Children of a Much Lesser God

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Hezbollah and pro-Syrian parties are holding a massive demonstration in downtown Beirut right now, against UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (which calls for a Syrian departure from Lebanon and the disarmament of armed groups, meaning mainly Hezbollah). The Syrians and their Lebanese allies will use this episode to say that Syria still has much support in Lebanon, but are not likely to admit the absurd caveat to that argument–namely that Syria has support to maintain its hegemony over Lebanon.

I think this is an essential moment in the history of Hezbollah (the demonstration is no more than an effort to flex Shiite muscles), which has spend a decade and a half during Lebanon's postwar period setting itself above the fray of Lebanese society. Pumped up by conceit, but also by a remarkably adept leadership, the party successfully sold its resistance against Israel as a reflection of its being at the center of a national consensus. Even when the party engaged in the most partisan behavior, it would invariably regard itself as something of a supranational organization that was, somehow, too good for Lebanon.

Perhaps it was, but today Hezbollah has completely undermined that premise in the eyes of its fellow countrymen. There is little doubt that a majority of Lebanese–Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims (particularly after the assassination of Rafik Hariri), and not a few Shiites (how I recall that the most violent postwar confrontations with Syria occurred between Syrian soldiers and Shiite soccer fans after matches in which Syrian and Lebanese teams competed)–want an end to Syrian domination. Today, the truth is clear: Hezbollah seeks to become the Praetorian Guard of a Syrian-dominated order in Lebanon for after Syrian soldiers withdraw. In that context, the killing of Hariri also becomes clearer: it was preparation for what Damascus understood would be an inevitable Syrian pullout, ensuring that a strong Sunni, with a national project for Lebanon (who could also have threatened the stability of the Alawite regime in Damascus), would be eliminated.

The flip side of that strategy is giving Hezbollah ever more power in a post-Syrian-withdrawal Lebanese state. That's perhaps why a senior Lebanese politician told me recently: "I do not consider it out of the question that Hezbollah played a role in the assassination of Hariri, on Syria's behalf."

Can such a plan work? I rather doubt it, given the anger of Syria's Lebanese adversaries and international wariness, but unless Hezbollah refuses to get further sucked into such a project, it will both lose its national credibility and might carry Lebanon into a period of prolonged crisis as the party tries to protect its gains. On top of this, fears in Riyadh, Amman and Cairo of a so-called "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon (via Syria and its support for Shiite Lebanese power), will make the Sunni Arab states redouble their efforts to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. If that happens, where will Hezbollah be?

Ultimately, the party's destiny is within Lebanon, not forever tied to the interests of Iran or Syria. But the party's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, is devoured by hubris. He's an astute leader, but also someone utterly contemptuous of parochial Lebanese political life. The irony is that Hezbollah has only been imperfectly able to play above its size. It has helped arm and train Palestinian groups, but that has posed two problems: first, the Palestinian fight is exactly that: a Palestinian fight, not Hezbollah's; secondly, the Palestinian Authority has openly called on Hezbollah to stop arming Islamist militants.

In Iraq, Hezbollah has also shown poor results. It is believed to have, or to have had, ties with Muqtada al-Sadr, who performed poorly in the January elections. In contrast, the party is not believed to be especially close to Ayatollah Sistani, or to the more quietist Iraqi clergy, even as it does maintain close ties with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the more conservative wing of the Iranian establishment. In that context, we have a party that is regionally ambitious, but not quite able to put the meat on the table in that regard.

Will Hezbollah resolve its dilemma? It may if Nasrallah understands that by hooking himself to Syria, he is going against the grain of history. The Syrian regime, which is essentially led today by two families and a brother-in-law, is not of this time. Nasrallah has always prided himself on being ahead of the curve. Today's demonstration places him behind it, more than ever in the pocket of a Syrian regime that, in order to survive, is willing to push Hezbollah into a war against Lebanese society.

Here is the one time that Nasrallah should have deployed conceit and his legendary haughtiness, and instead he allowed himself and his party to be turned into Syrian goons.

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  1. You don’t see political commentators appealing to the “inevitable march of history” very often anymore. But I guess when you’re stuck arguing that a much larger protest symbolizes the declining fortunes of a political party, you play the hand you’re dealt.

