What do Americans know of tragedy? Our pattern for tragedy is theatrical, Shakespearean. Would Americans know the difference, for instance, between Hamlet’s story—a prince who cannot decide whether to kill the man who has murdered his father—and a real tragedy: having no choice but to make peace with the man who killed your father, like the current prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, had to do? Tragedy is Lebanon’s Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, having no choice but to make peace not only with the man who killed his father but also the murderer’s son, so they won’t kill his son. Tragedy is meeting your fate with little room to maneuver, like Lebanon.
Last week’s incident on the border between Lebanon and Israel suggests that even if war between the two countries is not imminent, Hezbollah is making good on its strategic aims regarding not only Israel, but its host nation, Lebanon. Where the Lebanese government and its assorted allies, regional and international, had once hoped that Hezbollah could somehow be persuaded to abandon its arms, become a regular political party, and integrate its units into the army under the control of the Lebanese government, precisely the reverse has happened, and a monster is being born—just as Hezbollah predicted. The Lebanese state, its army, and even its people are being swallowed by the resistance.
It is ironic that Israel has also seen Lebanon as overrun by Hezbollah for some time, so that if (or when) war comes, Hezbollah won’t be the only group to suffer the consequences. Official Israel calls this strategic posture the Dahiya doctrine, after the Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut that was laid to waste in the 2006 war. What the doctrine means is that in the next round of fighting, all of Lebanon will be devastated.
How did this come to pass?
Just 14 months ago, Lebanon’s pro-democracy, U.S.-allied March 14 movement won the parliamentary majority. It seemed Hezbollah was on the defensive. And yet even then the March 14 alliance was showing cracks, as when one of its pillars, Walid Jumblatt, started to distance himself from his local and international allies, including the United States, and inch closer to one-time adversaries Syria and Hezbollah. When I spoke to him last fall, Jumblatt rationalized his tactics by pointing to how the international community, and especially the United States, seemed unwilling to defend its Lebanese allies when Hezbollah overran Beirut in May 2008. The decline of the March 14 alliance then accelerated with the new U.S. administration’s stated intentions to engage Syria. The prospect of President Barack Obama reaching out to Damascus was enough to frighten the Saudis into making amends with Syria before, they feared, Washington could cut a deal and leave Riyadh out in the cold. When the Saudis folded, their clients in Lebanon followed suit, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri went on his knees to the Syrian capital to seek comity with Bashar al-Assad, the man who had his father killed.
Two weeks ago Assad made the return trip: He visited Beirut alongside Saudi King Abdullah, a summit widely misconstrued as a harbinger of stability in Lebanon. This misunderstanding was cleared up last week in the firefight that cost an IDF officer, two Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers, and a Lebanese journalist their lives, an event perhaps best understood as what journalist Hussain Abdul-Hussain calls a “security message.” That is, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah were intent on reminding everyone that neither the Lebanese government nor its sponsor in Riyadh calls the shots in Lebanon.
What is most moving about the collapse of the March 14 movement, the return of Syrian hegemony to Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s de facto takeover of the state is that the Lebanese have by and large refrained from blaming the United States for their fate. During the time I lived in Beirut from 2004 to 2006, the heyday of the Cedar Revolution, I was regularly asked by anxious Lebanese friends and associates if the United States was genuinely supportive of their popular movement or if Washington intended to sell Lebanon out to the Syrians, as it had when it permitted Damascus free rein throughout the 1990s. How could I answer with any authority, except insofar as I understood the American character? Sometimes I responded, no, we are serious this time; or, who knows, I said, hedging my bets, perhaps; and sometimes I said, probably, yes, invariably.
But now that we have abandoned the Lebanese to the jackals, they have accepted their tragic destiny without accusing us of failing them, as we have.
Most people outside of the Beltway did not really understand the stakes involved in the George W. Bush Administration’s democracy promotion. While the world outside Washington saw the invasion of Iraq as either a revolution in U.S. policy or a conspiracy of greedy corporations and evil special-interest groups, another way to see Bush’s agenda is as an accounting adjustment: Some of the funds that had been typically designated to support Arab militaries were to be diverted into building democratic institutions.
