Michael Totten

The Near East Report

Daniel Rubenstein interviewed me for the Near East Report published by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee about my new book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel.

Near East Report: You’ve been writing for a long time from many parts of the world, but this is your first book. Why’d you write it?

Michael J. Totten: I’ve spent almost as much time in Iraq as I’ve spent in Lebanon and Israel, but I think Lebanon will matter much more in the future than Iraq will. Iraq is finished as a story that Americans care about, and it’s also largely finished as an American problem.

Lebanon, though, is shaping up to be a huge problem, bigger than it has ever been, first and foremost for Israel, but also potentially for the United States. Hezbollah has twice as many rockets and missiles as it had during the 2006 war, and its rockets and missiles can now reach Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Dimona nuclear power plant. Israel will have no choice but to hit back—hard—if it’s under that kind of attack. A war between Israel and Hezbollah could easily, if it’s big enough, draw in Syria, Iran, and Hamas, and possibly even a reluctant United States.

NER: What is the meaning of the title? What does Fatima Gate symbolize?

MJT: Fatima Gate is an old border crossing on the Lebanese-Israeli border at a place Israelis used to call the Good Fence. It’s between the Israeli town of Metulla and the Lebanese town of Kfar Kila, two communities on opposite sides of the line that are built practically right on top of each other. The fence is so close to the Israeli town of Metulla that a person could throw a hand grenade into an Israeli’s kitchen window while standing in Lebanon. If you’re an American, try to imagine how you would feel if the Taliban controlled territory a mere forty feet from the back of your house.

Because Hezbollah controls the Lebanese side of the fence, and because Hezbollah is controlled by Iran, that border has become in effect the front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the front line in the Iranian-Israeli conflict and the front line in Iran’s confrontation against the West in general. So that’s why Fatima Gate is significant.

And the reason I chose The Road to Fatima Gate as a title is because I wanted to suggest, even if only obliquely, that this book is not a dry work of policy analysis. This title, if you didn’t know better, could be the title of a novel. And I wrote this book as much as I could like a novel. It’s a first-person narrative account of revolution, terrorism and war, and it’s filled with action, suspense and some larger-than-life characters. What distinguishes this book from a novel, aside from all the historical background, is that everything I dramatize actually happened, and all the characters are real.

NER: Why is Lebanon important? Why did you move there?

MJT: Lebanon is important because it’s where the Middle East fights its wars. Think of it as the regional swing state. Whoever is winning in the Middle East wins in Lebanon, and whoever wins in Lebanon is winning in the Middle East.

Lebanon is like this because it’s divided roughly into thirds between Christians, Sunnis, and Shias. Lebanese Muslims don’t necessarily think of themselves as Muslims. They think of themselves first and foremost as Sunnis or Shias, even if they’re atheist Sunnis or atheist Shias.

The Sunnis are aligned with the Arab world and the West, the Shias are aligned with the Syrian-Iranian axis and the Christian are divided. Every faction is perfectly willing to act as a proxy for outside powers as long as it boosts their relative strength against their internal rivals, so foreign powers are often drawn in, sometimes willingly and other times kicking and screaming.

I moved to Beirut because it’s by far the best place in the Arab world to be based as a foreign correspondent. I wanted to visit Beirut even before it was my job to visit Beirut because I knew, from what I had read and from what I had heard, that it was completely different from any other Arabic-speaking city, that it was more cosmopolitan, more advanced and more democratic in culture, that its grim reputation as the poster boy for urban disaster areas was not fair at all. The city is not exactly the “Paris of the Middle East,” as it is sometimes called, but is a heavily Frenchified Riviera-style city on the Mediterranean with more joie de vivre than just about anywhere else in the world. Think of it as an Arab version of Tel Aviv.

So when the Cedar Revolution kicked off against Syria’s military occupation, which had been firmly in place since 1990, I boarded a plane and went over there for both professional and personal reasons.

NER: How do the Lebanese people see themselves? Is Lebanon a real nation, or just a geographical expression?

