Across the Bay

Monday, March 07, 2005

The Moody Druze

After Walid Jumblat made that now infamous statement to David Ignatius about the ME Berlin Wall falling, and him changing his mind about the Iraq war, there was a whole bunch of posts in the blogosphere about whether he should be taken seriously, etc. Most of the posts were between pro-Bush people and anti-Bush people, and they were duking it out amongst themselves with little concern about Lebanon and Jumblat himself!

But my buddy Lee Smith has sat down with the Moody Druze during his visit to Lebanon this past Dec-Jan and has published the piece in the Weekly Standard. Unfortunately, the Standard is not making the piece available for free on the web (but you should buy the issue anyway, if just for the cover!). Never worry, I'm posting it whole here, for you to get a chance to hear more about Walid Bey!

The Moody Druze
Walid Jumblatt knows which way the wind is blowing.
by Lee Smith
The Weekly Standard
03/14/2005, Volume 010, Issue 24

Moukhtara, Lebanon

WALID JUMBLATT is trying to say something. Shortly before a meeting of Lebanese opposition figures, several hundred people are gathered in front of the Jumblatt family ancestral seat, a 19th-century palace and gardens in Moukhtara, a small village in Lebanon's Chouf Mountains, when the crowd breaks into the Lebanese national anthem. Jumblatt looks exasperated. A thin, stylishly dressed man in his mid-50s, Jumblatt has large, sad eyes and hunched shoulders that are expressive vehicles for articulating both his frequent wit and displeasure, and now it seems as though his body is letting out a small sigh of frustration. He is trying to say something, but with the singing, it now looks hopeless. So, after a few bars, Walid Bey, as he's frequently called in Lebanon, joins in.

While former prime minister Rafik Hariri was the highest profile figure to oppose Lebanon's Syrian-backed government, Jumblatt, leader of the country's Druze community, representing about 10 percent of the population, was the first prominent non-Christian official to stand against Syria's Assad regime, which has occupied Lebanon for the last 29 years. And since the February 14 explosion that killed Hariri, Lebanon's most powerful Sunni politician, Jumblatt has become the international symbol of Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, with his widely quoted statement to the Washington Post's David Ignatius comparing the regional effects of Iraq's elections to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is an interesting turn of events for a man once allied closely with the Syrians, at least when the regime was headed by Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, the man who had Jumblatt's father, Kemal, assassinated in 1977.

"The Syrians thought that some of their past allies, like me, would defend them," Jumblatt told me a few weeks ago at his second home in Beirut's Clemenceau district. "In the past, I accepted their line as a fait accompli. Now I'm fed up, and for the first time in my life I feel free. I have a free conscience, because my father opposed Syria and now I can sleep at night."

This compelling personal drama is unfolding on a very large stage. All of a sudden the Bush administration's grand vision for a post-9/11, post-Iraq-war, free Middle East seems to hinge on a democratic Lebanon independent of Syrian tutelage. Meanwhile, the Assad regime's regional prestige, and maybe its survival, depends on its ability to control its neighbor. During the course of a career that was thrust upon him with the murder of his father, Jumblatt has shown himself to be a loyal leader deeply involved with the concerns of his Druze constituency, a ruthless enemy to his foe of the day, and a flexible, sometimes quixotic tactician who knows better than anyone else which way the wind is blowing in Lebanon. Jumblatt is not just an important player, but also a kind of guide to the action.

Jumblatt and his Progressive Socialist party first broke with Syria over the decision by Damascus last September to extend by three years the term of Lebanese president Emile Lahoud. Syria's heavy-handed extension of Lahoud's mandate provided a rallying point for the Lebanese opposition, but what indicated that it had gained substantial ground inside the country was Jumblatt's January meeting with the wife of one of his Christian foes in the Lebanese civil war, Samir Geagea, the imprisoned leader of the Lebanese Forces, the Christian militia. With that meeting, the Syrians felt the ground shifting under their feet.

"Prohibiting intercommunal alliances was one of the main taboos imposed by Syria," says Farid al-Khazen, head of the political science department at the American University of Beirut. "But now we're coming back to the normal aspect of Lebanese politics, how it was before 1990, when the government and opposition both had leaders from different communities."

