The Beirut Echo Cahmber
By Lee Smith
November 29, 2017
Donald Trump may have divided America, destroyed the mainstream of the Democratic Party and split the GOP, but he’s unifying the Middle East. Or at least Iran. According to The New York Times’ man in Tehran, Thomas Erdbrink, Trump has whipped Iranians of every class, ethnicity, and political tendency into a nationalist fervor.
“Iranians listened during the 2016 campaign as Mr. Trump denounced the Iran nuclear treaty as ‘the worst deal ever negotiated’ and promised to tear it up,” writes Erdbrink. “They watched in horror when, as president, he sold more than $100 billion worth of weapons to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and participated in a traditional war dance in Riyadh.” Trump’s partner in uniting Iranians behind their leadership, the Times explains, is “the young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whom [Iranians] see as hotheaded and inexperienced.”
What’s weird is that Trump and the man known as MBS pulled off the same trick in the eastern Mediterranean just two weeks ago. After Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, where some say he was kidnapped and resigned the premiership, a fractious Lebanese polity rallied as one, demanding the return of their beloved leader. Pictures of Saad decorated the length of the airport road—a thoroughfare running through an area controlled by Hezbollah, which is accused of having killed Hariri’s father, Rafik, with a car bomb in 2005.
So, have Trump and the Saudis “fanned the flames of war,” as Beirut-based reporter Thanassis Cambanis wrote in The Atlantic? Do their actions threaten to “shatter the Lebanese mirror,” as former Obama deputy Robert Malley wrote, also in The Atlantic? As another former Obama administration aide, Ilan Goldenberg, tweeted, “Launching a major new war in one of the few countries in the Mideast that had been stable over the past few years would be the height of folly.”
But before you trust the chorus coming from The Atlantic, the Times, and Twitter: Hasn’t Iran been sending weapons and proxy armies for the past several years to fan the flames of war in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen? As for “destabilizing” Lebanon, isn’t Hezbollah the source of that country’s chronic instability? It’s hard to imagine stability in any country that is controlled by a terrorist group that insists on war against its two larger neighbors, Israel and Syria’s Sunni community.
What’s unfolding here is an information campaign
designed to protect the pro-Iran policies of the Obama administration. These
include preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, realignment with the
Islamic Republic, and acquiescence to Iran’s accumulation of real estate as it
completes its so-called land bridge reaching from the Persian Gulf to the
borders of American allies Israel and Jordan.
What worries Obama operatives aren’t the details
they are busy spinning, but the big picture: Trump is leaning toward traditional
American allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and may be inclined to pull out of the
nuclear deal—which is the support structure for realigning the United States
with Iran. If Trump pulls the plug, then Obama’s “legacy” in the Middle
East collapses. That’s why all of the former president’s foreign-policy
hands are on deck.
A more interesting question is: How did Lebanon
become so central to this effort? The answer is that Beirut is the birthplace of
the Western media’s pro-Iran echo chamber, and is now the key junction between
Obama’s coterie in Washington and their Iranian partners.
Once referred to as the Paris of the Middle East, the
Lebanese capital became ground-zero in the mid-1970s for a regional conflict
that gave Western journalists front-row seats while the standard-bearers of the
international left, Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization,
took the fight to the entrenched forces of reactionary injustice. The Western
media frequently took sides in that conflict. That American journalists began
referring to the Jewish state to the south as “Dixie” around this time gives
you a pretty good idea where their sympathies lay.
When the press’ home team was forcibly relocated
from Beirut to Tunisia in 1982, a new champion announced itself with a series of
spectacular operations that in 1983 alone targeted, among other sites, the
American embassy in Lebanon, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans, and the
U.S. Marine barracks in a massive suicide bombing that claimed 241 American
lives. The Party of God, or Hezbollah, had captured the world’s attention, and
its legend grew as it dispatched more and more Shia youths to detonate bombs.
