Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Michael J. Totten, a foreign correspondent and foreign policy analyst who has reported from the Middle East, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, City Journal, LA Weekly, The Jerusalem Post, Beirut’s Daily Star, Reason Magazine, Azure Magazine, and the Australian edition of Newsweek. He writes regularly for Commentary. A former resident of Beirut, he is the author of the new book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel. Visit his site at MichaelTotten.com.
FP: Michael J. Totten, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
What inspired you to write this book?
Totten: I decided to go to the Middle East after the terrorist attacks on September 11 to see for myself what on earth was going on over there—and to write about it, of course—and this book is the result.
FP: What is this book about, and what’s the main argument?
Totten: It’s a first-person narrative account of revolution, terrorism, and war, and it takes place in Lebanon and Israel.
I’ve been to Iraq seven times, and I covered the war there while I was simultaneously covering Lebanon and Israel, but I think the subject matter in this book will be more relevant and important in the future than anything that happened in Iraq. The Lebanese-Israeli border area—where the famous Fatima Gate of my title is located—is effectively the front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iranian-Israeli conflict, and the conflict between Iran and the West in general.
I wrote this book as much as I could like a novel because I want to bring the Middle East, it’s people, and the issues we care about as vividly into focus as possible for Americans and Europeans who will never go there. I’m as tired as everyone else of the dribs and drabs of sometimes bogus information we get from often sensationalist and biased media reports, and I hope to counter that with a long work that is as entertaining as it is informative.
FP: Tell us about your residence in Beirut. When were you there, and what did you see and experience?
Totten: I first visited Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution when more than a million people in a country of only four million turned out in the streets and screamed that they weren’t going to put up with the tyrant of Damascus anymore. The Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents left before I did. This was in the spring of 2005.
I only stayed for a month on that first visit, but I fell in love with Beirut almost instantly.
The city is a heavily Frenchified Riviera on the Eastern Mediterranean, and it has more in common culturally with Tel Aviv, actually, than it does with other Arab cities. I knew the place was going to call to me after I returned home, and it did.
Because I work as a foreign correspondent, the more time I can spend in the region the better. And Lebanon was far and away the best place to be in the Arab world at that time. No other place even came close. Iraq was on fire, Jordan is dull, Egypt was and is a disaster. Tunisia is a wonderful place, but it’s too far away from everywhere else, and nothing even remotely interesting was happening there at the time.
Beirut looked and felt like Berlin in 1989. It was the place to be. So I returned a few months later, at the end of the summer, and rented an apartment in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood near the American University, and I stayed until the spring of 2006, just before the big war between Israel and Hezbollah. I was in Iraq when it broke out, but I returned to cover it from the Israeli side of the border. Lebanon’s airport was closed—the runways had been bombed—so I had to cover the war from the Israeli side whether I wanted to or not.
I can’t say I was surprised by that war. Military officers in both countries told me something huge and terrible was going to happen. I had also explored the Hezbollah-controlled part of Lebanon, which begins immediately outside Beirut in the southern suburbs and resumes in the border area. While Beirut proper is a fantastic Mediterranean tourist destination, the Hezbollah-ruled part of Lebanon is basically an Iranian satellite state inside the country. “Martyrs” killed in battle with Israel are glorified on posters that hang from the lampposts. Billboards show the faces of Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini and its current Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei. I’ve never seen so much warmongering propaganda in my life as I’ve seen in Hezbollahland. There is a real struggle in Lebanon between a culture of life and a culture of death, and it’s tearing the country apart at the seams.
FP: What did you and many Lebanese think about the Cedar revolution in Lebanon when it transpired? What went wrong?
Totten: It looked at the time that Lebanon was finally free to be the democracy that it used to be before the civil war erupted in 1975 and ushered in thirty years of war and dictatorship, but Syria and Iran reconquered the country. They unleashed a relentless murder and intimidation campaign against Lebanese officials, journalists, members of parliament, and random civilians. Hezbollah, their proxy militia, is willing to kill anyone who gets in the way of their agenda, which is one of unending “resistance” against the West and the “Zionist Entity.” And the regular army is far too weak and internally divided to deal with it.
I think that in the long run Lebanon will be okay, that its democratic ethos—which is more than a half century old—will eventually prevail, but not until there is first regime-change in Syria and Iran. Lebanon can’t fend off assaults from the tyrannical mini-regional superpowers next door, especially since a large minority of Lebanese support the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah agenda and are willing to kill any of their own neighbors who get in the way.
FP: How do you envision the next war in the Middle East? Who will start it, and where will its epicenter be?
Totten: The Middle East is crazily unpredictable. Some things you can’t see coming because they’re too weird. Who would have thought just a few months ago that Barack Obama would bomb Libya, for instance? Or that Qaddafi supporters in Tripoli would burn Lebanese flags rather than American or Israeli flags? Who would have thought ten years ago that the Saudis would not-so secretly support an Israeli attack on Iran?
That said, I think there’s no question that Israel and the United States are on a collision course with Iran, which means we’re on a collision course with the entirety of what my friend and colleague Lee Smith calls the Resistance Bloc—the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis.
If and when that war finally kicks off, Israel will be at its epicenter. It might be like the last war in 2006, where the fighting occurred in Israel and Lebanon only, or it could easily widen to include Syria and Iran, either because Syria and Iran decide to pile on, or because the Israelis decide they don’t want to fight any more proxy wars and would rather take the fight to the enemy capitals. Either way, the Lebanese-Israeli border area is going to burn.
