Book review: 'Beware of Small States' by David Hirst

By Kai Bird
Sunday, June 6, 2010


Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East

By David Hirst

Nation. 480 pp. $29.95


An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle

By Michael Young

Simon & Schuster. 295 pp. $26

Michael Young's Lebanese mother -- recently widowed -- first took her 7-year-old son home to Lebanon in 1970. I too arrived in Beirut that year to study at the American University of Beirut. It turned out to be a dangerous autumn. On Sept. 6, 1970, Leila Khaled and other members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four commercial airplanes. Khaled's attempted hijacking of an El Al flight failed when her American comrade was shot dead by an Israeli air marshal and she was knocked unconscious. Three days later, Khaled's comrades hijacked a fifth plane and landed it next to two other hijacked aircraft at Dawson's Field, an abandoned British military airport in northern Jordan. My high school sweetheart was on that plane. She and hundreds of other passengers were held hostage for four days. Miraculously, everyone survived, and all the hostages were eventually released.

The "Black September" hijackings instigated a brutal civil war in Jordan, where King Hussein's Bedouin troops killed thousands of Palestinians and finally expelled Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization from Jordan. Arafat's bid to turn the Hashemite Kingdom into a Palestinian republic was thus soundly defeated. But his guerrilla fighters fled to Lebanon's refugee camps; their presence there soon sparked Israeli invasions in 1978 and 1982, and a bloody sectarian civil war lasting from 1975-90.

I left Beirut in 1971, but Michael Young spent his childhood there, and today he is the opinion editor of the Daily Star, Beirut's highly regarded English-language newspaper. He has now written a heartfelt defense of his Lebanese countrymen, their patchwork sectarian political system and their paradoxical liberalism. Young defends Lebanon's sectarianism on sociological grounds. Its mosaic of Maronites (his mother's family), Druze, Greek Orthodox and Sunni and Shiite Muslims is the untidy reality. And while he admits that its system can be dysfunctional, his book celebrates the fact that an independent Lebanon has survived the Palestinian-induced chaos, the civil war, numerous Israeli invasions and the Syrian occupation (1976-2005).

His book is less a memoir -- we learn almost nothing about Young's personal life -- than a journalistic account of the Cedar Revolution that took place in the wake of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005. The charismatic billionaire politician was almost certainly murdered by Syrian intelligence agents. In response, an outraged Lebanese polity arose almost as one to throw out the occupying Syrian army. Young's sympathies clearly reside with the secular-minded, anti-Syrian pluralists -- those who, in the words of the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, want to see a Lebanon modeled on the commercially vibrant pluralism of Hong Kong rather than on, say, the drab uniformity of Hanoi.

But the promise of the Cedar Revolution has been stymied, Young argues, by the Shiite-based Hezbollah (the Party of God), which he fairly describes as "mainly an autocratic, semi-secret, military, political and religious organization more powerful than the Lebanese state." Young is outraged by Hezbollah's provocations -- and blames it for the Israeli onslaught during the summer of 2006 in which much of Lebanon's newly rebuilt infrastructure was demolished by Israeli bombing.

If Young's "The Ghosts of Martyrs Square" provides readers with an excellent roadmap to Lebanon's political morass of the last five years, David Hirst's "Beware of Small States" has a larger theme and a broader historical sweep. Now in his early 70s, Hirst has covered the Middle East for the Guardian since 1963. He is intrepid and unafraid of controversy. He has twice been kidnapped. Authoritarian governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria have banned him. And let's just say that his criticisms of Israel have not earned him any friends in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC.

Hirst's earlier book, "The Gun and the Olive Branch," came out just weeks after Egypt's President Anwar Sadat made his dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. Hirst was highly critical of Israel, and a review in The Washington Post complained that his book was "an accusative sniffle amid the opening chords of an anthem of hope." But after three more decades of unending enmity, atrocities and asymmetrical warfare, Hirst's revisionist narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict no longer seems so very controversial. Today, the Israeli school of New Historians -- specifically Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev -- echoes many of his arguments.

Hirst's new book is a history of Lebanon's fragile democracy over the last 100 years. Like his earlier work, it is rigorous and yet provocative. His theme is that the history of modern Lebanon is one of relentless interventions by the French, Americans, Syrians and, above all, the Israelis. I am particularly fascinated, however, by his reporting on the growth and resiliency of Hezbollah, and how its relatively tiny but highly disciplined militia managed to fight Israel to an inconclusive stalemate in the 2006 war. Hezbollah remains a state within the small state, re-armed with tens of thousands of missiles and heavily funded by its Shiite allies in Iran. Hirst virtually ends his book with a prediction that this is a recipe for what he says will be the next Middle East war.

Hirst and Young have spent most of their adult lives in Lebanon. Each in his own way is a keen analytical observer and courageous reporter who knows Lebanon as well as anyone. So both of their books should be required reading for understanding the roots of what seems, inevitably, a coming conflagration.

Kai Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, is the author of "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978." He lives in Kathmandu.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company