One of the most characteristic beliefs of Washington elites these days is that the true “meaning” of any particular event is always derived from large-scale “narratives” about headline topics like democracy, race, women’s rights, climate change, or criminal justice, which the particular case is supposed to illustrate. When the “narrative” contradicts the facts, it is the facts that are naturally expected to give way. What importance can a few stray facts possibly have next to the majesty and importance of a narrative that promises to end racism and war and save the planet?
To argue about whether yesterday’s hurricane was or was not an unusual weather event caused by burning carbon fuels in first-world countries is therefore to miss the point entirely: Facts don’t matter when confronted by the fierce urgency of a narrative beloved by the decent people who make policy in Washington. In this way, stories and parables that advance the priorities of policymaking elites become insulated from normal standards of proof. Instead, every piece of available evidence is selected to fit a predetermined pattern, which becomes reality in the minds of the narrative believers—who from the outside appear to behave suspiciously like members of a cult. What matters is that the narrative continue its progress through congressional committees that might appropriate funds that can be used to bribe local actors into shows of phony compliance that over time—who knows?—might even someday become real, too. Think of how true the narrative will be then!
In this way, even the most idiotic narrative, founded on the most absurd theories, can be gifted with a retrospective gloss of reality, as long as you don’t look hard at the facts. That is, until the entire house of cards collapses, as it did recently in Afghanistan.
Nowhere on the planet today is the gap between narrative and reality wider, and therefore under more constant pressure from elites in a wide range of countries, than in Lebanon, where the substitution of “narratives” for unpleasant realities may soon become the single largest component of the country’s GDP. Take the recent Lebanese elections, for example. The official results of the May 15 parliamentary elections had not yet been announced when English-language media reports declared the outcome to be a “major blow” to Hezbollah, the group that dominates that country.
Why? Because the fact-proof narrative in which there is a “country” called Lebanon that is separate from the control of Hezbollah naturally requires that result—and for the result to mean something. The election, the storyline went, showed that gains by reformist civil society and independent candidates reflected popular Lebanese discontent with the traditional political class. These anti-Hezbollah forces handed a stinging defeat both to Hezbollah and to the established parties, whom the people held responsible for the financial collapse in 2019. And in so doing these new representatives of the people manifestly weakened the terror group by stripping it of the majority it had held in parliament, which—in the narrative, at least—is a real institution through which power is distributed and exercised.
It’s a nice story, to be sure. It even makes internal logical sense. Unfortunately, it’s not real. In reality, which can be an unpleasant place to live—just ask any Lebanese who is not busy lobbying the Americans, the Saudis, the French, or other outside powers for cash to delay the collapse of their fictional “reality” for another month or two—Lebanon is an Iranian-run satrapy which provides a forward operating base for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran, which directs Hezbollah. That’s reality.
But it’s not just that all these words and categories like “parliament” and “elections” and “political parties” are meaningless in the Lebanese context—even on its own terms, the story is untrue. There was no such election result, either before or after the votes were counted—an action that in real-world terms was itself all but meaningless. What we’re dealing with here is messaging by Lebanese politicians and operatives in Beirut and Washington, D.C., which deliberately framed the supposed meaning of the outcome of this process for an international target audience that has invested in “the narrative” and might be persuaded to invest even more.
In quintessential Lebanese fashion, the purpose of messaging is to con the outside world, namely the United States and Saudi Arabia, into deepening their involvement and increasing their investment in Lebanon, on the basis of a narrative that allows everyone to avoid dealing with the local unpleasantness, which meanwhile only continues getting worse. The logic underlying this ploy is also characteristically Lebanese: If fate makes you bystanders of a tragedy in which you and your children and your neighbors are bound to be consumed, maybe you can alleviate your suffering for a moment or two by selling tickets to the play. The title of the play? “The Aristocrats Say That Hezbollah is Doomed!”
