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.

NEXT: Bus Drivers and Cops in the Red-Light District

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. About Nasrallah’s comments – I am not sure whether I would give them too much weight. It may be that he is in the happy position of having it both ways. The impression that he did “pretty good” in a dust-up with the IDF has hardened already, and especially where it might do him the most good. On the other hand, there may be many parties he wishes to appeast right now…including Kofi Anan and the UN.

  2. I don’t know why anyone trust polls done in the Middle-East. Most of the peoples there have such a face based culture that they give the answer to questions that they think their peers expect them to say, not what they really think. (Thats a problem with polls anywhere but its worse in cultures where people live in more integral communities). The difference between how Arabs answer poll questions and how they actually act (their revealed preference) is enormous.

    Asking most Lebanese if they thought Hezbollah won is like asking Americans in public if they eat right and exercise.

  3. Remember, the initial reaction both inside Lebanon and among the governments in the region was to blame Hezbollah for provoking Israel. In the early days, the papers were full of denunciations of Hezbollah by such noted Israel bahers as the Saudis.

    This only began to change when the indiscriminate, immoral tactics of the Israeli military became evident Had they carried out a proportional, appropriately-targetted response (instead of a terror campaign against Lebanese civilians), this narrative would have been the dominant one.

    This war should have been a disaster for Hezbollah from the start, and it was only the bad military judgement and appalling behavior of the Israelis that saved Nasrallah from the ire of his countrymen. It is very much to be hoped that this ire returns. Unfortunately, because the IDF did damage to so much of the public infrastructure and private homes and businesses in Lebanon, Hezbollah and its sponsors get to fight off even this later surge of resentment by playing sugar daddy during the rebuilding phase.

  4. Remember, the initial reaction both inside Lebanon and among the governments in the region was to blame Hezbollah for provoking Israel. In the early days, the papers were full of denunciations of Hezbollah by such noted Israel bahers as the Saudis.

    This only began to change when the indiscriminate, immoral tactics of the Israeli military became evident Had they carried out a proportional, appropriately-targetted response (instead of a terror campaign against Lebanese civilians), this narrative would have been the dominant one.

    This war should have been a disaster for Hezbollah from the start, and it was only the bad military judgement and appalling behavior of the Israelis that saved Nasrallah from the ire of his countrymen. It is very much to be hoped that this ire returns. Unfortunately, because the IDF did damage to so much of the public infrastructure and private homes and businesses in Lebanon, Hezbollah and its sponsors get to fight off even this later surge of resentment by playing sugar daddy during the rebuilding phase.

  5. wanna bet Hez has the juice on, water & sewage working, houses & bridges rebuilt, & roads fixed before the Gulf Coast, the South Bronx, or Baghdad get done?? For cents on the dollar?
    Maybe the US should hire them……

  6. The difference between how Arabs answer poll questions and how they actually act (their revealed preference) is enormous.

    And I suppose you have something to support this claim other than ‘trust me because I’m the know-it-all Shannon Love’?

  7. 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)

    Er, no you didn’t.

  8. A little less biased than Michael Totten’s starstruck dictation from IDF copywriters, but not much.

  9. joe, if Israel had carried out a “terror campaign” against Lebanese civilians, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, would have died. This is not to say that the IDF action’s were tactically or strategically wise (I try to refrain from making immediate, definitive judgements on military actions unless they result in a surrender document signed on the deck of a battleship), but to call the IDF’s actions a “terror campaign” is simply untrue, unless one is arguing that any military action which which results in significant civilian casualties is a “terror campaign”, which defines the term in way which is essentially meaningless.

  10. unless one is arguing that any military action which which results in significant civilian casualties is a “terror campaign”,

    What about actions that result in large military casulties and only military casulties, but are called “terror attacks”?

  11. That obviously is a misuse of the term, anon.

  12. Over at Talking Points Memo, Matthew Yglesias makes a couple of good points about that Nasrallah interview. The first is that, read from another angle, he’s simply harping on the theme that the Israeli response was disproportionate and out-of-line. They’d been trading actions for months; this was just another raid; the Israelis were looking for an excuse, and so on.

