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Michael Totten’s latest assessment of Lebanon.

Thursday, January 4, 2007
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HH: We begin this hour with Michael Totten, I think perhaps America’s most informed writer about Lebanon, just back from Lebanon. Michael Totten, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

MT: Hi, thanks for having me, Hugh.

HH: I have just posted over at Hughhewitt.com a link to your site, and I titled it by what you wrote in your most recent dispatch, “So much of what passes for politics in Lebanon is simply sectarian passion or violence.” Can you explain that for people?

MT: Sure. Okay, Lebanon is basically divided into three major groups, all of whom are a minority. There are Christians, which are roughly 35-40% of the country, and then the rest are Muslims, and they’re divided roughly between Sunni and Shia, the Shia slightly outnumber the Sunni. And Lebanon works on a power sharing arrangement, where the Christians always have the presidency, the Sunni Muslims always have the prime ministership, and the speaker of parliament is a Shia. And since the founding of the republic, they’ve been jockeying for power, each at one time trying to dominate the others, which was a major reason for the civil war between 1975 and 1990. And the Sunni Muslims and the Christians have more or less come to an agreement now to share power and to no longer fight over it, although the Shia have been sort of pecked down and pushed aside by both the Sunni and the Christians forever. And Hezbollah, one way of looking at them now, is that well, they have their own private army, and no one else does, and this is sort of a bit of revenge against the others, and they’re trying to accumulate as much power in Lebanon as possible.

HH: Now I want to spend the bulk of our time…we have you for half an hour, talking about Hezbollah. But before we get there, I do think, I want to pause on the Aounists, because they’re always messing up Americans’ ability to go on, because you defined it nicely as Christian and Sunni versus Shia…

MT: Yeah.

HH: But then you’ve got Michael Aoun, who’s out there with Hezbollah. Why and who is he, and how powerful?

MT: Well, Michel Aoun, he’s a Maronite Catholic, and he used to be possibly the most popular Christian leader in Lebanon. He was briefly prime minister during, at the end of the civil war, even though the prime minister was supposed to be…I’m sorry, the Christians are supposed to have the presidency, and the Sunnis are supposed to have the prime ministership, but Michel Aoun was prime minister at the end of the civil war for complicated reasons. Basically, the Lebanese government effectively ceased to exist during the war, and somehow, he ended up in this position. And he was also general of the army. And he was the last anti-Syrian holdout. His group were the last to surrender to Syrian domination of Lebanon at the end of the war, and he was exiled to France as a result. And he spent until last year, this time in France, living on a farm on the outside of Paris. Now after the Syrians were pushed out last year, Michel Aoun came back, and he found that he was sort of pushed aside by the Christian and Sunni elite of the country, and he wanted to be president. And his only way that he could see of actually getting the presidency was to align himself electorally with whoever else was being excluded by the Christian and Sunni elite. And the only game in town was Hezbollah. So his alliance with Hezbollah is mostly tactical, and has really very little to do with ideology.

HH: Can he switch back quickly? Could he rejoin? Would that allow him to return to a preeminent place among the Sunni and Christian alliance?

MT: Well, I’m sure that they would rather have him with them, than against him, if being against them means he’s with Hezbollah. But if he were to try to rejoin the March 14th coalition, March 14th being the anti-Syrian side, I’m actually not sure what happens, because he has burned his bridges with pretty much everybody. And his popularity has disintegrated.

HH: Wow. Does he provide Hezbollah a fig leaf, though?

MT: Yeah, that’s pretty much what he does. I mean, that’s why Hezbollah wants him, so that they can say look, it’s not just the Shia who are opposed to the government. It is also some of the Christians. But Michel Aoun’s got 20% of the Christians at most at this point.

HH: And that’s still not an insignificant number.

MT: No, it isn’t insignificant. But you should keep in mind, though, that these Aounist Christians, they have what they call an understanding with Hezbollah, and one point of that understanding is that Hezbollah needs to be disarmed, and mainstreamed into Lebanese society.