While Jumblatt's meeting with Mrs. Geagea was a sign that Syria was vulnerable--the Druze leader wouldn't have dared it otherwise--Jumblatt explains that it was also a step in postwar reconciliation. "We fought each other. There was a civil war. Spain had one and so did the United States. It's time to heal now and think about the future."

Whatever that future holds for Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world, the new alliances created and the old ones dashed by the forces now at work in the Middle East suggest that the region can no longer be understood in terms of the bipolar dynamic that has long dominated Middle East political discourse. There is not one Arab nation standing together against the imperialist designs of Washington and its Zionist stooges, as the struggle used to be construed here. Solving the Palestinian question is no longer the be-all and end-all of Middle East diplomacy. Rather, within the Arab world itself, there are countless challenges, conflicts, and political disputes between countries, tribes, religious, and ethnic groups that are rising to the surface. Neither the force of Arab nationalist rhetoric nor the violence of Arab nationalist regimes is capable of suppressing this any longer. Case in point: Syria's decades-long "relationship" with Lebanon has at last been named for what it is--an occupation.

Jumblatt himself has had recourse to plenty of anti-American, anti-Israel verbiage in the past. One of his most famous outbursts cost him an American visa after he said he wished Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had been killed in a missile attack on the hotel he was staying in during a fall 2003 visit to Baghdad. Jumblatt called Wolfowitz a "virus" spreading "corruption in the Arab land of Iraq and in Palestine."

Now Jumblatt has reassessed the effects of that virus. "It's strange for me to say it," he told Ignatius last week, "but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq." When I phoned him last week, Jumblatt deadpanned: "Maybe I should just go to Washington now and become a neocon."

Of course, if the neoconservative creed consists of believing that there's a causal relationship between authoritarian Arab regimes and the social, political, and economic distress of the Middle East, then Jumblatt is already in the fold.

"These regimes cannot stay this way in the long term," he told me in Beirut. "The Arab world cannot stay like that. Arabs are leaving. Have you seen our elite? The Lebanese have an excellent elite, you find them wherever you go--they're in the States, and Europe. But the opposition movement is having an effect on the Lebanese diaspora. We need freedom so these people can come back. If we succeed, and set up a democracy like it used to be, we'll be an example in the region. Let Syria have the system they want, but let them leave us free. We want our system. We're the only country in the Arab world that has freedom of press and speech. The liberals throughout the region are waiting for us. If we fail, it will return to the status quo."

Has Jumblatt changed his mind about Wolfowitz? "Did you see the nice comments he had about me?" Jumblatt asks, referring to an interview Wolfowitz gave to Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation TV. ("Even a man like Walid Jumblatt who has said some not-so-nice things in the past has had a lot of courage in standing up to the Syrians. We admire that," Wolfowitz said.) Jumblatt goes on: "It shows that when you're dealing with civilized people, even if you attack them, you can engage in rational discourse. I know. You're called a traitor in the morning, and a patriot in the evening."

Whatever Jumblatt's feelings are about Bush administration officials, the one political figure he seems especially interested in right now is the controversial Iraqi Shiite leader Ahmad Chalabi--"an intriguing person," Jumblatt calls him. He jokes about Chalabi's many loyalties and the inability of his American patrons to figure him out. It seems Jumblatt appreciates the gamesmanship and survival instincts of a kindred spirit. In the two of them--with their fractious hot-and-cold attitudes toward U.S. power--one senses the emergence of a new type of Arab political leader (or perhaps the reemergence of an old type).

If the Arabs' Berlin Wall is crumbling, as a number of observers besides Jumblatt believe, the obvious casualties are Arab dictators. Who will replace them? The dictators themselves--whose explanation is echoed by any number of U.S. experts and academics--say après nous, a deluge of Islamist extremists. That certainly can't be ruled out. But it may also be the case that fewer Arab strongmen means more Jumblatts--opportunists, horse-traders, and politicians who are going to cut lots of deals, including with parties that are not friendly to U.S. interests. As some of our enemies pass from the scene, it's useful to recognize that many of our allies are also going to look different.

Lee Smith is writing a book on Arab culture.

A great piece, and the last bit about the academics and experts dovetails with my latest on Cole et al.

