The winds of freedom that now sweep the Middle East are bending the cedars of Lebanon. The Syrian overlords of the small, unhappy country overplayed their hand a month ago by blowing up Rafiq Harari, a politician who had grown tired of their presence.
Lebanese patriots, instead of being cowed, gathered in Martyrs Square in Beirut in spontaneous demonstrations joining Christians, Muslims and Druzes. The Syrians, alarmed, switched from bombs to crowds, organizing their own mammoth demo, swollen by Syrian ringers bused across the border. But the Lebanese have not given up, and President Bush, by way of encouragement, has said that the Syrian army and intelligence must vacate the country before its scheduled May parliamentary elections.
The last time America was involved in Lebanon was just over 20 years ago. In 1983, we sent troops to secure the Beirut airport, as part of an international force to stabilize the country. In October, a truck sent by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah drove into the Marine barracks and murdered 241 Americans. It was the bloodiest strike against American interests by Islamofascist terrorists before 9/11 (the 1998 bombing of our embassy in Nairobi killed 213 people). In response, we did essentially nothing.
It is hard to blame the Reagan administration too much for its fecklessness then. We had the Cold War on our plate, and the mind can’t conceptualize more than one clash of civilizations at a time. But why should we expect any more success in Lebanon now?
This time, the lineup of forces in Lebanon presents a clear front of people power. We are not arbitrarily taking sides in a scrum of obscure ethnicities (what do Druzes actually believe?) and indistinguishable Lebanese hacks (like the late Mr. Hariri). The Beirut demonstrators are inspired by the purple-fingered voters in Iraq, and by the orange-clad democrats in the Ukraine. They ostentatiously proclaim a united Muslim/Christian front, and they lead with sexy Lebanese women, displaying the red and white colors of the flag on their cheeks and décolletages.
Of course, there are the usual hacks jockeying for position, along with the usual ethnicities. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” runs the cynical line from The Leopard, a novel about 19th-century revolution by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. If we emphasize things staying as they are, it is indeed a cynical line. But suppose things actually change too?
This time, we are undistracted. The Soviet Union is no more; neither is the World Trade Center. We know that our safety requires us to round up terrorists; to destroy their bases and patrons; and to encourage transformation in the ailing heart of the Islamic world. George W. Bush is committed to this agenda; John Kerry was not opposed to it; Hillary Clinton’s only expressed disagreements with it are that we did not send enough troops to Iraq. A focused America is the real definition of shock and awe, not any one air raid.
This time, we know the source of the problem. We will not waste time by setting up Marines like pins in a bowling alley; there will be no need for any American military, apart from embassy guards, to set foot in Lebanon at all. The source of Lebanon’s troubles is Syria. The boy-king, Basher Assad, would have been wise to lay low, especially since he has been giving all the help he dares to the Iraqi insurgency. But he has made himself even more conspicuous in our eyes. Isolated, despotic and oil-poor, Syria depends on the remittances of its natives who cross the border to work in historically more bustling Lebanon. The double blow to Syria’s prestige and its wallet that would follow from a pullout would bring Mr. Assad down in a heap.
This time, what will Europe do? In 1983, we went into Beirut along with France, Britain and Italy. France, which has taken a proprietary interest in Lebanon for 150 years, wants Syria out now. France is probably not sad to find something it can agree with America about for a change, while Syria, unlike Saddam’s Iraq, has no oil-for-food vouchers to throw around. With luck, the Europeans will cooperate.
This time, what will Lebanon’s Shiites do? Hezbollah is nominally a Shiite organization. The Shiites certainly need one. They were a community shortchanged by the constitutional arrangements of the old Lebanese parliamentary system (the Lebanese maintained a delicate balance of religious representation, according to a census that hadn’t been updated in decades). But why should Shiites be represented by the very people who oppress them in Iran and Iraq?
Iran’s mullahs wear robes and weep for Ali and Hussein, but they are as dictatorial as Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. People in the Middle East are learning that freedom doesn’t come from having your dictator, but from having no dictator.
The great obstacle to reform in Lebanon, and the region, is inertia. It is so much easier to fall back on old patterns. The French fear the Anglo-Saxon hegemon. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader who wants the Syrians out and who praised the Iraqi elections, is a left-wing thug who applauded 9/11. If Syria feels too much heat, it can always cry, “What about the Zionist Entity?” And so forth, and so on. The greatest force of inertia is Orientalism. Orientalism was the title of a book by the late Columbia professor Edward Said, who argued that Western interest in the Middle East, both imperial and academic, had been corrupted by fantasies about Arab and Islamic despotism and lust (think of all the babes Ingres put in his harems).
Said was on to something. But-irony of ironies-the effect of his teaching has been to enthrone a mirror image of Orientalism, whereby no one may criticize despotism, theocracy, burqas, honor killings or terror so long as they are perpetrated by Muslims. So the modern anti-liberationist fingers his 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and tells us that Johnny Wog is immersed in immemorial hatreds that will prevent him from taking part in such upsetting activities as voting.
Voting is upsetting, to old orders and habits. Voting also makes nothing happen by itself, being only a first step. A second step is ruling. A third is learning how to lose. America and the Lebanese have many setbacks ahead. Let the game begin.