Why Should The US Care About Lebanon?
At first glance, there would seem to be little reason for Americans to pay much attention to Lebanon, a geographically slight and remote country with a population of just 4.2 million. Worse, since the mid-1970s, the country’s always-fragile status has been saddled with a series of unattractive associations: internecine violence, indiscriminate carnage, terrorism, hostage-taking, religious militancy, not to mention drug-trafficking, smuggling, and counterfeiting. These negative evocations-coupled with the bad memories stemming from 243 deaths in the 1983 Beirut U.S. Marine barracks explosion-have prompted American policy-makers generally to avoid thinking about Lebanon.
Yet the country has a number of abiding features that make it a significant place worthy and requiring of American attention. The reasons span the spectrum from the nineteenth century to the present, from the sentimental to the hard-headed, from hydraulics to freedom of speech. In combination, they make for a compelling argument.
Personal and Cultural Ties –
America’s friendship with the people of Lebanon spans almost the entire history of the American republic and includes historical, cultural, and educational dimensions.
Americans have flocked to the Levant since the 1820s, where they took up residence mostly in the hills and mountains and along the coastline of Lebanon. The “pioneers East” tended to be both skilled and motivated, and they established a number of institutions that to this day flourish and continue to exhibit a distinct mixture of American character blended with the finest of Lebanese culture. The American University of Beirut with its prestigious medical school and hospital, the Lebanese American University, International College, the American Community School, and a number of high schools in scattered Lebanese cities and towns-all testify to a deep and continuing connection between Lebanon and the United States.
American education in Lebanon has drawn Westerners and Arabs from across the Middle East attracted to the distinct offerings of its schools and colleges. Lebanon’s institutions of learning have become a cross-cultural meeting ground and living laboratory where intellectual and cultural interactions occur without compromising the civilizational authenticity of the participants. Only in Lebanon (even at the high-school level) can one study, in addition to an in-depth exposure to Arab and Islamic culture, the classics of Western civilization, the canon of world literature, the basics of modern science. Moreover, instruction of these subjects takes place in the original languages. A Muslim coming from as far as Indonesia can learn in Lebanon’s classrooms about the Puritans of New England or the writings of Dostoyevsky without losing touch with his rich Islamic heritage. Similarly, a Westerner in Lebanon has the chance to become thoroughly immersed in the Islamic and Arabic traditions without severing himself from his own culture and values. Can anyone doubt that the continuation and reinforcement of liberal education in Lebanon, a phenomenon rare in the Arab world, is in the best interests of the United States and all free and open societies?
The cumulative impact of these institutions ought not to be underestimated. They have also served as gateways for American ideas to the wider Arab world. For example, many prominent leaders throughout the Arab world graduated with an American education from Lebanon. In a famous demonstration of American University of Beirut prowess, no less than nineteen of the delegates at the founding conference of the United Nations during 1945 in San Francisco were alumni of that university-far more than its nearest rival.
Side-by-side with American liberal education, numerous American businesses, companies, and banks have flourished in Lebanon. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1975, American businessmen working in the region would settle their families in Lebanon where their children could receive a superior education in a multicultural setting with a mild climate. Even a quarter century later, despite revolutionary improvements in communications and an integrated global economy, Americans accustomed to such amenities prefer to live in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Lebanon rather than in artificial compounds in the middle of the desert or the largely sterile setting of the Gulf cities.
In the other direction, a steady stream of Lebanese immigrants began to arrive in North America in the 1870s, and today close to three million Americans claim some degree of Lebanese heritage. The great majority of these maintain ties not only of a nostalgic nature, but also, through concrete connections involving periodic trips, cross-Atlantic marriages, and even commercial ventures. It is common for second- and third-cousins to stay in touch with each other over decades. Though poorly organized for political action, American Lebanese have kept abreast of developments during the prolonged ordeal of their ancestral homeland, organizing demonstrations throughout the war years and engaging in impressive letter-writing campaigns. A pretty comprehensive list of the most prominent Lebanese Americans can be found in here http://www.cedarsusa.com/prominent/amleb.htm
Despite the ravages of years of war and destruction followed by persisting occupation and gross economic mismanagement, the Lebanese economy remains impressive in regional terms. Lebanon’s gross national product (GNP) today is $65 billion, and per capita income is just under $16,000. That Lebanon-lacking petroleum or mineral resources, instead relying solely on its heritage of mercantile and entrepreneurial talent-has been able to maintain such a GNP in the face of overwhelming odds is remarkable; had it avoided the devastation of the last quarter century, Lebanon might today be one of America’s larger trading partners in the Middle East.
Further, Lebanon has a commercial significance beyond its borders. Lebanon serves as an arena for what is sometimes referred to as the “demonstration effect,” and so its American orientation has far-ranging consequences. During the good times, Lebanese society was famous as a regional trendsetter in areas ranging from journalism and publishing to entertainment, dress, cuisine, and taste; creativity and innovation have been its historical trademarks. Even today, important aspects of this influence remain. What catches on in Beirut is quickly imitated in Cairo, Amman, and Dubai.
The Lebanese tradition of free market enterprise and the spirit of private innovation are not easily copied but do offer a model for the wider region. In this light, the United States has an interest in encouraging Lebanese to resist the corrosive effects of a foreign hegemon that encourages stifling monopolies. Americans hope that the Lebanese economic model might spill over to infect neighboring Syria after Assad’s demise instead of the reverse process, which is in fact underway today. Neither free trade nor creative entrepreneurship, nor, for that matter, individual initiative, can survive for long in a Syrian-controlled Lebanon.
Civil Society –
Lebanon’s unique and homegrown version of democracy, though different in appearance and spirit from its American counterpart, does share important qualities and values. In both cases, the state remains relatively unintrusive, the parliament has deep roots, and the individual has unusual freedoms.
