Washington’s willful misreading of, and misleading narrative about, Lebanon — and its decades-worth of dangerous policy implications.
Maj. Danny Sjursen USA (ret.) / AntiWar.com
This is the second segment in the author’s backstory series — “Lebanon: Bellwether, Battleground, and Bastard Child” — in the wake of the August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion. Read part one here. Stay tuned for upcoming segments in Antiwar.com
(August 18, 2020) —”Lebanon is less a country than a heartbreak. Its conflicts seem not only beyond cure but even beyond understanding.”
Such was the diagnosis by the editorial board on page A18 of the New York Times. That was May 28, 1985 — 20 years to the day before my West Point graduation. Newly commissioned, I subsequently set off to do battle with an array of militant and/or ideological forces first tested out in Lebanon’s late civil war — still raging back in 1985. It seemed all of my life’s combat challenges — Sunni/Shia Islamists, Shia militiamen, criminal-frenemy warlords — debuted in and around a Beirut recently blasted back into the headlines.
Unsurprisingly, if still shockingly unreported, is the role played by the US — along with Israel, the Gulf States, and yes, Iran and Syria too — in colluding with Lebanon’s corrupt sectarian elites to birth such bastard children of proxy civil war. In a way, my generation of swooned-over soldiers fought the enemies our parents’ political generation created.
Plenty of folks finally know the CIA-Soviet-Afghan thread of that backstory; fewer are familiar with the Lebanese layer. They should be. After all, an impressionable young Saudi named bin Laden tuned in to America’s dastardly dalliances there in the 1980s, and vowed revenge.
Then as now, the US was hardly alone among the opportunist foreign vultures who’ve picked the Lebanese carcass throughout its centenary existence. However, Americans — those most confidently uninformed and incurious of peoples — keep proving those repeatedly-wrong-on-the-Mid-East New York Times editors right: Lebanon does remain “beyond” their “understanding.” In place of serious study or basic empathy, most US leaders substitute fear-mongering platitude.
When it comes to Lebanon generally — and Hezbollah specifically — American alarmism has long infested both parties and their media machines. Consider a sample:
- Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, September 2002: Hezbollah is “the A-team of terrorists…maybe al-Qaeda is actually the B-team,” and that “they’re on the list and their time will come.”
- Jeffrey Goldberg, the New Yorker, October 2002: [paraphrasing Israeli PM Shimon Peres] “Hezbollah is an organization devoted to jihad, not to logic;” and that it “might attack American interests regardless of American actions in Lebanon.”
- Democratic Senator Bob Graham, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, October 2002: “In my opinion, there’s no question that Hezbollah is that greater threat [than Saddam Hussein], and yes, we should go after it first and go after it before we go to war with Iraq.” Furthermore, he claimed Hezbollah had “a significant presence of its trained operatives inside the United States waiting for the call to action.” (18 years on, Graham’s “call to action” has yet to come.)
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, September 2019: “Lebanon and the Lebanese people face a choice: bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future.”
The Hezbollah-is-coming-for-your-children soothsayers have essentially never been right, so instead they play the hits (or one-hit-wonder): April/October 1983 — the US embassy and marine barracks bombings in Beirut. Some 300 Americans were killed in what were the worst terror attacks Americans would absorb before 9/11. And the culprits were in fact Lebanese Shia who were vaguely affiliated a nascent precursors to the “Party of God” (Arabic: “Hezbollah”).
Therefore, so goes Washington’s interventionist yarn: Tehran (and to some extent Damascus) is the real threat in Lebanon. Thus, American — and, almost as importantly: Israeli — security demands that the US muscle the Iranians out, drain the Shia swamp hosting them, and back whatever (preferably pro-Western) confessional group opposes these interlopers.
It all makes for a neat story, and has basically informed US policy for 40 odd years. Unfortunately, this prevailing narrative is at best misguided and, at worst, deliberately designed to catalyze conflict with regional “enemies,” dominate the Levant, and thereby enrich US defense contractors. The Lebanese, themselves? Well, they’re an afterthought: mere detritus of permanent proxy-imperialism — expendable tools to tackle real threats like Iran, Syria, Russia, or anyone else loathe to bow before Israel’s expansionist apartheid or kow tow to hegemonic US aspirations. It’s an admittedly dated delusion, but one that’s worked Washingtonian wonders for as long as I’ve been alive. The big lie is America’s “Free Bird” of farcical fantasy.
