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Eye on the News

Michael J. Totten
From Baghdad to Beirut
What Iraq’s capital should aspire to—and what it should fear
10 January 2010
Iraqi police struggle to maintain law and order in Baghdad.
Michael Totten
Iraqi police struggle to maintain law and order in Baghdad.

I recently made my seventh trip to Iraq to try to answer an important question: Will the country explode after American soldiers withdraw? But the answer may lie 600 miles to the west—in Beirut, where I traveled from Baghdad. The best-case scenario for Iraq may be that it becomes a more backward version of Lebanon. The two countries share encouraging traits that neither has in common with any other country in the Arab world: ethnic and religious diversity, more or less free and fair elections, and at least some degree of freedom of speech.

Then again, Lebanon isn’t in great shape these days. The country’s future had seemed bright when I rented an apartment there during parts of 2005 and 2006—after the “Beirut Spring,” when massive nonviolent demonstrations ousted the occupying Syrian military regime. But in 2006, war returned to the Land of the Cedars. Two more wars have been fought there since, and more are nearly inevitable. Even an optimistic observer can’t help noticing some less encouraging similarities between Lebanon and Iraq—above all, sectarianism and a tendency to encourage foreign meddling. If in some ways Lebanon is a model for Iraq to follow, in others it’s an example of what Iraq must avoid.

Traveling from Baghdad to Beirut felt like moving hundreds of years into the future. Beirut may not be the Paris of the Middle East, as many have called it, but it’s far more sophisticated than Cairo (the cultural capital of the Arab world) or any other Arabic city. Hundreds of thousands of tourists every year visit Beirut for its fine dining, film festivals, art galleries, and outdoor concerts. Or for its vice: many tourists are wealthy Gulf Arabs who, when they need relief from their fanatically conservative homelands, can hop over to gamble, drink, and chase girls. Bookstores proliferate, many of them well stocked. Most titles are available in English and French; a huge percentage of Beirutis are fluent in both.

Though the apartment complexes built during the 1975–90 civil war look only slightly better than the grim tower blocks built in Communist countries, the city’s old architecture can be beautiful. Tiled roofs, European moldings, Oriental arches, and wrought-iron balconies are common, and some streets are still paved with cobblestones and closed to traffic. Very recent buildings are sometimes attractive in a different way, particularly the glass skyscrapers, in spaces that were recently rubble, reflecting the turquoise Mediterranean. Most Middle Eastern capitals outside Israel are filthy; Beirut is the cleanest I’ve seen.

The most striking difference between Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world, though, is the treatment of women. Women are elected to Lebanon’s parliament, and few Lebanese seem to consider that a problem. In Beirut, most women don’t wear headscarves or abayat—they dress more like Italians. Young Lebanese women who do cover their hair often wear knee-high boots, tight blouses, and skin-tight jeans.

A rally for democracy in Beirut last February

It’s true that Lebanon suffers from “brain drain” to such countries as the United States and Brazil—both of which contain more Lebanese than Lebanon itself does—and to the Persian Gulf states, where most people in the creative class are Lebanese. But Lebanon replaces these talented, educated professionals by creating new ones. The country’s education system, at least for the middle and upper classes, is excellent. Much of it was built in the nineteenth century by Western missionaries, who largely failed to convert Muslims to Christianity but left behind quality English- and French-language schools modeled on those in the West. And the American University of Beirut, founded in 1866, is still considered the Harvard of the Middle East.

No wonder so many Arabs are envious of the liberties Beirutis enjoy. Many would happily leave what An-Nahar newspaper publisher Ghassan Tueni calls the Great Arab Prison—that bloc of dictatorships from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic—for the dangerous freedom of Lebanon. “I’m in Lebanon now because I have to live in a civilized country,” Saudi-born novelist Mohammad Rashid told me after he gave up on his self-imposed exile in France. “I want to live in Lebanon,” a Libyan shopkeeper once said to me. “Beirut is civilized! Women and men mix freely in Lebanon.” Peter Grimsditch, the British-born managing editor of Beirut’s English-language Daily Star, told me in 2005 that there was nowhere he’d rather live: “I haven’t been anywhere in the world where I feel the power of the state bearing down on me less. Europe is absolutely intolerable.”