Lebanon’s latest round of bizarre counterfactual Kabuki theater started well before the election. After Lebanon collapsed financially in late 2019, there were popular protests that briefly expressed anger at the political class, which is composed of figures that have been around since the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s. Civil society groups also mushroomed and put forward equally numerous platforms for how best to address the deadly rot that is consuming the country.
The protests would soon fizzle out. But Lebanese political players saw an opportunity to channel some of the discontent to their parochial advantage and against their sectarian rivals. Similarly, Lebanon analysts and activists in D.C. found in the protests and civil society activism fodder for their theories and policy analysis. Some Lebanese figures even made the rounds in D.C. to request funding for their NGOs. Hezbollah’s popular support has been shaken, they maintained, and the elections were a major opportunity to expose this weakness, and to deny the group the ability to hold sway over the country.
Of course, both Lebanese political players active in Washington—like the Lebanese Forces, the Maronite Christian party—and the Beirut-D.C. analyst crowd know that Hezbollah’s dominant military power is completely unaffected by folkloric performances like Lebanon’s parliamentary elections. As such, in order to sell their pitch about “weakening” Hezbollah, they resorted to a sleight of hand, inventing new yardsticks with which we could supposedly measure Hezbollah’s strength.
The scam, which the Lebanese political players and analysts could market in D.C. and try to sell to the Saudis—hey, you never know!—went something like this: The Lebanese didn’t have to take any direct action against Hezbollah itself. Rather, the true gauge of whether you’ve weakened Hezbollah is the electoral performance of its allies. More than anything else, supposedly the most meaningful indicator of Hezbollah’s actual strength was the performance of another Maronite Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)—the party of the Lebanese president and his son-in-law and heir, former minister Gebran Bassil, which happens to be the Lebanese Forces’ old rival in parochial Maronite politics.
For months, Lebanese political operatives and Beirut-D.C. analysts confidently asserted that Bassil—whom the U.S. sanctioned in 2020 for his role in official corruption—and the FPM were in free fall. Their day was over. Partisans of Lebanese sovereignty would soon have their chance to celebrate. A great victory would be won. Institutions would be strengthened. The money faucets could be turned on.
Why? Well, the argument went, the FPM’s impending colossal electoral defeat, which was all but guaranteed by the narrative, meant that Hezbollah would lose its “Christian cover”—a category without any actual meaning, and which the Lebanese operatives and analysts simply invented. Apparently, without “Christian cover,” Hezbollah wouldn’t be able to retain its vast arsenal—or something like that. And once Bassil loses his seat in parliament, Hezbollah wouldn’t be able to install him as the next president, after his father-in-law’s term ends in the fall. That, too, was sold as a catastrophic defeat for Hezbollah, because, we’re supposed to believe, the Lebanese presidency is a very powerful office, and without Bassil Hezbollah would be in a very tight jam indeed.
This kind of childish nonsense formed the core of the sustained messaging that set the stage for the tale that emerged after the election. Hence, the most salient talking point on election day, which was disseminated even before all the votes were counted, was the supposed defeat of Bassil and the FPM, who no longer could claim to be the largest representative of Lebanon’s Christians. A major blow had been struck against Hezbollah!
Only, not so much. In the final tally, while the FPM did lose some seats, it was nowhere near collapse, as the Beirut-D.C. chattering crowd had maintained. Rather, it ended basically in a tie with their Lebanese Forces rivals, who added a few seats. Bassil kept his seat as well. And when you factor in the seats won by the FPM’s ally, the pro-Iran Armenian Tashnag party, their coalition ends up with the larger Christian bloc. Add to that other Hezbollah-aligned Christians who won seats, and what happens to the Lebanese operatives’ mantra about Hezbollah’s “Christian cover,” whatever that meant to begin with? Hezbollah in fact had plenty of it. Which would matter, except for the fact that it’s all gibberish.
But what about those brave civil society candidates and independents, who provided evidence of the Lebanese people voting for change and of their rejection of Hezbollah and the traditional political class? While it’s true that a handful of pro-Assad fixtures have lost their seats to newcomers, that’s only the surface of the matter. The true story is far from the prevailing spin.
