Friday, June 12, 2009

When Greg Met David

When Greg (Jerusalem Prize) Sheridan, self-styled "most influential foreign affairs commentator in Australia" (Australian website) and foreign editor of The Australian, writes (apropos the Lebanese elections) that "The best piece of writing on Lebanon in recent months was a brilliant cover story in the May 20 issue of The New Republic*. In it, journalist David Samuels recounts an interview with former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel, in which he outlines Hezbollah's strategic value to Iran*" you just know that you've got to sit up and take notice, right?

[*The Year of the Elephant; **A new cold war in the Mid-East, 11/6/09]

After all, Sheridan is a highly respected Lebanon expert with impeccable sources: "Lebanon, its sons and daughters will tell you, used to be the best country in the world. Beirut was the Paris of the east." And TNR is the very model of a modern neoconservative, pro-Israel magazine. And David Samuels* is a Zionisto from Brooklyn, who, as he says in the essay that so inspired our Greg, was brought to Lebanon by "The New Opinion Group, an NGO aligned with March 14**," along with such fearless journalistic investigators as Judith Miller, who penned all those juicy fairytales about Saddam's WMDs for The New York Times before she was dropped for creative writing.

[* I'm sure you'll be just as interested in Samuels' article for The Atlantic Monthly about the paparazzi who trail Britney Spears (Shooting Britney, April, 2008); **Hm, an "NGO aligned with" a governing coalition? How very interesting!]

Anyway, to cut to the chase, after reading Sheridan's column on Lebanon, I was so intrigued by what Samuels had to say that I thought I'd look his essay up and see a) Exactly what he had to say; b) What insights into Lebanon "the best piece of writing on Lebanon in recent months" had to offer; and c) How Australia's Lebanon expert, Sheridan, could top these. IOW, I was curious to know what happens when "the most influential foreign affairs commentator in Australia" meets the best writer on Lebanon in recent months.

Talk of the town, of course, is Hezbollah, described by Sheridan as a "devoutly Shi'ite terrorist group controlled by Iran." "Hezbollah won all the sears it contested," he laments, and "will continue to wield by far the most powerful army in Lebanon," possessing "50,000 rockets deployed on Israel's border." Of course, Sheridan has a way with numbers*, at variance with both Hassan Nasrallah (33,000 rockets) and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who will only say that the organization has "more rockets than before the Second Lebanon War." ('Hezbollah has more rockets than before Lebanon War', Haaretz, 27/5/09)

[* See my 4/2/08 & 10/2/08 posts When Even the Retraction is Dodgy 1 & 2]

Sheridan quotes Samuels, who quotes Gemayel: "In the form of Hezbollah, they [Iran] get a brigade on the Mediterranean and on the border with Israel. So $100 million a year they spend here is nothing." In typical partisan fashion, though, he omits the bit in Samuels about the "hundreds of millions of Saudi dollars that are flowing into Hariri's coalition."

And speaking of Sa'ad Hariri, Sheridan is at pains, drawing on Samuels' interview with him, to point out that Hariri is so in danger from Hezbollah/Iran/Syria that he "lives behind [sic] a fortress." "If he wants to go out for an evening meal at a restaurant, he goes overseas." What about getting safely to Beirut Airport? I hear you ask. Presumably, by contrast, Hariri's nemesis, Hassan Nasrallah, has the streets (and restaurants) of Beirut all to himself. Not so, according to Samuels. The Hezbollah leader, in fact, has to deliver his speech in honor of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed from a "bunker." But then, for Sheridan to admit as much would entail an admission that Israel is doing more than just twiddling its thumbs south of the border. You see, when Sheridan mutters darkly about "giant, convulsive and violent forces... at work within [Lebanese] society...," you're only supposed to be thinking Iran, Syria, Iran, Syria... never Israel, America, Saudi Arabia.