The thing about myths is that, like lies, if told long and often enough, the teller starts to believe them. If so, Washington’s interventionists are downright pathological prevaricators. Their Levantine myths are manifold — exceeding Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religious sects. Yet even amidst today’s bipartisan Trump derangement syndrome, facts ought to matter; if only because the most of familiar fallacies continue inducing their own fallout. Even a hobbled hegemon’s myths (mis)inform its policies — which, in this case, have laid waste to loads of Lebanese long before the latest Beirut blast.
Futile or not, for the sake of tidiness, let’s deflate just ten stocks myths about little Lebanon:
#1: Lebanon is the target, and part, of Iran’s anti-American “Shia Crescent.”
You know the drill: post-Islamic-Revolution Iran — an “axis of evil” OG — passed Geopolitics 101, grabbed a map, a pencil, and played late-stage imperial pasha. After consulting with their in-house census-clerics, the Ayatollahs struck sectarian gold. “Eureka!” — they cried.
Regional minority status may be a Shia shibboleth, and the Great Satan-Uncle Sam sure packed a tech-savvy punch, but the robed-ones knew something their infidel enemies did not. Basic geography, plus a touch of demography, transformed the Mideast map into a ‘90s-throwback Magic Eye puzzle. Their diverged-eyes discovered some unexpected cartographic continuity: a “crescent,” coincidentally, of Shia-heavy states and sub-regions stretching (post-2003 US invasion) from Iran into Shia-dominant Iraq, then onto two separate arcs fused in Baghdad.
Running southwest: Iran’s ostensible grasp goes through one-quarter Shia Kuwait, to oil-and-Shia-laden Eastern Saudi Arabia, skirts three-quarter Shia Bahrain, into Yemen’s Shia Houthi-heartland adjacent the Red Sea. The other track runs northwest from the now — thanks to an American-induced civil war — Sunni-cleansed Shia East Baghdad through almost-Shia Alawite-led Syria, into Shia-plurality Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
It seems so simple — the Shia-crescent’s dual-daggers menacing the Saudi’s oil-fields and holy cities on one hand, along with Israel’s “right-to-exist” on the other. Of course, Iran’s real target — 6,000 miles away — is the United States; and Uncle Sam cannot sit idly by as the Ayatollahs’ conspiracy unfolds.
Only in geopolitics — as in the courtroom — conspiracy is exceedingly difficult to prove. And the state (or nation-state) often exaggerates or fabricates evidence to earn a conviction. The entire crescent concept is mostly malarky, mind you. Its apparent simplicity, (literal) linearity, and ethno-religious duality, are three of the reddest of theoretical flags. Nevertheless, the Iran-hawk, don’t-call-it-a-forever-war comeback-crowd were all in from Jump Street — when, in 2004, Jordan’s King Abdullah raised the (false) alarm. Sure, some party-pooping scholars poked holes and deflated the myth — but they’re no less of a minority then Shia Muslims themselves.
To summarize what should be obvious: the crescent conspiracy ignores important gradations on the Shia spectrum — like their inability to agree on how many imams were worship-worthy: i.e. Iranians are mainstream “Twelvers;” Yemeni Houthis are Zaydi “Fivers;” and syncretic Syrian Alawites are barely Muslim at all — but rather a Shia “offshoot” that broke away a millennium ago.
What’s more, the crescent-crew rarely highlights the ethnic variance: most Iranians are Persian and thus distrusted by many of their supposed puppets — who are nearly all Arabs. In fact, during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the vast majority of Shia Iraqis prioritized their Iraqi nationalist and Arab identities over Shia-solidarity. Hundreds of thousands of co-religionists perished in the grinding trench war that followed.
The crescent postulate also exaggerates Iranian capacity and ambition. More often than not — bombastic rhetoric aside — Tehran has exercised restraintand strategic caution. Washington’s war addicts wildly inflate Iran’s actual influence and the scale of its interventions. Its “small hand” in Yemen’s Houthi war was always overblown, and spurns sequence: Iran’s limited intervention was mainly responsive to Saudi aggression.