HH: Okay. Now give us the details of your last trip to Lebanon. When did you get into the country? When did you come home?

MT: I came home just before Christmas, and I was there for three weeks.

HH: Okay, and so, you know Hezbollah up close and personal, and in fact, you’ve been beaten up by them a little bit, and your account of hanging…

MT: Well, I haven’t been physically beaten. I’ve been threatened by them.

HH: I thought they jostled you here a couple of times.

MT: Well, I mean, they have physically forced me to move from where I was standing, but they didn’t actually like assault me.

HH: All right. Explain to people what Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon is right now, and this is really chilling, by the way, I must tell you, Michael Totten. I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. Your conversation with the young teenagers, your description of their security forces, your detailing of their ambitions, Hezbollah is a menace, and just tell people about it.

MT: Well, basically, like I said before, what they really want, more than anything else, is as much power in Lebanon as they can acquire. And although they are an Islamist party, their main goal at this point, I don’t believe, is to turn Lebanon into an Islamist state, because they know it’s impossible. For one reason, more than a third of the country are Christians, and they will fight them to the end if they try to create Lebanon as an Islamist state. But also, there is the fact that the Sunni don’t want it, either, and if they did, they would be arguing about which kind of Islamist state to have. But also, the truth is that the majority of the Shia also do not want an Islamist state in Lebanon, and they never have. And so, while Hezbollah used to say that they wanted to turn Lebanon into basically, you know, an Iranian style state, but there’s just no way that they can do this, and they’ve had internal arguments about this, and Hassan Nasrallah is actually more moderate than the previous leaders of Hezbollah, and the previous leaders were pushed aside, because they wanted to Islamicize the entire country. And Nasrallah was chosen because he was seen as more pragmatic and more moderate, I mean, moderate, really only compared to who was running the show previously. So what they really want is they want Shia power in Lebanon as much as possible. And the reason, the only way they can get it is to be the only political party in the country that has an army. And the only way that they can justify having an army is if they are in a constant state of war with the Israelis.

HH: You write in the current dispatch, Chris Albritton, who works on occasion for Time Magazine, wrote the following on his blog during the July war. “Hezbollah is launching Ketushyas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us, and threatened one. This is how Hezbollah treats Western journalists. I’d say I’m surprised more journalists don’t mention this sort of thing in their articles.” Well again, that’s very brown shirtish, Michael Totten, and it suggests that they aren’t going to ever play by any kind of rules that we understand.

MT: No, they probably won’t until someone forces them to, or if the other factions in Lebanon offer them something that they cannot refuse.

HH: Now tell us about your experience when they did their ‘dump the Siniora government’ march. How many of them showed up? And how many members of Hezbollah are hard core? And how many are just out for the party that day?

MT: Well, a lot of them were out for the party, and it was obvious. I mean, you can tell by looking at them that they were just having a good time. And others were much more hard core and belligerent. I couldn’t give you a percentage, really. I don’t know for who is a hard core true believer, and who goes along with Hezbollah simply for sectarian reasons. I mean, I’ve met a lot of Shia who go along with Hezbollah because they’re Shia, and Hezbollah is the most powerful Shia party, actually the most powerful party in the entire country. And that’s really, at the end of the day, the only reason that they support Hezbollah. I mean, asked some other people downtown, I haven’t written about them yet, but I’m going to write about them probably tomorrow, what they think of Iran, because Iran is, you know, more or less behind the creation and the maintenance of Hezbollah. And they said look, Iran helps us, but Iran doesn’t control us. And if Iran were actually trying to control us, this would create a serious problem, because they like to drink alcohol, they like to date and chase girls and have fun, and they know these things are not allowed in Iran. And these are serious supporters of Hezbollah saying this. So there’s really only so far Hassan Nasrallah can take this before it destroys the support that he’s created within his own factions.

HH: And what did the city of Beirut look like?

