Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East


by David Hirst
480 Pages | Buy this book

Beware of Small States purports to be a "definitive history of Lebanon." That's a stretch. Actually, it's a (mostly) definitive history of the role Lebanon has played as both a pawn and an agent in the ongoing battles between Arabs, Israelis, and Iranians, making the case for Lebanon as linchpin rather than little guy in the peace (or war) process.

What's The Big Deal?

This is not the same old Thomas Friedman take on the Middle East. Beware of Small States offers a wide-ranging, big-picture account by an author who truly knows the area. Hirst highlights Lebanon's central role in every major regional clash of the last 50 years and offers a drastically different (and, to many, an inflammatory) view of Israeli policy than what's familiar to most American audiences. He concludes that Lebanon will almost certainly be the site for a seventh Arab-Israeli war—probably very soon. That ought to turn some heads.

Buzz Rating: Whisper

There hasn't been much American buzz for the book, although in Britain, where Hirst is better known, he's gotten some press. With Israeli-American relations at a low, look for this stinging rebuke of Israel to garner more attention.

One-Breath Author Bio

A former longtime Middle East correspondent for The Guardian, Hirst has lived in Lebanon for 50 years, reported extensively on the region, was kidnapped twice, and has been thrown out of a half-dozen Arab countries because of his work.

The Book, In His Words

"This book didn't start out as a history of the Arab-Israeli struggle. Yet, at every stage of its writing, the struggle kept intruding on it as so inseparable, intrinsic and formative a part of its titular subject that that is what, in great measure, it turned out to be—a history in which Lebanon, the author's country of half a century's residence, nonetheless always remained to the fore as the lens through which he viewed it" (pages 425-426).

Don't Miss These Bits

1. Lebanon is not a Christian state—but not for lack of trying. Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion hoped to create an ally against Muslim Arabs by establishing a Christian Lebanon under the control of the Maronites, a once-dominant (though never majority) sect (page 64-65). He couldn't pull it off. Menachem Begin came closer in 1978 with the creation of a buffer zone on the Israel border that "at the time, looked very much like the first great practical step towards … the creation, at long last, of the 'Christian Lebanon', allied to Israel, of which Ben-Gurion and his generation of interventionists had dreamed" (page 120). That didn't come to fruition either.

Lebanon wanted no part of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In other Arab countries, governments were indifferent to the Palestinian refugees of 1948, but the people were sympathetic. Not so in Lebanon, where the population was quite cold, pointedly withholding even food and water (page 61). Likewise, when the Palestinian resistance organized into the PLO and made Beirut its base, that wasn't because of government support, strong local Arabism, or favorable terrain for guerrilla war: "It came, basically, because as a state [Lebanon] could not stop them from coming, and once they were there, it could not control and subjugate them" (page 86). Nor could Lebanon control Israel's response: the air force's pounding of Beirut in 1978.

3. The Israel Defense Forces are not as invincible as you think. Thanks to Israel's crushing victories in 1956, 1967, and 1973, Hirst writes, many Americans see the IDF as an unstoppable juggernaut, albeit one with some chinks in its armor after the disastrous 2006 war in southern Lebanon. But Israel's occupation of Lebanon between 1982 and 1985 didn't leave it unscathed. With losses of 600 soldiers, "in two and a half years, their dead already amounted, proportionately, to more than the 60,000 Americans killed in a decade of Vietnam" (page 202).

4. Until the early 1990s, Hirst writes, Israel was still convinced that Iran's Islamic regime was fragile and that the country would soon be a valuable partner in encircling the hostile Arab nations with governments friendly to the Jewish state. Yitzhak Rabin called Iran Israel's " 'natural ally,' even its 'best friend' " (page 254). But in the mid-1990s, the Israelis gave up and turned a cold shoulder to Iran, labeling it an "insane" regime with "megalomaniac tendencies," and even opposing mid-1990s attempts by Iran's president to reconcile with the U.S. Hirst labels that pressure on American policy as "sabotage" and says it helped to drive the growth of militant Shiite group Hizbullah, linked to Iran and today a major Israeli menace.

5. Brush up on Clean Break. The 1996 neoconservative manifesto meant to be a manual for Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then on his first stint as prime minister, has been reported on before, but it's worth examining anew how the strategy paper affected Lebanon. Clean Break's plan to topple Saddam Hussein sounds familiar to us in 2010. But what about the plan's wild idea to replace Saddam by reinstalling the Hashemite dynasty that was toppled in 1958 (page 279)? The paper's authors, including future Bush administration official Richard Perle, hoped that would help to stop Lebanese Shiites from supporting Hizbullah and Iran. As bumpy as the road has been in Iraq, it's probably a good thing they went with promoting democracy instead, both for Iraqis and in the interestes of American legitimacy in the region.

Swipe This Critique

Let's make this very clear: This book is, above all, a polemic against Israeli policy, and indeed most manifestations of Zionism. But it's neither hysterically argued nor sloppily supported—reasonable people should be able to read Small States, disagree fiercely with it, and still get something from it. (That said, Hirst's awestruck depiction of Hizbullah becomes tiresome. No matter how shocking the group's success against the IDF in 2006 was, waging successful guerrilla warfare and taking heavy civilian casualties are a far cry from the crushing military victory he says they were.) Hirst's Achilles heel is his tendency to lose the trees for the forest. Most glaringly, there's no detailed explanation of how Syria managed to dominate Lebanese politics for so long; it's just treated as a given. But he largely compensates for that weakness with a strongly argued larger case about Lebanon's central role in the next Middle Eastern war or peace process.

Factoid File

Great Green Hope Mir Hossein Mousavi, the Iranian opposition leader who many believe outpolled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the summer 2009 elections, shows up in the book, but it's in a rather different and less friendly guise than antigovernment reformer. Hirst describes Mousavi as warning that a French decision to supply weapons to Saddam Hussein in 1983, during the Iran-Iraq War, would be a "suicidal act" for France and America (page 193).


Prose: Hirst is a strong writer who knows his stuff. One small caveat: he writes with the flowery self-indulgence typical of newspaper journalists making the foray into books. Looser word-count restrictions shouldn't mean abandoning concision.

Construction: This book about Lebanon begins and ends with chapters that barely touch on Lebanon (the post–World War I Middle East, the 2008 Gaza invasion). Context is important, but so is staying on topic.

Miscellaneous: It's often impossible to tell what material comes from media sources, what comes from academic research, and what comes from Hirst's own reporting. The numerous but minimalist footnotes are little help.