    More significantly is that, even if taking his statements at face value, the fact that one side is unhappy with the cost of the war shouldn’t be the basis of an assumption that the other side should be overjoyed with the outcome. As Yglesias explained, a rational person can easily reach the conclusion that wars are a “negative-sum” game in which no one can truly be said to “win.” The US is worse off for having invaded Iraq, but that doesn’t mean Saddam is better off. Britain and France were worse off for WW1, but that doesn’t mean the Germans were better off. And so on.

    I think, on balance, the Israelis will come to regret alienating the general population in Lebanon. They might be angry at Nasrallah, but it was Israel that bombed them and they’ll forgive Hezbollah before they forgive the foreigners. Hezbollah’s quick activation of reconstruction projects and Nasrallah’s humble pie are all part of a far more sophisticated political program than anything the US has put together in the region since the Cold War. Not surprising, really, since they actually live there and have a better grasp of Lebanese politics than anyone in Washington could.

  13. “joe, if Israel had carried out a “terror campaign” against Lebanese civilians, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, would have died.”

    Not necessarily. “Terror campaign” doesn’t mean the use of the maximum amount of force. It means the use of violence against a civilian population in order to coerce a political outcome.

    They didn’t just hit civilians when bombing military targets. The bombed targets like power plants and roadways and public buildings to hurt the Lebanese public, in order to punish the government for its policy, or lack of policy, towards Hezbollah.

    The use of violence against civilians to coerce a political outcome.

  14. I’ve been confused about Hezbollah’s motive for carrying out this raid from the beginning. Yes, there were the Palestinians taken captive and the Hezbollah prisoners, but there is always a tit to tat in this conflict, if one party or the other is so motivated. But why make a big mess now? Staging a cross-border raid like that is a very provocative act, not an everday occurance by any stretch. Nasrallah must have known there would be a high price to pay, even if he didn’t forsee this air and ground campaign.

    The Iranians’ motive for staging a big event is pretty clear, though, with the rest of the world turning against them for their nuke program. Could Nasrallah have cut a deal with Iran, rented out his militia as it were, a deal that he no longer thinks is worth it?

    Nasrallah’s comments look like an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Lebanese public. After the success of the anti-Syrian movement, Hezbollah was certainly on the outs with the rest of Lebanon, and a turn towards a foreign patron made sense. Now that the war has generated sympathy for Hezbollah among other Lebanese, it makes sense for Nasrallah to try to consolidate his support among the broader public. Especially since that support could well be ephemeral. At the same time, if Hezbollah is deciding that its relationship with Iran isn’t worth the hassle, it would make sense for them to try to rally greater domestic support to allow them to be less dependent on the sugar daddies in Tehran.

    If Iranian intellegence or the Revolutionary Guards put Nasrallah up to this, his statement would send a very clear signal to them that he’s not looking to play ball again for a while.

  15. MUTT wrote: “wanna bet Hez has the juice on, water & sewage working, houses & bridges rebuilt, & roads fixed before the Gulf Coast, the South Bronx, or Baghdad get done??”

    That’s almost completely unfair. In two of those cases reconstruction efforts have been blocked by extremist elements that have waged a bitter insurgency in an effort to impose their will on their fellow citzens and shape society to their own ends. I’m not sure what Baghdad’s problem is though.

  16. Since when are roadways and power plants not military targets? Because civilians use them too? Gosh, by that standard, nearly every war in history has been a terror campaign against civilians, which again reduces the term to being meaningless.

  17. Jack,

    Good one.

    P.S. You forgot to tell me if I should tip my waitress and whether you will be here all week.

  18. The bombed targets like power plants and roadways and public buildings to hurt the Lebanese public, in order to punish the government for its policy, or lack of policy, towards Hezbollah.

    Well, joe, this just boils down to the question I have been posting for a month now: how can you claim to be a so-called “civilian” and either actively support a rogue government (state within a state, with Hizbollah) or passively endorse your government’s non-action on said terrorist organization? I have said before, if you’re not going to actively speak up and denounce radical elements and do what you can to drive them from your country, don’t be surprised when missiles come down the pike.

    Did you know that the streets in Lebanese and Iraqi cities conveniently clear of “civilians” before a terror attack? So if all these so-called innocents know something, why aren’t they speaking up? Because people don’t like to face the consequences of supporting criminals, but they want all the benefits. They can get bent.

