Commentators in the Arab media are proclaiming Hezbollah’s campaign a great victory for the Arab world. At the same time, there aren’t many echoes in the Western media of President Bush’s claim that Hezbollah was defeated. But Beirut’s Daily Star opinion editor Michael Young tells Bob that popular support for Hezbollah in Lebanon has not increased over the past month, and that this may have been a pyrrhic victory for the group.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Young is the opinion editor of The Lebanon Daily Star. He also has been tracking public perceptions of the war, but he says Hezbollah is far from convincing the Lebanese that they've won anything.
MICHAEL YOUNG: The idea that the party has gained popularity is, I'm afraid, one of these propaganda pieces that has come out, and it seems to have spread, particularly in the Western media. I can assure you that from my observations in the last month or so, from talking to political leaders, from talking to people all around, this is simply incorrect. I mean, yes, among some segments of the population, there was admiration for the fight it put up in the south, certainly. Israel is not popular. But you would be surprised at how much within the Sunni community, within the Christian community, within the Druze community, there was a great deal of anger with how the party had taken Lebanon into a completely unnecessary, pointless, destructive war.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the arc of the press coverage and the editorial opinion in Beirut, for example, during the course of the war.
MICHAEL YOUNG: Hezbollah, from the beginning of the war, kept a very tight lid on information. We don't know how many losses they've taken. I've heard anecdotally that they've lost a few hundred combatants, 3-400. The Israelis say 500. The fact of the matter is, we have to guess. The only source of information in South Lebanon was Hezbollah and the UNIFIL, the United Nations Force, but the UNIFIL was not able to get around. The foreign media in Beirut, when they wanted to go to the southern suburbs, they were taken there by Hezbollah. What I noticed was that in the media, there was a special effort by all the channels to show those in Lebanon who were critical of Hezbollah, but also to give a lot of space to those defending Hezbollah. But I think many people, when they went on talk shows, when they went onto the news and they spoke about Hezbollah, they tended to adopt Hezbollah's position out of fear of some kind of retaliation. And I think it's only towards the end that you began to see the criticism level rising more.
BOB GARFIELD: Threats against those who speak out against Hezbollah are not necessarily empty ones. There have been assassinations in the past of political figures and journalists.
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, I mean, we don't know if Hezbollah was involved in any of these assassinations or bombings. It was more the Syrians who were accused of this. But Hezbollah, while it has not reacted in a violent way up to now, and it may indeed never do so, it's not the kind of organization, and the Shiite community is not in a mood today where one can say absolutely there is nothing to fear if you criticize the party. They read everything, and even in a time not of war, but of peace, they could be quite spirited in their response to criticism directed against them. Let me bring you to one particular incident. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, in, I believe it was the second week of the war, went on Al-Jazeera and had an interview. And at the end of the interview, before closing, he essentially threatened those people in Lebanon who were not on his side, as he put it, and he said there will be repercussions at the end of the war. We may be forgiving or we may not be.
BOB GARFIELD: On the question of who won this war, in Lebanon, as we've discussed, it's not altogether clear. In Israel, there is probably no consensus, but there is an enormous amount of criticism about the way the war was prosecuted and about how it ended up. Yet elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the press seems pretty much unanimous that it was a great historic victory, that Israel was finally put in its place and proven not to be militarily omnipotent. Is anyone in Lebanon reacting to the consensus elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds that this was a huge triumph?
MICHAEL YOUNG: The fact that the Arabs are praising this shows you how miserably the Arabs have performed in past wars in the Middle East. And we are looking at the Israeli press now - many people read it in Beirut – and indeed there is within Israel great criticism of the military establishment. But the fact is that the vast majority of Lebanese, we look around us and we say, well, if this is what Israel did on a bad day -- you know, it knocked us from six to ten billion dollars back, it ruined our road system, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese now and in the future probably will emigrate because they don't really feel there's a future in the country –- if Israel can do that on a bad day, what can it do on a good day? And I do recognize Hezbollah fought well in the south against the Israelis. But one does not measure victory in that way.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Michael. Well, as always, thank you so much.
MICHAEL YOUNG: And thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Young is the opinion editor at The Daily Star in Lebanon. His latest piece in the U.S. media was in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, titled "Hezbollah's Other War." [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, getting news out of Cuba is very difficult, and getting American propaganda into Cuba is even harder. This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]