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Bombs Over Beirut

This column was written by Lee Smith.
It seems like only yesterday that a Hezbollah deputy in Lebanon's parliament was saying that even if Iran wound up playing his beloved Brazilian squad in a World Cup match, he would have to side with Ronaldinho and Co. In the last 48 hours, though, it has become clear that when the stakes are really high, Hezbollah is always going to side with Iran — even if this means holding all of Lebanon hostage.

As I write on the Friday evening of July 14, Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport is closed from the bombs dropped by Israel on Thursday morning. Many of the roads are also closed, and the Israeli Navy has blockaded the sea route out. In the year since the so-called Cedar Revolution, much of the world has been looking to Lebanon, watching and hoping for the best. Now under siege, it is time for Lebanon to look at itself and wonder how it got here.

In the Sunni neighborhood of Hamra, the streets are virtually empty. A parking attendant has taken down his large Iranian flag, but still has two pictures of Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah taped to his booth. I don't know how long the Sunni locals will indulge his infatuation, for the Sunnis are angry. Hezbollah's July 12 incursion into northern Israel and abduction of two Israeli soldiers is likely going to cost them and their country billions of dollars, taking into account the lost revenue in summer tourism, a major part of Lebanon's economy.

The Christians, too, are mad, even though their most popular leader, Michel Aoun, had a "paper of understanding" with Hezbollah, essentially tying their political destinies together. For as long as Lebanon was able to quietly ignore international demands to disarm Hezbollah's militia and had effectively forgotten that their country shared a border with the most powerful military in the region, Aoun's agreement seemed politically clever. Now Ashrafieh, the predominantly Christian section of the city, is quiet, with the wealthier people already having left for their second homes in the mountains and the rest to stay with relatives there. Monot and Gemmayzeh, the two Ashrafieh neighborhoods that have made Beirut a world-famous nightlife spot, are silent.

Meanwhile, the Daheyh, the Shiite suburbs of Beirut where Hezbollah's Nasrallah was headquartered before his home was destroyed, has been shelled repeatedly since early Friday morning. The Israelis have been targeting Shiite regions throughout Lebanon, towns in the south of the country and the Bekaa valley as well as the Daheyh. A community that was historically regarded as Lebanon's unwashed masses is paying a heavy price for putting its political hopes in the hands of an Iranian-backed Islamist militia.
I was talking to two young middle-class Shiites, a man and a woman, both secular and moderate, who nonetheless expressed a fair amount of support for Hezbollah. Why, they wondered, should the rest of the country be unhappy with them? Why did it matter to other Lebanese if the Shiites were the only community under Israeli attack? I was astonished, not so much that they were willing to ignore that the airport, electricity, and other infrastructure belonged to all of Lebanon, and that even before the Israeli air force reduces Hezbollah strongholds to dust, Hezbollah fighters will move to non-Shiite neighborhoods in search of human shields. What I can't understand is that anyone not actively seeking "martyrdom" would think that this was, for anyone, a fight worth waging. It is good that Hezbollah should be put down, but it is sickening to consider that the other Lebanese communities might regard the lives of ordinary Shiites as being of little worth, and consider that the wretched of the Earth are getting what they deserve.

One of the most popular questions in Lebanon right now is: Since Syria provides material support for Hezbollah, why isn't anyone taking this out on Syria? The Syrians are evidently wondering the same and keeping their heads down. Unlike in Amman, where there have been numerous angry protests against the recent Israeli attacks, sources in Syria tell me that in Damascus the streets are quiet. At the border crossing out of Lebanon in the north, the Syrians are even helpfully giving visas to Americans, a practice they had stopped six months ago.

Why not Syria? Sure the Assad regime is a troublemaking, dictatorial ally of Iran. But that hardly excuses Lebanon of responsibility for its own affairs, even if Prime Minister Fouad Siniora insists that the country's democratically elected government bears no responsibility for this week's events. Apparently, it is difficult for this same government to remember that a party the State Department calls a terrorist organization is itself part of the government. The failure of a sovereign state to exercise control over its territory is a very big problem.

In fact, it's a problem that is brought to the fore by the White House's promotion of democracy in the Middle East. It is probably true that, given a voice in their own government, ordinary Arabs would be less tempted by extremism and more prone to turn their energies to improving their societies and economies. However, democracy promotion also means making Arab governments act like real governments, accountable for what goes on within their borders and for the violence their people export beyond their frontiers.

