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The Fall of Lebanon

Written by Barry Rubin

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May 24, 2008
Barry Rubin

"If you have tears, prepare to shed them now....
Oh, what a fall was there...
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down."
--William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar," Act 3, Scene 1.

May 21, 2008, is a date--like December 7 (1941) and September 11 (2001)--that should now live in infamy. Yet who will notice, mourn, or act the wiser for it?    On that day, the Beirut spring was buried under the reign of Hizballah.


Speaking on October 5, 1938, after Britain and France effectively turned Czechoslovakia over to Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill said, "What everybody would like to ignore or forget must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat...."[1]

In contrast, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said that the agreement over Lebanon was, "A necessary and positive step." At least when one sells out a country one should recognize this has happened rather than pretend otherwise. But this is precisely what took place at Munich, when the deal made was proclaimed as a concession that brought peace and resolved Germany's last territorial demand in the region.

Churchill knew better and his words perfectly suit the situation in Lebanon today:

"The utmost [Western diplomacy] has been able to gain for Czechoslovakia...has been that the German dictator, instead of snatching the victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course."

Yes, that's it exactly. On every point, Hizballah, Iran, and Syria, got all they wanted from Lebanon's government: its surrender of sovereignty. They have veto power over the government; one-third of the cabinet; election changes to ensure victory in the next balloting; and they will have their candidate installed as president.

The majority side is not giving up but is trying to comfort itself on small mercies. The best arguments it can come up with are that now everyone knows Hizballah is not patriotic, treats other Lebanese as enemies, and cannot seize areas held by Christian and Druze militias. It isn't much to cheer about.

Nevertheless, as in 1938, a lot of the media is proclaiming it as a victory of some kind, securing peace and stability in Lebanon.

Not so. If Syria murders more Lebanese journalists, judges, or politicians, no one will investigate. No one dare diminish Hizballah's de facto rule over large parts of the country. No one dare stop weapons pouring over the border from Syria and Iran. In fact, why should they continue to be smuggled in secretly? No one dare interfere if and when Hizballah, under Syrian and Iranian guidance, decide it is time for another war with Israel.

This defeat was not only total, it was totally predictable. Just as Churchill said:

"If only Great Britain. France and Italy [today we would add the United States, of course,] had pledged themselves two or three years ago to work in association for maintaining peace and collective security, how different might have been our position.... But the world and the parliaments and public opinion would have none of that in those days. When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have affected a cure."

Instead there was a lack "of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong...." Actually, though, as Churchill knew, when he spoke these faults were still not corrected. The folly continued.

And so is what comes next? Back to Churchill:

"All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness." That country suffered because it put its faith in the Western democracies and the League of Nations (now the United Nations). In particular, she was betrayed by France whom the Czechs then, and the Lebanese today, trusted to help them.

The UN Security Council on May 22 endorsed the Lebanon agreement even though it totally contradicted the Council's own resolution ending the Hizballah-Israel war, thus betraying the commitments made to Israel about stopping arms smuggling, disarming Hizballah, and keeping that group from returning to south Lebanon. The UN's total reversal of its demands from two years ago--constituting a total victory for Hizballah--did not bring a flicker of shame or even recognition that this in fact had happened.

All this is a victory for terrorism. It is quite true that the Lebanese Shia--like the German minority in Czechoslovakia which Hitler promoted--has genuine grievances and that Hizballah has real support in its own community. But how did it overcome the other communities, the other political forces in Lebanon? Through assassination and bombing albeit done by Syria's surrogates rather than directly), by intimidation and fear, by demagoguery and war.

Iran and Syria help their allies; the West doesn't. And so the message was: We can kill you; your friends cannot save you. Look at their indifference! Despair and die.

And here, regarding the future, we can only quote Churchill's speech extensively:

"In future the Czechoslovak State cannot be maintained as an independent entity. I think you will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured only by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi regime. Perhaps they may join it in despair or in revenge. At any rate, that story is over and told. But we cannot consider the abandonment and ruin of Czechoslovakia in the light only of what happened only last month. It is the most grievous consequence of what we have done and of what we have left undone in the last five years - five years of futile good intentions, five years of eager search for the line of least resistance...."

Lebanon will not disappear as a country on the map, of course--contrary to the Iranian alliance's intentions toward Israel--but it is now going to be part of the Iranian bloc. This is not only bad for Lebanon itself but also terrifying for other Arab regimes. The Saudis deserve credit for trying to save Lebanon. But what will happen now as the balance of power shifts? They are less inclined to resist and more likely to follow the West's course and adopt an appeasement policy.

Again, Churchill in 1938:

"Do not let us blind ourselves to that. It must now be accepted that all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will make the best terms they can with the triumphant Nazi power. The system of alliances in Central Europe upon which France has relied for her safety has been swept away, and I can see no means by which it can be reconstituted. The road down the Danube Valley to the Black Sea, the road which leads as far as Turkey, has been opened.