Indeed, Lebanon’s freedoms set it apart from other Arab states and constitute the country’s most distinguishing trait and its overriding source of attraction for the United States. The war of 1975-90 and the continuing Syrian occupation have greatly damaged the country’s traditional freedoms, yet despite the beating it has received, Lebanon continues to harbor the freest society in the Arab world. It does so because of the presence of a highly developed civil society not possible in the region’s many assertive states with dominant military establishments. Lebanon hosts surprisingly durable and resilient institutions, individual and group initiatives, deep patriotism, accumulated historical experiences, a mixture of local grounding and cosmopolitan orientation, and the free flow of ideas-all expressing a living multicultural spectrum. This civil society, built upon religious diversity, invariably outlasts any political configurations at the top. If nothing else, the 1975-90 war proved the resilience of the country’s civil society.
Still, Lebanon’s civil society is today locked in a life-and-death struggle with Syria and Hezbollah’s efforts at domination and assimilation. Should Lebanese civil society be eroded to an unrecoverable point, this will negatively affect the possibility of introducing free political life and democratic institutions in the rest of the Arab world.
The fate of Lebanon’s embattled civil society touches the core of this issue: the kind of Arab world that will emerge in the next decade or so following a resolution or containment of how America deals with the increasing threats in the region. If the ongoing erosion of freedoms can be reversed, Lebanon’s historical experience with freedom can offer great hope for the whole Arab east. It is clearly in America’s strategic interest to promote Lebanese democracy as a seed and model for the rest of the Arab world.
The Middle East faces the looming problem of water shortages because of both the area’s hot and arid climate and its huge population growth. Aside from Turkey (which controls the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) and Iraq (through which those two rivers flow), the only Middle Eastern country blessed with a substantial supply of fresh water is Lebanon. Its high mountain ranges capture and retain impressive amounts of snow and moisture for several months, much of which eventually feeds subterranean aquifers and artesian wells. The landscape is dotted with springs, small streams, rivulets, and several sizable rivers like the Litani. Between 80 and 90 percent of Lebanon’s flowing water, though, is lost for that which is not absorbed into underground storage, ends up in the sea. Assuming all of Lebanon’s future water needs can be met using half of this wasted amount, harnessing and distributing the remaining half to neighboring countries like Israel, Syria, and Jordan would be a significant step in alleviating the impending regional water shortage.
Thus, could the responsible regulation and scientific management of Lebanon’s naturally abundant water supply be a major contributor to regional stability. Any Syrian attempts to gain leverage over Lebanon’s water supply can only serve to undermine regional peace and stability, and so the United States strategic interest to ensure that this precious commodity not fall under the control of hostile powers.
Lebanon occupies an important place in a strategically vital corner of the world. Regional harmony demands that Lebanon’s heterogeneous religious communities maintain a stable relationship with one another. Lebanon’s historical status as a sanctuary for persecuted minorities is reflected in her eighteen officially recognized religious denominations-nearly all of which connect to significant populations outside Lebanon’s borders.
The Sunnis have ties mainly to the Arabian peninsula and Egypt; the Shi’a to their communities in Iran and Iraq; the Druze to theirs in Syria and Israel; the Greek Orthodox Christians to the Greek and Slavic worlds as well as to their communities in Syria and other Arabic-speaking countries; the Maronites to Cyprus and Syria; and the Catholic world at large; the small Coptic community to Egypt; the Chaldaeans and Assyrians to Iraq; the Syriacs to northern Syria and southern Turkey; the Melchites (Greek Catholics) to Egypt, Syria, and among the Palestinians. In addition, all these communities have ties to Lebanon’s émigré community of 13 million and going in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Australia, and beyond. Only if the members of each of these eighteen denominations are free to remain true to their deepest values and maintain creative interaction with the others will Lebanon cease to be a flash point for conflict which easily generates repercussions beyond its borders.
For Lebanon to be sub-contracted to Syria, with American and Israeli acquiescence, is to bask in the illusion of stability. As custodian of Lebanon, Bashar Assad gains a vast array of cards to use at will to bolster its prestige or derail regional settlements. The Syrians have repeatedly shown a propensity to practice divide-and-rule tactics by playing one Lebanese faction off against another to suit their foreign policy objectives. Thus, when the Syrians wish for greater attention from Saudi Arabia, they engineer a squeeze on Lebanon’s Sunni leadership. If Syrian relations with Iran are souring, they pressure Iran’s Shi’a clients in Lebanon. Through their influence on Hezbollah and their ability to stop the flow of Iranian arms to the group through the Damascus airport, they ultimately control the temperature of the last active frontier with Israel. Depriving Syria of this undeserved power in Lebanon is a primary American strategic interest.
Lebanon has unwittingly became a breeding ground for terrorist organizations aiming to undermine American and Western interests in the Middle East since the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) set up shop in the country in the mid-1960s. When large parts of the country fell under Syrian aegis after 1976, this pattern accelerated. Lebanon’s agriculturally fertile Bekaa Valley, for example, was transformed into a notorious training ground for terrorists and a place to plan their operations. Many leading terrorist groups at one point had a base of operations in Lebanon, including Abu Nidal, Carlos, the Japanese Red Army, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, the Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK) and lately Hezbollah. The principal beneficiaries of this controlled anarchy over the years have been the PLO, Syria, and Iran, all of which have used terrorism to try to pressure the United States, other Western powers, and Israel.
If there is to be decisive action to be taken on the part of the United States, the time is NOW.
Ziad K. Abdelnour is Founder & President of the US Committee for a Free Lebanon – America’s Pro- Lebanon lobby – and co-Author of Ending Syria’s Occupation of Lebanon