The Mideastwire Blog

Excerpts from the Arab and Iranian Media & Analysis of US Policy in the Region

Thanassis Cambanis’s Great U-Turn: From “The Arab Spring Killed Hezbollah” (2012) to Hezbollah is a “decisive regional player” (2017)

Many journalists and analysts over the years have either wrongly predicted the course of the Syria War and/or Hezbollah’s fortunes or have recommended policies (invariably of the military brand) that were way out of their purview of training and background to properly understand and then publicly promote.

I wrote about Noah Bonsey’s Crisis Group report in 2015, where his lack of military training and experience is front and center in the critique: “When NGOs Call For Military Intervention in Syria: The Case of the International Crisis Group”/Huffington Post, September 2015 –

And I wrote a response to Thanassis’s Century Foundation call for military intervention in Syria, along similar lines, in 2016: “The False, Perilous Choice Of A ‘Limited’ American Bombing Campaign In Syria”/Huffington Post, June 2016 –

Unfortunately, Thanassis – a good journalist who has bravely and ably covered US-led interventions in the region, but who has more recently morphed into an analyst – has proceeded down both deeply problematic paths over the last seven years or so, propounding bold analytical predictions that turn out to be wrong and periodically recommending military “solutions” (always described as “limited”) for which he has no formal training.

This is a reminder, in my view, of several rules that foreigners to the Middle East (like myself) should follow when they want to report and/or provide certain types of analyses. These are points that I usually stress to our research delegations, especially for Undergrads and MA students who join us in our structured engagement sessions:

  1. Academic Training – If you want to move from being a journalist to an analyst as a foreigner (we can debate this point for people that are born in the region, study here and then live and work deeply in the societies they want to explain and help), you need to take the time to undergo formal academic training at least concerning the Middle East, international politics/history and grand strategy (again, at a bare minimum). And, crucially, if you want to put forward military-related policies that could wrack great, sometimes unintended, destruction and violence on a society that is not your own, you must have training and experience in the tactics, strategy and history of the military.
  2. Language Skills and Wide Engagement – If you are going to purport to cover and/or analyze a society or political formations deeply, and continually purport to say broadly what “Arab’s think,” or what “the street” thinks, or what “most observers in (add Arab country) believe, then you simply must have a high degree of language ability as well as deep and continual interactions with different stratas of society in their own language(s).

In 2012, Thanasis wrote a piece here in New Republic that I criticized when it came out. It was simply headlined:

“How the Arab Spring Killed Hezbollah”

I had already taken issue with a number of Thanassis’s positions in the preceding few years, especially with his book on the Party which was titled with equally unhelpful flair: A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel. (One of my criticisms was the historically inaccurate title, since Hezbollah publicly agreed to lay down their arms in the fight against Israel in February and March 2000 when Israel, Lebanon and Syria were about to conclude a peace agreement that would have obligated the party to do so in no uncertain terms.)

Anthropology Professor Lara Deeb, who has written extensively about the Party and who has conducted countless field interviews in Arabic with a wide retinue of Party officials, cadres and supporters, wrote the best review of the book here, saying “…The title, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, suggests yet another account casting the party as a collection of fanatics waiting in line to carry out acts of terrorism. This feverishness is rather surprising, not only because the best Western observers have transcended such crude attitudes toward Hizballah, but also because Cambanis is reputed to be one of the better journalists writing about the Middle East…”

By 2012, Thanassis was riding the wave of most Western analysts and officials (and quite a few from the region itself) who kept on predicting that Assad’s fall was imminent (I warned about the dangers of this view in May 2011 and again in the New York Times in February 2012 here). His NR piece is replete with observations and certainties that were simply outside the realm of his actual abilities and engagement at the time. He wrote:

  • “It’s getting harder for even Hezbollah’s most committed supporter to believe that Syria’s uprising is a foreign, American-backed plot to massacre innocents, create sectarian strife, and impose Israeli hegemony over the Levant.”
  • “The very fact that Nasrallah felt compelled to risk emerging from his underground safe haven suggests that he fears very seriously for his organization’s future. It’s a remarkable change for a movement that was once confident in its ideological rigor and in its ability to earn unparalleled popular support in the region.”
  • “…[Hezbollah’s] complicity in domestic political assassinations no longer is credibly debated…”

Once again, Thanassis was asserting to the unsuspecting reader that he really knew these societies deeply (from “Inside” their “Legions”) and that he certainly knew where matters were headed, in no small part because he knew the milieus so well and because he understood the geo-political history and current affairs of the Middle East. As a result, in 2012 he concluded briskly:

  • “Today, of course, his [Nasrallah’s] critical patron in Syria is teetering, threatening to vastly curtail Hezbollah’s military power, and his source of money and weapons in Iran is distracted by sanctions, a feeble economy and its nuclear showdown with the West. More importantly, the Arab world is awash in genuine retail politics. Indeed, what ultimately broke Hezbollah’s monopoly on popular legitimacy—what ultimately put the Axis of Resistance to rest as a meaningful political or ideological bloc in the Middle East—were the Arab revolts.

Just yesterday, however, Thanassis and a policy associate at the Century Foundation, Sima Ghaddar, wrote this:

  • “Through all these crises on the border, Hezbollah has steadily built its capacity and deepened its relationships with institutions and governments, making clear that it is de facto a peer, rather than a player in a less significant category simply by dint of being defined as a non-state actor. When Hezbollah dived headlong into Syria’s civil war, many observers of the Middle East wondered whether the adventurist gamble would [sic] the undoing of the Lebanese Party of God. Instead, it appears that five years of open international warfare have strengthened Hezbollah’s regional position, consolidating its transnational military and political organization. The Party of God entered the Syrian war as a dominant force inside Lebanon; it appears set to emerge from it as a decisive regional player, likely to be as powerful in the coming period as most of the Middle East’s full-fledged states.”

Alongside the erroneous predictions in 2012 (as well as those previous and subsequent), and the confident pronouncements about what regional actors and publics themselves might be thinking and feeling, Thanassis’s conclusion here is also particularly startling: Isn’t this precisely the point at which an analyst needs to let their readers know that, it was also me who got the situation wrong…I was one of those observers? And, finally, a question that today, sadly, seems quaint: What, if any consequences, should come from such self-reflection or institutional awareness?



Written by nickbiddlenoe

August 1, 2017 at 6:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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