MT: Well, most of Beirut was completely normal. We’re really only talking about the downtown, is the only part of the city that was taken over by these guys.

HH: How was reconstruction advancing, though, from July?

MT: Reconstruction…well, it’s interesting that you asked this, because I had not been in Lebanon for eight months. And the first things I noticed when I got to Beirut was that there was more reconstruction that had progressed since the end of the civil war fifteen years ago. So Beirut actually looked better now than it did before the July war.

HH: Oh, we’ve got to pick up on that when we get back.

MT: But this isn’t just Beirut.

– – – –

HH: Michael, we were talking about how Beirut looked when we went to break. Pick up on that.

MT: All right. So the downtown area had more construction that had progressed since the end of the civil war fifteen, or I guess, sixteen years ago. And so I was a little bit surprised, because I was expecting the city to be in slightly worse shape, although it is economically in worse shape. I was the only person in my hotel, for example.

HH: I remember reading that, and saying oh, that’s bad.

MT: Yeah, and also, fresh milk is hard to find in grocery stores. It’s actually almost impossible to find in grocery stores. The Israelis hit the only milk factory in the country. I have no idea why they hit it. But they did, so there are things of this sort, but physically, the city’s in better shape. Now when you go south of Beirut, I mean immediately south, like a ten minute drive from downtown, in the southern suburbs, which is basically where Hezbollah’s effective capital is, in a place called Haret Hreik. That place is in very bad shape. I mean, it’s a large area where…it’s mostly filled with short towers like 20 story apartment buildings and offices. And easily, 15% of them are gone. There’s huge areas where sometimes ten towers all in a row have just been taken out.

HH: Did that radicalize the Shia Hezbollah followers? Or did that resign them to a different strategy than frontal assault on Israel?

MT: It doesn’t…I honestly don’t know. It doesn’t seem to have had too much of an effect one way or the other, to be honest, that I can tell. The…

HH: Go ahead.

MT: The Hezbollah supporters that I saw, they all think that Hezbollah won the war, and I asked them, you know, does that mean you want to do it again, and I got a very mixed response about whether they wanted to do it again. About half the people I asked said yes, and the other half said no. But that was about the same sort of opinion from before the war in July also, that a lot of people who support Hezbollah do so not because they want war with Israel, but because they view, incorrectly, that war with Israel is inevitable, and Hezbollah’s the only army in the country that’s capable of defending Lebanon.

HH: Now you have a few examples in here of this below-the-surface anti-Americanism, including this fascinating conversation with a couple of teenagers, where you say Hassan Hasrallah repeatedly says death to America. He only means death to the American government. Why doesn’t he make that clear then? He does. No, he doesn’t, you tell them. Then, come on, guys, be honest with me, you say. And they say I want to go to America, the leader kid says. I love America. I want to live in America. America is rich and free. I want to be rich and free, too. It’s bipolar.

MT: It is. It’s bizarre, isn’t it?

HH: Yeah.

MT: You get this sort of thing all over the world where you find anti-Americanism. It often times is the same people who would rather live here. Now this is obviously not true of everybody. I mean, if you take the real hard core anti-Americans in the world, you know, Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atta, these guys are not looking for a green card. That’s pretty obvious. But a lot of the more passive anti-Americans who get caught up in the politics of the place they live, they are very much of two minds about this at once.

HH: And where…did you see influence of Syria re-extending itself? Or just through their Hezbollah puppets?

MT: Just through their proxies in Lebanon. And they have also some very small political parties that they control. There’s one called Marada, for example, which is from northern Lebanon. And there is another called the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. They have a swastika on their flag. I mean, these guys, they’re basically fascists, but there aren’t very many of them. There’s a very small number of them. I don’t know how many there are, maybe two thousand in the entire country. So they’ve got these sorts of little micro-parties as well, that are sort of…

HH: Okay, put on your seeing, your swami hat, your Kreskin hat, what’s going to happen in Lebanon?

