Why Beirut matters too

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the Saint George Maronite Cathedral stand side by side in Martyr's Square in downtown Beirut. (Kevin Lees)
The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the Saint George Maronite Cathedral stand side by side in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut. (Kevin Lees)

I’ve seen plenty of commentary online since Friday night criticizing the American and European media (and their audiences) for ignoring Thursday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut while focusing their attention solely on Friday’s deadlier Paris attacks.Lebanon

But, as I write tomorrow for The National Interest, as the world mourns the victims of both attacks, there’s a risk that the lessons of the Beirut blasts (by far the worst since the beginning of the civil war in neighboring Syria) will go unheeded.

Just as the Paris attacks are changing the nature of the Western response to ISIS/Daesh, so should the Beirut attacks change the nature of Western engagement with Lebanon.

Recognizing the humanity of the victims in Lebanon is really just the first step, because the real courage among policymakers is to adjust to the post-attack Beirut with more support politically, economically and morally.

Do read the whole thing here.

I argue first that U.S. and European policymakers should care about Lebanon and its stability: 

Lebanon’s resilience over the past four years is as impressive as it is surprising. It’s a modern miracle that Lebanon has so far avoided being dragged into the Syrian morass, and the Lebanese have accomplished it, more or less, on their own. Though its confessionally based politics are far from perfect, Lebanon since 1989 has become an oasis of consensus-based government and an aspirational democracy in what stubbornly remains a region of thugs, gangsters and autocrats. Moreover, the attack on Beirut reinforces the reality that the fight against global terrorism is more complicated than just “West” versus “East” or Christian against Muslim….

When Syria’s civil war began, it wasn’t hard to believe that tiny Lebanon would be drawn into the fighting, and the war has indeed profoundly affected the country, most notably with a humanitarian crisis resulting from the influx of 1.12 million refugees, representing roughly a quarter of Lebanon’s 2011 population. But the Syrian war has also strained the Lebanese government, causing a political stalemate between the two major Lebanese coalitions. Since former president Michel Suleiman stepped down from his six-year term in May 2014, Lebanon’s parliament has tried and failed thirty-one times to select his successor, most recently last Tuesday. Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s caretaker government, which was supposed to last weeks or months at most, will mark its second anniversary in February 2016 and no sign of long-delayed parliamentary elections.

 

I then make the case that U.S. and European governments could be doing more to support the Lebanese government — and this is especially true in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear energy deal:

Lebanon’s continued stability relies on a political solution to the Syrian civil war. It’s of no use to Lebanon if French, American or Russian bombs destroy ISIS if there’s also a risk of ISIS 2.0 or 3.0 jeopardizing the Levant in five years or a decade’s time. Moreover, if any country in the region could put greater financial assistance to good use, it’s Lebanon. Though U.S. foreign aid to Lebanon has increased, the $156 million provided in fiscal year 2014 is far less than the $3.1 billion provided by the U.S. government to Lebanon’s far wealthier neighbor Israel. European governments, struggling to cope with the flow of Syrian refugees, may be in a position to lead the way. Federica Mogherini, the former Italian foreign minister and now the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, has issued urgent calls to assist Lebanon, and she traveled to Beirut last December to meet with its government….

Since the 1980s, the bilateral U.S.-Lebanese relationship has been strained by Hezbollah’s prominence in Lebanon’s government and the country’s proximity to the Syrian and Iranian regimes. For the American public, Lebanon still conjures images of the October 1983 barracks bombing that killed 307 people, including 241 U.S. servicemen—and little else. Last week, in the Republican presidential debate, former Florida governor Jeb Bush even erroneously claimed that Lebanon’s Christians are at risk of beheading, which much have come as a shock to the millions of Lebanese Christians living under Lebanon’s relatively peaceful aegis.

Politically speaking, it’s a difficult sell for any American administration to provide funding that might wind up in Hezbollah’s hands. But the agreement between the United States and Iran on the Iranian nuclear energy program demonstrates that the two countries can work together when their national interests are aligned. In a world where the United States no longer depends on Middle Eastern oil, it makes little sense to tie its regional interests solely to the mast of Saudi Arabia, a corrupt and autocratic monarchy in partnership with radical Wahhabist clerics. The Obama administration has learned in Syria that, often, the choice is not between “good guys” and “bad guys”—instead, it’s between “bad” and the “really bad.” That didn’t stop the United States from making a deal with the Assad regime and with Russia to clear Syria of its chemical weapons in 2013. It also shouldn’t stop the United States from strengthening ties with Lebanon, given that Lebanon’s stability, especially in the aftermath of the assault on Beirut, is a regional priority for everyone.

 

 

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