Lebanon, in this sense, is not a responsible state. It is just a glamorously seductive version of irresponsible regimes across the Middle East, whose people chant "Death to America" and incite violence against the United States in the mosques, schools, and media while the government says, well, we have nothing to do with those bad people, and it is not our problem. You want them to calm down? Then change your policies; we have better things to do, like worrying about how to stay in power and pad our bank accounts.

We have all been happy to cheer on the rebirth of democracy in Lebanon this past year. But the Lebanese are suspicious: Are you still with us? they ask. Or is Washington going to make a deal behind our backs with the Syrians, as you did back in 1990? Here it is the Lebanese who betray faulty historical memories. Yes, America looked away as Hafez al Assad turned Lebanon into a satrapy of Damascus. But some years earlier, significant parts of Lebanon made a deal with Syria and Iran over the dead bodies of American diplomats, soldiers, sailors, and Marines, and the captive bodies of journalists, educators, and missionaries held hostage. The Lebanese have conveniently forgotten that there is an awful lot of American blood on their hands.

And so Michel Aoun is oblivious to why the United States is angry at the deal he cut with Hezbollah. And maybe he has half a point. Saad Hariri — son of the prime minister whose assassination by Syria sparked the Cedar Revolution — gets to meet with the president of the United States, yet Hariri's Future movement has also publicly stood with Hezbollah. (According to Prime Minister Siniora, that's because Hezbollah is not a terrorist group or a militia; rather it is the "resistance.")

It is not clear why so many analysts, both Arab and Western, assume that the government of Israel has let the situation get away from it. If it seems that Hamas and Hezbollah, with Iranian support, coordinated the operations that touched off this crisis, it also seems that Israel was not caught entirely off guard. For its Lebanon campaign is not merely punitive; it is strategic. The Israeli air force has destroyed Lebanese airports and the road to Syria eastward — i.e., Hezbollah's main lines of weapons transport. In bombing the road south from Beirut, they are separating the Daheyh from Hezbollah's southern strongholds. That is, the Party of God is being cut off from Syria and Iran and isolated from the rest of Lebanon. Hezbollah is being split in two and cut to ribbons.

Many have suggested that Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon represent a deterrent against any Israeli, or U.S., attack on Iran. What if, instead, they only represent a big target painted in the middle of South Lebanon? If Iran had been counting on this deterrent, its policymakers may now be asking themselves how much the Hezbollah card is going to be worth in another two weeks. Maybe a lot, maybe nothing at all.

After the White House has calmed nerves and asserted the need for more talks, more consultation, more diplomacy — apparently its preferred mode of operations of late — it will be interesting to see what conclusions the Bush administration draws from Israel's current campaign in its own dealings with Iran, and also with the "insurgents" in Iraq. We may now be seeing the Spanish Civil War phase of the global war on terror, in which all the significant ideological and military alliances of the next decade can be discerned. Someday, the United States will have to confront these same players — Iran, Syria, Shiite militias, Sunni extremists, and their chains of financial support, some leading back to the Gulf Arab states — even if it prefers not to do so. From the Israeli experience we can draw at least two important lessons:

First, it is a waste of time and prestige to try to "moderate" Islamist groups that have not already been brought to heel, and it is foolish to believe that once in power they will become accountable. Hamas will not take responsibility for traffic lights, never mind for its military and terror operations. After Lebanon's 2005 elections, Hezbollah was actually given ministerial portfolios; now, without the consent of anyone else in the government, it has dragged all of Lebanon into its battle with Israel. Only in some parallel universe do militant parties moderate their policies once they are rewarded for their extremism with power. Attempting to co-opt Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias into the Iraqi political process, for instance, looks increasingly like a fool's errand.

Second, it is useful to recall that, among other reasons offered for the war in Iraq, many believed an unspoken purpose was for the United States to show that it was not, as bin Laden claimed, a paper tiger. The problem is that if you can't say such things aloud then you are not going to be capable of mustering the force needed to teach lessons in the Middle East. Washington has for three years been trying to define an American victory in Iraq. A better question is: What will defeat look like for the bin Laden types? What will it take for them to acknowledge that they have been routed by the United States?

Israel's experience since withdrawing from south Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza last year suggests that terror groups do not ever concede defeat. Victory for the jihadists means one survivor left to describe it as such.

By Lee Smith