The hagiography holds that Hezbollah, composed of
pious and impoverished young Shiites, a community long held in contempt by the
rest of Lebanese society, especially the wealthy Sunni merchants and the
“right-wing” Christians, arose out of the indignity of the Israeli
occupation in 1982. Their goal was to liberate the country and restore honor and
pride to all Lebanon. Indeed, the Western press still peddles this story. In
fact, Hezbollah arose out of a split between two Iranian factions of the
anti-Shah opposition that was training in Lebanon in the early 1970s.
Tablet colleague Tony Badran explained several
years ago in an important article, one side of the anti-Shah opposition was
aligned with the Iranian-born cleric Moussa Sadr, who since moving to Lebanon
had become a major figure in Beirut politics, forming the movement of the
dispossessed, or AMAL. The other group feared that the charismatic Sadr could
not be trusted to advance their revolutionary goals and might even pose a threat
to their leader, exiled in Iraq and later Paris, Ruhollah Khomeini. The
Khomeinists eventually routed their opponents, in Iran as well as Lebanon, where
they remade a group of Shia militants, many of them trained by the PLO, in their
own image. They even gave them the same name by which they were known: Hezbollah.
Did the Western press not know that Hezbollah was an
Iranian clone from the outset and its genesis pre-dated the Israeli occupation
by nearly a decade? My guess is that they were largely incurious about the
organization they’d flocked to Lebanon to cover. Asking too many questions was
also unwise, given Hezbollah’s record in kidnapping and torturing American
intelligence operatives and journalists. In any case, Hezbollah and the Iranians
quickly understood that the Western press was a useful and pliant mechanism to
broadcast their propaganda. The combination of fear, ignorance, and laziness on
the part of the Western press meant that the Iranians were free to make up
whatever stories about themselves that they wanted.
The mid-1990s saw the origins of the narrative
holding that Hezbollah had gone through a transformation; a “Lebanonization,”
if you will. The group that used to kidnap and torture American intelligence
officials, take journalists hostage, and liquidate opponents in Europe was no
more. In its place now stood an authentically Lebanese entity, which featured
both a “political wing” and a “military wing.” Moreover, contrary to the
simplistic analysis of Israeli and American right-wing officials, even the
“military wing” of Hezbollah in fact operated independently from Iran.
The Lebanonization thesis laundered Iran’s
activities at a key moment. Then Iranian president Mohammed Khatami was
promoting the dialogue of civilizations, an initiative that surely promised an
opening to the West. American policymakers had a stake in introducing all manner
of nuance and differentiation when addressing Iran’s relationship with
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Lebanonization
narrative helped keep Hezbollah out of the war on terror’s crosshairs. Al-Qaida
is a transnational terror outfit that kills Americans, but Hezbollah, according
to this new gospel of convenience, was nothing like that at all. It was a
national resistance organization, which only continued to bear arms against the
threat of another Israeli occupation, and was meanwhile ever more involved in
the mundane business of Lebanese politics.
Obama administration’s realignment of American interests away from traditional
regional partners Israel and Saudi Arabia and toward
Iran made Hezbollah’s “legitimacy” an even more important
article of faith—and Beirut an even more important center for coordinating
how the current Beirut-based campaign started: In his Washington Post column, David
Ignatius tied the Saudi crown prince’s anti-corruption purge in Saudi
Arabia to a visit from Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Because
Saad Hariri was called to Riyadh during the detentions, the echo chamber
contended, the Trump administration must be trying to force a confrontation with
Iran in Lebanon, using Kushner as its dark instrument.