MJT: In some ways it’s a geographic abstraction much like Iraq is.

At the same time, though, much of what is now Lebanon was semi-autonomous during the time of the Ottoman Empire, and it has a political culture that’s utterly unique in the Arab world. Because it’s divided roughly into three sectarian communities (there are actually 18 sects if you count the small ones like various Christian denominations, Alawites and a handful of Jews), and because no community wants to be governed by the others, Lebanon has a weak state by design.

For a long time Lebanese nationalism competed with Arab nationalism for the hearts and minds of its citizens, with the Maronite Catholics being the premier champions on Lebanonism and with the Sunni Arabs as the champions of Arab nationalism. Since the Cedar Revolution kicked off, however, the Sunnis, along with the Druze minority that make up another ten percent of so, finally more or less signed on to the Lebanese project.

Most in the Shia community, however, remain aloof from the mainstream and give their loyalty to Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, rather than to the legitimate state in Beirut.

NER: What’s it like spending time in Israel after spending time in the Arab world? How do you see the Jewish state’s place in the Middle East and its struggle to exist in a rough neighborhood?

MJT: It was startling at first, even from the air.

Whoa, I thought, as I looked out the window of the plane over the suburbs of Tel Aviv. If the border had been open, I could have driven down there in just a few hours from my apartment in Beirut, but this place looked like the other side of the world. Trim houses sprawled in Western-style suburban rows. Their red-tiled roofs looked somehow more Southern Californian than Mediterranean. Swimming pools sparkled in the sunlight.

My Lebanese friend Hassan called Israel “Disneyland.” I thought about that and laughed while watching it roll by from above.

The airport shocked me, as well. I had just spent six consecutive months in an Arab country and suddenly saw more straight lines and right angles than I was used to. There were more women, children and families around than I had seen for some time. Obvious tourists from places like suburban Kansas City were everywhere.

Arab countries have a certain feel. They’re masculine, languid worn around the edges and slightly shady. Israel feels brisk, modern, shiny and confident. With its clean and orderly streets, its glass skyscrapers and its booming technology sector, Israel looks richer and more powerful—and it is.

Israelis sometimes feel like their country is weak, but it did not feel that way to me at all when I first showed up from Lebanon. Israel is different from Lebanon not only because it’s richer and more powerful, but also because Israelis—unlike most Lebanese—are willing to defend themselves.

The March 14 movement in Lebanon, named after the date in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution reached its apogee, is unwilling to use force to protect itself from violence inflicted on it from the Syrian regime and from Hezbollah. Most Lebanese are traumatized by so many decades of war and will do just about anything to prevent their country from flying apart into pieces again. Tragically, though, pacifism only works in the Middle East—or anywhere, really—when it’s reciprocated.

NER: You were in Israel during the war in 2006. What was it like driving north with Noah Pollak when everybody else was trying to escape from Hezbollah’s rocket range?

MJT: I felt like one of the dumbest people in the world when Noah and I rented a car and drove north into the war zone after everyone else had fled. Northern Israel looked like a set for a Hollywood movie about the end of the world. We saw hardly any people or cars, and the cities were on fire. Being there on the front line while Hezbollah’s rockets exploded around us was one of the most intense experiences of my life, and it also, I think, provided some of the best material for my book. I’ve been in war zones more than once since then—in places like Baghdad and Fallujah—but Northern Israel during the 2006 war was my first time and as a consequence the most intense for me personally.

NER: U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the war, called for Hezbollah to disarm. What went wrong? Why didn’t that happen?

MJT: Hezbollah isn’t going to disarm voluntarily. Hardly any army in the history of the world ever has. And UNSCR 1701 provided no mechanism to disarm Hezbollah by force. It’s as simple as that.

NER: There’s a lot of debate on whether the U.S. should fund and arm the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). What’s your assessment of the LAF, and how should the U.S. treat it?

