“This is not Norway here, and it is not Denmark.” — Lebanese Christian militia leader Bashir Gemayel.
Last month I made a terrible mistake.
A reader from Lake Oswego — a suburb of my city of Portland — emailed and asked if he thought he should take his wife and children to Lebanon on their next vacation. I said sure. Just stay out of the Hezbollah areas along the border with Israel and in the suburbs south of Beirut. And make sure your kids understand that Lebanese drivers are considerably more reckless than drivers in Oregon, that they should be more careful than usual when crossing the street.
Needless to say, this was absolutely awful advice.
My friend Sean LaFreniere – who drove with me to Northern Iraq on a whim — was scheduled to be with me in Beirut right now. (I am at home and he is now blogging from Tunisia and Turkey.) He was slightly nervous, but I told him he did not need to worry. Lebanon could become a dangerous country again. There are warning signs to watch out for, I said, and I told him what they were. At the time (and this was only a few weeks ago) those warning signs were not yet flashing red. Who would have thought war could engulf the whole country, and not just the border, in one day with no warning?
I kept my eye on the country, even so, because potential medium-term trouble was quietly brewing. Many Lebanese Christians, Sunnis, and Druze were getting so impatient with the impasse over Hezbollah’s weapons they threatened to reconstitute their own armed militias that were disbanded after the war. Peaceful and diplomatic negotiation over Hezbollah’s role in a sovereign rather than schismatic Lebanon was not going to last very much longer. Once the rest of Lebanon armed itself against Hezbollah, a balance of terror would reign that could explode into war without any warning. That was the danger. That was the nightmare. That’s why Hezbollah had not been disarmed.
Syria’s Bashar Assad threatened to make Lebanon burn if his occupation troops were forced out of the country. Most Lebanese think that’s what last year’s car bombs were about. After former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, was assassinated downtown, all the car bomb victims were Christian. All the random car bombs exploded in Christian neighborhoods. The idea – or so the Lebanese thought – was to whip up sectarian hatred, to get Christian militias to rearm and retaliate, and to re-ignite the Lebanese war. Assad yearned to burn Lebanon, and he was not shy about saying so. Syria, or so he hoped, might be invited back in to stop the chaos with the soldier’s peace of the Baath.
That plan didn’t work. Hardly anyone wanted a return to civil war. No Christian vigilantes retaliated against Muslims (Sunni or Shia) because they knew it was a trap set by the Baath. That, most likely, is why the siege of the car bombs came to an end.
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.
I spent a total of seven months in Lebanon recently, and I never could quite figure out what prevented the country from flying apart into pieces. It barely held together like unstable chemicals in a nitro glycerin vat. The slightest ripple sent Lebanese scattering from the streets and into their homes. They were far more twitchy than I, in part (I think) because they understood better than I just how precarious their civilized anarchy was. Their country needed several more years of careful nurturing during peace time to fully recover from its status as a carved up failed state.
By bombing all of Lebanon rather than merely the concentrated Hezbollah strongholds, Israel is putting extraordinary pressure on Lebanese society at points of extreme vulnerability. The delicate post-war democratic culture has been brutally replaced, overnight, with a culture of rage and terror and war. Lebanon isn’t Gaza, but nor is it Denmark.
Lebanese are temporarily more united than ever. No one is running off to join Hezbollah, but tensions are being smoothed over for now while everyone feels they are under attack by the same enemy. Most Lebanese who had warm feelings for Israel — and there were more of these than you can possibly imagine — no longer do.
This will not last.
My sources and friends in Beirut tell me most Lebanese are going easy on Hezbollah as much as they can while the bombs are still falling. But a terrible reckoning awaits them once this is over.
Some Lebanese can’t wait even that long.
Here a Christian mob smashes a car in Beirut for displaying a Hezbollah logo. My friend Carine says the atomosphere reeks of impending sectarian conflict like never before. Another Lebanese blogger quotes a radical Christian war criminal from the bad old days who says the civil war will resume a month after Israel cools its guns: “Christians, Sunnis and Druze will fight the ‘fucker Shia’, with arms from the US and France.”
Israeli partisans may think this is terrific. The Lebanese may take care of Hezbollah at last! But democratic Lebanon cannot win a war against Hezbollah, not even after Hezbollah is weakened by IAF raids. Hezbollah is the most effective Arab fighting force in the world, and the Lebanese army is the weakest and most divided. The Israelis beat three Arab armies in six days in 1967, but a decade was not enough for the IDF to take down Hezbollah.
The majority of Lebanon’s people were wise and civilized enough to take the gun out of politics after the fifteen year war. Lebanon was the only Arab country to do this, the only Arab country that preferred dialogue, elections, compromise, and debate to the rule of the boot and the rifle. But Hezbollah remained outside that mainstream consensus and did everything it could, with backing from the Syrian Baath and the Iranian Jihad, to strangle Lebanon’s democracy in its cradle.
Disarming Hezbollah through persuasion and consensus was not possible in the first year of Lebanon’s independence. Disarming Hezbollah by force wasn’t possible either. The Lebanese people have been called irresponsible and cowardly by some of their friends in America for refusing to resume the civil war. Unlike Hezbollah, though, most Lebanese know better than to start unwinnable wars. This is wisdom, not cowardice, and it’s sadly rare in the Arab world now. They are being punished entirely too much for what they have done and for what they can’t do.
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.
When Israel and Hezbollah reach a ceasefire at last, round two of this conflict will commence in short order. No one knows if the Lebanese will be able to keep the gun out of politics after all that has happened. A tiny minority of Lebanese (with help from the remaining Syrian agents) can burn the country to the ground all over again.
“What will become of us?” is the question on everyone’s mind. No one can know what will happen after Israel lifts its siege and the temporary national unity flies apart into pieces. And it will fly apart into pieces. The only question is how far the pieces will fly and how hard they’ll land.
During all seven months I spent in Lebanon the overwhelming majority feared an imminent return to civil war. I always told them they were too pessimistic even while I wondered if I was too naïve. Perhaps I’ve absorbed too much of that Lebanese fatalism by spending so much of my time among them. And perhaps my naivete has finally been washed away. I really don’t know. It’s an old question that I don’t know how to answer.
Either way, the odds are quite a lot grimmer than they recently were. Lebanon could, indeed, become a free fire zone even if most Lebanese do everything they can to make it not so. Just a few thousand Hezbollah fighters set two countries on fire all by themselves. Don’t discount what bloody mayhem and hell a few thousand armed Druze, Christians, and Sunni can do if they decide to go hunting Shia in revenge for destroying their country. Don’t forget, also, that Lebanon is now surging with tens of thousands of furious, displaced, homeless, unemployed, and undisciplined young Shia men enthralled with Iranian-style jihad.
Insha Allah, Lebanon might be okay. Perhaps the status quo ante will return, only with a weaker and even more marginalized Hezbollah seething in its corner and thrown off the border. There may be scattered acts of sectarian violence that threaten to ignite into war and never quite do. Kidnappings could come back in style. Al Qaeda may finally have its turn at the Israeli border if their Hezbollah enemy is no longer there to keep them away. I do not know. The Lebanese themselves do not know. But one thing I do know is that after the first war ends there really could be another.
Don’t take your kids. Stay out until further notice.
Post-script: I was planning a trip to Iran in the near future, but of course I did not see this coming. Iran will have to wait. I’m returning to Lebanon as soon as the airport re-opens. Please hit the Pay Pal button and help me buy airfare.
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