From Beirut to Baghdad
The ghastly predictability of nihilist violence.
The fate of those who criticize the Syrian presence in Lebanon is rather like the fate of those who oppose Vladimir Putin. The former are shot or blown up, and the latter are victims of exotic poisons. Nobody knows for sure if there is any direct connection between the positions they take and the outcome that befalls them, but it has to be said in both cases that neither the government of Syria nor the face of Vladimir Putin seems very downcast or contrite when these coincidences occur. And, as Gen. Strelnikov so rightly says in Doctor Zhivago, it hardly matters whether you burn the right village or the wrong one. The same deterrent point is made in either case.
In Iraq, the terrifying aspect of the violence is its randomness. You have a higher chance of being tortured to death with a drill if you are a secularist, a translator working with the coalition, an advocate of women's rights, or a Christian, but the atmosphere is one in which nobody—not even a preacher or practitioner of sectarianism—can feel safe. In Lebanon, the situation is also slightly volatile. Those targeted for murder have included a former prime minister backed by Saudi funds, the former chairman of the Communist Party, and most recently the leader of the Maronite Catholic right: a fairly broad spectrum of victims, if, essentially, a predictable one. But in Beirut two decades ago, the situation was more like it is in Baghdad today, with mayhem in almost every part of the city and splits within cracks within fissures of each militia, so that almost every block had its own warlord. So ghastly was this state of affairs that there were enough people to welcome Syrian troops at least grudgingly when they first arrived, on the basis that anything was preferable to anarchy. A similar chaos and misery gave the upper hand to Mullah Omar's forces in Afghanistan, who were able to present Talibanism in the 1990s as providing a measure of stability and who currently hope to repeat the same strategy with (as before) a little help from a Pakistan that needs an Afghan colony for "strategic depth" in its campaign for Kashmir.
This is the huge advantage that the forces of nihilism possess in the region. In the short term, it is true, a prudent Syrian or Iranian government would not wish for an implosion in either Lebanon or Iraq, and a sensible Pakistani regime ought to desire a peaceful Afghanistan. A next-door war of all against all can lead to interethnic and interconfessional rivalry within their own societies and in the meantime is a threat to the orderly exploitation of things—like the trade in narcotics—that benefit the regimes and their clientele. However, chaos is a tremendous way of waging asymmetrical warfare and canceling the vast military superiority of the United States. It also catches the attention of those locals who are caught in the middle and who know from long and bitter experience how to sniff the wind. Listen to us, say the Ahmadinejads and their proxies, we will always be here. Can you say the same for the Americans? Many considerations, including intense inter-Islamic Shiite-Sunni hatred, divide Ahmadinejad and Assad from the forces of al-Qaida, which would also prefer to see Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan in ruins than have these countries get a chance of modernism and secularism. But on this essential point, they are in agreement, and their wrecking activities tend toward the same objective. In due course, they will certainly fight each other. But the ruins over which they will be disputing will, they believe, have at least been abandoned by the West, as Afghanistan was after 1989. And the interest of human-rights monitors and others will have slackened accordingly.
If this indeed proves to be the outcome, the victors will be able to rub their eyes at how easy it was. Barely five years after the eviction of the Taliban, three and a half years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and a year and a half after the Syrian army was forced out of Beirut by a show of mass popular and democratic unity, the memory of those brave fingers marked with the purple ink of the franchise has almost vanished. Tribalism and gangsterism are back, in a big way, with heavy state support from across the frontiers. And the United States, it seems, cannot wait to confirm the impression that it would rather deal with the aggressors. If the latest assassination in Lebanon caused any embarrassment to the enthusiasm of the Baker-Hamilton team for direct talks with Damascus and Tehran, the embarrassment wasn't evident. The Lebanese Cabinet may have bravely voted last week, in spite of a campaign of blackmail by Syria's death squads and religious proxies, to establish a tribunal to investigate the murder of Rafik Hariri, but in Washington, the talk is of getting on better terms with the people who, on all the available evidence, blew up his car. You may have noticed the new habit in the media of referring to the government of Lebanon as "American-backed" or "Western-backed." This is as if to imply that it is not an expression of Lebanon's remaining autonomy. But it is also cruelly ironic: Where exactly is this "backing"? Once again, it is becoming more dangerous to be a friend of the United States than an enemy.
The objectionable thing about the proposed Baker-Hamilton "talks" is not that they are talks but that they give the impression of looking for someone to whom to surrender. And they have, apparently, no preconditions. It would be an excellent thing to have direct negotiations with Iran, for instance, with all matters on the table. But if the mullahs did not have to sacrifice their ongoing nuclear deception in order to get to that table, then all the efforts of the Europeans, the United Nations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency to get them to do so would have been shown to be risible. With Syria, there is an even more intelligible precondition to be announced. Most people are unaware of this fact, but Damascus has always refused to recognize Lebanon as an independent state. There is no Syrian Embassy in Beirut. Implicitly and explicitly, this suggests that the country is regarded as an actual or potential part of a "Greater Syria." Is it really too much to demand that Syria acknowledge the self-determination, or "right to exist," of a fellow member of the Arab League? Without this line of demarcation, for one thing, the "withdrawal" of Syrian soldiers and police is a merely tactical thing; a retreat over the horizon while the Assad dynasty waits for better days. These "better" days may well not be long in coming.
Those who blame the violence in Baghdad on the American presence must have a hard job persuading themselves that the mayhem in Beirut and Afghanistan—and the mayhem that is being planned and is still to come—is attributable to the same cause. But the instigators are the same in all cases: the parties of god and their foreign masters. If we cannot even stand up for Lebanon in this crisis, even rhetorically, then we are close to admitting that these parties have won.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of unrest in Lebanon by Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images.