Time was in the 1990s, even after 2000, that any country in danger of political chaos or “implosion” – a word I still instinctively loath, along with “epicentre” – was in danger of being “Lebanised”.
Djibouti would become “the Beirut of the Horn of Africa” and the Balkans, inevitably, subject to “Lebanonisation”. For a while, little civil wars – Tadjikistan, Ukraine – might be “Balkanised”. But the mythical Switzerland of the Middle East, the Beirut of paradise and hell, always crept back. For a country that did – for a decade and a half after its civil war officially ended – imitate the Phoenix, this was very unfair.
But now Beirut is back on the international chart of madness, political irrationality, corruption and violence. And the comparison this time round? With America, of course.The poor old Lebanese don’t deserve this. US policy towards their tiny country and Washington’s grovelling support for Israel’s regular invasions have done much to produce Lebanon’s tragedy.
Yet sure enough, the Donald Trump presidency and its possibly uproarious aftermath – permanent Trumpism while the US military decides whether to defend or attack the White House in November – has brought Beirut back onto the cliché-board.
Enter, then, a friend whom I had sworn just a couple of weeks ago to mention no more – or at least not for another six months: the New York Times’ Imperial Messenger, Thomas Friedman. Tom and I shared a few stories back in the 1980s when we both covered the Lebanese civil war – until he was re-appointed to Jerusalem and departed Beirut. But last week, he was back with a vengeance, metaphorically at least. On CNN, he orated a classic equation that looks good but doesn’t quite add up – but which everyone will remember afterwards.
“You know I began my career as a journalist covering Lebanon’s second civil war in its history,” Friedman told Anderson Cooper, “and I’m terrified to find myself ending my career as a journalist covering America’s second civil war in its history.” Cooper rhetorically asked: “You really believe that?” But of course, Tom did; Trump’s remarks about not carrying out a peaceful transition of power meant that America could be heading for its second civil war.
Let’s just forget for a moment that only once in Lebanese history – long after Tom had left – did the country briefly acquire two rival “prime ministers”, one of whom, by chance, is currently the real president of Lebanon (and supported by Syria). He was originally bombed out of his palace in 1990 by – here we go again – the Syrians.
But no matter. Friedman had first plunged back into the mellow waters of the Levant in September, only just over a month before his Cassandra-like warnings on Trump, when he compared the deeply suspicious reaction of the Lebanese to the ammonium nitrate explosion which devastated several districts of Beirut with the US reaction to Covid-19. “As in the Middle East” — scribed the Imperial Messenger, “so increasingly in America: Everything is now politics — even the climate, even energy, even face masks in a pandemic.”
But he then embarked on a grossly unfair critique of recent Lebanese history where the sectarian nature of Lebanese society was held up to blame for all or most of the country’s misfortunes — and added that America’s two political parties resembled religious sects in a contest for power. And this was before Wednesday’s presidential rant-binge. “They [the Lebanese] call theirs ‘Shiites and Sunnis and Maronites’ or ‘Israelis and Palestinians’,” wrote Friedman. “We call ours ‘Democrats and Republicans,’ but ours now behave just like rival tribes who believe they must rule or die.” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
For there were two missing elements to this simplistic mathematics. The second Lebanese civil war which Friedman was covering was intimately bound up with the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees, of whom perhaps 350,000 lived in refugee camps in Lebanon at that time. Without this dispossessed people, sectarianism might have survived without conflict – or without the massacres at Sabra and Chatila which Friedman himself covered in 1982. And Israel’s invasion of Lebanon that year – intended to drive the Palestinians into Syria and cement the minority Christian Maronites in power – cost up to 17,000 lives, almost 9 per cent of the total civil war dead. So apart from that brief “Israelis and Palestinians” remark, Friedman cut Palestine out of the story.
Nor am I surprised. Because in the United States today, the most obvious Middle East political comparison arises between Palestinians and Black Americans. No, I know one struggle is over nationalism, the other over racism. But however much the Israelis and their so-called friends try to smear anyone who suggests there’s a parallel between a White cop shooting a Black American and an Israeli cop shooting a Palestinian, Black men and women in America and Palestinians share one demand in common: dignity. And human rights.
Black Americans were dispossessed when their ancestors were enslaved four hundred years ago. The Palestinians were dispossessed for their land just over half a century ago. But both have legitimate grievances which have much in common. It was scarcely surprising that supporters of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) organisation gave its wholehearted support to the US Black Lives Matter movement.
And it’s impossible to avoid the personal reactions of many Black Americans to the Palestinian tragedy. In many trips to the US, whenever I have talked with a black person about the Middle East, they have always – 100 per cent – expressed their sympathy and sorrow for the Palestinians. Speaking always with knowledge, openness and genuine concern about the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinian refugees of the diaspora.
Yet most White Americans – save for those involved in the Middle East from a leftist perspective (including, of course, many Jewish Americans) – almost always respond with alarm at any straightforward discussion of the Palestinians. They know the costs of criticising Israel.
But none of this, it seems, is worthy of discussion during the American election. Why, I wonder – since he was caught up in the religions of Lebanon – did Friedman not remark about the dolourous influence of American Christian Evangelicals on Trump and their support for Israel? This is very much not a subject for discussion in the US election campaign, let alone this week’s Trumpite screamathon; and certainly not in any American newspaper column. But it is central to the nation’s policy (if there be such a creature in Trumpland) in the Middle East.
Sure, we all know that education and health and employment come first in American elections – as in most democracies – but if we’re going to discuss the future of the United States in the framework of a broken, tragic nation like Lebanon, let’s talk about the real lessons to be learnt in the Middle East. And if everything is now politics in America, as Friedman maintains, we should be telling the truth about the most bloody history of the lands which the next president will find – inevitably – at the top of his danger list in the months to come.
Tom, I should add, remains a good friend. In fact, a few months before Covid-19 wrapped us all up, Friedman and I appeared – though not on the same stage – at a book festival on the east coast of Ireland. We met for Sunday coffee in the local village grocery store where he expressed his contempt for Trump’s untrustworthiness (not enough contempt, in my view, but that’s Tom for you). And as we were leaving, I said goodbye to Mairead, the coffee-shop owner, whom I have known for years. I was about to introduce Tom, when he gave her his winning smile and said: “I’m America’s Robert Fisk.”
And heaven spare me, I hadn’t thought of that one!