While the central importance of Jared Kushner would
appear to be a giggle-worthy invention, it’s not unreasonable to think that
Hariri was, in fact, swept up as part of the anti-corruption campaign. Several
of the Saudi figures detained at the Ritz in Riyadh were past allies of his. Yet
contrary to most reports, he has not been Saudi Arabia’s man in Lebanon for
several years. The Saudis had tried to discourage him from taking the job of
prime minister last year, but because they weren’t paying him anymore they had
little say over his decisions. Hariri was broke, and he saw the premiership as a
way to make money. Thus, he became Iran’s Sunni in Lebanon.
political partnership with Hezbollah and its allies aimed to
put him in position to tap several promising ventures, for instance,
reconstruction aid for Syria, which, Hariri is betting, Europe and China are
eager to start funding. Further, there are potential offshore oil ventures and
other prospects—all of which would mean billions going through the Lebanese
government Hariri heads.
Hariri’s cousin, Nader Hariri, is the point man for this grand partnership
with Hezbollah ally President Michel Aoun, and, especially, with his son-in-law,
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Nader has a lot at stake in his cousin keeping
his job—either he or someone in his immediate circle started leaking to
Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah media about the Saudis as a “destabilizing force.”
According to sources in Lebanon, that was also the origin for David
Ignatius’s follow-up article on the
Saudis “virtual kidnapping” of the prime minister.
The point was to change the subject—now the story
is not about Hezbollah and the Hariris using their ostensible role as Saudi
allies to provide cover for Iranian control of Lebanon. No, no, put it on the
Saudis. Iran hasn’t taken a country hostage—as Ignatius wrote, the Saudis
kidnapped a prime minister!
This played well in the local arena. It’s hard not
to feel sympathy for the Lebanese who indeed have little ability to rescue
themselves from the middle of a dangerous and potentially explosive regional
dynamic. But the episode showed their ugly side, too. For years Saudi Arabia has
invested billions of dollars in Lebanon, and everyone, including the Shiite
community, has profited, while Riyadh got little for its investment. With
Hezbollah running the show, Lebanon was less a victim of regional instability
than a source of it—sending its fighters to Syria, and training Iranian
proxies in Iraq and Yemen, which threatened Saudi national security directly.
Plus there was always the likelihood of renewed hostilities between Hezbollah
While one can see why the Lebanese would not be keen
to challenge the organization that controls the country through force of arms,
it also seems fair for the Saudis to decide they don’t have to keep paying
just because the Lebanese want them to. Saudi Arabia just cut up the credit
cards and Lebanon acted out. If you don’t pay us, you’re destabilizing
message resonated with the Beirut-based Western press corps and local social
media activists. But the reason tiny Lebanon roared so loudly is because the
Beirut-based echo chamber was supported by the communications expertise and
media platforms of Obamaworld back in Washington. So Robert Malley filed
for the Atlantic from
Beirut, explaining the sources of instability in Lebanon and the
region within the frame in which those details mattered back home: “the Trump
administration calling into question the Iranian nuclear deal and considering
ramping up sanctions against Tehran, which unnecessarily heightens tensions,
coupled with the absence of the kind of regular, high-level contact between the
two countries that could de-escalate them.”
The Obama administration’s former ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, now living in Israel, tailored his argument for the local audience. In Haaretz, Shapiro dismissed the Netanyahu government’s cautious enthusiasm for Israel’s growing relationship with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s no friend, argued Shapiro—rather “it is plausible that the Saudis are trying to create the context for a different means of contesting Iran in Lebanon: an Israeli-Hezbollah war.” It was a strangely familiar conceit, with a novel twist—Saudi wants to send Israeli boys to fight and die in Saudi wars. Amos Harel picked up the same theme, again in Haaretz, where he quoted Shapiro’s article. The information campaign’s essential takeaway was that Obama was right to go with Tehran over Riyadh. And now that fool Trump is going to blow it apart!
The peculiar twist here is that unlike the Saudis, in
practice Trump doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with Iranian control of
Lebanon. His administration is continuing to fund the Lebanese Armed Forces,
which is at this stage little but a Hezbollah auxiliary, covering the Party of
God’s flank and providing logistical support for its war in Syria. But it’s
the big picture that has the echo chamber worried.