Monday, September 1, 2014

Lebanon Notebook: Two Visits with A Warlord and Kingmaker

Funny thing.  You travel the wide world and you find sometimes that people in far off corners have some of the same ideas as those back home.

I’ve been in Lebanon this month, working on a documentary.  While there, I interviewed the remarkable Walid Jumblatt, the rare person who can be simultaneously mercurial (working a dozen angles) and also phlegmatic (feeling the profound weight of the world.  He is also is both a tribal leader (of the Druze) and a former war lord while leading, as well, a Progressive Socialist Party.

The last time I interviewed Jumblatt I was traveling with a pack of writers that included journalists Christopher Hitchens, as well as travel writer-turned-novelist Lawrence Osborne.  That day, the great man, receiving us at his castle in the Chouf mountains an hour and a half above Beirut, served a wonderful lunch of Lebanese meze and roast lamb, with wine from his own vineyard. 

After lunch, he gave our group a tour of his office.  I was particularly taken by his reading material, and his choice of paperweight (see picture below).

On return to our hotels we found that Jumblatt had sent us Jeroboams of his Kefraya wine.  Sometime during that weekend Osborne, wine-fueled, was inspired to recount for us the story that in time he elaborated to create his acclaimed novel “The Forgiven.”  Meanwhile, later in the day after that lunch Hitchens and cohorts ventured out on Hamra Street, a perambulation that lead to a confrontation with some local political thugs who delivered a beat-down culminating in their stomping on the Hitch’s writing (and smoking and drinking) hand.  In mock-epic style, that episode became nicknamed by pundits “The Battle of Beirut,” and Hitchens himself recounted it in great style, with erudite historical and cultural asides, in Vanity Fair.  (That story can be found among the links below.)

On the occasion of my recent visit, just last week, Jumblatt received my producing partner, myself, and our crew at his palace in the Hamra distract of East Beirut… not far from the location of “The Battle.”  Jumblatt was preceded into the receiving hall by his faithful Shar Pei named Oscar, who gave everyone a good and friendly sniff (presumably Oscar does double duty as both attention magnet and back-up security screener).

On camera and under the lights, Jumblatt immediately turned serious, offering not the hospitable mien of our earlier encounter. Instead, ever the canny politician and ever aware aware of our film’s western audience, while glowering at this interviewer positioned (or hiding) behind the camera, Jumblatt proceeded with a blistering attack on the Obama administration’s Syria policy. 

More surprising… our interview was in a sense a twenty minute elaboration of exactly what Hillary Clinton had said just two weeks earlier.  In short, Jumblatt attributed the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the long chaos in that country, directly to Western (and especially American) disengagement from the Middle East.

Needless to say, Jumblatt sent us no Jeroboams of wine that evening.

I’m left wondering: Do the Warlord/Socialist leader and the presumptive leading Democratic presidential candidate compare notes?

One should be careful about attributing too much authority on matters of American policy to a foreign politician, even regarding matters in their own backyard.  Besides, what I said to those friends in Lebanon who complained about this administration’s foreign policy was that if you don’t like its direction today, just wait six months and it will be completely different. 

Jumblatt himself, nicknamed “The Weather Vane,” has been prone to similar seemingly capricious shifts.  As a leader representing a small constituency (Druze make up just 5% of Lebanon’s voters) he has periodically shifted between the March 14th coalition (who benefit from Saudi support) and the March 8th coalition (of which Iran-backed Hezbollah is a leading member).  As the swing vote, he has been able for some two decades to play “king-maker.”

In the meantime, things are afoot in the region, and there are hints that a tectonic and profound redrawing of alliances is under way. 

Among other signs, at the beginning of this week, Iranian tanks entered in Kurdish Iraq.  That’s right, the US has stood by while Iranian tanks formally entered Iraq, and those tanks are fighting on the same side as their some-time enemy, the Kurds.  What’s more, US, Syrian and Iranian planes flew sorties against the so-called Islamic State. 

Looked at one way, the Sunni/Shiite cold war we've seen the last few years… or rather decades or even centuries… has in the Arab heartland turned hot and become surprisingly triangular.

Read Hillary Clinton’s critique of the Obama administration’s Syria policy HERE

Keep in mind of course, that HRC was herself part of that administration, and indeed the Secretary of State as the so-called Arab Spring, and then the Syria crisis, began.

Read Christopher Hitchens’s account of the “Battle of Beirut,” in Vanity Fair HERE

And keep in mind that despite the mock epic nickname for that incident, he and his cohorts were in real danger, both then and for the remainder of their stay.

Read about Iran’s entry into Kurdish Iraq HERE.

Read Walid Jumblatt’s own account for Now Lebanon of a recent and much more cordial recent encounter when he and Oscar received another group of foreign visitors, HERE.