“Why does Iraq get credit as the first Arab democracy?” asks Lebanese restaurateur Makram Zeeny. “We teach democracy in schools here, and we’ve done it for more than 50 years,” ever since the country’s independence from France in 1943. To be sure, Lebanese democracy is a mess, but it’s downright Jeffersonian compared with anything else in the Arab world.

The country is also a comparatively safe place to speak your mind. It has long been an escape hatch for dissidents from other Arabic-speaking countries and even for disgruntled Western expatriates. I’ve met almost as many human-rights activists in Beirut as in the United States—and I’m not talking about Western transplants who went native, though I’ve met them, too. Lebanon has a homegrown human rights community that frets about the same issues that its Western counterparts do: free speech, land mines, political prisoners, civil rights for gays. Greenpeace petitioners stand outside Starbucks in West Beirut asking for donations, just as they do in Seattle and Portland.

One reason for Lebanon’s unusual liberalism is its history of Western influence. As Fouad Ajami wrote in Beirut: City of Regrets, this is a place “where Westerners recognize fragments of their own world.” The ancient Phoenicians, who first developed and civilized the area, were influenced in many ways by the Greeks and were partly Hellenized by Alexander the Great. What is now Lebanon was part of the Roman Empire for centuries; during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it was ruled by crusaders; and France administered it from the end of World War I until 1943. Even today, many Lebanese speak French at home instead of Arabic. “We are inheritors not only of the Persian Empire and the Arab world,” says Salim al-Sayegh, vice president of the Kata’eb Party. “We are also children of the Roman Empire, of the Western tradition.”

Unfortunately, Lebanon’s liberal pedigree may not be enough to save it. Two things may yet drive this modern, developed, and relatively prosperous country into the ground: sectarianism and a related willingness to welcome foreigners looking for places to fight. Roughly one-third of Lebanese are Christians, one-third Sunnis, and one-third Shi’as; about 5 percent of the population are Druze. Power is divided up among the leaders of the three major groups: the president is always Christian, the prime minister Sunni, and the speaker of parliament Shi’a. Lebanon’s system does not easily generate dictators. No man rules alone; passing legislation is almost impossible without consensus. Political checks and balances work more or less smoothly, when the system is free of outside pressures.

The problem is that Lebanon is rarely free of outside pressures. On the contrary, it’s a geopolitical black hole that draws in foreign powers. The 1975–90 civil war, to take one obvious example, began with an encroacher: Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian state-within-a-state in West Beirut and South Lebanon, which was backed by local Sunnis but opposed by most Christians, including Christian militias. The Soviet Union got involved, aiding Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party militia in its “resistance” against these “right-wing” Christians and in its struggle on behalf of the Palestinians. When Israel invaded in 1982 to evict Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forged the Hezbollah militia to fight the Jewish state. Israel, in turn, formed an alliance with the Christian militias against the Palestinians and backed the South Lebanon Army as its own proxy militia against Hezbollah. To this day, money, training, and weapons flow from Iran to Hezbollah.

Many Lebanese are happy to act as proxies for foreign powers, which can help them jockey for position against rival communities backed by other foreign powers. The Shi’as have worked with Syria and Iran, while the main patrons of the Druze have been the Soviet Union and the United States. The Sunnis have, at various times, thrown in their lot with Egypt, the PLO, Saudi Arabia, France, and America. Lebanon’s Christians have been promiscuous, too—they’ve worked with the United States, France, Israel, Syria, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The struggle between the “March 14” coalition—made up mostly of Sunnis, Christians, and Druze—that expelled the Syrian occupation in 2005 and the opposing “March 8” bloc led by Hezbollah is largely about whether Lebanon will remain pro-Western or rejoin the Syria-Iran axis. Lebanon therefore remains a fertile ground for proxy battles. After the Syrian evacuation, war broke out once a year in Lebanon for three straight years. First, Hezbollah unilaterally triggered a devastating war with Israel in 2006. Then, during the summer of 2007, the Lebanese Army fought Syrian-sponsored Fatah al-Islam terrorists in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon—and lost almost as many soldiers in two months as the British lost in five years in Iraq. And in May 2008, Hezbollah militiamen and their allies mounted an armed assault on Beirut to force Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to hand them veto power in the cabinet.