Furthermore, whilst there’s no doubt that America’s ill-advised and illegal 2003 invasion proved a predictable gift to Tehran, even there, prominent Shia leaders from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to former militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr have usually been opponents of Iranian influence.
Yet for the crescent-cultists, the Lebanese “Paris,” and/or “Switzerland” of the Mideast has always been Iran’s most coveted crown jewel. Yet, it is here that some of the most intense intra-Shia conflict has unfolded. Lebanese Shiite loyalties are generally divided between two political-militia groupings: the older, Amal; and the more pro-Iran Hezbollah.
The two are currently allied in Beirut’s ruling coalition, but were sometime rivals in the civil war (1975-90) that birthed both. Amal and Hezbollah took opposing stances on the refugee Palestinian presence (as in the “War of the Camps,” 1985-88) and turned their guns on each other in the “War of the Brothers” (1988-90).
In a further twist, the leader of my soldiers’ foremost East Baghdad enemy — the Mahdi Army — has familial ties to Lebanon. In the 1970s, his cousin, the martyred Imam Musa al-Sadr, evinced the mobilizing potential of marginalized Shia decades young Moqtada got in the game. The current 28-year incumbent speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament, Nabih Berri, leads Amal, which grew out of the elder Musa Sadr’s “movement of the dispossessed.”
Berri, the consummate insider, has proven a classic Hezbollah-frenemy. According to a WikiLeaks cable, during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, the speaker secretly told America’s ambassador “in a most oblique manner” that “the potential for Israel’s assault to weaken Hezbollah militarily and undermine the organization politically is a positive development.”
Beyond the two groups previous skirmishes, the still widely-beloved Musa Sadr had, in fact, seriously clashed with Iran’s future Ayatollah Khomeini. So intense was this transnational intra-Shia conflict, that some serious scholars still suspect Khomeini’s hidden hand in (or behind) vanishing the “Vanished Imam” Musa al-Sadr during his court visit with Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadafi.
In other words, it’s complicated. There’s enough drama to go around the supposed Shia crescent.
#2: Lebanon was/is the last bastion of Christendom, a Christian-state in the Mideast.
This myth has much emotional pull in the West. And it always has. Its authors were and are twofold: power-hungry Western patrons salivating over the still barely breathing carcass of the “Sick Man” Ottoman Empire, and the opportunist-entitled local Maronites desperate to survive and thrive in a Christian-dominated Greater Lebanon. Some in that ever-clever crew even devised lies about their supposedly non-Arab heritage.
According to these fantasies, the Lebanese Christian community descends from — take your pick — 11th century European crusaders or far older Phoenician traders. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the Maronites first modern saviors had crusading Frankish forebears. France intervened in Lebanon’s 1860 civil war on the Maronites’ behalf, then propped up their power for a cool 83 years. Indeed, the Lebanese state’s current form is itself a French imperial-synthetic leftover. It was Paris that first lent space and boundaries to the myth of a Christian Lebanon.
After the French finagled (along with the Brits) its part of the extinct Ottoman Empire after their First World War victory, they deliberately carved Lebanon out of its traditionally Syrian whole. Befitting centuries of practice with classic imperial divide-and-conquer tactics, it decided that to craft a viable Maronite state required some territorial additions. Paris artificially fused Sunni Tripoli to the north, Shia Nabatiya and the Bekaa Valley to the south and east, respectively, and the Druze’s Chouf highlands to the southeast of Christians’ Mount Lebanon heartland.
This may have increased the economic and demographic power of the new Maronite state, but it left at best a slim Christian-majority at its independence in 1943. Afraid to upset the delicate Christian-dominant balance, the Lebanese government hasn’t held an official census since 1932 — but that hasn’t saved it from regular bouts of communal violence and a catastrophic fifteen year civil war. Everybody knew the truth: Christians have long been on the wane — an insecurity that only tightened their power-grip. Disasters ensued, and never really stopped.
