The View From Lebanon

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


"It's like there's a big party going on," says my neighbor in Lebanon, "and one fella over on the side falls down and breaks his leg. Who's gonna notice?" He's referring to a theory of regional politics currently making the rounds in the country—that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will use the cover of an American war on Iraq to launch a new attack on southern Lebanon.

In Lebanon, any given event is likely to generate predictions of some new outrage by the Israelis, so this rumor is not precisely news. (It's also not to be dismissed; I have in the past laughed off dire warnings about Israeli aggression here, only to see them come true almost to the letter.) Gauging this country's "mood" is a mug's game even under the best circumstances, and the sort of generalizations I'm about to make are inexcusable. But a tour of official statements, analysis by political observers and comments from the peanut gallery indicates some unexpectedly creative thinking on the Iraq war that began Wednesday, and suggests why the Lebanese appeared slightly less pessimistic about this war than the average of (overwhelmingly pessimistic) Arabs polled recently by University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami.

First, to nobody's surprise, opposition to the war is universal here. In most informal conversations, the war is judged to be about either taking Iraq's oil, eliminating the one Arab country capable of threatening Israel, or both. This theory does not differ substantially from those advanced by many opponents of the war in the United States, but an interesting secondary note is that many here frame the war as part of a blood feud or family vendetta carried out by two generations of Bushes against the Husseins. Whatever good reasons President Bush may have had for insisting that Saddam and his sons must all be eliminated from Iraq, his demand only strengthened that belief.

This capacity to receive a message directly opposed to the one the west believes it is sending can't be overstated. One example: Depending on their political bent, Americans tend to treat the U.S. relationship with Saddam during the Iran/Iraq War as an afterthought, a proof of right-wing perfidy, or, even a past error that adds to our responsibility to remove Saddam from power today. Arabs treat this history as paramount, and view it through very specific narrative—in which Saddam fought faithfully for American interests during the 1980s, only to be betrayed by his patron at the end of the decade. This view in no way lessens, and in fact probably increases, their contempt for Saddam (another feeling that is universal here), but for Arabs the moral of Saddam's story isn't that a tyrant is finally being checked; it's that the American state cannot be trusted. (I am not endorsing this view, merely recording it.)

Which makes it odd that, despite their opposition to this campaign, a few Lebanese appear willing to entertain the notion that some good may come out of it. "Public opinion here is not substantially different from what it is in Europe and the United States," says Chibli Mallat, a lawyer and human rights advocate, at his office in Beirut. "You'll find the same continuum of opinion, with some additional elements. People here are very suspicious, justifiably, about the history of U.S. interventions, and they're not happy about the Israeli situation. At the same time they're hopeful that something might finally be breaking in this region."

Mallat is an organizer of Indict, a group dedicated to getting an indictment of Saddam at the International Criminal Court. He is also close to Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, and though he does not admit to optimism, his interest in the pending changes in Iraq outweighs his considerable reservations about the war.

"I've worked for 12 years to get America to be serious about Iraq," he says. "I'm not about to back off now. I'm opposed to this war, because there were better ways to get rid of Saddam, and to organize international support. The situation the administration is in right now in Iraq is the result of a huge diplomatic failure. To some degree I think the diplomacy failed because Powell's heart wasn't in it; he was more interested in containment than in regime change. But when the President makes a decision, people have to get behind it.

"But the issue should not have been framed through the term 'regime change,' which sounds like an imperial order. It should have been described in terms of ending the dictatorship and bringing Saddam to justice for his crimes against humanity. Instead, Bush opted to play this very weak card of weapons of mass destruction—which Saddam could easily trump by inviting the UN inspectors back in. There are very strong grounds for an indictment of Saddam, and the Europeans would have had a harder time refuting an argument based on international justice. Instead, you had the worst realpolitik imaginable, the most miasmatic type of negotiation."

Now that the war has started, Mallat sees his role as helping to bring international human rights monitors into postwar Iraq. "If Bush is serious about bringing democracy to Iraq, that's the only way it's going to happen. I think he understands that a situation where the U.S. governs Iraq outright is ridiculous. Are you going to have a situation where American soldiers are overseeing an election in Iraq?

"Finding people interested in democracy will not be hard, because the people most yearning for democracy are the people who know what a dictatorship is. But there's another element to democracy, the participatory part, and the struggle for power. That's difficult because there are no institutions left in Iraq. In these cases, the most radical elements will take over. That's why you need Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, international monitors who will say, 'We don't care who runs the country as long as you don't kill each other.' Because the Iraqi opposition will start killing each other."

This vision has at least two serious obstacles: President Bush's manifest lack of interest in international institutions, and the need for the United States to pay off its war and reconstruction bills—a payment that will almost certainly involve the U.S. in disposing of Iraq's resources in the short term. "That's difficult," Mallat says. "I opposed the compensation scheme after the Gulf War, because it had the Iraqi people paying for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait." As for the unlikely prospect of Bush suddenly warming to international institutions: "A successful foreign policy has to be thought through over time. The administration has to consider democracy a priority for the national interest of the United States. That will render the philosophical shift easier."

At the regional level, and specifically in the struggle for Lebanon's future, the war's potential effects become even more subtle, and harder to measure. "There is a chance now to re-establish the equilibrium in Lebanon's relations with Syria," says Joseph Bahout, an academic and committee member for the relatively new Democratic Renewal party, which has elected two members to Lebanon's parliament. "That may not happen: If the U.S. has a huge list of accounts to settle with Syria, and wants to deal forcefully, we may have no play in the situation. But depending on how Syria and the U.S. choose to deal with each other after Saddam, there could be some room to maneuver." (Background: Syria, which completed its takeover of Lebanon during the buildup to the first Gulf War in late 1990, still plays a heavy and determinative role in Lebanon's politics and economic affairs.)

Bahout sees several factors moderating relations between Syria and the postwar U.S. First, Syria, alone among regional players, has succeeded in taming the Lebanese quagmire, restoring civil order and allowing at least some measure of prosperity to grow in the country. The U.S. might also be wary of upsetting the Syrian mosaic—a potentially unstable mix of Sunni Muslims, Alawis, Christians and Druze, with an overwhelming (nearly 75 percent) majority of Sunnis. And the Syrian government is generally willing to play along with U.S. demands, providing help in the campaign against terrorism where necessary; this trend has accelerated, Bahout says, under President Bashar Assad, who is more willing to accept minimal goals from a peace process than was his father, Hafez al-Assad.

"For the first time in decades, we have a real proper opportunity to talk on equal terms with Syria," Bahout says. "After Saddam goes, Syria will be stripped of its regional cards: It's no longer a leader in the Palestinian situation; Hezbullah's relevance will start to diminish because the center of Shi'ism will begin to gravitate away from Iran and back to Iraq; and Syria will lose the $2 billion or so in black market oil revenues it gets from Iraq now. Its only breathing space will be in Lebanon. But to use that with U.S. approval, it will need to modify its relations with Lebanon."

If much of this sounds like miasmatic realpolitik, that may be the nature of Lebanon's circuitous politics. Consider some recent maneuvering by governmental and social leaders. Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, a figure Bahout mentions as a potential interlocutor with a more pliable Syrian government, has been taking advantage of the general U.S.-bashing over the past few days to play up his agreement with Syrian President Assad's opposition to the American war. This could indicate a situation where more moderate leaders get into position to deal with the Syrian government.

"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.