  19. I don’t know why anyone trust polls done in the Middle-East. Most of the peoples there have such a face based culture that they give the answer to questions that they think their peers expect them to say, not what they really think.

    I tend to agree with Shannon Love. Foreign peoples living in less than free states tend to give startling poll results. Remember the Sandinistas in Nicaragua? P.J. O’Rourke summed up well the polling that was done there. O’Rourke suggested what the people being polled perceived from the pollsters:

    Hello citizen, I’m a dark and forbidding stranger with ties to groups and people unknown, will you be voting for the current government in power, or should I just tear up your ration card right now and put you down for the opposition?

  20. Ayn Randian: that’s absurd. By that logic, there were no “civilians” in the Twin Towers because they actively support their government. By that logic, there are no “civilians” anywhere.

    That’s not really a surprise, given your handle: Ayn Rand made that claim in an interview in reference to whether or not it was moral to nuke cities. If they’re not actively fighting their own government, they aren’t really innocent. Of course, the government holds that if they ARE actively resisting the government, they’re traitors.

    What a crock. Maybe some people just don’t feel like taking sides in every little pissy dispute someone else is foisting on them. Maybe now that the Israelis have chosen to involve them directly, they’ll go ahead in choose sides where once they preferred to remain neutral. If you push a man off a fence, he tends to land on the other side.

    “With us or against us” is a self-defeating dichotomy that makes enemies of neutrals and neutrals of allies. The majority of Lebanese weren’t against Israel any more than the majority of Iraqis were against the US in 2003. They just weren’t necessarily “with us.” Forcing them to choose sides has backfired disastrously in Iraq and will likely do so in Lebanon. It’s tedious to have to keep pointing this out, but people tend to blame the proximate actor rather than follow a tortured chain of excuses to find the “real” culprit.

  21. That obviously is a misuse of the term, anon.

    So, when the US government, pundits, etc. call the attack on the Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983, or the attack on the USS Cole a “terrorist attack,” they are misusing the term?

  22. Yes, anon. Is english not your native tongue?

  23. well, James, if they don’t want to take sides, maybe they should stop paying one to act on their behalf…ya think?

  24. This only began to change when the indiscriminate, immoral tactics of the Israeli military became evident

    Actually, I prefer to look on it as a situation where the Arabs and others were willing to give lip service to the Israeli cause until it began to look like the Israelis were actually going to do something about it.

    The bombed targets like power plants and roadways and public buildings to hurt the Lebanese public, in order to punish the government for its policy, or lack of policy, towards Hezbollah.

    joe, I think you are imputing motives without any real basis for doing so.

    See, I think the Israeli attacks on Lebanese infrastructure can be justified as attacks on assets that Hez was using in its fight against Israel. The roads were used for re-supply and maneuvering. The cell network was used for military communication. The power plants were used to power military facilities.

    True, these were also being used by civilians, but that doesn’t reduce their military value, or their legitimacy as military targets.

    This is in contrast to the Hez rocket attacks, which joe seems strangely reluctant to condemn. These attacks were indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, with no military justification. A few of the thousands of rockets hit military targets, true, but this was happenstance, not intention.

    Comparing Israeli tactics to Hez tactics, there can be no question as to which are immoral and indiscriminate. The Israelis are guilty only of fielding an effective military. Hez is guilty of waging a terror war against Israeli civilians.

  25. “if Israel had carried out a “terror campaign” against Lebanese civilians, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, would have died.”

    Will, tens of thousands of civilians don’t have to get killed for it to be a terrorist action. On that basis, 9/11 wasn’t a terrorist action since only 3000 killed.

    Israel’s action was a terrorist action because terrorists were targeted in order to turn them against Hezbollah, which had the opposite effect because it increased the Lebanese peoples’ support for Hezbollah.

  26. “well, James, if they don’t want to take sides, maybe they should stop paying one to act on their behalf…ya think?”

    Wow, Ayn Randian just assigned himself responsibility for the drug war. Let’s kick his ass!

