Writing from southern Lebanon in the mid-to-late 1970s, during the continuing war of attrition between Israel and the PLO and at a time when the country's long-relegated Shiite minority was just beginning to get itself organized, I noticed the presence of an almost unremarked token force of Iranian troops. These had been dispatched by the Shah of Iran, who (as we tend to forget) was ever-mindful of his title Shadow of God and of his anointed role as protector of the Shiites. Commenting more presciently than I knew, I said that these soldiers would probably be needed back home before too long to safeguard the peacock throne.
At that time, it would have been entirely impossible to picture any Iranian head of state visiting multicultural Lebanon as a plenipotentiary and being feted all the way to within yelling distance of the Israeli border. Yet last week President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad managed this feat almost without effort. A man who has managed to escape serious inconvenience for his illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons and who has pitilessly repressed and cheated his own people can appear on neutral soil as the patron of the Party of God because his regime shares that party's pitiless attitude toward the state of Israel and its biting contempt for all the Arab and Muslim "moderates" who would even consider a compromise with it.
In a way, an even more dramatic measure of the progress of Hezbollah and its patrons involves a comparison with only a few years ago. In February 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was blown to shreds in broad daylight, his murder capping a series of assassinations of politicians and journalists who had been critical of the Syrian presence in their country. So immense was the democratic popular revulsion against this criminality that Damascus was compelled to withdraw its occupying forces, and an international tribunal was convened to investigate the complicity of the Syrian Baathists, and by implication their holy Hezbollah proxy, and in turn that proxy's other supporter in Tehran. Aided, in my opinion, by the momentum created by the fall of Saddam Hussein, and encouraged even by French support for the relevant U.N. resolutions, the local prestige of the United States became very high.
Now mark the sequel. The leaders of all other parties and factions in Lebanon, from Christian to Druze, cringe with fear when the name of Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is mentioned. The once-vaunted tribunal, long stalled, has been pre-empted by highly credible threats of violence if its belated findings turn out to be awkward for Syria or Hezbollah. The son of the murdered Hariri, like the son of the previously murdered Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, has been forced to "make nice" in the most degrading fashion with the capo Bashar Assad, whose family almost certainly slew the heads of theirs. And the Party of God possesses two vetoes, one over the outcome of any Lebanese election it does not win and another on the timing of the next war with Israel to be launched from Lebanese territory.
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.