Bill Mauldin, an American World War II military journalist, reported in the thick of the Italian campaign that the devastation in Italy reminded him of someone who had been badly hurt in an automobile accident as a result of his reckless driving. “You could not just leave him there but you know it will happen again if he does not stop driving crazy!” As we contemplate the disaster that has turned Lebanon’s implosion into a catastrophe, the same thought comes to mind. Lebanon, once a fairytale-like playground famous for water skiing and snow skiing in the same day and home to some of the world’s best restaurants and nightclubs, was the heart of Arab intellectual ferment where East met West.
This meeting place has been reduced to rubble, both literally and figuratively, and is now overwhelmed by refugees. Bankrupted by a ruined political class, its once solid banks have imploded, leaving behind a currency that has lost so much value that its population cannot buy food. This crisis persists in a country that could be compared to a cornucopia producing the best food. Now a monstrous explosion that reminded me, watching a video, of an old newsreel of the atomic test at Bikini Atoll has delivered the coup de grace.
The collapse began in 1975 with the outbreak of a 15-year civil war, pitting faction against faction and against outsiders who at one point or another each supported or attacked every Lebanese faction. With brief remissions, the country has been in the ICU almost continuously since. Governments have come and gone, each leaving the country a little bit poorer and the politicians who ran it a little bit richer. Finally, about a year ago, the Lebanese people, especially its youth, could literally take no more. Rioters filled the streets demanding change. Even the COVID-19 pandemic did not keep them away. The culprit has been identified: the entire Lebanese political system and the clans who run it. This is an old story that has characterized Lebanon since Ottoman times. During the 1975–1982 civil war, someone gave me an old book entitled The Lebanese Civil War, published one hundred years earlier, that chronicled a civil war in the 1860’s. The names of the leaders and the names of the towns and villages where they fought were the same; only the dates had changed.
So what happens next? After the explosion in Beirut’s port–again directly attributable to the corruption and incompetence of Lebanon’s political leaders–the country lies prostrate. The images, magnified and distributed across the globalized media world, so seared the imagination that literally half the world has lept in to provide emergency aid. Bitter enemies from the Gulf, including Qatar and the UAE, vie for runway slots for their giant cargo aircraft to deliver relief supplies. Turkish and Greek rescue teams have temporarily called off their confrontation to search through destroyed port and apartment buildings for survivors. French President Macron went to Beirut with his country’s relief teams. Even the Trump White House has paused its campaign against Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah government to offer assistance.
But once the initial shock wears off and assistance falls into bureaucratic patterns with auditors checking the books, someone will point out that even the Lebanese expect their politicians to siphon off the cream and leave the population with some very thin skim milk. They will point to previous massive external financial interventions that appeared, in the end, to have enriched the people who caused the problems. I give it two months before governments begin to ask about the depth of the bottomless pit. This assumes that violence will not begin as different groups fight over the few pickings left. COVID-19 has eroded the world’s patience, attention span, and pocketbooks. In the past, Arab regimes poured money into Lebanon to gain political advantage over other regional rivals. With few exceptions, the donor countries now face low oil prices and large budget deficits. Furthermore, it may occur to the leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Kuwait that Lebanon should be someone else’s problem. What advantage accrues to bribing the leadership of a prostrate country whose population shares only one goal: getting out as quickly as possible? Syria, once the candidate to take over Lebanon, lies prostrate itself. The United States, once the most generous of donors, appears set to pull back behind its own moat and pull up the drawbridge. Europe will probably hang in there a little longer, but the pandemic has taken its toll there as well. Russia and Turkey may have some strategic interest, but certainly lack the funds to do much, nor is it clear that Lebanon is worth it anymore. Israel has one paramount interest: containing outside threats and dominating the neighborhood. (One has to assume that securing control of the headwaters of the Jordan and Litani rivers no longer figures on Israel’s agenda; (thanks to global warming and overuse they are drying up anyway.) So why should anyone throw good money after bad and keep one more failed polity afloat?
We can talk about humanitarian impulses. They are strongest when the donor has surpluses with which he can part. COVID-19 has put an end to that. But perhaps the strongest argument against giving much more than emergency humanitarian aid is the justified concern as to whether Lebanon’s sort of democratically-elected political elite can be trusted to keep its filthy hands off the money.
However, there is another reality. Lebanon sits at the crossroads of conflict. It lies within a short airplane flight of most of the active or about-to-be conflicts in the world. It borders Syria, a failed state still fighting a civil war and another, Israel, still regarded as a dangerous foreign implant that inspires rebellion and terrorism. A short drive up the coast from Beirut will bring you to the Nahr al-Kelb, a small river (the name translates as Dog River) adorned by the stelae–inscriptions carved in rock for the non-archaeologist–of the armies that marched past here. Pharaoh Ramses I, whose troops marched through here in 1275 BC, left the earliest readable inscription. Another two dozen readable ones date from Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, and many modern armies passing through this strategic crossroads. The most recent commemorates the 2000 (AD) departure of Israeli troops from Lebanon. Lebanon is a country of mountain freeholders–armed to the teeth–who are skilled guerrilla fighters with a history of resistance to all authority, including their own. They are the only Middle Easterners who have twice decisively driven out Israeli invading forces. Its majestic mountain ranges provide not only some of the world’s best skiing but terrain impenetrable to powerful armies.
If Afghanistan was a haven and launching pad for terrorism, Lebanon left unattended in chaos will soon become worse; an open dangerous sore, poisoning the countryside around it and, with modern travel, the entire world. It has to be put back together again and hopefully in such a fashion that it can function as the beautiful and bountiful country it once was, but this time with long-term stability. How does the world, because it is the world’s problem, accomplish this?
The basic obstacle to stability is the Lebanese ruling elite. For the first time in history, we have evidence that the people of Lebanon not only understand this but are also willing to stand up to them. These guys will not go easily. They are entrenched and have wealth to safeguard. Perhaps we should reconsider what was once a failed experiment, an international mandate, such as the ill-starred League of Nations Mandates after World War I. Perhaps this time Lebanon should be put under a Mandate answering to legitimate international authority and managed by countries without colonial or expansionist agendas. The people of Lebanon have finally had enough and if an outside authority sent their leaders packing, they would help chase them out. A flight of fancy perhaps but an international body such as the UN or even the EU, with resources tapped world wide, military and police with teeth and forces powerful enough to intimidate the Lebanese warlord class, might be able to get rid of them. If this mandate can leave behind a workable political system, not the sectarian circus imposed by France after 1932, the Lebanese people have the brains, the work ethic, and the skill sets to run their lovely country properly. Lebanon boasts a wealthy international diaspora with the cash and the skills to provide most of the operating capital after an initial foreign investment. This is probably too fantastical but other, better, ideas are always welcome.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.