Calling Israel’s war in Lebanon a "catastrophe," the former president of Morgan Stanley International talks about the democrats’ "huge mistake" in backing the Bush administration’s Israel policy. Richard Debs, who is also the Chairman Emeritus at the American University of Beirut, talks about the role that Syria, Iran, and the US media play in the crisis, and his view that "democracy has become a code word—and not a good codeword—in the Middle East." [includes rush transcript]
As it nears its fifth week, Israel’s attack on Lebanon is intensifying. At least 69 people were reported killed Monday. The deadliest attack occurred in Beirut when an Israeli missile struck a densely populated residential building killing 15 people. Israel is now threatening to bomb any vehicle driven in Southern Lebanon. Israel has also warned residents of southern Lebanon not to go outdoors after 10 p.m. The southern city of Tyre is now largely cut off from the rest of the world. All bridges out of the city have been destroyed. Meanwhile on the diplomatic front, the Arab League has opposed the U.S.-written resolution to end the fighting because it is seen as slated toward Israel. The resolution does not require Israel to immediately pull out of Lebanon.
This past weekend the New York Times ran an article about the differing views within the Lebanese-American business community over the Israeli invasion. The article quotes investment fund manager Ziad Abdelnour, who describes himself as a neo-conservative. Abdelnour said he supports Israel’s attack, saying: "There is no other way but to absolutely annihilate Hezbollah. I bleed when I see my country suffering like this, but you can’t build a Hong Kong and harbor terrorists." We speak with a prominent Lebanese American businessman who expresses a different view.
- Richard Debs, former President of Morgan Stanley International and former Chair of the Board of the American University of Beirut.
AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest is a Lebanese American and former Chair of the Board of American University of Beirut. Dr. Richard Debs is Advisory Director of Morgan Stanley, a member of its International Advisory Board. He joined Morgan Stanley in 1976 as the founding President of Morgan Stanley International. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
RICHARD DEBS: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Your thoughts on Lebanon today.
RICHARD DEBS: That is a wide open question. My thoughts are that it’s a dismal situation. I really am very distraught about it, as most of the world is. I don’t see the reason for us being in this situation. I just can’t believe that we Americans led ourselves into this. People are being killed on both sides. Innocent people are being killed. And this, in my view, could have been managed much better, going back, by our government to avoid this kind of situation. It’s tragic. And we — the Lebanese people are now suffering. The country will be really put back many, many years. Many years. Actually, scars that won’t — we won’t recover from. But more than that, I think America itself is wounding itself in such a way that it’s going to take us decades to recover from what we’ve done here.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think was the major mistake that was made?
RICHARD DEBS: By us? The major mistake was letting this situation in the Middle East fester as it has, benign neglect or malign neglect, whatever the case was. This government would not play the role that it should have as the major, major power in the world, with great influence over Israel, obviously. And no longer does this president have the role of a peacemaker that is evenhanded — you know, the evenhanded policy we’ve had or attempted to have over the years — and basically let the situation get out of control.
AMY GOODMAN: The timetable that’s often given is that this began in mid-July, when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers. Is that your timetable? Is that how you see it?
RICHARD DEBS: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not. This is not a one-shot recent affair. This situation — really you have to go back many decades, but more recently, this is the way the Lebanese look at it, and most of the Middle East, including those who would rather see Hezbollah disappear. Going back to the civil war in Lebanon that had been caused by many, many reasons, many parties involved, sectarian and so forth, but also foreign interference, including that of Israel, who went in in the early ’80s and occupied, bombed Beirut, bombed Lebanon, in much the same way as they are doing now, but it was in ’82 or so that Hezbollah itself was organized. And from ’82 until 2000, Israel occupied the southern part of Lebanon, after having created devastation in the country itself, which took a long time. It never did recover, never did recover.
The south was in terrible shape. The poorer Lebanese lived there . The occupation lasted all that time. And Hezbollah was created, not just as a military force, but as a welfare organization, like a state within a state. They took care of the people there. The Lebanese government did not, could not get there to do it. The army couldn’t get there to do it. The police couldn’t get there to do it. Hezbollah was the government, in effect. They were seen, perceived as the Lebanese, and I say most of the Middle East, as having, after many skirmishes and so forth with the Israelis, forced the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000. And in that respect, Israel looks upon it as a peace-giving measure of retreating from an occupied territory. The Arabs, in general, look upon it as a victory for this group of guerrillas who forced the Israelis out of Lebanon.
Since then, there have been many skirmishes on that border, many skirmishes. Many people were killed on both sides. And there were prisoner exchanges, between Hezbollah kidnapping Israelis, Israelis taking as prisoners Lebanese, whom they still hold in captivity.
As I understand it, from everything I’ve heard, Hezbollah intended this kidnapping as the basis for a prisoner exchange. I don’t think that they expected the kind of reaction from Israel that they got. But whatever the case was, and when you look back chronologically, the first attack was by Hezbollah, going across the border, doing the kidnappings, which are illegal — there’s no doubt about it — but it’s happened before, and then the retaliation by Israel at Lebanon, not just at Hezbollah, because they couldn’t — I think the Israelis were surprised, as well, as to their inability to get to where the Hezbollah guerrillas are.
