Abdel Mohsen Abu Maizer is one of the older independent members of the PLO executive committee. In his office in Damascus, which since the PLO left Beirut has been his exile in exile, he talked to me about Arafat, who was soon to be deported from Syria; about Syria and American Middle East policy; and about the Lebanese-Israeli accord. The conversation wandered naturally toward Lebanon. Abu Maizer asked, “Do you really want to understand Lebanon?” He might as easily have asked, “Do you really want to understand the Trinity?”
“It’s simple,” he said, leaning forward in his chair, as though he were taking me into his confidence. “Look at the first and last cabinets of independent Lebanon. The first was in 1945, just after independence, and the last was the emergency cabinet of 1975, just before the country collapsed. The first cabinet had only six members, representing the main religious groups. The prime minister, representing the Sunni Muslims, was Abdel Hamid Karami. Camille Chamoun represented the Maronites, Adil Oseiran the Shi’ites, and Selim Takla the Greek Catholics. The Greek Orthodox were represented by Habib Abu Sha’La, the editor and publisher of An-Nahar [then, as now, Lebanon’s leading daily].”
It was an unremarkable list of the major figures of each community in Lebanon. But, Abu Maizer recalled, “The six-man emergency cabinet thirty years later had as the Sunni prime minister Rashid Karami, son of Abdel Hamid Karami, who had died. Selim Takla had died also, and was replaced by his cousin Philippe Takla. The Greek Orthodox were represented by the next editor and publisher of An-Nahar, Ghassan Tueni. And the other three were the same: Camille Chamoun, Majid Arslan, and Adil Oseiran. In thirty years, despite all the changes in the Arab world, nothing had changed in Lebanon. Nothing.”
Abu Maizer, whose cause and people had suffered as much as any other in Lebanon, provided a piece of the puzzle—a necessary one but not sufficient to understand how a pleasant Mediterranean and Arab country of 3 million people destroyed itself and invited its neighbors in to help with its destruction, over eight bloody years. But understanding one large fact about Lebanon is not the same as understanding the country itself. Lebanon’s is a tragedy of epic proportions, which has defied interpretation by political analysts and scholars, diplomats and politicians, novelists and film makers, since the country began to disintegrate in April 1975. Many journalists covering Lebanon have, like most American policy makers, treated it as a sideshow, or as merely the battleground for more important struggles, as Tony Clifton has done in God Cried.1 No journalist has tried harder to understand Lebanon itself than my old friend and colleague, The Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal. Yet even Randal, while writing a book so good that it is certain to be banned in Lebanon, can only circle around rather than answer the question of why Lebanon was doomed.
Lebanon traces its woes, indeed its existence as a state, back to the dismemberment by the British and French of the Arab part of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. A series of agreements between the two countries prevented the creation of a united Arab state and denied homelands to the Armenians, the Kurds, and the Palestinian Arabs; but the French gave political power to Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics, and the British assurances of a homeland to Palestine’s immigrant Jews. This imperial map drawing, which established such historical anomalies as the kingdom of Transjordan, superimposed a façade of modern statelets on a structure of centuries-old Ottoman power sharing.
Under the French mandate Lebanon expanded its frontiers to include Muslim Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley, and took the form, if not the substance, of a modern nation-state. When it became independent from France in 1943, Lebanon was already organized on the principle of government through consensus, not of all its people but among its hereditary regional, tribal, and religious leaders. Each “za’im”—a personage characterized by the Lebanese writer André Chedid as “a political chief who has the support of a locally defined community which he exploits and at the same time protects”—was supreme in his community, dispensing patronage and punishing modernizers. He bargained on behalf of his own community with other za’ims.
The unwritten national pact of 1943 was the compromise under which Lebanon’s Maronites agreed to independence from their traditional French protectors. It assumed a perpetual Christian majority of six to five, with all public offices distributed according to that ratio. The president was always a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament a Shi’ite. The pact had an international compromise built into it as well: there would be strict neutrality between the Christian West and the Muslim Arab world. The agreement was, in the words of the newspaper editor Georges Naccache in his 1949 book, Deux negations ne font pas une nation,
neither westernization nor arabization: it is upon this double rejection that Christianity and Islam have based their alliance. This Lebanon they have made for us is a country consisting of two fifth columns…. The folly was in having elevated compromise to the level of a state doctrine…. A state is not the sum of two negations.
