Lebanon: The Silent Choice

By Foster, Charles | Contemporary Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Lebanon: The Silent Choice


Foster, Charles, Contemporary Review


Napoleon, the Greeks, the Romans and the Turks thought that the boundaries of Syria should be the Mediterranean, the Euphrates, the Arabian Desert and the Taurus mountains. Geography, common sense and the Muslims and Druze of the entire region agreed. France and the Maronites of Mount Lebanon disagreed, and in 1920 France divided Syria, creating the new State of the Greater Lebanon, which later became the independent modern Lebanese state. This division was folly matched in ignorance, presumption and arrogance only by subsequent Israeli policy in South Lebanon and American Middle Eastern policy in general.

At first the ticking of the demographic time bomb was a metronome which forced a fast and brilliant dance from the Christian glitterati of Lebanon. They knew, in the beginning, that the French gift would go bad; that to import the values and non-values of Cannes to the natural domestic port of Damascus was asking for trouble. The dancing girls knew they were naughtily out of place, and that the party could not last, and that made it all the sweeter. But then they got drunk on it all, and forgot where they were, and began to talk with the terrible gravity of the very seriously intoxicated of rights and eternal empires and being the outpost Of Western morality and civilization in a den of savages. They wove a whole fictitious history to justify the continuation of the fun and games. Their rhetoric was childish and absurd, and the self-righteousness was nasty. The Lebanese Christians were encouraged in the delusion by more sophisticated and more cynical people, notably in the CIA and Mossad.

Then a strange thing happened, which Robert Fisk was the first to expound fully: the Western sophisticates fell in love. They slept with, and were betrayed by, their own honey-trap. In the beginning America wanted Lebanon to pin down the Soviet-sponsored Syrians who looked lustfully and sentimentally to the sea. The Syrians played a longer game, and were content to bide their time, believing that the mystical dialectic of Arab unity would deliver Lebanon to them, or more properly, back to them. But America became committed. The rhetoric of this commitment varied over the years and between administrations. Sometimes a friendly regime in Beirut had to be preserved because of Lebanon's strategic indispensability in the fight against the sinister Soviets, or on behalf of little oppressed Israel. Sometimes it was necessary that strategically irrelevant Lebanon was supported simply because it was there, and was facing bully boys to the east, and because no ethically decent nation could stand by and see a little nation getting beaten up. Sometimes it was necessary to support Lebanon pour encourager les autres. The policy statements were confused and self-contradictory. They were the incoherent bluster of a big boy in love. America was fascinated and hopelessly, emotionally entangled. This happens, says Fisk, to everyone who goes to Lebanon, and he dissects the infatuation well.

Israel was not immune, but the affection or affliction took a different and grander form. The Israeli invasions of Lebanon were grotesquely, magnificently disproportionate in conception, size and brutality to their pretexts. The 1982 invasion was more of a geological than a military enterprise. Ariel Sharon was trying to wipe away what he saw as the inconvenient alluvial accumulations which had settled on the land between Galilee and the Euphrates since the time of David's kingdom. This objective was perhaps not shared even subliminally by most Israelis, but Lebanon's sweet poison drugged and stilled some nerve centre in the Israeli high command which should have decreed immediate withdrawal. Its strategists forgot everything they had learned about conflict with the Arabs. The Israelis lost in Lebanon because Lebanon, using an old curse, forced them to fight and think like their enemies. The Israelis lost in Lebanon because they too were entangled with the place to the point of complete identification with it.

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