Lebanese parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt created an uproar this week when, in a speech delivered to members of his Progressive Socialist Party, he seemed to separate himself from the March 14 movement that he has been part of since its inception more than four years ago. If Jumblatt took his party into the Hezbollah-led opposition camp, it would erase March 14's recent electoral victories and tilt the political balance against Lebanon's pro-democracy forces. Now, after meeting with a Saudi official, Jumblatt says that his words were misinterpreted and that he would never abandon Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri. But it seems likely that Jumblatt has more gyrations in store.
In the meantime, he has offered no apologies or corrections to placate his one-time U.S. allies. Under the cover of self-criticism, Jumblatt took a swipe, in his speech, at the oft-demonized and now irrelevant Bush administration. "[It] was illogical when we met with the neoconservatives in Washington," said Jumblatt. "It was unnatural … to meet with those who spread chaos in the Middle East and destroyed Iraq and Palestine."
His former American friends are not amused. "I don't believe for a minute that he's sorry he met with the dreaded neocons, and I'm sorry he feels somehow compelled to say that," said Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration's deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy. "I just hope he keeps sending all of us that nice wine from the Bekaa."
Abrams is referring to Jumblatt's generous habit of sending jeroboams of Lebanese wine to those who earn his gratitude. The last time I visited Jumblatt in his ancestral estate at Moukhtara was with a group of foreign journalists that included Slate's Christopher Hitchens. We all left with bottles of Kefraya, produced by the winemaker of which Jumblatt is majority owner. After a big lunch and plentiful Kefraya, I am pretty sure that Hitchens and the head of the PSP called each other "comrade"—though whether that designation referred to their shared histories as men of the left or as current quasi-neocon icons is now even hazier. I know for certain that Jumblatt showed us a picture of himself with the neocons' enabler in chief, a certain former leader of the free world. Granted, the photograph does not have pride of place, as does the uniform of a Soviet naval officer mounted above his desk, but there is no erasing the record. Nor, I suspect, would Jumblatt really want to do so.
The first time I met Jumblatt was back in 2005, a month or so before the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Walid Beik, as Jumblatt is known, was standing in the middle of his living room at Moukhtara, Lebanon, his arms folded across his chest while he smoothed his moustache with one hand. As I wrote here at the time, Jumblatt wanted to know how long U.S. troops were going to stay in Iraq so that he could gauge how far he could afford to stick his neck out. Were the Americans serious about changing the regional order, or were they just talking big?
The rest is history—history with another Jumblatt-ian about-face. After saying that he wished former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had been killed in Iraq, Jumblatt told the Washington Post's David Ignatius that the Iraqi elections were analogous to the fall of the Berlin Wall and everything was up for grabs—thanks to the Americans. A few weeks later, more than 1 million Lebanese took to the streets on March 14 to protest the Syrian occupation, and in April, Syrian troops left Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. Tyranny was in retreat, and freedom was on the march. To paraphrase Wordsworth: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be a neocon was very heaven! And Jumblatt's energy, charm, and forcefulness made him the face as well as the voice of Lebanon's pro-democracy movement.