May 28, 2007
Why Lebanon Matters
Americans across the
country turned on their televisions last week to be met with stories
coming out of Lebanon about gunfire, militants and bombs. What else is
new, right? This sort of thing happens all the time in the Middle East,
so why have a few hundred militants in northern Lebanon received so much
attention, and why should Americans care? Despite the seemingly routine
set of events emanating out of the Arab world, there are important
answers to these questions.
Like Iraq, Lebanon
is one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East. It has roughly
equal populations of Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, and is also home to
a significant Druze minority. A peaceful coexistence among these
religious constituencies, and the survival of a democratic political
system that can fairly accommodate such diverse groups, would make
Lebanon a model for the rest of the Arab world to follow.
The real reason
Lebanon matters is that this dream of peace and democracy is not merely
a dream. Lebanon is one of a handful of Middle Eastern countries that
today boasts a political system that can legitimately claim to be
democratic. Though in theory Lebanon has been a democracy for decades,
the withdrawal of Syrian troops from its soil in 2005 allowed for much
more fair elections than could be claimed in years prior. The country
today is headed by an elected government that is friendly toward the
West and the United States, although a strong opposition is led by the
decidedly anti-American Hezbollah.
Lebanon is not only
valuable as a rare Arab democracy. Its geographic location bordering on
Israel and Syria, its hosting of 350,000 Palestinian refugees and its
role as a gateway for Western culture into the Arab world further add to
its importance in the region. Exceptionally, it is an Arab state where
Christians not only are largely free from oppression, but one in which
they hold significant power as well. On the whole, it is a country in
which the United States and Europe certainly have had good reasons to
But as we were again
reminded last week, Lebanon is far from problem-free. In fact, the
relative peace and stability distracts from the fact that the situation
in the country is vulnerable to deterioration at any point. The country
is split down the middle between two mega-rival political camps, each of
which still contains clashing sub-factions. Virtually all of these
groups in some way, shape or form participated in the long Lebanese
civil war that ended about 17 years ago – and would carry arms again if
Aside from serious
internal difficulties, Lebanon also faces trouble from the outside.
Although Syria was forced to end its devastating decades-long military
occupation of Lebanon in 2005, it remains relentlessly involved in
Lebanese affairs as a destabilizing force. The early Palestinian-Israeli
conflicts have resulted in the introduction of 350,000 Palestinian
refugees into camps that today host terrorists from around the world,
all the while presenting a growing humanitarian crisis across the land.
Also exacerbating the situation last summer was Israel’s unnecessarily
severe destruction of much of Lebanon’s infrastructure and the weakening
of Lebanon’s already delicate government.
Lebanon thus forms a
truly fascinating case. On the one hand, it holds enormous promise as an
archetypal democracy that could lead the way for modernization in the
Middle East. Yet at the same time, its stability is among the most
fragile and vulnerable in the Arab world. This is why the upcoming weeks
and months are so crucial. The potential outcomes are quite extreme.
If all goes well,
Lebanon could become a magnificent model of peace, democracy and
modernity in the Middle East. The very possible alternative could see
Lebanon turn into a host for a civil war that reflects a regional
struggle – one pitting Iranian Shiites against Arab Sunnis, with the
West alternating support for the two while simultaneously backing the
Christians. Inserting the wild cards of the Palestinian refugees,
international terrorists and Israel would lead to a scenario far beyond
any clairvoyant expert’s prediction.
Both the West and
the radicals fully understand each of these possibilities. Since
democracy and the prosperity it carries with it form the best antidote
to terrorism, radicals recognize that a scenario of peace for Lebanon
would be unfavorable for them. A free-for-all war, however, represents
the ideal opportunity for terrorist recruitment and growth. This is why
we should fight for a democratic Lebanon with the same intensity of the
radicals who are fighting for instability. This is the reason why the
stakes are high. And it is the reason we should care.
© 2007 North Star
Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.
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