MT: Oh, God. Literally, Hugh, anything could happen at this point, although I do think that the threat of civil war is lower than it was a month ago.

HH: Why?

MT: Here’s why. Because after two days, when these protests and sit-ins started, if you would have asked me what the odds of a civil war in Lebanon, I would have said probably 60%. And the reason is because Hezbollah tried to take the prime minister’s office.

HH: Right.

MT: Tried to physically seize it on the day of their rally. And they backed off, because the prime minister said, and I mentioned this in the article I wrote that you linked to, the prime minister said that if you take my office, I cannot control my street, which means basically that the Sunnis of Lebanon were going to go out in the streets, and forcibly take the prime minister’s office back. And it would be war, and it would be very ugly, because there’s really only so far Hezbollah can take this, because like I explained before, every group in the country is a minority, and no minority group is allowed to rule over the others. And the prime minister’s office is Sunni. And if the Shia tried to physically take it, it’s over. There’s going to be definitely more fighting in Lebanon. And so, Nasrallah backed off, because he knew that that was taking things too far. But then he kept threatening to escalate the situation, and he was saying well, okay, we’re not going to be able to take the prime minister’s office, but we’ll take the airport and shut the whole country down. And for a week, he was threatening to take the airport. And I thought well, God, if he takes the airport again, there’s going to be blood in the streets. And then, somebody who advises Nasrallah, must have taken him aside and talked him out of it, because that would be a bridge too far. And there was no way the rest of the country was going to put up with actually seizing the country like this. And so then Nasrallah, instead of threatening to take the airport, he threatened to escalate, but he was vague about how he was going to escalate.

HH: Well, you’re describing a tinderbox, though.

MT: Basically, yeah.

HH: Any day, something could go wrong, Sarajevo, 1914, sort of thing.

MT: Yup. And then when Nasrallah finally did escalate, all he did was have another rally, because he knew he’d taken the country to the absolute limit, and that if he went any further, it was going to be war. So he held another rally. He was basically stuck in reruns. And the reason that I am far less worried about civil war in Lebanon now is because not only is it clear that Hezbollah doesn’t want a war, there are also…it’s also clear that they understand what the limits are.

HH: Fascinating. Now Michael Totten, we have two minutes left, and I’d really like you to explain to people, who are you and why do you do this? And how do you support yourself?

MT: I support myself from reader donations on the blog, and I used to primarily sell articles to newspapers and magazines. But Hugh, as you probably know, but listeners may not, the amount of money that a journalist can make as a freelancer is incredibly small, and it is desperately hard just to make enough money to pay for plane tickets and a hotel room. And so, I actually make slightly more money raising money from readers on the website.

HH: Right.

MT: So I choose to do it for financial reasons, but also because I have more freedom to go where I want to go, when I want to go there, and write exactly what I want to write, without having to worry about…

HH: And you write in a non-traditional approach, which you are in the story, which I like. I think it’s the future. But why do you do this?

MT: Well, I do it because…it’s hard to explain this. Basically, I’ve been making my living as a writer, of one kind or another, for about ten years. And I was doing corporate writing, technical writing in the high tech world, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was just too boring. I don’t have the type of personality who can sit in a cubicle for 35 years, and be content with that. And so I got into journalism instead. And the reason that I go to the Middle East is because, well, two reasons. The first reason was this is where most of the action is right now. But the second reason is that I’ve spent enough time there that the place has become very addicting and compelling in its own right. Regardless of the fact that other people are interested, I am now interested in it for my own reasons, just because I spent so much time there. And I’ve made many friends in lots of countries in the Middle East, and I worry about them, and I care about this place. And some parts of the region are nasty, horrible places. But others, like Beirut, for example, I think would surprise most people.

HH: Michael Totten, we’re out of time. I always appreciate your dispatches. www.michaeltotten.com. Send him some help to keep those cards and letters coming from the Middle East.

End of interview.

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