Welcome to Hezbollahland: An Interview With Michael J. Totten

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Editor's Note: In his new book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel, journalist, commentator and blogger Michael J. Totten provides a first-person account of Lebanon's volatile and violent introduction to the 21st Century. After 15 years of relative calm, Totten takes us from the violent aftermath of Beirut's Cedar Revolution to Hezbollah's summer war with Israel in 2006. RCW had a chance to talk to Totten about his new book, and what Lebanon's recent history can teach us about today's uprisings in the Arab world.

RealClearWorld: What first prompted you to go to Lebanon?

Michael J. Totten: I wanted to visit Beirut even before it was my job to visit Beirut because I knew, from what I had read and from what I had heard, that it was completely different from any other Arabic-speaking city; that it was more cosmopolitan, more advanced and more democratic in culture, that it's grim reputation as the poster boy for urban disaster areas was not at all fair. How many times have you heard someone say "the place looked like Beirut" to describe the aftermath of a hurricane or some other natural or man-made disaster? Beirut is not really the "Paris of the Middle East," as it is sometimes referred to, but it is a heavily Frenchified Riviera-style city on the Mediterranean with more joie de vivre than just about anywhere else in the world.

So when the Cedar Revolution kicked off against Syria's military occupation, which had been firmly in place since 1990, I boarded a plane and went over there for both professional and personal reasons.

Beirut's boosters were right. It really is more cosmopolitan, more advanced, and more democratic than places like Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. It's vastly more liberal, in the generic sense of the word, than stultifying places like Saudi Arabia, where even Starbucks cafes are segregated by gender.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long for Beirut to turn into "Beirut" again. The Cedar Revolution restored some level of autonomy to the country, but it did not bring peace. On the contrary, now that Bashar al-Assad's tyrannical Syrian government is no longer smothering the country with the brutal "peace" of the soldier's boot and the rifle, communal strife has returned, and Hezbollah has ramped up its violent "resistance" against the "Zionist Entity."

RCW: Middle East policy books are often informative, sometimes entertaining, but rarely both. Was it important to you to strike that balance?

MT: Yes, it was important, and for serious reasons, too. I did not want this book to be entertaining in the way that, say, a Bruce Willis movie is entertaining.

I'm tired of books about the Middle East that read like homework assignments. I read them and sometimes even enjoy them, but many leave me cold and most will never find a wide audience. There's so much drama and action and intrigue in that part of the world, and so many fascinating characters that could have come out of Shakespeare. Books about the Middle East should be as gripping and riveting as the reality they describe, and they should have emotional depth. Some do, but most don't, so I tried as best I could to tip the balance just slightly by writing The Road to Fatima Gate as a first-person narrative that reads like a novel. That's one of the reasons I chose that title, to set it apart from dry works of policy analysis.

I've wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I am not now and never really have been a policy guy. I came out of the English department, not the Political Science department, and I'm as interested in literature and aesthetics as much as I am in history and ideas. And it was important to me that I write the kind of book I like to read.

RCW: You refer to the Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut, along with much of South Lebanon, as "Hezbollahland." Can you describe this a bit?

MT: I didn't invent the term "Hezbollahland," and I'm not sure who did, but I use it because it is apt.

Hezbollah is a guerrilla-terrorist army created by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Hezbollahland, the territory it controls in the suburbs south of Beirut and along the border with Israel, is basically an Iranian satellite state inside Lebanon. You don't see the Lebanese national flag down there, the one with the cedar tree on it. Instead you see the Hezbollah flag, with its upraised AK-47 assault rifle logo. You'll also see the Iranian flag, along with portraits of Iran's dead tyrant Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and its current Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

I've never seen so much warmongering propaganda anywhere in the world as I've seen in South Lebanon. Portraits of "martyrs" killed in battle with Israel hang from the lamp posts. Billboards depict severed heads, explosions ignited by suicide bombers and other images of bloody mass mayhem and war. Burned out tanks, blasted trucks and missile launchers are scattered all over the place as if the entire area is a vast outdoor museum for war and "resistance."

Beirut is truly a fantastic place, but Hezbollahland - part of which is less than an hour's walk from downtown - is a totalistic society dedicated entirely to war and under the command of Ali Khamenei and his bombastic sidekick Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

RCW: Why does Lebanon matter so much - for both the Middle East and the greater Arab world - beyond its borders?

MT: Lebanon is divided roughly into thirds between Christians, Sunnis and Shias. Lebanese Muslims don't necessarily think of themselves as Muslims. They think of themselves first and foremost as Sunnis or Shias, even if they're atheist Sunnis or atheist Shias.

The Sunnis are aligned with the Arab world and the West, the Shias with the Syrian-Iranian axis and the Christian house is divided against itself. Every faction is perfectly willing to act as a proxy for outside powers as long as it boosts their relative strength against their rivals, so foreign powers are often drawn in, sometimes willingly and other times kicking and screaming. The country has become the Middle East's swing state. Whoever is winning in the Middle East wins in Lebanon, and whoever wins in Lebanon is winning in the Middle East. The country is also, as a consequence, one of the places where the Middle East fights its wars, and has been since 1975.