When the going got tough, and Lebanese Muslims and Druze challenged the artificial imperial edifice, the French got going…home that is. But no matter, other Western contenders stepped up to prop up the Christian myth:
- President Dwight Eisenhower’s American troops (1958) on their first Mideast adventure since the Barbary Wars of 1801-16;
- Israel’s “Defense” Force (IDF) — which invaded and occupied parts of Lebanon from 1978-2000, invaded again in 2006, and has bombed or raided with some regularity ever since. In 1982, they even briefly — and ironically — installed a Christian president from a fascist-inspired political party. Never actually inaugurated, the president-elect lasted 21 whole days before he was assassinated; but Israel never fully quit on the dream of an Old-New Testament alliance with their Lebanese clients.
- American marines and a smattering of French, British, and Italian troops steamed in — as part of a Multinational Force (1982-84) ostensibly there to keep the peace, separate combatants, and facilitate an agreed Israeli and Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) withdrawal. But soon enough, the Americans took sides in a conflagration they scantly understood — the tragic eventual outcome was twin suicide bombings of the US embassy and marine barracks. Some 300 Americans died.
Furthermore, Lebanon’s soldiers of Christ were hardly Christ-like in their civil war heyday. In fact, had they tithed at a different church, we might call them terrorists. They had their own militias, death squads, and petty gangs during the 15-year civil war, with monikers like the Marada Brigades, Tigers, Phalange (“Phalanx”), and Guardians of the Cedar.
Often egged-on by, and sometimes at the behest of, Israel’s Mossad — or, allegedly, the CIA — they shot, tortured, and bombed their way to infamy a good five years before the first “Muslim” suicide attacks grabbed international attention (and almost 20 before the inaugural such attack inside Israel in 1994).
Nor are Lebanese Christians a unified pro-Western monolith. The Beirut government officially recognizes 14 separate Christian religious sects, and even these squabble and subdivide within. From Lebanon’s independent outset, the Christian community divided between “Arabists” and “Pro-Zionists” — sympathetic to nearby Muslim-majority Arab states, or Israel/America/France, respectively.
During the civil conflagration of 1975-90, a melange of Christian militias — many of which morphed into today’s political parties, and still led by the same warlord families — fought a series of intra-communal mini-wars: Phalange vs. Marada (1978), Phalange vs. Tigers (1980), and Phalange vs. Phalange (1986-90), culminating in the Christian-cleaving “War of Liberation” (1989-90) over the Syrian Army’s presence in Lebanon. In the process, like the mafia dons they mirror, the Christian commanders murdered each-other’s children and even infant grandchildren. The survivors now serve serve together in parliament.
In a sense, the Christians are still thus divided: current President Michel Auon’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) usually allies with the Shia parties and now tight with Syria and Iran. The Christian opposition “Lebanese Forces” are supposedly more pro-Western, and currently linked with Sunni parties that are traditionally close to the Saudis. In other words, winning the award for America’s least-known-but-most-important Lebanese fact: on the ground, many Christians are tacitly allied with Hezbollah.
Both Christian wings have long-worked with various Muslim groups (since it quickly became clear the civil war wouldn’t break their way) — the difference, now, is none of the Christians have much hope or love remaining for the Israelis. Recent polls showing current Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s less than one percent favorability rating with Lebanese Christians are testament to the goodwill lost in decades of deadly Israeli aggression. Maybe Washington should take a cue from such Christian sentiment.
#3: Part of Lebanon’s current problem stems from President Reagan “cutting and running” after the 1983 Beirut Marine barrack’s bombing.
Red-shirt-waving what-aboutism is the last refugee of an interventionist scoundrel. So, presented with proof that even the worst Lebanese actors pose no real threat to the US, Washington War-hawks resuscitate 241 ghosts from the 37-year old bombing of the American marine barracks in Beirut.
The gruesome attack — which set off the largest non-nuclear explosion on earth since World War II and most single-day marine deaths since Iwo Jima — is still trotted out as an unending justification for US meddling in Syria and/or conflict with Iran. Its even been used to scold President Trump — not exactly an Iran-dove himself — and predictively warn that his planned 2019 military withdrawal-that-wasn’t from Syria, “will haunt US policy for decades to come.”
The truth is, back in the day, President Ronald Reagan’s policy could hardly be characterized as a “cut and run,” exactly. Dubbed “Silver Screen Six” — his communications codename — the former Hollywood actor initially favored an aggressive posture and micromanaged operations with direct phone calls to the marine colonel on the ground.
