ST MICHAELS, Maryland, USA: Lebanon’s woes over the past twoyears have been keeping the Washington-based think-tankindustry busy as the country finds itself in the unenviableposition of being a point of convergence for most of thepressing quandaries besetting the Middle East — theArab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, terrorism, al-Qaeda andfundamentally the axis of resistance versus Pax Americana.Being a locus of multiple crises is bad for Lebanon butoffers plenty of food for thought for the many think tanksthat cram K, L, and M streets in the US capital.
Earlier in June, I was invited by a leading think tank toparticipate in a round table forum in which some 15 expertswere asked to brainstorm an ideal vision of Lebanon 10 yearsdown the road, identify the obstacles preventing that visionfrom being realized and offering suggestions to overcomethem.
The future aspiration for Lebanon derived by theparticipants was of a stable, prosperous, liberal democracywith a freewheeling economy and social welfare safety net.Whether all Lebanese would aspire to such a future forLebanon is questionable, but it certainly suited thecomposition of the group sitting around the table, mainlyWesterners including three Westernized Lebanese.
Still, the participants were in agreement that such autopian vision for Lebanon was most unlikely given thechallenges facing Lebanon both on both the short-term andlong-term.
Perhaps the chief obstacle raised by the roundtable was howto invigorate a sense of nationhood where Lebaneseprioritize loyalty to the state over loyalty to the sect orzaim. There is a will among some Lebanese, mainly theeducated young, to crack the stranglehold on Lebanesepolitics maintained by the neo-feudalistic zuama, be theytraditional landlords like the Jumblatt and Gemayel familiesor the post-civil war generation such as Nabih Berri and theHariris.
The independence uprising in spring 2005 generated for afleeting moment a hope among young street activists thatSyria’s disengagement from Lebanon would catalyze a generalreformation of the political system, giving rise to a newgeneration of politicians beholden to the state rather thanlocal sectarian interests. Of course, those dreams weredashed the moment the last Syrian soldier departed Lebanonthrough the Masnaa crossing and the leaders of the rivalMarch 14 and March 8 factions began cutting deals with eachother to ensure the re-election of themselves and theirlists in the parliamentary polls of May and June 2005.
Then there were the issues of Hizbullah and how to persuadethe Shiite resistance movement to relinquish its arms andserve first and foremost Lebanese interests rather thanfollowing a regional agenda. How to tackle and eliminatecorruption, Lebanon’s relations with the Arab world, Syriain particular, electoral and constitutional reform — allthese were discussed and debated.
For those of us who traveled from Beirut to attend themeeting, the tensions in Lebanon came with us. On touchingdown at Dulles airport in Washington, we learned of WalidEido’s assassination. We were on our way back home when newscame through that rockets had been fired from south Lebanoninto Israel, the first such incident since the end of lastsummer’s war between Hizbullah and Israel.
Yet the conference on the violence wracking Lebanon was heldSt Michaels, a resort for the east coast elite, besideChesapeake Bay, a two hour drive from Washington.
Lebanon felt a long way away when walking down the highstreet of St Michaels. The stars and stripes flags flutteredproudly from the front yards of simple houses of whiteclapboard and shingled roofs. Elderly married coupleswearing baseball caps, baggy shorts and polo shirts wandereddown the street, slurping on ice creams while gazing throughthe windows of a seeming endless array of shops with tweedynames such as Holly’s Haven and Three Crazy Ladies that soldpricey knick knacks. Huge SUVs that would humble the mostegotistical of Lebanese Hummer drivers ambled along thepristine asphalt roads at painfully slow — but legal —speeds.
Barely a car crawled through St Michaels without a yellowribbon motif stuck to the trunk carrying the demand “Supportour Troops.” Every now and then, a sign along the highwayrecorded that the next stretch was dedicated to the memoryof individual soldiers who had died in Iraq or Afghanistan.In one shop, a middle-aged man with steel-gray 1970s haircutand bizarre orange mirrored sunglasses extolled the virtuesof a new kind of body armor called Dragon Skin, apparentlypopular with troops serving in Iraq. “If I was deploying inBayroot, I’d accept no substitute,” he drawled.
After the sterility of St Michaels, it was somehowrefreshing to return to Beirut. As for the think tanksession’s future dream for Lebanon, don’t hold your breath.
Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based journalist and author of“Killing Mr Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East”