    Why do I suspect that Michael Young would blame Hariri’s assassination on the cable guy if his HBO goes out tomorrow night?

  2. You have to appreciate the banner that says “Thank you Syria, no to foreign interference.”

  3. So it comes down to Hezbollah as a Syrian front v. the rest of Lebanese society. Interesting take. I wonder if Hezbollah has the muscle and the political goodwill/legitimacy within Lebanon to pull it off, or if they are/will be identified with the Syrians to the degree that they go down with their Syrian sponsors.

  4. joe-

    I would be inclined to agree with you if it weren?t for the pm resignation, loss of support of the Arab League (particularly SA), and a troop pullback. There is more at work here, for which the Hezbollah sponsored demonstration may belie.

  5. Even if Hizbollah’s attitudes towards Syria represent a minority view, I would think that getting a half-million people inside of a country with a population of 3.8 million (4 million+ if Syrian workers are counted?) to attend a demonstration is no small feat, and likely spells trouble down the road.

    On top of this, fears in Riyadh, Amman and Cairo of a so-called “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon (via Syria and its support for Shiite Lebanese power), will make the Sunni Arab states redouble their efforts to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    Why would this fear, assuming it exists, lead them to try to undermine Syria’s government but not Iraq’s?

  6. You don’t see political commentators appealing to the “inevitable march of history” very often anymore. But I guess when you’re stuck arguing that a much larger protest symbolizes the declining fortunes of a political party, you play the hand you’re dealt.

    The American left turns out all sorts of big crowds at their protests. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine what sort of harbingers such turnouts have been for the left’s political fortunes.

  7. And with that, the myth of Rightist support for “People Power” is laid to rest.

  8. Even if the coverage from Reason’s Lebanese correspondent’s weren’t so excellent, I would still come here daily to watch joe grasp at an ever-declining number of straws.

  9. Opposition forces brave military backlash to protest in the thousands for three weeks straight, highlighted by weekly protests of 100,000+. Impressive

    The pro syrian forces hold a one day protest of several hundred thousand braving sunstroke and dehydration. Even more impressive.

    If the former group does this a few months back (like the Syrian Kurds tried) they get bloodied, jailed or dead.

    If the latter group had ever had any call to try this a few months ago, nothing would have been different.

    Tick Tick Tock, I am your kitchen clock.

  10. Josh,

    Not a good day for you to talk about “declining numbers.”

  11. Hey, if it makes your day, Joe, there’s at least some good out of it.

  12. Actually, the whole thing makes me vaguely queasy.

    At this point, the odds of a 1000+ casualty bloodbath are about 50/50, eh?

  13. What a great day for Democrats. Thank you Hezbollah!

  14. Actually, the whole thing makes me vaguely queasy.

    Good. Try not to look so terribly excited jumping on it as debating point, especially if the current line is that all of this has nothing to do with Bush’s foreign policy.

    At this point, the odds of a 1000+ casualty bloodbath are about 50/50, eh?

    I’d say 70/30 odds in favor of violence. Unless somehow the Syrians are expelled without violence and the Ba’athists and other pro-Syrians in the Lebanese government don’t start a civil war to keep power.

  15. I’m not so sure that Hezbollah was allied with Al Sadr only in Iran. I heard they had some links with a whole host of religious parties. However, Hezbollah seems to have largely stayed out of Iraq.

    I think Hezbollah is playing this carefully. They want to empahsize that they will be political powers even in post-syria Iraq and they will be. The other opposition parties will have to deal with them.

  16. “What a great day for Democrats. Thank you Hezbollah!”

    Yes, yes, what terrible people we are. Always NOTICING things.

  17. Yeesh, I meant “I’m not sure that Hezbollah was allied with Al Sadr only in Iraq” (not Iran as I said before).

    As for the prospect of violence, I don’t think significant violence will occur. However, wounds from the civil war are still raw. A lot of the opposition was busy slaughtereding each other just 15 years ago. Syrian fighting Sunni Fighting Maronites fighting Palestinians fighting Druze Fighting Shia fighting Israel. The Maronites spent a lot of time slaughtering each other. Even Syria fought Hezbollah at one point.

  18. Yes, yes, what terrible people we are. Always NOTICING things.

    I’m looking forward to joe NOTICING that the spontaneous anti-Syrian demonstrations were in the face of possible military coercion and that the Hezbollah demonstrations were helped along by party members going door to door to ‘encourage’ participation.

