Michael Totten

Eleven Questions

Jamie Weinstein at the Daily Caller interviewed me about my book The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel.

1. Why did you decide to write the book?

I wanted to write a dramatic first-person narrative about revolution, terrorism, and war in the Middle East in the wake of September 11, and what happened during and after the Beirut Spring is, I think, the most compelling story I’ve ever witnessed. The revolution that overthrew Syria’s military dictatorship in Lebanon looked and felt like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but Syria, with its allies in Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran, effectively reconquered the country by capping a ruthless murder and intimidation campaign with an armed attack on Beirut. They also, as of course you know well, blew up the Eastern Mediterranean when they triggered a devastating war with Israel in 2006. There is no shortage of explosions in this book. The story begins and ends with a bang.

2. Tell us about your experience dealing with Hezbollah while you were in Lebanon.

Dealing with Hezbollah is surreal. When I first arrived in 2005, the media relations department was reaching out to Western journalists and academics. The party’s officials hoped to get some positive coverage in the U.S. and Europe, but the guy in charge threatened me with violence after I cracked a joke he didn’t like on my blog. I was also detained by Hezbollah security agents when they suspected an American photographer I was working with was Jewish because his middle name is Isaac. He and I were both blacklisted for life for no real reason at all, though by now I’ve done much more to cheese them off than cracking a joke at their expense.

Almost every journalist I know who has ventured into Hezbollah territory has been detained, screamed at, threatened, or all of the above. They used to kidnap American journalists and chain them to radiators. The party’s officials and security people seem oblivious to Totten’s First Rule of Media Relations: be nice to people who write about you for a living.

Yet some reporters nevertheless run off to Lebanon and romanticize these terror-guerrillas as the authentic Third World resistance. They write fanboy-style dispatches about them in various newspapers and magazines. Some pretend that’s not what they’re doing while others are utterly shameless. They’re the same kinds of people who were communists during the Cold War. Hezbollah’s obscurantist and violent behavior makes no more an impression on them than Stalin’s show trials did to true believers in the 1930s.

3. How closely do you believe Hezbollah coordinates its moves with Iran and how has the Iran-Hezbollah relationship changed (if at all) since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war?

Hezbollah is effectively the Mediterranean branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah takes his orders from Iran’s Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei’s portrait is everywhere on billboards and posters in the Hezbollah-controlled parts of the country, as are portraits of Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollahland is basically an Iranian satellite state inside Lebanon. And since Hezbollah controls the Lebanese-Israeli border — where the famous Fatima Gate of the title is located — that border has become not only the front-line in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also the front-line in the Iranian-Israeli conflict and in Iran’s war against the West in general.

4. In 2005, Americans cheered as Syria was forced to end its occupation of Lebanon. To what extent has Syria returned and what influence does Syrian dictator Bashar Assad now have over the direction of Lebanon?

Lebanon is a somewhat anarchic place that no one fully controls — not Hezbollah, not Lebanon’s ostensible government, not Iran, and not Syria — but Assad has much more power there now than he did after his soldiers and intelligence agents were forced to go home in 2005. He and his local proxies have killed enough Lebanese officials, journalists, members of parliament, and random civilians that they can now do whatever they want. They can also force the government to do what they want.

5. What do you think American policy should be toward Lebanon?

We should support our friends and resist our enemies, just like everywhere else. It’s tricky in Lebanon, though, because friends, enemies, and neutrals are all mixed together in one place. It’s not like, say, Korea where our friends are in the south and our enemies are in the north on the other side of the DMZ.

For now, though, as long as Lebanon’s government can’t make its own decisions about war and peace, and can no longer make even a rhetorical stand against Hezbollah’s existence as an Iranian army inside the country, we have little choice but to place the country in the “hostile” column. We do still have friends there, though, who are not now and never have been hostile. They’ll have more power and influence again at some point in the future, so we need to take care not to alienate them or make their ordeal worse by treating the entire country as though it’s a terrorist nest. Lebanon should be thought of and treated as the swing state it is. They’ve taught democracy in schools there for fifty years. Some day it will be okay, after the world around it has changed.

6. If you could boil down what you want readers to take away from your book to a few points (I know that’s hard!), what would those points be?

I wrote this book as much as possible like a novel. It has characters, dialogue, plot, suspense, cliffhangers, and a dramatic conclusion. Of course, the difference between The Road to Fatima Gate and an actual novel is that all my characters are real, some of them have become my friends, and everything I dramatize actually happened. So if I succeed in bringing the Middle East alive to people who have never been there, I will be happy.

It’s not a right-wing or a left-wing book with a partisan argument, unless, I guess, you’re a political maniac who thinks I’m hopelessly “biased” because I hope the terrorists lose. I can’t think of any reason why Hillary Clinton wouldn’t like this book any more or less than John McCain would.

Read the rest in the Daily Caller.