On its best day, Baghdad was never what Beirut was before Lebanon fell apart. Beirut was a beautiful resort city that drew the rich and famous from around the world. Baghdad was, under Saddam and before, just the capital of another autocracy. Beautiful, perhaps, but only to the despot du jour. Beirut, in its day, was the capital of a functioning democracy. Its rise and fall teach a lesson we should apply to our thinking about Iraq.
Lebanon’s democracy was not of the Jeffersonian variety, and came about in an odd way. Lebanon, like most of the nations in the Middle East, was an exercise in post-World War I line drawing. Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire and then a French mandate in 1920 (as Palestine was British), Syria saw Lebanon cut off and declared independent of Syria in 1943. Independent Lebanon formed what one Lebanese scholar and friend describes as a “confessional” democracy. Voters were represented not by geographic division but in proportion to their religious sect. The functioning parliamentary system could never have come about had the Lebanese leaders not been able to agree on a “national pact” under which they shared power. The key to that agreement was the promise that all parties — Muslim, Christian and Druze — rejected foreign interference. They recognized that there would be compromise and many political battles among them (not all of which any one group would win) but that they had to keep other nations from intervening if they were to have any chance of making it work and keeping their nation free.
It worked for many years, until the key promise in the national pact was broken and Yassir Arafat’s Palestinians were allowed in by the Lebanese Muslims. The confessional democracy fell apart and the fall precipitated a civil war that lasted for fifteen years. By the end of the civil war, Lebanon — again betrayed by foreign interference — was left under Syrian hegemony by the Arab League’s “Ta’if Accord.” It was left much as it is now, a pseudo-democracy struggling against outside forces to regain its independence and restore democracy.
Instead of a confessional democracy, Lebanon now suffers the continued and violent interference of Syria’s Ba’athist despotism. The Hariri and Gemayel assassinations are reminders to the independent-minded Lebanese of the malign influence Syria can assert at a moment’s notice. And Syria is not alone in sponsoring the terrorist-cum-political party of Hizballah. Iran’s influence is heavy, and unremitting. In truth, Iraq is much like Lebanon was before U.S. and Israeli forces withdrew (we, in 1983, tail between our legs after the Marine barracks bombings and the Israelis in 2000). Lebanon may yet recover its freedom. But if we leave Iraq, its experiment with democracy will fail quickly. If we stay, it will almost certainly fail soon after. We know this because a great lady thought it through almost three decades ago.
Another friend of mine — formerly her student, then a political ace for both Nixon and Reagan (and her lifelong friend) — told me that when her Commentary magazine article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” was published in 1979, Ronald Reagan read it and said, “Who is this person. I need to meet her.” I reread the article this weekend, mourning someone I barely knew. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick had a clarity of mind, of principle, and of purpose I wish was equaled in our president.
Kirkpatrick’s article, in Commentary November 1979, demolished the Carter Administration’s incompetent, fatalistic approach to the rise and fall of despotisms in the Third World. She took issue with Carter’s and Brzezinski’s view that historic pressures determined the acts of nations and that little could be done to influence the outcomes. More importantly, for today, was her lesson on democracies. The future UN ambassador wrote:
Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries that have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural and economic conditions.
What was true in Lebanon is not yet true in Iraq and may never be. Lebanese politicians were able to agree that outside parties — such as Syria and Iran — would not be permitted to interfere in Lebanese politics. What Moqtada al-Sadr and others will not do is give up the money, arms and political power they derive from the outside. And unless and until they do, the Iraqi people won’t be able to undertake the heavy demands democracy places on them. Lebanon, however, is still a fascinating counterpoint to Iraq.
Courageous beyond words, a number of Lebanese politicians — notably the Gemayel family, which has suffered more assassinations than any other in memory — are banding together to revive the idea of a Lebanese national pact. Hizballah, the Iranian-Syrian proxy that has effectively imposed a national version of the Stockholm Syndrome on the supposedly democratic Siniora government, is in danger of losing politically what it gained by force of arms. My doubts about the Siniora government remain. But we cannot default to Hizballah in Lebanon. If the Siniora government can serve as the foundation for a new Lebanese national pact, our support for it will have been better placed than our current support of the Maliki government in Baghdad.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in his pre-election memo to the president, recommended that we establish a list of milestones for the Iraqi government to achieve and tie them into our continued support. Maliki and now Iraqi President Talibani have both rejected the Baker report and the idea of American pursuit of America’s agenda. They are right to reject the former, but we can’t tolerate their rejection of the latter. We’re back to Palmerston: we have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies in Iraq, only permanent interests. Our interest in Iraq is not in building its democracy but the toppling of a regime that sponsored terrorism. That was accomplished three years ago.
If Iraqis had demonstrated that they were willing or able to do what democracy demands of them, there would be a point in staying to help them resist outside influence. Right now, there’s no such point. Our interests in the Middle East do not include creating democracies. Our wonderful soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and coastguardsmen are all signed on to risk — or lose — their lives in defense of the United States. Defending the United States doesn’t include adventures in nation-building.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004) and, with Edward Timperlake, Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (Regnery, 2006).