Lebanon's political situation took the usual turn for the worse Friday as Walid Jumblatt announced his support for the Syrian/Hezbollah faction that is attempting to gain control of the government. This is a major reversal for Jumblatt, the strong man of Lebanon's 200,000-strong Druze population, who earlier in the week had been voicing his support for acting Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri's liberal government collapsed two weeks ago after 11 pro-Hezbollah cabinet ministers quit over a U.N. investigation into the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
For more on Jumblatt, who has generally taken the side of justice since the murder of Hariri, read Reason contributing editor Michael Young's 2006 interview. That interview was done during a seemingly more dangerous time, when Hezbollah was murdering people* left and right. The current dustup, which Hezbollah precipitated in anticipation of last Monday's delivery by the U.N. of sealed indictments in Hariri's murder, has so far remained political rather than violent. But it's still being hailed as a catastrophically chaotic crisis that has pushed Lebanon to the unprecedented brink of a disastrous abyss. Every day is Groundhog Day in the Middle East.
As with most government shutdowns, the main visible result of the standoff has been to demonstrate the uselessness of government. To the degree that Lebanon can ever be called a functional society, it continues to function. My kids didn't even get a day off from school.
Nevertheless, Jumblatt's move – should it result in a win for Omar Karami, the 76-year-old former premier favored by Hezbollah to succeed Hariri – is unfortunate news. Although the identities of the accused murderers have not been revealed, the U.N.'s list of indictments is expected to include a number of Hezbollah members and/or other Syrian stooges in Lebanon. The goal of the so-called March 8 movement – a catch-all including Hezbollah, other Shiite politicians, Syria-oriented organizations and random non-entities like the Maronite opportunist Michel Aoun – is to put an end to the murder investigation. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to "cut off the hand" of anybody who attempts to probe the murder any further.
Jumblatt's move to the Syrian side is shrouded in mystery. Michael Young speculates that he has been threatened**. This is the mirror image of a conversation I had last week (when Jumblatt was still in the pro-Hariri camp) with an Orthodox Christian leftist, who claimed that Jumblatt had been close to endorsing the Hezbollah candidate until Syrian President Bashar al-Assad forced him to change sides and queer the deal. No doubt when things settle down the conventional wisdom will be that it's all Israel's fault.
Less clear is whether Jumblatt can deliver enough votes to get Karami in office. Here is some useful handicapping of his ministers – not all of whom are expected to vote the Hezbollah line tomorrow. Jumblatt is a smart enough politician that he may have made this move knowing it wouldn't take, and on the face of it he has a lot to lose if Syria comes back into Lebanon in force. And a government built on the power of Hezbollah – which is more adept at killing people than at governing – would be bad news all around.
For more about Hezbollah you can read my long-ago interview with Party of God politician Mohammed Fneish – who barely spoke above a whisper the entire time I talked with him. My soft-spoken old pal has most recently been employed as something called the "Minister of State for Administrative Reform," and has been doing some waffling of his own. Here he is early in January dismissing claims that the government was about to collapse. And here he is blaming the collapse on – who else? – the United States.
Hassan Nasrallah will be delivering an address about the situation later tonight, and if history is any guide it will be a long one. A country is free in inverse proportion to the length of its political speeches, and in Lebanon nobody ever talks for less than an hour.
Is there any reason for Americans to care about all this? The facts-on-the-ground argument is that we have no choice because our government clearly does take an interest. Since Lebanon conspiracists are fond of claiming that the timing of events always proves something conspiratorial, here's my effort: It's beard-strokingly intriguing that all this activity with implications for Syria and its clients is happening just as the United States has sent an ambassador back to Syria for the first time in six years. If you wanted to claim that this is all kabuki and that Assad has already agreed to cough up some fall guys for Hariri's murder, well, weirder things have happened.
I also note, without necessarily agreeing with, the case that classical liberals have a moral interest in a free Lebanon. Back in 2007, Michael Young made an eloquent case for Americans to take Lebanon's crises to heart in his column "Liberal Lebanon: Worth saving, or the hell with it?" I have been solidly in the "hell with it" bracket pretty much since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, and I sincerely wish I could delete all the above information from my head to make room for useful data like the rules of Hurling or figuring out how all those people get cats to play pianos on YouTube. For my money, the elder Hariri, a self-made billionaire strongly supported by Saudi Arabia (whose contest of wills with Syria and Iran is the backdrop for all these troubles), was too good for the country he resuscitated. From my 2005 Hariri obit:
Unlike the self-promoters, family legacies, D.C. con artists, holy men, and stupid grandsons who make up the bulk of the Levant's political class, he was never content merely to talk about the region's problems or enlist foreign patrons to serve his ends. Since 1979, thousands of Lebanese attended college courtesy of Hariri Foundation scholarships. The media empire Hariri built to further his business interests—including the Future television network, al-Mustakbal newspaper, and the only Lebanese radio station I was ever able to listen to for more than five minutes, Radio Orient—set a consistent example of open and diverse media in a country where you still need a government "license" to report about politics. Throughout the war, Hariri maintained construction projects (frequently destroyed) in his birth city of Sidon. In the postwar period, he dwarfed even these projects with his Solidere organization and its massive project to reconstruct downtown Beirut. The heavy-handed methods of Solidere in the 1990s, and the organization's virtual monopoly on local construction projects—roughly coinciding with Hariri's terms as prime minister—were nobody's model of a truly free market (i.e., one that operates through voluntary contract rather than government gamesmanship); and the buildings that resulted are frequently ugly, gaudy, unwelcoming, or all three. But considering the alternative, it's impossible to gainsay Hariri's achievement in Beirut. It's also impossible, considering the measureless obstructive strength of Lebanese society, the structural sickness of the country's economy, and the hostility of the Syrian occupiers to any and all displays of initiative, to imagine anybody else who would have been capable of it.
Not surprisingly, these efforts earned Hariri many enemies. To leftists and Islamists, he was too pro-American. To neocons, he was too anti-Israel. The Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant purports to have hated him for his ties to the Saudi monarchy. And the vast population of Lebanon regarded his achievements as vast populations always do: with jealousy, trash-talk, and spite. There was a surreal pattern throughout the nineties, of seeing a ruined capital turn into a functioning city while friends and neighbors tirelessly grumbled about the arriviste Saudi who had ruined their country.
I have been less impressed by Hariri's son, and when I encountered him very briefly last year he failed to sweep me off my feet. He has also made some pretty embarrassing missteps during the U.N. investigation (as has the American ambassador to Lebanon). Still, he has been dogged in opposing Lebanon's legion of petty tyrants and in trying to get some measure of justice for his father and the dozens of others murdered in the the last decade. The movement represented by Saad Hariri is by far the best option for Lebanon and the Middle East more broadly.
*All suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, etc. But this is a place where no murder investigation is ever allowed to happen, and the Syrian response to the U.N. investigation has been a pretty strong demonstration of the premise that the guilty flee when no man pursueth.
** Correction: I originally wrote that the alleged threat came from Assad. Young did not specify where it came from.