Over the past few weeks, American planes have landed at Beirut airport with arms and ammunition for the Lebanese army. The army's battle with a small Islamist militia in a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon has galvanised the Bush administration to support a middle east army in crisis. But what does Lebanon have to do with the US and its national interests?
Even if Lebanon connects, however tangentially, with the twin western concerns of Israel and oil, there is no strong case for America to involve itself in Lebanese affairs. As Edward Luttwak said—arguing in the May 2007 issue of Prospect that the west should start to take the middle east less seriously—"Strategically, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been almost irrelevant since the end of the cold war... And global dependence on middle eastern oil is declining."
I am not denigrating the seriousness of the violence in Lebanon and its potential to push the country back into civil war. Nor do I lack passion for Lebanon, my home for many years and birthplace of my maternal grandparents. Its politics fascinate me, in part because the country governs itself much as it did in Ottoman times—with tribal leaders seeking outside protection, allying with one another and, occasionally, battling old friends. Lebanon, like the rest of the region, masked its conflicts in the garb of the cold war when it needed to, and it is adept at portraying itself as a battleground between secularism and Islamic fundamentalism now. The game, however, has always been local—which pasha or bey will dominate which hilltop, which tribe will take the larger share of the trade in banking or hashish, which local commander will pledge his men to which regional overlord. Lebanon happens to be significant to me. But it is not important to the US.
Supporters of American intervention in Lebanon may contend that, without US military support, Syria will come to dominate the country. The Shia Hizbullah will gain the upper hand against the Sunnis, Druze and Christians. Israel might have to invade again. These outcomes are possible, perhaps probable, but, unless you are Lebanese, so what? America approved the Syrian interventions in Lebanon in 1976, 1986 and 1990; it may well approve the next.
The US need not play every political game on earth. Half a million American troops are losing a war in Iraq, the US is waging war in Afghanistan, and it has troops stationed in a majority of the world's countries. It is taking part, covertly and overtly, in small wars in Colombia, the Philippines and a dozen other places. It provides training and materiel to governments around the globe, usually unelected, to keep the peasants down, drive them from the land, sustain local clients and ensure American business pride of place at trading tables everywhere.
Lebanon is one of the most telling examples of the futility of America's global policies, and the hell of it is that America has been in Lebanon before. In 1982 and 1983, the US stationed marines in Beirut, ostensibly to protect the Palestinian refugee camps from further massacres of the type that Israel and its Lebanese Christian allies inflicted in September 1982. It also sent military advisers to train the Lebanese army, whose commanders understood American support to mean they could arrest, torture and otherwise dispose of their enemies. But the US could not hold the Lebanese army together, the Lebanese government's opponents drove the marines out of the country in February 1984 and for seven years American citizens could not walk the streets of Beirut without being kidnapped or killed. President Reagan once said that the future of the free world depended on the ability of the Lebanese army to hold out in the mountain village of Souk el-Gharb. Souk el-What? Despite US intervention, Souk el-Gharb fell. The US survived. And in 2007, whether the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp falls will not affect any American's safety or livelihood.
Edward Luttwak's otherwise snide and patronising critique of a region for which America has displayed an exaggerated imperial interest makes the valid observation that the middle east is not important enough to fight over. But Luttwak did not carry his argument to its obvious conclusion: if the mideast is no big deal, the US should cut all arms sales and military aid to the region. That means withdrawing from Iraq; closing bases in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain; ending arms deliveries to the reactionary monarchy in Saudi Arabia; and cutting aid to Israel.
Why should the American taxpayer give $5.5bn in total aid to Israel every year so that it can dominate a region of diminished strategic value? If the US doesn't give Israel cluster bombs, Israel won't drop millions of them all over south Lebanon. And why send arms to Saudi Arabia, a country that has never fought a war? The Congressional Research Service reported this year that the US had delivered $17.9bn in weapons to Saudi Arabia between 1998 and 2005. If the US didn't give Saudi Arabia the advanced tanks and jet fighters that it can never deploy, there would be no danger of the weapons finding their way into the hands of Islamist militants. The US is arming Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and the Fateh portion of the Palestine authority. In whose interest is that? The US should introduce a resolution in the UN security council to enforce an arms embargo on all states in the middle east—at least until they resolve their disputes without benefit of the American firepower that makes their wars all the more destructive. That would make the region—and the rest of us—safer.
Charles Glass is the author of The Tribes Triumphant (HarperCollins) and The Northern Front (Saqi), both published in 2006. His website is www.charlesglass.net