First, it should be noted that none of these new faces are Shia. In fact, for all the pre-election talk of Hezbollah’s supposed waning support among the Shia, the party and its Amal ally swept all 27 seats allotted to the sect in Lebanon’s confessional quota system. The new crop are all from the other sects, spread over the various electoral districts.
One breakthrough case in a south Lebanon district, which received a lot of airplay for its supposed importance as proof of the cracks in Hezbollah’s support base, involved a civil society candidate unseating the Syrian Social Nationalist Party representative for the Greek Orthodox seat. The incoming MP, Elias Jarade, has a family background with the Lebanese Communist party and its militia, which has a long history in south Lebanon, including in Jarade’s hometown. For instance, his brother had fought with the militia against Israel in the south. The Communist party reportedly mobilized to give Jarade enough votes to carry him through. Immediately after his win, Jarade went on Hezbollah TV and expressed his support for the Hezbollah line about the liberation of Lebanese occupied land, and echoed the group’s maximalist position on Lebanese maritime boundaries with Israel. A “major blow” to Hezbollah, indeed.
What results like this reveal is that the terms “civil society” or “independent” are by no means synonymous with “anti-Hezbollah.” If anything, most of the MP’s under these categories have either a supportive or somewhat qualified position on Hezbollah’s “resistance,” to say nothing about the maritime dispute with Israel. Nor are the terms “civil society” and “independent” interchangeable, much as the post-election storyline and the various graphics produced to explain the makeup of the new parliament have conflated them. Many of the figures dubbed “independent” are simply members of the traditional political class, or figures backed by a member of that class. Similarly, the ability of some of the civil society candidates to win their seats actually was not the result of a popular vote for change against the traditional class. In some cases it was merely a result of interelite machination: maneuvers and deals between traditional leaders to secure their parochial interests.
Take for instance the civil society gains in the Shouf mountains that ousted two pro-Assad Druze figures. The Shouf and Aley districts are critical grounds for Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and for the continuity of his political household. The elder Jumblatt is in the middle of transferring the mantle of leadership to his son Taymour. Securing the family’s position against Druze rivals is of paramount importance for Jumblatt. By directing voters to bump the vote threshold of the two newcomers, who lack any serious popular constituency and are not far from Taymour Jumblatt’s circles, the Druze chieftain would allow them to benefit from an odd feature of this election’s convoluted sectarian law and break through at the expense of his Druze rivals in the mountain. Such a deal would have been done with the Shia parties, namely with the speaker of parliament and head of Amal, Nabih Berri. After the election, one of the ousted Druze rivals of Jumblatt spoke of “betrayal”—a reference to the Shia parties not directing enough votes to push him over the threshold. Berri is now set to return as speaker for the seventh consecutive term, which is another “major blow” to Hezbollah, no doubt.
The latter example is relevant to another salient talking point of the post-election narrative. Namely, that Hezbollah and its allies have lost the majority they held in parliament—the most tangible proof of their “weakening.” The obvious problem with this propaganda line is that in two previous back-to-back elections (2005 and 2009), Hezbollah and its allies had also failed to win the majority. The impact that had on the group’s ability to dominate the country, prosecute multiple conflicts across the region, vastly build up its arsenal, and expand its strategic depth in Syria, was precisely zero.
But even on its own terms, the whole argument about the parliamentary majority is silly. Hezbollah and its allies have the largest coalition, just shy of the 65-seat simple majority—which works just fine for the party.
On the other side there is, well, nothing. There is not even an opposing coalition. The “opposition” establishment parties (parties like the Lebanese Forces, the Phalanges, the remains of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, etc.) mistrust each other and all have their own individual ambitions and agendas, none more so than Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, who harbors delusions of becoming the next president. The “independents” and the “civil society” crowd are just as fractious and incoherent. Jumblatt, meanwhile, has his own agenda, and he’ll cooperate with Berri and Hezbollah whenever it suits him.
