The Magazine

Road from Damascus

Lebanon hangs suspended between past and present.

May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By DAVID SCHENKER
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Michael Young, a Lebanese national with intimate knowledge of the labyrinthine world of Lebanese politics, weaves his tale of the rise and fall of the Cedar Revolution with consummate skill and erudition. He makes exceedingly complex history and intrigue accessible and introduces readers to a colorful cast of characters. On a Saturday morning, for example, we visit Jumblatt in his ancestral palace at Mukhtar and witness a distribution of patronage to Jumblatt’s constituents rivaling that of Vito Corleone. Later, we travel to Paris to meet with General Michel Aoun—who, upon his return to Lebanon in 2005, allied himself with Hezbollah and Damascus. “He was someone who had surrounded himself with deferential devotees,” Young writes, “for whom he had no visible empathy. .  .  . [Aoun] was an astute reader of the Christians’ gut fears, but also of the bitterness of those most socially vulnerable among them.” 

Young’s observations about Syria are equally revealing. He maintains that Syria was forced out of Lebanon because the Assad regime “took Lebanon for granted,” adding that “Lebanon can be unforgiving to those who think that fear alone can maintain order.” Bashar al-Assad’s late father Hafez understood that principle: “Most politicians could spend years being demeaned by Syrian intelligence officers but at the same time accept this because the Syrians worked through a façade of counterfeit consideration and deference.” 

Syrian misbehavior extends to its diplomatic corps. Young describes how, in 2007, Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem, “a rotund man with cascading terraces of fat,” threatened the American ambassador in Beirut, Jeffrey Feltman, by telling U.N. secretary general Ban Ki Moon that Feltman should be required to leave Lebanon, adding that he was “prepared to offer him a vacation in Hawaii”—an offer the ambassador couldn’t refuse!

The Iranian/Syrian-backed Hezbollah is “a total movement in the least totalistic of Arab societies,” and in the course of pursuing its declared vision of “resistance”—against Israel as well as its own domestic adversaries—Hezbollah has “turn[ed] the Lebanese political system into an object of derision.” Its officials claim that resistance is “a vision and a methodology,” and its abundant weapons serve as an insurance policy against the remarginalization of Lebanon’s historically underserved, underrepresented, and politically weak Shiite community. Of course, Hezbollah’s possession of an impressive and extensive arsenal has triggered anxieties among Lebanese who view it as an existential threat:

The dilemma is straightforward. Either Hezbollah disarms .  .  . and by doing so relinquishes its reason to exist; or it refuses to do so, maintaining the Lebanese in a near-permanent state of civil dissonance.

It is this tension, born of Lebanon’s sectarian and liberal society, that runs throughout Young’s account. Considering divergent paths to the future, he asks a pertinent question: Will Lebanon become Hanoi or Hong Kong, “a symbol of militancy and armed struggle, as represented by Hezbollah, or would it opt for the path laid out by Rafiq al-Hariri, who [had] sought to make the country a station of liberal capitalism and ecumenical permissiveness?”

David Schenker, director of the program in Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was Lebanon-Syria adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during 2002-06. 

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