If you don’t know anything about foreign policy, I suggest you start with the Middle East, and within the Middle East, I suggest you start with Lebanon.
It frustrates me to see people in an academic community who don’t care to know the location of Middle Eastern countries, much less their international impact. Particularly in light of the Arab Spring uprisings and the civil unrest that has swept the Middle East in the past year students need to comprehend how these nations will affect this year’s election.
Situated between Israel, Palestine and Syria, and with a longstanding history of conflict, Lebanon seems to have once again become a playing field for its neighbors’ unrest.
In order to understand the complex and frustrating situation of Lebanon, it is important first to understand the nation’s extremely tumultuous past, which has been directly influenced by bordering regional powers.
Lebanon has not seen much peace since its transition from a French mandate to independent nation in 1943. The new country’s initial leaders established a confessionalist system, meaning the leadership of the country would consist of a Maronite Christian president, Sunni prime minister and Shiite speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, thus representing the three major religious orientations of the population. This was more or less an informal pact made between prominent financial and commercial officials of Christian and Sunni backgrounds in Beirut.
However, over the years, the demographic changes within the country caused many Sunni and Shia to question the political system, particularly because Sunni had become the most populous confessional group, but the Maronites refused to relinquish the presidency or conduct a new census that would justify the Sunni concerns.
The rising tensions led to an internal breakdown that was not helped by extraneous political disorder, specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts that were occurring around the same time due to the development of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Lebanon has therefore been in social and political turmoil for years, and this country’s inner workings are crucial in understanding the Middle Eastern region as a whole. Problems of corruption and religious tension that plague the Arabian Peninsula are exacerbated in Lebanon, and both the Middle Eastern nations and the west should look to this country as part of the starting point to resolve these conflicts.
These antagonisms, some solely among Arabs, and others between Israelis and Arabs, exploded in Lebanon in 1975. Attacks by both major sects of the Lebanese confessionalist population, as well as by Palestinian and Israeli forces erupted. After over 15 years and thousands dead or “disappeared,” the intense conflicts sputtered to an end, with no real changes in the political system, but in the midst of emerging violent interest groups.
These groups continue to engage in paramilitary activities that endanger Lebanese civilians, and were cause for Israel’s invasion in 2006. Hezbollah (a militant Shia Muslim group that is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States) in particular carries heavy weight in Lebanese political discourse of today, as it has much greater power than the Lebanese armed forces, and plays a significant role in the current government of Mikati.
Bribery is rampant and citizens must pay steep favors to gain work or protection. This corruption, as well as Lebanon’s turbulent past, both as a crossfire zone for neighboring clashes as well as an internally unstable nation, seem to make it a very vulnerable country at this moment in the Middle East.
With every major Middle Eastern conflict and U.S. presence in the past 50 years having some tie to Lebanon, not only our politicians, but also we as citizens should gain at least minimal insight into the country’s inner workings. In order to understand the U.S. involvement in this region now, and to genuinely participate in discussions about Middle Eastern foreign policy in the future, we must pay more attention to the precarious place of Lebanon between the vying authorities in the hotspots of Palestine, Israel and Syria.
According to the BBC, as of Feb. 17, a substantial amount of violence has already escalated in the Lebanese city of Tripoli as supporters of Syrian President Assad attacked Sunni Muslims supporting the overthrow of Assad, leaving 12 dead.
If this hostility continues to spill into Lebanon, the results could be catastrophic. Already unstable, the Lebanese government could have another external conflict imposed onto them, and would have to either crawl through the layers of bureaucracy and archaic confessionalist schemes to end the conflict, or turn to Hezbollah, the dangerous regional watchdog, to seek protection.
Both of these options could potentially be very harmful to the citizens of Lebanon, as Hezbollah is not necessarily concerned with the best interests of the Lebanese population. As the history of this country and region shows, if surrounding powers engage in conflict, Lebanon somehow becomes involved, whether as a battleground or as a competing authority.
This is a conflict that could be crucial to the Middle Eastern uprisings and is of particular interest to the U.S., because if Lebanon begins to crumble, Israel’s (and therefore our) interests will become closely intertwined with restoring some semblance of order to the region.
If Syria’s conflict spills over and affects its neighbors, this year’s election could be affected as the United Nations and Arab League debate a need for military intervention in the area.