Thursday, March 24, 2005
Another, less upbeat conversation on world affairs: with the local Lebanese (Christian) specialty grocer in my neighborhood. She's a lovely woman (the whole family seems lovely) and I shop at their store often. So last weekend I opened a conversation about events in her native land. Her face saddened. She was not at all optimistic about what would ultimately happen to Lebanon. The Syrians have armed Hezbollah to the teeth, leaving them the only effective military power in the country. If they actually do leave, either Hezbollah will take over or the civil war will start again. Either way, the result will be disastrous for Lebanon. Syria, she said, would remain the power in Lebanon; the only question is whether they will be a little more or a little less aggressive in asserting that power, and whether there will be great bloodshed on the way to that inevitable end.
Doesn't mean she's right, but she did grow up there.
Lebanon was created as a solution to a demographic problem: a Christian community that didn't want to be swallowed up by a largely-Muslim Syria. It was a delicate balancing act from the beginning between Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites (with some Druze thrown in to make it interesting), and when Yasser Arafat arrived after Black September the balance fell apart, as did the country. Now, the demographic facts do not support the Lebanon of old. There's no way the Christian community can be dominant in the way they were 50 years ago when Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. And it is not easy to build a political system that can survive massive demographic changes. America is not unique in having done so, but we're pretty rare - including among democracies.
One can certainly hope that the current democratic moment, spurred on by our own interventions in the region, will spark a genuine nationalism, a solidarity of fellow-citizens in a political community that transcends religious, ethnic and tribal lines, the kind of thing Britain, France and America have had for centuries (and that, for that matter, many other countries, from Mexico to China, have, more or less successfully, developed). But there are plenty of reasons to worry.
And, not to sound too much like Peter Beinart, there's reason to worry about our own attention-deficit-disorder as well. Lebanon is going to be there for a long time. Are we?