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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 invest.


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 need be.


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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