As troubled as Beirut is, it’s still a modern, prosperous, reasonably democratic place. But pan 600 miles to the east: Baghdad looks like a garbage dump. Its Parliament building looks like a tire factory. The city center, the Green Zone, is filled with weed-choked, agoraphobia-inducing dead spaces the size of small towns. Not just in Baghdad but all over Iraq, houses are ringed by antisocial walls that look custom-made for siege warfare. Not a single structure built since Saddam Hussein came to power is pleasing to the eye.

Iraq’s people were as thoroughly ravaged by totalitarianism as its buildings. An Iraqi woman memorably told New Yorker reporter George Packer several years ago, “I must work with Americans, because my psychology is demolished by Saddam Hussein. Not just me. All Iraqis.” Iraq also suffers from the same backwardness that you see in many Arab countries that were never ruled by someone as vicious as Hussein. Abdullah Mohtadi, an Iranian revolutionary and former Communist who runs an armed camp in northern Iraq, describes Iraq’s “tribal and medieval culture” as shockingly backward compared with even Iran, let alone Lebanon. “The brutality, the lawlessness, revenge—Iraq was very primitive and still is, apart from Kurdistan. You look at it, and you become astonished at how undeveloped politically” it is, he says.

High culture is virtually nonexistent. Baghdad has bookstores, but it’s been years since the famous Arabic saying “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads” has rung true. Fine restaurants don’t exist, businesses don’t accept credit cards, and the hotel chains that do business even in many desperately poor countries don’t dare open. And almost everything’s broken. Raw sewage runs in the streets, sometimes at ankle level; electricity doesn’t work half the time. You don’t dare drink the tap water or even touch it—your skin might break out. Some police officers are as likely to rob, beat, or even abduct you as help you.

Like Lebanon, Iraq has a serious problem with brain drain. Over the last couple of decades, millions have fled from either Saddam Hussein’s repression and violence or the militias and death squads that ran rampant after the American invasion. Most of the country’s best and brightest are gone and will never return. But unlike Lebanon, Iraq isn’t replacing them.

And women in Iraq have nothing like the freedom they enjoy in Lebanon. As in much of the Middle East, women remain concealed behind the walls of their husbands’ and fathers’ houses. Those allowed out are all but forced, by law or by custom, to dress “modestly.” Over 90 percent of the women I’ve seen in Baghdad wear either a headscarf or a tentlike abaya that covers everything but their faces. Even many Christian women in Baghdad surrender to bullying religious fanatics and don headscarves in public. In Baghdad’s most liberal neighborhoods, there are fewer “uncovered” women than in the fanatical, Hezbollah-ruled suburbs of Beirut.

Why, then, compare Baghdad with Beirut at all? One reason is its diversity—or, to put it another way, its sectarianism. About 60 percent of Iraqis are Shi’a Arabs, while about 20 percent are Sunni Arabs and another 20 percent are Sunni Kurds. Iraq’s politics are likewise sectarian. Practically everyone supports parties—or militias—that exclusively represent their own sect. “Sectarian cleansing” radically transformed Baghdad’s demographics in 2005 and 2006; most of the capital’s neighborhoods are now either Sunni or Shi’a.

Most of the country’s Kurds, meanwhile, have walled themselves off in an autonomous region in the north. The Kurds still want to secede from Iraq, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be talked out of it any time soon. Yet another war might break out over the issue. The Kurdistan Regional Government wants to annex the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, but many of Kirkuk’s residents are Turkmen or Arabs moved there by Saddam Hussein who have no interest in becoming ethnic minorities in Kurdish territory.

Iraq’s sectarian divisions, like those in Lebanon, attract outside powers. Many Sunni Arabs enlisted al-Qaida terrorists from 2004 to 2007 in their fight against the American military and the Shi’a-dominated central government, for instance. But no Middle Eastern country interferes simultaneously in Lebanon and Iraq as much as Iran. In 2008, Ryan Crocker—the American ambassador to Lebanon from 1990 to 1993 and to Iraq from 2007 to 2009—told Congress that Iran was pursuing a “Lebanonization strategy” in Iraq, “using the same techniques they used in Lebanon to co-opt elements of the local Shi’a community and use them as basically instruments of Iranian force.” In his new book, The Gamble, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Thomas Ricks elaborates: Crocker raised concerns about “what he termed the Lebanonization of Iraq—that is, the weakening of the government, the division of the people into sectarian groups, and the rise of militias that rival the government in reliable firepower.”