Still, the near-criminally Mid-East-ignorant president, and his team of mostly foreign policy amateurs, had no idea the Lebanese mess they’d waded into. After the Multinational Force achieved its initial goal of securing the PLO’s seaborne withdrawal and ending the cruel Israeli siege, the entire military chain from the local marine colonel to the joints chiefs to the Secretary of Defense, supported their withdrawal.
After the assassination of the Christian president-to-be, the Israeli’s allowed — and actually assisted — the Phalange militia’s vengeful massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila camps, Reagan rapidly reversed the marine exodus. Soon enough, the hapless devil-dogs found themselves under fire from an array of — what young troops called — “rag-heads:” their first few lost comrades blown to pieces by the vaguely leftist Druze’s artillery.
The Marine Corps contingent had become just another militia in complex war. In his diary, Reagan admitted to forceful fantasies: “I can’t get the idea the idea out of my head, [of] some F14s…blowing the hell out of a couple of artillery emplacements…[to] deliver a message to those gun happy Middle East terrorists.”
Nonetheless, he was mostly restrained by the prudence of on-site marine commanders, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General John Vessey, and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger. Nonetheless, over the the objection of marines’ commanding officer and others, Reagan ultimately sent huge naval-gunship shells sailing into the mountains overlooking Beirut.
The rest is history: a crumbled embassy and marine barracks, hundreds of dead. And when the climactic attack came, it wasn’t done by those confusingly secretive Druze militiamen, but a nascent Shia group linked to Iran. Soon after, stung by both unfavorable polls for the next year’s election — “The people just don’t know why we’re there,” he’d scribbled — and awkward calls with new Gold Star parents, Reagan squawked loudly, but withdrew quietly.
Although he unforgivably evaded and shifted blame down-the-chain, it was the right call. He had no discernible strategy; and it’s unclear a better one existed. As with Trump’s Obama-inherited Syria deployment, the key questions go unasked, and tell the real story: What should Reagan have done? What could even a huge influx of US troops accomplish, and over what requisite timespan? How would the small uncertain rewards compare to the incalculably large risks?
John Kenneth Galbraith’s, initial February 1984 analysis of Reagan’s intervention dripped with Orientalist “Clash of Civilizations” exaggeration: “Lebanon where…a handful of Marines are expected to subdue religious and communal conflicts that began when the First Crusade…reached Antioch in October 1097.” Nevertheless, it identified the mission’s ill-fated denouement: “the reputation of the Marine Corps and its commanders has suffered there from a military commitment to a wrong war.”
The president realized this too late to spare 241 marine lives but he eventually settled on the most sensible strategy: get out! I’m no Reagan-canonizer, and abhor much of his post-withdrawal Lebanon policy — say, CIA-terror-sowingand Iran-Contra-hostage-gate — but he generally eschewed any further overt military interventions. In his remaining five year reign, just 70 US service-members were killed in hostile actions. By contrast, that’s four average Barack Obama-tenured months and about eight George W. Bush weeks.
In Lebanon, and the Mideast generally, America could use a bit more such “cut and running.”
#4: Iran “did” the ’83 bombing; and just because Tehran hates America and our freedoms.
Rather convenient, that. Forget that an Iranian hasn’t killed an American on US soil for decades; or that Tehran has repeatedly pulled punches in the face of US aggression. Until the more dubious-than-direct-linkage of Iran to the killing of several hundred American troops in Iraq, (2005-present), its (contested) link to the ’83 Beirut bombing was the go-to gift that kept on giving. And it still rears its head: “President Trump: There Are 241 Reasons to Go to War With Iran,” read one opinion-piece headline before the incident’s 36th anniversary last year. Ah yes, the penultimate role of all dead soldiers in Washington’s three-quarters of a century’s worth of vainglorious wars: post-mortem pawns in political games. And almost all discussion of this long-past tragedy unfolds absent context, contrast, or empathy for our “enemies.”
Hezbollah’s Lebanese rank-and-file, Washington conveniently forgets, had and have some genuine grievances. Yes, 241 US troops — that shouldn’t have been there in the first place — tragically lost their lives. But Washington green-lighted Israel’s 1982 invasion-turned-occupation, during which the IDF’s US-supplied arms killed about 60 times as many (largely Shia) Lebanese. Then, faced with international outrage at Tel Aviv’s disproportionality and the resultant civilian dead, Reagan and his little Euro-bros were obliged to intervene in the name of multinational peace.
