Thursday, July 16, 2015

All fall down - Why did Michael Hayden get Lebanon so wrong?

The Washington think tank and consulting community gives significant relevance for the American capital. It can also be something of a bubble, where the reality of a particular region (the Middle East, for instance), can at times be distorted by a lens the effects of which are exacerbated by distance.

A case in point is a phrase of Gen. Michael Hayden, a member of the Chertoff Group consultancy, to the French daily Le Figaro. A former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, Hayden has vast experience. That is why one particular comment he made was jarring.

In response to a question about whether the influence of the United States was being diluted in the Middle East, Hayden responded that it was very difficult today for Washington to have a policy there. “Let’s face it: Iraq no longer exists, nor Syria. Lebanon is nearly undone, Libya too probably.”

This translation from French is perhaps inaccurate, but Hayden’s meaning is clear. Lebanon is listed among those states in the region that have collapsed, so that even Libya’s grim fate, in Hayden’s words, appears to be more open to question.

It’s difficult to argue that Lebanon is a healthy country, but it hardly qualifies for inclusion in a list with Syria, Iraq and Libya. If anything, the country, though dancing on a volcano, is an oasis of relative stability, even if this can change at any moment.

For as long as American policy-makers have given any attention at all to Lebanon, they have regarded it as a hopelessly divided place. In Diplomat Among Warriors, the American envoy to Lebanon in 1958, Robert Murphy, wrote: “Lebanon disputes were not limited to major political differences and division between Christians and Muslims. There also was factional strife within political parties and between religious sects.” Murphy could have been writing about the Lebanese reality today.

In 1982, the Reagan administration committed to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion that summer. American and European forces deployed to the country to help the Lebanese government re-impose its authority after a seven-year civil war. Very quickly the multinational peacekeeping mission became mired in a regional struggle over Lebanon, with Syria and Iran on one side and the United States and its allies on the other, each side using Lebanese proxies to advance its interests.

Amid the rising violence in Lebanon, bomb attacks targeted the American Embassy in Beirut and Awkar in 1983 and 1984, while a truck-bomb attack killed 241 American servicemen at the Marine barracks near Beirut airport, and another led to the death of 55 French paratroopers.

By February 1984 the Reagan administration had decided that Lebanon was a losing venture, and began pulling its forces out of the country. For two decades Lebanon was firmly banished from the American consciousness, bestowed with pariah status.

Hayden’s throwaway comment seemed to emanate from that deep well of wariness. But given the circumstances Lebanon is facing today, not only is the country not coming undone (or whichever English word Hayden used), it is doing rather well — surely better, I suspect, than the United States would do facing an inflow of refugees equivalent to a quarter of its population.  

One of the stranger aspects of Lebanese society is that what many regard as its fatal flaws, namely its chronic unruliness and social divisions, often happen to be advantageous. Even if we can ridicule the idea that “Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness,” rifts and factionalism have become a default setting nationally. That means that the Lebanese, so accustomed to chaos, are frequently better equipped at managing disorder than well-organized countries where stability prevails.

And for all its many problems, Lebanon’s disorder reflects an inherent pluralism that is far less restrictive than what characterizes most other Arab states. Lebanon may be a highly imperfect democracy, but its sectarian system and the fact that its society is stronger than the state create spaces of liberty allowing individuals to more or less live their lives freely.

American policy-makers, like political scientists, may not see anything inspiring in this dysfunctional, unsettling place, so unlike America and where prediction is difficult. Perhaps that’s because an essential aim of the think tanks and consultancies is to forecast trends for policy makers. That’s why even when Lebanon keeps its head above the waves, as it has done since 2011, informed observers in Washington lazily insist on seeing a place drowning alongside the rest of the region.

That’s not to say that Lebanon is out of the woods. The dragon is at the door and many developments, not least the presence of a massive Syrian refugee community unlikely to return home soon, if ever, are profoundly worrisome. Find a confident Lebanese today, and you will have discovered a pink elephant. But Lebanon is not Iraq and it certainly is not Syria or Libya. It is a country that has retained some steadiness, even a culture of compromise and pluralistic politics, against all odds.      

Lebanon is worth nothing in Washington. It’s a sideshow of a sideshow of a sideshow. But the country at least merits more than to become someone’s throwaway remark, especially that of a man who was once perhaps the best-informed official in America. C’mon General Hayden, get our facts right.

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