When in the Middle East, one notices the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the one that all systems tend toward entropy, rules supreme and works FASTER than elsewhere. Despite its lush and exotic charm, Beirut hides close to a million supporters of a terrorist cult in its southern suburbs. Back in the day, I would drive south to Rammel and then up the mountain road through Shweifat until I reached Suq Al Gharb, where my Assyrian landlord told me he kept a Kalishnikov under his bed for the day when the Muslims would come "to kill our men and rape our women." A few years later, the Muslims did come. As Totten notes:
Sectarian tensions and hatreds run deep in Lebanon, even so, far deeper than those of us in the West can begin to relate to. 32 years ago Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. But 15 years ago Lebanon was the Somalia of the Middle East. It made the current troubles in Iraq look like a polite debate in a Canadian coffeeshop by comparison. There is no ethnic-religious majority in that country, and every major sect has been, at one time or another, a victim of all the others.
Anecdotes From a Banana Republic has one of the most depressing anecdotes I have heard in a long time, as one of the Christian war criminals [no, not Michel Aoun] followers recounts his past prowess at killing and rapine. Delusions are rampant in the Middle East, and the default position is a praetorian dictatorship---which Totten strangely believes US "conservative realists" are promoting, as well as wishing Syria would reoccupy the country!
Israel and Lebanon (especially Lebanon) will continue to burn as long as Hezbollah exists as a terror miltia freed from the leash of the state. The punishment for taking on Hezbollah is war. The punishment for not taking on Hezbollah is war. Lebanese were doomed to suffer war no matter what. Their liberal democratic project could not withstand the threat from within and the assaults from the east, and it could not stave off another assault from the south. War, as it turned out, was inevitable even if the actual shape of it wasn’t. Peace was not in the cards for Lebanon. Its democracy turned out to be neither a strength nor a weakness. It was irrelevant.
Holding up as a democracy in a dictatorial region isn’t easy. Chalk this up as yet another thing Israel and Lebanon have in common with each other that they don’t have in common with anyone else in the Middle East -- except, perhaps, for the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Unlike Israeli democracy, though, Lebanese democracy may not have the strength to keep breathing. Already some right-wing American "realists" are suggesting Syria return its forces to Lebanon. (Bashar Assad may be as much a foreign policy genius as his late father.) The March 14 Movement, the Cedar Revolution, may be too weak to survive until the region as a whole is transformed. If the Lebanese, the Americans, and the Israelis are not wise in the coming days, weeks, and months it could die the same death as the Prague Spring in the late 1960s, crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks and smothered until the day the world around it had changed.
Whoever thinks Syria will play a helpful role if it returns to Lebanon is not a "realist." Getting the irredentist Syrians out of Lebanon was a triumph of US and French [for once!] diplomatic cooperation and also proves that the UN, like a broken clock, can still be right [just not two times per day!] and useful. I think the US's allies in the region [outside Israel] would love to see the minoritarian Alawites removed and the 60% Sunni majority [strangely the same size as the Shi'ite majority in Iraq] restored to power. But the problem would be, could a Sunni-run Syria resist helping Hamas politically in the West Bank and Gaza? And would the Jordanian monarchy survive if Syria lurched into a democratic framework? [Probably yes, but one can never be certain]? And when Iran's lunatic prez claims Israel is trying to redraw the map of the Middle East, does he mean trying to overthrow his semi-Shi'ite Alawite allies in Syria? And there is a charismatic lunatic in Iraq named Muqtada Al Sadr who may not be able to resist his own personal inclinations towards terrorism and religious dictatorship if Iraq does succumb to its inner demons and a real Lebanon-style civil war ensues---with Iran helping Al Sadr in establishing an "Islamic Republic." Perhaps the wisest American observer examining the Middle East today is David Ignatius at the Washington Post, and he had a long article just after the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 with my former boss at the Oil Daily, a gentleman expatriate in France named Raja Sidawi who grew up in Syria and has some remarkable insights as Ignatius wrote below in 2003:
The March of Folly,’ a study by the historian Barbara Tuchman of history’s costliest blunders, was lying open on the reading table a year ago when I first discussed the prospect of an American invasion of Iraq with my Syrian-born friend, Raja Sidawi. America was about to make a mistake of historic dimensions, warned Sidawi, who made his fortune in the oil business and now runs Petroleum Intelligence Weekly and other industry publications. He likened the Bush administration’s implacable march into Iraq to Britain’s mobilization for the deadly morass of World War I, and America’s self-inflicted wounds in Vietnam. No, no, I told Sidawi. This time it could be different. The Arab world is beginning a period of upheaval and change, and good things will be impossible without the removal of Saddam Hussein. I visited Sidawi a few days ago. The headlines were recounting the deaths of more American and British soldiers in Iraq, as the daily toll of ambushes and firefights continued. The war, it seemed, might only be beginning. "I am sorry for America," Sidawi said. "You are stuck. You have become a country of the Middle East. America will never change Iraq, but Iraq will change America. To survive, you will have to develop a sense of irony." This tragic sensibility ? the sense that in most instances, things do not work out as you might have hoped ? is generally lacking in the American character. That is why Americans are such an optimistic people: They have difficulty imagining the worst. That was why Sept. 11 was so shocking. Most Americans never considered that such devastation could be visited on them. Arabs grow up in a culture where it is always best to assume the worst. Sidawi rattled off the list of wars and disasters that have afflicted the Middle East almost continuously since he was born in 1939. That is the bloody history in which America has now enmeshed itself. "You will learn the culture of death," warned Sidawi. He believes Iraq will change America, as the ambushes that kill one or two soldiers are replaced by truck bombs that kill dozens. Staying the course will make America a tougher country, and a different one, too. Sidawi decided that he wanted to leave that culture of death behind.
Truths don't become falsehoods with the passage of time, and the Israeli attack on South Lebanon may be another milestone on The March of Folly as no exit strategy possible besides the destruction of Hezbollah, impossible without heavy casualties and perhaps provoking a wider war, presents itself to Israel. The Israeli attack on a second front may have American support, but given all the imponderables noted in a previous paragraph, Bush will have trouble sleeping over the next few weeks or months.
I was Fouad Ajami's landlord for a while after my marriage left my condo open and Fouad kept telling me that the Middle East was full of "broken societies" that had had "too much history" and were at their core riven with irreconciliable blood feuds dating back centuries and even millenia. Fouad's new book, "The Foreigner's Gift" is optimistic about Iraq, but his melancholy assessment two and a half decades ago may have been as prescient as Sidawi's prediction three years ago.
Lebanon, and perhaps the entire region, is Humpty Dumpty.