11 questions with ‘Road to Fatima Gate’ author Michael Totten

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Michael Totten is the author of the recently released book, “The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel.”

Totten is an independent foreign correspondent who has reported from all over the world, including the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucuses. A frequent contributor to Commentary magazine, Totten’s work has also been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post and Reason magazine, among many other publications. He was named Blogger of the Year in 2006 by The Week magazine for his prolific blog,

Totten recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his new book and the current turmoil in the Middle East:

1. Why did you decide to write the book?

I wanted to write a dramatic first-person narrative about revolution, terrorism, and war in the Middle East in the wake of September 11, and what happened during and after the Beirut Spring is, I think, the most compelling story I’ve ever witnessed. The revolution that overthrew Syria’s military dictatorship in Lebanon looked and felt like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but Syria, with its allies in Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran, effectively reconquered the country by capping a ruthless murder and intimidation campaign with an armed attack on Beirut. They also, as of course you know well, blew up the Eastern Mediterranean when they triggered a devastating war with Israel in 2006. There is no shortage of explosions in this book. The story begins and ends with a bang.

2. Tell us about your experience dealing with Hezbollah while you were in Lebanon.

Dealing with Hezbollah is surreal. When I first arrived in 2005, the media relations department was reaching out to Western journalists and academics. The party’s officials hoped to get some positive coverage in the U.S. and Europe, but the guy in charge threatened me with violence after I cracked a joke he didn’t like on my blog. I was also detained by Hezbollah security agents when they suspected an American photographer I was working with was Jewish because his middle name is Isaac. He and I were both blacklisted for life for no real reason at all, though by now I’ve done much more to cheese them off than cracking a joke at their expense.

Almost every journalist I know who has ventured into Hezbollah territory has been detained, screamed at, threatened, or all of the above. They used to kidnap American journalists and chain them to radiators. The party’s officials and security people seem oblivious to Totten’s First Rule of Media Relations: be nice to people who write about you for a living.

Yet some reporters nevertheless run off to Lebanon and romanticize these terror-guerrillas as the authentic Third World resistance. They write fanboy-style dispatches about them in various newspapers and magazines. Some pretend that’s not what they’re doing while others are utterly shameless. They’re the same kinds of people who were communists during the Cold War. Hezbollah’s obscurantist and violent behavior makes no more an impression on them than Stalin’s show trials did to true believers in the 1930s.

3. How closely do you believe Hezbollah coordinates its moves with Iran and how has the Iran-Hezbollah relationship changed (if at all) since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war?

Hezbollah is effectively the Mediterranean branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah takes his orders from Iran’s  Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei’s portrait is everywhere on billboards and posters in the Hezbollah-controlled parts of the country, as are portraits of Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollahland is basically an Iranian satellite state inside Lebanon. And since Hezbollah controls the Lebanese-Israeli border — where the famous Fatima Gate of the title is located — that border has become not only the front-line in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also the front-line in the Iranian-Israeli conflict and in Iran’s war against the West in general.

4. In 2005, Americans cheered as Syria was forced to end its occupation of Lebanon. To what extent has Syria returned and what influence does Syrian dictator Bashar Assad now have over the direction of Lebanon?

Lebanon is a somewhat anarchic place that no one fully controls — not Hezbollah, not Lebanon’s ostensible government, not Iran, and not Syria — but Assad has much more power there now than he did after his soldiers and intelligence agents were forced to go home in 2005. He and his local proxies have killed enough Lebanese officials, journalists, members of parliament, and random civilians that they can now do whatever they want. They can also force the government to do what they want.

5. What do you think American policy should be toward Lebanon?

We should support our friends and resist our enemies, just like everywhere else. It’s tricky in Lebanon, though, because friends, enemies, and neutrals are all mixed together in one place. It’s not like, say, Korea where our friends are in the south and our enemies are in the north on the other side of the DMZ.

For now, though, as long as Lebanon’s government can’t make its own decisions about war and peace, and can no longer make even a rhetorical stand against Hezbollah’s existence as an Iranian army inside the country, we have little choice but to place the country in the “hostile” column. We do still have friends there, though, who are not now and never have been hostile. They’ll have more power and influence again at some point in the future, so we need to take care not to alienate them or make their ordeal worse by treating the entire country as though it’s a terrorist nest. Lebanon should be thought of and treated as the swing state it is. They’ve taught democracy in schools there for fifty years. Some day it will be okay, after the world around it has changed.

6. If you could boil down what you want readers to take away from your book to a few points (I know that’s hard!), what would those points be?

