Will the leader of Lebanon's Druze really form an alliance with Hezbollah?

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Aug. 7 2009 1:10 PM

Walid Jumblatt Is No Weather Vane

Will the leader of Lebanon's Druze really form an alliance with Hezbollah?

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Indeed, the fact that Jumblatt and March 14 were virtually synonymous may help to explain his latest move. With Saad Hariri now poised to become prime minister after a four-year wait in the wings, perhaps Jumblatt fears that he will be shunted to the shadows, and so he needs to prove that he and the Druze community he leads are more than relevant, that in fact they hold the country's fate in their hands.

Right now, Jumblatt appears concerned that his Druze, a minority Muslim sect that numbers about 300,000 in Lebanon, is in serious danger. Like many regional actors, including Saudi Arabia, he seems to fear that a renewed Hezbollah war with Israel—perhaps in retaliation for an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program—will lead to civil war in Lebanon. Jumblatt wants to keep his Druze out of that conflict, perhaps through a rapprochement with Hezbollah and its patron in Damascus. Although the Druze managed to hold off Hezbollah fighters last May after the Shiite militia had overrun Beirut, Jumblatt knows he is vulnerable. "They have us surrounded," he said of Hezbollah this winter. "They can do anything they want to us."

Jumblatt's previous political reversals have led many to call him the weather vane of Lebanese politics, but that's not entirely fair to Jumblatt or to weather vanes. If he were really that sensitive to political currents, he would not have spent the last four years challenging and mocking the Syrian regime in the belief that the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon would indict Syrian officials for the assassination of Rafik Hariri and others. He would have understood that for all its bold talk, the "international community" would bring no verdict against Hariri's killers and would not protect Lebanese officials and journalists from political murder. If Jumblatt were truly a cold and calculating cynic, a weather vane, he would have known all this—or maybe he did, and he stuck his neck out, anyway.

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When Jumblatt came to Washington in 2007 to meet with the neocons, it was to tell them to send car bombs to Damascus. He said that was a joke, but it is no joke. Instead, it is the moral of a story as old as the Middle East: Tyranny is not on the run, freedom is not on the march, and violence is still the instrument that shapes the Arab political order. Thus, the issue is not Jumblatt's political caprice, or that he has broken with a group of American policymakers who are out of power, but that the realities of the region and the failures of the "international community" have forced him to put away an idea that for a while, anyway, seemed within reach—Arab democracy. Four years after the Cedar Revolution, Lebanon is not a functioning democracy but, rather, a state in which a democratic majority is held at gunpoint by a gang of obscurantist fanatics who prize death more than life, and Jumblatt must try to make his peace with them, lest the community he has been tasked to defend since birth is destroyed.

Regardless of his vicissitudes and his renewed Arab nationalist rhetoric, Jumblatt is still a heroic figure, for what he did—and may yet do again. And so, today, Aug. 7, on his 60th birthday, neocons and others raise a glass of ruby red Kefraya to him here in Washington, where he is always welcome. Long live the Beik.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

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