The two negations nonetheless managed to produce stability in Lebanon until 1958. Camille Chamoun, making use of CIA money, undertook to rig the 1957 parliamentary elections and attempted to amend the constitution to allow himself a second six-year term as president.2 Chamoun violated the national pact by accepting the Eisenhower doctrine, which allied his regime with the West. Muslim leaders, notably Saeb Salam, followed suit by calling on Nasser for matching support. The 1958 civil war began, and though a modest affair by comparison with the subsequent civil war, it opened the door to international rivalries that are still playing themselves out on Lebanese soil.
The precarious balance established by the national pact was upset further by those outsiders within, the Palestinians. Sitting quietly for twenty years in their refugee camps, providing cheap labor for Lebanese factories and farms, they came out of the wings onto the Lebanese stage. After the defeat of Syria, Jordan, and Nasser’s Egypt in the June 1967 war, the Palestinians created their own commando movements both in Jordan, which was strong enough to expel them, and in Lebanon. The second civil war, which began in April 1975, was, in the words of a Lebanese historian, “a continuation of the tribal history of the region. The Palestinians simply behaved like another Lebanese tribe.” In the years after the 1975-1976 civil war, when the PLO factions retreated to south Lebanon beyond the Syrian-Israeli “Red Line,” Christians of the south condemned the behavior of the PLO in their towns and villages.
To their shame, Palestinian leaders began to play Lebanese politics. Arafat would attend meetings with the president, Suleiman Franjiyeh, and take part in emergency sessions on resolving “the crisis.” He was drawn more and more deeply into the civil war, both by Lebanese Muslims who expected Palestinian Muslims to support them in the name of Arabism and by PLO radicals who wanted a revolutionary regime in Beirut. Arafat in 1976 joined the Lebanese Druze and leftist leader Kemal Jumblatt in rejecting any Lebanese government which included the Phalangist Party. But who, even anti-Phalange Christians asked, was Arafat to decide on the composition of the Lebanese cabinet?
Randal follows the threads of Christian politics, since his book was originally conceived as an account not of Lebanon but of Lebanon’s Christians. (The publisher apparently asked for an “update” to include the Israeli invasion and its aftermath.) Treating in turn the rise of the Maronite Catholics, the “ascension” of their martyr Bashir Gemayel, and the Christians’ relations with Israel and the United States, Randal shows how the Lebanon he found when he arrived in 1974 became three Lebanons by the time he left in 1982. Randal does not let the reader forget what David Gilmour reminds us of in his new book Lebanon: The Fractured Country:3 that “The Palestinians might support the Arab nationalists, the Israelis might fight for the Maronites, and the Syrians might at different times help both sides—but the Lebanese conflict has always been there.”
The United States, in Randal’s view, simply did not have any coherent Lebanon policy—even after Syrian and Israeli involvement became clear.
“When you come right down to it, very few people in the US establishment were interested in Lebanon itself, except missionaries and perhaps a few oil men,” a former CIA policymaker has said. “The United States has had a policy for Israel, a policy on oil, a policy for radical Arabs, one for conservative Arabs, a policy for dealing regionally with the Soviets, but not a policy for Lebanon. Lebanon policy was what was left over.”
According to Randal, the absence of an American policy left the field clear for Syria and Israel to act as regional superpowers in Lebanon. But, he admits, it was Kissinger who gave Syria the green light to enter Lebanon on the side of the Christians in 1976, and Haig who gave Israel similar approval for its invasion in 1982. Was this so much the absence of a policy as the pursuit of one—the Nixon doctrine of using local, foreign troops to further American interests? Former President Franjiyeh told Randal that he suspected American intentions when the US sent G. McMurtrie Godley as ambassador in 1974. Randal believed Franjiyeh to be somewhat self-deceiving about this. But Franjiyeh’s government had already witnessed dozens of Israeli reprisal raids into Lebanon and serious fighting in Beirut. It should not be surprising that the Maronite president suspected the arrival of an ambassador who had directed covert operations in Laos and before that in the Belgian Congo. Perhaps the job was simply a sinecure for the aging Godley; but the suspicions of the Lebanese were understandable.
Randal in his preface criticizes the United States over the Israeli invasion:
Much of this ordnance [which Israel used in Lebanon] was American, and so was much of the responsibility for what happened in Lebanon. But the United States at times seemed interested less in acknowledging that aspect of its aid to Israel than in learning the battle-field effectiveness of its weaponry.4
But in dealing with the Lebanese themselves Randal shares with many other correspondents a sense of cultural superiority that leads him to write: “When it came to the massacre [at Sabra and Shatila], the Lebanese were not Westerners, no matter how much they tried to ape Western behavior on other occasions.” “Israel,” he claims, had become “one Middle Eastern society dealing with another in keeping with locally accepted norms.”
