Lebanon proves President Trump right on the Middle East
The Lebanese people are outraged. If the official explanation is true, then their divided and do-nothing government bears a lot of the responsibility for the horrifying explosion of an abandoned shipment of ammonium nitrate that destroyed part of their capital, Beirut, last week.
Their anger also vindicates President Trump’s fundamental instinct that any further intervention in the Middle East is a fool’s errand.
The neglect that led to the deaths of more than 150 people in Beirut’s port is just the tip of the iceberg of Lebanese dysfunction. Nor is the problem limited to the fact that Hezbollah terrorists, who take their orders from Iran, dominate the government.
The problem is that Lebanon is not a country in any real sense. It is a place where warring tribes — Maronite Catholics, Sunni and Shitte Muslims and Druze — are locked inside borders where they have torn each other to pieces going back to the 1970s.
The same is true of neighboring Syria, which is just now winding down its own civil war between rival religious and ethnic groups — a war that cost half a million lives and created more than 5 million refugees. The same can likewise be said of Iraq, which is, as the United States learned to its sorrow after the 2003 invasion, another patchwork collection of ethnic and religious foes stuffed inside artificial frontiers.
These nations were created after World War I, when Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire and created new entities, whose borders were arbitrarily drawn and whose inhabitants lacked any sense of shared nationhood.
In Lebanon, the French cooked up a complicated power-sharing formula that led to an on-and-off civil war between its competing ethno-religious tribes. A country that might be a prosperous bridge between East and West is instead a conflict-ravaged economic basket case.
Lebanese demonstrators are now calling for throwing out all of their leaders. But there is no formula for governing this country that would satisfy any of these warring tribes.
The world wants to help the Lebanese recover from the port disaster. But the question we should be asking is whether there is anything the West can do to change these countries. The answer is no.
Over the last few decades, both the United States and Israel have been dragged into Lebanon’s civil wars in ways that didn’t benefit anyone. The same is true in Syria, where Washington has fought ISIS and Jerusalem seeks to fend off incursions by Iran and Hezbollah.
Some outsiders might be tempted to try to “fix” Lebanon by helping impose a state modeled on modern and democratic norms, rather than its current tribal and sectarian format. As the United States proved in Iraq, anyone who takes on such a task is ignoring history and common sense and will pay for the hubris in blood and treasure.
Also unfortunately, Lebanon, like Syria and Iraq, is a breeding ground for terrorism. We will have to deter those baddies by other means, never again by entangling ourselves in these nations’ broken political lives. We can wish young, aspirational democrats well as they try to fix their countries — but they should do it on their own.
Anyone who criticizes Trump’s refusal, backed by most Americans, to contemplate more military involvement isn’t being realistic.
Pure isolationism isn’t the answer, of course. The United States should support Israel’s efforts to ensure that violence in Lebanon and Syria doesn’t spread. And the West should, as Trump has done, continue sanctioning and isolating Iran, to prevent it from creating more mischief. Sensible people should also worry about creating a Palestinian state that would be just as much of a disaster as Lebanon or Syria.
Americans have long labored under the delusion that we can heal the Middle East. But the internecine slaughter in Syria and Iraq and the catastrophe that is Lebanon should remind us that the only sensible approach is to stop letting ourselves get dragged into the region’s bloodstained sands.