Mac Deford: Reflections; A Trip to Beirut, Donald Trump, and History
Wednesday, November 23, 2016 9:38 AM
I was in Beirut last week for the annual board meeting of International College, a K-12 school, 3,500-strong, where I taught for a year in 1964.
The tragedy of ... many countries worldwide is that however successful their individual citizens are, outside influences — the more so in our globalized era — too often control their future.
A few changes in Lebanon in the intervening half century — and a few in the US as well.
As one Lebanese said to me in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, “For years, your government has been telling us to do something about our disastrous political situation. Maybe it’s Washington who needs some advice these days.”
Another Lebanese was more specific: “I’m Christian, but Trump’s anti-Muslim talk is going to make it impossible for the US to play a constructive role in our region.”
Trump has outwardly adopted something of an isolationist — or certainly non-interventionist — policy towards the Middle East and, indeed, towards the outside world as a whole.
But he has suggested working with Russia’s Putin against ISIS in Syria. Short-term, that’s a better policy than Hillary Clinton’s preference for a no-fly zone in northern Syria, which could quickly escalate into direct American involvement in their no-win civil war.
But, of course, Russia’s long-term goal is to keep Syria’s President Assad in power, allying itself with the Shia crescent that sweeps from Tehran through Baghdad into Syria. Destroying the Sunni “caliphate” that ISIS has set up in large parts of northern Iraq and eastern Syria is one of the few goals that Washington and Moscow can agree upon. And with the impending recapture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, it’s well under way to being accomplished. But propping up Assad indefinitely would only assure an unending Syrian civil war — and unending instability in the region.
The Lebanese, in one sense, are lucky — if that is the appropriate word for a country that went through 15 years of civil war which led to the deaths of close to a quarter million of its citizens, drove another million abroad, and included an Israeli invasion up its south coast all the way to Beirut.
But the Lebanese did learn a lesson, albeit a terrible, bloody one. As a result, despite the civil wars swirling around it — not only in neighboring Syria but in Yemen, Libya and Iraq as well — Lebanon is peaceful. No small accomplishment when you consider that Lebanon has the most complex religious mixture of any country in the world. Just over half are Muslim, a potentially volatile combination of Sunni, Shia, and Druze. Slightly under 50 percent are Christian, primarily Maronites and Greek Orthodox, but also Roman Catholics, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox, and a scattering of others as well. Throw in the million and a half Syrian refugees, close to a quarter of the population, and Lebanon’s current stability, in the middle of the ironically named Arab Spring, is a miracle.
Despite its relative calm today, the tragedy of Lebanon’s modern history is unmistakable. Fifty years ago, Beirut was aptly called the “Paris of the Middle East.” Oil from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states had made Beirut the financial capital of the entire region. Every large American bank as well as the major French and English financial institutions had their Middle Eastern headquarters in Beirut. Its hotels and restaurants, not to mention its beaches, rivaled any city in the world.
The Lebanese, living on the east coast of the Mediterranean, at the crossroads of empires from North Africa to Mesopotamia, are descendants of the Phoenicians, the world’s first great traders.
And they still are. But the brief moment when Beirut was one of the world’s key financial centers quickly evaporated during its civil war. And when peace finally came in the early 1990s, Dubai had permanently taken over that role. There are few good jobs these days in Beirut. Two of the security guards at International College graduated from Beirut’s American University, founded in 1866, the oldest and most prestigious university in the Arab World. They were the only local jobs they could find.
So today’s Lebanese are once again spread around the world as traders. The patriarch of one prominent family has sons, and sons-in-law, running businesses in Africa’s Ivory Coast and Nigeria, as well as, not surprisingly, in Abu Dhabi and Paris. And that global outreach is not atypical.
The tragedy of Lebanon, and indeed of many countries worldwide, is that however successful their individual citizens are, outside influences — the more so in our globalized era — too often control their future.
Much less so, of course, in the US. But the era of slow growth that has dominated our economy for recent decades is not going away. The pent-up frustration and dissatisfaction with the loss of good middle-class jobs has given us Donald Trump. But Trump won’t be able to solve what is a systemic problem of today’s First World economies. So, considering the lackluster competition in the Republican Party, as well as the lack of depth in the Democratic one, there are likely to be other Trumps in our future.
The US won’t, of course, be suffering the fate of little Lebanon. But looking back across the arc of history paints a pessimistic picture down the road. Not immediately: Russia, in serious decline, is no ultimate threat to the US despite Putin’s aggressive posturing. China is the only long-term competition, but their growth has slowed dramatically in the last few years; it will be decades before they will be a serious challenge to our worldwide dominance.
History, though, reminds us our moment in the sun is not permanent. There’s a great, if melancholy, poem by Archibald MacLeish, written I think shortly after World War II. And it’s about just that, the rise and fall of nations. It begins with a metaphorical reference to the US, then at the height of its power:
And — which brought it to mind — one verse includes a specific reference to Lebanon as the poem rolls through long centuries of past glory:
- “And here face down beneath the sun
- And here upon earth’s noonward height”
And it ends, full circle, back in the US:
- “And deepen on Palmyra’s street
- The wheel run in the ruined stone
- And Lebanon fade out and Crete
- High through the clouds and overblown.”
- “And here face downward in the sun
- To feel how swift how secretly
- The shadow of the night comes on...”