Writes Sheridan: "Samuels argues that Lebanon offers a taste of the future in the Middle East, once Iran has a nuclear weapon and can operate anywhere without fear of military retaliation. For Iran and Syria today operate with a virtually free hand in Lebanon." You bet -poor old Samuels had the heebie jeebies like you wouldn't believe while in Lebanon. Check this out: "[Y]ou can get a pretty accurate sense of how Lebanon works by sitting in a restaurant in the Albergo Hotel, a decidedly luxurious place where I had lunch with a former intelligence professional and watched a dozen Lebanese cabinet ministers savor excellent Italian dishes. The tailored suits, the loosened ties, the broad hands, the arrangement of tall flowers in the center of the room - the scene had the sunlit inner presence, the radiant sensual completeness, of the world of physical objects as painted by Bonnard or Vuillard. Watching the ministers as they conducted their business, it was easy to see how the philosophical embrace of the physical world makes good sense here. Nasrallah and his patrons in Iran guarantee the stability of the country while, day to day, mouthing all kinds of insane stuff designed to paralyze the faculty of reason. Someday soon, the key will turn in the lock, the door will open and they will blow Lebanon to smithereens. Meanwhile, there are precious moments of physical existence to be savored, such as a diamond necklace for one's wife, a pair of earrings for one's mistress, a sizable deposit in a numbered bank account, and shrimp fettucini at the Albergo." Tres fin de siecle, non? Curiously, however, Samuels' purple prose prediction doesn't prevent him from noting elsewhere in his essay that "if the purpose of the Lebanese elections were to select the most capable man in the country, regardless of party or foreign affiliations, Nasrallah would win in a landslide."

Of course, when it comes to Hezbollah, there's no such ambiguity for Sheridan: "The Hezbollah group [sic] is called the March 8 coalition and involves Hezbollah, another Shia group called Amal and the Christian forces of former general Michel Aoun. Aoun's forces were the big losers in the election. The inherent madness of Lebanese politics and the sheer desperate scramble to survive is evident in Aoun's electoral alliance with Hezbollah. This is an alliance against nature and against conviction. Aoun was once the hero of Lebanese resistence to to Syrian hegemony. One of Aoun's election posters features a dazzlingly beautiful, bare-armed young woman wearing saucy orange lipstick* and with plucked eyebrows. The caption urged women to 'be beautiful and vote'. Yet Aoun's allies, Hezbollah, are Islamic fundamentalists who want an Islamic state. Go figure." Blimey, where do I start? Aoun was the big loser? Not so, according to the Angry Arab: "[N]ot only did Aoun remain the person with the largest Christian bloc in parliament (his bloc expanded since 2005) but overall he received some 50% of the Christian vote versus 49% if measured nationwide. And, in the key areas where Aoun lost, such as Zahle, it was due to Sunni votes." (Thomas Friedman in Beirut, The Angry Arab News Service, 10/6/09) And that alluring young Lebanese female with the saucy orange lipstick? Orange just happens to be the colour of Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement. As for Hezbollah wanting an Islamic state, if Sheridan had bothered to consult the book by Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy Secretary-General, Hizbullah: The Story from Within (2005), he would have read the following: "The creation of an Islamic state is thus not a function of adoption by one group or branch and a subsequent imposition on other groups... [W]e call for the implementation of the Islamic system based on a direct and free choice of the people, and not through forceful imposition as may be assumed by some. The message is clear, and beckons the creation of an Islamic state based on free public choice. We are hence in perfect harmony with our convictions and with the practical, objective circumstances surrounding us. As long as such circumstances are not in support of the project, either due to peoples' diverging opinions or for any other reasons, we would consider ourselves forgivable in the sense that we have conveyed the message and declared our stance, thereby leaving it up to the people to choose their governing system and bear the responsibility for such choice: And if thy Lord willed, all who are on the earth would have believed together. Wouldst thou [Muhammad] compel men until they are believers?" (p 31)

Greg and David - made for each other.

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