Stirling Newberry: Two Houses

By Stirling Newberry
April 5, 2005

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long

William Shakespeare, King Lear Act V Scene III

The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has sent shockwaves through the fragile political system of Lebanon, hence in its wake Prime Minister Karami resigned, was asked to form a new government, and has reigned again. The fears of the kind of violence which rent the country in its long Second Civil War (1975-1990) reached into the highest international diplomatic circles, and it placed renewed pressure on the international community to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1559, the resolution which demanded that Syria remove its troops, long stationed in Lebanon, first as part of the “Arab Deterrent Force” and then under its own flag. The state of Lebanon has not been able to govern the country of Lebanon for much of its existence as an independent entity, and the sectarianization of the conflicts in Lebanon dates back even further, to 1820, when powerful Druze families, outraged at how the emir of Mt. Lebanon was favoring the Maronite Christians and thus mounted a rebellion against him. Lebanon’s geography makes it, like Belgium, a natural highway, and as with Belgium this means that its neighbors have often seen it as a road, rather than a region. Mediterranean powers have often tried to reach in through Beirut to get at the ancient center of power which is Damascus, and those who live inland have reached out to gain access to the sea, and to the trade that it brings with it. Peoples have flowed along this natural trade route for centuries: including Druze, Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims, along with other nationalities. The example of Belgium shows that there is no reason why Lebanon cannot become a successful state, with a successful political culture. Belgium has two very large ethnic groups, the Flemings and the Walloons, and has managed to create an integrated state and political culture. But twice in the last century it was the route to invasion, and often a fulcrum for intervention in the centuries before that.

The lesson to be drawn is that once people within a country see each other as the most important economic, political and social allies, once it becomes necessary to form a working national entity, it is possible for groups that are very different to realize a civil society. However, until that moment comes – when the peoples that make up a state become one people in their national identity – there is the perpetual danger that the state will fall into civil war, or be divided into spheres of influence by neighboring powers.

In late 1970’s the UN Security Council resolution 425, which created the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which was charged with acting as a buffer to the “Blue Line” between Israel and Lebanon. In the nearly 30 years since the force was stationed there, it has patrolled, been over run in invasion, delivered humanitarian aid, been attacked by the different warring parties, and as a result, suffered 250 fatalities. However, for all of this, it has performed a valuable function of asserting the will of the international community to have a Lebanon within its recognized. And that is what eventually did occur, in no small measure because the UN had the staying power to accomplish it. But the next step: that of having a Lebanese government exercise civil control over all of Lebanon remains undone.

In the present there have been calls for a government of national unity in Lebanon, with terms that must be negotiated by the political process within the state. It is essential that that these negotiations be over the table by words, and not over the Green line by artillery shells. One possibility, with UNIFIL as a precedent, would be to establish a line between Lebanon and Syria, and station along it a UN peacekeeping force.

In 1982, Ronald Reagan was a politician in deep domestic trouble, with an economy in deep recession, approval numbers below 50%, and an economic agenda that had not yet born fruit. In this moment he participated in an international effort to stabilize Lebanon, but withdrew after an attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241. On the same day, the French contingent was attacked, suffering heavy loss of life. No one questioned that Reagan’s motives for going into Lebanon were anything but an urgent interest in stability. It was a political risk, one which had political costs. The warning is that great powers, even those engaged in efforts driven by humanitarian interests, rather than economic or territorial ones, become targets for their enemies. Failure of the mission becomes interlinked in the minds of their enemies with a failure for the great power.

It is for this reason that the UN is the natural umbrella for funneling aid and creating a peace within which the political process of Lebanon can work, before events spiral beyond control, as they spiraled beyond control in the First and Second Lebanese civil wars, and as they spiraled out of control after the fall from power of Bashir II in 1840, which ultimately lead to a sectarian war and was only ended by foreign intervention and the imposition of martial law in 1860, backed, it must be noted, by an agreement of the great powers of that day and age.

The UN has already been found acceptable as the party to investigate the assassination itself, it can serve a larger role in the attempt to prevent Lebanon from becoming a failed state. The urgent need to enforce UN resolution 1559, and to give the people of that divided nation a chance to form a government of national unity to meet the crisis, cannot be clearer. Only the UN will be seen as a neutral party, rather than as an extension of some national agenda.

Because when 2005 is written of in the history books, the assassination of Hariri will be seen either as being like the fall of King Lear, which divided a nation in three, or as the tragedy that brought about a healing between warring parties, as in Romeo and Juliet. The first act of the play is ending, and the second act is about to begin.