In the remainder of my conversation with foreign correspondent and analyst Michael Totten (read part one here), we talked about the events in Lebanon over the last three years and what they portend for U.S. policy and the Middle East. His book, “The Road to Fatima Gate,” is subtitled “The Beirut spring, the rise of Hezbollah and the Iranian war against Israel.” By 2008 the Beirut spring (the “Cedar Revolution”) was a distant memory, and Hezbollah would make strides in its domination of Lebanon. Totten says simply, “In 2008 Hezbollah proved it could do what it wants by invading and occupying the capital city. After that, all it has to say is ‘boo.’ If it wants to collapse the government, it can. It can kill you, even if you are you a member of parliament.”
The invasion began, Totten explains, over the issue of airport surveillance. He says that Hezbollah has this surveillance system for the airport that allows it to track who comes and goes. In 2005 Lebanese parliament member and newspaper publisher Gebran Tueni was killed after returning home from France “quietly on his own plane.” Totten explains: “It’s not like he ordered his tickets on Expedia where someone can go in and check. Four hours after his arrival he was killed by a car bomb.”
Finally, in 2008, the government moved to shut down the Hezbollah surveillance network. “Hezbollah invaded Beirut and the Chouf mountains where [the] Druze are. The Druze make up 5 to 10 percent of the population,” recalls Totten. Moreover, the Druze are the “most stridently anti-Iranian and pro-American” segment of the population. Totten jokes, “Ninety percent of the Druze was pro-American. They were more pro-American than Americans. It was [Druze leader] Walid Jumblatt’s idea to shut down the airport surveillance.” The Druze had the advantage of the high ground in the mountains. In battle, Totten tells me, “Hezbollah lost against the Druze, but even though they lost it showed the Druze that Hezbollah could come and attack them and starve them out. So Jumblatt surrendered, and the capital surrendered.”
Hezbollah’s military takeover did not mean that they “govern everything,” Totten explains. “They don’t collect the trash.” Because mundane local services are still performed by the government, Totten says a Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon “feels somewhat normal, but they can give orders to the government, including to change the prime minister.” That occurred a few months ago, when Hezbollah pulled out of the government, causing its collapse after unsuccessfully trying to pressure Prime Minister Saad Hariri to denounce the anticipated report on and indictment of his father’s murderers.
Now even the pretense of an independent Lebanon is gone. “Hezbollah,” Totten says “is the biggest threat the Israelis have in the world. Hamas is not even a bat boy in the league Hezbollah plays in.”
Hezbollah has a better-equipped fighting force than many countries. Totten says, “Hezbollah has rockets that can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. You’ve been to Tel Aviv?” I nod. “Those glass skyscrapers would have missiles crashing through them” in a Hezbollah attack. And Totten emphasizes, “Hezbollah is the Mediterranean branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”
Totten returns to the key point: An Iranian surrogate is on Israel’s border and “Israel failed to stop it.” But Totten doesn’t believe there was an easy military solution. He recalls, “The Israelis fought a counter-insurgency war against Hezbollah from 1982-2000, which shouldn’t be surprising since we’ve been fighting the Taliban for 10 years. Counter-insurgency is really hard.” So absent that sort of bloody effort, the options were few. The United Nations, Totten explains, “could have authorized force to block off the Lebanon and Syrian border. But that would have turned into a small Iraq.”
Totten suggests it’s folly to chase after Hezbollah. He says, “Hezbollah is a terrorist guerilla army. Iran has an address and governs people who hate it. Israel is more likely to succeed by going after Iran, but I’m not saying it should do it today. Israel is hoping the Iranians can overthrow their government.” If Israel did go after Iran militarily, “Israel would get hit really hard.” I ask if this is endangering the Zionist vision, which is to provide Jews with a haven. Totten says cautiously, “There is no getting around it; Jews are safer here than in Israel.” But he recalls, “In 1973 thousands of people were killed in a couple of days. Israel thought the Egyptian and Syrian armies might wipe out the whole country, so I wouldn’t say this current situation is worse than that.”
Still, the challenges of a border with a guerilla army, rather than a nation state, shouldn’t be underestimated. For one thing, Hezbollah has no concern that the population living under its rule might get killed in the event of an Israeli attack or counterattack. “Some of these people,” Totten says, “accept the potential for their house being destroyed” as part of the war against Israel. He says, “They are willing to let Hezbollah use their neighborhoods.” In other words, they buy into the “cult of martyrdom and death.”
Likewise, Hezbollah leaders buy into the “whole martyrdom” scene. Totten points to the reissuance of Hezbollah’s ideological manifesto. “They believe their own propaganda,” he says matter-of-factly. Nevertheless, while Totten says “deterrence” is difficult to employ against such an enemy, Hezbollah learned some “caution” in the 2006 war.
If Hezbollah is a difficult enemy to engage and destroy, what about focusing on Syria? Totten acknowledges, “Assad and his father are [and were] political geniuses. Assad uses carrots and sticks against Lebanese politicians. Assad has a whole network of Lebanese politicians he has both purchased and bullied. Against Syrians, though, he uses only the stick.” Assad has managed, until now, to maintain an iron grip over the Syrian people. What is more, Totten says, “they also have most of the Israeli establishment convinced he is their best option in Syria because he keeps a quiet border.”
But it’s a different story, of course, in South Lebanon. Totten is mystified as to the Israeli assessment. “I don’t understand why they give him credit” for keeping one border quiet while using another to threaten Israel.
In the near term, Totten says, “Regime change [is Syria] is unlikely. Assad will fight as hard as Gaddafi.” Moreover, a military option could very well “start a regional war. What could we do non-militarily? There are not really many good options. But we should not describe him [Assad] as a reformer, we should not have an ambassador in Damascus and we should not engage him except to tell him what to do.”
The underlying problem in the region is not Hezbollah or Syria, certainly. Iran is the fundamental threat to Israel and the West more generally. The threat that it will acquire a nuclear weapons capability has receded from the headlines but has not diminished. As for military action, Totten says, “I think there is a will in Israel for it, but not in the U.S. in either party.” And once Iran acquires such weapons, our already minimal ability to deter Iranian aggression will diminish even further. “We’re not going to do anything, just like we didn’t risk a nuke confrontation with Soviet Union in 1956” in Hungary, Totten contends.
Totten’s outlook is not entirely bleak: “Iranian dominance could end tomorrow if there was a revolution.” The Green Movement, he says, “gives me long-term optimism. An Islamic revolutionary government looks good on paper [to many Muslims], but it’s different when you have to live with it.” He cites the dramatic decline in Hamas’s standing among Gazans. The Islamic fundamentalism, which is the root of the issue, Totten hopes, “will eventually burn itself out. It is finished in Iraq. It burned itself out. In Egypt maybe it’s only starting.”
That suggests that military and diplomatic measures are in and of themselves ineffective. The real issue is Islamists’ radical ideology. And that, as Totten argues, may through experience loosen its grip on Muslim countries. If that is accurate, it might be time (as some have suggested) for the U.S. president to start using terms like “jihadist” and “Islamic radicalism” and to find ways to encourage and expand upon the work of Muslim reformers and moderates.