In less than four years, that is where German armies were marching, thankfully a situation far worse than we can expect in the Middle East. Yet the trend toward appeasement and surrender could well be similar. Churchill said:

"In fact, if not in form, it seems to me that all those countries of Middle Europe... will, one after another, be drawn into this vast system of power politics--not only power military politics but power economic politics--radiating from Berlin, and I believe this can be achieved quite smoothly and swiftly and will not necessarily entail the firing of a single shot."

His specific example was Yugoslavia whose government within three years was ready to join Germany's bloc. (It was prevented from doing so only by a British-organized coup but was then invaded and overrun by the German army.)

Only the names of the countries need be changed to make Churchill's point apply to the present:

"You will see, day after day, week after week [that]...many of those countries, in fear of the rise of the Nazi power," will give in. There had been forces "which looked to the Western democracies and loathed the idea of having this arbitrary rule of the totalitarian system thrust upon them, and hoped that a stand would be made." But they would now be demoralized.

Churchill knew that his country's leader had good intentions but that wasn't enough. His analysis of British thinking applies well both to Europe, to President George Bush's current policy, and very well to the thinking of Senator Barack Obama:

"The prime minister desires to see cordial relations between this country and Germany. There is no difficulty at all in having cordial relations between the peoples. Our hearts go out to them. But they have no power. But never will you have friendship with the present German government. You must have diplomatic and correct relations, but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which...vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy."

Churchill understood that his nation's enemies took their ideology seriously and that their ambitions and methods were incompatible with his country.

And finally, Churchill understood the trend: things will get worse and would even make it politically incorrect to criticize the enemy:

"In a very few years, perhaps in a very few months, we shall be confronted with demands with which we shall no doubt be invited to comply. Those demands may affect the surrender of territory or the surrender of liberty. I foresee and foretell that the policy of submission will carry with it restrictions upon the freedom of speech and debate in Parliament, on public platforms, and discussions in the press, for it will be said--indeed, I hear it said sometimes now - that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticized by ordinary, common English politicians. Then, with a press under control, in part direct but more potently indirect, with every organ of public opinion doped and chloroformed into acquiescence, we shall be conducted along further stages of our journey."

In short, what could be called "Germanophobia" or seen as war-mongering in resisting German demands and aggression would be...verboten, something often seen in contemporary debates when political correctness trumps democratic society and pimps for dictatorial regimes and totalitarian ideology..

Churchill predicted victory but only if the free countries--and even some not so free whose interests pushed them to oppose the threat--were strong and cooperated:

"Do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."

Wow. Well if you don't see yet the parallelism with the current time let me continue on my own. Lebanon's brief period of independence has ended. Lebanon is now incorporated--at least in part and probably more in the future--into the Iranian bloc.

Only three years ago, after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, almost certainly ordered at the highest level of the Syrian government, a popular mass movement called the Beirut spring helped push out the Syrian military. The resulting government was called "pro-Western" in the newscasts, but it might have well been called pro-Lebanon.

Forget about the Israel-Palestinian (and now Israel-Syrian) negotiations or the latest reports from Iraq or Afghanistan. What has happened in Lebanon is far more significant. When all these other developments are long forgotten, the expansion of the Syrian-Iranian zone of influence to Lebanon will be the most important and lasting event.

Basically, the supporters of the Lebanese government--the leadership of the majority of the Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities--capitulated to the demands of Hizballah. And who can blame them? With a steady drumbeat of terrorist acts and assassinations, with the Hizballah offensive seizing Sunni west Beirut, with the lack of support from the West, they concluded that the battle was unwinnable.

Politicians, intellectuals, academics, and officials in the West live comfortable lives. Their careers prosper often in direct relationship to their misunderstanding, misexplaining, and misacting in the Middle East.

Then, too, all too many of them have lived up to every negative stereotype the Islamists hold of them: greedy for oil and trade; cowardly in confronting aggression, easily fooled, very easily divided, and losing confidence in their own societies and civilization.

In a statement of almost incredible stupidity, the New York Times stated:

"Everybody knew President Bush was aiming at Senator Barack Obama last week when he likened those who endorse talks with 'terrorists and radicals' to appeasers of the Nazis."

During the Cold War, I remember that it was said that if a Soviet official or supporter began a statement like that--everyone knows--what followed invariably is a lie. So it is in this case. For several years, the main criticism of Bush has been his strategy of pressure and isolation on Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and assorted terrorists. There have been hundreds of op-eds, eds, speeches, reports, and other formats on this point. It is the administration's number-one problem. Suddenly, it applies only to Senator Barack Obama. What rubbish.