    RC,

    “joe, I think you are imputing motives without any real basis for doing so.” You’ve got some real bad timing. Take a look at the bin Ladenesque justification for attacking civilians that Ayn Randian posted just above you. You might recognize it as a stenographic reproduction of what the Israeli government was saying during the war. As if the block after block of rubble in the residential sections of Beirut isn’t obvious enough. They killed civilians in their homes, the put out a justificaiton for killing civilians, but I’m supposed to believe that those neighborhoods were levelled in a strict policy of only striking military targets? It’s walking like a duck and quacking like a duck, and even it’s friends are calling it a duck. It’s a duck, RC.

    The power plants were not “also” being used by the military. They were the civilians power plants that keep the lights on, the hospitals open, and the treatment plants operating. And, oh yeah, some of the residences and businesses that are hooked up to them are used by Hezbollah members. When you strike a target like this – hitting a civilian facility in the hope that it might inconvenience the military, too – it’s the military damage that’s collateral to the civilian attack.

    And, btw, I have condemned Hezbollah and its attacks as terrorist on this and other threads, and you’ve seen me do it. You’re just whining because I refuse to limit my outrage to your preferred direction. Well, too bad.

  27. Correction: that should read “….were not “also” being used by civilians.”

  28. Canadian polling firm Angus REID reported that the Beirut Center for Research and Information poll Michael was discussing above did not provide a Margin of Error statistic.

    With no MoE, the poll can not be generalized to the Lebanese population. Cobbam is wrong and Michael is correct to question a dubious poll with a very flawed methodology.

    Since Joe believes that power plants can’t legitimately be considered military objectives I suggest he take his complaint up with the drafters of the Geneva Convention (1949 and 1979 protocols) and to the ICRC both of which disagree with him.

    Of course joe may prefer shariah rules of war to International Treaty Law.

  29. Totalitarian,

    “Of course joe may prefer shariah rules of war …”

    And what are those if you dont mind me asking?

  30. Michael,

    The July BCRI poll you criticize also found that 70.1% of respondents answered yes to the question, “Did you support the resistance’s move to capture two Israeli soldiers for a prisoners swap?”. Given that the kidnapping operation was the justification for Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon, I think Helena Cobban is justified in claiming that a majority of Lebanese rallied to Hizbollah’s side during its fight with Israel.

    Also, while the poll reproduced in An-Nahar does show a clear majority of Druze and Christians favoring Hizbollah’s disarmanent, it finds that that 52% of Sunnis support this, and 51% of the overall public – hardly an overwhelming majority. I really am surprised that you can find an anti-Hizbollah “consensus” in these numbers.

    By the way, I may be wrong, but doesn’t your latest column contradict what you earlier wrote about Hizbollah’s kidnapping operation? You had initially described the kidnapping as part of a “general counterattack against American and Israeli power in the region by Iran and Syria.” Yet you now acknolwedge that Israel’s invasion eroded Hizbollah’s deterrent power against a future US/Israel attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Frankly, it defies logic that either Iran or Syria would want to provoke an Israel invasion of Lebanon.

  31. Peter H. No there is no contradiction. You are comparing Hezbollah’s intentions behind the abductions with the results of the 34-day war. Yes, the results did not correspond to Hezbollah’s intentions, which is precisely why I’ve been arguing that Hezbollah came out of the conflict weaker.

    By the way, I wrote that the abductions were a “spinoff” of a more general Iranian-Syrian effort to push the US out, not “part of”, a key difference, inamsuch as it reaffirmed what I always believed: that Nasrallah had a margin of maneuver to act on July 12, without necessarily asking for Iran’s permission, or coordinating with Iran. Nasrallah blundered, very simply.

    As for the BCRI poll, the question you cite is, once again, loaded. Who in Lebanon could fail to say, particularly in the context that existed in Lebanon in late July, that they opposed a prisoner swap? Why not ask a more simple question: “Did you support the abduction of Israeli soldiers?” Why tag on that second clause that trapped respondents into saying “yes”, because a prisoner swap was somehow regarded as something that everyone had to support?

    By the way, the question is loaded in another way. It suggests the abductions were solely there to effect a prisoner swap, when the fact is that it went well beyond that to my mind, and to the mind of many Lebanese. Limiting the context of the question skewed the answers.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.