Next, although the US-negotiated (and signed) IDF-P.L.O. withdrawal agreement stipulated that “Law-abiding noncombatant Palestinians who remained in Beirut” would be protected, they sure as heck weren’t. In mid-September, after the Israeli-favored president’s assassination, vengeful Phalangist militiamen slaughtered between 750 and 2500 Palestinians — mostly old men, women, and children. Much of the deed was done with knives: Christian crosses were carved in victim’s chests, an infant was stomped to pieces by a man in spiked-boots. These ought count as America’s criminal negligent homicides.
Even U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick — she of raped-and-murdered-American-nuns in El Salvador were essentially asking-for-it fame — admitted that the US shared responsibility for the Beirut massacres. Worse, Israel wasn’t just complicit — according to its own Kahan Commission — but aided and abetted the massacre with a coordinated cordon and fired illumination rounds to ease the Phalangist pogrom.
Suffice it to say, Israel’s US-approved invasion, civilian-bombardment with American-bought weapons, and the West’s total failure to fulfill protective commitments, provided Lebanese Shia and Sunnis alike with plenty of aggrieved ammunition. It’s not hard to see why angry, impoverished local recruits soon filled the future-Hezbollah’s ranks. At the time of the Beirut barracks bombing, the grievances were Lebanese; so were the violently vengeful. At most, Iran and Syria lit the very long fuse.
The ever-forbidden (in Washington) view from Tehran also complicates matters. When it sent 1500 Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to train and support the embattled Shia in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in the summer of 1982, Iran was fighting for survival against a US-backed invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
One author accurately described America’s several billion dollars’ worth of economic aid, intelligence support, and training, as the “death lobby.” And indeed it was. By the time Reagan permanently pulled out the marines, the CIA estimated that 200,000 Iranian soldiers plus another 60,000 civilians had already been killed — and the war was only halfway through. More disturbingly, Agency files prove that Washington knew all about Saddam’s chemical weapons attacks against Iran but didn’t skip an enabling-beat.
It’s also true that Syria permitted the Iranian infusion into the Lebanese sphere of his “Greater Syria.” Yet this was an alliance of convenience and necessity — not the Islamist (nor communist) axis of Reaganite fantasies. The stridently secular President Hafez al-Assad had no love for the Ayatollah’s dogma, but Syria’s strategic position was crippled; his country cornered.
Israel’s advanced American-supplied munitions had destroyed Hafez’s (a former fighter-pilot) air force and threatened to trap his exposed and seemingly outmatched army inside Lebanon. Few national leaders wouldn’t have acted accordingly.
Yet the fallout spread wider than Beirut, the Levant, or even the decade. Four days before the 2004 US presidential election, Osama bin Laden released a videotape describing his motives for the 9/11 attacks. In it he was crystal clear about the Lebanon link:
The incidents that affected me directly go back to 1982 and afterward, when America allowed Israelis to invade Lebanon, with the help of the American 6th Fleet…
As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust the same way [and] to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women.
#5: Hezbollah was the direct culprit and remains just another terrorist group.
It’s far from clear that Hezbollah, as such, strictly existed in October 1983. Regardless, to the extent it did, that nascent group bears scant resemblance to today’s complex and multi-faceted organization — whose parliamentarians currently serve in Beirut’s governing coalition. The Party of God isn’t just one thing: like it or not, it’s a movement — of soldiers, social workers, plus political visionaries and hacks alike.
Look, Hezbollah bears the same anti-Semitic and Zionist-global-conspiracy-theorizing sins of so many dejected and angry Arabs (and others). Nor are the group’s past suicide attacks, and their many civilian victims, particularly elegant or ethical. Still, sober historical and policy analyses demand eschewing the emotive. And on Hezbollah’s tactics, too, America’s myths often outstrip realities.