Equally, the principle issue is not just one of contacts with extremist forces but how much toughness, pressure and isolation as opposed to concessions (of which negotiations are one) and compromises are offered. For example, there have been numerous ongoing contacts with Iran over the nuclear issue for years, supported by the Bush administration. They have all failed. For someone to come and say that negotiations have not been tried is pretty ridiculous. The hidden element there is really as follows:

The real fault is with us, not them.
You haven't offered enough.
And the assessment that no agreement is possible because of the other side's aims and behavior is always unacceptable. This implies that even if you talk with them and get nowhere, you just have to keep listening to grievances, avoiding giving offense, trying, conceding, and apologizing.
In this context, what better example could there be of this dangerous malady than Obama, the apparent Democratic nominee and possible future president of the United States?

According to Obama at an Oregon rally, Iran does not "pose a serious threat" to the United States. His reasoning is as disturbing--or more so--than his conclusion. Obama explained that Iran has less to spend on defense and if it "tried to pose a serious threat to us they wouldn't . . . stand a chance."

We can now feel secure that the Iranians won't load their soldiers onto landing craft and storm the New Jersey beaches. Unfortunately, that isn't their military strategy. Perhaps Obama doesn't understand that the average B-1 bomber costs less than a suicide bomber. Has he heard about asymmetric warfare?

Forget that. Has he heard of terrorism, the Marine barracks' bombing, or September 11?

According to Obama:

"Iran they spend one one-hundredth of what we spend on the military. I mean if Iran tried to pose a serious threat to us, they wouldn't stand a chance. And we should use that position of strength that we have to be bold enough to go ahead and listen. That doesn't mean we agree with them on everything. That doesn't, we might not compromise with them on any issues. But, at least we should find out are there areas of potential common interest and we can reduce some of the tension that have caused us so many problems around the world."

One cannot pretend away the implications of this paragraph. Let's list them:

No understanding that Iran follows strategies designed to circumvent that problem of unequal power including terrorism, guerrilla war, deniable attacks, long wars of attrition, the use of surrogates, and so on.

The only way Obama sees for using the U.S. "position of strength" is to listen to their grievances, as if we are not familiar with them. In short, the only thing you can do when stronger is to get weaker. Presumably the same applies when you are the weaker party.

Why is he so totally unaware that dialogue has been tried? A decade with the PLO, longer with Hizballah by other Lebanese, four straight years of European engagement with Tehran over the nuclear issue, multiple U.S. delegations to talk with the Syrians, and so on. Was nothing learned from this experience?

And what happens afterward if Obama's dialogue doesn't work? What cards would he have left? What readiness to try another course? Perhaps by then the Iranians will have nuclear weapons and other gains negating that "position of strength" so fecklessly frittered away.

What possible issues can the United States find to compromise with Iran? Let's say: give them Lebanon (oh, we already did that); ignore their sponsorship of terrorism; give them Iraq; give them Israel; withdraw U.S. forces from the region, accept their having nuclear arms. What?

Why should the United States be able to reduce tensions through negotiations when Iran wants tensions? There is an important hint here: if the United States makes concessions it might buy off tensions. Since Iran and the others know about Obama's all-carrots-no-sticks worldview, they will make him pay a lot to get the illusion of peace and quiet.

There is no hint, not the slightest, of his understanding the option of using power to intimidate or defeat Iran, or as a way to muster allies. If Obama had the most minimal comprehension of these issues, he would fake it with some blah-blah about how America would combine toughness with flexibility, deterrence with compromise, steadfastness in order to gain more from the other side in negotiations. A critical element in peace-keeping, peace-making, and negotiations is to act tough and be strong in order to have leverage. Even in responding to criticisms, Obama has only talked about whether negotiations are conditional or unconditional and at what level they should be conducted. He is oblivious to the fact that the chief executive does things other than negotiations.

If this is Obama's strategy while Iran doesn't have nuclear weapons what would he do in dealing with a Tehran owning them?
Make no mistake, Obama is channelling Neville Chamberlain--precisely because what he says shows his parallel thinking. Many people may get a chill listening to Obama but it certainly isn't a Churchill. Apologists, sympathizers, and wishful-thinkers keep endowing this would-be emperor with beautiful suits of clothes. He doesn't have any.

And at present, even more if Obama wins, the threat is of an Iran that's aggressive precisely because it knows that it will not have to confront U.S. forces. Tehran knows that it can sponsor terrorism directly against U.S. forces in Iraq, and also against Israel and Lebanon, because that level of assault will not trigger American reaction.

Yet anyone who doesn't want to get into war with Iran should be all the more eager to talk about sanctions, pressures, deterrence, building alliances and backing allies; in short, combating Iran indirectly to avoid having to confront it directly.

All the more so now, however, Syria won't split away from Iran; Iran won't give up on its nuclear program; Hamas won't moderate; Hizballah won't relent. Why should they when they not only believe their own ideologies but also think they are winning? In each case, too, they are banking on an Obama victory--whether accurately or otherwise-- to bring them even more.

There are too many Chamberlains and not enough Churchills, perhaps none at all. Things are bad, very bad, for the West right now. The beginning of repairing those strategic fortunes is to recognize that fact.


[1] All quotes taken from the full text at
http://www.winstonchurchill.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=1189.

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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).  

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