The View From Lebanon

In relative safety, another group of Arabs watches regime change in Iraq.

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"It's potentially a win-win situation," says Joe Bahout, "because Syria will have to use its good players. When Syria wants to play rough in Lebanon, it uses its bad players: Hezbullah, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and people like that. Now they may have to rely on the good guys. [Prime Minister Rafiq] Hariri is a potential winner in all this. He likes the U.S., and he's betting on a quick war. If Syria and the U.S. want somebody to downplay radical Sunni tensions, he'd be their man. The same way, [Speaker of Parliament Nabih] Berri would be a winner, at the expense of Hezbullah." (Berri, who came out of the Shi'ite Amal movement in the 1970s, is a longtime survivor in Lebanese politics.)

It would seem that the end of Saddam's regime would, if anything, strengthen Hezbullah, since the party's Iranian patron will almost certainly be able to influence postwar Iraq's Shi'a population. Not so, says Bahout. "This will lower Iran's profile as the center of Shi'ism," he says. "The Shi'a originated in Karballah, in Iraq. And that could weaken Hezbullah's hand, because it's not close to the Arab version of Shi'ism; it's much closer to Ayatollah Khamanei. They may be able to Lebanonize themselves, and that would be something Syria could sell to the U.S.—the elasticity of Hezbullah."

Hezbullah General Secretary Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has recently been embracing the Christian community, praising the Catholic and eastern Churches' positions against the war, and more notably condemning the bin Ladenite use of the term "crusaders," which he says alienates Arab Christians. One element of this comment is straightforward: An effort to distance the Shi'a from the Sunni fundamentalists' vision of a new holy war against Christendom. But it also acknowledges the coming change—for better or worse—of Hezbullah's position after the war. (Lest this seem like unmingled good news, keep in mind that the "crusader" comment came in the context of a call for Christians to join Hezbullah in a jihad against America and Israel.)

All this analysis and jockeying for position presuppose a quick and relatively painless American victory—an outcome that appears more likely by the hour. One person who does not take that outcome for granted is Sateh Noureddin, managing editor of As-Safir, a leftist daily newspaper with pan-Arab sympathies. "This is the most stupid step ever taken by the U.S. government," Noureddin says. "This attack will not lead to the removal of Saddam. In fact it may make him more popular in Iraq, and maybe outside as well. The U.S. military is attacking the Iraqi people, who should be the ones who can topple Saddam."

Noureddin's comments tie in to another current theory around here, that Saddam may be planning a last stand in Baghdad similar to Yasser Arafat's war of attrition against the Israeli army in Beirut in 1982. "We know there are officers in Iraq who understand Saddam is the past, and we must look to the future, that no-one can accept such a scandal as Saddam. But do you really think the U.S. Marines are going to enter Baghdad, and get into street fighting? This is the only way to topple Saddam under this plan." The endgame, he suspects, will turn into an "open-ended conflict."

To be fair, Noureddin made his comments early yesterday, and at least the last part of his scenario—the Baghdad-based Stalingrad—could still come true. But the rapidly growing impression that Saddam has, once again, no game plan and no real objective in defending his country has already started to breed a new conspiracy theory—that the rapid victory is the result of some kind of secret deal Saddam has struck with the United States.

That this theory has no supporting evidence, nor even the most cartoonish semblance of logic, in no way diminishes its appeal. The attempt to explain away another massive Arab defeat is, in its way, another form of postwar positioning. It's impossible to overstate the degree of general hostility toward the United States government among the population here—though this hostility stems almost entirely from the Israeli-Palestinian situation, with Iraq functioning at most as an added insult. The manifestations of this feeling range from a refusal to do business in dollars (a boycott that generally doesn't last beyond a few lost transactions) to boycott threats to angry grumbling about killing George W. Bush.

But it's also important not to make too much of this hostility, at least outside the jihadist circles where it hardly needed any new spark. For the first time in more than a decade, things here are in flux. However much the people and the government may oppose the American effort, the most disturbing prospect for most is a return to the status quo. That, and not the pro-forma anti-American rhetoric, may be the real story of Lebanon at the moment.

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