MJT: The Lebanese army is the weakest national army in the entire Arab world, partly because it’s small and poorly equipped, but also because it was deliberately degraded during the time of the Syrian occupation. Syria also staffed the army at the highest level with Damascus loyalists, and most of them still have their jobs.

And the army still has the same problem that has plagued it for decades—the loyalties of many of its soldiers and officers lie primarily with their sect rather than to the state. If the army were to take sides in a civil war against Hezbollah or anyone else, the army would almost certainly fracture along sectarian-political lines like it did during the last civil war, so it’s effectively useless as an instrument for internal security. And it’s too small and weak to protect Lebanon from anything external.

I’m not opposed to the U.S. funding and arming the army necessarily, but at the same time I think it’s probably useless.

NER: You wrote that a peaceful disarmament of Hezbollah is out of the question while the Syrian and Iranian regimes are in place, that another war with Israel is likely and that war seems to be Lebanon’s future no matter what. The only question remaining, you said, was what kind of war it was going to be. How do you imagine that war will look?

MJT: If Hezbollah launches a new war against Israel and places Tel Aviv under missile attack, Israel will have no choice but to hit back harder and faster than it did last time. I wouldn’t expect Israel to destroy Hezbollah in such a scenario—guerrilla armies take years to defeat, as the U.S. has relearned in Iraq and Afghanistan—but I certainly expect Lebanon to suffer more than it has since the 1980s.

A civil war would likely end in a draw. Hezbollah isn’t powerful enough to conquer and rule the whole country as an Islamist state as it would like, but at the same time, no one in Lebanon is strong enough to defeat Hezbollah in the territory it already controls. So I’d expect a new civil war to resemble the last one in at least one crucial way. As former president Amin Gemayel said, “Everyone is against everyone else, and it all keeps going around and around in circles without anyone ever winning or anything being accomplished.”

NER: You noted that you hated asking people “What’s the solution?” because it’s such an American question. Can you explain that mindset?

MJT: Jeffrey Goldberg calls this “solutionism,” and it’s very American. Americans have gone to the moon. Americans defeated Nazi Germany, the Empire of Japan and the Soviet Union. Americans invented the light bulb, the internal combustion engine and the Internet. We think of history as a progressive process that yields better and better results over time—longer life spans, greater freedom and prosperity, and so on. We think there is a solution to every problem other than death and taxes because we’re almost always able to find one.

The Middle East doesn’t work like that, and it took me a long time to figure out how totally the Middle East doesn’t work like that. I eventually stopped asking “What’s the solution?” because hardly anyone in the Middle East had an answer. Problems in that part of the world are to be managed, not solved. Maybe it won’t always be that way, but that’s how it is now, and that’s how it has always been.

NER: You end your book with the topic of Iran. What will a nuclear-armed Iran mean for the Middle East?

MJT: Nothing good. I don’t believe Iran actually intends to nuke Israel, but I’m not as certain of that as I am that, say, France won’t nuke Israel.

Whether or not the Iranian government plans to incinerate Tel Aviv, there should be no doubt whatever that Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wish to be the hegemons of the Middle East, and nuclear weapons will bring them closer to that objective than ever. They would be real competitors with the United States for dominance in the Persian Gulf, and the likes of Hezbollah, Hamas and perhaps even Bashar al-Assad in Syria could be placed under the protection of Tehran’s nuclear umbrella. What my friend and colleague Lee Smith calls the Resistance Bloc—the Iranian-Syrian-Hamas-Hezbollah axis—would be the undisputed strong horse in the Middle East.

NER: Any hope that one day Fatima Gate will be open to drivers cruising from Tel Aviv to Beirut?

MJT: I certainly hope so, but I’ll be shocked if it happens before I’m an old man. Everything would have to progress perfectly for many years before that would even be possible, and there is almost no chance at all that events will progress perfectly for several years in a row in a place where, as president Amin Gemayel put it, everything goes around and around in circles without anything being accomplished. The Middle East is a tragic place, and it can be bitterly cruel to optimists and idealists.