FP: How do the Palestinians fit into all this?
Totten: There are still hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon, and most live in horrifically squalid conditions in refugee camps. And these camps are brimming with Palestinian militias. The Lebanese army, though, surrounds these camps and keeps a pretty tight lid on them. One of the camps, Nahr Al Bared near the northern city of Tripoli, erupted with convulsions of terrorist violence a couple of years ago. The Lebanese army lost almost as many soldiers fighting in that camp over the summer as the British lost in five years in Iraq.
The fighters, though, belonged a group called Fatah al Islam. Hardly any of them were Palestinian, and some were not even Arabs. They were Al Qaeda or Qaeda-like jihadists from all over the place who descended on that camp and basically took it over.
The Palestinians who live there weren’t particularly happy about it, either. They tolerate or even support their own various militias, but the only people in the world who support Al Qaeda are those who are physically at a far remove from Al Qaeda. Bin Ladenists may look “good” on paper to the politically and religiously deranged, but they’re a lot less fun up close and in person.
Hamas rules Gaza like the Taliban of the Eastern Mediterranean, but it’s the weakest and most incompetent of the four members of the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah Hamas bloc. I worry about the Palestinian territories far less than I worry about Syria, Iran, and Lebanon.
FP: You were with Christopher Hitchens when he had a little problem in Beirut. What happened exactly?
Totten: That was an episode I won’t ever forget. And thanks for asking about it because I can’t even tell you how many news reports I read about the incident that had the details wrong. Not one single report was accurate, actually, and not one single reporter bothered to ask anyone who was involved what had actually happened. All they reported was rumor.
The blow-by-blow narrative is in my book, but here’s the short version: Hitch and I, along with our mutual friend and colleague Jonathan Foreman from the excellent magazine Standpoint in the UK, were walking along Hamra Street in West Beirut in the middle of the afternoon. And we came upon a sign commemorating the killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1982 by a member of the tiny but violent and fascistic Syrian Social Nationalist Party. That party—which had and still has its own militia—places a spinning red swastika on its flag.
When Christopher saw that he pulled a black felt-tipped pen from his pocket and wrote, “No, no, F—the SSNP” on it. Seconds later he was pounced on by a spotter, and a few moments after that he was punched, thrown to the ground, and kicked by seven militiamen the spotter called as backup.
I flagged down a taxi and got Christopher inside, so we managed to get the hell out of there. We were lucky. If we weren’t foreigners, we could have expected an extended stay in a hospital’s intensive care unit at the very least. The same “party” beat a Lebanese journalist nearly to death just for pointing his video camera at their flag on that very same street just two months earlier. The poor guy was still in the hospital recovering from that attack when Hitch got jumped.
The story made the news on at least four continents—possibly six—and in almost every single one of them Christopher was said to be either drunk, in a bar fight, or both. I spent the entire day with him, starting with breakfast, so I know he wasn’t drunk. We were on our way to get coffee.
FP: What’s going on with the investigation into the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese
Prime Minster Rafik Hariri?
Totten: The story is a long and twisting one, and I don’t want to bore everyone with the details, which, by themselves, aren’t particularly interesting, so suffice it to say that it took years before an indictment was finally issued, and the indictment is still sealed for reasons that quite honestly escape me.
Pretty much everyone thinks the indictment accuses Hezbollah of assassinating the former prime minister, but the United Nations won’t tell us because what’s written on the indictment is a secret. We were supposed to know in March, but that didn’t happen. I don’t know when they’ll tell the rest of the world or when they’ll do anything about it—assuming they will ever do anything about it, which is perhaps not a great assumption to make.
FP: Who will win the next war?
Totten: Victory is defined in peculiar ways in the Middle East. Hezbollah says it won the 2006 war against Israel, and Israel says it lost. The reverse is actually true. Hezbollah took ten times as many casualties as Israel did, and Lebanon absorbed around 100 times as much physical destruction as Israel, but Hezbollah says it won because it survived, and Israel said it lost because it didn’t accomplish its goal of destroying Hezbollah.
It’s a bit silly, though, for Hezbollah to claim it won only because it’s still standing. Israel is also still standing, so Israel “won” the war, too, by that criteria. And if Hezbollah racks up enough “victories” in the future like the last one, there won’t be much left of it.
There should be no question, though, that Israel severely botched that war. You can’t fight a counterinsurgency with the air force for one month and expect to accomplish very much, but that’s what Israel tried to do. It’s rather excessive self-flagellation over its botched effort means it will try something radically different next time, something that might actually work.
Still, I’m not optimistic that Israel can successfully fight a counterinsurgency in Lebanon. It took years for the United States under the command of the brilliant General David Petraeus in Iraq to prevail against the terrorist insurgency there, and we’re still fighting a counterinsurgency against the Taliban after ten years. Unless Israel turns Lebanon into a vast smoldering crater—which of course is never going to happen—Hezbollah will continue to threaten both Israel and the rest of Lebanon until there is regime-change in Iran.
Hezbollah, after all, is the Lebanese branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. There will be no peace and no victory until, one way or another, the Islamic Republic regime in Iran meets its demise. Israel always wins wars when it fights against states. So if the next war is a full-blown state-on-state conflict, I won’t expect Iran to declare victory when it is finished.
FP: Michael J. Totten, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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