That, in itself, the bombing of Lebanon, in itself, was the real weak point in this whole strategy. But the reaction of Hezbollah at that point was to throw these missiles into Israel itself, killing many innocent people over there, and not beginning the conflagration, but responding to what the Israeli incursion was.
The first reaction by many Lebanese and many Arabs was, you know, it’s a pity that Hezbollah did this and creating this situation or causing, inflaming it. It didn’t take long for the Middle East, in view of what Israel did to Lebanon itself, an innocent people being killed and the infrastructure being destroyed — it’s amazing what has happened now in the country itself — to think, to change their view of Lebanon, even those who were opposed to Hezbollah and would rather have seen it just disappear, as considering them the heroes, the resistant fighters, against this aggressive state.
And not just Israel. In the Middle East, it’s now considered the American war against the Arabs. That’s what it’s gotten down to. And this is going to haunt us for many, many years, I think. I don’t see why we took this position blatantly. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. It’s not subtle. It’s not diplomatic or anything. The President says it over and over, and our Secretary of State says it over and over: we do not want a ceasefire, we will not press for a ceasefire, until certain conditions are met.
And this has been going on, as you know, for many weeks. In the meanwhile, every day more people are killed on both sides. And I’m sure the Lebanese dead count is going to exceed a thousand people easily by the time this is over, not to mention those who are wounded, but more importantly, those who are left behind. Those who are left behind, the refugees who have left their towns and villages, those who have received them in northern Lebanon — the economy is just devastated — those people are alive and will be around for a long time. And they won’t forget this American position of not wanting to stop the violence and the killing until Israel achieved its objectives.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dr. Richard Debs. He is the Advisory Director of Morgan Stanley. He is Chair Emeritus of the Board of Trustees of American University of Beirut. When we come back, I want to ask about your own family history — you’re a second generation Lebanese American — and talk about the banking community here.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today is Dr. Richard Debs. He’s the former President of Morgan Stanley International and Chair Emeritus of the Board of American University of Beirut, now Advisory Director at Morgan Stanley. I wanted to ask you a question about a piece that appeared recently in the New York Times that talked about the differing views of the Lebanese American business community over the Israeli invasion. The article quotes the investment fund manager, Ziad Abdelnour, who describes himself as a neoconservative and says that he supports Israel’s attack. The quote: "There is no other way but to absolutely annihilate Hezbollah. I bleed when I see my country suffering like this, but you can’t build a Hong Kong and harbor terrorists. The Lebanese cannot have their cake and eat it, too." Abdelnour added, many other Lebanese agree with him but are unwilling to speak out. Do you agree with that assessment?
RICHARD DEBS: I disagree with him, and I disagree with his assessment that other Lebanese are not speaking out, because that isn’t true. And I think what he said is not inconsistent, you know, with what a lot of people think. And also, you have to keep in mind that that article came out early on in this onslaught, when it wasn’t very clear whether or not Israel could jump in and clean out Hezbollah, so to speak, and get rid of that "cancer," as enemies call it.
But the reaction of most of the other Arab states was similar to that. That is to say, Hezbollah is an annoyance and a problem for them, the governments. But now, as you know, their attitude has changed completely, because the street in the Middle East is completely opposed to what Israel and the U.S. are doing. And the governments themselves, well, as witnessed by what’s going on with the Arab League today, the governments themselves have completely had to change their positions toward Hezbollah. They have to regard it now, despite what they’d like to do, have to regard it now as a resistance force against an onslaught in Lebanon killing innocent Lebanese people.
And those governments are in a position where they are very reluctant to speak out. I’m talking now about Egypt and Jordan and so forth, the ones closest to us politically. They have very grave reservations about criticizing U.S. policy outright like that, but their people are clearly expressing their views. And they are afraid — number one, they see the injustice of the situation. And number two, they’re afraid for their own positions.
This can’t go on, this American incursion in creating a new Middle East, as the Secretary of State said, going through the birthing pains of creating a new Middle East. A new Middle East for what? A new Middle East for the benefit of Israel and the United States. That’s the view over there. Those are code words. "Democracy" has become a codeword, I’m sorry to say, and not a good codeword in the Middle East. Democracy stands for now, in their perception, the idea of American sovereignty over the whole area and Israeli incursions into the whole area. It’s a very sad situation. So in terms of the Lebanese in this country, the ones I know, the American Task Force for Lebanon, and so forth and so on —
AMY GOODMAN: What is the American Task Force for Lebanon?
RICHARD DEBS: It’s an organization of mostly Lebanese American, mostly, but others, many Americans, as well, I mean non-Lebanese, who are more or less a constituency for Lebanon, has been for many years. It’s been going — I don’t know how long, but many decades here. And it’s clear that they are opposed to what’s going on, in terms of the Israeli onslaught in Lebanon.