  19. That’s a lovey story, Josh. The protesters you side with spontaneously marched out of their homes and jobs, while the Hezbollah protestors were organized by party activists. Coerced. Threatended! Ordered!!!

    How about we do Lebanese people the honor of considering them capable of having their own disagreements about politics?

  20. I think you can do that without ignoring the fact that the dominant military presence in the city officially approved of one demonstration and disapproved and attempted to ban the other, right?

    I’m sure if we were comparing a large pro-US rally in Baghdad to a small anti-US rally, it’s probably something you’d take into account.

  21. I’m not the one claiming that one or the other of the protest movements in inauthentic, Josh.

  22. You’re claiming that the relative sizes of the marches are representative of public support.

  23. Not that I have any particular love for Syria, but did they actually try to ban the other demonstrations ? Also, I don’t think Syria really had that many troops in Beirut proper.

  24. It’s just a flesh wound, joe.

  25. “You’re claiming that the relative sizes of the marches are representative of public support.”

    Actually, I’m not. I don’t claim to have any insight into the relative sizes of the various factions in Lebanon. I’m merely puncturing some of the most egregious examples of people claiming that they do, and pooh-poohing countervailing evidence for no good reason. Like Michael Young, claiming that the largest mass protest in the country’s recent history discredits Hizbollah in the eyes of the rest of the country, or you, claiming that Hizbollah can’t possibly have broad public support, and could only turn out a mass movement through coercion.

  26. joe

    Young’s point is that by asking Syria to STAY in Lebanon, hisbollah is placing itself on the wrong side of history…and suggesting that they lack confidence in their prospects in a competitive democracy.

    joe, does your “Kerryesque” foreign policy see a Syrian pull-out as desirable, or not?

    One wants to see the evolution of armed factions and the parties associated with them…like the IRA and Sinn Fein. The introduction of democratic processes effects everyone. I am thrilled to see hizbollah adopting this kind of politics…although their “demand”, in this case, is moot.

  27. Dude, joe… You’re so getting your ass kicked here.

  28. Andrew, I get Young’s point, and I don’t find his evidence convincing. Rallying a much, much larger protest than that which brought down the government is evidence that Hizbollah is afraid they don’t have a large base of support? Huh-wuzzah?

    “joe, does your “Kerryesque” foreign policy see a Syrian pull-out as desirable, or not?”

    Yes, it is time – past time – for them to go, in my humble, outsider’s opinion. But I’m not going to allow wishful thinking – my desire to see the Lebanese people united in support of my position – blind me to countervailing facts.

  29. The Daily Star’s home page makes virtually no mention of the pro-Syrian rally, with only a note listing the organizations that supported it.

    Al Jazeera’s web site, meanwhile, has an article saying that 1.5 million people attended the protest. Not estimating, but stating it without qualifiers.

    Fox News has nothing on these guys.

  30. 1.5 million is total nonsense — the whole Shia population of Lebanon is only around 1.5 million.

    As for the Daily Star, I’ve generally found them to be a reasonable paper. Maybe they haven’t updated yet.

    The other thing to note is that under Lebanon’s gerrymandered system, Hezbollah and other Shia groups are purposely given considerably less weight than they would in a true democracy. Hezbollah would probably do much better in elections in a true democracy rather than in the lebanese system They probably have a legitimate gripe on this issue. Possible some sort of deal could be struck in which the Shia parties get representations on par with their populations in return for putting down their weapons (or at least not wielding them openly).

  31. Eric II,
    As of 17.30 EST, The Daily Star has not posted its wednesday edition, which undoubtedly include coverage of the Tuesday Hizbullah event. The TDS is not a 24 hour news service like Fox or al-jazeera. Further, while it does have a particular political leaning, it lacks the organizational capacity to stay on message consistently.

  32. Joe,

    You obviously know nothing about Lebanon or Lebanese history. You are trying to take on the opinion editor of the most prestigious English-language newspapers in Lebanon and the whole Middle East. You are in so far over your head that if you were to open your eyes right now you’d probably see the wreck of the Titanic.

