Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (7/20/06)


Let's talk about Lebanon. By all means let's talk about Lebanon. Like Iran and North Korea, it's very much in the headlines. And it's also another country about which we Americans are abysmally ignorant.

This tiny country occupies an area only two-thirds the size of the state of Connecticut and has a population of 3.8 million. It has a coastline of 140 miles along the Mediterranean, a 48-mile border with Israel on the south and a 233-mile border with Syria to the north and east. Israel, with a population of 6.4 million occupies an area slightly smaller than New Jersey; Syria, with a population of 18.4 million, is slightly larger than North Dakota. Joined by history, these three ancient countries are bereft of any deposits of oil.

Lebanon has always occupied a strategic position at the crossroads of commerce, linking the hinterlands of Central Asia with the Mediterranean Basin as the destination of the fabled silk and spice caravans with their rich cargoes. Called Phoenicia by the ancient Greeks, its fertile coastal plain has been home to a Semitic people related to the Jews and Arabs. Their maritime culture thrived in a chain of coastal trading cities that are very much in the news today--Beirut, Tyre, Sidon--yet were thousands of years old at the time of Christ. Its bold sailors roamed the Mediterranean to found trading colonies and may have ventured far beyond the Gates of Hercules at Gibraltar to explore the broad Atlantic.

Throughout its long history, Lebanon's fate has been to be controlled by a succession of nations: Assyrians, Babylonians, Armenians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Turks and French. During the Middle Ages, the Lebanese coastal plain was the principle highway of Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. It was occupied by Frankish nobles as part of the feudal Crusader States established along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean only to be dispossessed by the Mameluke rulers of Egypt and then by the Ottoman sultans of Turkey.

Following the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations made the five provinces of Lebanon a mandate of France, which added the Bekaa Valley, creating an even larger Lebanon. This doubled the territory controlled by Beirut and included lands and peoples that formerly had been part of what would eventually become the Syrian state. It also altered the demography of Lebanon by increasing the number of Maronite Christians so that they constituted more than 50 percent of the population.

Lebanon gained independence in 1943. Beirut became a center of wealth and commerce, the headquarters of large businesses and banks, and thanks to its wide boulevards, French-style architecture and culture was known as "the Paris of the Middle East." Because it enjoyed a conflict-free status, Lebanon itself was often compared to Switzerland. The country's history since achieving independence has been characterized by alternating periods of political stability and bloody turmoil. After the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, thousands of Palestinian refugees flooded into Lebanon until by 1975 more than 300,000 Palestinians were there.

Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) directed the political and military activities of the Palestinian refugees, who began fighting with native Lebanese. Soon the divisions became more distinct; on one side was the Christian resistance and on the other a coalition of Palestinian refugees, Sunni Muslims and Islamic Druze forces, all united in their dissatisfaction with the 1943 pact that gave Lebanon its independence.

With roots in Christian and Muslim strife, civil war was almost inevitable. In 1975, 40,000 Syrian troops poured into Lebanon to prevent the Christian Maronite militias from being overrun by Palestinian forces, pushing them out of Beirut into southern Lebanon. Cross-border attacks on civilians in Israeli territory led to an invasion of southern Lebanon by Israeli forces in March of 1978. After the U.N. passed a resolution demanding the removal of Israeli forces, they were withdrawn three months later. But PLO. forces continued to attack Israel with rockets and artillery, and in June of 1982 Israeli forces again invaded Lebanon. They would remain for 18 years and would not be withdrawn until the spring of 2000.

The 1989 Taif Agreement brokered by the Arab League and signed in Taif, Saudi Arabia, restructured the Lebanese political system and transferred power away from the Maronite Christian minority. We can glean some idea of the jockeying for power rampant in Lebanon. It is a republic with the three highest offices specifically reserved for members of individual religious groups. The President must be a Maronite Catholic Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Majlis, Lebanon's Parliament, must be a Shia Muslim.

After some ten years of relative political stability, in February of 2005 former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, responsible for much of Lebanon's recovery after the devastating civil war, was assassinated by the explosion of a car bomb in Beirut, an act widely attributed to Syria. After thirty years, the last occupying Syrian troops departed from Lebanon in April of 2005.

A prime mover in Lebanon's recent history has been Hezbollah, a name that means "party of God." A Lebanese Islamist group formed in 1982 with the aid of Iran to combat the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, it is the main political party of the Shia community, Lebanon's largest religious group. It follows the ideology of Ayatollah Ruhollah, father of the Iranian Revolution in Iran. With the stated aim of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon, Hezbollah has both military and civil wings. The latter operates hospitals, news services and participates as a legitimate political party in the Parliament.

Hezbollah is recognized by Arabs and Muslims as a legitimate resistance movement. The U.S. State Department, however, has designated it as a terrorist organization. It is the principal suspect in the suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April of 1983, in which 63 persons lost their lives, including 17 Americans, and in the truck bombing six months later of the U.S. Marines Barracks at the Beirut Airport, in which 241 American servicemen lost their lives.

Hezbollah has taken to bedeviling Israel again, this time by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. Israel retaliated by bombing targets in Lebanon, including parts of the country's infrastructure, such as bridges, roads and the runways at Beirut's airport, with the intention of cutting the country off from the outside world. The world is now on tenterhooks, wondering where this latest strife will lead.

What is playing out now in Lebanon is part of the long-running drama that began in 1946 with the Cold War. Because the nations lying along the southern flank of the Soviet Union were Muslim, the United States conceived the idea of building a barrier there by using Islam to counter an expansionist Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the U.S. chose as its ally not Islam, a traditional organized religion with 14 centuries of history behind it but Islamism, a radical political creed born in the 19th century that perverts the spiritual interpretation of Islam. In Afghanistan alone, the U.S. spent billions, channeling funds through Pakistan, to support the Islamist jihad. Hezbollah is one of the spawns of that adventure.

Lebanon, an ancient land but also a nation of relatively recent creation, is again descending into anarchy, with a too-weak central authority and no cohesive civil society to hold it together or to control or disarm Hezbollah. We sowed the wind with our support in Afghanistan of what Stephen P. Cohen, a top State Department diplomat in the 1980s, described as "the nastier, more fanatic types of mujahedeen." No wonder we are now reaping the whirlwind.


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