How the Party of God became Lebanon's most powerful faction.
What brought about this stark reversal? The first cause is Israel's crass intervention in Lebanon in 2006, responding to a clever Hezbollah provocation (a raid and a kidnap of Israeli soldiers) that was almost certainly designed to produce the response that it did. The second cause is the palpable loss of interest in Lebanon on the part of the United States. The March 14 coalition—named for the date of the triumphant intercommunal rally against Syria that followed Hariri's assassination—is splintering back into sectarianism and impotence. And what prudent Lebanese citizen, with Syria so nearby, Iran acting like a pre-nuclear regional superpower, and a humiliated Washington squandering all its effort on the predictable and pathetic failure of the Israel-Palestine "peace process," would not begin to adjust to the rugged new reality?
A depressingly excellent book on the contours of that new reality is provided by Thanassis Cambanis. A Privilege To Die lays out the near-brilliant way in which Hezbollah manages to be both the party of the downtrodden and the puppet of two of the area's most retrograde dictatorships. Visiting Beirut not long after Hezbollah had been exposed as an accomplice to Syria and as the party that had brought Israel's devastating reprisals upon the innocent, I was impressed, despite myself, by the discipline and enthusiasm of one of Nasrallah's rallies in the south of the city. Cambanis shows how the trick is pulled. With what you might call its "soft" power, the Party of God rebuilds the shattered slums, provides welfare and education, and recruits the children into its version of a Boy Scout movement, this time dedicated to martyrdom and revenge. With its "hard" power, it provides constant reminders of what can happen to anyone who looks askance at its achievements. Its savvy use of media provides a continual menu of thrilling racial and religious hatred against the Jews. And its front-line status on Israel's northern frontier allows it to insult all "moderate" regimes as poltroons and castrati unwilling to sacrifice to restore Arab and Muslim honor. Many Sunni Arabs hate and detest Hezbollah, but none fail to fear and thus to respect it, which Nasrallah correctly regards as the main thing.
In Greek legend there was a fighter named Antaeus who drew strength from the earth even when he was flung down. It took Hercules to work out his vulnerability as a wrestler. Hezbollah loves death, thrives on defeat and disaster, and is rapidly moving from being a state within a state to becoming the master of what was once the most cosmopolitan and democratic country in the Middle East. Meanwhile, a former superpower—no Hercules—is permitting itself to be made a hostage and laughing-stock by a squalid factional fight within the Israeli right wing involving the time and scale of petty land theft by zealots and fanatics. Only a few years from now, this, too, will seem hard to believe, as well as shameful and unpardonable.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Hassan Nasrallah by Haitham Mussawi/AFP/Getty Images.