its local allies, an unease with the zealotry and the military parades–and with the subservience to Iran. The defection will be easier now as the downtrodden of southern Lebanon take stock of the misery triggered by Nasrallah’s venture. He will need enormous Iranian treasure to repair the damage of this ill-starred endeavor.
The Shiites are Lebanon’s single largest community. There lie before them two ways: Lebanonism, an attachment to their own land, assimilation into the wider currents of their country, an acceptance of it as a place of services and trade and pluralism; or a path of belligerence, a journey on road to Damascus–and to the Iranian theocracy. By the time the guns fall silent and the Lebanese begin to dig out of the rubble, we should get an intimation of which Shiite future beckons. The Shiites can make Lebanon or they can break it. Their deliverance lies in a recognition of the truths and limitations of their country. The “holy war” they can leave to others.
There could have been another way: There could have been a sovereign state in Lebanon, and the Syrians would have let it be, and the distant Iranian state would have been a world apart. There needn’t have been a Lebanese parody of the Iranian Revolution, a “sister republic” by the Mediterranean sustained with Iranian wealth. The border between Israel and Lebanon would have been a “normal” border. (The Lebanese would settle for a border as quiet and tranquil as the one Syria has maintained with Israel for well over three decades now, with the Syrians waging proxy battles on Lebanese soil and through Lebanese satraps.)
But the Lebanese have been given to feuds among themselves, and larger players have found it easy to insert themselves into that small, fragile republic. Now the Lebanese have been given yet again a cautionary tale about what befalls lands without sovereign, responsible states of their own.
In an earlier time, three decades ago, Lebanon was made to pay for the legends of Arabism, and for the false glamour of the Palestinian “revolutionary” experiment. The country lost well over a quarter-century of its history–its best people quit it, and its modernist inheritance was brutally and steadily undermined.
Now comes this new push by Damascus and Tehran. It promises nothing save sterility and ruin. It will throw the Lebanese back onto a history whose terrible harvest is well known to them. The military performance of Hezbollah, it should be apparent by now, is not a performance of a militia; nor are unmanned drones and missiles of long range the weapons of boys of the alleyways. A formidable military structure has been put together by the Iranians in Lebanon. In a small, densely populated country that keeps and knows no secrets, Hezbollah and its Iranian handlers have been at work on this military undertaking for quite some time, under the gaze of Lebanese authorities too frightened to raise questions.
The Mediterranean vocation of Lebanon as a land of enlightenment and commerce may have had its exaggerations and pretense. But set it against the future offered Lebanon by Syria, and by Tehran’s theocrats seeking a diplomatic reprieve for themselves by setting Lebanon on fire, and Lebanon’s choice should be easy to see.
The Lebanese, though, are not masters of their own domain. They will need protection and political support; they will need to see the will and the designs of the radical axis contested by resolute American power, and by an Arab constellation of states that can convince the Shiites of Lebanon that there is a place for them in the Arab scheme of things. For a long time, the Arab states have worked through and favored the Sunni middle classes of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli. This has made it easy for Iran–overcoming barriers of language and distance–to make its inroads into a large Shiite community awakening to a sense of power and violation. To truly turn Iran back from the Mediterranean, to check its reach into Beirut, the Arab world needs to rethink the basic compact of its communities, and those Shiite stepchildren of the Arab world will have to be brought into the fold.
Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness, went an old maxim. And the Arab states themselves were for decades egregious in the way they treated Lebanon, shifting onto it the burden of the Palestinian fight with Israel, acquiescing in the encroachments on its sovereignty by the Palestinians and the Syrians–encroachments often subsidized with Arab money. Iran then picked up where the Arab states left off. Now that weakness of the Lebanese state has become a source of great menace to the Lebanese, and to their neighbors as well.
No one can say with confidence how this crisis will play out. There are limits on what Israel can do in Lebanon. The Israelis will not be pulled deeper into Lebanon and its villages and urban alleyways, and Israel can’t be expected to disarm Hezbollah or to find its missiles in Lebanon’s crannies. Finding the political way out, and working out a decent security arrangement on the border, will require a serious international effort and active American diplomacy. International peacekeeping forces have had a bad name, and they often deserve it. But they may be inevitable on Lebanon’s border with Israel; they may be needed to buy time for the Lebanese government to come into full sovereignty over its soil.
The Europeans claim a special affinity for Lebanon, a country of the eastern Mediterranean. This is their chance to help redeem that land, and to come to its rescue by strengthening its national army and its bureaucratic institutions. We have already seen order’s enemies play their hand. We now await the forces of order and rescue, and by all appearances a long, big struggle is playing out in Lebanon. This is from the Book of Habakkuk: “The violence done to Lebanon shall overwhelm you” (2:17). The struggles of the mighty forces of the region yet again converge on a small country that has seen more than its share of history’s heartbreak and history’s follies.