Posted by: sean | December 5, 2007

Not knowing Shi’ite from Shinola

I generally try to stay away from the National Review. This explains why I didn’t see the inane and meretricious “reporting” done by W. Thomas Smith Jr. until today. I’ve commented here before on ridiculous and sensationalist accounts of Lebanon, but this guy really takes the cake. Smith wrote last September:

Hezbollah is rehearsing for something big here. Not sure what or when. But a few days ago, between 4,000 and 5,000 HezB gunmen deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in an unsettling “show of force,” positioning themselves at road intersections and other key points throughout the city.

It just so happens that I live on the East side of town in one of the “Christian areas of Beirut,” and I can guarantee that Smith’s account is laughably untrue. On the day that Smith says Hezbollah “deployed” to East Beirut, I was doing some shopping. I live on the border of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mkhail and went to Sassine and ABC that day (all of which are Christian neighborhoods), and rest assured, there were no Hezbollah militants, much less armed ones, to be seen anywhere.  Had what he described been true, there would most likely have been a civil war, or at the very least isolated street fighting. As it was, not only was there no fighting, but not a single journalist in Beirut, foreign or Lebanese, picked up on Hezbollah’s alleged “show of force.” There’s a very simple reason for this: it never happened. If Hezbollah were to deploy a dozen armed militants to Achrafieh, that would be crossing one of Lebanon’s red lines. Saying that there were 4,000-5,000 gunmen here is beyond farfetched; it’s in the realm of the outlandishly comic. 

I’ve had neither the time, nor the stomach, to wade through all of this guy’s Lebanon “coverage,” but the few pieces I’ve opened are risible in their ridiculousness. Here’s another example:

Hezbollah are not the only terrorists operating here in Lebanon: There are also Al Qaeda affiliates like Fatah Al Islam (they were not totally wiped out at Nahr al Bared), as well as Jund al Sham (Soldiers of Damascus), Jundallah, Hamas, and — though few Americans are aware of this — operating elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on the Lebanese side of the Lebanese-Syrian border. These are just a few of the problem groups here: All operating under the auspices of Hezbollah.

Despite his mistranslation of “Sham,” which in this context means Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) and not Damascus, this little excerpt is absurd in that it explicitly says that all of the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups operating in the Palestinian camps, as well as Hamas and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are “operating under the auspices of Hezbollah.” First of all, no one knows who is connected to the various groups operating in the Palestinian camps. And second of all, anyone who believes that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is “under the auspices” of Hezbollah, and not the other way around, obviously knows nothing about either organization.

Smith’s scattergun approach to various armed groups in Lebanon is symptomatic of a larger, mostly American, approach to the Middle East, where al-Qaeda equals Hezbollah equals Hamas equals al Qaeda in Iraq equals Jund al-Sham ,etc. This is the kind of thinking that led most Americans to believe that Baghdad had something to do with 9/11 and leaves the defenders of the free world (see also: Reyes and Sarkozy) incapable of distinguishing between Sunnis and Shi’a.

Another fun read is this post, in which Smith brags about doing “reconnaissance” in the Dahiye, the suburbs where Hezbollah is based in Beirut. Or rather this would be funny if it were a satire and I were reading it to friends in Beirut. This guy seems to think that he’s in a Chuck Norris movie, which would be fine except for a couple of things. First, this “journalism,” in which Smith writes about spying on Hezbollah for pro-Government groups not only makes him sound like a macho asshole, it also casts a shadow of doubt on legitimate journalism done by actual reporters in a country where foreign correspondents are already viewed with an air of suspicion. Second, it makes Beirut sound like a war zone, which it’s clearly not.

And then there’s this gem. According to Smith, there were “some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen — positioned between the parliament and the Serail.” As it happens, I’ve spent a fair amount of time downtown, and this is not the first time I’ve written about Americans talking about the sit-in protest without knowing what they’re talking about. For the last few months, it’s been hard to find more than a couple of dozen people at the protest, much less hundreds of armed militants. I have never, I repeat: never, seen any Hezbollah weapons downtown. They may have them down there, but if they do, they’re hidden so well that someone who regularly strolls through the camp would not see them. To suggest that he surprised 200 armed militants out in the open while driving over the bridge that connects East and West Beirut is ridiculous.   

Finally, Jack Bauer — I mean W. Thomas Smith Jr. — gives us a post from an “undisclosed neighborhood“:

Lebanon is extremely dangerous for Americans right now. In fact, some top officials within the 1559 Committee (essentially the heart and soul of the Cedars Revolution … for a free Lebanon) believe some sort of dramatic terrorist event is going to take place here in Lebanon between now and mid-October. This is not a gut feeling, but a calculation based on intelligence analysis and chatter from the street.

