Lebanese parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt created an uproar this week when, in a speech delivered to members of his Progressive Socialist Party, he seemed to separate himself from the March 14 movement that he has been part of since its inception more than four years ago. If Jumblatt took his party into the Hezbollah-led opposition camp, it would erase March 14’s recent electoral victories and tilt the political balance against Lebanon’s pro-democracy forces. Now, after meeting with a Saudi official, Jumblatt says that his words were misinterpreted and that he would never abandon Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri. But it seems likely that Jumblatt has more gyrations in store.
In the meantime, he has offered no apologies or corrections to placate his one-time U.S. allies. Under the cover of self-criticism, Jumblatt took a swipe, in his speech, at the oft-demonized and now irrelevant Bush administration. “[It] was illogical when we met with the neoconservatives in Washington,” said Jumblatt. “It was unnatural … to meet with those who spread chaos in the Middle East and destroyed Iraq and Palestine.”
His former American friends are not amused. “I don’t believe for a minute that he’s sorry he met with the dreaded neocons, and I’m sorry he feels somehow compelled to say that,” said Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration’s deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy. “I just hope he keeps sending all of us that nice wine from the Bekaa.”
Abrams is referring to Jumblatt’s generous habit of sending jeroboams of Lebanese wine to those who earn his gratitude. The last time I visited Jumblatt in his ancestral estate at Moukhtara was with a group of foreign journalists that included Slate’s Christopher Hitchens. We all left with bottles of Kefraya, produced by the winemaker of which Jumblatt is majority owner. After a big lunch and plentiful Kefraya, I am pretty sure that Hitchens and the head of the PSP called each other “comrade“—though whether that designation referred to their shared histories as men of the left or as current quasi-neocon icons is now even hazier. I know for certain that Jumblatt showed us a picture of himself with the neocons’ enabler in chief, a certain former leader of the free world. Granted, the photograph does not have pride of place, as does the uniform of a Soviet naval officer mounted above his desk, but there is no erasing the record. Nor, I suspect, would Jumblatt really want to do so.
The first time I met Jumblatt was back in 2005, a month or so before the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Walid Beik, as Jumblatt is known, was standing in the middle of his living room at Moukhtara, Lebanon, his arms folded across his chest while he smoothed his moustache with one hand. As I wrote here at the time, Jumblatt wanted to know how long U.S. troops were going to stay in Iraq so that he could gauge how far he could afford to stick his neck out. Were the Americans serious about changing the regional order, or were they just talking big?
The rest is history—history with another Jumblatt-ian about-face. After saying that he wished former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had been killed in Iraq, Jumblatt told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that the Iraqi elections were analogous to the fall of the Berlin Wall and everything was up for grabs—thanks to the Americans. A few weeks later, more than 1 million Lebanese took to the streets on March 14 to protest the Syrian occupation, and in April, Syrian troops left Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. Tyranny was in retreat, and freedom was on the march. To paraphrase Wordsworth: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be a neocon was very heaven! And Jumblatt’s energy, charm, and forcefulness made him the face as well as the voice of Lebanon’s pro-democracy movement.
Indeed, the fact that Jumblatt and March 14 were virtually synonymous may help to explain his latest move. With Saad Hariri now poised to become prime minister after a four-year wait in the wings, perhaps Jumblatt fears that he will be shunted to the shadows, and so he needs to prove that he and the Druze community he leads are more than relevant, that in fact they hold the country’s fate in their hands.
Right now, Jumblatt appears concerned that his Druze, a minority Muslim sect that numbers about 300,000 in Lebanon, is in serious danger. Like many regional actors, including Saudi Arabia, he seems to fear that a renewed Hezbollah war with Israel—perhaps in retaliation for an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program—will lead to civil war in Lebanon. Jumblatt wants to keep his Druze out of that conflict, perhaps through a rapprochement with Hezbollah and its patron in Damascus. Although the Druze managed to hold off Hezbollah fighters last May after the Shiite militia had overrun Beirut, Jumblatt knows he is vulnerable. “They have us surrounded,” he said of Hezbollah this winter. “They can do anything they want to us.”
Jumblatt’s previous political reversals have led many to call him the weather vane of Lebanese politics, but that’s not entirely fair to Jumblatt or to weather vanes. If he were really that sensitive to political currents, he would not have spent the last four years challenging and mocking the Syrian regime in the belief that the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon would indict Syrian officials for the assassination of Rafik Hariri and others. He would have understood that for all its bold talk, the “international community” would bring no verdict against Hariri’s killers and would not protect Lebanese officials and journalists from political murder. If Jumblatt were truly a cold and calculating cynic, a weather vane, he would have known all this—or maybe he did, and he stuck his neck out, anyway.
When Jumblatt came to Washington in 2007 to meet with the neocons, it was to tell them to send car bombs to Damascus. He said that was a joke, but it is no joke. Instead, it is the moral of a story as old as the Middle East: Tyranny is not on the run, freedom is not on the march, and violence is still the instrument that shapes the Arab political order. Thus, the issue is not Jumblatt’s political caprice, or that he has broken with a group of American policymakers who are out of power, but that the realities of the region and the failures of the “international community” have forced him to put away an idea that for a while, anyway, seemed within reach—Arab democracy. Four years after the Cedar Revolution, Lebanon is not a functioning democracy but, rather, a state in which a democratic majority is held at gunpoint by a gang of obscurantist fanatics who prize death more than life, and Jumblatt must try to make his peace with them, lest the community he has been tasked to defend since birth is destroyed.
Regardless of his vicissitudes and his renewed Arab nationalist rhetoric, Jumblatt is still a heroic figure, for what he did—and may yet do again. And so, today, Aug. 7, on his 60th birthday, neocons and others raise a glass of ruby red Kefraya to him here in Washington, where he is always welcome. Long live the Beik.