Hezbollah is another issue. At this point, the question is, why is this continuing as it is? Why hasn’t the United States and its ally Israel — it’s not an ally; I mean, the U.S. and Israel are in this together clearly — why is this permitted to continue, the killing? There must be some other way to deal with this without killing innocent people or without letting innocent people be killed.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see this as a proxy war for the United States with Syria and Iran, or the beginning of a war?
RICHARD DEBS: Well, clearly, clearly, the U.S. would like to see change of regime in Syria and Iran. They would love it, obviously. It’s very obvious. The question of how this falls into that tactic, that strategy, falls into it, I think that the excuse of the kidnapping — I think the kidnapping was used as an excuse to try to get not just rid of Hezbollah, but to upset the whole situation in the Middle East.
AMY GOODMAN: But then, Israel says there have been more than a thousand missiles that have been fired at them, and they want to rout out Hezbollah, so that can’t happen again.
RICHARD DEBS: Right, after. After the onslaught. Yeah, there were a thousand — going back, there are always these ineffective missiles that have been lobbed over into Israel, doing very little harm. Now, what everybody’s surprised at is how effective — they have new missiles now. They are more effective, and they have many of them.
But remember that the kidnapping itself was the first move. The second move was Israel bombing Lebanon. The third move were these missiles coming out of Lebanon from Hezbollah. So, yeah, clearly, this is part, in my view — this is consistent with our animosity toward Syria and Iran.
On the other hand, you know, we handed Iraq over to Iran, in my view. We went into Iraq. We split the country up. And I’ve been around for a long time in that, and I go back many years, in visiting the Middle East and so forth. There was never this kind of Shia-Sunni split that people talk about. This is a recent development that’s been emphasized and aggravated by our policy in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Dr. Richard Debs, you are a leading member of the American establishment — I mean, the former President of Morgan Stanley International, a leading financier in this country. Not just talking about Lebanese Americans and Arab Americans, how do the other people in the banking community, your colleagues, feel about what’s going on?
RICHARD DEBS: Well, when you look at what’s going on, in terms of what’s happening to Lebanon, everybody I know, including my Jewish friends, as well, think that this is a catastrophe, the killing of these people. On both sides, mind you. Both sides. In Lebanon there are just more being killed, and the country’s being destroyed.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, we don’t hear this. There are very few voices on television right now that are speaking out against what is happening.
RICHARD DEBS: Correct. Because it is being — when the House and the Senate passed these resolutions early on in support of anything Israel wanted to do, basically, defense, didn’t mention the humanitarian aspects of it at all. That sort of set the stage for support, apparent support, of the Bush policy in the Middle East. And I think — actually, I think the Democrats made a huge mistake in going along with this position, because you’re right. The official position of the U.S., the White House and the Congress itself is that of complete support of Israel, with no real interest or no apparent interest in what’s happening in Lebanon. And it is put forth — the government of Israel puts it forth as, you know, a major priority of the state and the existence. It’s existential. It’s become to that. I mean, they use those words. So anyone who wants to speak out in opposition to Israeli policy puts himself at risk of being attacked just for that, taking of that position.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there any move within the Arab American establishment here in this country, in the banking community, which you say is, well, beyond Arab American, including Jewish bankers, to make a statement now to speak out? And what role do you think the media plays in all of this?
RICHARD DEBS: Well, I think people have been waiting, expecting this to stop. And when that happens, then we can have a sensible discourse about peace in the Middle East and what we do about it and so forth, the U.S. role. And I think everyone’s caught by surprise. There have been statements made, but no, this is a political hot potato. And people don’t know what to do about it, except to lament the fact that innocents are being killed. I mean, on that, you have unanimity. But apart from that, going to the causes and the reasons and the solutions, no, it’s a pretty risky political situation.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about the American University of Beirut? I know you can’t speak for it. You’re the former Chair of the Board. What has happened?
RICHARD DEBS: Yeah. Well, I keep obviously in touch with it. The situation there is that the American State Department pressured all Americans to leave Lebanon. In view of our policy there, any American who was killed, you know, would have been — that situation would have been very embarrassing for Americans and Israelis, so they wanted to get all the Americans out. And they put real pressure on getting them out. And most of them did leave.
AMY GOODMAN: How did they put pressure?
RICHARD DEBS: They got out as well as they could. You can’t get out anymore. I mean, now it’s all sealed off. You know, Israel has bombed all of the bridges north of Beirut, as well. And so, many of our administrative people — many, I mean hundreds — had to leave, did leave. The doctors, however, most of them stayed behind. We have a hospital, which is running and taking care of the sick and wounded. However, the problem there is not — the campus itself is fine. I mean, everyone has an interest in maintaining it and the hospital. So I think — and hopefully — I don’t want to make any predictions, but hopefully that will be fine. The problem here is the lack of fuel and electricity, therefore, and food. And my latest report is that the whole country has about seven days left of fuel. They’re going to run out in seven days. No trucks are coming in. There’s no relief there. The hospital itself has power for only ten hours a day, maximum.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Five seconds. Final statement?
RICHARD DEBS: We keep our fingers crossed and hope that some sensible, rational solution will be found by the world community.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Richard Debs, I want to thank you for being with us. Again, former President of Morgan Stanley International, former Chair of the Board of American University of Beirut.