Lebanon is in crisis mode, again, and as usual it is not only a Lebanese concern. Crisis and foreign intervention go hand in hand in this small, fought-over state. This time around, it is Syria and Saudi Arabia who have added their names to the long list of failed intermediaries. Their foreign interventions, as well as those of Israel, France, the United States and Iran, have regularly ranged from ineffective to catastrophic.
The diplomatic excesses and Machiavellian schemes of foreign states in Lebanon have left a depressing legacy in the country that has been deftly examined by veteran British journalist David Hirst in his latest book ‘Beware of Small States: Lebanon, battleground of the Middle East.’ The book takes its title from Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who warned that while smaller states are often the victims of larger ones, they are also a source of danger for regional powers — a fitting warning here in Lebanon, the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of many of the region’s power brokers.
Hirst gives a fascinating account of how Lebanon has twisted and turned in the regional headwinds. A principal point of discussion is the incongruous relationship between Lebanon and the nascent state of Israel. Initially, the newly arrived merchant Zionists to the Levant were welcomed with open arms in Beirut. “The [Lebanese] government even produced a tourist manual in Hebrew, whose preface proclaimed that, ‘Anyone who wants to lengthen his days, taste paradise and feel the world to come should spend some time in Lebanon.’”
Many would say that the future state of Israel took this tourist manual too literally, with its 1982 invasion and two-decade occupation of South Lebanon. Indeed, as Hirst points out, “from 1973 till this day [Lebanon] has … furnished the only militarily active front in the Arab-Israel struggle,” with the exception of occupied Palestine. Israel itself is another example of the “small state” phenomena, as is emphasized throughout the book. However, as Hirst shows, its creation was “…a vastly more arbitrary example of late imperial arrogance, geopolitical caprice and perniciously misguided philanthropy than Lebanon’s.” Hirst articulates how the lessons have not been learnt, noting that the needs and fundamental demands of the Palestinian population are ignored in the Israeli project. Misguided philanthropy has also cost the US government countless billions each year in government aid alone. While often a diplomatic and military battleground, Lebanon has also been an ideological front for many of the seminal movements of the past century in the region. Whether it was anti-Ottoman independence, resistance to Israeli occupation, pan-Arabism, sectarianism or Islamism, Hirst asserts that Lebanon has been the unwieldy axis on which the region turns.
When Arab nationalism began its rise, Lebanon was a key player. It was one of the founders of the Arab League and where, Hirst argues, “Nasserism reached its high-water mark.” Lebanon would also take on with equal fervor the revolutionary spirit of the 1979 Iranian revolution from which sprung the makings of today’s Hezbollah. Though a detailed and well-researched account of Lebanese and regional history, there is one glaring omission: David Hirst himself. A British journalist who has lived in Beirut for the past 50 years, Hirst likely has much to contribute about the familiar aspects of life in Lebanon. In contrast to Robert Fisk, who is often criticized for his improbable propensity to be “at the scene” at every major event that has hit Lebanon, if not the region, Hirst seems nowhere, leaving a sense of detachment from the country itself.
For better or for worse, regional and international powers have not shared this hesitancy to project themselves onto the Lebanese landscape, continually lured into the morass of Bakunin’s small-state curse.