Tony Nissi, the 1559 Committee chief here in Beirut (whom you’ll recall from previous entries), has reason to believe Hezbollah knows who I am. So I am deliberately not staying in hotels: Instead, I’m spending nights in friends’ houses — safe houses if you will — and always with bodyguards.

This one is the funniest of the bunch. If there are only half of the number of Americans in Lebanon now as there were during the July war, there’d still be over 10,000 Americans here, myself included. Beirut is decidedly not unsafe for Americans, unless of course they decide to go play G.I. Joe by arming themselves and doing “reconnaissance.” But even if Smith were to get picked up by Hezbollah or the Army for spying (which is basically what he claims he’s doing), they’d immediately recognize him for the  buffoon that he plainly is. He sounds more like a hapless character out of a Harry Mathews novel than an actual spy, or, God forbid, a journalist.

I could go on for pages about the factual inaccuracy of Smith’s reports, but it would just be more of the same. It’s amazing to me that NRO published any of Smith’s “reports.” They are so obviously bullshit that someone must have been asleep at the wheel over there. One of my pet peeves is the writing of partisan hacks who only travel for rhetorical flair, and Smith seems to be more of the same. The difference is that his case is so egregious that he’s getting called out on it. There are well respected journalists here in Lebanon and elsewhere who not only know the country intimately but are good writers to boot. Anthony Shadid, Annia Ciezadlo and Mohamad Bazzi are only a few of the names that come to mind. So why is there a need to send Chuck Norris wannabe hacks like Smith who evidently don’t know anything about the countries they’re ostensibly covering? If NRO wants coverage of Lebanon, there’s no dearth of talent already here in Beirut. Insisting on publishing Smith’s fabrications in order to toe an ideological line that pays no heed of Lebanon’s complex politics only makes NRO look stupid and dishonest.

If you’re interested in NRO’s response to similar allegations, you can see that here and here.

UPDATE: Kathryn Jean Lopez, online editor of the National Review has another statement up about Smith (emphasis mine):

With regard to the two posts in question, it is my belief, based on an investigation in which NRO discussed the matter with three independent sources who live and work in Lebanon (as well as other experts in the area), that Smith was probably either spun by his sources or confused about what he saw.

…the context that Smith was operating in an uncertain environment where he couldn’t always be sure of what he was witnessing, and the caveats that he filled in the gaps by talking to sources within the Cedar Revolution movement and the Lebanese national-security apparatus, whose claims obviously should have been been treated with the same degree of skepticism as those of anyone with an agenda to advance.

As one of our sources put it: “The Arab tendency to lie and exaggerate about enemies is alive and well among pro-American Lebanese Christians as much as it is with the likes of Hamas.” While Smith vouches for his sources, we cannot independently verify what they told him. That’s why we’re revisiting the posts in question and warning readers to take them with a grain of salt.

So let me get this straight. Lopez publishes Smith’s ridiculous posts that betray a fundamental ignorance of Lebanon and the political situation here, posts which were either made up entirely or fed to him by pro-Government forces, and the problem here is the “Arab tendency to lie and exaggerate.”

Wow. I almost don’t even know where to start with this one. Maybe she should just throw in another couple of lines about America’s mission civilisatrice and the white man’s burden and be done with it.

In any case, someone should send her message to Tom Harb, a rabid March 14 supporter in the US, who’s supporting Smith wholeheartedly (from Florida, no less) and accusing all of the journalists who have contradicted Smith of being on the Hezbollah payroll. Someone should remind him that his neo-conservative comrades in arms at NRO and elsewhere are fair weather friends to whom, at the end of the day, a wog is a wog, regardless of his political usefulness.



  1. Insisting on publishing Smith’s fabrications in order to toe an ideological line that pays no heed of Lebanon’s complex politics only makes NRO look stupid and dishonest.

    “Stupidity and dishonesty in defense of extremism are no vice” may as well be the motto of movement conservatism over the past 15 years.

    NRO’s ideological and financial interests do not require honesty. Conservatives pay them to be told things they want to hear.

    Thanks for this well-informed post.

  2. You -should -consider debunking in -greater -depth. -Somebody -has -to. -You -could -get this guy fired if -you -found -more -problems. You’d -be -doing -journalism -a -service.

  3. Elvis makes quite a few good points about Conservatives. But, let’s show a little compassion for Ms. Lopez. It’s not easy trying to deflect blame. But considering how often Conservatives have had to do this, you would think they’d be a little better at it.

    But one question remains unanswered as far as I’m concerned. If Smith was reporting events he allegedly witnessed, then how could he have been “spun” by his source?

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