Here, though, is where Iraq starts to come out ahead of Lebanon. The Lebanese Army is still too weak to be used against Hezbollah without Shi’as deserting in droves and even joining the opposition. But in Iraq, which used to face the same problem, the American military has built, armed, and trained an effective army. This army has fractured again and again, but a reliable core of soldiers loyal to the elected government remained every time. Whenever the army replaced deserters with new recruits, the core of loyal soldiers grew larger. And every year that the loyal core was armed and trained by Americans, the army became more competent and experienced.

By spring 2008, the army was strong and loyal enough that it could be sent by the nation’s Shi’a prime minister into battle against Shi’a militias in Sadr City and Basra, where it prevailed without fracturing. Iran still has its own private army with a quasi-state in Lebanon, but its Iraqi franchise has been dismembered. Militias no longer rule any part of Iraq. Outside the Kurdish autonomous region, the central government is sovereign over the entire country.

Iraq is ahead of Lebanon in another, counterintuitive way: it’s been in much worse shape during the last few years and may have bottomed out. “When political theories fail in the Middle East,” says Lebanese political analyst Eli Khoury, “they fail hard. People who believed in them have a tendency to support a total opposite point of view later.” A lot of Iraqis supported one insurgent, death squad, or terrorist group or another between 2004 and 2007; then their country was all but dismembered. Iraqis drove themselves to the edge of the abyss, got a long look at the blackness over the side, and recoiled. Most Iraqis don’t care for American soldiers, but they’ve decided that it’s better to cooperate with a foreign army against terrorists and insurgents than to suffer politics by bullet and car bomb.

The Lebanese equivalent—a majority of the population siding with Israeli counterinsurgents against Hezbollah—is inconceivable. One reason is that anti-Israel sentiment in Lebanon is much deeper and broader than anti-Americanism in Iraq has ever been. Another is that Hezbollah, warmongering militia though it is, is moderate compared with Iraq’s militias, so an Iraq-like backlash against it is less likely. Most of its victims are Israeli civilians and soldiers; no one in Lebanon worries about being killed by a Hezbollah car bomb strategically placed in a market to maximize casualties. Hezbollah even has a media-relations department where American journalists can drop by and ask for interviews. I was bullied and harassed by the department’s head in 2005, but I wasn’t kidnapped or killed—as I would have been had I introduced myself to al-Qaida in Iraq.

For the time being, Iraq remains more backward and violent than Lebanon. But Iraqis are learning fast. Democracy and Western ideas admittedly don’t have the deep roots in Iraq that they have in Lebanon, and Iraq’s primitivism is a formidable obstacle—but every mature democracy in the world was backward once, some as recently as the 1990s. Despite Iraq’s endemic violence, Iraqis have experienced more than one peaceful transition of power since 2003, and they have a right to expect this new pattern to continue.

U.S. Army captains Todd Looney and A. J. Boyes, whose company did most of the fighting in Sadr City, are encouraged by the democratic development that they’ve seen. “I think there is truly a budding democracy here,” Boyes says. “We’re seeing coalitions forming in government. We’re seeing true debate. They’ve had to jump-start some of these things with international help, but at the same time they’ve really come a long way. So I think the future isn’t bright yet, but the possibility is there for this to become a well-functioning society.” And Looney points out the danger of unrealistic expectations: “People are disappointed that after five years in Iraq, we haven’t gone from a dictatorship to America in the Middle East?”

Looney and Boyes do believe that the American public should brace for a spike in violence, much of it Iranian-sponsored, now that the U.S. military has withdrawn from Iraqi cities. The Iranian regime’s agents “are lying low right now and riding us out,” U.S. Army sergeant Nick Franklin told me in Baghdad. “They’re killing our guys still, though, and we know it. You know it. But we pretend they aren’t so that we won’t have to open up another front. When we pull out, and they know we’re almost out, it will be game on here in Iraq.”

But Looney and Boyes insist that the Iraqi police and army are so much better than they were even a year ago that Iraq’s government, unlike Lebanon’s, will be strong enough to withstand the assault. “If we take a snapshot of Iraqi politics, security, and governance right now in 2008, and come back two generations from now and compare them side by side, I think we’ll see a huge difference,” Boyes says. “I think it will be almost entirely better.”

Michael J. Totten is an independent foreign correspondent based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He also publishes at www.michaeltotten.com.

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