    As a person of Lebanese descent, I find your naivety — in assuming that this pro-dictator rent-a-mob is actually anything other than yet another shameless travesty foisted on the Lebanese people truly ?- pathetic, yet understandable. Pathetic because you lack the imagination to understand the courage it took for the opposition members to voice their protest against a brutal regime. Understandable, because as I already pointed out, you know nothing of Lebanon. Please spare us your concern and go join a “Not in Our Name Protest” rally with the rest of the left-wing wankers. Trust me, when freedom and sovereignity does come to Lebanon, we’ll remember that it wasn’t in “Your Name”.

  33. Not that I have any particular liking for Hezbollah, but any organization that can turn up a turnout of several hundred thousand cannot be dismissed as merely a rent-a-mob. They represent a significant politcal movement in Lebanon.

    I do know something of the history of Lebanon: I know how Lebanese groups killed each other in their brutal civil war, fighting each other in a seemingly unending stream of violence. All of this means that different groups will have different views of the country and all will need to co-exist to build a solid Lebanon. That means getting Syrians to leave, yes, but to allow a reasonable withdrawal and mainitaing reasonable relations.

    After all, it was only about a year or so ago, that JUmblatt, currently the opposition leader, was calling essentially for the death of Paul Wolfowitz. Opinions change, and events change perceptions.

  34. As of 17.30 EST, The Daily Star has not posted its wednesday edition, which undoubtedly include coverage of the Tuesday Hizbullah event.

    Got it. I guess I’ve gotten too accustomed to seeing the 24-hour approach of most American papers.

  35. YA know, these crowd size estimates are notoriously crappy, so I pose the question:

    Who says it wa a half a million people, and what is their interest in having this march perceived as a big success?

  36. As a small l-libertarian, I find anything that improves human liberty (such as the departure of Syria from Lebanon) to be positive. I cannot fathom why someone would actually want a foreign government dominating them.

    That being said, my libertarian philosophies make me highly skeptical of interventions abroad by the US government. Our constitution gives the Congress (not the president) the right to declare war under certain circumstances. But spending our tax dollars and our soldiers’s lives on grand democracy building exercises abroad is not one of the approved uses of our war-making ability (at least in my copy of the Constitution). I was skeptical of Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo and I’m far more skeptical of Iraq, simply because the commitment required is far higher.

    For those who want the US to intervene abroad, whether its bleeding-hear liberals, utopian neocons, muscular interventionists or foeign exlies should do so with their own money, not through dragging us into unconstitutional wars.


  37. Who says it wa a half a million people, and what is their interest in having this march perceived as a big success?

    Most reports I’ve seen have put the rally in the several hundred thousand range. Whether its half a million or not is probably hard to do. Still, the reverse question could equally well be asked — what is the interest of people who want to claim that the march was smaller ?

  38. In a healthy democracy civilized people disagree without killing each other. Take a look at what Jumblatt himself said re: his disagreements with Wolfowitz:

    “‘Did you see the nice comments he had about me?’ Jumblatt asks, referring to an interview Wolfowitz gave to Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation TV. (‘Even a man like Walid Jumblatt who has said some not-so-nice things in the past has had a lot of courage in standing up to the Syrians. We admire that,’ Wolfowitz said.) Jumblatt goes on: ‘It shows that when you’re dealing with civilized people, even if you attack them, you can engage in rational discourse.'” (Weekly Standard, 3/14/05, Lee Smith)

    You see, the difference between disagreeing with Paul Wolfowitz vs. disagreeing with regime in Damascus is that you don’t find yourself imprisoned or dead when you mouth off about Wolfowitz.

    The Lebanese are ready for democracy. They want it. Hezbollah does not want democracy because when people are free to choose, the fate of Hezbollah will be the same as that of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Hezbollah has done us all a favor today by making obvious what we knew all along — that they are Syria’s “Praetorian Guard” (and that’s putting it nicely). We are witnessing their last gasp. Their days are numbered, and the ash heap of history awaits them.

  39. True, civilzed people can disagree on matters without killing each other. However, the past of Lebanon has given me no real confidence on the ability of Lebanese factions to disagree without killing each other. This may not seem very pleasant, but its a fact. Syria and Israel both dabbled in these murky waters, and even the US did so.

