Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review of Michael Totten's "The Road to Fatima Gate"

It's April 5th, and Michael Totten's The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel is hitting the bookstores. Since Michael and I are friends, I managed to read the book before it was published, and warmly recommend it.

The book is the story of Lebanon between the Beirut Spring of 2005 and the aftermath of Hizballah's takeover of Beirut in 2008. Michael tells it with his unique voice and perspective, which have already made his blog into one of the best on the blogosphere. First and foremost, he travels to the places he writes about, and lives there. Rather than hanging out in the hotel where all the journalists converge and reinforce their prejudices, he rents an apartment and goes talking to ordinary people. He listens to them, and respects their narratives even when not agreeing. Then he listens to other people, well informed by what he has already heard.

It's depressing how unusual this is.

Yet the book isn't like the blog. The book looks back and sums up. Blogs respond with immediacy to ongoing events; their authors can hope to report on events through a prism of informed context, but they don't know what will happen the day after they respond. A book can take a series of events and fashion a story out of them with a beginning, a middle, and an end, or at least an arbitrary end which can be justified in the context of the specific story being told. When the story is about recent events there's always the chance that future events will upend it. The story of Israel's peace with Egypt, signed in 1979, may prove to be dramatically upended if in 2012 or 2015 Egypt undergoes anything remotely similar to Lebanon; in that case it will turn out that four decades were not long enough to have a stable perspective. In addition, Michael - obviously - had no access to the documents created by the actors, nor to any reports by others who have had such access. No one has yet seen the correspondence between Hizballah and Iranian leaders or officers; between Maronite politicians and Syrian officials; or the deliberations of Israeli officials managing the war with Hisballah in 2006. Michael has written a first draft of history, not a definitive summary or interpretation.

It's a valuable first draft, however. Given the cautious euphoria surrounding the Arab Spring of 2011, it's sadly a very necessary and timely first draft, because the Arab Spring could be impacted by some of the same phenomena. Lebanon is, after all, part of the Arab world.

In March 2005 it looked like democracy was coming to Lebanon. In a dizzying sequence of events, Rafik Hariri was assassinated to prevent his re-election to prime minister, Hisballah sent half a million demonstrators to support the Syrian occupation of the country, a new coalition of all the other Lebanese responded with a demonstration more than twice as big, and international pressure forced the Syrians out of the country. It looked as if decades of strife were over, and Lebanon was poised to become a liberal democracy with a vibrant economy. What could be better? Just then Michael flew in and set up camp in Beirut, to report on the wonderful transition.

A transition which never happened. The short explanation being that Iran and Hisballah didn't want it to happen, and had the power to thwart it. The longer explanation being that the forces against liberal democracy were far stronger than the ones in favor, and included, as Michael demonstrates repeatedly, many of the very people and groups who demonstrated in favor of it on March 14th 2005.

This was the main insight I gleaned from Michael's book: that the hard men and their cold calculations purposefully aborted the naive, idealistic but unrealistic aspirations of the nice folks we were all cheering.

It wasn't only the hard men of Hisballah or their overlords in Teheran. Actually, in some of the best sections of the book Michael wanders around in Hisballah territory and talks to regular folks, who turn out to be, well, regular. At one point he joins a pack of teenagers in a Hisballah camp in central Beirut, and learns that their jumbled understanding of the world includes, alongside other emotions, some rather positive feelings towards the United States. Yet this is ultimately immaterial to the developing events. Hisballah runs its areas with harsh police-state measures, brooks no opposition, allows no independent thought, and achieves whatever goals it sets for itself -and they aren't liberal or democratic.

Hisballah has allies, other hard men with cold calculations. In a chilling section Michael has coffee with a couple of Maronite supporters of Michel Auon, a Hisballah ally, and they calmly explain their position. Then he interviews powerful leaders of what had once been the March 14th camp, and they explain why they've jettisoned their aspirations for liberal democracy in the face of Hisballah reactionary moves, preferring a lack of bloodshed over a lack of freedom. By the end of the book it's clear there's no-one who will stand up for liberal democracy, and given the implacability of its enemies and the proven horror of civil war, who's to blame them?

The thing is, hard men who fear liberal democracy, detest America and hate Jews and Israel, are thick on the ground in the Middle East. An exuberant moment of popular expression of freedom is all very well and nice, but unless they've got their own hard men and are willing to confront their adversaries with cold determination, including a willingness to fight for the society they aspire to, it's hard to see how they'll get what they wish.

In a deeply ironic twist, that seems to be the role of Israel in Michael's book. A thriving country and liberal democracy, surrounded by many thugs, and imbued with the cold calculating hardness necessary to protect itself. I'm not certain that's what Michael intended to be saying, but it's what I read: the only way to live the aspirations for freedom and democracy is by being hard enough to achieve them and then maintain them. The Lebanese forces who had the right aspirations lacked the determination; the forces with a different set of aspirations never lacked the determination, so they won, and will continue to win until forced down. They won't go away of their own accord, and they won't go away because of exuberant demonstrations in public squares cheered on by the rest of the world's media. They won't.

As I said, however, that's my reading of Michael's book, and he may not have intended that to be its thesis at all. So I encourage you to read it and decide for yourself.

1 comment:

Charles said...

"that the hard men and their cold calculations purposefully aborted the naive, idealistic but unrealistic aspirations of the nice folks we were all cheering."

Why should the democracy advocates be described as "naive" and "unrealistic"? Couldn't Hezbollah or Israel or the United States be described as such in the exact same situation? Do those words not assume easy accomplishment of difficult goals, something that March 14 never assumed?

The March 14 movement managed to force Syria out of Lebanon, something that the Bush Administration, Secretary Rice, and Ambassador Feltman did not think was possible. Their realized their goal, and continue to push for democratic change.

They were always realistic about their inability to disarm Hezbollah, and the difficulties of enacting political change in a country overrun with foreign interests.

Israel was naive in 2000, and Hezbollah was unrealistic. Hezbollah and Israel were definitely naive in 2006, with Israel being particularly unrealistic. If Israel could not disarm Hezbollah, it is unrealistic of outsiders to expect such of the unarmed and untrained March 14 movement, which has done an excellent job despite the deck being stacked against them.

An aside: Why Hisballah? In Arabic, the second letter is a Z (the vowel is not written).