The Pentagon’s new pin-up boy

Toby Harnden talks to Walid Jumblatt, who has seen the error of his anti-American ways

Text settings

Mukhtara, Lebanon

With his bald pate, droopy moustache and sad, bleary eyes, Walid Jumblatt looks more circus clown than Pentagon pin-up. And if the warlord’s eccentric appearance were not enough to dismay White House officials, then his penchant for virulent leftist anti-Americanism would seem to place him firmly in their ‘against us’ category.

As Lebanon’s Soviet-backed chieftain of the Druze, a secretive sect which broke away from Shia Islam in the 11th century and believes in reincarnation, Jumblatt, now 55, played an active role in the country’s blood-soaked civil war. In 1983 he announced a campaign of ethnic cleansing of Maronites. ‘With the help of our Syrian allies we have removed the Christians and only the Druze villages will remain.... Such is our objective.’ History records that he tried to be true to his word.

Over the years Jumblatt’s colourful pronouncements kept him well away from the Oval Office guest list. In 2003 he not so much as stepped but cartwheeled over the mark. Reflecting on the news that Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy Pentagon chief and top Washington neoconservative, had emerged unscathed from a rocket attack in Baghdad, he said, ‘We hope that next time the rockets will be more accurate and effective in getting rid of this virus and his like, who wreak corruption in the Arab lands.’

In case anyone was unsure where he was coming from, Jumblatt noted that the true axis of evil was one of ‘oil and Jews’. President George W. Bush was a ‘mad emperor’ while Tony Blair’s ‘idiot laugh’, ‘peacock appearance’ and preened hair were signs of a deep moral corruption. ‘People who pay that much attention to their appearance are fascists by nature. Or they have psychological or sexual complexes.’

Jumblatt was refused a US visa on the grounds that entry could not be permitted to an alien who had used his ‘position and prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity’. But that was then. When what the Bush administration swiftly dubbed ‘the cedar revolution’ broke out in Beirut, Jumblatt, by now a born-again anti-Syrian and de facto leader of the Lebanese opposition, told the Washington Post that he had changed his spots. The neoconservatives had a collective orgasm.

‘This process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq,’ Jumblatt ventured. ‘I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.’ Google hits on the comments so far: 9,620. Jumblatt’s stock in the White House: priceless.

Perched on a window seat in his magnificent ancestral home, which takes its name from the nearby village of Mukhtara in the Chouf mountains, Jumblatt rolled those sad eyes and made a pretty good fist of looking sheepish.

‘I heard a nice remark about me by Paul Wolfowitz on TV the other day,’ he said. Wolfowitz had commented, ‘Even a man like Walid Jumblatt who has said some not so nice things in the past has had a lot of courage in standing up to the Syrians. We admire that.’

Jumblatt, sipping Arabic coffee in a cavernous anteroom decorated with his collections of 19th-century French rifles and Roman glass, appeared genuinely chastened. ‘I do appreciate his dismissing my awful remarks wishing him to be dead,’ he said. ‘I was in this old, closed mindset of denouncing the imperialist.’

Looking around the Arab world, not least in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, where thousands had gathered to demand an end to a Syrian occupation that began in 1976, Jumblatt concluded that Bush’s brand of freedom and democracy was the wave of the future. ‘Slowly but surely the Berlin Wall of Arab regimes is crumbling,’ he said, pausing as one of his parrots screeched. ‘There was voting in Iraq, voting in Palestine. When Arafat died, Abu Mazen was elected according to the constitution. The Saud family decided it was time for municipal elections. President Mubarak has decided that he’s not going to be the sole candidate in September. Things are really moving.’

But despite the Karl Rove talking points, Jumblatt is not exactly a sunny optimist. There were dark forces, he intimated, that would be difficult to defeat. ‘[President Bashar] Assad [of Syria] is trying to buy time. If he gets out of Beirut and the foreign policy of Lebanon, he’s going to lose a lot of prestige. And there’s another aspect — money. You have a joint Syrian–Lebanese mafia that is strangling the country.’

The Jumblatt family history has left him with a tendency towards fatalism. In 1977, when Walid was a 27-year-old playboy known for speeding along the mountain roads on his Harley in denims and a leather jacket, he heard the rattle of a machine-gun. He ran down from the Mukhtara to find his father slumped in the back of his car, his brains oozing on to the newspaper he had been reading.

Jumblatt’s father, Kamal, leader of the Progressive Socialist party, had been murdered by two men wearing Syrian special brigades uniforms. His grandfather Fouad was assassinated in 1921, his aunt was shot dead in 1976 and his ex-wife committed suicide. ‘My father once said, “No one in this family dies in his bed”,’ said Jumblatt. ‘I’m living on borrowed time.’

Did he expect to expire peacefully? ‘Let’s leave it to destiny. It’s the risks of the business. If you are obsessed by security you are paralysed psychologically.’ Nevertheless, the tall, rail-thin Druze is not venturing out of the Mukhtara, where the Jumblatts have lived since about 1650, for fear of meeting death on the road to Beirut just like his father.

The Mukhtara still bears bullet and shrapnel marks from the civil war. ‘We were bombed by our own army at one point,’ said his glamorous Syrian wife, Nora. The complex also survived a broadside from the USS New Jersey in 1982. ‘They can’t blow up all these buildings,’ Jumblatt said proudly as he peered through a Soviet artillery range-finder in his sitting-room. ‘They’d need B52s.’

Long seen as a weathervane of Lebanese politics, Jumblatt has cleverly used shifting alliances to keep the Druze, under 10 per cent of the population, aligned with those on top. His rejection of Syria is a recognition that, on balance, Bush rather than Assad is calling the shots. He chuckled at the notion that he is now the darling of the neocons, though he fits almost to a tee the classic definition of the term — socially liberal, formerly left-wing, a believer in the efficacy of military power and the universal application of democracy. He even confessed to reading the works of Robert Kaplan. ‘After the compliments of Mr Wolfowitz, perhaps I should join the club.’

‘What he said showed that he was a civilised, rational person. The difference between the Western and the Eastern mind is that in the West they reason like Descartes, in the Eastern, totalitarian world they don’t use reason — in the morning you are a traitor and in the afternoon a patriot.’

Toby Harnden is chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.