Curt Cobban and Hassan Nasrallah


I've always found Helena Cobban tiresome, grating in her moral assertions, and utterly naive on Hezbollah. I know the affection is mutual and recently, in response to a reader linking to my piece titled "Hoodwinked by Hezbollah", Cobban had this to say on her blog:

Vadim, I have to say your use of Michael Young is hilariously off the mark. His piece you link to there gives zero data about the attitudes of Lebanese except to write that most of them do (in his view, misguidedly) claim that Hizbullah won a victory in the war.

You want data about Lebanese attitudes? Well, you'll need to read Arabic to read this report from the respected Beirut Center for Research and Information. It presents the results of an opinion poll carried out by the Center between August 18 and August 20, with 800 respondents chosen for their representativity [sic] …

But the first question was "Do you consider that the resistance emerged victorious from this war?" The responses were: 72% yes. (Broken down, if you're interested, as: 79.8% of Sunnis saying yes; 96.3% of Shias, 62.8% of druze, and 59.7% of Christians.)

So this looks a little more authoritative than Michael Young's desperate and as always heavily ideologized rantings, wouldn't you say?

The Beirut Center for Research is the organization that carried out a poll last July that alleged that over 80 percent of Lebanese supported Hezbollah. I happen to believe that that poll was responsible for the greatest single bit of disinformation to come out of the recent Lebanon conflict. The head of the center is Abdo Saad. His daughter is Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who has written a book on Hezbollah. But before discussing the earlier poll, let's first turn to Cobban's point.

Cobban's criticism is that my "desperate" and "ideologized rantings" (and I'll spare you, dear readers, the business about the pot calling the kettle black) provide zero data about the attitudes of Lebanese toward Hezbollah's victory. Indeed, my piece gave no data about Lebanese attitudes because I did not write about Lebanese attitudes. I selfishly offered my own reading of whether Hezbollah had scored a victory. That's why Cobban's opinion poll was off topic. All she proved was that my reading and that of a majority of Lebanese differed. Big deal.

Then again, let me add that idly throwing out numbers does not turn conclusions into hard truths. The poll Cobban cites says only that BCRI questioned "800 respondents chosen according to a technique that takes heed of religious and geographical distribution." That may be true, but this kind of vagueness makes me suspicious. Which areas were people chosen from? What was the age distribution of the respondents? Why weren't the respondents broken down into categories other than religious group, given that geographical distribution was a criterion differentiating them? We don't know. In fact the poll is so slipshod in its presentation, regardless of the veracity of the information, that I can only presume Cobban was so pleased with her (faulty) Arabic translation of the introduction that she forgot to be critical.

Given Hassan Nasrallah's admission on Sunday that, had he known the capture of two Israeli soldiers would lead to such destruction, he would never have gone through with the operation, I think I'm entitled to restate that Hezbollah must re-evaluate its "victory". If it was a victory, then why did Nasrallah apologize? All the more so as he had claimed that the present war happily preempted a far bigger Israeli onslaught planned for later this year. Worse, if he predicted such an onslaught, then why didn't he suspect that a strong Israeli response might come sooner? If he was surprised, then he was catastrophically negligent; and if he was not surprised, then he was responsible for a terrible disaster that befell Lebanon. Either way he merits blame.

Yet Cobban, in a later posting, sees all this as a sign that "Nasrallah's eagerness to reassure his compatriots that Hizbullah intends to to [sic] act very cautiously in the coming period is evidently connected to his continued desire to work very closely indeed with the lawful government of Lebanon." Perhaps I'm bent in half by ideology, but Cobban is better off using ideology as an excuse for such a cretinous conclusion. That a man who has systematically refused to disarm his militia in line with the clear preference of a majority of the Lebanese government and of non-Shiites should now be seen as wanting to sincerely collaborate with that government is, well, delicious. Oh, to live in Charlottesville.

Now back to that earlier BCRI poll on Lebanese attitudes toward Hezbollah. In an interview in July, Saad-Ghorayeb announced this:

I've recently taken part in devising an opinion poll, along with a local think tank here, and the results have been published today. Basically, 87% of all Lebanese support Hezbollah's resistance against Israel today. And that includes 80% of all Christian respondents, 80% of all Druze respondents, and 89% of all Sunnis. And this, of course, is non-Shiite groups, so those which have supported the March 14 pro-American–the March 14, sorry, alliance, which is seen as being pro-American, pro-French, anti-Syrian.

I have made it clear in several articles that I think these results are bogus. I will ignore Saad-Ghorayeb's Freudian slip in primarily depicting the March 14 coalition as a pro-American grouping, before her deft rephrasing. I'm not accusing her or her father of having consciously skewed the results. However, I saw such massive evidence of the contrary in my month of the war, across the board, that I have grave doubts about the findings, and now, in light of the poll cited by Cobban, its methodology.

But there is more. When the primary worry of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (to name only them) in the first weeks of the conflict was to avoid sectarian tension at all costs between their communities and the Shiites; when Hassan Nasrallah, at the end of his Al-Jazeera interview early in the war, threatened those who supposedly failed to side with Hezbollah; when we now see people much more open in their hostility to Hezbollah, particularly Christian and Sunni villagers in the South, for example those in Ain Ebel and Marwaheen, then I think it's time to cast a critical eye on a poll that showed such widespread backing for Hezbollah. Had that backing existed, there would have been little sectarian tension, no threats from Nasrallah, no consistent condemnation of the party's actions from Sunnis, Christians, Druze, and even some Shiites.

And I can go on. But I really wouldn't want Helena to think I was desperate…

Note: Thanks to reader Kamal Bakhazi, my link on the majority of the Lebanese government and non-Shiites supporting Hezbollah's disarmament was corrected, after a faulty link. I would like to add that since this post went up, I received an irate email from Saad-Ghorayeb. So, for clarity's sake, I would like to reproduce the question in the initial poll that led to so high a percentage of respondents saying that they supported Hezbollah's resistance against Israel.

The question was:

Do you support the resistance's [Hezbollah's] opposition to the Israeli aggression against Lebanon?

Given the hardly neutral wording and the context of the poll, does that question offer any real alternative to saying that one is with Hizbullah, though respondents may have had quite a few reservations about the party and its behavior? Substitute, let's say, the "Republican Party" for "resistance", and 9/11 for "Israeli aggression", and you'll get an equally skewed answer allowing for no subtlety, but that would still allow you to claim:

87 percent of Americans support the Republican Party in opposing 9/11.

Many might protest against suddenly being turned into supporters of the Republican Party, when all they really agree with is that they oppose 9/11. Saad-Ghorayeb's poll falsely created a sense that there was widespread support for Hezbollah when the question left respondents little latitude to expose their true feelings.