by David Hirst
(New York: Nation Books, 2010), 489 pages
Reviewed by Nir Boms
In choosing the title of his book Beware of Small States, David Hirst harks back to the words of Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist who in 1870 wrote to a friend about the European wars. Small states, Bakunin wrote, are “particularly vulnerable to the machinations of greater ones,” but “they are also a source of trouble to their tormentors” (p. 2). This is, in a nutshell, the tragic story of Lebanon, the “small state of the Middle East” that is described elsewhere as “other people’s battle ground” (p. 117).
This is an impressive work that showcases its author’s well-honed journalistic skills. Hirst, a former Middle East Correspondent for The Guardian, lived in Lebanon for almost fifty years and reported extensively on the region. He was kidnapped twice, and expelled from half a dozen Arab countries because of his work. In this thick and thorough account—that he boldly calls a “definitive history of Lebanon”—Hirst offers a detailed narrative of this battleground that is arranged in chronological order and supported by copious footnotes. It is both a good read for the general public as well as a sourcebook for serious students of the Middle East.
As the reader delves deeper into the book, the word “narrative” looms ever larger. Its opening chapter (“The Seeds of the Conflict 1860–1923”) begins, surprisingly, with a critique of a statement made by Alan Dershowitz. The flamboyant American-Jewish law professor characterized the 2006 Lebanon war as the “first major battle of a third world war between terrorist armies (Hizbullah) and democracies.” Why did Hirst open his historical narrative of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of Lebanon with that quote? Perhaps it was in order to emphasize the idea that Israel should be seen as an inseparable part of the story of Lebanon. In fact, toward the end of his opus, some 487 pages later, Hirst seems to admit to that.
The first part of the book appears somewhat confusing in terms of which small country in the Middle East it seeks to highlight: about a third deals with the Zionist movement, including chapters about Arab–Palestinian relations, Israel’s war of independence, and its “ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians” (p.45). When looking at the way Hirst describes some events, it is clear that his portrayal is best seen as a “narrative.” For example, he write, “Driven out by the Jews from their own country, the Palestinians had become, some have lamented, ‘the Jews of the Arab world” (p. 76) and “It is all but inevitable that if the outside world could accomplish that by peaceful means, Israel would sooner or later seek to do so by the violent ones on which the Zionism enterprise had always chiefly relied” (p.104).
Likewise, Hirst’s politics creep into his analysis of other events: “The Fifth Arab Israeli War—or the first Lebanon war….had its roots in two historic developments, neither of which had anything to do with Lebanon. One was the coming to power of Menachem Begin, the leader of the right-wing Likud party; the other was the Israel-Egypt peace treaty” (p.116). While the change in political leadership in Israel can certainly be seen as relevant to the outbreak of a war, the second purported cause appears somewhat more puzzling. Why would the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt be the major cause of the 1982 Lebanon war? Hirst explains that in 1979, Begin, who enjoyed international legitimacy, made his “first of a series of theatrical ‘peace offers,’ which came, characteristically, in the wake of a bloody reprisal raid” (p. 123). In other words, Begin used the aura of peace with Egypt to open a war in Lebanon for the purpose of helping his Christian allies there. The growing presence of the PLO and other Palestinians terror groups like the PLFP in South Lebanon and the continued shelling of Israeli cities by rockets and Syrian 130 mm cannons, or even Abu Nidal’s attempt to assassinate
Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London—an event that triggered the Israeli response—had, according to Hirst, nothing to do with these dynamics. Hirst deals at length with the complex historical relations between early Israeli leaders and the “pro-Zionist” Maronite Christians who dominated Lebanon and became increasingly wary of growing foreign influences. To him, the Christians’ concerns appear largely unimportant, at least compared to those of their Israeli allies. In the 1970s Lebanon was plunged into all-out civil war that was further exacerbated by the move of the PLO headquarters to Beirut. Hirst admits that these new guests were largely unwelcome by the Lebanese government, which lacked the ability to resist them: “[Lebanon] could not stop them coming, and once they were there, it could not control and subjugate them” (page 86). But he devotes very little attention to this change of powers, which had also influenced the Christians in Lebanon who were becoming increasingly wary of these new Islamic influences. Hirst is correct when describing Israeli voices, such as those of Prime Minister
Begin of the Likud party and his then-defense minister, Ariel Sharon, who saw a geopolitical opportunity in the disintegration of Lebanon (pp. 64–65). Like previous Israeli leaders, including David Ben- Gurion (p. 125), Israelis sought to build an alliance with a Christian Lebanon that was perceived as a much better neighbor than a Muslim one. But he fails to tell the entire story. He does not deal with the remaining players of this regional puzzle, including, most notably, the Christians of Lebanon themselves, whose voices are largely left out.
Hirst does, however, take to task Syria, Iran, Iraq, and the PLO, all of whom also fought proxy wars in Lebanon. He contends that Syrian leaders used blood and iron to perpetuate their domination of Lebanon, secure their own backyard, and siphon off nearly $2 billion per annum. It is just a pity that this important part of Lebanese history does not receive the attention it warrants. Hirst also deals with Iran and with Ayatollah Khomeini’s interest in Lebanon as a strategic front against Israel. This positioned Iran as the champion of the Palestinian cause. This further drives home the point about Lebanon’s central role in the Middle East and its projected role in the next war—the seventh—to which the last chapter of book is dedicated. The last chapter, “Obaman Peace—or the Seventh War,” concludes the book with a grave forecast highlighting President Barack Obama’s policy failures. It ends with a prediction that a regional war will likely follow. Here again, Lebanon is not the main topic of discussion. The epilogue deals mainly with Obama’s policies vis-à-vis the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Hirst maintains that initially, the promise turned out to be a dangerous failure: “Within less than a year of Obama taking office, the ‘peace process’ looked sicker—just about terminal in fact—than it had almost ever looked before” (p. 425). At least here the author concludes in earnest by saying that although “this book didn’t start out as a history of the Arab–Israeli conflict….the struggle kept intruding on it as so inseparable, intrinsic and formative a part of its titular subject that that is what, in great measure, it actually turned out to be”(p. 425). In other words, although not planning to do so, the author ended up writing a book about another small state, which happens not to be Lebanon.
In a recent review, Prof. Fawaz A. Gerges (London School of Economics) described Hirst’s book as a “history of the Arab–Israeli conflict as seen through the prism of its impact on the internal development of neighboring Arab states, particularly tiny, fragile Lebanon.” In fact, it is in that context that the book makes the most sense, rather than as an attempt at a “definitive history of Lebanon.” It presents a narrative of the Arab–Israeli conflict through the prism of two neighboring states that were a party to the conflict’s past and, as the author predicts, to the conflict’s future. The reader should take into account the author’s point of departure and his particular approach to the conflict that tilts many of the historical narratives within the pages of his book. That caveat aside, Hirst offers a stimulating read and, certainly, the perspective of both a talented writer and keen observer who witnessed much of the dramas that have engulfed the Middle East in the last half century.