In the case of Lebanon, Bush’s policy curtailed our relationship with Syrian security services and put more money into Lebanese political institutions. U.S. support of the Lebanese Armed Forces was meant to enable the state to extend its sovereignty from border to border. It is hardly surprising that Hezbollah, which embodies the challenge to that state’s sovereignty, understood this better than the Lebanese government. For the last five years, various figures from the March 14 movement have come through Washington to petition for more firepower—planes, tanks, artillery—anything that would serve as evidence that, counter to Hezbollah’s argument, the LAF was capable of defending Lebanon from Israel. That the IDF colonel was killed on the border by a sniper rifle likely provided by the United States—before the U.S. aid package, the LAF had no sniper rifles—may bring that support to an end.
It is an article of faith of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment that the active component of American policy is building and strengthening institutions in faraway places—for instance, a new Iraqi constitution, the Pakistani parliament, the Afghan criminal justice system. The premise of institution-building is that it is not the particular ideas and values of foreign cultures that determine how people in those places live; it is rather the absence of U.S.-style political institutions that have kept these foreigners mired in poverty, or in a constant state of war with their neighbors, or enabled widespread corruption among their political elites.
But this obsession with building political institutions betrays a parochial innocence, a uniquely American discomfort with tragedy. It wasn’t always like this. By and large, our founding fathers were landlocked; Franklin, Jefferson, and the entire Adams family all rolled into one did not see a fraction of the globe that a typical 35-year-old development expert sees today. And yet, unlike foreign aid workers, the founders were familiar with the tragic view of life, which is why they sought to keep this experiment in democracy isolated from the rest of the world and its tragedies.
The United States wanted to help the Lebanese build political institutions but were unwilling to do anything that might alter the balance of power in Lebanon, like make war on Syria—and even that might not have changed anything. When the Lebanese first took to the streets to demand Syria withdraw its troops, I feared they did not understand that they were essentially on their own, that Washington was not going to protect them. But now I see I was wrong. The Lebanese long ago had taken the measure of our character and understood all along that the United States was not going to send troops on their behalf, so when they asked if they were destined to be sold out to the Syrians, what they were really saying was, Are you Americans watching us? We surprised you, didn’t we? We’re sort of heroes, don’t you think?
Since the 2005 murder of Saad’s father, Rafik Hariri, and 22 others in a massive car-bombing, Lebanese officials and journalists have been killed and maimed by the Syrians and their allies, but there are still those in the press attacking Damascus and Hezbollah—even after the Saudis warned the Lebanese prime minister that they don’t want to see any more anti-Syrian polemic in the Hariri-owned media. And this week after Hassan Nasrallah’s televised presentation ostensibly providing irrefutable proof that Israel assassinated Rafik Hariri, Lebanese journalists are mocking the Hezbollah leader. While Nasrallah has claimed that he has intercepted Israeli drone feeds showing that Israel tracked Hariri’s movements, his opponents are questioning whether he hasn’t merely lifted images from Google Earth.
So, who is standing with these Lebanese then? No one, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. In fact, they’ve conducted themselves heroically. But none of that will change the fact that when war comes with Israel, they too will be in harm’s way, and not just Hezbollah, the villains. This is tragic.
It is typical in Lebanon, as throughout the Middle East, to blame one’s fate on Israel. Over the last week I received emails and text messages from Lebanese friends about Israel’s “provocations” on the border. More than once I bit my lip, noting only that somewhere in Israel a family was mourning a father, a son, a brother, a husband because of Hezbollah, who was also their enemy. Too often, innocent Lebanese forget that they are no more innocent than innocent Israelis; the difference is that Israel can and will protect its citizens from Hezbollah while the Lebanese government cannot. It is not fair, it’s tragic. More often than not, the name that this maddening powerlessness and inability to change your own circumstances gives to the inchoate pattern of tragedy in the Middle East is Israel.
Of course, the Middle East is no less tragic for the Israelis than it is for the Lebanese, but that is not to say life is impossible, or, as the saying would have it, that the status quo is unsustainable. Life goes on—sons are born and fathers are murdered. Life as such is sustainable and has been sustained over the course of several thousand years—or long before we Americans entered the scene with our post-tragic ethos. That we can’t imagine that some things do not work out well does not mean they are unsustainable, only that we are incapable of fathoming the depths of tragedy.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).