    As far as Hezbollah goes, they clearly comamnd a significant political force in Lebanon. Any group that can organize enough to bring out several hundred thousand people on the streets cannot be dismissed so easily. You may want to dismiss them, but other opposition groups haee indicated that they will try and strike some common ground with Hezbollah on a few issues. That is necessary — no one should want a revival of the Lebanese civil war. A group that survived years of civil war, battles with Israel and even occasional fighting with Syria will not just go away because you want it to. Amity in Lebanon means living with all kinds of different people: Sunnis, Druze, Maronites, and yes even Hezbollah.

    Also, Lebanon does not have genuine democractic representation. Shia are almost certainly grossly under-represented. This may be necessary to preserve the delicate balance of power in Lebanon, but that is not genuine democracy. I suspect that this is something that Lebanon will have to deal with once Syria leaves. Hezbollah will probably do reasonably well among the Shia, as they’ve done normally.

  40. Isn’t Jumblatt the same guy who said 2 years back that he was thrilled at the shuttle explosion because it killed an Israeli ? The man seems like an opportunist who is probably upset because Syria didn’t make him President (or maybe PM).

    That being said, anyone who survived the Lebanese civil wars probably has an acute sense of which way the wind is blowing. That holds for all the opposition, and even for Hezbollah.

  41. I think Michael Young is slightly off-base when he suggests that Hizbullah has allowed itself to become the Syrian regime’s dull instrument (goons) in Lebanon. The relationship between the two is complex, as M. Young notes, and what we have seen in the past is what we saw today — a marriage of political convenience. Hizbullah needed to flex its political muscle and the Syrians needed a show of popular support. My best guess is that Hizbullah has today deftly secured its role as a mediator between the loyalists and the opposition. The demonstration showed certain members of the opposition and the international community that any rush to disarm the resistance group is dangerously misguided. At the same time, Hizbullah has demonstrated to the Syrians that the resistance group is the regime’s only means of preserving its regional strategic interests in Lebanon. I imagine, after today, both will coming running to Haret Hreik to offer their wares. Whoever makes the best offer will undoubtedly prevail. Let the Syro-Lebanese bargaining begin…

  42. Who do you think funds Hezbollah? How long do you think Hezbollah will last when the funds dry up?

  43. “Who do you think funds Hezbollah?”

    Iran, mostly.

  44. “How long do you think Hezbollah will last when the funds dry up?”

    I suppose that depends on the amount of genuine public support they command among Lebanese people. Though keep in mind, I lack Michael Young’s capacity to recognize a massive show of public support as a rear guard action of a desperate anachronism.

  45. Hezbollah may be a lot of things, but it is not the rear guard of an anachronism. Nasrallah has been very careful to stress his opposition to the US, France and Israel over his support for Syria, at least if his speeches at the demonstration are any indication. While the friends of the Phalangists may imagine that democracy will somehow marginalize Hezbollah – and only if the currently absurd over-representation of Christians in the Parliament continues – the Shi’ites have begun to make clear they will not be ignored. Just as the long oppressed Iraqi Shia voted with their feet and their purple fingers to take their rightful charge of the country, the Lebanese Shia – forever locked out of the National Pact and the upper echelons of Lebanese government – will do the same. Whether it’s Hezbollah, Amal, or other smaller Shi’ite parties, the future in Lebanon will either witness Shi’ite strength (estimated by most to be the largest plurality in Lebanon, and the fastest growing) democratically displayed, or Lebanon will start looking like 1975 again very soon.

  46. “The American left turns out all sorts of big crowds at their protests.”

    To be fair there is a difference when .00167 percent(500,000) of the US population turns out, and when it’s claimed that 12.5 percent (500,000) of Lebanon’s population turns out.

  47. “As a person of Lebanese descent”

    Veritas it’s hard to claim expert just because you are a person of Lebanese descent. My parents lived there for 30 years, my mom was born in Beirut, the majority of my family has been there since ’48. It sets a bad tone. There are people living the UK who know more about America than some Americans. It still must be backed up with knowledge. And referring to the protest as a rent a mob doesn’t represent knowledge. I’m not saying that they’re more powerful, or that Hezzbollah can assimilate into party politics, but blowing off the pro Syrian existence as merely a rent a mob is a bit naive.

  48. Remrem,

    Point taken. It was a non sequitur, not an argument.

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