Why outsiders get involved in Lebanon

Lee Smith reviews two recent books about Lebanon, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle by Michael Young and Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East by David Hirst.  In the course of the review of Young’s book, he explores why Lebanon seems to draw in so many other countries:

Here Young has identified not only the mutually shaping relationship between modern politics and the mass media in general but also the central fact of Lebanese history: seduction. After all, what is Lebanon really worth to outsiders? There’s no oil, and its greatest natural resource, the talent and ingenuity of the Lebanese population, exports itself at no cost to its importers: More than 13 million Lebanese live outside this country of 3.8 million. Lebanon’s value is mostly symbolic, depending on what the beholder most prizes, and thus a strong position on Lebanon is not just about projecting power into a particular place, but projecting a self-image into the world. For the Bush Administration this image was about democracy promotion. For the Islamic Republic of Iran, it remains about Shi‘a pride and Iranian history crashing into a generally unaccommodating 21st century.

As Young recognizes, the Lebanese understand that it is vanity which draws others to the country, a vanity over which the Lebanese compete to turn to their own benefit. Outsiders interfere in Lebanon in part because they are seduced by the promises extended to them, rarely explicitly, by the Lebanese, who invite them to partake in their internal affairs so that the citizens of this sectarian state with 18 officially recognized religious confessions may gain advantage over their domestic rivals.

Young also understands that this competition for domestic advantage has historical roots that make Lebanon different from other states, even other Levantine countries. The Lebanese state is based on an agreement among Lebanon’s main confessional groups that it not have a standard state-like nature. Lebanon functioned from 1943 to its collapse into civil war in the mid-1970s less as a democracy, as Westerners typically understand the term, than as a federated feudalism. Various confessional groups ran their own domains, and all of them deliberately kept all functions of the central state weak. Their leaders came together to make political deals, thus foreordaining the results of periodic elections, which were not real decision points for Lebanese citizens but ratifications of arrangements to divide spoils. The state never collected taxes but rather distributed money earned from port fees and other revenue from Beirut as patronage out to the rest of the country. The national army was never allowed to grow large enough or strong enough to be a potential threat to Maronite, Sunni, Druze and even Shi‘a control of their own regions.

I noted Michael Totten’s similar opinion here.


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