Gradation and nuance have long epitomized Hezbollah’s “terrorism.” Consider: while some among the hundreds of thousands of people thronging Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Fadlallah’s 2010 Beirut funeral chanted “Death to America,”
Hezbollah’s spiritual leader had a complicated relationship with the United States. Despite credible evidence of a CIA-sponsored car-bomb-attempt on his life in 1985 — which killed 80, mostly women and children — Fadlallah was the first prominent Muslim cleric to condemn the 9/11 attacks and discouraged Hezbollah attacks on US soldiers in Iraq during the post-2003 invasion/occupation.
Furthermore, what Americans reflexively brand as terrorism — from guerrilla ambushes to rocket barrages to suicide bombings against Israeli troops and/or civilians — isn’t so neatly labeled in Lebanon itself. Though support for Hezbollah as a party and movement predictably varies by sect — strong with Shia, weak with Sunnis, surprisingly mixed among Christians — huge multi-confessional swathes of Lebanese respect its decades as the primary resistance to the Israeli occupation.
The Party of God is also a genuine political party. When he assumed power in 1992, Nasrallah defied radicals in his own ranks and decided Hezbollah should openly partake in Lebanon’s byzantine “confessional” system. His move paid off.
In the 2018 general election, Hezbollah received 65,000 more votes than the next single party (Said Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement) for some 16.4 percent of the total cast. While that hardly constitutes — per some Western observers — holding Lebanon “hostage,” Hezbollah is a serious political force. So is its social work.
Extensive investment in social services and — otherwise insufficient or nonexistent government — welfare in the poorest (historically Shia) Lebanese communities, is what even CNN has labeled “Hezbollah’s secret weapon.” This was particularly true in the wake of Israel’s destruction of brand swathes of (again mostly Shia) Southern Lebanon and the South Beirut suburbs during the 2006 war. Many destitute Lebanese — and more than a few wealthier, even Sunni, citizens — depended upon and appreciated how Hezbollah “managed to fill the void left by the state…to fill the void left by the military [which couldn’t/wouldn’t defend the nation’s borders].”
Neither lecturing rhetoric, nor the bureaucratic minutiae of foreign terrorist organization designations, can or will alter the penurious calculus of desperate Lebanese in the breach. Long-impoverished Shia — wedged between an incompetent sectarian government to their north and aggressive Israel to the south — haven’t the affluent Western luxury of binaries: exigency demands they recognize shades of Hezbollah gray.
Thus, per that known Islamist-publication, The New York Review of Books, “By emphasizing public works over piety, Hezbollah has succeeded in embedding itself deeply into Lebanese society, a fact that anyone seeking to confront its military wing will have to face.”
Such is the myth-free mess that Lebanon-watchers will have to face. As the vultures of the West (and the rest) weigh how best to pick up the pieces of port-blast fallout, it’d help to see the world as it is. Lebanon looks way different from Washington than it does from nearby Damascus, and even more so from West Beirut.
Misplaced nostalgia for an “authentic” Eastern Christianity as an ally to redeem the Muslim-held Holy Land is an old one indeed — harkening back to medieval legends of Prester John, the rescuing king-priest reigning “in the Far East beyond Persia and Armenia.” Yet, equally delusional are widespread Manichean presumptions of a Lebanese dual between pro-Western Sunni modernists and freedom-hating Shia fanatics directed from afar. [Insert “Damascus, Tehran, Beijing, or Moscow” here, as needed.]
I know: even five nefarious myths can be a lot to chew on. The foreign policy “experts” in both parties have yet to try. Donald Trump doesn’t know; to the extent he does, Joe Biden doesn’t care. But myths have masters, and — as Bob Dylan wrote amidst Lebanon’s last civil war — they’ve “gotta serve somebody.”
So tune in at Antiwar.com on Thursday, for five more fable-punctures and a bit more on who those somebodies are. Here’s a preview of my next mythical targets:
#6: Iran (and Syria) were/are Hezbollah’s real puppet masters.
#7: On Tehran’s/Damascus’s behalf, Hezbollah has hijacked and runs the Lebanese state.
#8: By way of Iran/Syria, there are hidden Russian/Chinese hands at work in Lebanon.
#9: The antidote to Lebanon’s ills was the assassinated ex-prime minister, Rafik Hariri; his son Said’s opposition-bloc remains the country’s great [Western] hope.
#10: Lebanon’s system can be reformed if the US backs the pro-Western good guys and opposes the Iranian-directed bad guys.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War(Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVetand see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications. Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen
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