Also, the part about the Palestinian cause's centrality, which is another word for classic Arab nationalist discourse (again, see my comments about Cole, Seale, et al.), was recently touched upon by Josh Landis:

Syria is the last leg holding up the increasingly wobbly edifice of Arab nationalism. Many in America would like to kick out this last pedestal and bring down the house that Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Baath built.

Every Arab country has adopted a policy of me first. King Abdullah has been the loudest and most open in proclaiming a policy of Jordan first. But as one Arab country after another has fallen in step with America’s diplomacy, they too have adopted the me first strategy. Saddat, of course, did it first, leading to Egypt’s isolation and his assassination, decades before Hariri’s. But all the other Arab leaders have followed suit, some quietly and others with more fanfare, such as Muammar Qadhafi.

If Syria pulls out of Lebanon swiftly and completely, as it should, it will have given up on Arab nationalism – at least, in everything but name. The constitution will still trumpet that Syria is only “a region of the Arab nation,” and the Baath Party will still claim it stands for “Arab Unity,” but they will be nothing but folkloric relics of a rapidly disappearing creed. Syria claims that it will “protect the Arabism of Lebanon.” But without a military presence in Lebanon, only the Lebanese will be able to decide their identity.

Of course, this was written before Bashar's speech. After that, Josh wrote the following:

The president began his speech by explaining that Syria’s foreign policy is directed toward two goals. “One is to protect our national interests, our nation, and its identity, and the other is to protect our stability and internal calm and social peace.” In short – Arabism and stability – those are the foundations of Syrian policy.
He accepted none of the blame for Syria’s isolation and explained the sudden consolidation of the Lebanese opposition only in terms of foreign influence and manipulation. He continued to describe the world from a Baathist perspective, as a battle between the forces of good and evil, pitting himself and Syria against George Bush and his nefarious plans for the region. Rather than laying out a vision for Syria’s future by announcing an agenda for reforms, he dwelt on old battles and history. He is carving an ever clearer image of himself as the anti-Bush.

In doing this, he may rally some domestic support, but he will only drive Syria’s conflict with the West forward. He cannot win this battle, and Washington hawks will push forward their arguments for regime change, claiming that the Syrian regime is irremediable even if it is flexible. The more Bashar resists, the more the US will focus on him as the source of the region’s evil. They will say, “He doesn’t get it. The world has changed, but not Syria.” There will be no relief for Bashar al-Asad so long as he digs in his heals and proclaims George Bush’s plan for the Middle East a failure. Washington will come after him whether he is flexible or not. No amount of tactical retreat will relieve the pressure. To truly get Washington off his back, he must “flee by advancing,” as Napoleon would say, and that means reforms. Some analysts here, argue that if he truly reforms, the regime will be undermined. Perhaps it is a catch twenty two?

Ammar Abdulhamid had a similar reaction, calling Bashar's speech "[f]ifty minutes of meaningless jabber" which "paved the way for a five minute announcement that will almost likely require a couple of weeks worth of explanations and clarifications."

Ammar also had similar reactions to Josh about Arab nationalism and Syria: "as a regional player, Syria has been, and for the foreseeable future, completely marginalized. This is indeed the end of an era."

We shall see. Arab nationalism has been declared dead before (Ajami did it, I think in a 1979 Foreign Affairs article), but it's a powerful opiate, and it's used precisely when a regime is in trouble. That's exactly what Syria itself did in 1948 when it trumpeted the war with the Zionists, a war that no one really wanted to fight. It did so in order to fend off Abdullah's Greater Syria aspirations (as Josh himself has written in an excellent article on the subject) not out of concern for Palestinians, just as today. So Bashar doesn't have to believe in Arab nationalism to milk it to his own advantage. However, unlike 1948, none of the other Arab states seem to give a damn, and the two closest have already signed treaties (which is why he's doing all this theatrical talk about Lebanon signing one too). That, once again, leaves Asad with one option: violence. Violence in Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon (as this quote from a Brian Whitaker piece put it: "There will be car bombs and more assassinations before it's over." There have already been three shootings, all by Syrian mukhabarat, or pro-Syrian cronies.) So, keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.