Sooner or later, Hezbollah will likely be able to draw enough of those “independent” MPs. But even if not, it can call for a national unity government, which it will be able to guide in line with its priorities. Herding cats is what Hezbollah has done successfully for years. It’s just that some of the old cats have now been replaced with a new litter.
Whatever Israel decides to do, its decision needs to be clear of any illusion about the nature of the problem it faces in Lebanon.
The bottom line here, it bears repeating, is that Lebanon’s political circus and the categories hawked by the Lebanese operatives are meaningless. Their only function is to sucker outsiders into believing they’re real and meaningful in order to sell tickets to Lebanon’s imagination land.
For its part, the United States, which is already deeply involved in Lebanon, is also playing a cynical game, similar to that of the Lebanese. When Hezbollah held the majority in parliament and ran the government, Washington was hardly dissuaded from dealing with and supporting that government. American policymakers simply invented a convenient fiction, distinguishing between “the Lebanese state” and Hezbollah, and using that phony distinction as a fig leaf. France, meanwhile, deals with Hezbollah directly, on the understanding that the group holds the keys to the place, where France has invested money and prestige.
Both France and the United States have spent the last two years exerting pressure on Saudi Arabia to reengage and renew sustained funding of Lebanon. Although the recently returned Saudi ambassador to Lebanon has been active, and has put some backing behind Geagea and others, there is no horizon here. A comment the other day by the Saudi foreign minister suggests that, the ambassador’s visibility notwithstanding, the Kingdom’s leadership is well aware of this reality and is keeping Lebanon at arm’s length. Riyadh’s limited engagement is best explained as alliance maintenance to keep the French happy without going overboard.
Israel, on the other hand, cannot afford to treat any part of the Lebanese circus as though it were reality. Notwithstanding editorials and columns by Israeli pundits about the importance of the Lebanese election, or the signs of hope it might presage, Jerusalem is forced to face the fact that its interest in Lebanon is Hezbollah’s military arsenal and the threat it poses to Israel’s security. While American and French officials, not to mention D.C. think tankers, are sure to deafen Israeli officials with their tales about how the “smart” play to “weaken” or “constrain” Hezbollah is to “strengthen state institutions” and “play the long game” by supporting “political opposition groups and civil society,” Israel can’t lose sight of the fact that none of these things are real.
Israel’s problem in Lebanon, meanwhile, is entirely real—and it’s a military, not a political, problem. For most of the past decade, Israel has gone out of its way to avoid action in Lebanon. Instead, it has focused its energy on targeting Iranian and Hezbollah assets in Syria, and to prevent the establishment of an additional active front against it in the south of that country. For all its success and appeal—both in terms of actively downgrading enemy capabilities and extending the period of quiet with the northern front—the policy, known as “the war between wars,” has some dangerous flaws.
First, Hezbollah’s capabilities continue to grow in Lebanon, especially the local development of precision guidance capability for their missiles, which are said to be produced at the rate of a few a day and are now estimated to be in the hundreds. Second, this growth in military capability is playing against the strategic backdrop of U.S. policy with Iran. The Biden administration is pulling out all the stops to ink a deal with Iran in June. Once signed, the deal will remove sanctions on the terror-sponsoring state and finance its regional project and military assets.
Israel is putting out signals that it is weighing military options. For now, with Russia preoccupied with Ukraine, Israel is intensifying its strikes in Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah assets. But at some point, maybe sooner rather than later, it will face a moment of decision as to whether it will take action inside Lebanon. Whatever Israel decides to do, its decision needs to be clear of any illusion about the nature of the problem it faces in Lebanon—and of any self-delusion that entering the world of imaginary things so dear to American policymakers is a viable alternative for how to address the real and growing threats to Israel’s security.
Lebanon is a hall of mirrors. Activists, analysts, and U.S. government officials use words like “state institutions,” “elections,” “reform process,” and so on, but all they do is warp one’s brain. To remain grounded in reality, ignore the Aristocrats.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.