RCW: "The solution is not in Lebanon. The solution is in Tehran." These were the words of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. What did he mean?

MT: Hezbollah is far more powerful than the Lebanese army, which is weak and divided internally along political-sectarian lines. The chances that the Lebanese army will ever disarm Hezbollah are effectively nil, at least while Hezbollah has as much power as it has now. And since there's no chance the current Iranian government will give up its most prized foreign asset, Hezbollah is not going anywhere until there is either regime change or serious reform in Iran.

I don't expect the regime to reform itself, but I suppose it's remotely possible. The Chinese Communist Party dramatically de-radicalized itself after Mao died, and Egypt's Free Officer's regime did something similar after the passing of Gamal Abdel Nasser, so you never know. An internal power struggle after Khamenei's death might produce interesting results. I'd bet against that personally, but the Middle East is always surprising.

RCW: What about the recent Arab uprisings? Can they offer a viable alternative to the kind of political Islamism championed by Iran and Hezbollah?

MT: I'm not optimistic about how this will turn out, partly because of what happened in Lebanon.

The Beirut Spring in 2005 was an extraordinary thing to behold. More than a million people in a country of just over four million took to the streets at the same time and demanded the immediate evacuation of Syria's occupation forces and the banishment of its Mukhabarat intelligence agents. They protested peacefully, and they prevailed - at least for a while. But Syria and Iran effectively reconquered the country by using Hezbollah as their proxy militia.

Countries like Libya and Egypt aren't likely to be messed around with internally by foreign powers the way Lebanon and Iraq have been, so they're lucky in that sense, but these countries also have fewer democratic-minded citizens than Lebanon has. And the radical Islamists that make up Hezbollah have their counterparts in countries all over the region.

The one country I'm a bit optimistic about is Tunisia. It's a place where democratic-minded citizens really are thick on the ground, as they are in Lebanon, but radical Islamists, though they exist, are much scarcer - and none of them have guns, at least not at the moment. Tunisia is all but guaranteed to be left alone by the Syrians and the Iranians. It's too far away for Damascus and Tehran to cause much, if any trouble, and hardly anyone there would be willing to work as their proxy anyway.

RCW: Does Lebanon offer any lessons for Libya?

MT: Regime change in Libya is only slightly in our national interest, but I vehemently detest Muammar Gaddafi and I have to admit that I'm biased. I've been to Libya and have seen what he's done to the place. He runs a terrifying totalitarian police state and, as far as I'm concerned, deserves to be terminated at once with extreme prejudice. A long protracted stalemate, though, could turn into a disaster for Libya and for the West.

Al-Qaeda fighters from all over the Islamic world may well flood the zone if this is not wrapped up quickly. It happened in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Iraq, and I see no reason why it couldn't happen in Libya. The longer this drags on, the greater the possibility something like that will happen.

We know that at least a few of the rebel commanders are affiliated with Al-Qaeda already, though I think some people are blowing it out of proportion. Benghazi, the "capital" of the rebel city, is not governed by Al-Qaeda. I have colleagues there, and they would have been hauled off and executed long ago if the likes of Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were running it.

RCW: Recent events in Lebanon - government collapse, a looming tribunal decision on the Hariri assassination and periodic protests - are not encouraging. Is Lebanon primed for more violence and conflict?

MT: Probably. None of the outstanding issues that led to violent conflict in the past have been resolved. More war is almost assured in Lebanon, either between Hezbollah and its domestic enemies, between Hezbollah and the Israelis, or both. The status quo isn't sustainable.

The country basically has two governments - the ostensible government with its capital in Beirut, which controls most of the country, and Hezbollah with its effective capital in Tehran that controls the suburbs south of Beirut and the southern part of the country along the border with Israel. The country is too small and fractured to be partitioned, and no country is big enough for two governments. The state will eventually have to disarm Hezbollah, or Hezbollah will devour the state. And since Hezbollah is willing to kill their fellow Lebanese while the government and the pro-government Lebanese aren't, Hezbollah, for now anyway, is the horse to bet on.

RCW: Can the Obama administration shift Syria away from Iran?

MT: It won't work. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is a blood-spattered tyrant and always has been. A number of officials in both the Republican and Democratic parties have been laboring under the delusion that he's a reformer, though I imagine they must be feeling a little chagrined at the moment now that he's using snipers to shoot peaceful demonstrators in the face. He is not going to reform, nor is he going to suddenly break his alliance with Tehran.

Assad's alliance with Iran and his support for terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel give Syria far more clout internationally that its size, economic might and conventional military power would ever allow. Syria would be no more geopolitically relevant than Yemen if Assad were to sever his ties with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. Trying to yank Syria out of that orbit is bound to fail for the same reason East Germany could not have been extracted from the communist bloc before the Soviet Union was in a state of collapse. Bashar al-Assad may be an Internet junky, and he may have been educated in London, but he was raised in the house of the ruthless Hafez al-Assad, and he will not play nice or go quietly.

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