The norms may, during the war, have been accepted by the Phalangist, Palestinian, and Israeli military forces, but they were never “acceptable,” as the Lebanese civilians can attest. And were the Lebanese not “aping” Western behavior—with its history of My Lai, Treblinka, Amritsar, and Algeria—as much in their methods of killing as when they wore their Pierre Cardin suits and Gucci shoes? Randal, who reminds his readers that he also covered Algeria and Vietnam, should know that Western claims of moral superiority in war ring hollow in the postcolonial era.
Discussing the denunciations of Israel during and after the war, Randal writes, “The world judged Israel by the highest standards. In a way, this is only fair. Israeli governments over the years had invoked that image [of a democracy amid military dictatorships] vis à vis the Arabs….” But there should be—and Israeli critics of the Western press and television are right when they say this—only one standard: when the Syrian army shells its own city of Hama or when Indonesia invades East Timor, they should be judged by the same standard as the Israeli army when it strafes and shells Beirut. Third world military dictatorships have no more right than any elected government to a moral free ride.
For that matter, neither have the Phalangists. Randal is at his best describing how the Phalange, a tiny, almost fringe, party for thirty years, grew and came to dominate Maronite Lebanon, which had been controlled by the za’ims of the Franjiyeh, Chamoun, and other Maronite clans. Bashir Gemayel, younger son of the party founder, Sheik Pierre Gemayel, created the Lebanese forces, the combined Christian militias, as much to outmaneuver his older brother Amin, the natural heir, and to eliminate the Franjiyehs and Chamouns, as to fight his Muslim, Syrian, and Palestinian opponents. This was a struggle for succession and a consolidation, a conflict among baronies worthy of a Plantagenet prince. But Bashir was murdered before he could put together his united kingdom. And his older brother rules in his place as, in the cruel words of the locals, “mayor of greater Beirut.” As for the rest of Lebanon, 80 percent of its four thousand-odd square miles is under Christian and Syrian occupation.
The most galling irony for President Gemayel, whose main task in office is to bring those two occupations to an end, must be that the Phalange leaders invited both armies in—the Syrians in 1976 to fight the Palestinians, and the Israelis in 1982—to save themselves. Randal recounts a story told him by Ghassan Tueni, the editor of An-Nahar, about a State Department official explaining to a Lebanese Christian in 1976 that Syrian intervention would check the Palestinians:
“But,” asked the Lebanese, “who will check the Syrians?” The answer was simple, candid and very Kissingerian. “The Israelis, of course.” Tueni adds that no one seems to have asked the logical follow-up question, “But who will check the Israelis?”
So far, Lebanon has been relying on the Americans to check the Israelis. But in a letter accompanying the May 17 Lebanese-Israeli accord, the US agreed that Israel need not pull its troops out of Lebanon until the Syrians do, effectively giving Syria a veto over any troop withdrawal. This has made the Lebanese understandably disappointed with American efforts on their behalf. Before very long the Lebanese may try to take matters into their own hands, with or without their government’s participation. A guerrilla war is already under way against the Israelis, and a small one is springing up against the Syrians. This resistance may conceivably act as the unifying force so badly needed by the Lebanese Christians, who must offer the Muslims something if Lebanon is to survive. The Muslims, after six years of the Syrians in Beirut, no longer dream of Arab unity, but—as recent fighting between the Lebanese army and Druze Muslims in the mountains, and between the Lebanese army and Shi’ite Muslims in Beirut, shows—there are genuine Muslim grievances the Syrians can manipulate to encourage armed dissent in Lebanon.
“With 50,000 Lebanese dead in the war,” a Lebanese officer in south Lebanon told me late last year, “the Lebanese could leave 50,000 dead among both the Syrians and the Israelis.” This prediction is exaggerated, although Lebanese guerrilla forces are growing in strength. The Lebanese would no doubt pay a high price for opposing both occupations; but they have already paid a terrible price, as Randal shows. Lebanon is, after all, their country. How much will Israel and Syria be willing to pay to keep it?
September 29, 1983
Quartet Books, 1983. ↩
See Wilbur Crane Eveland, Ropes of Sand: America’s Failure in the Middle East (Norton, 1980). ↩
Martin Robertson (London, 1983). ↩
See Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (South End Press, published this month) for a detailed account of the use of American arms aid and the US role in Lebanon. ↩