I wrote this book as much as possible like a novel. It has characters, dialogue, plot, suspense, cliffhangers, and a dramatic conclusion. Of course, the difference between “The Road to Fatima Gate” and an actual novel is that all my characters are real, some of them have become my friends, and everything I dramatize actually happened. So if I succeed in bringing the Middle East alive to people who have never been there, I will be happy.

It’s not a right-wing or a left-wing book with a partisan argument, unless, I guess, you’re a political maniac who thinks I’m hopelessly “biased” because I hope the terrorists lose. I can’t think of any reason why Hillary Clinton wouldn’t like this book any more or less than John McCain would.

7. You are one of the best foreign reporters around. What is the most dangerous situation you have put yourself in while trying to get a story?

Thank you for saying that.

I’m not actually sure which is the most dangerous situation I’ve put myself in. I can tell you that the most frightened I’ve ever been was during the scenes I wrote about in Chapter Eight, “The July War,” which takes place on the Lebanese-Israeli border during the hot summer war of 2006. I was there on the front line with my friend and colleague Noah Pollak while Hezbollah rockets exploded around us and Israeli tanks blasted their way into Lebanon. It’s quite an experience being in a war zone for the first time, let me tell you. Perhaps the strangest thing about that experience was how fast I got used to it. There is only so much adrenaline in the human body, I guess.

Baghdad was a lot less kinetic and a lot less frightening when I later went there during the surge with American soldiers, but I’m not entirely sure which place was more dangerous. All I can tell you is that the Lebanese-Israeli border was a lot scarier for me personally, and a lot more compelling to write about.

8. Let’s talk some current events. A lot is going on in the Arab world. What do you think of the revolutions that are taking place? Does anything make you uneasy about them? Or are you optimistic that they will result in greater freedom in the region?

I think each revolution will most likely end differently and that the region-wide result will be mixed. Tunisia might be okay. It’s culturally the most “Europeanized” of the Arab countries. It feels more “Mediterranean” than “Arab” somehow, though it is, of course, both. It also felt pre-democratic when I visited years ago. Libya next door is a totalitarian dungeon. Gadaffi’s rule has been less violent than Saddam Hussein’s was, but not much less oppressive. At least Libya is free of the sectarianism that so poisons Lebanon and Iraq. Egypt is a brutally poor and heavily Islamicized basket case. These countries won’t likely resemble each other five years from now any more than they do today.

I think those who assume that the results of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the Khomeinists seized power after liquidating the liberals and leftists, will be repeated everywhere are being too pessimistic. The Iranian model of revolution is not the only one the Muslim world has experienced. Indonesia managed to overthrow Suharto without degenerating into Islamist tyranny. Albania got rid of Enver Hoxha and is a more or less functioning democracy now even though it’s still a bit ramshackle. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world yet has had several peaceful transfers of power recently without any of the new leaders being Islamists. None of the former Soviet Muslim nations are democracies, but they aren’t Islamist theocracies either, and the odds that they will be in the future are, I think, pretty remote.

The Arab countries, though, are in general more Islamicized than the countries on the periphery of the Muslim world, and many are also more politically dysfunctional, so I wouldn’t put myself in the optimist camp either, especially after witnessing the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah bloc crush the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon. The Middle East is a tragic and violent place that seems to have a nearly limitless capacity to smash the idealists who want so badly for their civilization to join the 21st century.

9. What country keeps you up at night in terms of being a threat to America?

I can fall asleep almost instantly (waking up is more complicated), so nothing keeps me up at night except a late cup of coffee. I can and do sleep soundly even in war zones. But the one country that troubles me most — for all the usual reasons, but also for some of my own — is Iran. What Iran has done to the parts of Lebanon it controls through Hezbollah is absolutely horrendous, and I watched with my own eyes the Iranian government try with all its might to do the same thing in Iraq through the militias it sponsored there.

I don’t believe Iran will use nuclear weapons against Israel, but at the same time we and the Israelis would be fools to think it can’t happen. I believe Iran won’t nuke Israel, but I don’t believe that in quite the same way that I believe France won’t nuke Israel.

If Iran and its Syrian, Hezbollah, and Hamas allies all decide to wage war at the same time — watch out. The entire region will burn, and the entire world’s energy source will be jeopardized to an extent few of us would be comfortable contemplating for long.

10. What books most influenced your worldview?

It’s easier for me to say which authors have influenced my worldview than which books of theirs in particular, and my answer is George Orwell, Paul Berman, and Christopher Hitchens.

11. Any plans to write another book? If so, what about?

I have two more books coming out soonish. The first is called “In the Wake of the Surge,” and it takes place entirely in Iraq. The second is called “Where the West Ends: Stories from North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus.”