Michael Totten, a blogger, foreign correspondent and foreign policy analyst, is out with a new book, “The Road to the Fatima Gate ,” that tells the story of his time in Lebanon and the tragic destruction and occupation of a country that once was a cosmopolitan and modern nation. He is in Washington for a week before returning home to Portland.
Sitting in the lobby of a downtown hotel, I asked him why he wrote this book. He says with a laugh, “The unofficial reason is that I wanted to have a book out in the world. But why this book? I spent almost as much time reporting from Iraq as I did in Lebanon and Israel. But what happened in Lebanon will matter more than anything that’s happened in Iraq.”
That’s a remarkable statement, but Totten’s reasoning is sound. He explains that the terrorist group Hezbollah is an Iranian surrogate and Lebanon is now a Hezbollah-controlled state. Therefore, he says, “South Lebanon is the front line in the Iranian-Israel conflict, and if you consider Israel to be part of the West, the front line in the conflict between Iran and the West.”
His book reads like an action thriller. (“But no car chases,” he jokes.) He explains: “What I wanted to do is inform people and also to entertain them. I wrote it like a novel. I didn’t tell the Israeli government or the U.S. government or any government what they should do.” He admits, “I honestly don’t know [what to do].” Moreover, with the delay between writing and publication, any policy recommendations could well have been stale. Instead, he says, “I hope they [policymakers] could make better policy decisions after reading this.” He deadpans, “I hope John Kerry would read it.” Well, Kerry and others could certainly benefit from a description of how Syria and Hezbollah became proxies for Iran in its quest for regional hegemony.
Totten recalls that he moved to Beirut and was there for the Cedar Revolution. “2005 seemed like Berlin in 1989. It turned out it was Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968.” By that he means that not only was a democratic revolution snuffed out, but as in 1956, for the United States “it wouldn’t have been worth it to invade.” Just as an invasion in 1956 would have risked nuclear war with the Soviet Union, in 2005, Totten says it would have been “extraordinarily dangerous” for the United States or United Nations to send in troops. He adds, “There certainly was no political will in the U.S.” for that. But Totten also learned an important lesson when he left Beirut. “I went to Hezbollah-controlled parts of the country because what I was seeing in Beirut was not the entire story.” He is blunt: “I’ve never seen such bloodthirsty, warmongering propaganda in my life.” In fact, there was “no indication you were in Lebanon.” There were Hezbollah and Iranian flags, and vicious anti-Israeli propaganda and posters of the Ayatollah were omnipresent. “They were mobilized for total war.” In some respects the oppression and Islamic extremism are worse there than in Iran. “The difference,” he says, “is that in Iran Iranians hate the government. That’s obvious now.” But in the Hezbollah parts of Lebanon, he relates, “There is no opposition to Iran.” The result, and the predicament for the West, he says, is that in southern Lebanon, “Hezbollah rules with the consent of the governed.”
War soon followed in 2006. Totten jokes, “I actually predicted 2006 war, but I was surprised by it because I forgot what I had written two months earlier. I wanted to go to the border, but the Lebanon army wouldn’t let me go. They didn’t want to tell me why, but it was for my own protection. So I went to Tel Aviv and swung around to the Israeli side of the border. The Israel military told me Hezbollah was planning something big. The Israeli general told me – and this is the title of one of the chapters in my book – ‘Everything could explode at any moment.’ Two months later it all blew up.”
It proved to be a military and political disaster for Israel. Totten explains that Israel had in effect been fighting a counterinsurgency war against Lebanon since 1982. But almost inexplicably, Israel tried to use its air force to defeat a non-state terrorist organization.
“Public opinion was 90 percent against the conduct of the war,” Totten recalls. The stalemate and the political fallout from an unsuccessful war rocked Israel. Unless Israel was willing to fight a long ground war (akin to what Gen. David Petraeus would wage in Iraq), Totten thinks the air force should have hit another target – Syria or Iran. He says bluntly, “Assad in Syria is the kind of guy who can have an attitude adjustment rather easily. He told Joe Klein during the Iraq war, ‘Please send this message: I am not Saddam Hussein.’”
Totten continues, “Assad is incredibly vulnerable.” Two days of bombing Syria could well have been more effective than a month of bombing Hezbollah, he contends. Hezbollah can’t be supplied and can’t sustain itself “if Assad is no longer going to be the logistics hub” for the terror group.
In Part 2, Totten recounts the events of 2008 to the present and what we need to learn about Iran’s threat to the region.